Author Archives: Martha Miser

Ambassadors of Trust

The Illusory Ideal of Collaboration.

Years ago I worked with a CEO who would bemoan the inability of his staff to see beyond their own function, project, or individual need. Exasperated, he’d say, “I’d give anything to have people who could work together for the greater good of the company.” And yet, despite his best efforts, his team members continued to bicker, maneuver and manipulate, gossip, and protect their own turf.

Since then I’ve come across that concern more times that I can count. In fact, a lack of collaboration – teamwork, cooperation, or whatever term you like – may be the complaint I hear most from clients, regardless of firm size, sector, or industry.

Thanks to research conducted by Lynda Gratton (2014) and other scholars, the barriers to collaboration are well known. In a nutshell, most organizations operate in a state of perpetual change and uncertainty. At the same time, teams are becoming more diverse and virtual, challenging members to build relationships across difference and distance. In addition, building cooperative cultures is hampered by outdated organizational structures and work practices that perpetuate command-and-control mentalities and internal competition.

Especially as the world becomes more complex, interdependent, and diverse, there’s solid evidence that building relationships up, down, and across an organization is a critical requirement for achieving wanted outcomes (Gratton, 2003, 2014; Schein, 2013).

The case for collaboration. Logical, yes. Inspiring, not so much. In my view, this utilitarian argument fails to generate either urgency or real change. More often than not, collaboration is presented as an abstract “good idea” that sounds about as interesting as flossing your teeth: a necessary chore, but one that can be inconvenient, boring, even painful at times. No wonder the problem persists.

Through a Wider Lens: Democracy

That got me thinking. If the conventional argument for collaboration isn’t compelling, maybe we should look at it through a wider lens. After all, businesses are nested in a larger social fabric.

From this angle, using the widest lens possible, the most daunting challenge to collaboration comes into focus: the task of bringing diverse stakeholders together to solve the issues that plague our communities, nations, and planet. This is the challenge of democracy, a word derived from ancient Greek that means “rule by the people” (Democracy Building, 2004). Democracy demands collective problem solving; collaboration is crucial to its survival.

There are at least two good reasons for examining collaboration in the context of democracy.

First, democracy is only as good as its institutions. Certainly effective political processes are a requirement; but it’s the way we interact each day within our families, schools, churches, and organizations that determines the quality of a democracy. As Robert Bellah and his colleagues write, “We live through institutions”; from institutions we learn the fundamental norms and patterns of behavior that enable democratic thought and action (1991, p. 3). From this perspective, business plays a vital role in determining our conduct as citizens.

Second, many believe the future of democracy is in question. It may be more accurate to say that the future of democracy has always been in question because democracy isn’t a fixed end state and its success is dependent on the continuous engagement of citizens. However, as Bellah and his coauthors point out, a stable democracy “requires a degree of trust” in its institutions, and the turbulence, inequities, and conflict associated with our globalized world have begun to erode this “heritage of trust” (p. 3). Business – a key player in the charge toward globalization – has had more than a small hand in driving these changes and so bears a large share of responsibility for rebuilding this essential foundation of trust.

Individualism and the Common Good

One factor in the erosion of trust is individualism. In the West, and particularly in the United States, we have inherited a strong bias toward individualism that assumes a common good will emerge as the sum of individual achievements. Historically this has led us to focus almost exclusively on personal success, a success measured in terms of individual accomplishment and wealth.

Inarguably, this individualistic heritage has fueled great accomplishments. But when a good idea becomes a rigid ideology, it can create blind spots and lead to outcomes we may not want. In this case, our tenacious and deep regard for the triumphant individual has overshadowed and suppressed the values of care and connection and our broader sense of responsibility for the common good.

We find the same thinking in our organizations. Ed Schein (2013) describes “tacit assumptions of pragmatism, individualism, and status through achievement” that have created task-oriented competitive cultures that value “doing and telling” and “getting the job done” over listening, building relationships, and collaborating (p. 66).

Moreover, as the quest for personal wealth is projected onto our global society, the sum of individual “goods” has created more problems than solutions – a common “bad” – including extreme inequality, polarization, hypercompetition, and conflict. In this environment it’s pretty hard to find common ground much less common good.

