Ever heard the one about the transformation programme that failed because the people who delivered the services and products, and the people who supported them didn’t believe in it? If you’re laughing, you probably don’t need to read this blog (you either solved the problem for yourself, or opted for a change of career). If you’re not, you probably do.
In our many years of working in and for organisations, Jonathan and I have never come across a business culture where there was not some gap between the organisation’s and the leadership’s talk on the one hand and their walk on the other.
The late business theorist and thought leader, Chris Argyris understood this fundamental dynamic of organisations. He and Donald Schon made a distinction between what he called the organisation’s espoused theory (a.k.a. it’s ‘talk’ or conscious story about itself) and its theory in use (a.k.a. what it’s ‘walk’ tells you about the unconscious beliefs or mental models which really drive behaviour).
One of the most oft repeated examples of this kind of gap is when the leadership of an organisation launch an initiative such as ‘Investors in People’ and ‘talk up’ valuing staff, and at the same time, most managers in the organisation rarely give their employees 1-2-1s, and those who do use that time to tell them what they are doing wrong and how to do it better. The same happens with diversity initiatives, where this kind of thing was once like a pandemic sweeping the nation: lots of policies, processes and pronouncements, alongside an utter lack of awareness at leadership level of behaviours which stereotype, exclude and discriminate against people.
The gap between the story we perpetuate about ourselves or our business, and what our behaviour actually indicates about our deeper beliefs, which are often hidden even from ourselves, is the richest of soils for both failure and success. If left unchallenged in an organisational culture, the resulting perception of hypocrisy and ‘spin’ provide fertile ground for resentment, disengagement, loss of loyalty, scepticism, risk-averse behaviours and withdrawal of goodwill.
However, if addressed with courage and humility, this gap can be mined to build trust. As leadership and management coaches and consultants, we consider our position to be a highly privileged one: we get to observe the gap and bring it to awareness. Every person, and every organisation, needs critical friends – friends who so want them to succeed that they are willing to offer when necessary uncomfortable feedback including reflecting back to them the gap between their ‘talk’ and their ‘walk’. Like the absence of the emperor’s clothes, it’s a gap that everyone except them can see. The key to success in this hazardous venture is to perceive the gap as accurately as possible and to reflect it back in a way that stimulates genuinely helpful conversations throughout the organisational system.
As a critical mass of people in the system gain the skills and courage to give really useful, constructive, feedback on what’s really going in, the gap can be seen to narrow. It is then that the true potential for innovation, productivity and excellence latent in the combined wisdom of people begins to be released.