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Mobilising Collective Potential

International leadership and dialogue consultant, Sarah Rozenthuler, explains how utilising Systemic Dialogue in global organisations can radically improve performance.

In our fast-changing, increasingly uncertain and digitally networked world, leadership needs to be less about the heroics of individuals and more about listening to, and mobilising, collective potential. Developing the tools for what we call ‘systemic dialogue’ is vitally important for leaders and their teams, whether they’re looking to formulate a new vision, create a new strategy or boost their performance. We define systemic dialogue as the art form and skill set of holding powerful meeting spaces to navigate critical business challenges and find solutions that strengthen the system as a whole. 

The importance of a Systemic approach
Many of us have experienced the frustration of working in organisations where rivalry between departments undermines collective performance, infighting between divisions creates unhealthy in-house competition, and lack of communication causes blindspots that could have been avoided. 

In her new book The Silo Effect, Financial Times journalist Gillian Tett examines the root cause of the financial crisis in 2008 and explains the downside of silo working. As we become buried in our corner of the organization or immersed in our specialism, we are more likely to develop tunnel vision. Dividing an organization, and its people, into “departments”, “divisions” and “units”, has the unintended impact of stopping collaboration in its tracks. Despite our interconnectedness, news can flash across the planet at lightening speed and our lives and organisations become “crazily fragmented”, Tett explains.

Working alongside each other rather than “with” each other, can lead to damaging consequences for a system as a whole. Tett highlights how in the UK the government, banks and regulators failed to spot the emerging financial crisis. With more dialogue between diverse stakeholders, the catastrophic consequences of the banking crisis may have been avoided. The constraints of the mental models used by economists, who typically assume efficient markets and rational expectations, were not critically reflected upon. 

Capacities for co-creating sustainable change
In November, I will be facilitating a two day ‘Leading Systemic Dialogue’ programme with Edward L. Rowland, leading Systemic Coach and Founder of the Whole Partnership, a niche consultancy specialising in purpose-led transformation. Ed and I have indentified six core capacities, arising from our combined expertise of working with leaders using generative dialogue and systemic coaching, as well as recent business school and scientific research. The first two of these critical capacities are for the leader to:

Discover and articulate an authentic purpose for their team or organisation that inspires others to act in alignment with what the organisation wants to achieve. Bring their full awareness and presence so that they think, act and collaborate with vigour, vibrancy and vitality, energising others to give of their best. To help seed a new culture of aligned action, energetic engagement and collaboration across boundaries, these four capacities enable teams to stop operating in silos and work as a unified collective, even if they are widely distributed geographically. 

Create the conditions for generative dialogue
At the start of an important meeting, instead of getting down to business straight away, take time to meet as fellow human beings. This sets a respectful, friendly and informal tone to the meeting. Research by psychologists at the MIT Sloan School of Management (USA) throws light on how collective intelligence emerges in a group. In an article originally published in Science in October 2010, several factors were discovered to be associated with collective effectiveness. It’s also worth noting what wasn’t related: the average IQ of the group, the IQ of the smartest member and the size of the group. Instead, the researchers found that groups were more likely to perform well if three factors were present:

  • Conversational turn-taking – Groups with a more even pattern of participation outperformed groups where one or two individuals dominated.
  • Social sensitivity – In the higher performing groups, individuals were more accurately able to discern what others were thinking and feeling by paying attention to their body language, facial expressions and other non-verbal cues.
  • A higher proportion of women – The more women in a group, the more likely it was to perform well. (Women in the sample scored better on the social intelligence measure). What’s exciting about these findings is that we can co-create the conditions where these factors come into play. It’s actually proven easier to raise the intelligence of a group than an individual, and a simple way to do this is to sow the seed for healthy conversational turn-taking by enabling everyone to find their voice early on. 

See the larger system
Another helpful exercise is to create two different “maps” where people stand in different places in terms of: Office location; Number of years with the organisation. To create the first map, you can place pieces of a flip chart paper on the floor to represent different local offices. The layout should reflect as closely as possible the global geography. The mapping enables global teams, for example, who are often separated by geographical distance, to speak openly about the challenge of working across time zones and their tendency to engage in lengthy email exchanges rather than pick up the phone and talk.

Often the more isolated teams are geographically, the more they appear to be struggling. The second map can show the range of length of service: e.g. from 20 years to 6 months. People can listen carefully to the reasons that the longest serving members give for what’s kept them in the organisation. The unfolding conversation can bring often bring respect and a renewed sense of belonging. Acknowledging those who’ve been around the longest not only settles the group but also helps with later dialogue. Older members can bring a valuable perspective that more recent arrivals could not have contributed. 

Enable a clear direction to emerge
Splitting into mixed groups it can be helpful for colleagues from different local offices to discuss their challenges and aspirations, and practice “active listening” to crystallise the way forward. It’s also an opportunity to practise “social sensitivity” by picking up what is not being said but communicated non-verbally by body language and tone of voice. When reflecting on what’s been said by different teams, it’s helpful to try and see “common ground”, particularly with regard to any feelings about the team and its purpose. Highlighting a team’s shared sense of purpose helps to draw them together, uniting them for the next chapter of work together. A clear sense of team direction can emerge from this shared attunement. 

Co-create a new reality through greater collaboration and aligned action
Making the most of the awakening sense of collaboration and bonding, an expansive emotional space can be opened up, helping teams to feel aligned when planning the next steps together. Increasing group functioning and strategic alignment in this way can have a considerable impact on customer service, the innovation pipeline and even the amount of working capital available. Investing in ‘soft’ (critical) skills has its tangible, hard edge. It takes time, energy and investment to create the conditions where a whole team perspective emerges. Meeting face-to-face, valuing all the different voices and strengthening relationships improves collaboration, dissolves silos and empowers the whole, leading to truly excellent performance.

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