Reframing Democracy: “Respectful Struggle”

And yet I think we have plenty of evidence that democracy can work, that we can find ways to balance individual and collective needs, especially if we’re willing to look beyond the daily news and try to understand how democracy is done.

Here’s a decidedly nonbusiness but instructive example: In the mid-1990s, sociologist Cynthia Cockburn studied several women’s groups who were working to build collaborative relationships across ethnic boundaries in the Middle East, in Bosnia and Herzegovina, and in Northern Ireland. Her objective: to understand how ordinary women were able to surmount aggression and war and find peaceful solutions, filling “the space between their national differences with words in place of bullets” (1998, p. 1).

As Cockburn discovered, each group realized that no progress would be made without first taking the extraordinary effort to understand each other, which meant tackling difficult topics, confronting differences, exposing assumptions, and considering other perspectives. In the end, Cockburn observed, the objective was not to agree with each other, or even to seek consensus, but to consciously engage with the “difficult reality of unavoidable, unending, careful, respectful struggle” (p. 216).

Respectful struggle . . . two words that capture the dynamic essence of democratic practice.In this context, struggle doesn’t assume a violent conflict, an enemy, or an adversary who might be blamed. Instead respectful struggle implies a shared effort to overcome a great difficulty on which there is little agreement and for which there is no apparent answer. I think what Cockburn’s study revealed was the nobility and worth of the arduous day-in-day-out work of democracy.

How can we cultivate respectful struggle in our communities and organizations? Here are a few thoughts:

  • Commit to the “inward work”: Beyond the familiar trappings of democracy – elections and laws, for example – lies a dimension that Jacob Needleman (2012) calls the “inward work” of democracy. Learning to reason and think critically about oneself and the external world is not just a right but a responsibility if we expect democracy to flourish.
  • Cultivate adult-to-adult relationships: Collaborative, democratic practice is grounded in respect and an understanding that all parties are equally capable adults. Just as important, the relationship between the individual and the organization (or the state) must be adult to adult, implying trust and accountability on both parts (Gratton, 2004).
  • Stop judging and start listening: Democracy carries certain implicit obligations. Freedom of speech, for example, implies a duty to stop and listen in a particular way: with curiosity, temporarily suspending judgment so that we can actually hear the other party’s words and intent. This does not assume agreement; it does, however, assume respect and interest that can lead to dialogue and an exchange of views.
  • Be willing to be transformed: When we open our minds to other points of view, we are practicing “both/and” thinking – the ability to straddle more than one worldview. Although difficult, we may even find it necessary to relinquish a cherished belief. The ability to take on new perspectives and see the world with new eyes is transformative and essential to the democratic process.

A Call to Action – Collaborate!

So what about business?

For many decades, businesses have been wandering in the arid landscape of shareholder value, exhorted by B-school gurus to focus on a single objective: creating wealth. At the same time we have built and perpetuated paternalistic structures and systems that tell employees what to say and do, rewarding them when they succeed and punishing them when they fail, in the process creating a vicious cycle of competitiveness and fear.

And then we ask them to collaborate.

Fortunately there are signs of change. Recently I watched a new CEO conduct a remarkable dialogue with a group of associates. “I will help shape the goal, but I’m not going to tell you what to do,” he said. “I trust you to figure it out and promise to give you the support and resources you need.” Of course, many of the employees had heard similar words from his predecessors and been disappointed, so their reactions varied from disbelief to skepticism to cautious optimism. Over time, they will learn that this CEO really means it and has a track record to prove it. His experience and values inform an approach to leadership that treats people like adults, capable of self-management and collectively tackling tough issues. Beyond this, he believes he has a responsibility to enhance the lives of employees and customers and to contribute to the greater society.

This CEO may be noteworthy, but he’s not unique. Like blades of grass pushing through concrete, the number of purpose-driven companies, leaders, and associates is growing.

Which brings me to a call to action. I’d like to invite you to put your collective shoulders to the real work of collaboration. By this I don’t mean the sanitized, corporate-sanctioned version of collaboration, but the courageous, roll up your sleeves, get in the ring, respectful struggle kind of collaboration. Connect, engage, converse, take risks, fail, succeed, and fail again. I promise your business will benefit. More important, you’ll recover yourself in the process.

