Leadership Without Easy Answers

Leadership Without Easy Answers, by Ron Heifitz
Summary: Rosemary Wickman

 Adaptive Work: The assessment of reality, the clarification of goals, and closing the gap between the way things are and the way we want them to be.


1.      Definition:Change through a variety of learning processes.Efforts to close the gap between reality and a host of values.We perceive problems whenever circumstances do not conform to the way we think things ought to be.Adaptive work involves the assessment of reality – but also the clarification of values.

2.      Disequilibrium:Organizations, like people, drive toward stability.There is nothing ideal or good about stability per se.Without a climate of urgency, the feeling that something must change, the organization may do nothing until it is too late.

·        The current problem may present no new challenge so one of the ‘fixes’ from the current repertoire may be sufficient.

What is an example?Insufficient documentation.

·        Org has no ready solution to the problem so it still tries to use old responses – may restore stability for the short term, but cost in the long term.Performance Review Teams

·        Org may learn to meet the challenge.Recruiting in the Philippines


3.      Failure to adapt:

·        Don’t understand the nature of the problem/threat.May not be in my department so it’s not my problem (silo vs system)

·        See the problem, but the challenge is so overwhelming it exceeds the organization’s ability to adapt (MV??)

·        People fail to adapt because of the distress provoked both by the problem and the solution.IPE/CHP conflict issues.

4.      Work Avoidance Mechanisms: used to resist the pain, anxiety or conflict that comes with the situation or change.

·        Holding past assumptions

·        Blaming authority

·        Scapegoating

·        Externalizing the enemy

·        Denying the problem

·        Jumping to conclusions – judgment/transference

·        Finding a distracting issue – JCAHO

Work avoidance mechanisms are often unconscious, or at least disguised from the self.


5.Reality Testing:the desire to understand the problem fully may be

sacrificed for decreasing stress.We try the usual methods for

assessing and analyzing problems, if these don’t work, restoring

stability may be more important than prolonged uncertainty.With

sustained distress, people may lost sight of their purposes.

  • Do I have the time and energy to fully understand the problem?
  • Given my present job, job relationships, personality, etc. how much can I afford to sacrifice to understand the problem?
  • If I try the usual methods for assessing issues and they don’t work, how much stress can I handle?
  • How much distress is too much?
  • How do I recognize/know that? (Signs and symptoms – physical, emotional, mental)
  • What issues in my job create sustained distress? ( could include the environment, communication etc.)

6.      Mobilizing Adaptive Work:

·        Direction:vision, goals, strategy, technique –

·        Order:1) Orienting people to their places and roles.  How do we do that?  What could make that more clear?

2) controlling internal conflict ( See #9)

3) establishing and maintaining norms: What is the value of having norms?

If we fail to accomplish these in the group there is a “flight to authority” because work avoidance most often comes in response to the biggest problems, and also it disables some of our most important personal and collective resources for accomplishing adaptive work.


7.      Implications:Even when the authority has some clear ideas about what needs to be changed, implementing that change often requires adjustments in people’s lives.Those leading change have to take the heat in stride, – it is part of the process of engaging people in the issue.Aggravated people are not extraneous complications to getting the work done, there are an inherent part of making progress.

Why do “aggravated people” seem like extraneous complications?

What value do they bring as an ‘inherent part of making progress’?

How do you differentiate between the value they bring and the maintenance/disruption they may cause in the group?

8.      Holding environment:any relationship in which a person or group

Holds the attention of another and facilitates adaptive work.The holding environment generates adaptive work because it contains and regulates the stresses that the work generates.(EX: friendship is a holding environment).The point of the holding environment is not to eliminate stress, but to regulate and contain stress so that it does not overwhelm the person or the group.Eliminating the stress eliminates the impetus for work.The task is to maintain the stress at a level of tension that mobilizes people.

·        Trust: is a matter of predictability along two dimensions: – values and skill.Giving trust means we expect consistent, predictable values and problem solving skills.

