04 October, 2017
This question cropped up recently in the midst of some work with a senior team. They are leading an organisation going through significant change; context and market are shifting, there is a new political environment, internal role changes, constrained finances and people at the top are moving on. There is a good deal of uncertainty about what all this will mean, and what good leading looks like.
The small senior team have been tight knit. They are understandably keen to protect their people from the politics, the uncertainty and the heavy demands. At times the team can barely keep pace with what’s required, despite being enormously bright people who work long hours.
But their people are demanding NOT to be completely protected, to know more about what’s happening and to be allowed to contribute. They have their own links into the context, albeit at a more junior level, and are picking up hints of what’s going on. Sometimes they hear more from outsiders than they do from their own bosses. They feel frustrated and held back – and yet the senior team don’t want to give the impression that things are out of control or “unravelling” as one of them put it.
This put me in mind of hamsters. My daughter’s friend was one of the first in her primary school class to have a hamster as a pet. One morning, not all that long after the marvellous arrival, her mother discovered it dead in its cage. Fearing the upset it would cause, her Mum replaced it the same day with a near-identical one from the petshop. And when the same thing happened again a few months later, she repeated the distress-saving manoeuvre. No one said a word, and the parents breathed sighs of relief that upset had been averted.
A few weeks on, the daughter warned another school friend who was just about to get her own hamster that they were in the habit of dying; in fact her mother had already had to replace two. “She thinks I don’t know, and I don’t really like to upset her by mentioning it”.
Like the little girl, people tend to be quite smart about what’s really going on. But they don’t want to make life more difficult for their own senior people by raising difficult or emotional subjects. People end up protecting each other from the discomfort of loss, of not knowing, or of not being able to control what happens. At the same time, they can end up complaining about each other. How often do you hear “They never tell us the truth” or “They just won’t step up to the responsibility”?
With this senior team, we identified a few potential “dead hamster” topics; things where people at many levels already have some insight into what’s going on, where it’s uncomfortable to admit just how much is still uncertain, and where no one can predict or control what happens next. The senior group then had a rather thoughtful conversation with their people; the knowns and unknowns, some of the intriguing possibilities, what looks like staying the same as well as what is likely to change. They are finding a way of leading, and allowing their people to contribute.
Do you have any “dead hamsters”?
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