The Power of Relationships, Openness, and Trust
Publication date: 08/14/2018
—Charles Handy, author of The Second Curve
“The future will reward humility and punish arrogance. Ed and Peter Schein show us both the power and the strength of humble leadership. This book is an antidote to arrogance and a practical guide to making the future.”
—Bob Johansen, Distinguished Fellow, Institute for the Future, and author of The New Leadership Literacies
“This book outlines the pathway to a culture of cooperation and trust and the leadership needed to create this. If you take it seriously, Humble Leadership is the only book on management that you will ever need.”
—Peter Block, author of Stewardship and Flawless Consulting and coauthor of An Other Kingdom
“Humility may be the modern leader's most important attribute. In a complex, dynamic world, humility is simply realism. This powerful and thoroughly engaging book delivers the wisdom of Edgar Schein's half century of research and practice dedicated to helping organizations and those who manage them. Its authors—a pioneering organizational scholar and his son—embody humility as they describe its power in transforming organizations. Compelling case studies clarify the humble leadership approach and make it actionable.”
—Amy C. Edmondson, Novartis Professor of Leadership and Management, Harvard Business School
"Effective leadership is all about building trust and relationships. With Humble Leadership, Ed and Peter help us to actually get there by understanding relationships on a much more granular and tangible level."
—Severin Schwan, CEO Roche Group
“In an era of national cynicism and dismay, this call for empathy, trust, and collaboration is a timely breath of fresh air with relevance for leaders at all levels.”
—Lucian Leape, Adjunct Professor of Health Policy (retired), Harvard School of Public Health
“In focusing on ‘levels of relationships,' the book explains how…emerging leaders can succeed by interacting with peers and those reporting to them in ways that are in stark contrast to the coercive and ‘bad behaviors' we are currently hearing about. Ed and Peter Schein offer them an alternative and far superior approach to leadership—one based on cooperative relationships with others that emphasize trust and respect and, in turn, lead to stronger and more effective organizations.”
—Robert A. Cooke, author of Human Synergistics' Organizational Culture Inventory
“For those in the health-care world who face the challenge of leading organizations with layers of administrative and clinical complexity, this book offers a path to success. Humble leadership, as the authors remind us, though, is no mere philosophy. It is a result of disciplined attention to structure, culture, and relationships. The Scheins offer a persuasive road map to achieve this understanding and true effectiveness in institutional settings.”
—Paul F. Levy, former CEO, Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center, and author of Goal Play!
“Edgar and Peter Schein's new book, Humble Leadership, builds on decades of study focused on organizational culture and leadership. They articulate the criticality of leadership in successful organizations and the strong correlation of relationships that go beyond the transactional with successful leaders and successful organizations. This is a must read for reflective leaders at all levels seeking to enhance their effectiveness and execution in pursuit of their organizational mission and vision.”
—Gary S. Kaplan MD, Chairman and CEO, Virginia Mason Health System, Chair Lucian Leape Institute
“Edgar and Peter Schein have built on a series of previous informative books such as Helping and Humble Inquiry with their new book, Humble Leadership. The insights into the importance of relationships and building an atmosphere of openness and trust are helpful to all leaders. I believe it is particularly informative for those in health care, dealing with the marked technical and operational complexities.”
—Lane F. Donnelly, MD, Chief Quality Officer, Lucile Packard Children's Hospital Stanford, and Professor, Stanford University School of Medicine
"Humble Leadership introduces a new model for leadership that supports effectiveness in a rapidly changing world where leaders and their followers are being driven by deeply entrenched cultural norms. The timeless insights about relationships, personizing, group process, and culture will help every leader.”
—Tim Kuppler, Director of Culture and Organization Development, Human Synergistics, and cofounder of CultureUniversity.com
"The book offers a deeply human approach to leadership that is attuned to the staggering complexity, rapid change, and uncertainty facing anyone aiming to make a difference in today's world. Written as a joint project by Ed Schein and his son Peter, Humble Leadership is a way of being a leader that does not rely on transactional power, but on the relational power that comes from trust, openness and collaboration. Illustrated with rich case examples from the Schein's extensive practices as organizational consultants and exercises to develop leadership capacities of one's own, the book has the ring of authenticity that comes from the hearts of people who have walked the walk."