In the grander scheme, collaboration may help us become what Czech philosopher and president Václav Havel called “ambassadors of trust in a fearful world” (as cited in Bellah, Madsen, Sullivan, Swidler, & Tipton, 1991, p. 285). Embracing our roles as corporate citizens, with agency and voice, we can model democratic processes, create institutions worthy of trust, and contribute to a revitalized democracy.


Bellah, R. N., Madsen, R., Sullivan, W. M., Swidler, A., & Tipton, S. M. (1991). The good society. New York, NY: Knopf.

Cockburn, C. (1998). The space between us: Negotiating gender and national identities in conflict. London and New York: Zed Books.

Democracy Building. (2004). Democracy definition. Retrieved February 28, 2017, from

Gratton, L. (2003). The democratic enterprise: Liberating your business with freedom, flexibility and commitment. London: Financial Times/Prentice Hall.

Gratton, L. (2014). The key: How corporations succeed by solving the world’s toughest problems. Columbus, OH: McGraw-Hill Education.

Needleman, J. (2012, June 28). The inward work of democracy. On Being podcast. Retrieved from

Schein, E. H. (2013). Humble inquiry: The gentle art of asking instead of telling. San Francisco, CA: Berrett-Koehler.

The Case for Compassion

Compassion fatigue. We’ve known for years that overexposure to trauma can produce hopelessness and cynicism in caregivers, educators, and first responders. In 2012, journalist Nicholas Kristof extended this notion to the broader public, saying that relentless images of suffering and tragedy can be overwhelming, shutting down our ability to care.

Kristof’s argument is supported by social psychology and neurology, but I don’t need science to validate the phenomenon. Like many others, I often feel exhausted and numbed by the constant stream of disturbing news from around the globe.

Not surprisingly, we find compassion fatigue in our workplaces too. Even though evidence is mounting that compassion is highly correlated with employee engagement (Shuck, 2015), our 1organizations struggle with toxic behaviors, relegating empathy and other “emotional intelligences” to the “soft-skills category.” No wonder “70% of American workers are ‘not engaged’ or ‘actively disengaged'” (Gallup, 2014, p. 12).

Rationally, we know this doesn’t make sense. We know that a world without civility and compassion is more likely to produce anger and violence. And yet the ability to care about others beyond our immediate circle of family and friends seems inordinately difficult.

Searching for Insights: The Axial Age

Over the last decade, a number of researchers have turned to the past to understand the evolution of human thought. Their focus: the era between 800 and 200 BCE, a period in history that German philosopher Karl Jaspers (1953) called the “Axial Age” because of its pivotal role in the development of human spirituality.

Jaspers was intrigued by the emergence of similar intellectual movements across four regions of the world: China, India, Israel, and Greece. He was struck by both the number of luminaries who lived during that time, including Confucius, the Buddha, Hebrew prophets, and Socrates, and the fact that they apparently were unaware of one another’s existence. It seems the world’s great spiritual traditions – Confucianism, Hinduism, Buddhism, and the Abrahamic religions – evolved simultaneously . . . and in total isolation from one another.

How did this happen? And why?

Axial Age Lesson 1: Violence Breeds Compassion

Two authors, anthropologist David Graeber and religious historian Karen Armstrong, give us answers to these questions.

At first glance, both agree that the Axial Age is a strange place to look for guidance. It was an exceedingly violent and ugly time. All of these societies were engaged in ongoing brutal 53867258 - chonburi, thailand - december 6, 2015 :painting of the story of buddha at the church of wat hongthong , grand buddhism temple in chonburi, taken on: december 6, 2015 warfare. Slavery was rampant; people were hostile to outsiders; and these cultures had no regard for women.

And yet, as Graeber says, this was also “the first period in history when humans applied principles of reasoned inquiry to the great questions of human existence.” In fact, Axial sages wrestled with just about every question about the nature of the cosmos and humanity that has “remained the stuff of philosophical debate ever since” (2014, p. 224).

