Why Do It?
Empowerment seems to have become an over-used term, often regarded as too vague or fluffy. So what is the real meaning of empowerment and why do it? According to dictionary definitions, there are two sides to the empowerment coin. One is to invest someone with power or authority; in other words, to delegate. The other meaning is to equip them with the ability to use that power and authority.
Proponents of empowerment have hard-edged economic outcomes in mind, going beyond the goals of increasing happiness and satisfaction of individuals. They’re also seeking the practical and strategic goals of organizational innovation, customer problem solving and lifting productivity. They see empowerment as a path to increase pro-activity, autonomy and a sense of ownership throughout the company.
In today’s business world, the demand for agility and fast learning within teams and across organizations is even higher. In the face of the VUCA world (it’s volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous), the ability to gain and discard knowledge, and to act without certainty or pre-established rules, is essential for survival and makes ‘empowerment’ a no-brainer.
“It doesn’t make sense to hire smart people and then tell them what to do; we hire smart people so they can tell us what to do.” –Steve Jobs

Why Not ‘Just Do It’? (or, what leaders are afraid of)
If the benefits of empowerment are so clear, why don’t we all ‘just do it’? What stops us from building a culture of empowerment? Maybe it’s the fear of what could go wrong – what if I empower people and they go too far and make a mess of things? After all, as a leader, you’re the one responsible for making sure that things run well. However, that fear of what might go wrong can lead to too much control, often called micromanaging, and that’s disempowering to others, who end up feeling their contribution is unimportant.
People need to have confidence that they have the resources to act and solve a problem. For that reason, the leadership mindset of ‘how do I set them up for success’ (rather than telling them how to do it), is at the heart of the matter. We must face our own fear of what might happen when we relinquish control, and do it anyway. As the economist, Friedrich August von Hayec, said, “Our faith in freedom does not rest on the foreseeable results in particular circumstances, but on the belief that it will, on balance, release more forces for the good than for the bad…. Freedom granted only when it is known beforehand that its effects will be beneficial is not freedom.”

Forgotten Power (or, what we’re all afraid of)
It’s not only hesitation to relinquishing control in management that hampers the road to empowerment. Many people in organizational life at all levels have simply forgotten their own power. They have learnt to buckle under, to stick to the known  and many live in fear. They fear their boss, fear losing their job, fear not getting on with their colleagues, fear failure… and this leads to a learnt helplessness and a lack of self-empowerment, often based on rational choices. You, as a manager, might begin to provide a culture of empowerment and find that your employees don’t take the initiative. This is because of learnt helplessness that has developed over the years. Employees with this challenge can be likened to the Thai elephants who were tethered with an 18-foot lead from the time they were young and didn’t discover they could break the tether as they grew stronger; even as adults without the tether, they won’t go further than 18 feet. Like this, in the context of organisations , we can fail to see how much choice and how much strength we actually possess.
These preconceptions of our own power can mean good intentioned “giving”  of empowerment results in cynicism and even panic in the team. People might not see the benefits of empowerment, and only see unguided and unresourced work,  which will cause them to feel panicked and unprepared. Human beings exist in three states: the comfort zone, where we function automatically, comfortably and often without even thinking; the stretch zone, which is the learning zone where we are consciously thinking about what we’re doing and applying effort to it; and finally, the panic zone, where things are overwhelming and happening too quickly and we are unable to think clearly.

What Motivates People?
A leader’s responsibility is to help people to expand their stretch zone: where they can learn, grow and be empowered. In the stretch zone, we’re curious, open, engaged, pro-active and present; we listen, experiment, learn and practice. This is a level of consciousness beyond the auto-pilot of sleep-walking through our workday.
The good news is that people want this level of consciousness for themselves. We all yearn for work that engages us this way. Take the work of Shawn Achor and Dan Pink . They notice people being productive in happinessand motivated by autonomy, mastery and purpose.
But there is a hurdle to overcome, as we each must tackle the fear of failure that dominates so many of our organizational cultures. While most human beings want to do nothing but the right thing, our organizations hold fear as a driver, and in that context, people fear the eye of criticism far more constantly than they feel a hand of support at their back.
In the words of Benjamin Zander, who believes in giving his students an “A” at the beginning of class and then letting them live up to it —  practicing the art of possibility in the very words we use to encourage and teach others (https://youtu.be/qTKEBygQic0). That’s an environment where empowerment can thrive.

High Delegation + High Support
It’s important to make sure that employees don’t feel that they’re being “empowered”  to do more work without having the capability, resources and support for it. Like the metaphor of driving, if we want people to take high responsibility for how they drive their car, for the safety of their car and for their passengers, as we all do? for others on the road, then agreed upon rules and support for learning are also required. We call this ‘freedom within a framework’.
What does this high delegation and high support require in the context of your leadership and your teaming?
If you want to empower others, you should ask yourself how you can serve the happiness and empowerment of your colleagues and your teams. How can you make a difference? Consider the impact your own behavior has on others. Each of your conversations can bring increased power to the other person. Increasing both the authority given to the other person and your support will increase that person’s self-responsibility and sense of ‘I can do it’. Increased self-responsibility increases a person’s capability to live in the stretch zone.

One Conversation at a Time
By tacking  this “One Conversation At a Time ” you cannot go wrong. You can change the culture of an organization step by step, one conversation at a time. You control yourself and your actions. If you don’t get it right the first time around, you can come back at it again and again. There is no  a ‘wrong thing’ to do, there is only learning.

Three types of mutually empowering conversations are  :

1. More Authentic Appreciation There are many times we think something positive about a member of our team, but we never actually voice it. The key to authentic appreciation is to be specific. Instead of saying, “Thank you for your work on this,” consider saying, “Meghan, last week when you offered to help me with my project, I felt really supported and relieved, whereas before I had felt stressed and overwhelmed. You have helped me a lot.Thank you.”

2. More Inquiry Put yourself in the shoes of the other person and ask that person to explain whatever you need to understand their. Be curious about what is happening for them especially when something goes wrong. Discover their perspective and listen to them with patience.

3. Mutual Learning Conversations These are conversations that are set up to solve a problem together, while always empowering and supporting the other person. Use phrases like: “What would you like to have happen?” “Given that, what is under your control?” “What could you do?” and “What help can I offer to help you achieve that outcome?” You can also ask questions that empower them to be part of the solution, putting themselves in the picture. That’s empowering.

And, in summary, these tips…

  • Listen, be curious, ask people what they think
  • Give honest and appreciative feedback as a way of life; catch people doing good
  • Freedom within a framework, be highly transparent about boundaries and expectations (not about the details)
  • Magnify courageous actions, expand confidence that risk taking is learning, is worthwhile
  • Encourage what is under their control, rather than focusing on them and theirs, look at me and mine, we and ours
  • Be available for mutual learning conversations
  • Put your “red pen” away

As a leader, asking yourself, “What will I do to serve the happiness and engagement of my colleagues and my team today?” – that’s empowerment.

“There is a world out there, and we speak about it.”  Most of us grew up with that story.
As I learned more about how human beings make sense of the world, I came across a concept that much more truthfully describes the process. “We only see out there the world that we can speak about.”  Is that possible?
Think for a moment about having a language for things, in the power of distinctions. For example, imagine for a second you raise the hood of your car. If you are like the vast majority of people I know, you will see “an engine and stuff”. In the face of a problem with your car, you will probably as a next step close the hood and call for help. Your friend Joe, who is an amateur mechanic, will notice something completely different. He will notice the spark plugs or the injectors, the crankshaft, the pulleys, the water pump, the radiator, etc. In his world, the system makes sense, he understands the harmony or lack thereof, the interdependencies, what is a condition for what, what certain symptoms mean in terms of possible causes. Joe has a capacity to intervene in the system that you don’t; he has distinctions you don’t. He can “see” what you can’t because he has a language for it. Finally, he can fix the engine while you can’t.
Extrapolate this to your current life, at work and beyond. You walk around trying to produce results you desire. You want to be happy. What’s wrong with that after all? Sometimes it works for you; other times it doesn’t. Why is that; what is going on? I want to postulate that you walk around using “filters” through which you look at the world. These make things appear to you in a certain way, and they have limitations, they have poor distinctions, outgrown by the context of increasing complexity and interdependence, therefore standing in the way of your accomplishments and your happiness.
Let me address some of these filters. By using more powerful lenses you will unleash creative energy that will enable you to effectively pursue your dreams.
Language and the Persuit of Happiness - image of robot with speech bubble

The filter of certainty

You have grown up doing three things:

