This is not a blog about navigating uncertainty, languishing, disconnection, pivots and any of the other buzz words flooding the leadership chatter. It’s not about the flattened panopticon of the Zoomiverse and it’s absolutely not mansplaining how you, as a leader, must be feeling.
This is a blog about using big data to reveal what’s really happening. It’s about recognising and following leads. It’s about fully embracing your leadership, especially, the Very Difficult Bits. It’s about getting into messiness and getting out again – safely.
Curious? Excellent, that’s a fantastic start!
Big data – curiosity – following leads
Several centuries ago Frederick Taylor dreamed up scientific managerialism to fulfil his vision of optimally efficient organisations inhabited by that elusive beast, the rational employee. These ideals still have a strong foothold. Yet we know that we fallible human beings don’t run on logic, we run on emotions. And in organisations, decades of research show that the emotional currencies are one of the biggest factors affecting how teams work (or don’t): think of those times when the (virtual) air has felt so thick it could be spliced and diced and the team is sluggish or fractured even though there is ostensibly nothing ‘wrong’. Or the opposite when there is an almost transcendental bright and slightly giddy feel, a coalescing into brilliance. These are psychodynamics – social emotions flowing in big, powerful currents.
Emotions as data; emotional currents as big data
Reconciling logic and emotions is the foundation of psychologist Susan David (Ph.D)’s work. Susan refers to emotions as data. Emotions are not directives controlling us, but rather signposts to the things we care about, such as values being transgressed, or to what has happened to us, the feelings we stashed away when unable or unwise to unleash them. To read the emotional data is to release from the emotional grip and create the critical space for wise, or at least, a better response.
If individual emotions are data, the emotional currents of teams are big data: complex, dense intel about what is really happening and why. To do the leadership that needs to happen, follow the emotional leads to get to the source and use the power in that knowledge.
Reading big data is not an easy pursuit. When we’re in these emotional currents, it can all feel too big and overwhelming to make sense of. An analogy I like is of being caught in a roiling ocean, bowled around and not quite able to get both feet on the beach. The sheer power is probably why our emotional literacy gets reduced to just three words: bad, sad and glad (from Brene Brown’s long scale research). What we need, as a wise man once wrote, is space between stimulus and response: space to catch our breath, follow the leads, to get granular with those emotions and re-engage our smarts; space to create the freedom to choose.
‘Anxiety is about no-thing, fear is about some-thing’
If the group atmosphere feels bad, what might that be about? What is it telling us? Dig below the surface. Is ‘bad’ actually our value of loyalty being triggered as the firm we have given our all to, appears to dismiss or disregard us? Is ‘bad’ more specifically frustration, fear or helplessness? Frustration about…, fear of…., helpless in the face of….? As we get more granular we turn the all-encompassing, ambiguous ‘bad’ to smaller, ‘somethings’ i.e. real, tangible items that are much simpler, although not necessarily less scary, to face.
My research with leadership of multi-nationals, start-ups, non-profits and universities in Asia, the US and Europe shows that short time-outs for honest conversations with a ‘neutral other’ are invaluable. They create the critical space needed to read into the big data, do the sense-making, re-group and re-engage.
If you’ve already got that objective someone who can metaphorically stand with you, arms-linked, as the current rushes past, hang on to them – they are gold dust! If you don’t, then look for a coach. A leadership coach provides that nuanced balance of high challenge-high support – they will push back, reflect and also nudge. Coaching conversations demand unpacking ‘big’ empty words and working hard to find real words with direct, specific meanings. A coach listens without judgement. Hence a coaching conversation is a kind of antidote to the world of polished, hyper-scrutinised leadership speak. Coaching encourages curious messiness and the necessary linguistic muddling involved in working out what we really value, what we really mean and mean to say. So that when the leadership spotlight is turned on, we can be clear and confident in what we say, how we are and what we do. Clear and confident is also a great foundation for getting curious!
Optimal organisations and organisational lives
Perhaps the optimal organisation isn’t that far off? Artificial Intelligence is well on the way to creating the robotic rational employee. Can we employ our rationale to the emotional data and optimise our organisational lives?
If you’re curious, try a conversation with a coach. It could be your most rational investment yet!