Wednesday, 2 December 2009

Emotional book review

A book review of The Search for Leadership: An Organisational Perspective and its associated Systemic Leadership Toolkit, has highlighted the place of emotion in change initiatives. Specifically, the question raised is whether a highly analytical and intellectual approach to the study of leadership improvement is at odds with the messy emotions in organisations, such as loss, fear and anxiety. Eschewing Tom Peters’ ‘wow, bang, wallop’ style of prose, I believe the analytical writing style can be separated from the subject being written about and separately from the emotional motivation that readers then require to take action.

There is no doubt that the book talks openly about highly emotional issues, such as bullying, whistleblowing, hubris, power, and much more besides. The chapter on the shadow side of organisational life explains that the non-rational forces in an organisation, such as greed, ambition and fear, account for what happens far more than the rational forces such as policies, edicts and structures. So the subject-matter is unreservedly emotional.

The toolkit’s process uses analytical roundtable discussions to tease out what managers think about their organisation’s leadership culture and what leadership is used for. When faced with the data, they generate the necessary emotional commitment to do something to improve it.

But another aspect concerning emotion and change emerges in the review: that of deep, unconscious drives; for example, the need to belong, and the need to have an identity. The book doesn’t discuss these, but they are very real nonetheless. If groups were presented with a cool analysis, they may agree with it, while the emotional cost of shifting behaviours may not yet, for them, outweigh the benefits of carrying on as they are. But the toolkit’s process does not give people someone else’s analysis; they generate their own, and then discuss, as leaders, what they want to do.

John Kotter says "People change what they do less because they are given analysis that shifts their thinking than because they are shown a truth that influences their feelings" (Kotter and Cohen, The Heart of Change). Kotter advocates ‘feel-see-change’ not ‘analyse-think-change’. A very interesting point, but less relevant perhaps if leadership has been distributed.

Today, the Home Secretary bemoaned the reluctance of the UK’s 43 police forces to merge, even though they had been given compelling data of the benefits. It is not difficult to imagine how some of the chief constables have not yet overcome the emotional cost of personal change.