Mutually exclusive or interdependent?
How can we lead at pace and still be inclusive? This is the question that was asked by a Digital Transformation senior leadership team I was coaching. Immediately, I was as much interested in why they had asked this question as in helping them figure out what the answer was. This was what emerged from my research and our conversations…
Are Pace and Inclusivity Mutually Exclusive or Interdependent?
“How can we lead at pace and still be inclusive?” The way this question was phrased suggested an underlying assumption that leading or delivering at pace is in tension with being inclusive. It suggests we can either do one or the other, but not both.
Introducing the concept of Both/And Thinking, I encouraged the team to reframe the question and their mindset.
Wendy K Smith and Marianne Lewis have recently published an excellent book on Both/And Thinking. In summary, Both/And Thinking helps to move us away from either/or (binary) thinking and towards something more nuanced. It encourages us to acknowledge where there might be tensions and differences between two imperatives or desires, whilst at the same time looking for connections and even leveraging interdependencies.
This reframing led me to ask: What are the interdependencies between pace and inclusion?
Is Psychological Safety the Missing Link Between Pace and Inclusion?
I believe there is indeed an interdependency between being able to lead at pace and being inclusive, and that psychological safety is the hinge.
Thanks to Amy Edmondson’s work in particular and that famous Google study, we know that psychological safety is a key underpinning of high performing teams. So how does inclusion relate to psychological safety? Acts and words of inclusion help to create psychological safety, which in turn improves the dynamics and performance of the team and their ability to move at pace.
I found this HBR article by Henrik Bresman and Amy Edmondson, which focuses on diversity (as opposed to specifically inclusion). They conclude that to excel, diverse teams need psychological safety otherwise the differences within the team have the potential to undermine rather than enhance team performance. What was interesting to me was the series of recommendations they made on how diverse teams can build psychologically safe environments; it struck me that most of those strategies were essentially about inclusion.
The best way to help people contribute their thoughts is to ask them to do so. It’s that simple. When team leaders — and others — practise genuine inquiry that draws out others’ ideas, listening thoughtfully to what they hear in response, psychological safety in the team grows.
Bresman and Edmondson go on to discuss ‘Bridging Boundaries’:
…getting even more tactical, what can individual team members do to bridge expertise and background boundaries? What do they really need to know about each other to gain traction in their collaborative work? They don’t have to know each other’s entire life story or body of expertise. But they do need to figure out where their objectives, expertise, and challenges come together. Any two people — or members of the entire team — can do that by seeking the following information about each other.
- Hopes and goals. What do you want to accomplish?
- Resources and skills. What do you bring to the table?
- Concerns and obstacles. What are you up against? What are you worried about?
We have found these questions to be surprisingly efficient in providing a foundation for moving forward.
Indeed, it seems to me that knowing the answers to these questions, particularly being able to speak out about concerns and obstacles early, so that they can be discussed and managed, are essential to enabling a team to perform effectively and move at pace. To lead at pace, everyone must understand what they are trying to achieve and what their role is in contributing to the outcome. They must know who they are dependent upon and have a healthy relationship with those people.
Therefore, rather than an impediment to a team’s ability to move at pace, inclusion and high levels of psychological safety are in fact a necessary precursor.
Consensus Decision-Making does NOT = Inclusion
My inquiry into why this leadership team made the initial assumption that pace and inclusion are counter rather than complementary forces, brought me to another realisation. The culture of this team (and the organisations of which they are a part) is what they themselves have described as “polite middle-class consensus”.
Due to the number of different stakeholders involved in digital transformation and the fragility of some of the relationships, there is a tendency to not just consult a large number of opinions, but to give those different voices a role in making decisions. There is a lack of clarity between who is being consulted and who is responsible for making a decision. This means decision-making (and then acting on decisions made) is slow and time-consuming. At times, this approach to decision-making impedes a decision at all.
There are pros and cons of consensus decision-making. This Forbes article by Prudy Gourguechon sets these out nicely. But when we’re trying to move at pace, consensus decision-making is generally a hindrance.
To move away from consensus decision-making does not have to mean a move away from inclusivity. Instead, we get clearer and more specific on roles and accountabilities. We more clearly articulate what we are consulting on and canvas a wide range of views during that consultation. We set a clear timeframe for that consultation. And we’re transparent about what will be done with that consultation and who will make the final decision.
Less Haste and More Speed
Finally, I believe that remembering this adage can serve us well. There was another assumption behind the leaders’ question - that pace was both necessary and that it should be prioritised.
Sometimes when we prioritise pace of delivery, particularly when the pressure for pace comes at the expense of people’s needs, wellbeing and quality of work, it backfires. This brings me back to Both/And Thinking. We have to find the balance.
I found this article in The Irish Times thought-provoking. It quotes business coach Neil O’Brien:
We are living in an age of acceleration and organisations are consumed by forward momentum to the detriment of other important things… By nature, people travel at different speeds and those who can’t keep up are being left behind.
As a result, they are becoming isolated despite all the money being spent on building teams. In the employee surveys I regularly see, loneliness and feeling isolated at work are cropping up more and more in recent years.
Perhaps sometimes we just need to slow down a bit rather than assume we must always move at pace.
Working or leading at pace and doing so in an inclusive way are not contradictory goals.
Psychological safety, developed by inclusive behaviours, is an essential element of high-performing teams, including a team’s ability to move at pace.
Being an inclusive leader is not the same thing as making decisions by consensus - clear roles and responsibilities around decision-making are needed.
Let’s not always assume we must work at speed, especially when doing so risks compromising the quality of our work and the wellbeing and engagement of the people doing it.