“Post-truth”: Word Of The Year

The FT reports that Oxford Dictionaries has made “post-truth” its word of the year for 2016, citing a surge in the frequency of its use in the context of Britain’s EU referendum and the USA’s presidential election.

Dictionary compilers say that the word was probably first used in 1992 – though then it was used to mark the time when the truth was known – “post-truth” was the “after the truth was known” situation. In 2016 the word is coming to denote “circumstances in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief”.

Truth is a comprehensive term that, in most of its nuances, implies accuracy and honesty. Truth is also the currency of our analytical mind. A tension has however been created both through our frequent use of “truth” to refer to the idea of being authentic (or “true to oneself”) and the now widely accepted qualifications that truth may be subjective or objective, relative or absolute. Thus, “truth” involves both the quality of faithfulness, fidelity, loyalty, sincerity, and veracity and that of “agreement with fact or reality”. We are increasingly confronted by the living reality that an individual may be sincere – and yet wrong – at the same time.

Trust is, however, an emotive “currency” of the heart. In organisational life it may be part of the foundations for the individual’s faith or belief in a mission or the value of the common good. Trust has both a prior evidential aspect (in that it is developed over times past) and yet it is also closely associated with expectations about the future (particularly the behaviour of another person). It may deliver an accompanying feeling of confidence and security depending on the degree of trust and the extent of the associated risk.

Without truth and trust built into the gears of the organisation it may grind to a halt. There is much discussion about the individual leader’s and manager’s trustworthiness. This is sometimes fuelled by the results of employee engagement surveys and, of course, a trustworthy leader/manager is of great value. Yet it is also true that employees want to be able to trust the whole managerial system. They want to believe in the organisation as a result of the quality of its leadership, its consistent application of sound managerial practices and the equity of its people systems. This type of systemic trust arises when all managers use the same management framework and are held accountable to and act consistently within the values, systems and practices of the organisation. It does not therefore rely exclusively on personalities or on individuals, who may be here today and gone tomorrow.

Organisational action planning to address poor trust scores identified through an employee survey sometimes focus too narrowly on the behaviours of leaders and managers and may overlook organisational design and work processes. This is shortsighted because each of these impact on the working environment for all employees.

Effective organisational design engenders trust by creating the conditions where there can be work clarity and relationship clarity. This good design passes the test of being easily and consistently explained and understood. It fundamentally enables managers and staff to be clear about how work is organised and delivered.

Systems of work are the organisation’s policies, procedures, forms and information and communication technologies. They operate all day, every day. They never take holidays – unlike managers. Some work processes may rankle initially and require improvement but when they are sound, known and repeated employees will eventually get used to them and follow them. There is rare skill in designing and implementing light systems that reinforce legislation, policies and what is valued in the organisation and embed required behaviours in processes. Almost anyone can create a heavy system that wastes time, creates confusion and burns money!

The recurring challenge in volatile, uncertain and complex environments is to hold to truth, build trust, grow leadership and use effective organisational design and work systems to engender engagement.

Distributed Leadership

Leadership teams in any organisation today typically face a volatile and uncertain operating environment and, consequently, need to be both high performing and adaptable. In this new √itas Consult series we will be exploring those characteristics of top teams that lead to high performance and adaptability.

In 2011 Roselinde Torres and Nneka Rimmer wrote[1]: “Top teams … must be more than just high performing. They also need to adapt and thrive, regardless of the turbulence they face.”

Roselinde Torres and her team at the Boston Consulting Group had undertaken research examining a possible association between a company’s performance versus its peers and the adaptive capacity of its senior-leadership team. They found a correlation between the two factors. They also found that employees enjoy a more emotionally rich and engaging experience when they are part of adaptive teams. Torres and Rimmer found that adaptive top leadership teams adhere to four operating principles (and these will form the focus of this short series of articles).

  1. Distributed Leadership. Torres and her team found that successful adaptive team leaders believe in the value of sharing leadership at the top and developing leaders at every level.

There may, of course, be a considerable gap between believing in the value of shared leadership and actually practicing it! In coaching I have noticed the importance of listening for indications that team members have similar understandings of their team’s main objectives and that they actually take steps to ensure a focus on collective goals. This can be demonstrated through their approach to managing the performance of their own team members.

