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IMPLICATIONS OF FLEXIBLE BEHAVIOUR IN A LEADERSHIP CONTEXT
Prepared by Martin Witthoeft
Module Title: Undergraduate Major Project Supervisor: Dr. Beatriz Acevedo Module Code: BC330998S Academic Year: 2008/9
Submitted: 24 April 2009
Acknowledgements I would like to thank everyone who contributed to this research, in particular the respondents in the professional networks of Xing and LinkedIn for their participation and advice. I am especially grateful to my supervisor Dr. Beatriz Acevedo for her continuous support and feedback as well as my partner Ulrike for her encouragement and patience during the last four months. Personally I am still amazed about how this project evolved and the twists and turns it took; to me Henry Ford’s self-fulfilling prophecy proves true once again: “Whether you think you can or think you cannot - you are absolutely right”. This dissertation is dedicated to my father (1951-2005).
Abstract This research aims to explore the significance of flexibility in the context of team leadership by identifying the implications of flexible behaviour for leadership in theory and practice. It further wants to increase awareness when and how it is beneficial to demonstrate flexible behaviour and introduce flexibility as one of the major impacts on leader and follower relations. In order to achieve the purpose of this research, a compelling guiding hypothesis with the aim to retrieve qualitative data was published in professional online networks. This was followed by a thematic analysis of the 267 personal replies of professionals to identify the respondents’ associations with the term flexibility. The results of these practical accounts were then put into context and contrasted with findings in academic literature. The findings highlight three main themes within the responses; the need for balance between flexible and inflexible behaviour, an exploration of the motivations for flexibility and the significance of flexible behaviour itself reveal a strong tendency towards the need for stability in leadership. In contrast to the literature, the research results identified a perceived negative side to flexible behaviour. This research makes provisional theoretical contributions in terms of the underlying implications of flexibility in leader and follower relationships with respect to outcomes within a team environment. In practical terms the findings increase the awareness of the impact of flexibility for the choice of a leader in a particular situation or environment. In addition to that, it provides insights into the outcomes of flexible behaviour which are beneficial on a personal level. Although there has been research with observations of group participants to categorize dynamics and competency measures for individuals via testing, very little is known about the implications of flexibility for leadership. This research attempts to clarify these implications.
Table of Contents
I. II. Introduction ............................................................................................................... 1 Literature Review ....................................................................................................... 3 1. 2. 3. 4. 5. III. Holism and Reductionism ..................................................................................... 3 Systems Thinking and Cybernetics ....................................................................... 5 Law of Requisite Variety ....................................................................................... 6 Teams, Leadership and Flexibility ......................................................................... 8 Summary of Findings .......................................................................................... 13
Methodology............................................................................................................ 15 1. 2. 3. 4. Purpose and Approach ....................................................................................... 15 Thematic Analysis ............................................................................................... 15 Sample Selection................................................................................................. 18 Validity and Reliability ........................................................................................ 19
Data Analysis............................................................................................................ 20 1. 2. 3. Legitimation of Hypothesis ................................................................................. 20 Research Results ................................................................................................. 22 Summary of Findings .......................................................................................... 29
Conclusions .............................................................................................................. 31 1. 2. 3. Conclusions and Theoretical Contributions........................................................ 31 Implications for Future Research and Practice................................................... 32 Limitations .......................................................................................................... 33
List of References ..................................................................................................... 35 Appendices .............................................................................................................. 40 1. 2. Forum Article ...................................................................................................... 40 List of Forums ..................................................................................................... 41
