Sunday, February 15, 2015

The Leader's Lens

It was time to run an online survey of the employees at a large technology company. My work with their leadership team had raised some interesting research questions, so one of the vice presidents asked her assistant to help me make it happen. She said to her assistant, who I will refer to here as Amelia, "Please help Bill to get access to everything he needs. We want to get everything arranged pretty quickly."

Amelia is a remarkable assistant - very thorough. But often she is asked to organized social events. So that was the lens through which she understood her boss' request. I was thinking "survey;" she was thinking "social event." 

As we began working on the project, Amelia asked, "when will it take place?"

"As soon as we can set everything up," I responded, adding, "I would like to host it here at Stanford." Although I did not explain this to Amelia, my concern was that if we hosted the survey on the company's servers, I might not be able to analyze the data on my own computer for security reasons.

"Host it at Stanford!" she responded. 

"Sure," I said. "We do this all the time."

She asked, "How many employees will be involved?"

"All of them," I replied.

"ALL OF THEM?" Amelia was dumbfounded.

"Of course!" I said. "We can use our server and--"

"But, Bill," she interrupted, "it makes no sense to host it at Stanford. We host these all the time here at our company. And we can get servers, of course!"

"Servers?" I questioned, "really, Amelia, one server should be more than enough."

"ONE SERVER, for the ENTIRE company?" Exclaimed a flabbergasted Amelia.

"No problem." I said. "These days servers are extremely efficient. And the tasks should not be too intensive."

As the discussion went on, we ultimately realized the misunderstanding and had a good laugh. But this story nicely illustrates the importance of one's "interpretive lens," the assumptions that shape how we understand information. Amelia and I were hearing all the same words, but they meant very different things to each of us because we were looking through different interpretive lenses.

Effective leaders understand the importance of the interpretive lens. I remember at one company, their sales head in Europe went around the approved product and price list, creating a solution for a customer that was not approved by the corporate marketing organization. He won the customer, and in fact was responsible for growing the business considerably through such tactics. The CEO called him back to the firm's silicon valley headquarters; some thought it would be a reprimand. But the CEO brought him into a top leadership meeting to applaud him for being entrepreneurial and customer focused. The manager received a promotion and a raise. This story spread through the company's employees quickly. The CEO's interpretive lens saw the manager as an innovator. Others saw him as a rule breaker. Both interpretations were correct, but the CEO wanted the "innovator" lens to win the day. By making his interpretation clear to everyone, he helped to shape their interpretive lenses. 

Every day at work, alternative lenses compete. Is a failed project shameful, or a healthy sign of experimentation? Is an outspoken employee insubordinate, or is she showing leadership? A great leader shapes the lenses through which her employees interpret what happens.

Look around you at work. Do you like the lens being used to interpret what happens? If not, what does this say about your leadership? 


The sociological research on this topic is reviewed by Robert Benford and David Snow.