—Maureen O'Hara, Founding Fellow, International Futures Forum; Professor, National University; and coauthor, with Graham Leicester, of Dancing at the Edge
"Leadership is a socio-technical process, but most leaders have only been prepared for the technical dimension; despite their best intentions, their performance and that of their teams and organizations falls short. Humble Leadership aims squarely at this problem – how to attend to the social dimension - and hits a bull's-eye. This compact and lively volume shows why organizations cannot thrive on impersonal interactions, but instead require higher-order relationships that engender trust and honest conversation. Presenting fundamental principles and many instructive examples, it also provides very practical guidance about how to establish such relationships. Readers from my industry, healthcare, will find described in this book exactly the leadership practices that are needed backstage to achieve patient-centered or relationship-centered care on the front lines. This is going to be a very impactful book!"
—Anthony L. Suchman, MD, MA, Senior Consultant, Relationship Centered Health Care
A New Approach to Leadership
This book introduces a new approach to leadership based more on personal relationships than transactional role relationships.
The good news: employee engagement, empowerment, organizational agility, ambidexterity, innovation . . . all of this can flourish in the rapidly changing world when the fundamental relationship between leaders and followers, helpers and clients, and providers and customers becomes more personalized and cooperative.
The bad news: continued deception, scandals, high turnover of disengaged talent, safety and quality problems in industry and health care, all the way to corruption and abuse of power at the highest levels of industry and politics, driven by financial expediency and the obsession with retaining power as primary success criteria . . . all of this will continue to happen as long as leader-follower relationships remain impersonal, transactional, and based on the roles and rules that have evolved in the current culture of management that still predominates in our hierarchical bureaucratic organizations.
We therefore need a model of leadership that is more personal and cooperative, that changes relationships both inside organizations and between organization members and their customers, clients, and patients. This model is Humble Leadership.
What Is Leadership?
The Leader–Follower Relationship
“Leadership” is wanting to do something new and better, and getting others to go along. This definition applies as much to senior executives developing new strategies, new purposes, and new values as it does to a group member down in the organization suggesting a new way of running a meeting or improving a process to drive better results. Both the word new and the word better remind us that leadership always refers to some task that can be improved and to some group whose values and culture will ultimately determine what is better.
What is new and what is better will always depend on context, the nature of the task, and the cultural values that are operating in the group or organization that is doing the work. What we later may label as “good or effective leadership” thus always begins with someone perceiving a new and better way to do something, an emergent leader. Our focus will be not on the individual and the desired characteristics of that emergent leader, but on the relationships that develop between that person and the potential followers who will have influenced what is finally considered to be new and better and who will implement the new way if they agree to try it. Those potential followers will always be some kind of workgroup or team, so our focus will also be on the relationships between them. They may be co-located or widely spread in a network, and their membership may change, but there will always be some kind of grouping involved, hence group dynamics and group processes will always be intimately involved with leadership.
LEVELS OF RELATIONSHIP
Leader-follower relationships can usefully be differentiated along a continuum of “levels of relationship” that are generally accepted in society, that we have learned to use in our own relationships, and that are, therefore, familiar and comfortable. We introduce these levels now but will explain them in greater detail in Chapter 2. The relationship continuum includes these four levels:
Level Minus 1: Total impersonal domination and coercion
Level 1: Transactional role and rule-based supervision, service, and most forms of “professional” helping relationships
Level 2: Personal cooperative, trusting relationships as in friendships and in effective teams
Level 3: Emotionally intimate total mutual commitments
Some version of these levels is present and well understood in most societies, and we generally know the difference in our own relationships between coercively giving orders to someone over whom we have power (Level Minus 1) and the broad range of transactional relationships we have with strangers, service providers, and our bosses, direct reports, and peers with whom we maintain appropriate “professional distance” (Level 1).
These arm’s-length relationships differ from how we relate to friends and to teammates in collaborative workgroups we have gotten to know as individual human beings (Level 2), and how we relate to our spouses, close friends, and confidants with whom we share our more intimate and private feelings (Level 3).
We already have the attitudes and skills necessary to decide at what level to relate to each other in our daily lives, but have we thought through sufficiently what is the appropriate level of relationship in our workgroups and in our hierarchical relationships? Have we considered what the leadership relationship needs to be as the tasks of organizations become more complex?