It is frequently clear when team members are actively providing emotional and psychological strength to one another. This may occur through acts of encouragement or expressed recognition of other team members’ contributions and accomplishments. If this social support isn’t evident then a significant support for shared leadership is absent.

A third powerful support for shared leadership is in place when a team’s members have input into how the team carries out its purpose.

Carson et al. noted[2] that “When team members are able to speak up and get involved (they have voice), the likelihood that many of them will exercise leadership increases greatly. The opportunity for voice also facilitates shared leadership by strengthening both a common sense of direction and the potential for positive interpersonal support in a team. When teams are focused on collective goals (having a shared purpose), there is a greater sense of meaning and increased motivation for team members to both speak up and invest themselves in providing leadership to the team and to respond to the leadership of others. The motivation to participate and provide input toward achieving common goals and a common purpose can also be reinforced by an encouraging and supportive climate. When team members feel recognized and supported within their team (social support exists) they are more willing to share responsibility, cooperate, and commit to the team’s collective goals. Thus, these three dimensions work together to create an internal team environment that is characterised by a shared understanding about purpose and goals, a sense of recognition and importance, and high levels of involvement, challenge, and cooperation.”

104px-king_henry_v_from_npgRichard Olivier, writing about Shakespeare’s great leader, Henry V, notes that a 15th century king might be expected to move his Lords towards the achievement of a vision by laying that vision out, then announcing that he will sort out the strategy and only then telling his Lords what to do. Such a leader, thinking that their only way of maintaining their identification with a great project is not to share ownership, invariably cuts themselves off from the very support they need. For Henry V the temptation not to share leadership must have been strong: in Elizabethan times the monarch was considered to be touched by the divine. However, Henry V shares leadership generously and Olivier is able to write: “Henry V is wise enough to know that if he wants others to invest themselves in the project he has to share it with them. There is no more effective way of doing this than to get them involved in planning the next steps.”[3]

Sharing leadership at the top and developing leaders frequently go hand in hand. Not only so, but the most challenging decisions, programmes and changes often create exactly the opportunities needed to foster distributed leadership. When the U.S. pharmaceutical company, SmithKline Beckman, and the U.K. consumer products company, the Beecham Group, were engaged in merger planning, the leader of the Merger Management Committee, Robert Bauman, recognised this. “The best way to achieve management alignment was to have the Executive Management Committee work on a task together. The harder and more important the task, and the more integral its members felt the EMC was in accomplishing that task, the better the chances of them coming together.”[4]

As Jon R Katzenbach puts it: “team performance at the top is all about doing real work together”. “Real work”, as Katzenbach defines it, is not the same as open discussion, debate and the delegation of authority. Real work undertaken together is about the members of a leadership group applying different skills to produce a performance improvement that could not be achieved by any one member alone.

At the very highest level of team engagement I would expect to find participants using language that suggests an interdependent community. This is what Todd Hybels discovers as a young leader and later discusses with his father, Bill:

“Community is more than just working with other people. It’s doing life deeply with one another as we serve together. And there’s a huge difference between the two.”[5]

That’s highly distributed leadership.


[1] “The Five Traits of Highly Adaptive Leadership Teams”, Boston Consulting Group: https://www.bcgperspectives.com/content/articles/leadership_organization_design_five_traits_of_highly_adaptive_leadership_teams/ Sourced 2 November 2016. In this article the authors discuss “The Value of Adaptive Advantage” research undertaken by the BCG Strategy Institute. The research showed that the more adaptive companies are, the more financial gains that company generates. They also consistently outperform their industry peers and sustain superior performance over time.

[2] Carson, J. B, Tesluk, P. E., & Marrone, J. A. (2007). Shared leadership in team: An investigation of antecedent conditions and performance. Academy of Management Journal, 50, 5, 1217-1234.

[3] Olivier, R., (2002) “Inspirational Leadership: Henry V and the Muse of Fire – Timeless Insights from Shakespeare’s Greatest Leader, p.47

[4] Bauman, R. P. et al., (1997) “From Promise to Performance: Journey of Transformation at SmithKline Beecham”, p. 35

[5] Hybels, B., (2002) “Courageous Leadership”, p.74