  1. making stories about events you observe in the world
  2. believing these stories to be true (after all they are your stories…)
  3. forgetting you told these stories to yourself

You then walk around having opinions about almost everything, “knowing” what is going on. These constructs may have been useful at some point ; however, in the face of VUCA, they become outdated, useless. The context changes, but as you have grown oblivious and blind to your stories, you don’t question them . You continue to operate like they continue to be true.  The challenges and difficulties, the “not getting what we want” conditions,  start to show up pervasively. Then the response you give is to try (even) harder. You have the belief that if you keep at it long enough, if you keep striving, you will eventually succeed. Success becomes more and more elusive, and a tunnel vision ensues. You persist, struggling, pushing, toiling and … failing.
I want to offer that,  by taking one breath of awareness, you can reconnect with your cognitive limitations, your vulnerability, your bounded rationality. This can come across as weakness. I want to suggest that completely the opposite is true. In the midst of volatility, uncertainty, complexity, and ambiguity (VUCA), questions become much more powerful than answers. By entering this space of humility and consciousness you may begin to inquire with the curiosity of a child, finding alternatives that before were completely out of your field of awareness.
I recently read a quote that moved me to tears  – “A creative adult is a child that survived.”  Can you survive your magical child spirit and grow into that adult that can question the world from a place of wonder and awe? Can you once again recreate the conditions so the child within can survive and prosper?
And just like that, having these distinctions, as in the initial example of peeking under the hood of a car, create richer options so you can successfully pursue your dreams.

The filter of “blaming others and the world” for my suffering

“I was late to the meeting because of traffic.”  I am sure you heard this many times. Is it true? Of course, it is, as most cities’  freeways we live and work in are crammed with cars every morning. I read a phrase very appropriate to describe this explanation: TBU  – “true but useless”. The generative question is “ What is your power to influence the system?” If you place causality on traffic it is very low . Unless the 500,000 careless drivers become more conscious and decide not to pack the highways when it is your time to drive to work, you are doomed. Of course, a voice inside your head is yelling, “ Just wake up earlier you lazy bum..” By focusing on parts of the system where you have higher leverage, you can produce results that are dependent on you. You become power-full rather than power-less. I often ask in our workshops the (rhetorical) question,  “How do you wish to live, as a powerless victim or a powerful player?”. Of course, 100% choose the latter. However, as I also often show them through role playing, the choice of being in  the driver’s seat comes with a cost, the cost of anxiety, of accountability ; we must be willing to endure the consequences of our actions as the price to pay for power, for being in control of our lives.
I suggest that this mindset of always “responding to challenges” offers an outlook of hope and inspiration. You are in charge of your life and choose moment by moment how you wish to respond to the circumstances that are presented to you. Between the action and re-action, there is a space of consciousness. This process of becoming and acting, in consequence, can change your life forever. And,  as in our initial example, it boils down to having more powerful distinctions that create a richer field of possibilities.
Easy to say, not easy to do, but it must be done if we wish to pursue and accomplish a life of fulfillment, expansion, and joy.

(“d3&t” is borrowed from barbellshrugged.com, a podcast team that focuses on “talking training with crossfit games athletes, strength coaches and more.”)
Some of the biggest companies in the world are consolidating learning and development (L&D) efforts to focus on key changes that will transform how their companies work every day. They are focusing on embedding specialized lifestyle transformation leadership training, transformational DNA, communities of practice, and prioritizing deliberate daily training rituals to help shift mindsets and biases and elevate conscious awareness into the daily/weekly calendar of senior leadership.
You can see some of the real world cases of this being put into action in the following examples (and an even longer list of examples, case studies and references can be found at the end of this article):

As corporate dinosaurs watch these progressive-thinking giants working on their own individual and collective de/re-programming, they’re panicking noticing the gap widening faster and faster.
These companies are training vigorously to strengthen their innovation and transformation muscles in order to continually upgrade their operating systems.
In three years’ time four out of 10 CEOs expect to be running significantly transformed companies.” According to KPMG’s 2016 CEO study, “65% of U.S. CEOs acknowledge that the next three years will be more critical for their industries than the past 50.”
The essential need in business today is to reimagine and reinvent business. This starts as a business strategy, design and implementation conversation, and it continues into a culture, people and mindset transformation conversation. That’s why one needs to focus on not just being a better leader (that won’t be enough), but being a transformational leader.

If you are among the business leaders responsible for implementing a new winning strategy, building new competencies and nurturing new cultural attributes, you are probably struggling to get the results you want and are open to learning about what works.
How you arrange your day to prioritize deliberate practice will distinguish the “best from the rest” when it comes to learning new things and delivering elite performance. Drop everything that stands between you and your transformation dojo. Stop all other L&D programs, so that you can focus your energy and budget on training your innovation and transformation muscles more effectively, for the sake of better business outcomes. If you are not sure which L&D programs to continue and which to leave behind, you should work with an objective specialist who can direct you and help challenge your current thinking.
The “system” is represented by those with the power. Sometimes even the individuals who are demanding the transformation are unaware that they are not appropriately integrating L&D into the strategy, which, in the end, compromises the transformation results.
Most large corporate leadership developmental efforts are highly limited because:

  • They mistakenly treat development like an event, not a daily lifestyle practice commensurate with the chosen lifestyle change.
  • They do not tackle the dynamics of the dominant power system, which is responsible for locking leadership’s default patterns and habits into place.
    • Their L&D departments and programs often suffer from the same “learned helplessness” taught by the system. They become overly sensitive to what’s reasonable, practical and convenient for leaders to “work-in” instead of being more sensitive to what’s impactful/effective:

The repeated cycle of failed transformation efforts isn’t for a lack of intelligence or lack of effort. It is more often a lack of understanding around how we orient ourselves to the transformation opportunity itself. We might be putting in a lot of effort, but not necessarily our best effort.
“d3&t” — Drop Everything and Train is a mantra from a podcast that focuses on talking about fitness training with crossfit games athletes, strength coaches and more.  The phrase places an emotional, physical and spiritual emphasis on refocusing and recommitting to your goals and purpose every day. There are no secrets or shortcuts for making extraordinary gains, whether we are talking about physical gains inside the gym or business transformation gains in the world of commerce.
Specifically, the metaphor of “physical fitness” is too generic to suggest an appropriate training regimen for an athlete or a company. What kind of “fit” do you want to be? World-class athlete kind of fit? Olympic medal worthy? Gold medal worthy, or will you settle for any medal? Or are you happy just to qualify for the games?  What is the specific goal? Clarity around your goal, and honesty about how far away you are from the goal, will help expose the fitness (or capabilities) gap. From there you will be able to consciously plan an effective training regimen.
More likely than not, your company’s L&D programs and culture efforts are executed like a poorly planned exercise regimen – the efforts don’t actually match the planned shift, because in most cases the transformation goals require training for a lifestyle change. Most companies brave the transformation strategy because something is not working the way they want at the current level. They feel stuck and they want to shift to the next level. Most companies in this position are lucky to get any transformation at all, much less the world-class transformation they are hoping for.
Continuing with the analogy of physical fitness, if you just want to lose some weight or just get in better shape, then exercise is enough. Engage in some physical activity that gets you moving and burns calories – simple as that. But powerlifter and author Mark Rippetoe makes the distinction that random physical exercise cannot produce a physical transformation beyond a certain point. Once the initial inspiration to get in shape wears off, our interest in transforming wanes and we stop making meaningful progress.
The only way to achieve the desired physical transformation (or transformation gains) is to carefully plan and monitor the full integration of intensely focused training for said goal. This vertical learning trajectory is required to get to the next level. Just working on horizontal learning at the current level won’t be enough. It requires an elevated awareness and focus. One must stay committed to the prescribed ongoing deliberate practice with increasing levels of stress/tension, renewal and growth across all the relevant diverse dimensions of performance training for very specific domains/specialties (e.g., strength, endurance, speed, agility, flexibility, mobility, mental toughness). One must also be willing to persist regardless of circumstances, accepting uncertainty and fear of failure achieving that specific goal. One must be committed to staying in the tension of the transition between the current level and next level.
If yours is like most companies on a transformative path, you are working on shifting from one unhealthy word cloud of culture descriptors to an ideal word cloud of culture descriptors:

  • From unhealthy (e.g., stalled sales, declining margins, commoditization, distribution pressure, self-centered, highly reactive, driven by habit, very siloed, political, risk-avoidant, fearful, punitive, command and control, traditional, discouraging, overconfident, distracted, “armored-up”)
  • To becoming a “world-class” competitor at the highest level of competition in your chosen domain (e.g., growing, partnering, reconfiguring value chains, client-centric, open, collaborative, creative, resourceful learning, integrated, inclusive, courageous, empowering, energizing)


“Tweaking the system” is a related metaphor and a similar trap to be aware of. Some believe that making slight modifications and additions will miraculously provide most of the transformation all on its own. See if you recognize these patterns:

  1. Physical fitness: Buying a standup desk and visiting the gym three times a week to exercise doesn’t transform my lifestyle. It doesn’t give me six-pack abs or sufficiently elevate my performance to a next level domain. It doesn’t even guarantee I’ll be healthy.
  2. Corporate fitness: Attending a few workshops every year, doing the homework exercises in my head (instead of in writing), reading a few books now and then, and sharing articles and podcasts doesn’t make me ready and fit to lead my organization on a transformation journey. It doesn’t mean I’ll be more adaptive or skilled at facilitating teams or be any more effective at complex problem solving. It doesn’t even guarantee that I’ll be better at stopping myself and recovering more quickly when my reactive stress triggers make me want to rescue, persecute, yell, gossip and bully people with my old command and control default habits.


