Successful Leaders Manage Distributed and Diverse Thinkers Better

One of the major challenges of leaders today is getting perception alignment on goals within teams, groups, and the organization as a whole. Leaders, therefore, have to manage goal achievement with deficit levels of collaborative commitment and trust. Thought alignment and building confidence lead to a conviction for action.

 In today’s digital age, information availability and access, besides personal connectivity, is growing at a phenomenal pace. This leads to a multiplicity of perceptions and opinions in teams and organizations thereby making the distribution, diverseness, and universe of thinkers larger than before. Leaders are required to manage a larger mass of “Distributed Thinkers”.

 Another way of saying the same thing is that: the locus of trust is tending to shift dramatically from leadership to team members. This often leads to modification of management decisions and directions.

 As this is common for all organizational leaders, it makes for a level playing field. Successful leaders are those that master the art of managing distributed thinkers ahead of others.

The “5-i” distributed thinker model outlines the factors facilitating thinking. They come under 2 categories:

•      Information and Interaction: Sources, categories, access frequency, depth or superficiality, COI, etc.

•      Personal Characteristics: This is an individual’s mindset which is the make-up of mental attitude, inclination, habit or disposition, that predetermines a person’s interpretations and responses to events, circumstances, and situations. Some are fixed while others are open or growth-oriented.

A combination of the above two categories leads to the current mindset or perception of an individual. The multiplicity of personal mindsets increases with differing levels of 1) information 2) knowledge acquisition strategies 3) network connectivity. It would not be uncommon to have 25-50% differing mindsets in a team.

The COVID-19 pandemic dialogues bring to light some aspects of the “5-i” model. One study showed that hesitancy towards taking vaccinations was more acute in younger people. Younger people are generally more tech-savvy and connected. They share and receive perceptions through different prisms, which in turn nurtures diverse and distributed thinking. Other findings were that 25% of the people were hesitant to accept vaccinations due to complacency, convenience, and confidence. Observed countries include the US, UK, France, Germany, and India among others. (The Guardian 04 Feb 2021)

Distributed Thinking & Commitment Deficit

Distributed thinkers are people in organizations, groups or teams, who have varied perceptions. These variations are ever-increasing because of the continuous changes/updates in information. Aligning the increasing number of differing perceptions of people with different mindsets, on different situations in different matters, is a leadership challenge today.

Observations indicate that leaders can align fewer people towards goals than before the digital age. As the degree of alignment would vary (fully, partially, and non-aligned groups) so would the commitment to goal achievement. The concept is that you cannot have full commitment if you are not fully convinced. Managing goal achievement with partial group alignment of mindsets is a leader’s challenge today. This is the first step in acceptance of a decision by the leadership. Hence, leaders have to manage goals with “Commitment Deficits”.

Case 1 – Distributed Thinker: A VP-Sales, of a French subsidiary in India, had two senior managers, Ron and Ravi, working under her and both were good performers. However, Ron did better than Ravi and because of the bonus rules, HR recommended that he be paid a higher bonus. The VP Sales was all for it. This upset Ravi as he felt that he did very well under the circumstances in his sales territory. The scenario for the next year was such that Ravi’s territory had more potential and if he was disheartened, he would not do as well as he could or may even quit the job. Seeing this, the CEO stepped in and gave both Ravi and Ron the same bonus package. The VP who was a rule-driven person was upset and felt the CEO was setting the wrong precedence. Her logic was that the bonus was paid for past performance and not on future expectations. However, the experienced CEO went through with his decision and the results spoke for themselves. For the VP this observation added to her knowledge. People with practical wisdom know when to ignore or work around rules and policies.

“Learn the rules like a pro, so you can break them like an artist” Pablo Picasso

Distributed Thinking & Trust Deficit

Even if people could align on decisions to goal setting, they would need to agree on the risks involved to achieve success. This would mean an agreement on a balance between individual and organizational risk, needs to be arrived at, for a high level of trust between team members. With deficit commitment, this becomes more difficult. An example would be when a team decides to take up a task, the personal performance risk challenges would vary from member to member or department to department. Some examples: (1) A project requiring rare skills in IT: Performance risk – recruitment (2) A project requiring innovative solutions: Performance risk – R&D (3) A project requiring scarce material resources – Performance risk – Procurement (4) A project requiring local regulation compliance – Performance risk – Regulation expert (5) New product launch: Performance risk – Sales & Marketing

 Observations indicate that leaders with team members having graded levels of mindset alignment and a deficit group commitment would also have to manage with differing degrees of agreement with set goals based on perceptions of personal and organizational performance risks.  Overall, the trustworthiness in agreements made would differ causing leaders to manage goal achievement with a “Trust Deficit”.

Case 2 – Trust Deficit: A CEO (Judy) of a large multinational conglomerate was moved to the level of executive Chairman by the board after an exemplary tenure of 10 years. The newly selected CEO (Joe) who replaced her was from within the company and well qualified for the job.

In this scenario, many of Judy’s old VPs kept coming to her for advice, though they directly reported to the CEO. She was often in a dilemma: (1) Would Joe feel undermined and their relationship gets strained (2) If she did not help out the VPs, they would feel disowned and work would suffer (3) Would the relationship between the VPs and Joe become strained. Judy had seen the relationship triangle balance problems at different levels before. Knowing that there was no fixed formula for a solution, Judy worked on balancing the triangular trust equation by ear.

 She understood that the trust factor between her and the VPs had now to be built up with the new CEO. In addition, she had to build the same trust factor with the CEO himself and at the same time not allow the VPs to feel disowned. Judy knew that balancing the “Trust Deficit” in situations is an art in relationship management and that it also takes time and patience.

