The best leaders strive to really tune into what their teams are really saying and feeling. They pay great attention not only to the values of the organisation, but those of the individuals that comprise it, and they work hard to build commitment to common, clearly articulated potential futures. But many still fail to deliver the lasting, breakthrough change that they want. They are let down because what they say and do is undercut by persistent symbols in the business that powerfully communicate a set of ideals, expected behaviours and ‘ways of doing’ that are not aligned to the leader’s vision. Effective leaders must consistently seek out and challenges these oxymorons in their organisation.
In their seminal article The Reinvention Roller Coaster, Tracy Goss, Richard Pascale, and Anthony Athos provide a clear example of this oxymoronic misalignment at IBM. In the early 1990’s (when the article was published) IBM was struggling to reinvent itself by fostering a spirit of entrepreneurialism that could create the next generation of products and services needed to rekindle growth. But these efforts were constantly stymied by the ‘IBM way’ which demanded a five-step plan that subjected any new idea to stringent tests of future value before being accepted. The tension between the message of enterprise and the reality of how things were done dissuaded most from bringing new ideas to the table. Although the example is dated now, the insight remains fresh; similar symbols remain as barriers to real change in many organisations today.
Symbols in this context are the almost invisible yet hugely powerful accepted practices and ways of being within the organisation. Too often they go unchallenged, or even unnoticed. They can take on many forms ranging from rigid planning cycles (as above) to how performance reviews are undertaken; from how meetings are managed, and how decisions are made, to the diversity of employee-base; from the formal and informal hierarchies that exist to ‘presenteeism’ and expectations of long hours. Symbols in an organisation provide the clear indicators of how things ‘really’ are; if they don’t change the organisation cannot change.
It is the responsibility of the leader to pay attention to the symbols in the business as keystones of the context that informs everything. To be effective leaders must actively step outside that context to see the symbols for what they are, and act to change them if they do not align with the vision and the future state they seek to create.
The first step is to precisely audit and understand the symbols that act as barriers to change. Some will be clear, but others will be deeply ingrained in how the business operates. Only leaders can provide the overview to spot these mismatches. For example, an HR initiative to roll-out a new wellbeing policy that emphasises work-life balance will be seen as inauthentic if managers’ performance reviews reward high levels of overtime. The ability to have one foot in and one foot outside the organisation – to take the 10,000 foot view as well as understand the detail – is fundamental to discern these mismatches. It is the leader’s role to call them out and act to remove them.
Often it is those working closest to the coalface that have the best insights and truly engaging with these individuals and listening to their concerns is essential. As ever, leaning into their little voices to discern what is really being said is crucial to uncover the power of these symbols. Understanding the things that matter to them and can really change their day-to-day experience of work. It is not always the grandiose gesture that removes symbolic barriers; sometimes simply fixing small issues that over time have become examples of ‘the way things are around here’ can facilitate real change.
An (oxy)moronic leader is blind to the power of symbols within their organisations. They do not see how established practices, structures and beliefs about how things conspire to subvert breakthrough behaviours and prevent change. Forensic examination, built on deep engagement and listening across teams, can identify the symbols that act as the disconnects between what is said and what is done, between the vision of a potential future and the reality of day-to-day work. The ability to step outside of the organisation’s context and understand how it colours everything will prove invaluable in identifying the symbols that are preventing change from happening. People inside and outside the organisation may be unconscious of the power of the symbols around them leaders cannot afford to be. They must proactively root out these oxymorons in their organisations to clear the way for more alignment, more authentic culture and better progress towards shared goals.
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