The leader of the ’Fantastic Four’ is the most flexible one. (Louis, consultant)
Most people know the following scenario: You sit in an office and your superior just told you what to do next. While he leaves the room, you ask yourself if he really cares about your opinion or just listened to you out of courtesy. Many people also had this experience: You have just left an office after explaining a new concept to your employees. You wonder if they really got the point and what they think about it. The key to these scenarios is flexibility of both leader and follower. The success of an organisation depends on the relationships of its people with each other; thus a logical conclusion would be to adopt the ability to demonstrate flexible behaviour as a selection criterion for leadership. However, flexibility is hard to define and difficult to measure. But what can easily be achieved is an increase of the level of awareness about flexible behaviour and its consequences on the smallest entities of the organisation, the teams. The purpose of this paper is to explore the significance of flexibility in the context of team leadership. For a start it is necessary to understand what flexibility is all about; a practical way to obtain this information is to ask the right people, those who work in teams every day. However, what is the right question to catch their attention so they are willing to share their opinion and experiences? The solution is a bold statement embedded in a compelling context that will provoke curiosity. For this purpose a technical law was identified in cybernetics that had been adapted to a presupposition of neuro-linguistic programming (NLP). For this research the NLP interpretation was then transferred into a business context to create a statement that would make it possible to examine people’s personal associations with the term flexibility. The 1
focus was on creating a clear, short and simple, yet appealing hypothesis that would stand independent of context and time. The three steps taken to create the hypothesis are outlined in detail below:
1. An interpretation of the ‘law of requisite variety’ formulated by Ashby (1956: 207) states that: “The larger the variety of actions available to a control system, the larger the variety of perturbations it is able to compensate” (Heylighen, 1992). 2. This had been adapted to a presupposition of NLP: “In NLP the ‘Law of Requisite Variety’ in a given physical system is that the part of the system with the greatest flexibility of behaviour will control the system” (Goodwin, 2009). 3. Transferred to a business context the hypothesis of this research states that: "The most flexible person in a team will end up leading the team. “
The statement was then converted to the question whether it would be ‘the most flexible person that ends up leading a team’ and published together with the background outlined above on selected professional online networks. In this research project the responses to these posts are analysed and the obtained records of real life business experiences are then contrasted with academic findings in literature. Previous research on leadership and team theories seems to neglect the importance of flexibility and its implications. This paper attempts to introduce flexibility as one of the major impacts on leader and follower relations and wants to clarify when and how it is beneficial to demonstrate flexible behaviour. The main goal of this report is to increase awareness of flexibility in both theory and practice. In accordance with the
topic and the hypothesis of this paper, the theoretical frameworks and procedure of data collection as well as the methodological approach were selected to fit the theme of flexibility.
Before the actual analysis of the data it is essential to place the hypothesis into a theoretical context. In the following paragraphs the underlying frameworks for the hypothesis are briefly outlined; selected excerpts of literature ranging from the principles of holism and reductionism to the sciences of systems thinking and cybernetics are presented to establish a theoretical basis for the law of requisite variety. The review concludes with an overview of definitions for the concepts of team, leadership and flexibility followed by a summary of the discussed literature.
1. Holism and Reductionism The general principle of holism was first summarized by Aristotle (in Sachs, 1999: 8.6.1045a10) in his statement “the whole is more than the sum of its parts”. Contemporary authors are still discussing the implications of this statement; Ballé (1994: 6) explains that hidden in this reasoning is the assumption that “by increasing the parts individually, the sum of its parts will also increase”. Kremyanskiy (1960: 126) claims the whole is bigger than the sum but “not bigger than the organized system of its parts, in all their connexions and intermediaries.” When Smuts (in Smuts & Holst, 1999: 86) first coined the term holism in 1926, he argued that a unity of parts would not only give a particular structure to the parts, but also alter them in the process of the
synthesis to make them “function towards the whole”. Copi and Cohen (2005: 117-119) exemplify holistic thinking by the following logical fallacies:
The brick wall is six feet tall. Thus, the bricks in the wall are six feet tall. (Because the whole has a property, the parts do not necessarily have that property.) Each brick is three inches high. Thus, the brick wall is three inches high. (Because the parts have a property, the whole does not necessarily have that property.)
