Sunday, February 15, 2009

Leadership in a Culture of Compliance

“The straightest line to success is to conform to prevailing views, as opposed to challenging them.”
- Mark Stevens

As you know, I am a big fan of CPSRenewal. If you haven’t already done so, please go to their blog and read their latest column entitled “The Development in Leadership”. I found it to be perhaps their finest post to date, partly because of the topic and partly because of the slightly contrarian perspective. I initially wanted to comment directly on their blog, but once I got going I had so much to say so instead I chose to make it a separate post here.

First, some of the highlights:
  • “One of the effects of being in school for a prolonged period of time is that people become accustomed to its normative framework and to the structured progression.”
  • “One participant even said that she was very concerned about the prospect of working for a manager who was quickly promoted because they excelled at thinking inside the box.”
  • “The problem with development programs is that they do not necessarily produce leaders and innovators. In effect they reward and perpetuate herd mentality and produce predictable outcomes.”
  • “Leaders and innovators typically lead and innovate despite the status quo, not in support of it. Yet, the best a development program can do is provide employees with the skills that have been determined to be important in the past and in the immediate present. In essence, development programs are cyclical in that they support and reinforce the status quo, creating predictability and producing (process and rule) followers.”
As I was reading the column, it reminded of Upton Sinclair’s famous quote: “You can't make somebody understand something if their salary depends upon them not understanding it.” I have faced a similar type of resistance with regards to some of the ideas I have expressed before. But in the context of leadership development, this raises two questions:
  1. Given that the ethos of public service management is to comply and ensure compliance, what conclusions should we draw about the people who succeed the most in the system (i.e. get promoted to high level positions)?
  2. What kind of leadership and innovation can we expect from people who know so well how things should be done?

Last week, a friend of mine forwarded me an interesting article written by G. Hayward and C.Everett entitled “Adaptors and innovators: data from the Kirton Adaption-Innovation Inventory in a local authority setting” (Published in the Journal of Occupational Psychology, 56, 339-42). Using the Kirton Adaptor-Innovator Inventory which measures on a continuum the behaviour of innovators and adaptors (or "non-innovators" if you prefer), the researchers found that local government workers were more adaptive (i.e. less innovative) than the general population. Furthermore, the longer workers had been employed in the government, the least innovative they were. The research also found that new recruits were mildly innovative, but within five years they would fall to the same level as the rest of the staff. Junior employees were more innovative than intermediate or senior staff.

The researchers conclude that “organizations become adaptive (or innovative) mainly because people leave or stay according to whether the organization suits their personality.” This “leads to more entrenched positions, adaptive organizations becoming more adaptive and vice versa. More adaptive styles reduce the range of responses available to the organization and lead to it becoming less flexible in its search for solutions, with the dangers this implies in a world of conflicting and rapidly changing pressures.

Not surprisingly, the authors add that the public service “may well appeal to people who are adaptive by nature, and those with an innovative bent may find the work uncongenial or may not fit socially in a team of adaptors. However, to some extent the current employment situation may alter their behaviour, in that jobs are not easily obtained. Staff may remain and choose to be miserable rather than moving to find work more suitable to their innovative natures. […] It is much more likely in our view that, in order to fit, individuals can make only superficial changes to their behaviour. For the most part the individual must either find a niche within the organization, make alterations to the job in order to get a better fit, or, as a final outcome, leave the organization.

Dr M J Kirton reaches similar conclusions in his article entitled “Adaptors & Innovators - Why New Initiatives Get Blocked”. Noting that “middle-ranking Civil Servants were markedly adaptor-inclined”, Kirton writes:

“Organisations in general and especially organisations which are large in size and budget have a tendency to encourage bureaucracy and adaptation in order to minimise risk. [...] The aims of a bureaucratic structure are precision, reliability and efficiency, and that the bureaucratic structure exerts constant pressure on officials to be methodical, prudent and disciplined, and to attain an unusual degree of conformity. These are the qualities that the adaptor-innovator theory attributes to the ‘adaptor’ personality. For the marked adaptor, the longer an institutional practice has existed, the more he feels it can be taken for granted. So when confronted by a problem, he does not see it as a stimulus to question or change the structure in which the problem is embedded, but seeks a solution within that structure, in ways already tried and understood – ways which are safe, sure predictable. He can be relied upon to carry out a thorough, disciplined search for ways to eliminate problems by ‘doing things better’ with a minimum or risk and a maximum of continuity and stability. This behaviour contrasts strongly with that of the marked innovator. The latter’s solution, because it is less understood, and its assumption untested, appears more risky, less sound, involves more ‘ripple-effect’ changes in areas less obviously needing to be affected; in short, it brings about changes with outcomes than cannot be envisaged so precisely. This diminution of predictive certainty is unsettling and not to be undertaken lightly, if at all, by most people – but particularly by adaptors, who feel not only more loyal to consensus policy but less willing to jeopardise the integrity of the system (or even the institution). [...] Tolerance of the innovator is thinnest when adaptors feel under pressure from the need for imminent radical change. Yet the innovators’ very disadvantages to institutions make them as necessary as the adaptors’ virtues in turn make them.”