In order to explain what we mean by Humble Leadership, we need to consider what these levels mean in the organizational context of today and as we look ahead. Our argument is that Level Minus 1 domination and coercion is a priori morally inappropriate in an established democratic society and is, in any case, ineffective except where tasks are very simple and programmable. Level 1 transactional relationships built around role expectations, and rules of behavior appropriate to those roles, have evolved into what we can think of as the basic managerial culture that still dominates many of our organizations and institutions. It is based on the core US values of individual competitiveness, heroic self-determination, and a concept of work that is linear, machine-like, and based on technical rationality. Level 1, therefore, relies on rules, roles, and the maintenance of appropriate professional distance (Roy, 1970). This existing culture and the way the world is changing lead us to believe that we need a new model based on more personal Level 2, and sometimes even Level 3, relationships and group processes.
There are several reasons why we need a new leadership model.
1. TASK COMPLEXITY IS INCREASING EXPONENTIALLY
The tasks that need to be accomplished in today’s world involve a dynamic mix of emerging technologies, collaboration between many kinds of expertise provided by team members, and ecosystem partners, who often come from different occupational and national cultures. The products and services that need to be provided are themselves getting more complex and are constantly shifting in the rapidly changing sociopolitical environment. Information technology and geographically dispersed social networks have created new ways of organizing and communicating, which makes it very hard to define the process of leadership (Heifetz, 1994; Johansen, 2017).
Organizations around the world are struggling with the increasing rate of change, the degree of global interconnectedness, multiculturalism, and the pace of technological advances. Climate change is accelerating. Product specialization is accelerating. Cultural diversification is accelerating. It is becoming obvious that keeping pace in this world will require teamwork and collaboration of all sorts based on the higher levels of trust and openness created by more personalized relationships. Teams will require other teams to share what works and what they know. Humble Leadership at all levels will be needed to link workgroups and teams. Self-centeredness, quid pro quo machinations, political one-upmanship—behaviors that come naturally to individual climbers in hierarchies—will be discredited if not punished as selfish wastes of time.
Organizations who can recast their self-image, design and redesign themselves to be adaptable living organisms, will increase their own success and survival rate (O’Reilly & Tushman, 2016). This book proposes that this redesign will not happen without more personalized leadership on top of, inside of, and around modern organizations. Humble Leadership will create and reflect the relationships that can respond to this accelerating rate of systemic change and will empower workgroups to build and maintain critical adaptive capacity to capitalize on accelerating change.
A new model is timely. As Frederic Laloux said in his analysis of the evolution of organizational forms, “something is in the air” (Laloux and Appert, 2016, p. 161). We are particularly struck by descriptions of new organization patterns in the US military, America’s largest hierarchical organization, which suggest that the only way to fight some of today’s wars is with a “team of teams” approach (McChrystal, 2015). Even, or especially, in the US military, the old model—organizations as machines led by heroes—is the past, not the future. It is hard to see how future organizations in most industries will survive if their business model is based primarily on the standardized output machine myth.
Leadership in this environment is categorically humbling because it is virtually impossible for an individual to accumulate enough knowledge to figure out all of the answers. Interdependence and constant change become a way of life in which humility in the face of this complexity has become a critical survival skill. For the past 50 years scholars have described the world as an “open socio-technical system” of constantly changing social and business contexts that must be accepted and approached with a “spirit of inquiry.” As we move into the future, these conditions will increase exponentially, which will make Humble Leadership a primary means for dealing with these socio-technical challenges.
We have seen remarkable advances in engineering and in automation that are nearly eliminating technical defects in materials and manufacturing processes. But the design, production, and delivery of a growing number and variety of products has become primarily a socio-technical problem in which the quality and safety issues derive from faulty interactions between the various social micro systems of today’s complex organizations.
All too often, problems aren’t in the “nodes” (individuals), but in the interactions (relationships). With the exponential rise in contingencies and interactions, we see signs of a deep malaise in many organizations that can be characterized most clearly as the persistent failure of both downward and upward communication, reflecting indifference and mistrust up and down the hierarchy. Quality and safety problems don’t result from technological failures but from socio-technical failures of communication (Gerstein, 2008).