·        How does a holding environment contain and regulate stress that is generated from work?

·        How do we maintain the appropriate level of tension without becoming overwhelmed?

·        What are symptoms that we don’t have enough tension?

·        What are symptoms when the tension is to great?

·        What does well regulated stress look like in an individual?In a group?

Trust is a value.Why is trust included in this discussion about a holding environment?

·        What does trust look like in this working unit?

·        In this organization?

·        What will you do to increase the level of trust in your working relationships?

9.      Conflict:Adaptive work usually brings conflict.My- or my group’s, assessment of reality and clarification of values may

be different from others.We as two groups may be able to identify the challenge, but may define the issues and solutions differently.

10.Decision making process:depends on type of problem, the ability of the group to change and adapt, and the severity of the problem

·        Adaptive situations usually demand a more participative

Process.Because the problem lies largely in their attitudes,

Values, habits or current relationships the problem-solving has to take place in their hearts and minds.

·        Low adaptive ability may be from lack of experience in conflict resolution, lack of shared values, reluctance to endure short-term pain to get long term benefit, or lack of bonds of identity and trust.

11. Five Principles of Leadership:

v     Identify the adaptive challenge.Unbundle the issues and values at stake.

v     Keep the level of distress within a tolerable range for doing adaptive work.

v     Focus attention on issues, not on stress-reducing distractions.(keep them seeing the forest – not just the little brush at their feet)

v     Give the work to the people at a rate they can stand.Put the pressure on slowly enough to develop responsibility not burn out.

v     Protect the voices of leadership without authority.Give cover to the people who raise hard questions and generate distress.

12.        Identifying the Adaptive Challenge:

v     What issues are represented by the conflict

v     Are the issues technical – can we get a ‘fix’

v     Are the issues adaptive – need reality assessment and clarification of values.

13.        Leading Adaptive Change:

Engaging people to make progress on the issues.Making progress requires learning.Progress may demand new ideas.

Progress almost always demands changes in people’s attitudes and behaviors.Leading adaptive change requires an educative strategy.

14.        Remember – some days you are the dog, and some days you are the fire hydrant

15.Authorities in the system:one barometer of systemic distress is the behavior of the people in senior management.  They often react to the appeals for direction, and stress reduction and that often indicates when the org is reaching it’s limits of tolerance for change.  If authorities do not lead, they almost always act at some point to reduce stress.

16.   Inclusion:may mean challenging people, hard and steadily to

face new perspectives, to let go of the old ways and ideas.Inclusion does not mean that each person gets his own way – only that he is guaranteed that he will be heard.

17.   Pacing the work:The pains of change deserve respect.People

Can only sustain so much loss at any given point in time.Respect people’s need for direction, protection andtheir stress.Know how hard to push, and when to let up.

v     How stressful is the issue or question being raised?

v     How much loss does it involve?

v     How resilient are the people who are involved?

v     Are they accustomed to learning or will the move to avoidance mechanisms?

v     How strong are the bonds in the group?

v     How strong is the group to handle brutally hard questions?

The learning for adaptive work is not only conceptual.It is sifting through the old and making something new, and it takes emotional work.The leader has to engage the people in a process that accounts for their fear or pain if learning is to take place.The leader raises questions, options, interpretations and perspectives – without answers – gauging when to push and when to hold back.

Identifying the Adaptive Challenge::


The adaptive challenge is a gap between shared values of people and the reality of their lives, or of a conflict among people in a group over values and strategies.

The problem causing the distress frequently will not be on the surface.Superficial conflict may be over procedures, power, schedule, structure etc and these can be the tip of the iceberg for the underlying conflicts.

v     What’s causing the distress?

v     What internal contradictions might this represent?

v     What are the histories of these contradictions?

v     What perspectives are represented here?

v     In what ways does the group or org. mirror these dynamics?

18.Role and Self distinction:Bearing personal responsibility requires seeing the difference between oneself and one’s role.Distinguishing role from self is not schizophrenic – it enables the person not to be misled by his emotions into taking statements and events personally that may have little to do with him as a person.

