The power of inaction

I’m going to make a case for doing nothing. It is one of the most underrated tools available to leaders and yet one of the most underused.

In fact, I’d go as far as to say that in our organisations we are obsessed with doing stuff, in most cases regardless of data, evidence or meaningful evaluation. We prefer to be active regardless of whether there is genuine value to the activity, extending this to finding means of justifying our activity with reports, and spurious data points.

There’s a value to doing less that we underestimate. Sometimes things will settle and sort themselves without our interventions. In fact they’ll often thrive quicker if left alone than when targeted with multiple initiatives.

Doing nothing is a choice, it’s an activity in itself, but one that in our current management lexicon has been tainted as somehow being weak and ineffective. When in fact sometime it takes greater bravery and confidence to do nothing, than it does to burst into action.

Less is more. Slow can be the quickest route. And choosing to do nothing can be the most effective action you will ever take.

 

You’ve got to buy a ticket

When we want things to change, we need to act. There is no circumstance where this applies more than in the culture of the teams and organisations that we work in.

Ultimately culture is a reflection of all of our actions, all of our behaviours and all of our shared beliefs and opinions. It is a reflection of us. Which means if we’re not happy with how things are, we need to start by asking what we can change.

Before you start to tell me that individuals can’t change the organisation, of course to some extent that is true. But we can each change the way that we show up, the way that we are and the way that we interact with others. We can’t change the whole, but we can change our impact.

There is no point in complaining about how things are, unless you’re willing to help make a change. There is no point in wanting things to be different, unless you’re willing to make that so.

It reminds me of a joke that I head a number of years ago in an entirely different context:

A little down on his luck, Joe decides to ask God for help. He begins to pray…

“God, please help me. These last few years have been tricky for me and it’s about time I had a bit luck. I’ve never asked you for much, but I need my life to change. So God, please let me win the lottery.”

Lottery night comes and somebody else wins it.

Joe again prays…

“God, I’m going to ask you again. I need my luck to change. Please let me win the lottery!”

Lottery night comes and Joe still has no luck.

Once again, he prays…

“My God, why have you forsaken me??  I don’t often ask you for help and I have always been a good servant to you. PLEASE just let me win the lottery this one time so I can get my life back in order.”

Suddenly there is a blinding flash of light as the heavens open and Joe is confronted by the voice of God Himself: “Joe, meet me halfway on this. Buy a ticket.”

*********************

 

Incongruence and forward motion

I wouldn’t mind betting that if I were to grant any of us supreme power and the ability to redesign the world in which we live, to recreate the moral, economic and social fabric of society, we would all have pretty clear views on some of our base fundamentals. We would make assertions about equality, or opportunity, or fairness or competition. We would be able to identify principles that we believe to be core to our vision of a “good society”.

I’m also pretty sure that as we delved deeper into our thinking, we’d identify naturally arising tensions when two principles came into conflict. Do we mean fair or equal? Do we mean the opportunity for success, or the chance to compete for success?

If these moral dilemmas occur in a theoretical “blank sheet” society, what are the chances that they are also likely to occur in real life, “in the game” life? These trade offs and tensions are an inevitable by product of sentient beings, they’ve formed the foundations of philosophy for thousands of years.  And they’re also the tensions that present to leaders in any walk of life.

Like him or loathe him, Nick Clegg talks about the realisation, during his time in office as Deputy Prime Minister, that compromise was seen as weakness. It was perceived to be stronger to be stuck in inaction through a dogmatic and principled approach, than to progress through discussion, diplomacy and compromise. On a much grander scale we can see the opposite argument in the achievement of the Good Friday peace talks, where diametrically opposed groups agreed on a way forward.

Our world is full of incongruence and our job as leaders is to be ok with that. We have to be able to hold conflicting positions, and be aware of the tension that this brings, in order to move forward and progress. Sometimes the smallest steps towards improvement can be the most valuable, sometimes we have to embrace the things we dislike in order to shape and improve them. Sometimes we have to be ok with…ok.

Forward action is everything, we have little enough time as it is without spending large proportions of it stuck in an endless cycle of righteous indignation and ideological tailspin. We are all eminently capable of identifying what’s wrong and pointing out the faults in others, only some are truly capable of going to them and helping to move things forward in a positive direction.

You’re being watched

As a leader, you’re always being watched. People look to you to set the pace, the tempo, the mood and the energy. They take their lead from you, how you are and how you present. There is absolutely no getting away from it.

People will copy your language, your behaviours, your routine and even how you dress. And no matter how ridiculous you might feel that is, it is all part of social norming and human behaviour. Which is why it is critically important to be thoughtful and aware of the impact that you have.

Small, seemingly inconsequential behaviours can have a significant effect when they’re replicated on mass and become part of the cultural norm. As a simple example, let’s take emailing at weekends. If you’re a leader that emails regularly and systematically at weekends, you’ll maybe find that people start to check their emails to see what you’ve said and what you want.

“Hey Jo, No big deal but can you have a look at the latest figures for me on Monday. Neil “

Becomes,

“Sam, Neil needs the figures urgently on Monday, can you get ahead of the game? Jo”

Becomes,

“Jack, I need the latest figures first thing Monday for Neil. Sam”

Imagine that happening all over the organisation and the impact that it would start to have. And of course it is limited to this one example.

As a leader you need to be intentional about your actions and behaviour, you need to recognise that you’re not only making choices for yourself, but for others too. How you show up, how you are, the light and shade that you bring to a situation will be absorbed and multiplied. Being aware of your impact on others can help you get the most out of your team and the people around you, it can also help you make sure that they get the most out of you.