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You Don’t Have to

Many leaders have the notion that it is lonely at the top. Like so many things, if you believe it, it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. The fact is no one has ever accomplished anything of any significance alone. Think about that. I think about my first successful, unassisted step as a toddler! But then I think of all the support and caring I had before taking that first wobbly step all by myself. Can you think of anything you accomplished all by yourself? If you have, I would love to hear about it!

A human pyramid of support

The founding fathers of group and organization development understood the essentiality of support. They emphasized cooperation, collaboration, and consensus as fundamental to the practice of applied behavioral science. Each of those three “C’s” is a configuration of support. Team-building, strategic planning, organization design, process re-engineering, diversity work all involve improving communications, developing mutual understanding, and sharing decision-making. All are core parts of the practice of organization development as they actualize support for whatever goals are the target.

Building support is a core strategy of organization development. In fact, all successful human endeavors have always resulted from successful support systems. John D. Rockefeller, Andrew Carnegie, and other “captains of industry” did not build their business empires alone. Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak or Bill Gates and Paul Allen did not build their megalithic companies alone. Mahatma Gandhi and Nelson Mandela did not free their countries by themselves. We hold such people up as individually powerful with little acknowledgement of the huge support systems that surrounded them.

The puny human race dominates the planet, only through our ability to support each other. Yet, the intentional building of support systems has become problematic. And, organization development is the most powerful technology for managing change in human systems because it recognizes just how crucial support systems are.

Three Ways Support Is Critical to Organization Development Practitioners

  • The first role of OD practitioners is supporting their clients. We must support them to understand the systemic nature of their organizational issues, how they are contributing to those issues, how they might move down some optimal process to resolution, and that they will have our support in doing so.
  • The second of role of support is helping our clients build a critical mass of support for their goals. This is the bottom-line for successful OD projects. Failing to achieve critical mass, projects will fail.
  • OD practitioners need support systems too. We need them to stay focused on using the skills and concepts of our field as the cultures our clients attempt to seduce us to collude with existing dysfunction. This is especially important for internal practitioners who surrounded by such seduction 40 or more hours a week for most weeks of the year.

The Challenges of Building Support Systems

The importance of building and maintaining support systems just makes sense. However, developing support systems seems to put us considerably outside our comfort zones. Here are three challenges we have to the intentional use of support systems:

Cultural Belief Systems 

We’re taught that anything is possible and if we just work hard enough, we will succeed. We’re not taught that there are severe limits to how much we can do by ourselves. Nor are we taught that the best results will come about through supporting others and being supported by others. 

It is easy to understand our aversion to seeking support. We were never taught to seek support. From grade school, the Western education system increasing focuses on independent academic proficiency. High school and college years bring about an increasing demand for independent performance with measurements against one another’s abilities—grading on a curve—creating an atmosphere of competition and rivalry among peers. We strive for individuality. We base our sense of self on our unique skills and capabilities. We’re not taught that the path to success is through collaborative and supportive relationships.  The vast majority of our education emphasizes individual effort, with only a token amount of group work required. Teachers and professors often discourage group work and teaming. They seem to be more worried about plagiarism and cheating than fostering the skills of asking for and offering the support needed for significant achievement. In university classrooms, adversarial discussion and debate are rather commonplace and sanctioned, furthering the idea that success is an individual achievement. Grading on a curve will reward someone in the class with the highest grade while disciplining those with lesser grades. We’re taught that our peers are our competitors. If they succeed, then I cannot. The top class institutions accept only so many. I find it interesting that cooperative educational environments, such as those based on the theories of educational reformists like John Dewey, Rudolph Steiner, and Horace Mann, encourage building and using support systems. Still that leaves most of us with meager support in the intentional use of support systems.

Ego Issues

Extending from our cultural obstacles, many of us perceive seeking support or asking for help as a sign of weakness, causing concern that others will perceive us negatively if we ask for help. The higher up the organizational ladder one goes or the greater one’s claim to expertise, the more we are supposed to already know. It’s “lonely at the top” is a moan I’ve heard from many high-level clients. Managers at any level are often reluctant to admit to their employees they don’t know everything they imagine they should know given their status. They make asking for or accepting help when offered difficult.

Many of us believe doing so would reveal our vulnerabilities to others who might take advantage. Our clients may have that concern when we suggest they build support systems from the ranks of those we work for them. We practitioners are great at supporting others, but we too are often reluctant to accept support. However, we need sturdy support systems if we are to withstand the seduction of the cultures we’ve been asked to change.

We fear losing the myth of independence to which we have attached to our self-esteem. We want to prove to ourselves and to others we have the abilities to place our mark on the world all by ourselves. If we ask for support, we would document that we couldn’t do “it” by ourselves. Any time we seek support, our self-esteem is vulnerable to our own self-derision.

Control Issues

I once had a great idea about establishing a wisdom center where folks could come seeking the wisdom of themselves and the center’s staff. I shared this idea with Don Klein, my friend and mentor, who suggested that I put together a small group to help me think it through. I was appalled at such a suggestion! To put together such a group would mean having to deal with folks who would want to mess with my idea, bend it into something I would hardly recognize! Then they would want to twist the implementation process I had in mind beyond recognition! I would lose control of my wonderful idea! Why in the world would I want to do that? Everything would be a lot easier if I did it by myself!

My “great idea” disappeared into the enormous maw of inaction, where many great ideas wind up when we do not allow the support and energy of others. To repeat: No person alone has accomplished anything of any significance by themselves. We may lose control of a great idea, and maybe that loss will generate an even better idea that will bear fruit when massaged and synergized by the support of others.

Of particular interest to OD practitioners and leaders of organizations is the difficulty we have asking for help with human systems. An engineer at W. L. Gore and Associates said to me once, “If my car is making an unusual noise, I’m pretty quick to get the support of my mechanic to figure what’s wrong and do something about it. However, our human systems make all kinds of unhealthy noises which we ignore to our detriment.” We are loath to ask for help when our marriages, families, and friendships are making the unsavory sounds to hostility.

We too willing to accept that problems in our human systems are inevitable, unavoidable, and uncorrectable. Perhaps we don’t know who can help. Maybe we underestimate the consequences of inaction. For whatever reason, our problematic teams, organizations, families, and friendship groups often remain so because their members do not ask each other for needed support.

That’s where we organization development practitioners come in. We have the perspectives and skills to help human systems learn how to identify and work through their conflicts to come together to support each other. We have the skills to help the members of those human systems to understand that no one has ever accomplished anything of significance alone. We do so only with the support of the human systems we belong to!

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