To make matters worse, the management culture that has worked well so far has also created blind spots and diminished peripheral vision, which prevent many top executives from seeing and taking seriously this communication pathology. We must examine how the very culture that created success so far is built on some values that inhibit new and better ways of doing things.
Downward communication often fails because employees neither understand nor trust what executives declare as the strategy or culture they want to promulgate. Employees often feel that what is asked of them, for example “teamwork and collaboration,” is in direct conflict with deeper elements of the culture, such as the competitive individualism for which they have been rewarded in climbing the corporate ladder. In our experience, too many top executives are remarkably unwilling or unable to see how their calls for virtuous new cultures of teamwork, of engagement, of becoming more agile and innovative, fall on deaf ears, because they are unwilling to change their own behavior and to build the new reward structures that would be needed to support the new cooperative values.
Upward communication typically fails because employees resist speaking up when they don’t understand, don’t agree, or see quality and safety issues in how the organization functions (Gerstein, 2008; Gerstein & Schein, 2011). All too often, failure to speak up has led to the deadly accidents that we have seen in the chemical, oil, construction, utility, and even aviation industries. In health care, we have seen hospital-induced infections and unwarranted deaths because employees either did not speak up or were not listened to if they did speak up and/or were told, “Don’t worry, it will be taken care of by safety procedures,” only to discover later that nothing was done. Complacency and not reporting (false negatives) are often the unseen causes of costly errors.
We have seen in recent scandals involving Volkswagen, Veterans Affairs, and Wells Fargo Bank how unrealistic production and/or cost control targets seemed to ignore employee appeals that they could not meet those targets and led to installing illegal software in cars, lying and falsifying records, or opening thousands of bogus bank accounts. Employee complaints were met in the case of VW with management saying, in effect, “Either you find a way to meet the emission targets with the present engine or we will find others who can!”
When employees occasionally become whistle-blowers, they may end up being acknowledged and may even effect some change, but all too often at great expense to their own careers (Gerstein, 2008; Schein, 2013b). The management principle “Don’t bring me a problem unless you have the solution” is too widely quoted. Even more shocking is when executives tell us that a rise in accident rates and even some deaths is just “the price of doing business.” We have heard hospital administrators say something equivalent: “Well, people do die in hospitals!”
Peer-to-peer communication is heavily advocated in all the talk of building teams and better collaboration but is almost always compromised by everyone’s recognition that the career reward system is built on competition between individual performers. We talk teamwork, but it is the individual stars who get the big economic rewards and fame. We don’t reward groups or hold groups accountable. When things go well, we identify the stars; when things go poorly, we look for someone to blame. We all too often hear of “blame cultures” in organizations. In one such large organization in the oil industry we heard engineers suggest, “When a project is finished, get reassigned immediately so that if anything goes wrong, you won’t be around to be blamed!”
Beyond these communication problems we see further issues. We see US business culture continue to espouse the individual hero myth leader, and a machine model of hierarchical organization design that not only undermines its own goals of employee engagement, empowerment, organizational agility, and innovative capacity, but also limits its capacity to cope with a world that is becoming more volatile, uncertain, complex, and ambiguous (VUCA). Though many managers may deny this, we think the hero model engenders a managerial culture that is implicitly built either on Level Minus 1 coercive relationships or on formal Level 1 hierarchical bureaucratic relationships between managers and employees, which de facto can become coercive and constricting. The leadership model that is generated by this kind of Level 1 managerial culture is dependent on visionary, charismatic leaders to overcome the apathy or resistance that builds up in such transactional, “professionally distant,” role-based relationships.
Furthermore, we increasingly see that this form of transactional leading and managing has created not only the organizational communication pathology referred to above, but even what some would call organizational “evil” because employees are seen not as whole human beings, but as roles, commodities, and “resources” (Sennett, 2006; Adams & Balfour, 2009; Gerstein & Schein, 2011; Schein, 2014). In a role- and rule-based organization it is easy to ignore what the safety analysts call “practical drift” (Snook, 2000) or “normalization of deviance” (Vaughan, 1996). Such drift is related to executive myopia, if not tunnel vision, which can allow dysfunctional behaviors to develop throughout the layers of the hierarchy, which, in turn, spawn employee disengagement, lying, cheating, and, ultimately, safety and quality problems for citizens, customers, and patients.
