Language in Organizational Leadership (Ep 10)

An interview with scholar Keith Grint - Part III of III

By David Worley - April 3, 2019

Language creates our organizational realities particularly around "crisis." Find out more about this phenomenon in this episode.

02:42 Introduction to the conversation in the episode.

05:56 How might understanding social construction help organizational leaders?

06:44 Why does one version of reality win out?

09:38 The value of the constructivist approach.

10:11 Grint on UK “knife crisis.”

11:12 Grint on “financial crisis.”

13:12 Worley on how “crisis” is often initiated on the periphery of organizations.

14:59 You have to address the word “crisis” immediately.

15:32 It's the very language that you use which then generates the pattern of behavior.

18:21 Worley on the importance of aligning your people’s language.

19:23 People need permission to do things.

21:11 Small things build relationships; relationships are critical for leadership.

23:03 Why it’s difficult to pass success from one group to another.

25:38 Remember to spot the birth of a crisis.

David:  00:00  Hi everybody. This is David Worley. Welcome to the Groler Podcast. Language is critical in creating organizational culture. How one speaks very much determines how people will see or frame an issue. So how should we speak? What should we do when we see a crisis arising? These topics and more will be covered on this episode of the Groler Podcast.

David:  00:41  Hi everybody. Welcome to the show.

David:  00:43  This is part three of a three part interview with one of the greatest scholars of leadership alive today, Dr. Keith Grint. If you are tuning into this episode for the first time, you may want to go back two episodes ago and listen because I provide an introduction to Keith's life and work. We also covered some interesting topics in that show, along with a second episode engaging the particularities of wicked problems for organizational leaders. In this third Grint installment, you should consider this a sort of bonus episode. It's sort of like an extra take on a DVD you purchased because the 21 minutes of conversation featured here are wider ranging and, in places, more theoretically challenging than the prior two additions. If you're a skier, you know that at least in the United States, they arrange trails by three different colors, green for beginner, blue for intermediate and black for advanced skiers.

David:  01:43  Most episodes of the Groler Podcast are designed to be excellent blue courses, ideas and practices that are challenging and useful for both budding and seasoned leaders. You will note that virtually all of the Grint episodes, both part one and two are clearly in the black category. They are steep, fast, and there are at times moguls in places. I get that this has been figuratively difficult skiing, but like I said at the start of part one, I want to offer a variety of different elements for you to learn and grow. So with my skiing nomenclature in front of you, I want to warn you that we are leaving even the ultra difficult groomed black trails and going to the back country now. In this final installment, you're going to find some really theoretically advanced conversation. If this isn't for you, please come back next episode when we will be back to the blue trails once again.

David:  02:42  So to set up this final section, I want to give you an outline of where Keith and I go in this conversation. I start by explaining that the conversation is rooted in a perspective called social construction. What this means in part is, and I say this in the interview but let me prime you here, that our society creates reality for you. In part through the language we use to describe a situation. There's more to social construction than language, but we focus on this aspect in this particular conversation. This matters greatly for leadership. For instance, if we tag something as a crisis, we actually create the crisis itself. You will hear Grint speak brilliantly into this issue in this episode. If you are an organizational leader, you should listen to this episode because in it you will begin to see how many of the major problems you face are birthed by the language in your organization.

David:  03:44  And guess what? If you can head something like a crisis off at the beginning, you might be able to sidestep it and not have to deal with the full blown movement of it down the road. There are lots more really interesting comments in this final installment. If you are a connoisseur of leadership theory, this'll be a real treat. You get to hear a great thinker speak about social construction, language, and leadership both in society and organizations. Let's return to our interview with Dr. Keith Grint.

David:  04:17  So as you know, I share your orientation with being a social constructivists and for people listening, this means that people like you and I don't believe that there is an objective reality out there that we simply ascertain. But rather that what we see is determined by our conditioning and that conditioning is determined by those people around us and the society in which we live and the narratives we inherit.