Judy went on a communication overdrive which meant being more transparent and keeping all stakeholders in the triangle well informed. She set up additional formal and informal channels to enhance overall awareness levels. This brought the misunderstandings to a minimum. An external coach was engaged to facilitate the balancing strategy which made things a bit easier. The transition was successful and things stabilized after about a year.

Observation: The change of a team member alters the dynamics in a group, to a greater or lesser degree, which causes destabilization. Recognizing, recalibrating, and rectifying the change of collaborative commitment and trust then becomes the prime task of a leader to ensure goals are on track. Mechanisms must be put in place to re-stabilize the situation with minimum disruption. Enhanced and effective communication plays an important role in destabilization.

“People do not care how much you know until you show how much you care’

“5-i” & Pseudo Wisdom

The third factor that impacts leadership decisions is “Pseudo Wisdom”. This is a category between “Theoretical Wisdom” and “Practical Wisdom”. The difference is that those with practical wisdom have knowledge as well as experience. With technology, advancement acquisition of knowledge together with narrations of experiences is made much easier. In addition, training methodologies today are designed to help individuals to visualize situations even though they have not personally experienced them. This adds to the increasing number of “Pseudo Wisdom” Professionals. This is good on the whole but can create complications for critical decisions.

People with pseudo wisdom often have a high level of confidence without practical experience. This is not bad as many times the decisions they make are correct. However very often many small nuances of a situation are not covered in experience sharing. The problem is that often leaders do not know the difference between advice from Pseudo or Practical Wisdom. Example: A highly qualified industrial relations manager who gave talks on handling irate unions, disappeared when the plant engineer was gheraoed. The engineer managed the situation.

In today’s world, leaders need to be careful in soliciting or accepting advice, especially for crucial decisions. This is also important in candidate selection for senior positions. The ability to provide a solution to a problem is different when sharing an experience of a personally solved problem. Using “Pseudo Wisdom” or theoretical knowledge in critical decisions for goal-setting or process planning for goal achievement can often lead to failure. Selective use with awareness of pseudo wisdom is critical to success.

  • Case 3 – Pseudo-Wisdom: A large multinational bank, one of the top 10 worldwide, was looking for a CIO that could improve their IT systems and reduce costs. The context was in millions of dollars. A candidate was interviewed by senior members of the bank hierarchy and the final decision was with the board. The newly selected CIO sold a dream strategy on how he could reduce costs by 20% in 3-4 years. This was something they wanted to hear. He was given the job but somehow his dream didn’t work out and he failed to deliver. Later, they were told by some of their old vendors that they knew from the start that this dream was not viable. Though the CIO had some pockets of successful experiences, the dream sold to the bank had no proof of concept of an integrated solution. The project failed, the CIO left and the dream remains a dream.

Knowing what a good leader does, does not make you a good leader – except inside your head.

Managing distributed thinking challenges

Solution: Managing distributed thinking challenges

While there could be many approaches to manage the current challenges of “Distributed Thinking” we should accept that leaders must learn to live with the nuances of a more connected and aware world. To get the “Head, Heart and Hands” of an organization to move in unison towards a goal, successful leaders manage optimum levels of trust and commitment, besides enhancing their judgment and use of pseudo wisdom.

Most of the points mentioned are self-explanatory and may be obvious, however, the use of covert communication channels used by senior leaders and not openly discussed could be of interest to some. An additional note on “Covert Communication Channels” is given separately below for those interested.

The points mentioned above may trigger thoughts about your situation. The two questions below may help.

  1. Do you have an intuitive system for managing a better trust-control balance?
  2. Have you observed successful leaders using similar systems that set them apart?

Additional Note: Developing Covert Communication Channels

Successful leaders have mastered the art of getting into a “Communication Overdrive” and many have made it their way of life. They manage today’s challenges by developing focused and targeted covert communication support systems (this is in addition to the standard formal run-of-the-mill methods that are generally spoken about) which include appropriate coverage of connectivity sources for comprehensive knowledge acquisition. These systems include satellite networks of information sources and brokers, influencers, sponsors, disseminators, among others. These are other than the standard business and management communication channels. Most leaders have covert communication channels but they are mostly used reactively. Successful leaders build and nurture these channels to maintain an edge over the game. They set up:

  • Communication mechanisms to assess group pulse from important influencers and information brokers – Focus on collaborative “Commitment Deficit.”
  • Focused groups to work on alignment of independent groups to bring about an optimum level of agreement towards overall goal achievement – Focus on collaborative “Trust Deficit.”
  • Specific groups for cascading inputs and receiving feedback to monitor the trust-control equation – Focus on real-time monitoring collaborative deficits.
  • A “Brain Trust” to constantly verify situational issues and provide support to handle corrective measures. – Focus on mitigating risks to goal achievement. (A brain trust is a group of multidisciplinary experienced experts external to the system)

The diagram below demonstrates one of many complexities in identifying network sources.

Communication Network Sources Facets

From the above diagram, it shows that Mohan is the department head, however, it is Nina who runs the show in practice.

Many of these covert communication channel activities are handled informally and without much publicity. However, successful leaders are continuously honing these skills as they are essential for achieving goals with fewer hassles and surprises. One point to note is that each of these networks is dynamic and needs to be reviewed and updated to maintain its usefulness.

This concept is above policies and is a more private and personal form of leadership, hence it is not often a subject of open discussion. Many leaders follow covert communication channels intuitively, but very few carry out a reality check to keep these systems at optimum levels.