In both physical and corporate metaphors, to break away from status quo leadership behaviors and dominant culture, leaders need to be transformational. They need to be:

  • Training to sustain a mastery pattern of learning (vertical learning)
  • Training to sustain adaptive levels of growth and performance
  • Training to sustain relational connection, support, coaching and identity

Exercising and tweaking the system are not the same as training.We don’t get the desired result of getting to “consciously competent” with new capabilities and new default habits that help amplify the business strategy with mere exercise. Without proper lifestyle training (reprogramming), we are still consciously INCOMPETENT and therefore undermining the business strategy with our consciously incompetent gaps.

Corporate training L&D programs designed specifically to support transformation include a very focused training regimen. Effective programs clearly articulate the business context, shape the environment, and design the strategic scaffolding of support, discipline and liberating structures. Effective programs make it safe enough and challenging enough to help individuals and teams reach their full transformational potential. The most effective training focuses on integrating the deep work of the intellectual, physical, spiritual, emotional, relational, procedural, structural areas of people’s lives. Transformation happens in community. So, we have to train together in a way that recognizes them/us/me as a whole human being, irreversibly changing the DNA of the person, the team and the culture. That’s how to accelerate the desired lifestyle transformation.
We’re all at our own current level – pursuing our own next level. We are all working through that transition on the path to transformation.  Winning and losing the transition follows basic patterns that one can unconsciously fall into or consciously train to more effectively climb out of. See for yourself – sample from the never-ending buffet line of training benefits.
Don’t just be a better leader, be a transformation leader.
Or consciously choose not to transform.
Prioritize what needs to transform and why it matters to you. Prioritize which muscles need to be developed and in what integrated sequence – then get your reps in. Embed a deliberate practice into every day and embrace the lifestyle changes that need to be made. Be kind to yourself as you prototype your own sustainable rituals and rhythms that you can fall in love with.
Don’t just exercise and tweak the system – train. Train like your business strategy and results depend on it. Or consciously choose not to transform.
Train like you’re truly committed to developing these new muscle groups by making irreversible lifestyle choices. Just “exercising” undermines your winning strategy. Real, integrated “training” for a transformed lifestyle, over time, amplifies your winning strategy.
Don’t just train alone – train together. Practice not quitting — together.
Or consciously choose not to transform.
Life is the dojo. Life is the curriculum. There’s nothing to figure out, nothing else to go find. Drop everything that stands between you and your “dojo.”  Drop everything and train.

It can be hard for very successful leaders to retool their leadership abilities.
But we all can.
It’s actually very simple, but it’s not always easy.
Easy or not, many of us are upgrading our leadership constitutions. We’re leading in times of extraordinary change; many believe it’s now or never. Many of us are self-authoring the greatest chapters of our leadership story.
Many C-suite execs have been working on their own personal retooling for many years, transforming themselves. As a result, they are amplifying the impact they have on their team, their families and their organization. They are leading differently at work and at home – it shows and it’s working.
They are building momentum towards a culture where curiosity, openness, understanding, wise risk-taking, agility, creativity, commitment and accountability become embedded in “the way we do things around here.”
These transformational leaders have chosen to engage in an ongoing mutual process of learning to raise one another up and shifting to a culture (a new system) with higher standards and higher levels of purpose, relationship and performance in order to more quickly and effectively get to the complex problem solving together.
But they were probably born for this, right? They probably have more time to work on that kind of stuff than we do. Their situation is probably different; they are different; they are special and gifted in the magical secrets that we don’t have access to.
Probably not. They are not unicorns and there are no shortcuts.
They have simply adopted new lifestyle habits that strengthen their transformation leadership muscles. We all have these muscle groups, but they haven’t all been developed yet. We all have the gift. We all have the same amount of time. With deliberate, purposeful, intensely focused practice (embedded in the way we work and schedule our days), these new muscles have helped them see more + work better + feel stronger in the face of transformation challenges. That’s how adult development works. If we want the elevated performance benefits of vertical learning we have to train in the same way that high-performance athletes develop their muscles to respond differently. Transformation leaders have been training their muscles to be transformation-fit, like Navy SEALs train to be SEALFIT . It’s a form of integrated training with specific, sustainable, lifestyle performance goals in mind.
Transformation (innovation) leaders have learned to get better at letting go of their biases and default/reactive habits in favor of greater awareness leading to resourceful, more effective habits. They have learned to respond more creatively, more collaboratively, more adaptively and more curiously. They don’t respond perfectly every time, but they recover more quickly now and they respond better more often (than yesterday) and, more importantly, when it matters most. They’ve learned to manage polarities and leverage the simple rules that drive complexity better. They have learned to use power differently and play the long game better. They’ve learned to let go of their addiction to old success formulas, dominant power structures and outdated leadership paradigms that have limited the visibility of all their options/choices/possibilities holding their teams back and holding their organizations and strategy hostage for far too long.
They have chosen to be more ready to lead change than others. They have chosen to be more ready to “mobilize for the fourth industrial revolution – It’s now or never,” proclaims the cover of KPMG’s CEO Outlook 2016. The summary headlines in this CEO report are echoed everywhere – in every forward-looking body of research: “The next three years are business critical. Industries are transforming faster than ever before. Innovation is a matter of time. Customer focus and investment will increase.”
It’s never going to be this slow again. Transformation is no longer just a business practice. It has become a way of life – a lifestyle choice for leaders in the new normal.
Are we ready to embrace transformation leadership and innovation as life? The more of us who are ready, the further we all get.
In our lifetime and our children’s lifetime , it will always be time to “chop wood and carry water.”
It’s time to fall in love with the process.
It’s time to train.

Disruption is fundamentally changing what defines a great leader in today’s world. Dorothy, we are not in Kansas anymore! In this disruptive world, the heroic, all- knowing leader is a relic of the past. Today’s leaders are responsible for re-inventing their business with a sense of purpose and the ability to create meaning for employees. These leaders have to have the agility, authenticity, and sense of self to do this knowing that control is a mirage.
If disruption weren’t enough, the very base upon which leadership is built—trust and authority—are being revolutionized in this VUCA world. Change, ambiguity, and uncertainty require stronger and stronger emotional bonds between leaders and employees than ever before, especially when leaders have to lead at scale and out of sight. It asks for leaders who are congruent in message and behavior; leaders who are role models of strength and humility.
Today’s strong leaders are described as collaborative, inclusive, engaging, and inspiring. Work groups are required to be team focused, democratic, matrixed, and participative. Everyone expects to have a voice.
Until now, the hard, cold masculine emphasis on logic, numbers strategy, and finance was pitted against the soft, intimate, feminine qualities of relationships and behavior. In today’s highly disruptive, competitive environments, decisions about the business are inseparable from concerns about how the culture, behaviors of leaders, and quality of the dialogue they create can enable the strategy given the context of their challenges.
Leadership used to be about maintaining order and replicating processes. Leadership of today is about navigating ambiguity. Leaders of today need to be catalysts and empowering and inspiring authentic storytellers of purpose and direction. No longer can leaders expect employees to perform solely in exchange for financial and job security. In today’s volatile economy, leaders are expected to provide individualized development and, most importantly, meaning for their direct reports in exchange for job performance. In order to do this, they need to have discovered their own sense of meaning and purpose.
By purpose, I mean the strongly felt sense of responsibility that a leader has for taking action even in the face of risk, conflict, and uncertainty. Purpose is the grounding that enables leaders to be agile amidst disruption, to earn the trust of others, and to lead without ascribed power and authority. It goes beyond talent, skills, or even knowledge. Unlike personality or behavioral approaches to leadership, purpose defies quantification, categorization, or assessment. Purpose can’t be taught, but it can be discovered.
When disruption hits an organization, the last place most companies think to look is at their purpose. Most try to come up with a new strategy to win, using their old Oz-style of leadership, in a game where they have already lost. If you look at the companies that have performed over time and outperformed all others, you’ll see a common thread around their purpose. Member of Axialent’s Advisory Board Raj Sisodia in his book Firms of Endearment articulates it best when he says “Providing shareholders a good return on their investment remains an important objective, but the idea is spreading that investment returns can be greater when wealth creation for shareholders is not the sole or even main purpose for which a company exists.” And indeed, the companies he researched — the Firms of Endearment — are characterized by leaders who pursue a purpose beyond returns and have proven to outperform the S&P 500 by significant margins, returning 1,026 percent for investors over the ten years ending in June 2006 compared to the 122 percent for the S&P 500.
The Oz model of leadership has been dismantled by disruption and we have entered an era of purpose-driven leaders at their best in the face of ambiguity.
Here are some ideas on how to start a conversation in your organization:
 Where are we fully aligned with our values; where are we not?
 What part of our rhythm of business challenges our most aspirational of values?
 Where in our system are we missing the opportunity to reward feminine leadership, regardless of gender?
 Where are we at risk of rewarding/celebrating only masculine traits? What is the cost?
What is the purpose of our business outside of financial performance?