David:  04:45  And so this conditioning, I think, makes it hard for us to recognize that the problems we face are not objective problems. That rather leadership problems that are posed to us can actually be framed in different ways. So one of the big points in your work is that, contrary to conventional thought, the way we respond to a situation is not determined by the situation. And so rather than asking, what is the leadership solution? You argue that we ought to ask, how is this leadership context situated? So thinking of things as a situation, presupposes a set of identifiable facts. Whereas thinking about how a leadership context is situated, gets at how the scenario is constructed. And I'm confident that I have listeners who are organizational leaders for whom the idea that reality is not objective is a completely new thought. So my question for you, Keith, is what might you say to help organizational leaders begin to see the possibility of working within a constructivist paradigm? Put a little differently, how would you suggest organizational leaders begin to view their challenges differently and what difference might this make in their leadership?

Keith:  06:19  Okay, so the first thing to say is to not worry too much about whether there is or there isn't an objective reality. I think the point that I would take on this is if there is an objective reality, that we don't get access to it, we get access through language in the main. So what we know is different from what there might be. We just have lots of different versions of reality. So the question really is how we get beyond this notion that there might be seven different versions of reality, but why does one particular version of reality get to be more robust than the others? What is it about the way that they are developed, constructed and supported that seems to make more sense than any other way.

Keith:  07:08  So let's take an example of if we go back to the war in Iraq and the weapons of mass destruction. So one argument would be the reality was either that there were weapons of mass destruction or there were not weapons of mass destruction. And if there were that would explain why there was an invasion. And if there weren't, that would explain why this was some kind of fraudulent invasion. But in fact, probably nobody will ever know whether there were or weren't weapons of mass destruction because you'd have to dig the whole of Iraq up to work out whether in fact they were. So for me, the important thing is the way that the model operates is less to do with the situation and more to do with the way that the decision makers are trying to persuade everybody else that the situation is X. And that's why we have to do Y.

Keith:  07:57  So if you want to invade somewhere, you can't say, I'm going to invade them because they annoy me a bit. You can say I'm going to invade them because they have weapons of mass destruction and they are a threat to us. And therefore not only are they a threat, but we don't have time to be able to establish the normal objective data, which will persuade everybody that they're a threat. Because if we wait that long it will be too late. So you have to trust me on this one. And that's the point. That actually a lot of the decision making is rooted in trust. So if you compare, let's just compare the, the photographs that were used in the United Nations around the time of the Cuban missile crisis. So if you remember the story, especially from the 13 days movie, you've got the display of photographs in the United Nations which appear to objectively show nuclear missile sites in Cuba. And this is the turning point of the whole crisis because now the world understands that what the Soviets are doing is actually deploying these missiles.

Keith:  09:05  Now, when you look at the photographs, it isn't possible for you or I to know whether (a) they are missiles or (b) that it's actually in Cuba. There's no mechanism for us to understand that. So what we're doing is we're either trusting or we're not trusting that the photographs represent something. So when a similar kind of display is done and the Iraq war and there are similar kinds of photographs, what changes is not so much the quality of the photographs but the trust in the people that are trying to persuade us that they are, or they are not, weapons of mass destruction. So I think that constructivist approach for me is to suggest that we need to worry as much about what the decision makers are doing, as what the situation may or may not be.

David:  09:52  Interesting.

Keith:  09:53   So there's a current example at the moment in the UK. We've got lots of young teenage children who have been stabbed in the last 12 months, which is fairly unusual in the UK. But it has become something of a newspaper issue about whether in fact we're in the middle of some kind of knife crisis. So if you actually look at the data that we've got for knife crime, it's not necessarily that much more significant than it has been historically. But what makes a difference is the newspapers now record this as the beginnings of a political crisis for the government. And that requires the government to respond to the crisis. Now what then happens is you get the police forces in the country say, well if it's a crisis, obviously, we need more resources to be able to monitor the crisis and to stop the crisis from getting any worse. So you have people who then interpret the situation and all kinds of ways which may or may not be for their own benefit. But the point about this is there isn't really a thing called a crisis. There is a situation which may or may not be a crisis depending on who it is that you believe; in which figures you believe.

