You just left the two-hour management team meeting reviewing dashboards, where data were gathered, reports shared, and long discussions mainly focused on the accuracy of data, eventually led to agreeing to look up for more data and clean up existing ones. It is clear that this agreed data clean-up exercise is an excuse for not making decisions, to take some required bold steps. In other words, the bold steps get obscured by defensive steps.
It is the work of leadership to remove such defensive steps. And yet sometimes the very same steps that appear as avoidance, may prove to actually be transitional steps. Their function, is to move, rather, the organization gradually forward. If the stakes are (or perceived to be) high, the ground is not yet fertile and bold steps are premature. Take for example the data cleanup exercise: if instead of avoiding the bold decisions based on the figures, its function is to prepare management and their people for the decisions to come and to build a more compelling data story. In both cases we take as basis that there is no real need for additional data, other than emotional. So how would you know whether the step of data clean-up is defensive (going backwards) or transitional (going forward)?
This blog is focused on how to be able to assess between the two and strategies to navigate forward by overcoming organizational defense.
Defensive versus transitional steps
Firstly, a way to distinguish between the two is to understand their function. Let’s take a very simple example of the mobile phone. Its actual function let’s say is to reply to urgent emails in between appointments. In some context emailing on the mobile phone can have a defensive function: during the team meeting two team members start having an awkward conflict. Instead of engaging or witnessing, I take my mobile phone out and check my emails. In that way I have an excuse to transfer out of discomfort. In the case of the transitional function lets imagine that I walk alone in a dark neighborhood and I hold my mobile phone by hand. Even if I may not use it, I still get a sense of security, without which I would perhaps not have taken the route.
The difference between defensive and transitional is that the same act, holding my mobile phone is either providing me with comfort not to engage with something or enabling me to do something which I perceive as “tough work”.
Because the act or behavior appears to be no different, it is context and additional signals that can help us distinguish between the two. And doing so is essential, because we want to overcome organizational resistances and remove defenses, without however killing small steps forward, but to encourage them.
The prioritisation process: necessary enabler or bureaucracy?
Once I had to facilitate a leadership team to implement a new team strategy of working as a function. Even though, the main accountabilities of each individual leader-member of the team hadn't changed, they had a new collective task, which was to construct cohesive competence centre, with consistent methodology of their work. That meant a new level of interdependency, wherein they would still work independently, however in a consistent way. It is natural that such a team will feel a sense of loss for their autonomy and the fact that there isn’t yet enough trust that everyone would adhere to the new agreements.
During the strategy days, the leader shared a competing vision for the team. We held open discussions where thoughts were shared on what the change would mean for everyone. We worked with the team to define the building blocks towards becoming a new competence center: design principles, competence mapping, selected methodologies and appointment of leads amongst each competence area.
There was yet another proposed building block by the team: to implement a prioritization method for all of their work amongst each other. Even though there was no explicit reason for prioritization considering that their work remained independent. Even though I suggested that such step wouldn’t be necessary the team insisted in working out a prioritization method with consistent criteria and implement it.
Three months later, when following up with the Leadership Team to evaluate and recalibrate the building blocks, it became apparent that the process of prioritization was worked out in detail, but never got implemented. During the initial meeting, even though there was confidence in the future and openness, the trust levels were not built yet, as trust requires time and repetitive circles or reliability. It was therefore useful for the team members to have in place and in mind, a process that would hold their principles together and consistent.
This step would have been defensive instead of transitional, if such a prioritization process would be used to argue principles against each other, to complicate decisions and obscure working towards their team interdependency.
The continuum within the zones of comfort
A simple way to understand why we often take transitional or defensive steps is through the concept of the Zones of Comfort, by the National School Reform Faculty. Based on this concept, our natural tendency is to stay in the comfort zone, because that’s where we feel competent, in control and in a high level of predictability. However, we know that learning, innovation and growth happens outside of the comfort zone, in what the concept calls the risk zone, because that’s where we need to operate with certain level of discomfort and risk taking. Even though it’s very exciting and rewarding to stretch towards the risk zone, we insist on staying in the comfort zone, which one could say is rather boring. So, why is that? As we move too far out of the comfort zone, we get a strong sense of danger, we may feel “out of our league” or the level of unpredictability and unknown is paralyzing rather than mobilizing.
So the same step may have a defensive or a transitional function, both based on whether we take it in order to stay in the comfort zone or to help us stretch and transition forward. The continuum in the diagram, shows that the step go either way. Something that starts defensively may become transitional and the other way around. Making the role of leadership very crucial in distinguishing and managing both ways.
Strategies for success
Conclusively, once we notice that something (e.g. process, event, discussion, decision) doesn’t have its actual function, but a more symbolic one, our work should not be focused on removing it altogether, but to distinguish between defensive vs transitional and put conditions in place that encourage-push the organization forward. Here are certain steps to ensure progress forward:
1. Are the stakes perceived to be high and is anyone talking about it? In other words, is there an underlying anxiety that stays unspoken? If so, high chances are that people will (consciously or unconsciously) invent defensive or transitional steps. The more the issues get talked about, the higher the chances that the organization is taking transitional steps forward.
2. Don’t attack the steps, instead work to surface the issues. People will have a conviction that the step is absolutely necessary (defensive or transitional). Simply removing it, will both increase defenses and will obscure gradual steps forward. Instead try to put the conditions in place so that the underlying issues can be addressed and managed.
3. Are there signs towards real progress? This is the best indicator as to whether the step is meant to prepare the ground to take bold steps forward, instead of simply defending against it.
4. How strong is the urge for a bold step? Stepping out of the comfort zone requires incentives and leadership persistency. Is there also clarity around what is and what is not at stake? R. Heifetz (1997) suggests that leaders should expose people on the external risks in case they will not evolve and sustain a safe internal space within the organisation to process those risks.
5. How clearly has strategy been worked out in detail? For the periods that there is flux, more paranoid than realistic thinking is steered up. The risk here is that even small temporary transitional steps may be used by the most uncertain parts of the organization in a defensive way.
6. Offer organised control possibilities for transitional steps. W. Bridges (1991) argues that during big change efforts organisations should pay extra attention to build temporary solutions. This will break down transition into manageable steps forward which involve people to be part of the solution.
Joe built a 20-year international career abroad. The very first step was a temporary one-year assignment. He may not have been able to make such a bold move, if the decision at that time would have been to move permanently away from home.
1. Transitional objects and phenomena by D. Winnicott
2. Role objects in organisations by R. Mersky
3. Social defences against anxiety by Isabel Menzies Lyth
4. Neutral zone in Managing Transitions by W. Bridges
5. Zones of comfort by the National School Reform Faculty
Petros Oratis publishes regularly blogs with perspectives on leadership, organizations and team dynamics