The hard reality is that good people do bad things and honest leaders let it happen. While out-and-out fraud certainly occurs, the daily parade of headline-grabbing scandals that impact our leading corporations are being instigated by leaders we would otherwise think of as normal, hard-driving executives.
As we learn from behavioral economists such as Dan Ariely, it is normal human nature for all of us to cheat a little bit. Human nature as it is presents a constant choice between satisfying our self-interest and doing what we feel is right. We balance our desire to get more for ourselves with our desire to perceive ourselves as honest. So long as our self-aggrandizing actions don’t make us feel like we are cheaters, we will continue to act only in our self-interest.
We start with little things: white lies becoming bigger, taking office supplies and small fudging of details on expense reports. We see whether such actions are the kind of things we can share with peers around the coffee machine. Once we get feedback that these actions did not cause us harm or social ostracism, we find ourselves pushing the envelope further. We are now well on our way down the slippery slope. We are all vulnerable to varying degrees of rationalization and self-deception. We will tell ourselves stories to justify our actions and remove the dilemmas from our decision-making.
So how do we change behavior and make ourselves more virtuous? The first step is self-awareness of what we are, in fact, doing. Just being mindful that we are human and subject to these pulling demands is a critical place to start. We don’t need guilt for not being “perfect.” Being human is being in the game of daily choices and not pretending that we can stand on a pedestal of propriety and be immune to the dilemmas we all face. We need to be mindful of the blind spots and unconscious biases we all embody. Our upbringing and social environment embed our unique set of biases: what is right or wrong, what is safe or dangerous. In organizations, this is the vital first step for leaders — to recognize that an ethical culture is not created by just setting high standards but by understanding how we are all vulnerable.
The critical second step is then to create an environment that reduces the temptation that plagues all of us. Leaders have an obligation to understand what will reduce the risk of misconduct.
Where do we start? We each need to understand where we may be our own worst enemy. Ethical people are not always ethical leaders. They may be giving mixed signals to employees about expectations. They may be unknowingly creating a workplace environment that is so stressful that it leads individuals to take actions they are not proud of.
What steps can we take? Several tools used in conscious business provide a powerful platform for the self-awareness needed to reduce the risk of unethical conduct.
I/WE/IT — The I/WE/IT model is a powerful tool to see a broader picture of how to find a sustainable and successful balance in one’s actions. In the narrow focus of achieving goals (IT), individuals can allow themselves to put on blinders that focus only on this goal. However, remembering the “I” is an important stopgap that gives pause to one’s blind focus actions. Taking steps to remember why I am engaged in this action and asking if it truly serves me can be a valuable wake-up call. Similarly, having a healthy set of relationships (WE) in your world can also be a powerful wake-up call. Having individuals whom you trust enough to call you out on your actions can help break the auto-response blinders of self-deception.
Managing polarities — One of the more common reasons why good people engage in bad behavior is they push themselves into a binary decision: “I have no choice but to take this wrong action”; “the ends justify the means.” But what if we could acknowledge the tensions between what the organization says it needs and what is the right thing to do? Polarity mapping is a powerful tool to understand that organizational goals and maintaining high levels of integrity are not opposites, even if they are in tension. The exercise of understanding what the positive and negative drivers of meeting business goals at all costs are, as well as the effective and ineffective way of imposing standards, will create a powerful dialog that can help individuals and organizations find an effective balance.
We all want to do the right thing. But we are also human. Understanding how our human nature influences our decision-making gives us the power to prevent good people from doing bad things.

Let’s be real. Our classic learning and development world was designed around the knowledge and expertise “haves and have-nots.” The world has evolved, and it is time that we do as well. We do not need more content and more cognitive knowledge. It is all at our fingertips in this age of the sharing economy.
We live in a world of savvy, digitally native creators where little happens, even if you are an individual contributor, without the interdependency of others and the influence of outside data. Cognitive knowledge is one Bing, Google, MOOC or TED Talk away.
Gone are the days of simply rolling out “training.” We are in a world of constant change, and digital disruption is now both a tool and a distraction.
Learning and development professionals have to navigate these new realities in order to create opportunities — like flipped classrooms and virtual conferences — and leverage what we know about neuroscience and the power of social learning. This navigation is often further complicated by corporate restructuring that leaves us focused on helping “survivors” be our outstanding talent of the future in an environment of uncertainty and change.
We are doubling down on doing more with less in a climate where leaders who demonstrate curiositycreativity, agility and authentic collaboration hallmark true sustainable success.
The sharing economy is a disruption and an opportunity. With mutual need, trust and collaboration at its heart, the sharing economy is here to stay and changing the way we do business and see the world.
The mindset of “sharing,” value creation, opt-in, open source and easy access are growing expectations of our employees and customers alike. This means that we as learning and development professionals need to create and curate programs that are relevant, valuable, easy to use, accessible and very focused on leveraging the knowledge that already lives in the system. Our focus is quickly shifting to being curators and enablers of learning in action and through collaboration. This has major implications on what programs we sponsor and how we sponsor them. Gone are the days of the sage on the stage. We are now guides on the side, connecting our employees to learn from one another and leveraging the internet umbrella of knowledge available just a few clicks away. Building technical expertise will still be important, but what will be critical is building stellar learners and sharers within our organizations. Most of the work done in today’s corporate environment requires collaboration in and across high-performance and, better yet, purpose-driven teams.
The challenge is that these teams are not only global but they also operate virtually in a complex matrix where it is necessary for them to source their measures of success intrinsically rather than from the certainty of executing on their task, as these tasks can get reprioritized in a single email exchange.
Leaders and team members alike need to possess strong interpersonal skills that translate in a virtual environment. These skills are needed to create an inclusive environment with the understanding that cultural differences matter, and mutual value creation is what drives healthy interdependence.
One of the most difficult tasks for leaders of global teams in this new world is to have the humility to recognize that their styles of decision-making may be deeply rooted in old ways of working before the rise of mutuality and sharing. Research shows that, in a geographically distributed team, trust is measured almost exclusively in terms of reliability, so leaders of virtual teams need to concentrate on creating clear expectations for all members of the team while checking in mutual value creation within and across to other teams.
The implications for learning mean that the human elements of building trust through impeccable coordination, humility and reliability require very different skills and mindsets for leaders. We are charged with growing leaders who have human-centered mindsets and skill sets that enable learning in action, sharing of ideas, and the agility to pivot in the moment while maintaining strong and often virtual relationships.
We are charged with tapping into the knowledge within and outside our systems. We need to curate experiences that grow adaptive systems thinking, polarity management, design thinking and the inclusive leadership needed to drive innovation (creativity) as well as the ability to leverage diversity, build partnerships, foster a learning attitude and inspire vision. Devices will never replace or even compete with the learning benefits of human interaction. However, the internet is an organizer, amplifier and information accelerant that feeds our desire to learn, with powerful tools that allow us to create our own paths of inquiry and share what we learn. Search is magic, and that information has never been more engaging, accessible and customizable. But “learning” and “development” are two different things. Current curriculum, even when delivered with the tools and media of the information age, do not fully engage leaders nor prepare them with the skills they need to prosper in the 21st century.
Global learning and development is no longer about rolling out training. It is about transforming the mindsets of leaders, including how they define their individual identity, and shifting success from knowing to success from learning and sharing.
We need to be thought leaders in developing expert disrupters and creating transformative environments where learning and development are as easy, seamless, respectful and collaborative as Uber is to transportation and Airbnb is to hospitality. Virtual classrooms will only work with a strong focus on human connection and opportunities for learning in collaborative action, where we are leaning on our peers and making learning and development a sign of success rather than an opportunity to prove what we know.
Search for the pain points in your organization, identify allies within the system to influence learning solutions, and make it real, relevant, valuable and collaborative with a strong focus on humanness, while leveraging the knowledge that exists within the system. As leaders who walk their talk, we need to go about this in a way that demonstrates the very mindsets and skills that we are aspiring to grow within our systems.

