Twelvetide 18:04 empathy through perspective

December 28, 2018

As you may have gathered over the first few posts in this series I’m not seeking to solve the meta issues surrounding ethics and aesthetics but I am trying to inch my way to a generic approach that avoids the Scylla and Charybdis of accepting the norms or creating rules; in my lexicon extreme moral relativism and absolutism have a lot in common. In this post I want to use a case to illustrate ways in which awareness of ethics can be achieved within leadership groups through a key Cynefin principle namely descriptive self-awareness. The project in question goes back to the final days of IBM when we were in the transition period between Lou Gernstner and Sam Palmisano and I was committed (with the support of Sharon Darwent) to run a one week training course for senior leaders. Lou had a top 300 and every six months 30 joined and 30 left. I was put in charge of one of the cohorts of 30 to both teach complexity and use a narrative approach. The event was notable for several reason not least was Lou’s introduction. I gave him the barest of introductions to complexity theory but he was able to communicate its importance in his opening lecture. He also gave a clear message that they had all got to this level in IBM by achieving their results, now the next and most difficult stage would be proving they could do that and act for the greater good. My instructions from Lou and the Head of Executive Development (my sponsor) was to provoke, which I did but half way through I was told that said Head of ED was handing in her resignation to join Microsoft that afternoon and didn’t expect to be around for long – she was escorted off the premises the same day and I lost my top cover! There are a lot more stories about that week but let me first describe how we set it up (and then what went wrong, in part).

  1. We asked each of the thirty attendees to nominate four groups of people: those they could order around and hardly knew, those whose expertises they respected, those who they deeply trusted and where they were confident that trust was or would be reciprocated and finally people who were brilliant in a crisis. Readers may spot the main Cynefin domains here.
  2. We then contacted each of those groups and got them to tell stories about the leaders actual behaviour which they interpreted conventionally (this is before SenseMaker® we can do it so much better now) and which we anonymised manually.  From that we build a database in which each leader could see how they were seen in each domain from other people’s perspective.   They had the option to share the data with cohort colleagues and nearly all did – there were lots of conversations that arose from that process.  Within several workshop sessions they used that over multiple HBR cases not to come up with the right answer but to see how they would be seen by people they had to work with.  The goal was to show them that diverse leadership styles were necessary and that if they didn’t have them as a strength, they could build on small narratives to develop the skill.   An indirect benefit was growing empathy and understanding that others in the cohort group had different strengths and weaknesses.
  3. Then in a wicked move we took stories of acknowledged good and bad leaders from history and presented them to each leader and asked all to interpret those stories onto semi-ambiguous likert scales and add some explanations.  We then prepared a report which showed the match between how the leader perceived the great and good and how they were perceived by their own staff – from memory we’d added in a generic question with the same indexing structure on the initial capture but if Sharon reads this she can correct me.   We then sent them to their rooms and released the report and gave the option of when they came back to the central room of the training centre and if they shared.   One person took it very badly – the near one to one correspondence with Hitler and Stalin was blamed on me and I made a very senior enemy for life.  Mind you we had fallen out earlier as he refused to accept that any system didn’t have linear cause and effect relationships so I was probably doomed.  The level of self reflection and the subsequent discussions were, I gather, moving.  As a facilitation team we stayed out of it.
  4. The big failure was the preparation.  We’d had set up for them to spend a day doing menial work in community centres in Yonkers and elsewhere with the instruction to discover natural leaders who didn’t have their background and privilege.   Its a technique I’ve used a lot and its very successful.  When I briefed them the night before they were all excited but then IBM bureaucrats for in the way.  They were scared of the idea so instead set up a series of interviews with local people they deemed ’safe’ and didn’t tell me as they knew I would get them overruled – net result thirty angry people disappointed and blaming us!   I hadn’t checked the detail – trusting to the promises of Community Liaison and that was a mistake.

Now note that at no time did the facilitation team interpret the material, challenge the leaders. We set up a process by which they saw themselves as others saw them, through the specific actions they had taken rather the values they espoused. They learnt in a peer group with light facilitation and some took on the idea for continuous checkpoints – something we can now do a lot better with the 360º capability in SenseMaker®

I’ve used a case in into days post – tomorrow back to Aesthetics and a little more theory.



Banner picture is Snowdon from the south taken from the B4418 by Llyn y Dywarchen

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Twelvetide 18:03 between obligations

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Twelvetide 18:05 metaphor

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