Choice 1 (Lack)

It has become more American to consume than to think.

With it has come consumerism leadership and the ubiquitous practice of getting buy-in from followers. How ought we understand and put into perspective a mindset of leadership based on consumerism?

Selling

Marketing and advertising fuel consumerism. Sellers rely on stories designed to tickle the brain to light up with pleasure, either real, perceived, or expected.

Sellers frequently claim they seek a win-win relationship. A critical assessment of the claim must address the issue of which party defines winning. It is always the seller, never the buyer. Sellers have to close the sale to win, otherwise they lose. Sellers do not receive rewards for sales not made. The definition of win-win can only be understood through the lens of how the seller must win, not through the lens of how the buyer might win.

Selling is not, inherently, a transparent process. It requires a story favorable to the seller. Can you think of an advertisement or sales pitch that encouraged you to carefully consider whether the purchase was really necessary? Have you ever been pointed to a competitor’s product with the hint that it might be better for you?

The Mindset of the Leader as Seller

The overarching mindset of the seller is closing the deal; it is the only way the seller can keep her/his job. A seller’s patience and skill does not change that mindset.

This is likewise true for the consumerism leader. Selling to followers requires a basic indifference to their desires and needs. A key element of selling, no matter how artfully practiced using psychology and brain research, is overcoming objections. There is one and only one goal – make the sale. Helping others has little or nothing to do with selling, despite claims to the contrary. You can test this the next time you are the target of a sales pitch – say to the seller, “My needs and desires would be better met by passing on this offer, thank you” and observe the response.

Buying

It has become patriotic to make one’s contribution to the well-being of others by over-spending as much as possible. We’ve been conditioned to respond to advertising and to behave as responsible consumers. Effective messages convince the soul and the mind that it is possible, and desirable, to reward oneself and contribute to the nation by transacting one simple purchase. By extension, followers are encouraged to believe that they are likewise contributing to the best interests of the organization when they buy-in.

The Mindset of the Follower as Buyer

People know when they are being sold. Followers can discern that in a leader, it often being easier to do so in the workplace. The reliance on overcoming objections as the default position of leaders as sellers alert followers they are target of buy-in efforts.

Once consumerism leadership has been established, and leaders expect to gain buy-in from people, it should come as no surprise when followers behave like consumers. What, generally speaking, is typically on a consumer’s mind?

  • What’s for sale?
  • What is the exchange value?
  • What if I want another sales person (leader)?
  • I expect a bigger discount.
  • I want it in yellow.
  • I’ll wait for the end of year sale.
  • Do you barter?
  • Do you accept coupons?
  • I left because I got a better deal elsewhere.

The follower in the workplace brings the same flavor of questions to consumerism leaders.

If the buyer has no choice in the sales process (if the seller is your boss, walking away from the deal is a risky option) s/he tends to develop passive approaches to turning down the sale. There are many: saying yes but meaning no; and unending stream of questions; repeated mistakes while expressing deep frustration and the desire to do better; public words of encouragement combined with private acts of sabotage.

Consumerism leadership sets up the employee buyer as the most important person. Where does that leave the organization’s real customers?

In organizations, oddly enough, the consumer mentality takes a strange twist. Normally the consumer receives something in the exchange, giving up money for some product, tangible or intangible. In organizations followers are often called upon to give something up in the process of buying in. It should come as no surprise that consumerism leadership risks encouraging weak and insincere followers.

The Effects of Consumerism Leadership in the Workplace

More than anything, consumerism leadership dulls the minds of followers. It anchors compliance in the minds of followers, and rarely, if ever, touches people in a way that sparks commitment.

The consumer mentality is such that buyers assume a passive position and simply wait to sift through the barrage of offers that endlessly swirl around them. Buyers are accustomed to tuning out the chatter that holds no interest, quickly assessing offers in terms of its personal value to them, and being manipulated.