With the exponential rate of change in the world, talent wars, a competitive focus on penetrating new and emerging markets faster and more effectively, merger and acquisition growth strategies and the cultural complexities that arise accordingly, organizations are requiring a very different set of leadership competencies.
While logic, mechanical thinking, and technological advances drove the past economic eras, we have now transitioned into a new economic and social era driven by more human dimensions as the world becomes more flat and our workforces much more global and diverse. The business case for diversity is well established; however, the art of the inclusive leadership necessary to leverage this diversity is still emerging.
Truly competitive organizations are transitioning away from running on the adrenaline and cortisol of stress and fear to a much more sustainable focus on creating purpose-driven value and competing for top talent through the safety and care in their inclusive and innovative cultures. The old paradigm of hierarchical infrastructure, of command and control, and of top-down leadership is crumbling under the weight of stakeholder demand for creativity, inspiration, and meaning from the companies they support and trustworthiness from the leaders within these organizations. Successful organizations are in need of diverse leadership talent who can demonstrate greater and greater agility and drive innovation to meet and compete in the changing and demanding marketplace.
What are the qualities of an organization where agility, inclusive leadership and innovation come together culturally?
Imagine a workplace where experimentation and participation are encouraged. Imagine a place where ideas are challenged and people feel safe to speak their minds. Imagine a place where mistakes are considered opportunities for learning and best practices are naturally transferred across the business. Imagine an organization where it is safe for people to ask for help. Imagine a place where people are not measured only by their technical expertise, the amount of knowledge they possess and their bottom-line results but also on the quality of their questions, their ability to create followership, and their ability to leverage the diverse thought leadership in their teams. Imagine a culture where leadership prowess includes the ability to create the conditions for others to experiment, create, fail, learn and thrive. These are the hallmarks of an inclusive, agile and innovative work environment. Research has shown that sustainable innovation is impossible without an inclusive work environment.
The problem is that we can’t simply DECLARE an inclusive and innovative work environment. We can’t simply TELL leaders that they need to be more agile and inclusive. We have to address the mindsets and behaviors, systems and symbols that make this culture commitment real.
Inclusive and innovation cultures are not born of well-positioned internal or external marketing campaigns and declarations. They are the result of diligent culture work and of inclusive leaders who are committed to people feeling welcomed, valued, heard and respected. These cultures are driven by leaders who know that, as human beings, we are working against an innate hardwiring of unconscious bias and drive efficiency and equilibrium. Inclusive leaders know that we are neurologically designed to filter information and to compartmentalize in order to navigate our complex worlds. They know how easy it is to fall into the trap of believing that our truth is THE truth.
Inclusive leaders know that their leadership effectiveness is not dependent on the idea and intention to include but the DEMONSTRATION of inclusivity, which requires a commitment to deep self-awareness, humility and curiosity. Inclusive leaders are more focused on learning and leveraging the talent of their team than being “right” or “looking good.”
In a 2012 study* on the business performance implications of diversity matched with inclusion, showed that when employees believe that their organization is committed to and supportive of diversity AND employees feel included, they report significantly better business performance in terms of their ability to innovate (an 83 percent uplift), their responsiveness to changing customer needs (a 31 percent uplift), and in team collaboration (a 42 percent uplift). Inclusive leaders welcome opportunities to expand their viewpoints. They know that their limited perspectives, no matter how experienced, allow them to perform efficiently at the speed required by the circumstances (“economy of habit”). They also know that there is a cost to these perspectives and habits. They role model the humility and curiosity needed to make it safe to speak up and challenge authority in service of doing things in ways other than “the way we have always done it.”
Creating a culture of agility and innovation requires leaders to go beyond their comfort zones and get curious about others’ perspectives. It requires inclusive leaders who take responsibility for their actions and their impact on others. Agile cultures are driven by inclusive leaders who visibly champion diversity and drive innovation initiatives. They are driven by leaders who demonstrate a collaborative leadership style and embody merit-based decision-making. Agile cultures reward leaders who seek out and value others’ opinions. They champion leaders who create a sense of collective identity/shared goals within their teams — leaders who have the mindsets and skill sets to actively manage conflict and establish clear assessment criteria while promoting a nonauthoritarian “speak up” culture. Agile and innovative cultures encourage appropriate risk-taking, and they reward leaders who demonstrate tolerance for “noise” and “disruption” needed for true creativity. These cultures provide open and easy access to decision-makers and challenge leaders to manage team member “airtime” in order to create an environment that is safe and open.
Organizations that are determined to meet the exponential change in the marketplace are first addressing the change needed in the workplace. They are redefining what leadership looks like, moving away from leaders who are the sages on the stage to inclusive leaders who are the guides on the side. This requires a commitment to redefining leadership and success to include the deep self-awareness, humility and curiosity necessary for agile, inclusive and innovative cultures.
*Deloitte: Waiter is that inclusion in my soup? A new recipe to improve business performance.

by Fred Kofman

The unilateral control model

The world of American business operates under a set of mental models. Chris Argyris and Don Schön call it “Model I”; Diana Smith and Robert Putnam refer to it as the “unilateral control model.” This model has been the guiding philosophy that has shaped the code of acceptable behavior for American businesses. This model helped American businesses evolve to the level of sophistication and success it has reached in this century. But as we shall see, the unilateral control model may prevent American businesses from succeeding in the next century. The unilateral control model is fraught with inherent contradictions and weaknesses that hinder effectiveness, adaptability, innovation, competitiveness and profitability.
The unilateral control model is a theoretical construct, a story that allows us to explain behaviors. It is a convenient tool to summarize many observations of managers in action. Its value does not come from mirroring some “reality” in the outside world (or rather, in the inside of people’s heads) but from enabling us to understand and transform behaviors that do not help us accomplish our goals.
The unilateral control model is a way of maintaining control when dealing with issues that can be embarrassing or threatening. It is like a program that operates according to certain assumptions, strategic goals and tactical actions which result in certain consequences. Argyris and Schön identify several assumptions at the foundation of this model:

  1. I am rational; I see things as they are. I have a logical perspective that takes all factors into account.
  2. I am influenceable. I am open to change my opinions as long as someone can make a rational argument.
  3. Others are irrational and uninfluenceable. Unfortunately, most people are not rational like me, but
    are closed‐minded and stuck in their (mistaken) ideas.
  4. Constraints are unalterable. People are the way they are and will not change.
  5. Errors are crimes to be punished or sins to be covered. If people do the right thing, bad things should not happen. Consequently, whenever something goes wrong, someone must have done something wrong.

These assumptions affect thoughts, feelings, actions and interactions. If I believe that rationality is paramount, I will measure every conversation, every action, every plan in relation to that premise. I will also feel awkward when someone displays emotion or relies on intuition. If I believe that others are uninfluenceable, I will not even try to convince them; or if I try and they still disagree, I will consider them hopelessly stubborn and try to bypass or outmaneuver them. These assumptions are so fundamental that they become invisible; if they are made visible, they are almost always undiscussable; and if they do become discussable, they will almost certainly remain unassailable.
After studying the behavior of thousands of managers, Argyris and Schön defined the following set of strategic goals at the core of the unilateral control model:

  1. Define goals and try to achieve them unilaterally. Do not waste time and energy trying to develop a mutual definition of purpose with others; do not allow them to influence or alter your perception of the task.
  2. Maximize winning (face‐saving) and minimize losing. Once you commit to your goals and strategies, assume that changing them would be a sign of weakness.
  3. Share information selectively to support your perspective. Assume that the only relevant information is that which helps you convince others you are right.
  4. Provide external incentives to ensure compliance. Distribute rewards and punishments to encourage individuals to do what you decide is best.
  5. Minimize generating or expressing negative feelings. Be rational, objective and intellectual. Suppress your feelings and do not become emotional.

