Wednesday, 3 February 2010

What should leaders focus on – the people or the system?

Systems thinkers confidently respond to that question with ‘the system’. John Seddon, a well known exponent on such matters, argues that management’s role is to ‘continue to work with the system, solving problems beyond the control of the workers’. In my book The Search for Leadership I claim that a manager is in leadership mode when improving the system ‘to make tomorrow better than today’. I say: Get the system right and workers’ behaviour will improve: the need for prodding, training, external motivation, targets and incentives will lessen. Don’t manage the people while neglecting their system.

But a possible challenge to this systems way of thinking appears in the shape of positive psychology. This school of thought focuses on people management. Manage people positively and their performance will improve. It is claimed, for example, that if a doctor has a positive encounter just before being required to make a diagnosis, that diagnosis will be more accurate. I can believe it. Different sections of the brain can be turned on and off by positive and negative experiences. Being fearful, for example, induces simplistic thinking such as “if you’re not with us you’re against us.” It is easier to make a smoother presentation in front of an audience if they are smiling than if they are glowering. Strength is a state of mind.

So managing the people (using positive psychology) works. But does this negate the systems perspective? Seddon abandoned his earlier career as a culture-change consultant in favour of systems thinking. He associates culture change with managing the people, and it doesn’t improve performance, he says. But it is possible to see work aimed at improving the culture and the climate (though not the sheep-dip mass training version) as systems related and part of managing the fishtank rather than the fish – i.e. what surrounds people. You can limit the definition of the system to hard things like the work flow, job roles, measures, etc., or you can include softer things like the culture and climate. I favour the latter. People’s personal fishtank contains them all.

Is it possible to see the use of positive psychology with people not as an alternative to improving the system, but a case of ‘both/and’ rather than ‘either/or’? Many flawed systems are a direct result of their designers’ negative beliefs in Douglas McGregor’s ‘Theory X’ (‘people cannot be trusted’, etc.). And if the resultant system is flawed and you do nothing about it, positive psychology will take you only so far. People will see through an organisation’s use of positive psychology if it still requires them to work in a badly designed system. As an example of managing the people rather than the system, in one well-known company’s call centre operation, when workers feel exhausted they can blow a whistle and throw a large ball about the room. They are then ready to return to the fray. But what fray? How about making the work fun, not the time spent away from it?