In explanation, Graeber offers a provocative theory: What was new in this era, he argues, was not war itself, but the widespread nature of warfare, which required the different societies to hire mercenary soldiers. The need to pay for professional soldiers had several consequences. Up to this point, economic exchanges had always taken place between neighbors, within the complex web of human relationships. Now, for the first time, set against a background of war, trade became an impersonal exchange between strangers.

Over time, as impersonal markets expanded, Axial cultures became more individualistic and materialistic. By this Graeber means they began to think differently about what motivates human beings. They began to apply concepts like profit, believing “that this is what people are really pursuing” (p. 239). In fact, he argues, Axial societies were the first to imagine “the accumulation of material wealth” as “the ultimate end of human existence” (p. 248).

The key point, according to Graeber, is that the great spiritual traditions emerged in 2opposition to these materialistic notions that were inextricably bound to the violence and “mercenary logic of Axial Age warfare” (p. 248). The result: Every Axial society produced social movements, led by philosophers, that rejected materialism in favor of a conscious inner life, and violence in favor of compassion and empathy.

Axial Age Lesson 2: The Practical Wisdom of Compassion

In her 2007 book, The Great Transformation: The Beginning of Our Religious Traditions, Karen Armstrong reflects on our current global “predicament,” wondering why “we seem to lack the wisdom to hold our aggression in check and keep it within safe and appropriate bounds” (p. xv). Like Graeber, she sees parallels with the Axial Age and draws inspiration from the fact that the brutality of the era was a catalyst for some of the most noble and enduring ideas about human existence.

Armstrong argues that two insights are embedded in each Axial tradition: that “suffering is an inescapable fact of life” and that other people’s suffering is as important as our own (p. 473). This respect for the “sacred rights of all beings” was their religion, she says, and led each tradition to devise a “spiritual technology” – meditation is an example – to provide a path toward greater mindfulness and purposeful action (p. 466).

Core to Axial spirituality was a deep and abiding belief in the power of compassion. However, Armstrong notes, the Axial sages would have scoffed at our current notion that compassion is a soft skill. “We must continually remind ourselves,” she says, “that the Axial sages developed their compassionate ethic in horrible and terrifying circumstances. [These] were not utopian dreamers, but practical” people convinced that “empathy . . . actually worked” (p. 474).

3How is compassion practical? According to Armstrong, the Axial sages shared a vision of spirituality that was strikingly different from our understanding of spirituality today. They had no interest in ideology, in abstract beliefs. Instead they believed that pragmatic action and personal responsibility were more important than dogma. What mattered most wasn’t what you thought or felt, but how you behaved.

Over the centuries, this practical wisdom has been handed down to us as the Golden Rule, a universal principle embraced by almost every secular and religious tradition: Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.

Fast Forward: Compassion Is Still Practical

Let’s take a closer look at today’s “business case” for compassion. For this I turn to the work of Sharon Salzberg and Robert Thurman (2013), who draw on ancient wisdom, modern-day Buddhist psychology, and neuroscience to better understand the mechanisms of the mind.

4According to Salzberg and Thurman, it all starts with a willingness to deal with reality.Echoing the Axial sages, this means confronting the inevitable truth: Sooner or later, we will be harmed and there will be suffering. When we feel pain, our natural reaction is to identify and feel victimized by the “enemy,” the person or situation that has harmed us. However, by focusing on this outer enemy, we fail to recognize the powerful host of inner enemies-emotions like anger, hatred, jealousy, and revenge – that are more often the real sources of our suffering.

Of these emotions, anger is the most self-destructive. Here’s how it works:

  1. First we identify the enemy, who could be a person or a problem we’re facing.
  2. Next we obsess about the enemy, going over in our mind how this person or situation has hurt us. At this point, anger becomes addictive.
  3. Over time, anger damages our judgment and wastes our energy. It also hurts us physically. Consider the effects of too much cortisol and adrenaline, for example, on our bodies.
  4. We end up feeling drained, overwhelmed, and unsatisfied.

Sound familiar?

According to Salzberg and Thurman, we can convert destructive energy into well-being by learning to experience compassion for others. In effect, by gaining awareness of our emotional triggers and recognizing our enemy’s own pain and emotional addictions, it’s possible to rise above anger and find more rational ways to mitigate pain.