These strategic goals give rise to several tactical actions characteristic of the unilateral control model:

  1. Design and manage the task and the process unilaterally. Own and control the task and the process by yourself.
  2. Unilaterally protect yourself and others by being abstract and withholding feelings. To protect others you should withhold information (especially negative assessments of their performance), tell white lies, suppress negative feelings and offer false sympathy.
  3. Assert your own views, taking your own reasoning for granted. State your conclusions as facts and withhold information on the data, reasoning and concerns that led you to such conclusions.
  4. Minimize inquiring into others’ views. If you must ask, ask leading questions that support your own position.
  5. Adopt the role of the victim, placing 100% responsibility for the problem on others. When a problem arises, assume that it is someone else’s fault. If your employees fail to take responsibility assume that it is their fault and “force” them into empowerment.
  6. Make dilemmas undiscussable, and make the undiscussability of dilemmas undiscussable. Resolve impasses and dilemmas unilaterally behind closed doors.
  7. Encourage face‐saving. Ignore or suppress conflict. Use abstractions and ambiguity to pretend that there is agreement when there is not. Assume that people would be hurt by confrontation and avoid it.

The way in which we have described the features of the unilateral control model makes them seem reprehensible, but they are not overtly so; in fact, they are often disguised as social virtues. In his book Overcoming Organizational Defenses, Argyris lists the following interpretation of the unilateral control model’s alleged social virtues:

  1. Help and support. Give approval and praise to others. Tell others what you believe will make them feel good about themselves.
  2. Respect for others. Defer to other people and do not confront their reasoning or actions. Assume that confrontation is always aggressive, disrespectful and unproductive.
  3. Strength. Advocate your position in order to win. Hold your position in the face of counter‐advocacy.
  4. Honesty. Tell other people white lies, or choose what truths to express. Express these truths “politely” so nobody feels upset. Alternatively, tell others all you think and feel in raw, unprocessed form.
  5. Integrity. Stick to your principles, values and beliefs. Hold on tightly to your “strong personal convictions.”

Because the unilateral control model incorporates face‐saving tactics, it does not appear to be as negative as it actually is. But when we look beyond its surface “politeness” we can discover its ugly undercurrents of game‐playing, one‐ upmanship and lack of consideration and respect for others. Argyris and Schön predict several major consequences of unilateral control behavior:
Because the unilateral control model incorporates face-saving tactics, it does not appear to be as negative as it actually is.

  1. People will behave in defensive, inconsistent, controlling and manipulative ways. They will be incongruent and fearful of being vulnerable. They will withhold many of their most important thoughts and feelings or “dump” them unproductively.
  2. Interpersonal and group relationships will become more defensive than facilitative. Group dynamics will become rigid and the focus will be more on winning and losing than on collaborating. There will be antagonism, mistrust, miscommunication, risk aversion, conformity, and compliance to external norms—as opposed to internally driven commitment.
  3. People will experience primarily fear, stress and anger. There will be a prevailing mood of cynicism, resignation and resentment. People will feel disempowered by their inability to control their destiny and respond with rebelliousness or apathy.
  4. There will be little freedom to explore and search for new information and new alternatives. Conformism, anomie and cynicism will ensue. Errors will escalate and people will withhold solutions that could challenge established beliefs and norms.
  5. There will be many constraints against exploring and defining goals in partnerships, exploring new paths to these goals and to setting realistic but challenging levels of aspiration. These constraints will lead to low commitment, group‐think, conservatism and risk‐ aversion.
  6. Theories will be tested primarily in private, with supporting data and arguments hidden, rather than displayed in public view. The secretiveness and vagueness of people’s models will lead to misunderstanding, miscommunication and escalation of errors.
  7. There will be a tendency to default to “within‐the‐box” thinking rather than to step beyond the commonly accepted assumptions.

Ultimately, the business consequences of the unilateral control model are simple and devastating: ineffectiveness, inflexibility, lack of innovation, low quality, high cost, uncompetitiveness, obsolescence, low (or negative) profitability and extinction.

The mutual learning model

We do not have to work and live in the ways we have described so far. As widespread as the unilateral control model is, there are other options. There is another mental model available to individuals, organizations, even whole cultures. This model not only increases effectiveness in the performance of the task; it also enhances the quality of relationships while raising individuals’ self‐esteem, satisfaction and happiness.
The mutual learning model (called “Model II” by Argyris and Schön) is based on very different assumptions and strategic goals than the unilateral control model. It generates different tactical actions and results in different consequences. The assumptions of this model are:

  1. I am a human being bound by my mental models. My logical inferences depend on my concerns, emotions, assumptions, generalizations and interpretations. My mental model filters my perceptions and conditions my emotions.
  2. Others’ thinking has an internal logic, although my mental models might make it hard for me to see it. Whatever position they hold, they have reasons for holding that position.
  3. We (others and I) are influencable. If we engage in a dialogue we can understand each other and learn together.
  4. Constraints are interpretations. From some points of view, constraints do not look as unalterable as from others. There is a wide space of negotiation within a context of personal disclosure and dialogue.
  5. Errors are puzzles to be explored. Breakdowns are opportunities to examine the process that generated them and learn to work together more effectively.

These assumptions, and this model, operate in an emotional space quite dissimilar to those of the unilateral control model. When people work within the mutual learning model, the prevailing emotions are peace, wonder and curiosity. In such a mood, it becomes possible to assume shared responsibility for a particular concern, to accept that others’ views can be as valid as my own and can help to solve the problem, and to believe that every problem or error— although upsetting and painful—is at the same time an opportunity to learn.
Based on these assumptions and emotions, these strategic goals guide actions in the mutual learning model:

  1. Develop a mutual definition of goals and pursue them collectively. Open the space of group negotiation to include both strategies and objectives.
  2. Maximize learning through the exchange of valid information. Provide others with directly observable data and grounded assessments so they can make valid interpretations on their own.
  3. Maximize free and informed choice. A choice is informed if it is based on relevant information. The more an individual is aware of the variables relevant to his decision, the more likely he is to make an informed choice.
  4. Maximize internal commitment. Encourage individuals to feel responsible for their choices. The individual is committed to an action because it is intrinsically satisfying—not, as in the case of the unilateral control model, because someone is rewarding or penalizing him.
  5. Accept all feelings as valid expressions of self. Invite discussion of emotionally charged issues in an atmosphere of mutual understanding and respect.

These strategic goals change the whole communication and decision‐making process from unilateral control to mutual learning. If I act after my voice has been included in the conversation, and because the course of action appears to me to be the best choice, my behavior will be very different than if my primary motivation is to protect myself, avoid your wrath, keep you or me from being embarrassed or pursue any of the strategic goals of the unilateral control model.
The strategic goals of the mutual learning model lead to the following tactical actions:

  1. Make the design and management of the task and the process a collective endeavor. Share control so that all participants experience free choice and internal commitment. Let participants participate in the definition of the goals and the design of the paths to the goals.
  2. Create a low‐protection, high‐learning environment. Advocate your own views and encourage others’ reactions. Actively solicit comments and challenges to your argument. Invite others to advocate their own views and inquire into them.
  3. Make the thinking behind your views explicit and publicly discussable. Expose your reasoning and your assumptions, your observations and your assessments. Assume that your point of view is not the only possible one and that others can understand your perspective and still disagree with you.
  4. Inquire into others’ views. Assume that others have valuable insights to offer and that only good can come from discussion.
  5. Take 100% ownership and responsibility for the problems. Assume that whenever there is a problem you are part of it (and its solution), that your behavior might
    be affecting others and contributing to the ineffectiveness of the group.
  6. Make dilemmas discussable. When you reach an impasse or a dilemma, be willing to go beyond the surface—to discuss the context of the conversation as well as the content.
  7. Discourage face‐saving. When conflicts arise or emotions such as embarrassment and fear block effective decision‐ making, do not ignore them. Instead, make the emotions and conflicts explicit in the spirit of mutual learning: “What can we all learn from this to improve our task and relationships?”

