The People versus the Power

Recently, I had the privilege to lead a session with a management team where they wanted to explore their interaction style as a leadership committee. This was a global, culturally diverse, senior team—leading over 4,000 staff between them, performing critical daily tasks for the organisation, and defining the future strategy of their division with implications for the company at large.

Leaders and managers set the context within which organisational members strive for excellence and work together to achieve organisational goals. Leadership helps shape culture. Culture in turn shapes leadership. They both drive performance.

With a new operating model being defined, creating awareness of their individual and collective behaviours and the impact of these behaviours was seen as a critical foundation for building a stronger future. By their own assessment, how constructively they would be able to work together and model these behaviours would be a key determinant of the culture of their organization and the success of their operations.

Going into the session, all members of the management team had received personal feedback on their thinking and behaviour styles using Human Synergistics’ Life Styles Inventory™ (LSI 1 for Self Descriptions and LSI 2 for Descriptions by Others).1 They were primed to recall their individual development areas and strengths, and bring that awareness to the table for the exercise that followed.

Planning the groups

To challenge the team members to think about how they interact with each other, I deployed the Bushfire Survival Situation™ exercise, which called on them to work together to seek the best outcome for the group in a life-threatening situation. The 11 managers were split into two groups—but not just by any random grouping. I purposefully formed the groups based on their LSI 2 (the 360° feedback component) dominance in either the Task orientation or the People side of the Circumplex, which provides a way to “see,” measure, and change the thinking and behavioural styles proven to impact the performance of not only individuals, but also groups and organizations. [For an interactive explanation of the Circumplex, click here.]

Circ.-3-clusters-grad-outLet me call the ‘Task’ group, consisting of six people, K2. In addition to having a clear bias toward the Task hemisphere of the Circumplex in both LSI 1 and LSI 2, the group’s average score for all Constructive behaviours (which reflect a satisfaction-oriented and balanced concern for People and Tasks) combined was at the historical median (when aggregating all four Constructive style scores for all six team members for both LSI 1 and LSI 2).

On the challenging side, though, K2 generally overestimated their Affiliative behaviours (which they viewed as about average) relative to how others perceived their interactions (noticeably weaker). As part of the LSI Constructive culture styles, Affiliative behaviours reflect an interest in developing and sustaining pleasant relationships and making people feel part of things. In contrast, the Aggressive/Defensive cluster, which emphasizes Tasks over People in self-promoting ways (where the focus is on one’s own needs at the expense of the groups’) in the LSI 2 data for this group was much stronger. Half the team members had what could be considered extreme Power scores—higher than 90 percent of the people in the norming data set—in their LSI 1 reports. You might call this the archetypal ‘Alpha’ group, with a lot of strong personalities and subject-matter ‘experts.’

The second team, Eiger, had five members, and was made up of the more People-oriented managers. In contrast to K2 members, those on the Eiger team had underestimated how Affiliative they were relative to the descriptions by others. Also, in general, they didn’t see themselves as being as Constructive as others saw them. Interestingly, however, this team had, in aggregate, scores higher than the historical median for the Dependent style (the need for self-protection coupled with the belief that one has little direct or personal control over important events) and the Approval style (need to be accepted and tendency to tie one’s self-worth to being liked by others). These styles are part of the Passive/Defensive cluster, which reflects an unduly strong orientation towards people over task fueled by reinforcing individual needs for security. Along with their strength in the more Constructive Affiliative and Humanistic styles, these tendencies reflect the Eiger team’s stronger People orientation. This was potentially the Beta group, despite having the boss in it as a team member; they had a tendency to want to be conciliatory with one another and ‘play nice.’

Time to get busy

Individually, everyone read through the scenario—a bushfire was approaching and there were certain things available that could help—and made a personal assessment, based on a list of 12 items, of what they felt would be most and least important for their survival. The groups then formed and were asked to come up with a team ranking within a 45-minute window. Observers were present on the periphery of each group, listening and watching for the language and behaviours employed.

K2 got straight into it, and there was a lot of noise suggesting intense discussion. The language used was forceful and direct; the mood jovial and boisterous. Talking over each other and repeating the same points, even after someone had offered an alternate idea, was not uncommon.

No one had firsthand knowledge of a bushfire situation, but one person had been in the army and had a sense that certain things were not as straightforward as the others were suggesting. Conscious that they needed to get real learnings out the exercise, I issued an emergency newsflash to K2 informing them that the fire was now ‘unpredictable and catastrophic,’ implying that they might want to reconsider their priorities.

Eiger, by comparison, was relatively quiet and subdued, seemingly a little uncertain as to how to start. There wasn’t a ruckus and lots of listening and contemplating were obvious as time progressed.

Laughing and smiling, they were calm and measured in their interactions. Eiger team members were genuinely interested in what each other had to say, and whilst they weren’t immediately sure on the ‘right’ prioritisation of survival items, they were open to being influenced away from their personal preferences.