Keith:  11:10  It's almost like some people talk about financial crisis as if at some point the stock price has gone down and there's a run on whichever company we're looking at. The implication of the debate is this is an objective issue. At some point, objectively, that company is in crisis. But actually when you look at what happens the figures for a run on the stocks for example, don't suddenly go from being okay to being in crisis. They just move. And what happens is at some point several large owners of those stocks will say, I'm selling. And that's what generates the crisis. So it's not the number that generates the crisis, it is the decision maker who says, I'm selling, that generates the crisis. So again, the crisis doesn't lie in the numbers. It's not objectively verifiable that once it gets beyond $3.15 we're in crisis. What happens is at $3.15 someone says, I think I might just sell up. And that is the mechanism that generates what we then take to be a crisis. And everybody says, oh my goodness, they're all filling up, let's get outta here. And then you have a crisis. So it's not the number that does it. It is the decision maker deciding I think I might sell. Which could have been $3.14 or $3.20 or $3.00.

David:  12:31  That's a really excellent example of, you know, what people see in your writing around the situation is not determined by the situation. It's interesting to me, Keith, one place that is fascinating is we often talk about leadership as if the leader, or small set of leaders, is intentionally, you know, pushing the levers. You know, you'll read articles from the Harvard Business School that talk about basically manufacturing a financial crisis in an organization in order to create a sense of urgency. And certainly that has happened and does happen in organizations. But the interesting thing to me, is that when I look at my own experience, it's oftentimes periphery people or periphery comments that set off a crisis. So you're in a board meeting and you're presenting on something and a board member raises their hand and asks a question and you're right on their hot topic. And they're like, well, "you know, this is a crisis" or "I think this is a horrible scenario that needs to be addressed right now." And you know, with a little bit of agreement from other board colleagues or maybe some other senior administrators in the organization, all of a sudden you're off and running with an initiative on whatever it was that that person brought up. So I think it's interesting how you talk about the way in which this reality is framed by the language we use, but what advice would you give to leaders when they're sitting there, and thanks to readings like your books and articles or this interview the leader recognizes, oh wait a second, I just saw a potential crisis birthed right here and the language of this meeting. What might you say to them to help them manage that from the beginning, before it starts rolling down, you know, before it starts snowballing dow the hill?

Keith:  14:26  Yeah. So I think there's something about us being a little bit more conscious of the language that we use all the time. I mean most of us kind of just fire from the hip and we don't really think about the importance of the words that we're using and that always strikes me as as something which, I mean we know for example that people make their mind up about individuals within a couple of seconds of meeting them quite often from the very first thing they say or the kind of body language that they emit. And it's the same with the language that we're talking about here in terms of crisis. So if someone says the word crisis and you don't, you don't stomp on that and say it isn't a crisis or if you're in a confidential meeting and you say if you keep using that word then we will be in a crisis because your going to generate the crisis.

Keith:  15:14   So I think its people reflecting, it's a bit like, you know, if you have a fire in a theater, you don't want to start shouting fire, everybody get out because that will generate the crisis that everybody dies in the rush for the door. So you need to be able to temper the language and say there seems to be a problem, would everybody please leave the auditorium. So it's the very language that you use, which then generates the pattern of behavior that you're trying to instigate or trying to avoid. But at the moment, for example, I'm writing a piece about the Indian mutiny or the Indian rebellion, depending on how you define it in 1857. So what's intriguing is that the British state talk about this moment in 1857 as a mutiny. Whereas the people who are allegedly mutinying or rebelling, they talk about it in terms of a rebellion. And the intriguing thing is that what the word mutually does is it restricts it to a military problem. Whereas the word rebellion is a political problem.