The mutual learning model arises from a new understanding of traditional social virtues and has enormous consequences for both behavior and learning. When an organization operates in a mutual learning mode:

  1. People do not need to behave defensively or manipulatively. They act with congruence and without fear.
  2. Interpersonal and group relationships become less defensive and more facilitative. Group dynamics become flexible, shifting the focus from winning and losing to collaborating.
  3. People feel free to explore and search for new information and new alternatives. The team exhibits a drive to excel, high energy and excitement.
  4. People define goals and explore constraints in a partnership mode. They set what they consider realistic but challenging levels of aspiration through open communication.
  5. By encouraging public rather than private testing of theories, people detect and correct errors more easily and painlessly. Through enhanced communication people act in coordination and create high‐quality relationships based on integrity, commitment and dignity.
  6. People think creatively and explore solutions that step beyond commonly accepted ways of dealing with the problem.

Overall, the mutual learning model leads to effectiveness, flexibility, innovation, high quality, low cost, renewal, competitiveness, high profitability and growth.
The transition from unilateral control to mutual learning cannot happen through changes in formal policies and procedures. Changing mental models is a personal endeavor that demands the full participation of each individual. Creating a culture of openness and continuous improvement requires personal transformation. This transformation is the deepest level of learning.
Transforming mental models. Single, double, and triple‐loop learning
Given our assessment of a situation, we determine a range of possible actions. We then evaluate the expected results of these actions with our goals and choose an action that has the highest likelihood of attaining our desired outcome. This action creates consequences and produces results. In summary, as a result of our mental model, we articulate a story of “what is going on,” “what do I want,” and “what can I do,” this story conditions how we act, and how we act creates certain results.
If the results match our desires, we are satisfied and don’t experience the need to learn. But if the outcome disagrees with our wants or expectations, we have the opportunity to learn. The gap between our intention and the results fuels the learning process. Depending on the difficulty of closing the gap, learning will demand that we reconsider our actions, thoughts and feelings at different levels of depth.
Single‐loop learning is a process through which the learner becomes capable of acting effectively through detecting and correcting errors (mismatches between results and goals) by changing a specific response within a given set of alternatives. For example, a thermostat would activate a furnace when the temperature drops below a certain value. Single‐loop learning takes the situation as given. It solves the problem at hand by choosing an action within pre‐established bounds that attains a pre‐established goal. But single‐loop learning does not address a more basic question: why did this problem exist in the first place?
For example, suppose that a company implements a suggestion program as a way to reduce waste. Employees contribute ideas and soon waste decreases dramatically. From a single‐loop perspective this was a success. But some key questions remain unasked. These are the questions that nobody wants to ask for fear of spoiling the celebration. Why did the company need a suggestion program to implement the waste‐reduction initiatives? Why did workers and managers knowingly continue to do things that led to waste? What stopped those suggesting ideas through the program from presenting them before?
These are the difficult questions that rarely get asked when an initiative such as total quality management or business process re‐engineering succeed. The point is not to deny the improvements brought about by these programs: the point is to understand why the organization needed a special program to tap the creative potential of its employees. Double‐loop learning asks precisely these uncomfortable questions.
Double‐loop learning is a change in the process of single‐loop learning. Double‐loop learning is a process through which the learner becomes capable of accomplishing a goal, but this time his accomplishment does not come from a change in strategies within a given set of alternatives which are aimed to accomplish a given goal within a given environment. In double‐loop learning, the learner’s increased effectiveness comes from a change in the set of alternatives from which he selects his actions, from a change in the goals he is trying to accomplish or from a change in the way he interprets his environment. This change in frame or re‐contextualization opens new possibilities for action outside the range of single‐ loop learning.
When the company with the successful waste‐reduction program investigates the underlying structures that prevented improvements before, they might discover that those having ideas were afraid of contributing them because they would expose current inefficiencies. That exposure would be embarrassing for those in charge and that embarrassment might lead to retaliation. This is typical unilateral‐control thinking. If the current unilateral control model is not transformed, after the suggestion‐program party is over, inefficiencies will start accumulating again. Only through double‐loop learning will the company ensure efficiency in a dynamic environment.
In most circumstances, double‐loop learning will suffice to close the learning gap. But if it doesn’t, there is another step upstream that we can take. From the particular interpretation that we adopted, we can move to the mental model that conditions the interpretations we are able to construct.
Triple‐loop learning is a change in the process of double‐loop learning, or learning how to double‐loop learn. Triple‐loop learning is a change in the way the learner changes mental models. It is a release from the grip of any particular mental model within which we operate at any particular time.
Consequently, triple‐loop learning is a transformation that affects our notions of what is real and of who we are.
When we move into triple‐loop learning we begin to examine how these factors of biology, language, culture and personal history create a predisposition to interpret the world in particular ways. Instead of falling into a rut, I can challenge myself to change my behavior with mindfulness. The problem doesn’t go away, but I can frame the breakdown within a larger perspective.
Changing mental models is possible, but not easy. Mental models are not like eyeglasses that can be taken off and replaced easily. They are more like the cornea itself, whose shape conditions what shows up in focus and what does not. We find it difficult to change mental models because they are so “obvious” to us that they disappear, because they serve us well and because we so often identify ourselves with them. Some blocks to changing mental models include:

  • Our reasoning and acting is highly skilled, so our mental models operate invisibly. We are not even aware that a particular mental model conditions our actions or thought processes.
  • Our mental models filter out of our awareness those experiences that are incongruent with it. So we suppress experiences that can challenge our mental models without even knowing at a conscious level that we are doing it.
  • We don’t want to risk losing face or being wrong since
    that threatens our self‐image and produces embarrassment. So we cling to our established patterns even when they don’t work.
  • We do not want to risk upsetting or embarrassing others. So we don’t reveal our mental models because we fear that they may represent a challenge to their mental models. Conversely, we expect others to hide their mental models when they could pose a risk to ours.

Once we see how powerful mental models are in shaping our reality and how subtly they prevent contradictions from surfacing to our consciousness, the critical question arises: if our structures and prior assumptions about reality determine what we can experience, how can we ever experience something that will challenge our structures and prior assumptions about reality? How can we ever learn to transcend some of the basic ideas that can block our progress when these are the very ideas that condition what we are able to think?
The answer is triple‐loop learning. We can escape the gravitational pull of our mental models through a leap to a different level of knowing, feeling, sensing and being.
An example of triple‐loop learning is what happens when we experience a “magical” event. An event is magical when it is both impossible and undeniable. Of course, “impossible” is an assessment that depends on our mental models. When confronted with undeniable evidence that the impossible is actually occurring, we need to change our definition of what is possible—and with it, our mental models. This is exactly what Kuhn describes as an “anomaly” in his book The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. When enough anomalies accumulate, the scientific community is forced to revise its collective mental model—what Kuhn calls “paradigm”.
Many of the tools we have introduced elsewhere, such as the ladder of inference, the distinction between private and public conversations, advocacy and inquiry, and observations and assessments are meant to respond to “anomalies.” When the world does not yield the results we desire, we can use them to shine a light of awareness on our mental models, go upstream in the interpretative process and change our paradigms to enable more effective actions.


Competitiveness has proven to be one of the most effective motivators to propel economic growth, but when applied inside of the organization through mental models like the unilateral control model, it can destroy the spirit and productivity of those involved.
The mutual learning model is based on cooperation: I may have some answers, but they are not the only ones. I want to know what you think because I respect your point of view and believe that we can get a better outcome if we work together and learn from each another.
Unfortunately, the shift to a mutual learning model is not easy. Most of us are experts in the unilateral control model because we grew up in a culture that reinforces and values that model. The mutual learning model, by contrast, is in a state of comparative nascence in our culture and most of us are beginners at using it. It will take much practice and perseverance to institutionalize this model, but this effort is worthwhile when compared with the inefficiency and suffering we are sure to experience if we continue to manage according to the unilateral control model.

by Fred Kofman

Combining the Basic Steps of the Dance of Communication

Conversations can change our beliefs, perceptions, and actions. When we converse skillfully we can help each other to expand our thinking, act more compassionately and wisely, and learn more deeply. When we converse unskillfully we can wound, confuse, manipulate and dehumanize each other.
We claim that the way in which we advocate and inquire at the workplace is based on our
desire to maintain unilateral control at all times. In business conversations we often believe that our definition of what needs to be accomplished, and how it needs to be accomplished, is the only valid one. We believe that we are right and that everyone else is wrong; that we are reasonable and open, while everyone else is not; and that unlike the others, we are acting for the benefit of the whole. From the unilateral control model, we will advocate by:

  • Proposing our views as finished products without revealing our reasoning processes. This prevents others from understanding our data, logic and concerns, and discourages others from asking questions, challenging our statements or offering alternative views.
  • Focus on being “right” and “looking good” rather than on being effective.

