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Second-Stage Sensei

by Dino Signore

Manager of Entrepreneurial Education

Leadership toolbox: The mutual learning model

One of my favorite business books is “The Skilled Facilitator” by Roger Schwarz, who builds upon work of Chris Argyris and other organizational psychologists to help boost team productivity. And even though the book is targeted to consultants, coaches and facilitators, I believe it offers important insights for second-stage business leaders.

Many leaders operate from a mindset of unilateral control, which revolves around:

  • Telling others what to do.
  • Making decisions without input from anyone else.
  • A need to dominate and win.
  • Focusing on acting rationally and suppressing emotions.
  • Assuming that you understand the situation and others don’t.

It’s easy to fall into this mental mode, and during startup days, it’s not such a bad thing. After all, decisions have to be made quickly when launching a business. And because there are typically few, if any, employees around at this juncture, you’re probably making all decisions by default.

Yet as your organization expands and you add more employees, the unilateral control model quickly becomes a detriment. Decisions now take longer to implement because everything has to go through you. Relationships with your staff will become strained; you might get compliance, but not collaboration. Performance, innovation and motivation will degrade while stress increases. Bottomline, this is not the way to lead a successful company.

Happily, there is another option — the mutual learning model, which flips the outcomes of the unilateral control model from negative to positive. Mutual learning is about transparency, curiosity and compassion. Instead of making all the decisions on your own, you share your thoughts and reasoning with team members and ask for their perspectives. This encourages greater flow of information, which leads to better choices. It also better prepares you for dealing with surprises in the external environment, which is critical to successfully scale your business successfully.

So how to move from unilateral control to mutual learning? Meetings with your leadership team are a great place to start because these sessions typically focus on problem-solving and decision-making. Let’s look at Schwarz’s eight guidelines:

1. State your view and ask genuine questions. This is about combining transparency with curiosity. It’s okay to express your opinion, but don’t stop there. Ask other team members what they think about the situation. Get off your high horse and admit that your perspective is limited. Don’t ask rhetorical questions intended to elicit responses that support your opinion. Instead, ask team members what you may be missing or aren’t seeing clearly.

2. Share all relevant information. When you share your opinion, back it up with facts and provide as much detail as possible. Heresay doesn’t cut it. And be aware that relevant information also includes data that might not support your viewpoint.

3. Use specific examples and agree on key terms — To me, the critical point here is clear communications. People often use jargon, assuming everyone in the room knows what they’re talking about — when they don’t. For example, what does “overdevelop” or “let’s put a pin in that” mean exactly? Don’t pretend that you know; pretending will prevent you from seeing the issue more clearly. What’s more, others in the room may hesitate to ask questions, so it’s important for leaders to ask clarifying questions. (In facilitator-speak we call this “accessing your ignorance.”)

4. Explain your reasoning and intent. Human beings inherently want to understand the meaning of events and actions, so it’s important not only to share your intent (what you want to accomplish) but also the underlying rationale (why and how you want to accomplish your objective). Otherwise, people are going to make up their own version, which is probably incorrect. Leaders may hesitate to explain their reasoning, because others might point out flaws in their thinking. Yet being vulnerable enables any weaknesses to be identified and corrected, thus paving the way for a better solution.

5. Focus on interests, not positions. This is the one of the hardest things to do. People may offer solutions and say that they’re doing something to meet the needs of the group, but it’s really about the individual’s own underlying needs or fears. If those needs or fears aren’t shared by the rest of the team, the solution probably will be shot down. Instead of first offering a solution to a problem, get input from everyone about why it’s important to resolve. Identify and understand all interests before moving on to potential solutions.

6. Test assumptions and inferences. This is another tricky one. In discussions, people often make assumptions about what other team members have said or what might be done — and those assumptions may not be correct. Here again, people often jump too quickly from problem-identification to problem-solving without enough relevant information, which adds to the chaos of a team meeting. Bottom line, ask clarifying questions to ensure you’re not misconstruing what’s been said or suggested.

7. Jointly develop future actions. Strategic thinking always must involve other people. This can be difficult for entrepreneurs who have entered second stage more recently and are used to unilateral control. Yet in second stage, business owners suddenly have a social system that’s beginning to form. You’re designing actions for others with others. By involving other team members, you end up with better decisions, commitment and follow-though.

8. Discuss undiscussable issues. In every organization, there are “third rail issues” and just like the third rail that powers trains, they can electrify you if touched. These issues don’t go away, and if you don’t talk about them, they become even harder to discuss. The good news: If you’re following the mutual learning model there are very few undiscussable topics. Everything should be open.

Granted, it’s hard to follow these rules all of the time — at least right away. Yet mutual learning can be implemented in increments, and awareness is the first step.Leaders can start by practicing the guidelines themselves and then sharing with team members. After that, watch their behavior and discuss it with them.

The mutual learning model will enhance the culture of your organization and help you increase productivity, innovation and engagement. After all, employees are a big investment — and you want the greatest return from this investment.