David:  16:15  Interesting.

Keith:  16:16  But the British state is trying to say is this is just a problem in the army that we've made a mistake with the particular kind of cartridges we're using and it will all be fixed. And what the rebels are saying is this is just a symbolic issue. The really important thing is that you seem to have invaded our country. We're not having it anymore. So what's intriguing is how you then generate support from your own side by still using the same word all the time. Rather than saying it's not a rebellion, it's a mutiny. Oh, it's not a mutiny it's a rebellion. And so what often happens is a very similar pattern of behavior is interpreted quite differently. And that has implications.

Keith:  16:57  I don't know about in the U.S because I don't necessarily follow the U.S. politics quite as much as I do British politics.

David:  17:06  You are better for that.

Keith:  17:06  But in the UK, if a politician is going in the wrong direction that the media want you to go in, they will keep telling you you're going in the wrong direction. And then if you ever listen to them and say, okay, I think you might be right. I need to change my direction. They won't say, well done. They'll say, U-turn, you coward. Why didn't you follow through on your own thoughts?

David:  17:30  You are a flip-flopper!

Keith:  17:31  Yeah, exactly. So there's no win here, and that's to do with the way that the language works.

David:  17:39  Interesting. You know, there's a lot of talk these days around echo chambers. Especially with the 24 hour news cycle, and I don't know what its like in Britain, but you know, in the States there are three or four different networks that cater to a different perspective. And it's remarkable. If you talk with people, you will hear them say exactly what the headline was, or is, currently running. And honest to God, they don't ever stop to think about the fact that their parroting that headline, they really think it's their idea. And it's amazing. I also want to point out that one of the positive things about this is that if you want to get something done in an organization, to your point Keith, it's really important that you align your key people to be saying the same thing. And maybe even to be saying the same thing with exactly the same words.

David:  18:31  Because I've watched in my own organization and throughout the years when there's something that I've wanted to get done and I've gotten my staff aligned around it. And we've spoken the same way about it over a period of time to all different constituencies, all of a sudden that idea has come back to us from the organization and we were like, wala, perfect. In my opinion, that's outstanding organizational leadership. When you can get other people to be issuing your platform without them completely realizing that the platform emanated from, you know, an initiative that you're working on. What would you say about that and what is your perspective on opportunities for organizational leaders in that way? And also pitfalls?

Keith:  19:18  So there's quite a lot of work on permission giving in organizational leadership, which implies that quite often many people don't do very much unless they get permission to do something different. And their permission it needn't come from a leader, a formal leader, but it quite often does, but it needn't. I mean we know there are lots of examples. A couple of years ago I remember watching a video and it was in a hotel somewhere in China I believe. And what you see is a man dragging a woman by her hair along the floor in this hotel lobby and he drags her past three or four other guests who don't intervene. And then the fourth guests intervenes. And at that point one of the other people comes back and intervenes as well. And there's something in that about people tend not to take responsibility unless they get permission from somebody else to take responsibility.

Keith:  20:14  So there is something in there about you need to be able to give people permission to use a particular kind of language or a particular kind of pattern or behavior that then regenerates itself. And quite often that is not kind of strategic issues, they're quite often quite mundane. But there's a good paper by a couple of Swedes called [transcription couldn't catch names] "The Extra Ordinary Realization of the Mundane." And what they argue is that we quite often assume leadership's about high blown strategy and really important and difficult and complex issues. And what their research suggests is that what counts as good leadership is often rooted in really mundane activities. So if the boss talks to you first thing in the morning and says, "Hi John, how you doing? How are the kids." And you think, (a) he knows my name, and (b) he knows about my kids. What a great boss!"

