The idea of establishing the conditions where executive teams can operate as truly high performing teams by surfacing their selfish interests with the view to creating shared intentionality occurred to me while I was listening to the narrated version of The Sleepwalkers by Christopher Clark. The Sleepwalkers explores the events leading up to World War I. I was drawn to this book not so much for the history but more because of the insights it presented regarding what informs and drives key perceptions and therefore decisions of people in power.
The notion of bringing selfish interests to the table is closely linked to the thinking I shared in my recent blog – What if hidden agendas were no longer hidden – would the world really come to an end?
When we name something as a hidden agenda we give it a meaning and sense to it that creates a notion of it being underhand and not natural. Similarly, we are very fond of accusing others of having selfish interests – with the emphasis very much on accusing. It is very unusual for individuals who reach executive level in organisations to have done this without having served their interests along with those of many others.
What I find however is that much of the conversation in the C suite is quite conspiratorial. I hear conversations about individuals wanting to maintain control of their people, build their empires, limit the sharing of information with others, set their people up against other teams – and on it goes. What is interesting to me is that these conversations are had about others not with them. This creates the opportunity to fuel the fantasy regarding what is and isn’t driving others – and opens up a world of interpretation of every action, communication and outcome that achieved.
My challenge is to stop seeing personal interests as a negative and something that can only be achieved to the detriment of the wider organisational goals. I have started to work with an Executive Team who have made the brave and sadly unusual commitment to commence their journey to be a high performing team by taking one simple action – honesty. They have contracted with each other to take the time to put their interests and views on the table. This includes their views about their CEO and their experience at times of her words not aligning with her actions. It has been interesting to see the level of energy in the room increase as the weight of needing to play the political games is lightened by their commitment to honesty.
As the team start to talk about their interests – they often discover that they are not poles apart: being seen as ready for their next promotion, ensuring that they are rewarded in a way that recognises the sacrifices they have made for work over family, having top people wanting to work with them, seeing what is wrong and needs to be fixed, having a vision for what the business could be if it were not for … and the list goes on. So what I am saying is that these are all common and reasonable interests – and yet naming them as selfish sends them underground and assigns a malicious intent to them.
Moving the conversation on to honesty about the impact they have on each other and the teams around them does present more difficulties. The simple truth is that these conversations are about judgement – they are about how people see each other, what intentions they ascribe to each other and perceptions about the insights or lack of insights they have of their own behaviour on others. What I find however is that by having the chance to voice their interests it is a lot easier to help groups make the distinction between behaviour intended and behaviour experienced.
The road is often bumpy – and at times conversations can be intense and feel as though they are on the verge of a dispute that will be forever damaging. However, holding to a commitment to honesty with a determination that this will result in coming to a shared purpose for their business, will help the team to hold their nerve. I do know that when teams work through this the energy they have to drive their “selfish” shared goals is unrivalled – and experienced as fun and light.
The route this team have taken is not easy – and takes time and courage – what they are experiencing is that the damage caused by not being honest is way worse than the discomfort of having conversations of honesty.
What conversations are you part of that could do with a dose of honesty?
This blog was written by Charles Irvine, Managing Director of Questions of Difference.
A conceptual futurist, affirmatively disruptive philosopher and organisational resultant