No doormats here, though. At times we have to defend ourselves, possibly with force. But, as Salzberg and Thurman say, force has “a different impact without the sting of hate” (2015). Ultimately we can achieve our goals without engaging the inner enemies that sap our energies and detract from our happiness. Compassion is practical, they argue, because it eases suffering, our own and that of others.

Compassionate Leadership
In the workplace we are just beginning to understand that compassion is both a human and a business necessity. Brad Shuck (2015) studies employee engagement. His research points to the importance of compassionate leadership in employee performance and retention. He argues that compassionate leaders must demonstrate six qualities: integrity, accountability, empathy, authenticity, presence, and dignity.

The Ultimate Tip: When in Doubt, Try Patience

To recap: The idea of compassion was honed over centuries as a rational response to the violence associated with the accumulation of power and wealth. The lesson: Why waste energy and cause ourselves suffering by succumbing to the addictive powers of anger and hate? Compassion and respect are more practical responses that increase personal happiness and reduce social conflict.

Of course, the reality is that we’re human. I confess I’m not a sage or a saint. Although I embrace compassion, I can falter when confronted by a specific person or a specific situation. For 5this, Salzberg and Thurman offer a final bit of advice: There is a middle way between hate and compassion, a response they call patience. To be patient means to hold a larger view of life knowing that we will survive, and even thrive, despite life’s ups and downs. We may not experience love, but neither are we consumed by hate. And by mastering our inner enemies, we temper our response to circumstances.

Patience reminds us to stop and take a breath. It reminds us to step away from the “doingness” of life to check in on our thoughts and feelings. It reminds us to relax the grip of our own expectations and judgments, and to extend more kindness to ourselves and to others.


Armstrong, K. (2007). The great transformation: The beginning of our religious traditions. New York: Anchor Books.

Graeber, D. (2014). Debt: The first 5,000 years (updated and expanded ed.). Brooklyn, NY: Melville House.

Jaspers, K. (1953). The origin and goal of history. (M. Bullock, Trans.). London: Routledge & Kegan Paul. (Original work published 1949.)

Kristof, N. (2012, February 9). Journalism and compassion. On Being podcast. Retrieved from

Salzberg, S., & Thurman, R. (2015, January 1). Embracing our enemies and our suffering. On Being podcast. Retrieved from

Salzberg, S., & Thurman, R. (2013). Love your enemies: How to break the anger habit & be a whole lot happier. Carlsbad, CA: Hay House.

Shuck, B. (2015, October 21). Compassionate leadership. Video. Retrieved from

State of the American workplace: Employee engagement insights for US business leaders. Washington, DC: Gallup, 2014. Retrieved from

Help! We’re Trapped in an Industrial Mindset and Can’t Get Out!

Do you remember Frederick Winslow Taylor? He’s the engineer who, in the early 1900s, devised the principles of scientific management, a theory that revolutionized how work was organized and managed. In a nutshell, Taylor was all about control, from the way in which workers were selected and trained, to the way in which work was planned and carried out.

Since then, as society, business, and the economy have changed, we’ve tried a lot of different approaches to management. Yet 100 years later, this industrial-era mindset retains its hold on our organizations. Why are these beliefs and practices are so enduring?

The “In-Charge Organization”

I’m a very organized person. I love to plan, whether it’s a monthly budget, a summer vacation, a meeting agenda, or my to-do list for tomorrow. Most days my penchant for planning is useful — it helps me be efficient, responsible, and reliable. But some days it feels like an addiction. It’s on those days that I glimpse the pernicious hope that drives my behavior: If I just work hard enough and plan carefully enough, there will be no unforeseen consequences, no uncertainty, no worry, no pain.

mm1I offer this story as a metaphor for modern organizations. Those organizations are designed to maximize efficiency and minimize uncertainty. The central premise harks back to Taylor’s scientific management, the belief that managers utilizing quantifiable (“scientific”) methods should regulate every aspect of work life, from the selection and training of employees to the performance of tasks. As Barbara Crosby and John Bryson (2005) argue, this singular notion of the “in-charge organization” continues as the “enduring ‘ideal'” for most managers and organizations (p. 4).