In order to achieve a better understanding of holism it can be contrasted with reductionism to highlight key differences. Antonymous to holism, the reductionist approach assumes that the “whole is nothing more than the sum of its parts” (Ballé, 1994: 30). Here a system is broken down into sub-systems which are then analysed separately in isolation while the relationships between them are ignored (Bar-Yam, 2000). In the past reductionism has been successfully applied to different scenarios by examining individual sub-problems that can provide “selfcontained solutions with no reference to other parts of the problem” (Rafferty, 2007: 4). However, Ballé (1994: 17) objects these arguments by pointing out that the reductionist view is neglecting the possibility that by optimizing each of the parts individually, the overall outcome might still be a “disaster”. Dobson (2003: 3) adds that reductionism is not useful if the underlying problems cannot be “expressed in simple mathematics“ and Hammer (1995: 555) refers to it as “local sub-optimization on a very limited set of ‘clear’ objectives”. An example of the use of reductive levels is to scale down from social groups to multi-cellular living things,
then to cells, molecules, atoms, and finally to the smallest parts, the elementary particles (Andersen, 2001: 153).
2. Systems Thinking and Cybernetics Systems thinking is based on the holistic belief that the “component parts of a system can be best understood in the context of relationships with each other and with other systems” (Capra, 1996: 30). It proclaims that the “only way to fully understand why a problem or element occurs and persists is to understand the parts in relation to the whole” (Capra, 1996: 30). Ballé (1994: 42) explains that “systems thinking focuses on relationships rather than the elements themselves” and sees “patterns rather than events”. He claims that this approach focuses on “confronting the situation with its context rather than trying to assess the ‘whole context’” on a general level (Ballé, 1994: 113). Engel (in Frankel et al, 2003: 6) also claims that in order to identify the rules responsible for the “collective order of a system”, it is essential to not only characterize the components within each level but to also include the “system characteristics”. According to Charnley (1995: 538), systems thinking is to be understood as a flexible approach which recognizes that at times tools from other fields can be ‘borrowed’ to deliver results. Ballé (1994: 126) adds that systems thinking is to be seen as a “pragmatic down-to-earth approach” that captures common sense and uses it in a more formal and systematic way. In his book ‘Managing with Systems Thinking’, Ballé (1994: 35) explains the systemic approach with the example that in trying to get a horse to run faster, there is no point in “teaching each of its legs to perform a more efficient movement”. Where systems thinking focuses on the structure of systems and what they consist of, the cybernetic focus is on how systems function and how they control their actions (Heylighen, 5
Joslyn & Turchin, 1999). Since structure and function of a system cannot be understood separately, cybernetics and systems thinking are to be viewed as “two aspects of a single approach” (Heylighen, Joslyn & Turchin, 1999). Cybernetics is a science that studies the abstract principles of organization in complex systems (Heylighen & Joslyn, 1999) and aims to increase the capacity to interpret and analyse extremely complex situations (Montejo, 1995: 160). Historically cybernetics aimed to clarify and systematize the relations between a controller and the controlled, accumulating over time a set of well-defined theories of regulation and control (Negiota, 1992: 3). However, due to the lack of a uniform terminology, each of the scientists who contributed to cybernetics defined it on a personal level; Stafford Beer (in Negiota, 1992: 2), who introduced cybernetic principles into management studies, defined it as the “science of effective organization”. Other definitions include Gregory Bateson (in Von Foerster, 1994) claiming it to be a “branch of mathematics dealing with problems of control, recursiveness and information” or Gordon Pask (in Von Foerster, 1994) defining it as a science of “defensible metaphors”. When describing cybernetics, Margaret Mead (in Von Foerster, 1994) stresses the importance of circular 'feedback’, a form of cross-disciplinary thought in cybernetics which created a common terminology for many other disciplines to communicate in a common language. Von Foerster (1994) explains the feed-back principle by effectors, e.g. an engine or muscles, which are connected to a sensory organ which, in turn, acts with its signals upon the effectors.
