When Shauna was hired to be the executive director of a non-profit focused on access to clean water, she quickly realized that the four program sites operated fairly independently, and not at all efficiently. Each site had different systems, and those differences caused problems – not just duplicate mailings, but key donors missing from invitation lists. Shauna quickly developed standardized policies and systems, and sent them to the four sites to be implemented immediately.
But soon after, Shauna’s email and voicemail inboxes were filled with irate messages from staff complaining about the new policies and insisting that the systems wouldn’t work. Shauna faced a widespread staff mutiny.
Shauna’s intervention made sense logically, but there’s more to an organization than logic. What Shauna lacked: skill in organizational awareness, one of twelve Emotional and Social Intelligence competencies in the model I developed with my colleague, Richard Boyatzis.
What is organizational awareness and why does it matter?
Because organizations are complex systems, changes in one part impacts other parts, even if there isn’t an obvious direct link between the sections. Leaders who are adept at organizational awareness understand the many forces at work that operate beyond the formal organizational chart. They can read key power relationships, identify networking opportunities, and recognize the informal rules and guiding values at play in the daily life of an organization. They know that any institution is made up of people and the interactions between those people.
Why does such awareness matter? Leadership, one view holds, means using relationships to get things done. So leaders need to have a full sense of their organization and the many nuances that either help or hinder results. They also need to know how to leverage their relationships to further their goals.
What Happened in Shauna’s Situation?
Shauna didn’t recognize the history of the four program sites that led to what she saw as “inefficiency.” Had she talked to some of the long-term senior managers, she would have learned that the four sites evolved in a day when the central office was more loosely connected to them. If she could speak candidly with staff, she would see how each site has operated as its own fiefdom, organized around the personalities and capabilities of the long-term staff. The site with the most antiquated donor and event management procedures is led by someone still uncomfortable with technology. Another site’s manager and staff developed their own way of managing information to make sure they keep control of how “their” people are handled. They try to avoid having donors they cultivated “stolen” by another site. Underlying everything was a strong rivalry between the sites and concern by the staff that their site get the funding they feel they deserve.
How can a leader like Shauna become more skilled in organizational awareness?
Shauna’s mistake: trying to implement sweeping new policies and systems without having a more nuanced understanding of her new organization. To repair the damaged relationships with the staff, I recommend acknowledging the staff’s concerns, listening to their feedback, and telling them to go back to using their previous procedures while she gathers more information. Meanwhile she can talk with the site managers and meet with the staff of each site.
Along with questions based on the usual SWOT (Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities, Threats) model, she could ask the leaders to explain the history of their site, describe their staff’s personalities, and explain what makes their site unique. She might also ask about their perceptions of the other sites and the central office. In those meetings and a meeting with all four managers, she’d pay attention to more than their words, listen to tone, and watch for facial expressions and other indicators of the emotions behind their words. That information can show you where alliances and tensions exist, and what the general emotional climate might be.
The lessons for everyone in Shauna’s situation? Develop deep listening skills, and don’t jump to making decisions before knowing all the facts. Talk with people in all levels and sections of your organizations to gain their perspective. Pay attention to what’s going on beneath the surface in your organization. Had Shauna done this her new systems would have been more effective and her staff more energized about her leadership.