Feature Article: Attunement – Integral Leadership, Part 12

Russ Volckmann

In the last issue we explored the idea of self-management, particularly, management of the relationship between intention and behavior. This encompasses how one’s espoused theories with values, beliefs and assumptions relate to the actions one takes. How, for example, does a leader’s values relate to how s/he manages action in relation to peers, subordinates and other stakeholders.

Fundamental to all of this is the fit between the leader’s intentions, values, beliefs and assumptions and those of the organization of which they are a part. In looking at this we shift from self-management to something that relies on self-awareness and social awareness, key skills in emotional competency in the work of Goleman, et al (see Leadership Quote above). However, the issue of attunement is more difficult to develop because it includes what is in and what is out of awareness.

[Note: in earlier work I have called this alignment. Somehow, this word implies a level of agreement I do not intend. Therefore I have changed to attunement because this is a continuous process of playing with what continuously is moving in and out of harmony. For me, that captures the spirit of the relationship between one’s own values, assumptions and beliefs and those of one’s cultural context.]

The leader brings a set of intentions, values, beliefs and assumptions to their role. Some are conscious, some not. And they bring these to an organizational culture that is the product of the intentions, values, beliefs and assumptions of the members of the organization. This is also known as organizational culture.

The challenge of attunement is to bring about a supportive relationship between those intentions, values, beliefs and assumptions of the leader and those of the organization’s culture. Attunement is the process of relating between the individual and the organization in the arena of culture.

My colleague, John Agno recently published a brief article about a factor in what went wrong at Enron. They had implemented an executive evaluation process that resulted in many individuals being cautious in the face of peer evaluations. John states (read his complete statement in CODA below):

“ BusinessWeek…reports that Enron CEO Jeffrey Skilling meant to encourage risk-taking through a new peer-review system where a performance review committee (PRC) ranked more than 400 vice-presidents, directors and managers. The decisions of the PRC greatly affected the bonus and stock option grants of the person being reviewed. In practice, the management evaluation system bred a culture in which people were afraid to get crossways with someone who could screw up their reviews.

“…Enron’s new employee evaluation system rewarded highly competitive people who were less likely to share power, authority or information—which undermined any teamwork or institutional commitment. That emphasis on the individual may have pushed many at Enron to cross the line into unethical behavior.”

At Enron one leader, Skilling, valued risk-taking and cause to have implemented a system to encourage it, only to find that the very system he initiated bred a culture of minimizing risk-taking. His assumptions and beliefs were not attuned with the culture.

How do we know when we are or are not attuned with the organization culture as leaders? Often we don’t. When Jim Collins and Jerry Porras conducted a major study of key values in an international organization, they did not ask executive leaders what those core values were. They trained middle managers to ask front line employees. According to Porras, those employees understood what the core values were because they are impacted by them on a daily basis.

In Integral Leadership in business I think there are multiple levels of culture to consider. That is one thing that makes attunement so difficult to maintain. Kist as a piano can go out of tune with changes in temperature or humidity or even as a result of being played, so can the leaderget out of tune with the organization culture in the face of continuous change.

In the relationships among leaders and with their stakeholders attunement is about many sets of relationships. The first level is among executive leaders themselves. All are aware of some of their intentions, values, beliefs and assumptions (or mental models) and not of others. Through cultural symbols and the actions of others they all adduce what the culture is and how they fit in the executive suite. Attending to attunement questions then, is also attending to questions of fit.

Executives learn about fit and attunement through trial and error, interpretations that are conscious and unconscious, and creating meaning out of interactions in the realm of engagement (next month’s topic). Perhaps one of the most useful ways executives can develop understanding of their leadership culture and their own models is through dialogue, initially dialogue with other executives. This would not preclude parallel conversations with other stakeholders, but other executives may be an important place to start, particularly in recognition of the fact that company leadership is something that is shared and not the purview of just the CEO.

> Russ Volckmann