3. Law of Requisite Variety The origin of the hypothesis of this research and one of the cornerstones of cybernetic theory is the law of requisite variety. In non-mathematical terms the law states that “only variety can 6
destroy variety” (Ashby, 1956: 207). De Raadt (1987: 521) defines variety as “a measure of the number of states a system can adopt”. According to Walker (2006), variety is also used to “compare relative complexities”; he uses the examples of a switch that has a variety of two (on and off), whereas a child has a variety which is enormous. Variety therefore serves as the measure of complexity, just as temperature is the measure for heat (Walker, 2006). The law goes back to W.R. Ashby, a psychiatrist who in 1956 applied the law to regulatory activities of the brain and later claimed that it would also apply to “any system that performed a regulatory process” (De Raadt, 1987: 517). Ashby’s law is concerned with the problem of regulation or control and expresses the principle that “the variety of a controller should match the variety of the system to be controlled” (Hollnagel, 2005). Mendham (2004) illustrates this with the example of a photographer who wants to take pictures of different objects whose distance is distinct; the photographer needs a camera capable of at least the same amount of zoom settings to be able to make sharp pictures. Ashby’s law also implies that the “variety of the outcomes of a system can only be decreased by increasing the variety of the controller of that system” (Hollnagel, 2005). This means that effective control is not possible if the controller has less variety than the system (Hollnagel, 2005). Walker (2006) uses another example to explain this phenomenon: a steam engine which can run at different speeds has a regulator that must be able to respond to every state of the engine, thus the variety of the regulator must be at least as large as that of the system it regulates. This example shows that the regulator must have enough (requisite) variety to “adequately do its job” (Walker, 2006). An interpretation of Ashby’s law quotes that “the larger the variety of actions available to a control system, the larger the variety of perturbations it is able to compensate” (Heylighen, 1992). In other words this means that a flexible system with 7
many options is better able to cope with change (Mendham, 2004). Here Walker (2006) uses the example of a game of table tennis: two players of similar skill (and therefore similar variety) are controlling each other; their varieties match. If one player takes lessons and learns new techniques, he can increase his variety and the other player will not have enough variety to control him. Where a table tennis champion cannot have the variety to beat three simultaneous opponents, a chess master can increase his variety to match the variety of dozens of opponents at the same time (Walker, 2006). Hence Jessop (2003: 7) suggests that by “deliberate cultivation of a personal flexible repertoire (requisite variety)”, a person can also amplify their own variety in order to lead.
4. Teams, Leadership and Flexibility There are many different ways to define a team and a great number of leadership theories can be found in academic literature; most of them incorporate the notion of flexibility. In the following paragraphs selected concepts are presented to demonstrate how researchers use different approaches to single out different aspects of the themes teams, leadership and flexibility. Teams Katzenbach and Smith (1997: 45), authors of the book ‘Wisdom of Teams’, define a team as “a small number of people with complementary skills who are committed to a common purpose, performance goals, and approach for which they hold themselves mutually accountable." Stewart (1995: 597) claims that teams are a way to “structure an organisation to better cope with a rapidly changing environment” and to “achieve the flexibility of operation and responsiveness required by its markets and customers”. Seen from a holistic point of view, 8
Hampden-Turner (in Ballé, 1994: 10) states that “what a team knows and discovers is potentially more than can be carried away in the heads of its separate members”. Chong (2007: 202) agrees that by combining efforts of individual contributors in a team “synergistic outcomes“ can be achieved. Heerman (1997: 233) sees team members as service providers to customers and the community as well as to the team itself. In his opinion, the “energy of the team exceeds the sum of individual energies present in the team”. Teams develop an appreciation for “individual and team greatness” and help their members to discover “hidden talents” (Heerman, 2003: 42). According to Secan (2009), the members of a team need to be connected to its mission and each other; he uses the example of an improvisational jazz performance where each musician continuously provides, receives and responds to information until the performance, or mission has been fulfilled. In this mission both the leader and the members of the team share the responsibility for the outcome to meet a target; just like in a sports team where the players and the coach are both accountable for what happens in the match (Fordham, 2008). In his book “The Five Dysfunctions of a Team”, Lencioni (2002: 196) suggests that team members need to have the confidence that their peers’ intentions are “genuinely good” in order to focus their energy and attention completely on the job at hand and have no reason to be protective of themselves or political with one another. According to Harrison and Klein (2007: 1211) it is through the spread of members across qualitatively different categories that the cognitive and behavioural repertoire (variety) of a team increases. Attributes of within-team diversity such as functional background enrich the supply of ideas and knowledge available to a team and enhance team creativity as well as the quality of decision making within the team (Williams & O'Reilly in Harrison & Klein, 2007: 1201). Blau (1977: 79) originally termed this type of diversity 9