Predictable like a book

From psychology teachings,2 we know that it’s common practice for each of us to believe that we are in possession of more or better information than the person next to us, and that our judgement is likely to have more value than theirs. We believe that our opinions are the true and accurate perception of the situation, and that makes it hard for us to shift to a different stance. Our challenge as rational, intelligent managers is to suppress that urge—especially in the instances where we are clearly not the ‘expert in the room.’

After the allotted 45 minutes, we reconvened and pulled out the calculators. With the expert’s ranking of the importance of items shared, we were able to tally the quality of both the individual and team rankings. In an ideal world, you would want the individual knowledge and experience of the team members to come together and amount to something more than what one person could achieve alone. You hope that by combining your skills, a superior solution is reached.

In these unceasingly challenging times for business, survival is a real, not imagined, imperative.

More often than not, however, our behaviours interfere and we act in ways which, although seemingly ‘not a big deal’ or dismissed as being ‘just the way I roll,’ have a significant detrimental effect on the outcome. Imagine you are in a real survival situation; imagine that your life and that of those with you depend on how you are able to interact with one another. In these unceasingly challenging times for business, survival is a real, not imagined, imperative.

So back to K2 and Eiger…

The team of five that was Eiger successfully improved their chances of survival as a group by outperforming their best individual score by over 40%. They had been able to really listen to each other and then use that shared knowledge constructively to move things materially forward to a better solution. They were focused on the end goal, and through their Affiliative behaviours (which were not offset by aggressive Power tendencies), they ensured their success.

On the other side of the room, K2 managed as a team to underperform its best two team members by a few percentage points—an astonishingly appalling feat for half of a management committee with the future of its department under its stewardship. As a team, they managed to destroy value; their interactions produced a worse outcome than the best third of the group. They were patently unable to listen constructively to one another.

As the guffaws and teasing around the tables died down, there was a palpable moment of contemplation from all of the senior leaders. What kind of impact were these leaders having on their teams and the organisation’s culture as a whole?

I asked them if it was clear what had happened. One of the participants from K2 said, without missing a beat:

“It’s obvious. Eiger was able to really hear and appreciate each other whilst we just wanted to pound the table until everyone had bent to our will, which was never going to happen as we were all expecting the same thing!”

Lessons? So many, and so clear…

  1. Our behaviours impact others—if we beat the table to get attention, then why should we expect others to do differently?
  2. Brute force—or more specifically, Power—doesn’t usually win the day.
  3. Listening is a skill, not just something that happens when you can’t think of anything to say.
  4. Being ‘nice’ and having an interest in people doesn’t equate to ‘being a pushover’ or not focused on real business outcomes. You need to have an understanding of both the hard (Task) and soft (People) skills.
  5. And the big one: “I thought I knew better than the others. Plain and simple! But I didn’t. And I should never assume that I do.”

The People people, team Eiger, were better able to communicate for survival in this instance. And everyone learned a lot about the risks of radiant heat that day … something that the guy in the army already knew, but couldn’t get anyone in his team to listen.

What do you think of these insights? What team approach have you effectively utilized that is focused on both behaviour and outcome?

I welcome your thoughts and comments on LinkedIn and Twitter

Editor’s Note:

Google’s Project Aristotle rediscovers and reinforces the importance of “psychological safety:”  “Can members of teams take risks without feeling insecure or embarrassed.” Decades of research with our Circumplex-based research confirms that it is Constructive norms and behaviors—like setting goals, clarifying plans and roles, and developing one another—that reduce self-protective behaviors and promote teamwork, synergy, and innovation. Furthermore, our research demonstrates that Aggressive/Defensive styles—such as oppositional and competitive—seemingly look good but actually detract from both psychological safety and the type of work environment found by Google’s researchers to lead to effectiveness. 


1 Laffety, J. C. (1973). Life Styles Inventory™. Plymouth, MI: Human Synergistics.

2 Hoorens, Vera. (1993). “Self-enhancement and Superiority Biases in Social Comparison,” European Review of Social Psychology, Volume 4, Issue 1, 1993, pp. 113-139.

About the Author

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Louisa Robb

Après 20 ans en tant que directeur financier international dans des postes expérimentés, y compris en tant que Président directeur général, DRH et Directeur de la Stratégie, Louisa a créé le cabinet de conseil spécialisé Lucella AG, basé en Suisse. L'ambition de Louisa est d'apporter une voix claire sur le sujet de la culture d’entreprise, et l'aventure individuelle d'un leader, en tirant parti des compétences qu'elle a affinées au long de sa carrière dans la finance et à travers le déploiement de l'outil de mesure de la culture d'organisation (OCI) et des outils individuels d'évaluation de Human Synergistics.