Leading People is Leading Diversity

‘Reality is diverse; therefore a true reflection of reality includes diversity.’  Nancy Kline

Shirley Wardell, programme director of our research leadership development programmes discusses the importance of encouraging diverse thinking and insight into the valuable skills every leader should prioritise.

I have come to think of the skills leaders need to understand the diversity issues as mainstream leadership skills.  To my mind managing people is managing diversity. Diversity goes beyond minority groups and the obvious power imbalances.  Diversity extends to the subtle depth of how we think, which has a direct impact on how well we perform in our jobs.

Diversity grows when people have the ability to hear, openly, what everybody thinks.  Having practised that skill, with people we believe are similar to us, we may be better prepared to listen to those we assume are more different to us.  The charming surprise is; that as Maya Angelou says, ‘We are more similar than we are different.’ Once we have accepted that we are more likely to be similar in a broad way, appreciating the specific differences seems to be the key.  So how can we be sure that we are able to allow, or even encourage, different ways of thinking?

I choose the Thinking Environment® to help me, and my clients, to create the conditions for diverse thinking to flourish. When you run an event in a Thinking Environment®; everyone has a turn. That means; you go round the group and ask everyone what they think.  Sometimes people tell me it takes too long, but they are really stumped when I ask them who they would leave out of the round.

In an event such as this no-one interrupts and participant say; ‘If I don’t interrupt, I might forget my idea?’ And again, they look a bit blank when I ask, ‘What if the person you interrupt forgets theirs?’ Giving turns, not interrupting, appreciating each other, asking how to make things better and a positive philosophy are a few of the ways to get everyone involved in a productive way.

The Thinking Environment® has ten components; however there are a few principles that sum it up for me:

  • The way we listen to someone has an impact on the quality of their thinking.  If we are able focus on them, stop judging and create a time and space for them; the quality of their thinking improves.  At a recent workshop I asked how it feels to be listened to really well and people said they felt valued, important, as if their ideas matter, that they have a contribution to make, happy, it improved their self esteem, relaxed and intelligent.  Well, if all those things can be achieved by, ‘just listening’ we should perhaps put listening at the top of the leadership skills list.
  • When you think on behalf of someone else you are disempowering them.  When you think your ideas are better, or you are simply too busy for them to find their own answer, you are stopping them from thinking and therefore stopping them from learning and growing.  Being able to develop staff has become one of the most valuable assets to Institutions and leaders who can do this will have the evidence of their success in their research output.
  • A positive philosophy is required to help people perform well.  Our expectations will have an impact on the outcomes.  Those expectations include what I expect from the person and what my prejudices are about that person. I need to be able to see there are numerous and unknown possibilities yet to be achieved for every individual.
  • We also need to examine our assumptions about the world.  What we expect to be possible in this office, this organisation, this market, this country and this world; will have an impact on our own and our team’s thinking.  Leadership training needs to explore the assumptions we make and the impact that has on performance; and then show how to, pragmatically, choose assumptions that will help us perform better.

Research Team Leadership and Leading Research Leaders are run in a Thinking Environment® and include many of the reliable principles and actions that help research leaders to think. They are then able to pass that favour on to their teams and collaborators.

The Thinking Environment® was developed by Nancy Kline of Time to Think

Find out more about Shirley Wardell by visiting our website www.lfhe.ac.uk/resprog

Views on Listening: supported

Support image

As she prepares to host the autumn 2014 runs of Research Team Leadership and Leading Research Leaders, LF associate, Shirley Wardell returns with the latest in her Listening series of blogposts. In ‘supported’ she explains how research leaders can offer true support through better listening.

When you listen to people they feel supported, this is what participants on the Research Team Leadership programme tell us. Support is something that stops things from collapsing or crumbling; support is a critical function of a leader. I am sure leaders in institutions are hoping to do more than stop people from collapsing when they offer support. I imagine they are hoping to help people reach their full potential; to do the really hard stuff; and to work really well with others.

On Research Team Leadership we use John Adair’s Functional Leadership as a practical framework that helps leaders be clear about ‘what’ they need to do. The Functional Leadership model outlines 11 functions a team leader needs to perform over the three areas of the task, the team and the individual. Support is one of the functions described in this model. A leader needs to provide support for the task, support to the team and to the individual. John Adair’s framework establishes ‘what’ to do and then we turn to Nancy Kline’s framework getting the participants to think about ‘how’ to do it.

We ask the research leaders how they might support their teams. We ask them to think deeply about how they can achieve the goal of supporting their teams by arranging for them to listen to each other profoundly. Nancy Kline’s suggestion ‘if in doubt, ask’ seems like a good maxim when deciding how to support anyone. We can take a few educated guesses what they might need, but when we ask and listen profoundly the nuances of needs appear.

Here is a glimpse of what research team leaders tell us are good ways to support their teams:

1. Take time to listen to the research team and to make sure this happens
2. Be aware of the needs of individual researchers
3. Create a supportive atmosphere
4. Be responsive
5. Support them to support themselves
6. Facilitate team activity
7. Resolve conflicts

All of the activities above would require some skilled listening. Programme director David Faraday and I have woven our learning from nearly 60 runs of Research Team Leadership training into Leading Research Leaders (the first run takes place on Thursday 27 and Friday 28 November in Birmingham and the second run is scheduled for May 2015.) In this new programme for research-active academics we will expand upon how listening can be learned as a skill to develop thinking, collaboration and to support research leaders.