Knowing one is being manipulated and agreeing to be swayed by the manipulation is not a contradiction. Being aware of manipulation and making a decision from within that awareness is proof to ourselves that we can, and do, engage in rational decision making.

The worst effect that consumerism leadership has in the workplace is the deepening belief that all important thinking belongs to leaders, and nothing of real importance is required from followers. Think about the looping cycle this creates – consumerism leadership breeds passive followership and lazy minds which in turn reinforces leaders’ belief that followers must be manipulated through sales pitches into going along with the thinking of the leaders (who are the only ones capable of the thinking required).

Future Possibilities

Why do leaders resort to making sales pitches to the people who rely on their leadership? Is there an alternative? If so, what is it? If consumerism leadership holds that people are unable and/or unwilling to think for themselves and make their own informed decisions, what does the assumption that followers can and want to engage look like? What form does leadership based on treating followers as capable, autonomous thinkers take? What is choice leadership? What is choice followership?

Choice 2 (Abundance)

If buy-in is the calling card of consumerism leadership, how do leaders who seek to elicit ownership and accountability in followers engage them without manipulation? One possible way is choice leadership.

Choice is the ultimate acknowledgment of autonomy. The very act of giving someone a choice (that is, a true choice, which includes the right to say no and pass; if you cannot say no, then what does yes mean?) is to place that person in a place of doing their own thinking. It sets the table for ownership and accountability. It elevates their status, and deepens the relatedness between leaders and followers. It creates a near future with a higher degree of certainty, and it tempers the power differential with fairness.

These five elements – status, certainty, autonomy, relatedness, and fairness – described by David Rock in his article “SCARF: a brain-based model for collaborating with and influencing others” in the NeuroLeadership Journal (Issue One, 2008) create a foundation for leaders who elect to lead through engaging people at the level of their own deepest desires.

What Would You Buy If You Were Selling To Yourself?

Try this exercise. At the top of a piece of paper write, “This is the deal”. Assume that you have agreed ahead of time to buy what ever you write down. What will you write?

Think about the dynamics of the question. It is near impossible to think about the question as only the seller or only the buyer. Something shifts; a mutual consideration takes over and you realize that from the seller’s perspective you have a choice in what you offer and from the buyer’s perspective you have a choice in what you purchase.

The question invites you to align the interests of the buyer and the seller. The seller makes an honorable offer and the buyer gives it thoughtful consideration. You realize that you are neither selling nor buying, but that you are now engaged in a deep conversation on crafting an exchange that serves the values and interests of both parties.

Choice does not require the leader to abdicate her/his leadership. On the contrary, it opens way for the leader to invite followers into some heavy lifting, to engage in charting their own path forward, to assuming ownership and accountability for the future they want.

Choice likewise does not throw the entire enterprise open to the whims of the followers. All choices can, and should, be available within the context of vision, mission, values, strategy, constraints, customer needs, hopes, and expectations, and the requirements of stakeholders.

Choose, Choose, Choose!

Choice leadership generates possibilities exponentially. No longer is thinking the sole bailiwick of the leader. Not only can followers engage, but they must, not as a response to a mandate, but because they see their own best interests in their own hands.

Time is now spent sifting through the best choice – the one that is the best fit for vision, mission, values, strategy, constraints, customer needs, hopes, and expectations, and the requirements of stakeholders.

The looping cycle becomes leaders finding resources and bringing information to followers who engage with leaders to make choices that further refine the focus of leadership and generate more choices.

The Mindset of Choice Leaders and Followers

The deep, enduring effect of choice leadership is removing change by mandate from the organizational mindset and replacing it with an invitation to followers to own the future, and to be accountable for it. There is a deep divide between a leader using her/his authority or power to mandate a requirement and hold followers accountable (if the mandate was such a good idea and it was the leader’s choice, shouldn’t the leader be held accountable?) and a leader that frames conversations that lead followers to acknowledge their own stake in creating the present they want to change, and which leverage that ownership of the present into ownership of the future. People who claim not to own the present are very unlikely to suddenly start owning the future when it becomes present.