So back to leadership development programs and my response to CPSRenewal’s contentions...

“Employees do not need to be in a development program to lead.”
I couldn’t agree more. Having spent four years in a development program, I can say I have seen many of my peers embody the status quo.

“Opportunities to lead are most likely more numerous outside development programs where there are fewer restrictions.”
I can only speak based on my own experience, but one of the beauties of leadership development programs is that you can get away with murder! People will forgive your mistakes more easily because you of the label “still developing” stamped on your forehead. However, that freedom to lead and innovate doesn’t always come with the credibility you need to push the ideas forward and see their implementations. For that to happen, you may need the support of a credible sponsor or manager with a lot of pull.

“Leaders and innovators tend to be drawn to where opportunity congregates, in this case outside development programs.”
I don’t disagree with the statement, but I would like to qualify it. I would argue that leaders and innovators tend to be drawn to where there is a void to fill or a need to address, and because of the high level of attention employees in development programs often get (in contrast to the employees who are not in those programs), the most pressing needs and significant voids are likely outside development programs.


I have been in a government leadership development program and had the distinct privilege of nearly failing my first promotion board. Despite superior achievements in my assignment and outstanding evaluations from my managers and clients, I didn’t do well on the interview (my heart was just not into it for a host of reasons, including the fact that the interview had been rescheduled four times and was now six months late). So when I met with the promotion jury (another six months later) to find out my results, they told me: “Etienne, you did not demonstrate you met the requirements to be promoted. But we are going to do you a favour and give it to you anyway.

Obviously, I was frustrated by the fact that the verdict was based on my performance in a one-hour interview and totally dismissed my performance during the 2500 hours of work that preceded it. But first and foremost, I was disgusted by the fact that I was given a promotion that, according to the standards of the members of the promotion jury, I should not even deserve. Basically, I was becoming a prime example of the Peter Principle and they were telling me that they were promoting me to what they thought was my level of incompetence!

For my next promotion, I decided to play by the rules. Since now I knew that all what really counted was the interview, I was going to comply with the process. More specifically, I knew I would be asked questions about my home department, such as mission, vision, organizational structure, priorities, etc. The problem was that by then I had not worked in my home department in over two years, and had been in three other departments and agencies in the meantime. I suppressed all the feeling of futility and silliness I was experiencing and memorized by heart the content of my home department’s website. Fortunately, I’ve always had very good memorization skills, so at the interview I regurgitated word for word everything from the website. At one point I noticed from the body language of one of the senior executive on the jury (who was from my home department) that he didn’t even know about the departmental priorities and objectives I was discussing, so I dug even further. When I asked them if they wanted me to keep going, they told me they had enough for the purpose of the assessment (none of them were going to admit their own ignorance!). I nailed that interview and got my promotion.

That day I learned an extremely valuable lesson about what leadership means in a culture of compliance.


Anonymous said...

Wow - this may be YOUR best post yet. Thanks for speaking truth.

kp said...

I agree with Anon, this is one of your best posts...what I admire is your honesty, display of vulnerability and truth. I agree with you that the interview assessment process in the public service, for the most part, is archaic and needs to be replaced. Nothing can be more important than the assessment. What I find very strange is that the Board usually doesn't speak to people--they just stare. I went to one interview where the Board simply said, "well, you have the questions; you can read them aloud if you wish, so go ahead". And that was it...and that was with two DM's, and two ADM's on the board (overkill already). I was not impressed and I wanted to walk out right there. This is something that needs to change.

csells8 said...

Thanks Etienne,

"Art is the expression of the self. The more complicated and restricted the method, the less the opportunity for expression of one's original sense of freedom. [...]In primary freedom, one utilizes all ways and is bound by none, and likewise uses any techniques or means which serves one's end. Efficiency is anything that scores. "

~Bruce Lee

Leaders innovate regardless of the medium (and often in spite of it). Follow the ideas and you’ll find the leaders.

Craig Sellars