Insights from Three Harvard Legends…

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By Serendis

June 29, 2022

Harvard University is devoted to teaching, researching and developing leaders who make a difference globally. The University is at the forefront of behavioural science and I recently had the incredible privilege to learn again from three Harvard legends: Amy Edmondson, Ronald Heifetz and Alison Wood Brooks, whose insights continue to shape organisational psychology and leadership in our disrupted world.

Together, they uncover three different facets of the key ingredients to organisational agility and success.

1. The wonderful Amy Edmondson continues to unpack the complexities of creating a culture of Psychological Safety. You have to have been living under a rock to not have heard that diversity adds value but in reality if you don’t have a conscious culture that fights against our desire to protect ourselves, our image, our reputation or our pride, diversity will actually create underperformance. Some of Amy’s recent research reinforces this idea, that we need psychological safety to moderate this natural negative effect. So having a diverse team is just step number #1, the next step is to build a culture that invites ‘voice’ to really unlock the potential of that diversity.

2.  Ronald Heifetz is among the world’s foremost authorities on the practice and teaching of leadership. He has an experiential method and uses real-life cases in the room. I managed to catch him on a morning where he was exploring Robert Keegan’s 5 Stages of Adult Development in his classroom. Kegan’s theory describes five developmental stages or “orders of mind”: the Impulsive Mind, Instrumental Mind, Socialized Mind, Self-Authoring Mind, and Self-Transforming Mind. The idea is that as we evolve and grow as humans, we become less worried about what ‘others think’ and form our own point of view. Eventually as we move to the ‘self-transforming mind’ we become less tied even to our own ‘point of view’ and ‘identity’ – we can see perspectives that are outside our own experience, biases and histories. This is a very rare state because as human beings, we are so deeply tied to our own stories and yet, this is the state that delivers true inclusive and adaptive leadership. This experience of hearing Heifetz describe the process of human development was a great reminder for me to pull up and ‘get on the balcony’ (this term by the way was coined by Heifetz himself). Helping leaders pull away from their own story and recognising the limitation of their belief and identity is a critical exercise to help them develop an inclusive leadership impact.

3. Finally, I attended a session with Alison Wood Brooks at Harvard Business School whose workshop was titled ‘The New Science (and Serendipity) of Conversation’. She has done extensive research on the inflection moments where conversations go right or wrong! Here are three research backed tips from her work to have better conversations today:

a/ Prepare some conversation topics (chunk them into 2-3 memorable ideas) ahead of time and be deliberate about shifting topics to make the conversation meaningful. We tend to do this in high stakes conversations but mostly we are less conscious about it in day to day meetings.

b/ Be committed to ask ‘follow up’ questions – use ‘what’ or ‘how’ open questions of the other person to give them an opportunity to dive deeper into their rationale and story and be prepared to listen and challenge your own perspective of the topic

c/ Don’t ‘Boomerask’ – Alison made this term up. It refers to the very common situation where someone asks a question but then brings the focus back on themselves after hearing the answer. We sometimes do this when we want to relate or demonstrate interest in a topic or an experience but it does not allow us to truly listen and be challenged by what our stakeholder is in fact sharing. 

At any moment in our day to day leadership, we are at risk of letting our own story, our own identity, get in the way of truly listening to the diversity of perspective that is presented to us in conversations. We have to consciously override our natural human tendencies in order to exercise leadership.

Pip Murphy, Principal Consultant.