Choice deepens when followers feel the confidence that they can express doubts about their ownership and accountability. Commitment to choices is not necessary if all of the money, people, equipment, knowledge, experience, information, technology and time is available in endless supply. Short of remembering to start, no commitment is required because the outcome is guaranteed.

It is only when resources are in short supply that any commitment is needed. There are obstacles to overcome and constraints to navigate. People have to stretch, time has to contract, risks have to be taken. Imperfect information is the best available and what people don’t know they don’t know can sink the desired or needed outcome. Such is the stuff of doubt.

When people can express doubts they gain the support of their colleagues and find the courage and resolve to open way forward. Doubt is the acknowledgment that the commitment to reach goals is an emotional one as well as a factual one.

Finally, choice leadership and followership is one in which the gifts that people bring are honored and celebrated. People at the margins are brought into the center. The dictum to respect others is paired with the expectation to be respected.

Acknowledging gifts does not mean that gaps are naively ignored. It does mean that leaders endeavor to find the best fit for people’s gifts across the entire enterprise rather than judge the follower only in the context of the current job s/he occupies. The quest for best fit does not rule out followers leaving the organization, either through their own choice, the choice of leaders, or by mutual choice.

Future Possibilities

Are there limits to choice? Answered concretely, the answer is likely “yes”. But allowed to slip the fear of loss of control, how might leaders continue to leverage the power of inviting followers to choose and to serve as their allies and guides? What is the synergy that can emerge? What are the levels of engagement that can be realized? What are the possibilities of aiming high and pressing hard? Can the workplace be a place where leaders inspire followers who in turn inspire leaders? How can a soft idea translate into the concrete reality of producing goods and services in hyper competitive market places? How can choice reduce expenses and increase revenues?

The possibilities begin with the assumption that they are possible, at least for the purpose of inviting followers to exercise their choice and think about them.

Credit Where Credit Is Due

Readers of Peter Block will recognize fragments of his thinking in this article. Thank you, Peter, for the inspiration.

Powerful Questions

I came to know about powerful questions from Bill Brewer, a colleague of Peter Block. Bill had come to our institution to present a workshop on Block’s Six Conversations. He described powerful questions as having three attributes.

They are personal. This is not to say they are personally invasive, only that when the question is posed, it is unmistakably clear that the question must be considered on a personal level.

They are ambiguous. The ambiguity removes the option to download past thoughts or opinions or theories. The answer is not obvious. The question causes a stop in the normal flow of self-talk. With no obvious quick response available, something inside has to be unpacked in order to frame, or begin to frame, a response.

They are anxiety provoking. Not in the sense of putting one in harm’s way, but to the extent that the answer is not obvious one has to navigate the waters of uncertainty and ambiguity in order to begin to make meaning of the question. There is risk.

Taken together, the three attributes are, in the words of Henry Real Bird, the poet-laureate of Montana, an invitation to think, to move along in thought.

These attributes draw us into asking what experience we expect from considering the question that has been posed, what we expect to learn from the question, how much risk we are willing to take in the course of moving along in thought, and how much the experience of those around us matters.

Powerful questions can be philosophical and complex. They can also be simple in and of themselves, and derive their power from the duration of reflection we give them. Some pull us down paths already traveled but look at the landscape from a different point of view.

Powerful Questions for Individuals

My coach, Katherine Jackson, asked me, “What brought you to now?” “What do you mean by ‘now’” I asked. “Whatever you take it to mean” she replied. She was not being coy.

I realized she was not asking me to simply recount the factual details of a journey. The more I thought about the question the more it brought me to the realization that I was being asked to consider the culmination of all the thoughts and experiences I had ever had, the manner in which they had intertwined with each other, and how and why they had produced the me that was here right now.