A more extreme example that borders on “evil” was reported in a recent article in the New Yorker detailing how a large chicken-producing factory exploits undocumented immigrants, puts them into unsafe environments, and threatens to expose them to deportation if they complain about work conditions (Grabell, 2017). Suffice it to say that we see problems in the existing managerial culture that cannot be fixed by the individual hero models that this same culture advocates.
In defense of the existing culture, as long as leaders understood the task, they could continue to try to impose new and better methods such as Lean or Agile (Shook, 2008). However, as tasks become more socio-technically complex and interdependent, formal leaders often discover that the new and better way is only understood and implemented correctly if employees are actively involved in the design and implementation of those changes, which ultimately hinges on having Level 2 personal relationships in the change groups.
3. THERE ARE GENERATIONAL CHANGES IN SOCIAL AND WORK VALUES
Forces for change in the design of work and organizations are slowly evolving around new social values about what work and organizations should mean in today’s complex multicultural world. There is more talk of social responsibility and becoming stewards of our environment and our planet, what is well captured in the idea of “servant leadership” (Greenleaf, 2002; Blanchard, 2003; Blanchard & Broadwell, 2018). New cohorts entering the workforce have different expectations and concepts of what work and career should be. There is a growing emphasis placed on work that is meaningful and based on purpose, work that will enable employees to use their full range of talents and to gain experience for its own sake, not simply for bonuses of money and “things.”
So How Is Humble Leadership Different?
To make organizations more effective, to lead what has increasingly come to be labeled “culture change” or “transformation,” the relationship between the emergent leader and the organizational followers who will implement the changes has to become a more personal and cooperative Level 2 relationship. We are already seeing a drift toward Level 2 relationships as doctors with patients, product designers with their customers, teachers with their students, and team leaders with their members are discovering that things work better and are emotionally more satisfying when the relationship becomes more personal.
Level 2 personal, open, and trusting relationships have to be developed throughout workgroups to facilitate cultural transformations and build the innovative capacities that the VUCA world will require. Those work relationships may sometimes even drift into varying degrees of Level 3 intimacy, depending on the nature of the task, as in high-stakes operations carried out by military groups such as Navy Seal teams or Army Special Forces, even though Level 3 relationships may still be deemed inappropriate in hierarchical systems such as offices or hospitals.
Various forms of Humble Leadership have existed throughout history when the task required it. Some examples follow.
A Range of Humble Leadership Examples
These examples are actual cases touching on different levels of organizational life. Some are disguised because the organization or the persons did not want to be identified. The common element in the examples is that a humble leader set out to create what we call Level 2 relationships and used implicit knowledge of group dynamics to deal with hierarchy and/or limit the damage of undesirable competitive individualism.
A CEO of a large multinational chemical conglomerate works with an internal board of 11 direct reports and has made them accountable as a group for the performance of the organization. They have gotten to know each other at a personal level through frequent regular meetings in which basic strategy is discussed and decided.
To enable this joint decision making, they have arranged to rotate responsibilities for the different product divisions, international divisions, and functional divisions every 3 years so that each of them will become totally familiar with all aspects of the business and will never seek to be an individual champion for any given product, country, or function.
Their joint accountability creates open dialogues on difficult strategic and operational decisions. They have created a climate in which no one is afraid to speak up, and they have conveyed these values to others, especially their direct reports. Perhaps most important, they have accepted that learning to function as a group is an especially difficult task and have used group-oriented process consultants to learn how to be an effective group. They take time out to review their group process frequently and discover during those review periods how leadership has actually been widely distributed among them. By having each senior executive be familiar with each division, geographical unit, and function, they avoid destructive self-serving arguments by representatives.
The example shows that even a highly divisionalized, multinational organization can create a governance process in which the “silos” cooperate and are jointly accountable, by building open and trusting relationships between the silos.
EXAMPLE 1.2. Personalizing Hierarchical Relationships
Jerry, a recently retired CEO of a major worldwide manufacturing and services conglomerate, described his managerial and leadership behavior as follows (Seelig, 2017):
Early in my career I concluded that the success of an organization was critically dependent on the technical competence and leadership skills of those in charge, whatever their title or responsibility within the organization. During my first few months in a new management job, I spent many hours with each and every manager and supervisor discussing their specific operation, asking many questions both about their past performance as well as what each felt were the future opportunities and challenges of the business or activity for which they were responsible. I asked each manager what he or she would do if they had my job and what recommendations they had for me as the new general manager.
