I like to think of myself as a relational leader. Needless-today, this is easier said than done!
The walk of shame!
A number of years ago, there was a spate of computer thefts where I worked. I came back from lunch one afternoon to find my laptop missing. My Secretary, who was visibly agitated, announced that someone from the IT Department, noticed that my laptop wasn’t secured to my desk and had decided to “confiscated” it.
I telephoned the IT Manager to ask for an explanation. He said he had decided to “make an example” of a Director so that others would comply with security protocols regarding IT equipment.
I told him that the point was well taken, and asked for the return of the laptop. “That’s fine”, he said, “but you have to come up and get it so that we can tell you what you have done wrong”.
The thought of having my wrist slapped in front of the whole IT team did not appeal. I sat motionless for a full 15 minutes wondering how to respond to, what seemed to me an over-the-top and authoritarian action!
I have to admit, my first instinct to pull rank.
My second thought was to appeal to a higher authority – my boss!. “Well, that’s outrageous”, he said. “You should give him what for”. “However”, he said, “you are always going on about relational leadership”. “How would you manage this situation in a relational way?”
It seemed that my credibility as a ‘relational practitioner’ was at stake!
I realised that I could either adopt a linear or reflexive approach.
In linear thinking, the questions I would ask myself were: “How can I defeat the IT Manager? How much will it cost me to defeat him? What resources do I have available to me? Is it in my best interest to risk these resources in order to beat him?”
In a reflexive mode, the kinds of questions I could ask would be: “What kind of person will I become if I win this fight with the IT Manager? Regardless of who wins, what kind of community are we creating by “fighting”? What will it cost me if I defeat him? What will I miss most when the fight is over? What kind of organisational culture would I create by pulling rank?”
I telephoned the IT Manager and asked him to return my laptop. He told me that for this to happen, I would have to come to his office to get it. We compromised with him meeting me in my office, but without the laptop.
When he came, I started the conversation by saying that I appreciated his sense of duty and responsibility. “Most managers would just claim the lost on our insurance, whereas you have taken the loss of out computers personally”. “However, what did you hope to achieve by confiscating the laptop?”
“I wanted to show you and others that what you did was wrong, and others will learn from this”, he replied.
I explained that this action had the opposite effect on me, and that my instinct was to retaliate.
I said that, on reflection, I could understand his frustration, and offered the support of the ‘HR’ department to ensure that staff become more responsible for their IT equipment.
His reaction surprised me somewhat: “I am tired of the way some of your director colleagues insinuate that the IT department gets in the way of our mission with our demands. What we do is just as important!”
Have heard his concerns, which BTW went beyond just me not securing my laptop to my desk! We went on to have a positive conversation about how mutual accountability could be respectfully invoked in our organisation, and brainstormed a few things we could try.
After that conversation, the IT manager promptly returned my laptop, and even locked it for me.
The next day, I talked to my HR team about how we could support our IT colleagues in what they saw as a pressing organisational issue.
Two months after this episode, the IT Manager asked if I could help facilitate a conversation with other staff members that would enable him to write an IT strategy. He confided that he was sceptical about a previous “whole system enquiry event” I had organised, but was persuaded about its validity and (my motives for instigating such events), by the way I had behaved, conversed and acted over the laptop encounter!
Consequently, the IT Manager asked if I could help him organise a “whole systems inquiry” aimed at helping him to put together the organisation’s IT strategy.
As I turned out, we ran a successful event called “A life-giving IT strategy”. As a result of this day, both the IT department and all staff began to reframe the notion that knowledge management is NOT merely about technology, data storage and retrieval BUT more about how knowledge is shared and acted upon through relational activities.