Research Team Leadership, the vehicle that has brought us all this insight, has run exclusively as an in-house programme at universities throughout the UK for the past four years. In November we reintroduce it as an open/national programme providing participants with the chance to network with peers outside of their university. The autumn run is on Thursday 13 and Friday 14 November, also in Birmingham. Individual research team leaders can attend and add their thoughts to the wealth of data we have gathered and analysed and benefit from the results of the talented research team leaders who have attended the programme over the years.

Shirley Wardell’s earlier blog posts are here. Listening

Views on listening


Shirley Wardell is a Leadership Foundation associate, and she works on the Research Team and Future Leader’s programmes. In this first of a series of blog posts Shirley will be sharing insights from the results of a survey on the participants of the 50 Research Team Leadership programme that have taken place throughout higher education over the past 8 years. Shirley has been a ‘Thinking Environment ®’ coach and consultant since 1997.

Ernesto Sirolli says: ‘Want to really help someone? Shut up and listen!’ He based this view on how seven years of abject failure in international aid programmes were turned around by listening, by tapping into local passion and by respecting their vision and intelligence. Ernesto’s leadership inspires us to ask participants on the Leadership Foundation’s Research Team Leadership (RTL) programme; ‘How do you feel when someone listens to you really well?’ We ask this question because we know the value of listening in leadership and we want to establish if our participants value being listened to.

Listening to people helps them to think in a different way to when they think quietly alone. The listener somehow adds another dimension, which breaks through the speaker’s previous thought patterns and creates new reflections. Listening builds trusting and supportive relationships; which according to Daniel Goleman, makes change possible. Paul Brown and Virginia Brown contend that brain sciences are indicating that effectiveness is determined by the quality of relationships possible within a system.

Julian Treasure says; ‘Listening is our access to understanding.’ He encourages us to listen intentionally and to try different listening positions trying ‘active’ versus ‘passive;’ ‘reductive’ versus ‘responsive’ and ‘critical’ versus ‘empathetic’ and to notice what happens to the person you are listening to. Listening has a purpose and the style of listening needs to be adapted to the purpose.

On RTL we ask for; ‘profound listening.’ This type of listening is rare and its purpose is to help people think for themselves. Undivided attention is the corner stone of Nancy Kline’s ‘Thinking Environment®’. Nancy believes that the most important thing a leader can do is to create the conditions for excellence in thinking. Excellence in actions, results and research follow excellence in thinking.

The ongoing demands and changes to higher education require Research Leaders to think like never before. I will describe and review the top four ways RTL participants feel when they are listened to including:

These four blogs will reveal how being listened to benefits the contributions a research team leader makes to their team.

Follow Shirley Wardell @EvolveLeadteam

Further Reading:

The Dance of Strangers: leading research teams

by Tom Irvine

1tmobile_flashmob_1At the end of July I attended our bi-annual event for our programme directors where I got talking to the inspirational leader of our Research Team Leadership programme – Dr David Faraday. This evolving and changing programme continues to be astonishing – we have run this 2-day programme more than 50 times now, mainly as an in-house leadership programme for early career research leaders. The feedback from the Research Team Leaders is just amazing.

David and I got talking about the many challenges that leaders of research projects face in a world where inter-agency, inter-disciplinary and often inter-national research projects hope to thrive. We mused that research projects rarely fail for want of the necessary technical expertise, knowledge or application. The funding review processes are generally excellent at establishing that these elements are in place and the competition drives up the quality of the applications in these areas. However, there are many examples of projects which do fail, or are less successful than they should be.

David recalled two projects in which he was involved that under-delivered due to failures in management, leadership and/or communication. The first, a major EU grant which included 10 partners – 2 academic and 8 industrial – spread over 5 nations; one of the industrial partners was the lead organisation. The first problem was clarifying the leadership. Although the lead organisation was one of the industrial partners, the individual in charge changed more than once. But, even more problematic, it become clear early on in the project that the lead organisation was not really prepared to (or capable of) taking on that role and was expecting one of the academic institutions to do it. This wasn’t allowed under the funding rules, but the industrial partner had the purse strings and the institution was committed having recruited a team of three post docs for two years to work on the project. This resulted in a complex and very ineffective leadership structure for the project and real problems arose when it came to decision- making, especially when all the partners were involved. In the end, despite all of this, there was some high research output and most of the industrial partners were very happy. However, the delivery could have been much more impactful. Issues similar to this are frequently discussed on the Research Team Leadership programme, where academics describe how they are grappling with leading multi-partner/institution projects

The second case concerned a principal investigator. The nub of the problem here was – in David’s words – simply based on the PI’s inability to effectively lead and manage a very talented, but highly independent post doc. David said: “The post doc was young and enthusiastic, as was the PI. But the PI was inexperienced at the time, particularly in being able to keep their post doc focussed on the core task specified in the proposal. His boundary setting was good, but his ability to maintain those boundaries and have the ‘difficult conversations’ was poor – needless to say the PI learnt a lot!”

This particular issue comes up in one form or another on almost every Research Team Leadership we do. Often we find that researchers spread themselves too thinly as they have too many concurrent research commitments. Ultimately, the research output from these projects can be much less than planned for, even if the technical quality remains high.

If these cases resonate with you then you may find it useful to talk these issues through with David Faraday. He’s great at tailoring the RTL programme to the needs of an institution – and has run a whole series of programmes at institutions such as Cardiff and Birmingham.

Tom Irvine leads the Leadership Foundation’s consulting team, full details on all the Leadership Foundation’s research programmes can be found here: Research Programmes.