Was the now of my life the only possible result of this train of thoughts and experiences? Could I have interpreted them differently? Worked from different deep assumptions? Responded differently? Grown into a different person?

I struggled with the meaning of “now”? Caught between the past and future, is now just a point of transition? A forward reflection of the past and a requirement for the future? Blissfully disconnected from both the past and the future?

The past is fixed but the future is whatever possibility we imagine it to be. Can a reflective journey through the past that delivered me into the now paradoxically free me from reliving the past and open way into future possibilities? Can the totality of all the neuronal activity of my brain be leveraged into new insights and understandings, be burned into my brain as new pathways, and become the hardwiring we tap into without conscious awareness?

Powerful Questions for Organizations

What can powerful question do for organizations, if anything? “What brought us to now?” Can the possibilities for creating shift in individuals be adapted for organizations?

The answers, I think, are no and yes respectively. “No” insofar as organizations have no ability think and reflect separate from the people who populate them. “Yes” insofar as the ability and willingness of persons to each engage in the heavy lifting of inner work and choose to place the fruits of that labor in the community’s awareness. There is, I think, a prerequisite for using powerful questions in organizations.

Making Time to Think

Nancy Kline’s marvelous book, “Time to Think” makes the observation that the common complaint that people ought to do better thinking is rarely met with the intentional practice of making time and place for thinking, actively encouraging people to think, and placing a high value on thinking. In all to many organizations thinking is something one is expected to do in copious amounts so long as it does not interrupt work. Thinking at the expense of productivity is frowned upon in lean continuous improvement circles.

Communities of Learning, Thinking, and Practice

Some years ago I sent an invitation to all the managers and leaders who had attended a week-long course on leadership that I taught. It was a real invitation. I described taking the time to think by considering a question. I let people know that there was a price for attending;  people would have to give up problem solving and negotiating self interest; they may find themselves feeling vulnerable; they should be willing to take some risks (even as the risks were unnamed). I told them I would honor their option to say no and pass. Finally, I let them know I really hoped they would attend.

Of the 120 invitations I sent, close to 90 people responded, 75 said they wanted to attend, 45 said they would attend. Thirty-five people showed up on a Friday afternoon at 4 PM.

I asked one question: “What question inspires engagement in you?” I emphasized that the answer to the question was itself a question. They were not to iterate what inspired engagement but to identify the question that inspired engagement.

We began with personal reflection. Five minutes of silence. People then broke into small groups of three (very difficult to hide in a group of three). They could leave the room, wander the halls, remain at their table, anything of their choosing. They were to share their thoughts in the manner that worked for their group of three.

We reconvened about 25 minutes later. I posed a four part question: “What struck you about the question I asked, what struck you about your experience thinking about the question, what struck you about your small group conversation, and what struck you about the question that, for you, inspires you?”

Shift

I was not really interested in the actual questions that inspired them. They would be personal, and to place an expectation in the room that they had to give voice to them was not the work I had hoped the original question would provoke.

I finished (about 45 minutes late, almost everyone still there) with an invitation to offer a closing thought. It was an invitation, telling each person s/he could say no and pass. In one way or another, to greater or lesser degrees, people said they felt different. The afternoon had been hard work, and many said they had to unpack some inner parts of themselves to see the original question through to the end.

A decently large group of people returned to work on Monday with a different view of their own leadership. They now had a group of colleagues with whom they could share their thinking. They understood the people who looked to them for leadership differently. They were, by their own accounts, different people, willing and able to have different conversations in the workplace, willing to ask a few questions of their own, curious to explore leadership while they did their jobs of moving the business of the business forward.

Powerful Questions

I am not known for having original thoughts or ideas. I tell people I fully expect to die without ever having one. So, I do not feel the burden to compose powerful questions myself. I keep a journal, and write down any I hear. Then I plagiarize them to no end to adapt them to the circumstances in which I find myself.

If you know of any powerful questions, or have a gift for thinking of powerful questions, leave a comment and share.