How a Manager Creates Context

From the Ask Tom mailbag –

Question:
We have plenty of time to fight fires but never any time to make a plan of attack and everyone pull their weight. We are a bunch of individuals doing our own “thing” without the total picture perspective. We are the “managers” in the business. But we don’t manage; we fight the next fire, sometimes of our own creation. When other managers are not concerned with how their tactics affect the next process in line, the culture will not change. It’s a culture of, now that my part is done, I wash my hands of the problem and pass it along to the next manager to deal with. No ownership of the problem, so, no solution that benefits everyone. How can the culture change when the people with the culture don’t want to change?

Response:
One of the most important contributions for every manager is to create context. No behavior is isolated. ALL behavior exists inside of a context.

Context is a mental state. Wilfred Bion calls this the Basic Assumption Mental State (shortened to BAMS by Pat Murray). If, as a manager, you don’t understand the behavior, all you have to do is get in touch with the Basic Assumption Mental State or the context held in the mind of the team member. What do they believe, in that moment, about the context surrounding their behavior?

If a manager does not create the context for a team member’s behavior, the team member is free to make it up. (Because all behavior exists inside of some context.)

Let me muse about the context of your team members.

  • The most important thing around here is not to get blamed for anything.
  • The most important thing around here is to make sure, if you make a mistake, it does not get connected back to you, that someone else can be blamed.
  • The most important thing around here is that if you make a mistake, make sure it cannot be discovered in your work area, or your part of the process.

If this is what the team member believes (BAMS), what context has been created by the manager that supports those beliefs?

If you want to change the behavior, the manager has to change the context for the behavior. Gustavo Grodnitsky simply says, “Change the context, behavior follows.”

Step one, for the manager, is to determine the constructive context to gain the appropriate behavior. Then make that context visible, by example, by discussion, by observation, by consequence.
If you are a manager, what is the context to gain constructive contribution from your team?

  • Goal – this is where vision statement, mission statements come in. Most are pabulum that do NOT contribute to context that drives behavior. But try this one from Southwest Airlines – Wheels up. That’s it. That’s the context. Everything a team member does should support getting an aircraft quickly (and safely) into the air. Southwest found they make more money when their planes are in the air than they do when their planes on the ground.
  • Accountability – we normally place accountability one level-of-work too low on the team. In describing level-of-work, Elliott Jaques clearly identified the manager as the person accountable for the output of the team. This one Basic Assumption Mental State, that the manager is accountable for output, is a game-changer.
  • Example – every manager is in a fishbowl and every team member is watching. “Do as I say, not as I do,” creates disaster. Lead by example is not simply a nice leadership principle. Humans are wired to mirror behavior they see. Blaming and punitive behavior by the manager creates acceptable mirroring behavior on the part of the team.
  • Discussion – the manager can talk about context with the team, or the team can talk about context at the water cooler. The manager gets to pick.
  • Observation – the manager is in a position to observe behavior and bring attention to those behaviors that are constructive and point out behaviors that are counterproductive. The manager is in a unique position to breathe life into behavior, for better, or worse. You get the behavior you focus on.
  • Consequences – what happens in the face of underperformance? Is it punishment and blame, or is it learning and improvement?

Context drives behavior. Managers create context or allow team members to make up their own. Change the context, behavior follows.

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