Invisible fences

'A pet fence or fenceless boundary is an electronic system designed to keep a pet or other domestic animal within a set of predefined boundaries without the use of a physical barrier. A mild electric shock is delivered by an electronic collar if its warning sound is ignored'.

We were running 'Safe to Challenge' sessions during the week because a survey reveal only a low percentage of people feel it is safe to challenge ways of doing things in the organisation. From the stories people told it seems that they get the equivalent of a mild (or not so mild) electric shock if they challenge current systems, processes and behaviours. Like pets they are confined by an invisible fence to the backyard of 'this is the way we do things': electronic collars are firmly on.

We know we need to take off our electronic collars and turn off the invisible fences because challenge and innovation are the main ways getting to a redesign that will yield efficiencies and increase productivity. (See an article on the connection here). But how to give effective challenge is itself a challenge. Two approaches emerged:

1. Learn how to challenge effectively
2. Learn how to accept challenge graciously and act on it

Effective challenge
There's a good tip sheet for individuals on challenging effectively. It's addressed at psychotherapists in working with their clients but the tips work well in non-therapeutic situations too. I've abridged them here. The full sheet expands with example.

1. Believe in the value of challenge (rather than 'pussyfooting around')
2. Challenge through non-judgmental acceptance of the other person
3. Issue challenges in the other person's interest – not our own
4. Challenge with empathy and compassion
5. Aim for a proportionate, optimal level of challenge.
6. Ask for permission to challenge or to give feedback in order to pave the way
7. Encourage self-challenge towards enabling the person you want to challenge to be more self-aware and take responsibility for choices
8. Challenge unused strengths rather than weaknesses.
9. Issue challenge with gentle shared humour
10. Stay open to being challenge ourselves

These tips work when challenging individuals but more difficult is challenging a system or process. For example – why is the procurement process so convoluted, why do we need so many forms, why are reports produced that are never read, why is it so hard to enter data into a system, and so on? These are difficult because there is often no accountable 'owner' ready or able to pick up the challenge – is a procurement system owned by someone in technology, or procurement, or compliance people, or a third party who procurement is done through or all of these? A NASA article offers some guidance on challenging the system/process status quo.

Accepting challenge
Accepting challenge is as hard as giving it. There's a useful book on this that focuses on the recipient of the feedback. Think of yourself when someone is challenging you. Do you get defensive? Immediately think of a riposte? Or ask curious questions ? Thanks for the Feedback: The Science and Art of Receiving Feedback Well explores three triggers that lead us to deal poorly with feedback:

1. Truth triggers. The feedback itself seems wrong or off target, based on incomplete information or poorly aligned with what we're trying to do.
2. Relationship triggers. Regardless of the feedback itself, there's something about our relationship with the person giving us the feedback that is throwing us off. The giver may be colossally ungrateful for your efforts, or not appreciating what we do well. Or maybe we just don't trust their expertise or their motives.
3. Identity triggers. We feel too overwhelmed by the feedback to really engage in the conversation. It undermines how we see ourselves, or threatens our sense of safety or well-being.

You can read Q & A with the authors here . And see a good summary /handout of the book from Focus Consulting Group.

Feeling safe to challenge means taking off our collars, switching off the invisible fences, and being able to receive any challenges graciously. How safe is it to challenge in your organisation? Let me know.

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