I wanted each supervisor and manager to fully understand, and feel comfortable with, my management style. First, I wanted to be told about any significant problems they encountered, but I also expected them to give me their suggestions for solving the problem. Second, I absolutely wanted to listen to their opinion on any issue we discussed. I not only wanted their opinion, I wanted them to argue with me if we disagreed. Only after fully discussing the alternatives and considering the risks and benefits could we arrive at the most appropriate solution.
What Jerry described was Humble Leadership in that he was building personal “helping relationships” (Schein, 2009) throughout the organization, but especially with direct and indirect reports. He was openly acknowledging that he would need the help of his colleagues and reports in making decisions. He could not understand all the technical work in the different subsidiaries and realized he would have to work in countries with different cultures. He was an executive vice president with absolute formal authority to “run” these units, but how he organized the people below him reflected his recognition that his job was basically to build mutual trust and open communication with managers below him. He illustrated through his own behavior that relationships in a hierarchy did not have to be arbitrary top-down command and control.
EXAMPLE 1.3. Empowering Managers in a Start-Up
The 1950s start-up of Digital Equipment Corp. (DEC) showed how its founder, as a humble leader, built over 25 years an enormously successful company that was, in size, second only to IBM. This story also illustrates how Level 2 can be lost and how the “organization as a machine” can resurface quickly when size and success create internal conflicts and communication pathologies (Schein, 2003, 2016; Schein & Schein, 2017).
In his role as the cofounder, Ken Olsen hired the best and brightest young computer engineers he could find, built personal Level 2 relationships with them, then drafted them periodically into what he called an “operations committee,” took them to 2-day off-sites, posed the key questions about what kinds of products they should develop, encouraged the unruly debate that invariably resulted, and more or less withdrew to listen rather than compete in the debate. He would often physically withdraw, go sit in the corner of the room, and seem to get lost in his own thoughts. During the many hours of debate, he would only come in sporadically with sharp questions, never a suggestion. Only when the group began to achieve some consensus, favoring one proposal that stood up to the criticisms directed at it, would Ken come back to the table and ask for a collective decision.
Once when Ken was asked why he did not make autocratic decisions, why he let the debate run on and on sometimes, he quickly countered with, “First of all I am not that smart. I also learned once, when I made a decision, and started to walk down the road, I discovered that there was no one behind me.” He realized that making a decision and getting it implemented required the building of mutual helping relationships that depended on complete openness and mutual trust. He made it clear that concealing information from or lying to each other, to him, or even to customers was absolutely unacceptable and would cause instant dismissal.
Having hired the best technical talent, he accepted his vulnerability (of not having all the answers as the founder) but trusted his experts to make the best technical decisions while he created a personal environment of openness and trust. He empowered his key employees and made himself reliant on them. He wanted the market to decide whether the decisions were good ones or not. He humbled himself both to his employees and to the realities of the market.
Generally speaking, in a new organization it is possible to empower lower levels to make strategic and tactical decisions. However, if that organization is successful, grows, and ages, it also begins to experience strong tribalism because the young engineers who are empowered become, with age and success, very powerful, build their own empires, and begin to fight with each other. At DEC, trust eroded very quickly, leading to many of the pathologies mentioned above. In the end Ken was increasingly sidelined by the very people he had empowered.
The DEC board did not have Level 2 relationships with each other or with Ken, which led to a sad but predictable outcome. As the tribes fought, they used up limited resources, leading to three major product releases arriving late to market. The market had also shifted, and when DEC could not pivot, Ken was fired and DEC was sold to Compaq, which eventually was acquired by Hewlett-Packard. DEC had, however, demonstrated in its first 25 years how a founder could build an organization with Humble Leadership.
EXAMPLE 1.4. Honoring Safety Over Productivity
Sarah Smith is the head of electrical operations for a large urban utility. Above her is the vice president of all operations, which includes gas and steam power. This VP is very concerned about coordination and collaboration between his various units and therefore has made group meetings with a facilitator central to his operation. He has mandated that Sarah should build the same kind of “culture of collaboration” among her four regional managers and asks her frequently how this is going. He has urged her to use a group-oriented facilitator to work with her group to ensure that they build a set of norms that will get them and their reports to speak up if they see any kind of safety or maintenance problem anywhere in the system.