The problem: In its quest for predictability, the mm co 1 in-charge organization expands bureaucratic structures and planning processes designed to anticipate and solve problems, minimize uncertainty, and mitigate disruption. Under stress, these tendencies are heightened, creating a hyperfocus  that destroys the well-being and creativity of the system. And yet, despite calls for change, not to mention the rapidly escalating complexity and crises in the business and public arenas, the basic practices of organizational leadership continue to be firmly rooted in a mechanistic industrial paradigm.

Are there alternatives that are better suited to the challenges of the 21st century?

The Case for Self-Organization

People seem perfectly capable of managing their personal lives without supervision. Why, then, do we assume they need to be managed at work?

Think about your last day off. You probably made all kinds of decisions and accomplished all kinds of tasks you assigned to yourself. You may even have found room for fun with family or friends, activities that replenish your well-being.

If you step back and consider your nonwork life in the broader context of your networks of family and friends, you will notice constant activity that flows in an organic, emergent, and synchronous way. In today’s parlance, this way of operating is called self-organization.

To see how self-organization works, take a look at this video of a busy intersection in Hanoi:


No traffic lights, no stop signs. Yet pedestrians and drivers get where they’re going in an orderly, even rhythmic, way.

How does this flow of traffic relate to our formal organizations? Self-organization is best understood in the context of complex adaptive systems, a term used to describe the informal “neural-like networks” that exist side by side with formal organizational hierarchies (Uhl-Bien, Marion, mm 3& McKelvey, 2007, p. 299). As the video shows, self-organization is a process of continuous adaptation to unpredictable changes in the environment. It manifests in the form of emerging patterns and structures that can be fostered and shaped (as opposed to top-down, planning and control oriented approaches). Change, then, can occur at any level of the organization and spread throughout the system.

Why is this important? As legendary systems thinker Donella Meadows explains, “The most stunning thing living systems can do is to change themselves utterly by creating whole new structures and behaviors” (1999, p. 14). In fact, she continues, the “ability to self-organize is the strongest form of systems resilience” because it activates the system’s capacity to evolve and thrive (p. 15).

Self-organization does not do away with hierarchy, but it does assign leaders a more facilitative role. That means that leaders must understand how to create the conditions that foster effective self-organization. Three factors are particularly important:

  • Awareness of dynamic tensions: The in-charge organization tries to minimize anxiety and conflict; by contrast, the self-organized organization makes use of dynamic tensions, contradictions, differences, even conflicts that surface in a safe and productive manner.
  • Creating “containers”: Self-organization occurs where there are structures that provide a safe space in which groups and teams operate. Those structures, or containers, could include a team off-site, a shared physical space, or a common sense of purpose. Effective containers produce just the right level of tension or friction to provoke experimentation and experiential learning.
  • Having conversations that matter: Most important, humans thrive – and so does self-organization – when individuals and teams experience meaningful connection. There are a number of ways for people to connect, but key are conversations that allow for a full exchange of perspectives and openness to new possibilities.

From Control to Conversation: A Performance Feedback Example

Is self-organization a panacea? Goodness, no. And I’m not arguing that we abandon bureaucratic models in favor of chaos. But organizations can benefit from softening their focus on formal structures and learning to value and enable the system’s natural self-organizing capabilities.

One of the hallmarks of the in-charge organization is the formal performance management system. As Dave Ulrich, the grand pooh-bah of HR strategy during the late 20th century, proclaimed, “Without doubt, incentives change behavior. Inevitably, people do what they are rewarded for and leaders get what they reward, but not always what they expect.” For that reason, Ulrich argued, it’s important to establish a “system” that measures only “what can be controlled” in order to “reliably link performance [expectations] to rewards” (Ulrich and Brockbank, 2005, pp. 110 and 112).

Notice the striking similarity between Ulrich’s argument and these words written by Fredrick Taylor more than a century ago: “It is only through enforced standardization of methods, enforced adoption of the best implements and working conditions, and enforced cooperation that this faster work can be assured. And the duty of enforcing the adoption of standards and enforcing this cooperation rests with the management alone” (1911/2013, p. 36).