And we will inquire by:

  • Asking only leading or rhetorical questions.
  • Asking questions to prove others wrong rather than to learn.
  • Couching statements as questions.
  • Not asking any questions that could expose our position or mental model.
  • Discouraging inquiry into our own reasoning and data.
  • Using questions to show others’ lack of knowledge.

Using this kind of advocacy and inquiry we try to steer conversations in the “appropriate” direction. When different people have different ideas about what is appropriate, this unconscious pattern of unilaterally taking charge has dire consequences: high defensiveness, low commitment, political gamesmanship and escalating errors.
There is another way to approach advocacy and inquiry that can establish a new standard of productivity, one that promotes mutual learning, deeper understanding and increased commitment. This new approach uses the mental model: “We need to work together to understand and address the real issues. I don’t have all of the information. I may even be inferring incorrectly. My job is to learn and to help others to learn so that we can create the best possible outcome. That is how I gain respect in the company.” This model asserts that winning is possible only if there is learning, and that learning is paramount to creating success.
In this article, we will learn how to advocate and inquire productively. What we cannot do in this article is to instill the most important guideline for using advocacy and inquiry effectively—the genuine desire to relate to others with dignity and curiosity. You will have to find that in your heart.

Productive advocacy

Productive advocacy helps to move the collective thinking of a group forward, to create shared understanding and direction, and to turn words and ideas into coordinated action. It also helps reveal and resolve potential flaws in reasoning, gaps in information and conflicts in goals. Advocating productively requires awareness of yourself and others, skill in speaking and in listening, sensitivity, respectfulness and humility. Here are some strategies for productive advocacy:

  • Expose the key assumptions, biases and presuppositions of your mental model.
  • Expose your reasoning, your data, your concerns and your goals.
  • If you have doubts about your data or your conclusions, share them up front.
  • When making your case, use observations rather than assessments whenever possible to substantiate your argument (see the article, “Observations and Assessments”). If you use assessments, acknowledge them as such and take ownership of them.
  • Illustrate your reasoning with examples and concrete instances. (See the article “The Ladder of Inference.”)
  • Inquire into others’ reactions to your arguments.
  • Encourage others to inquire into your views: “Do you have different data?” “Do you see gaps in my reasoning?” “Do you draw a different conclusion?” “Is this taking care of your concerns?” “Is this congruent with your goals?”
  • Acknowledge that any inferences, attributions and assessments you make are your own.
  • State the observations and reasoning on which your inferences, attributions and assessments are based; let the others participate in your thought process rather than your thought product.
  • Acknowledge to yourself and others that you might be wrong.

Advancing your case with humility and being respectful of alternative positions does not weaken your advocacy; it redirects it. Your intention moves toward learning and not toward prevailing at any cost. Instead of “I am right and you are wrong,” the implicit message of productive advocacy is “I see the situation from a limited perspective, and through the filters of my mental model. I don’t think that this is the only possible way of making sense of what is happening. So I want to share my observations, thoughts and interests with you, and get your reactions to them. Together we can create a more effective outcome than I would on my own.” Here is an example of productive advocacy: Instead of declaring that “We should hire Bill, not Larry,” you could say, “I believe that Bill would be a better choice than Larry. I have met with each one of them for a two‐hour interview, read their résumés and talked with those who wrote their recommendation letters. Overall, Bill impressed me as more qualified. He has a degree in organizational behavior and has worked in the education area for the last fifteen years. Larry has been successful as an expert consultant in curriculum design, but he has never worked as a teacher. My view about this matter comes from limited observations and many inferences. I might be wrong, or incomplete. I would like to hear what others think of this matter.”

Productive inquiry

Productive inquiry is an essential companion to productive advocacy. This kind of inquiry is more than knowing what questions to ask and learning how to ask them skillfully. Productive inquiry is a method of engagement, a way to be present with yourself and with others. Attentiveness and genuine curiosity are your most important tools if you wish to
inquire effectively—that, and the willingness to really listen to the other person. The wonder of discovering the other person’s world is inversely proportional to our sense of self‐ importance. National Public Radio’s Susan Stamberg, writing about lessons learned from having conducted more than 20,000 interviews, wrote, “The more carefully you listen, the more interesting the talk can be.”
Here are some strategies for productive inquiry:

  • Explain why you’re inquiring, and display your assumptions, biases and concerns.
  • Focus your inquiry on learning, not on proving yourself right or your partner wrong.
  • Hold your thoughts and judgments lightly.
  • Make your reasoning and your data apparent: “I believe that you want to minimize costs, so I am puzzled to hear that you intend to hire consultants who will charge us a higher fee.”
  • Be curious about the other person’s reasoning, data, concerns, and their mental model.
  • Ask open‐ended questions: “Do you have a different view?” “What led you to do or think that?” “What is your conclusion?”
  • Ask the other person about your role in the problem or the solution: “How do you think I am contributing to our continual breakdowns?”
  • Test what the other person says by asking for illustrations or examples: “How would your thinking affect this project?” “Can you tell me how your proposal would impact the current situation?”
  • Check your understanding of the other person’s position: “Let me make sure I understand you correctly.”
  • Write down or otherwise record in advance questions you know you want answered. That way you can pay more attention to the conversation itself, and also ask the questions that arise directly from what you hear in the exchange.
  • Don’t ask questions unless you’re genuinely interested in the other person’s response.
  • Listen, listen, listen.

Balancing advocacy and inquiry

The power of productive advocacy and inquiry compounds when you use them together. It is never enough in a conversation to advocate only or inquire only. If you only advocate, you will not learn about potential flaws in your own thinking. Neither will you learn about the other person’s reasoning, nor data that may conflict with your own. The practice of advocacy alone may prevent the best possible argument from being developed.
If you only inquire, you may deprive others from hearing an alternative view that could strengthen or change the direction of the discussion. By not exposing your views to public examination, you might perpetuate faulty thinking that can lead to faulty decisions later. Worse, you might use inquiry as a way of leading the discussion to validate your own views, views which you keep hidden.
Then there is the ‘water cooler conversation’ or ‘bathroom conversation’ syndrome. You might probe during a conversation or remain silent, keeping your real views to yourself—only to reveal them later around the water cooler or in the bathroom: “I didn’t say anything in order to avoid hurting his feelings, but I thought Alex’s proposal was ridiculous. It was based on numbers that were obviously fabricated.” This posture does nothing to advance the discussion, not to mention help Alex or the company improve their performance.
According to Diana Smith, different results are a function of the different levels of advocacy and inquiry in a conversation:

  • High advocacy and high inquiry lead to collaborating and learning
  • High advocacy and low inquiry lead to forcing and pushing
  • Low advocacy and high inquiry lead to easing and accommodating
  • Low advocacy and low inquiry lead to withdrawing and withholding

When you reach an impasse or a dilemma

Using productive advocacy and inquiry will help you to deepen and broaden your understanding of the other person and his position, and vice versa. It does not guarantee that you will reach an agreement that is satisfactory to everyone. This process may simply serve to expose deeper issues that are more difficult to resolve. If you reach an impasse or face a dilemma in your conversation:

  • State the impasse or the dilemma explicitly, and ask for help: “I’m feeling stuck. On the one hand we need to create a flexible system, and on the other hand we need to cut all redundancies. I don’t know how to do both together. Do you have any ideas?”
  • If others appear closed to inquiring into their own views, ask what data or logic might change their views: “Can you think of any logical argument or piece of information that might disconfirm your view?”
  • Ask if there is any way to obtain new information: “Is there an experiment we might try that will provide us with more data?”
  • Invite them to reverse roles and see the world from a different standpoint: “If you were in my place, how would you proceed?”
  • Ask others to teach you how to express your view productively, i.e., in a way that does not create defensiveness in them: “How could I tell you about my concerns in a non‐aggressive manner? Can you help me state my perspective in a way that respects your views?”
  • If others are hesitant to express their views, encourage them to talk about the barriers: “What is it about this situation, me, or others that is making open exchange difficult?” Use of the Left‐Hand Column exercise may assist this process (see the article, “Public and Private Conversations.”)
  • Design ways to overcome those barriers: “How could we work together to express our views?”


There are myriad elements and nuances to successful advocacy and inquiry which can be discovered and practiced over time. But at the core, there are just a few simple questions to ask, if you wish to advocacy and inquiry effectively:

  • What is my intention in this conversation?
  • Am I more interested in learning or in prevailing?
  • What are my beliefs and assumptions, and am I willing to change them?
  • What outcome matters most to me?

Then ask the same questions about your conversational partners. Learning the answers, and entering the exchange with a stance of awareness, openness, curiosity and reflection, may help you to have a far more productive and satisfying conversation than you had imagined possible.