Sarah has learned that only if she spends a lot of time with her direct reports can she count on them to make their reports feel safe in bringing up maintenance problems. She reminds them that safety and reliability are more important than maintaining a schedule, and she rewards any employee who raises maintenance- and safety-related concerns. She is acutely aware that the executives above her really mean it when they say that safety is the highest priority, and they expect her to pass that message on to all the levels below her.
Leaders and managers can reinforce deep values like safety and quality by regularly reminding their direct reports that these values must dominate even if it reduces short-run productivity and compromises timeliness. This message is understood and accepted because Level 2 relationships have been built between the levels.
EXAMPLE 1.5. How a Surgeon Works on Building Trust and Openness
David is the senior spine surgeon in a large urban children’s hospital. His complex operations require a team on which he is quite dependent during most of the operation. When asked how he developed a level of trust and openness with his team, he said he first selected people on the basis of their competence and then “took them out to lunch.” He realized that the quickest way to reduce the hierarchical distance in the team was to do something very human and nonhierarchical together. He later learned that his wanting to eat with his team rather than with the other doctors also sent an important signal to the team on how important they were. He knew that the quickest way to get to know them as individuals was over an informal activity such as a meal.
Nevertheless, hospital policies changed and he could no longer have a dedicated team, so after that, at the beginning of the operation he encountered strangers who were rotated in to fit the schedule. He still needed to build trust and openness as quickly as possible, so he evolved a process of using the required pre-op checklist in a cooperative way. Instead of hurrying through it as a mechanical matter of course, he asked the chief OR nurse to go through each item slowly and looked at each team member directly, with body language that showed interest and readiness to hear questions or issues about each item from each person. He made it very clear how important their contributions were and tried to convey the message that they must work together and must totally trust each other. Trust in this context was visually and physically developed in near-real time, by the simple if not symbolic task of the group reviewing the checklist.
This story highlights that if a team clearly shares a common goal, personal relationships can be built very quickly if the leader desires and chooses to build on existing structure and conventions to facilitate a cooperative process.
The Implications of What We Are Arguing
Organizations today are doing all kinds of experiments in how work is defined and are showing great flexibility in how roles and authority are allocated. What we see in these experiments is that they encourage relationships that are more personal. Bosses, direct reports, team members, and resources from other teams are making it a point to get to know each other at a more personal level, fostering more openness and, in time, more trust and the psychological safety to speak up and be heard.
In a Level 2 relationship, I convey that “I see you.” This is not necessarily “I like you,” or “I want to be your friend,” or “Let’s get our families together,” but I let you know through my words, demeanor, and body language that I am aware of your total presence, that in this relationship we are working together and are dependent on each other, are trying to trust each other, and should each try to see each other as more than a fellow employee, or associate, or team member, but as a whole person. Seeing each other as whole persons is primarily a choice that we can make. We already know how to be personal in our social and private lives. Humble Leadership involves making that conscious choice in our work lives. To summarize,
Humble Leadership builds on Level 2 personal relationships that depend on and foster openness and trust.
If Level 2 relationships do not already exist in the workgroup, the emergent humble leader’s first job is to develop trust and openness in the workgroup.
In a Level 2 workgroup Humble Leadership emerges by enabling whoever has pertinent information or expertise to speak up and improve whatever the group is seeking to accomplish.
The process of creating and maintaining Level 2 relationships requires a learning mindset, cooperative attitudes, and skills in interpersonal and group dynamics.
Therefore, Humble Leadership is as much a group phenomenon as an individual behavior.
Summary and Plan of Action
We have described the concept of level of relationship as the basis for defining what we mean by Humble Leadership. We have also argued that the historically derived current culture of management, built on a number of deep assumptions about employees as role occupants, as “human resources,” cannot see how its own values and assumptions create some of the quality, safety, and employee engagement problems that we see today. A new model built on different assumptions is therefore needed.
These new assumptions are based on the fundamental proposition that we need to build not on individual competencies, but on models of relationships and group dynamic processes. Understanding Humble Leadership hinges on understanding levels of relationships, which is the focus of the next chapter.
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