Keith:   21:11  And it's those really small things that make a big difference because now what you've done is you've built up the relationship and we know that organizational success and failure is rooted in successful or failed relationships. So it's less to do with the strategic stuff and more to do with the mundane relationship building. So all those kinds of small scale things are the things that add up I think quite often we are kind of misled about leadership. We assume if we've got a great charismatic leader, he or she will know the solutions to all our problems. So we don't need to take responsibility. And actually it's the opposite of that. We do need to take responsibility and how you build that up is by engaging in lots of mundane activities so people actually feel valued in the organization rather than just used in the organization.

David:  22:02  That's a brilliant point there. I hear a lot of people talking about, you know, the importance of rapport and relational connectedness in organizations. But apart from understanding the construction of reality through language, I think there's the legitimate question for people to say "towards what ends." Especially when you get to an executive or a board level where there are really difficult resource decisions made and I think you just bridged that river for us in the sense of that the actual rapport, that relational engagement with people, is critical both for helping the team member to feel a certain way, but also it's critical as the necessary condition for you to communicate across what it is that the institution or the organization is trying to accomplish. Is that accurate or is that a butchering of what you said?

Keith:   23:00  No, I think that's accurate. I think there there was something locked into that, which also explains why it's so difficult to make success and transfer it from one part of the organization to another. So we know, for example, if you give a team a task and they succeed and then you say, okay, you succeeded in the task, can you write down how you did this please and give that to the second team. They won't be able to do it because (a) there's lots of tacit knowledge. They don't even know how they're doing it. And (b) this is [much] in the relationships that explains why it's successful. So the scaling problem is always difficult in organizational success. We can make small scale success. What we find it much more difficult as large scale success and it runs contrary to arguments about best practice because the implication of best practices, it's just that, it's a practice. But we know that actually most of these things rely upon the relationships that support the practices and the absence of the relationships, the practice doesn't actually work very well.

David:  24:00  Interesting. So all practices situated in such a way to where you can't separate out the context from the practice?

Keith:  24:08  Well, I think if you're looking at tame problems, you probably could do that because you can, for example, you can mechanize a lot of their stuff. You can automate it. You just say, well press that button and this happens. So you can do that. But once you get beyond those kinds of relatively straight forward, I mean they might be complicated, but they're not complex. Once you get beyond those kinds of issues, once you get into the complex areas and you require much more of this relationship stuff, that's why it's so difficult to build up that kind of success level.

David:  24:40  So Keith, is there anything as we close here that you'd like to say to the audience or anything that has been left unsaid?

Keith:  24:49  There's been a lot unsaid, but I don't remember any of it!

David:  24:51  Great line!

Keith:  24:52  No, I think we'll leave it at that and I'll go get a cup of coffee.

David:  24:58  That just means that we have to have you back on the show again, Keith, for more of what was unsaid. So Keith, thanks so much. It's been a pleasure to talk with you. You are a fountain of insight, wisdom and brilliance and on behalf of our listeners, we're just really appreciative that you would give us the time that you have.

Keith:  25:21  You are absolutely welcome. I enjoyed it. Thank you very much.

David:   25:25  That wraps up our third of three episodes related to our discussion with Dr. Keith Grint. Keith, thanks so much for your time, energy, wit and wisdom in teaching us new things about leadership.

David:  25:38  One thing I took from this episode was spotting the birth of a crisis. Next time a crisis is born right in front of me, because of a particular language or tag used in a meeting, I just might be able to nip it in the bud. That alone could save me months. The same is likely true for you.

David:  25:57  This three part interview with Keith Grint is the first one we have engaged with an active academic in the field of leadership. I'd love to hear your thoughts, so please use the contact us tab at the top of the Groler website. Also don't be shy to tell others about this podcast. Let's grow the audience and grow the community of leaders learning and growing together. If you're listening now, my guess is you're an old pro and already know what I will say next. So I'm going to skip the usual instructions for people who are new to the podcast and simply go to my signature close. Groler exists to help you learn and grow as a leader. So keep learning, keep growing, keep leading. Until next time, I'm David Worley.
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