Because these “truths” are rarely questioned, most organizations have implemented performance management systems that each year set measurable goals, provide structured feedback, and allocate financial rewards based on performance outcomes. Key to the process is the annual ritual of rating individual performance on a 5-point scale that has been “force ranked” to ensure a symmetrical distribution (a bell curve) of poor, average, and exemplary employees.

When I think of performance management, I think of “The Emperor’s New Clothes.” Like mm co 2the villagers who pretend the emperor is wearing fine robes, we pretend that performance management is working. In truth, when I was an HR professional working within organizations, I found the process ludicrous and demeaning. I deeply resented the practice of reducing my year’s hard work to a “number” and felt even worse when I had to do the same to members of my team.

Today, as a consultant, I’m happy to see many of my client organizations rethinking the utility of their metrics-based performance management systems. This shift is being accelerated by recent research indicating that numerical rankings actually trigger anxiety, frustration, risk avoidance, and unproductive competition, thereby “damag[ing] the performance they are intended to improve” (Rock, Davis, & Jones, 2014, p. 2).

But as they move away from conventional approaches, organizations are faced with a new problem: What should they use in place of performance management?

Several years ago, I had the opportunity to explore this question with a farsighted CEO and the head of HR for a small health care services organization. The CEO wanted to implement a performance management process that would help to create a “culture of courage.” Instead of metrics and rankings, we taught supervisors, managers, and line employees to engage in meaningful coaching and feedback conversations. Within a short time, and without any additional consulting, a more open and direct culture began to emerge.

Today, many companies are dropping their mechanistic performance management systems and expmm co 3erimenting with conversational approaches to performance feedback. As Olson and Eoyang (2001) explain, instead of starting with predetermined expectations, effective performance conversations allow goals to “emerge from the interaction” and provide opportunities for ongoing reciprocal feedback between manager and employee (p. 122).

My point: Self-organization can be generated by open and honest conversations, what Olson and Eoyang (2001) describe as “a dance in which agents shift continuously in concert with an ever-changing environment” (p. 118).

A Shared-Power World

Control is the primary currency of the in-charge organization. Although decades of experimentation have softened the impact of Taylor’s stark directives, control remains the legacy of the industrial-era mindset. Why?

I see two reasons. First, although we talk about control, the real issue is power. Who has power? How is power exercised? Whose voice will be heard? Are we willing to move from a mindset of power “over” to power “with”? The second reason is related to the first: a pervasive belief that people can’t be trusted to find their own solutions and that it is the role of management to supervise and problem-solve.

But what if we believe that people are naturally capable and collaborative? What if we fully grasp the benefits of enabling informal networks and self-organization in our workplaces? We need to commit to a more compelling vision for the 21st-century organization. In their book Leadership for mm co 4the Common Good (2005), Crosby and Bryson describe the “shared-power organization,” in which sharing power “is a fortunate, rather than unfortunate, necessity because it ensures that diverse voices and needs receive attention, and that implementation of solutions is more likely to succeed” (p. xxiii). Although their focus is primarily on public organizations, their concept of “a revitalized citizenship” within a democratic and interconnected enterprise speaks to “people’s yearnings for empowerment” across all organizations (p. 31).

All of this brings us back to planning. In a shared-power world, planning is still vital but serves a more noble purpose, generating what Stephen Blum calls the “organization of hope” (cited in Crosby & Bryson, 2005, p. xx). As we let go of the industrial mindset, as we enable our self-organizing capabilities, we may well discover new hope and the will to make that hope a reality.


Crosby, B. C., & Bryson, J. M. (2005). Leadership for the common good: Tackling public problems in a shared-power world (2nd ed.). San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Meadows, D. (1999). Leverage points: Places to intervene in a system. Hartland, VT: Sustainability Institute.

Olson, E. E., & Eoyang, G. H. (2001). Facilitating organization change: Lessons from complexity science. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass/Pfeiffer.

Rock, D., Davis, J., & Jones, B. (2015, August 8). Kill your performance ratings. Strategy+Business, 76, 1-4. Available at

Taylor, F. W. (2013). The principles of scientific management. Charleston, SC: CreateSpace. (Original work published 1911)

Uhl-Bien, M., Marion, R., & McKelvey, B. (2007, August). Complexity leadership theory: Shifting leadership from the industrial age to the knowledge era. The Leadership Quarterly, 18(4), 298-318. Available at

Ulrich, D., & Brockbank, W. (2005). The HR value proposition. Boston; Harvard Business Review Press.