Making the distinction between role and self can be life saving.It enables one to externalize the conflict, focusing on the issues and giving the conflict back to the rightful owner.

Internalizing conflict causes serious difficulties.The issue becomes personalized and gets interpreted a personal problem when it is not.It also produces work avoidance because it allows people to deflect their attention from the issue to the person and to shift responsibility to him rather than the issue.Frequently the person who internalizes conflict reacts with personal defense, which can perpetuate the dynamic.

19.   Listening:Using oneself as data.To interpret events a person needs to understand his own ways of processing and distorting what he hears.We need to recognize our own biases and compensate for them – step back and test the accuracy of your own perceptions and the appropriateness of your reactions.To listen one has to live with doubt.


20.   Sense of Purpose:Leadership is a passionate and consuming activity.People need inspiration and drive to step out into a void which only later may be recognized as a place of creativity and development.Defined purposes are the single most important source of orientation in doing both technical and adaptive work.Preserving a sense of purpose helps us take the failures in stride and gives the courage to face the setbacks.A sense of purpose provides the ongoing capacity to generate new possibilities.

Outline for Conflict Management Discussion:


Five Myths of Conflict:

Conflict can always be avoided

Conflict always damages relationships

Conflict always occurs because of misunderstanding

Conflict is always a sign of a poor relationship

Conflict can always be resolved.

Common Images of Conflict:

Conflict as war

Conflict as explosion

Conflict as a courtroom trial

Conflict as a mess

Definition of interpersonal conflict:

An expressed struggle between at least two independent parties, who perceive incompatible goals, scarce rewards, and interference from the other party.

Types of conflict:


Content Conflict:

About issues outside our relationship

Interpretation of issues outside our relationship

Relational Conflict:

Conflict about issues inside our relationship

Basic Values Conflict:

Conflict around the deepest held core values

Relatively rare

Basic values conflicts are often not resolved

Basic values conflicts can be managed

Common Sources of Conflict:


Unclear mission and vision

Unclear roles and responsibilities

Structure no longer fits the organization/team

Leadership styles clash

Communication lines are blocked

Destructive past patterns of conflict

Lack of ownership = withdrawal

  • The number one reason people don’t express themselves is fear of rejection/ judgment.
  • Frustration is unmet expectations.

Power: possessing a currency that someone else values and/or needs to achieve their goals.

What is a currency that someone else values?

What are the currencies that MHS most frequently uses?


Misconceptions about power:


Power is a fixed trait that some possess

Some people have power over other people


Levels of Conflict:


Level I: Predicaments:

Level II:Disagreement

Level III: Contest

Level IV; Fight/Flight

Level V: Extreme


Assessing Conflict:


Look for patterns of behavior

Look for patterns of communication:think about NancyPost education oncommunication

Fault and blame

Who talks to whom?


Rules:system rules for dealing with conflict


Six Persons in a two person dialogue:


Your impression of yourself

My impression of myself

Your impression of me

My impression of you

Your impression of my impression of you

My impression of your impression of me.

Conflict: To engage or not:


How important is the issue to me?

How important are the relationships?

What will happen if I don’t engage? / do engage?

Is this the right time, setting and relationship for engaging

in conflict.


Necessary Resources for Managing Conflict:


Awareness: nature of the conflict

Courage: risk

Communication skill

Commitment to the relationship



Some Conflict Management Skills:


Seek consensus on the basics

Watch your attitude

Emphasize the process as well as the content

Intervene early

Establish a supportive vs. defensive climate

Distinguish triggers from the causes of conflict

Diffuse yourself, the other and the situation

Try fractionating

Keep current

Agree to disagree


Conflicts cannot always be resolved, but they can be managed


Managing Ongoing Relationships:







Willingness to sacrifice


You can have the credit, or you can have the desired change, but you can’t have both.To the extent that change is held by the group, I won’t get credit.