My thinking on leadership starts from a simple assertion, based on research in fields ranging from anthropology to evolutionary and social psychology:
There are three primary sources of human motivation, each of which also is a way for people to pursue change and the basis for competing worldviews.
As Yuval Harari has pointed out, the major difference between human beings and their closest relatives in the animal kingdom is our social sophistication. Put one gorilla and one person on a desert island and the gorilla is more likely to survive. Put fifty of each species and the human capacity to plan and collaborate will likely see us through. That’s why I refer to these forms of motivation as modes of social coordination.
The hierarchical mode assumes the best way to achieve outcomes is through a stratification of authority. Those with the greatest power, legitimacy or expertise should be in charge. Unlike this focus on difference, the solidarity mode of coordination emphasises commonality; the basis for action should be our shared values, sense of belonging and mutual responsibility. Eschewing collectivism, the individualistic mode sees progress optimised by expanding the scope for individuals to pursue their own goals and be rewarded for their own efforts. There is also a fourth, rather different, mode; fatalism. From this perspective progress is unlikely and even if it happens life is still a struggle.
If this sounds a little abstract let me take you to a hypothetical executive meeting based on many I have sat through in organisations facing difficulties. One manager, perhaps the chief executive, starts by arguing that the problem is leadership. In her eyes, the organisation has too many competing priorities and an unclear strategy. This, she says, means that a new process of organisational change is necessary. It should be based on a carefully defined plan grounded in robust research and horizon scanning. It could require calling on the services of expert consultants or the recruitment of new managers.
When challenged, she might have to recognise that previous initiatives of this kind have come and gone without lasting effect. But she insists on the responsibilities of those in charge.
The company executives, she says, are the only ones who fully understand the needs of the whole organisation and the scale of the challenges it faces.
At this point another executive member makes his pitch. This manager has a background in human resources and prides himself on spending a lot of time on the office floor, chatting to people at all levels and getting involved in socialising with colleagues outside work. He shares some worrying signals: staff are demoralised, they feel the organisation isn’t living up to its stated values, they are resentful of disparities in pay and power and they want the organisation to be a more supportive and united team. It’s a fine speech but his colleagues are sceptical: the organisation exists to be successful and provide a service, not just to make employees happy. Previous exercises in staff engagement, they point out, became very inward-looking and generated unrealistic expectations.
A third manager thinks the others are missing the mark: the real solution is incentives. As the familiar carrot and stick argument goes, the organisation should reward people for doing the right thing and threaten those not pulling their weight with consequences. There is a simplicity in this approach, the manager argues, everyone understands it and it’s relatively straightforward to predict how people will respond. He might acknowledge the potentially divisive consequences and that – like all incentive systems – it could encourage better gaming rather than better performance. Despite this, he argues, the added dynamism of competition and ambition outweigh the potential dangers.
The conversation winds on through proposal and counter-proposal. A course of action is finally hammered out, not so much because people agree, but because they’ve given up on the predictability of what I once heard called ‘an already conversation’. No one notices that one colleague hardly says a word. She saves her view for her wife that evening. “As we went through all the pros and cons’ she says ‘I didn’t have the heart to remind them; we’ve done this all before. It never really changes anything”.
It’s easy to condemn this apparent cynicism but fatalism is not without justification.
As a chief executive myself I’d judge two steps forward one step back as a pretty good success rate. In fact, an estimated 70% of organisational change strategies fail. Simple, incentive-based systems persist, but the evidence for strategies like performance related pay is patchy at best while such systems routinely generate perverse behaviours.
As a chief executive myself I’d judge two steps forward one step back as a pretty good success rate.
While there is evidence to suggest that a more solidaristic strategy of staff engagement is more strongly linked to performance, attempts at full organisational democracy rarely survive for long, especially when organisations grow large or face crises. Ultimately, despite a library of new books emerging every year on how to lead or to make organisations succeed, almost anyone who works for any organisation can regale you with its many dysfunctions.
Does this mean the best leadership strategy is to maximise and align the motivations offered by authority, values and individual aspirations? One study found that the most resilient financial institutions were those which allowed all four voices to be heard in the executive team. In a study of what were at the time among the most innovative organisations in the world – Pixar, FC Barcelona, and a highly successful Indian social enterprise – futurist and organisational thinker Charles Leadbeater described them as being ‘creative communities with cause’. I call this mix of visionary but not overbearing leadership, of teamwork based on a shared commitment to excellence and a culture that encourages and supports autonomy as ‘full engagement’ but there are reasons why achieving it is more difficult than it might sound.
Not only do the advocates of the different modes of coordination utilise contrasting accounts of what does, and what should, motivate people, but their rationale relies on critiques of each other. For example, the solidaristic case for a greater emphasis on shared values will often involve a critique of the self-serving motives of those in authority or the destructive effects of competitive individualism.
This is one reason why attempts simply to dial up an under-expressed motivation often disappoint. They fail to take into account the consequences for the organisational system. The CSR movement, with its emphasis on values and responsibility is an attempt to dial up solidaristic motivation in business. But it has neither reduced corporate wrong-doing nor arrested declining public trust. Because, for a company to be authentically inclusive and responsible it would need both to challenge the narrow individualism of shareholder value and inflated executive rewards and to be willing to question command and control hierarchy.
Most organisations are unbalanced, as are countries like our own. The prevailing system and ideology of the last forty years is one in which individualism in the form of financial capitalism was dominant, hierarchy in the form of government subservient, and solidarity largely ignored. The populism, polarisation and pessimism now sweeping the world can be understood as the expression of a profound solidarity deficit in the face of economic and social liberalism. The solution to our woes will need to be radical and far-reaching.
Even when organisations do achieve ‘full engagement’, changes in context can shift the balance. We will never ‘abolish boom and bust’ because when markets are bullish, owners and investors are systematically more inclined to listen to the risk-taking, acquisitive voice of individualism.
Seeking to express and align complex human motivations encourages a focus on the resilience of whole organisations and an approach to change which is incremental and agile.
Fatalism should not be ignored. Its presence can indicate how far a system is from full engagement; it is strong in monocultures such as the hierarchically dominated authoritarian regimes. But it can also be the voice of wisdom encouraging leaders to appreciate the hard and messy work of building and sustaining full engagement.
Seeking to express and align complex human motivations encourages a focus on the resilience of whole organisations and an approach to change which is incremental and agile. At the RSA we call this ‘thinking like a system and acting like an entrepreneur’. Our many partners readily accept our diagnosis of change. The challenge is to become the kind of organisation capable of systemic vision and agile action.
Indeed, perhaps it is on these capacities more than any others that we should base our assessment of an organisation’s assets. If doing good is as important as doing well, the struggle for full engagement is worth the effort.
Matthew Taylor is the CEO of the RSA (The Royal Society for the Encouragement of Arts, Manufactures and Commerce).