Brains and Buddha

The Reptile Rules! Brain research is all the rage these days. Everywhere I look, I see articles and books about neuropsychology and other branches of neuroscience that are unlocking the mysteries of the human brain. For example, in my field, … Continue reading

Running on Empty: Fatigue and the Future of Work

“It’s crazy here,” he said to me. “I’m insanely busy. It’s just been wild.” Sound familiar? Many of my client meetings start this way, with a litany of the nearly impossible demands of work and home. The problem isn’t new. … Continue reading

The Three Myths of Change

Author and mythologist Betty Sue Flowers (2007) says that a myth is a belief or story that we’ve stopped questioning. Although myths are neither inherently good nor bad, when we accept a myth as truth, we develop a blind spot … Continue reading

The Three Myths of Leadership

My husband likes to poke fun at my profession. He insists that if you put the word leadership into the title of any publication, it will immediately go to the top of the best-seller list. “Leadership for Losers,” he says, … Continue reading


Many years ago, I had an experience that changed my relationship with fear. At the time I was a new trainer in a corporate university, learning how to facilitate one of the company’s flagship leadership programs. I had just completed … Continue reading

Making Sense of the “Said” and “Unsaid” About Women

Consider these three recent news stories: On September 25th, the Dalai Lama, the spiritual leader of Buddhism, made the following statement during an on-camera interview with the BBC: Dalai Lama: Therefore, you see now today’s world, lots of trouble. I … Continue reading

The Axial Age – Lessons from our Ancient History

There’s a growing body of thought about the potential for developing higher levels of human consciousness – not just among individuals, but collectively, across organizations and societies. Ken Wilbur, one of those on the forefront of these discussions, suggests that … Continue reading

People Are Tired

Many of my recent conversations sound like this: Martha: “Hey, how’re you doing?” Client:   “Busy. It’s just crazy here. I’m so far behind and I can’t seem to catch up.” Martha: “That sounds exhausting. Is there any end in sight?” … Continue reading

Blessed Unrest…And the Corporation

“It has been said that we cannot save our planet unless humankind undergoes a widespread spiritual and religious awakening…What if there already is in place a large-scale spiritual awakening and we are simply not recognizing it?”  Paul Hawken, Blessed Unrest, … Continue reading

From Complexity to Simplicity

Recently I heard a client make this intriguing statement: “Some of the smartest people I know work for this company,” she said, “however, I think too often we use our intelligence to increase the complexity of our work. What if … Continue reading

The Mystery of Collaboration

All my clients are asking this question: “How can we increase collaboration?” Instead of collaboration, they see people struggling to connect and build productive relationships within an increasingly complex environment. This produces a variety of outcomes that range from mild … Continue reading

What IS the Globally Responsible Leadership Initiative? (Last in the GRLI series)

Having returned and rested from a very intense week, I’m now able to step back and reflect on my experience at the GRLI General Assembly in Finland. Clearly, as a newcomer to the organization, I share these only as my … Continue reading

The Oulu Experience (4th in the GRLI Series)

What an intense week this has been! Given the non-stop activities at GRLI, I was not able to get my fingers on the keyboard very often. However, I was fortunate to have time to catch up on my GRLI blogs … Continue reading

After Nokia…and After the Internet (3rd in the GRLI Series)

Technology has been a key theme at the Globally Responsible Leadership General Assembly – no accident since we are located in a major hub for the Finnish electronics industry. Our discussions have focused on the ways in which Finland, and … Continue reading

Being the Best Consultants for the World (2nd in the GRLI Series)

In my continuing series on the GRLI conference, below are some of the highlights from Monday’s pre-conference session which focused on the subject: “What is globally responsible advisory and consulting?” To date GRLI has had a predominately academic focus, although … Continue reading

Globally Responsible Leadership

Greetings from Oulu Finland and the GRLI General Assembly! In the interest of sharing this exciting conference with a number of people, I thought I’d try my hand at blogging. So, welcome to my first blog post! Let me start … Continue reading