‘heterogeneity’ and used Ashby’s law to highlight benefits in terms of different resources of information; Hambrick et al (1996: 662) define it as a "variation in team members' characteristics”. Harrison and Klein (2007: 1205) explain the advantages of heterogeneity by stating that through their diverse kinds of human capital and access to different sources of information team members can collectively serve as a “team's lens”; each team member can “filter out unique environmental cues and interpret them for the rest of the team” (Harrison & Klein, 2007: 1205). Given this greater awareness, heterogeneous teams are able to match even complex challenges with a “requisite level of cognitive and experiential variety" (Ferrier, 2001: 858). Leadership Leadership is an ancient ability about deciding direction, from an Anglo-Saxon word meaning ‘the road or path ahead’; it is about “knowing the next step and then taking others with you to it” (Chapman, 2008). According to John Adair (in Chamberlain, 2007), first professor of leadership studies in the UK, leadership is about “converting vision into action”. He believes that leadership is “a trainable, transferable skill, rather than an exclusively inborn ability” (Chapman, 2008). As the founding father of functional leadership theory, Adair (in Chamberlain, 2007) argues that the main task of a leader is to assist to the team’s needs; he considers a leader to be successful if the leader contributes to organizational or team effectiveness. Clegg and Birch (2002: 4) also see people as the main concern of leaders and add a strong task orientation and need to achieve. They point out that a leader’s achievement of a task comes through the goodwill and support of others (Clegg & Birch, 2002: 4).
Chapman (2008) states that Adair’s work also incorporates the notion of task orientation in his ‘action centred leadership model’, in which three elements – achieving the task, developing the team and developing individuals, are both “mutually dependent and separately essential to the overall leadership role”. Adair (in Chamberlain, 2007) claims that in order to be successful, a leader has to focus on the task at hand, the needs of the team as well as the needs of the individual. These three areas affect each other, so in case something significant happens in one of the three elements, it will have consequences for the other two (Chamberlain, 2007). According to Adair (in Chamberlain, 2007), the most appropriate leadership style is always situation dependent: skills such as goal setting, planning, communicating and evaluating are necessary when setting a task for a team; it also depends on the leader himself, the time available, the knowledge and experience of the team, as well as issues such as culture and priorities. For Adair (in Chamberlain, 2007) the main leadership qualities are consistency of character and flexibility of style. Scarnati (1999: 194) sees the need to quickly adapt to a rapidly changing business environment as one of the main qualities of a leader. Change is also seen as an important factor by Dilenschneider and Beyma (in Scarnati, 1999: 194), who claim that in the 1980’s each company had to face a “significant organizational change every six to twelve months”. Stewart (in Scarnati, 1999: 194) amplifies this statement by stressing that an organization should be “reconfigurable on an annual, monthly, weekly, daily, even hourly basis.” However, according to Scarnati (1999: 194-195), the claim for change on an hourly basis may be “antiquated” since he anticipates change managed on a “minute by minute basis” to become the norm soon. In his opinion, change is the “only constant in this world” and should be seen as a “welcome ally” that offers an opportunity to excel (Scarnati, 1999: 196).
Flexibility Flexibility is an ambiguous concept that lacks of sufficient theoretical clarity (Furaker & Hakannson et al, 2007: 1). In psychological literature, flexibility is regarded as a “temperament trait” (Rusalov & Biryukov, 1993: 461) or as a “synonym for the adaptability to change” (Fleming, 1981: 111). In science, flexibility is employed as a measure for the “susceptibility of a dynamical system to external forcing” (Marhl & Perc, 2006: 823) or for a model’s “ability to fit a variety of different data patterns” (Laine, 2006: 3). In an organisational context Aaker and Mascarenhas (1984) define what they call “strategic flexibility” as “the ability of the organisation to adapt to substantial, uncertain and fast-occurring environmental changes” that have a “meaningful impact on the organisation’s performance”. Quey (2004) sees flexibility as the “capability of an organisation to adopt new innovations and to adapt itself to changing environments”. Flexibility as a behavioural trait is often used as a competency. Its attributes include tolerating ambiguity, shifting priorities, and the “ability to respond with innovative approaches to deal with the demands of changing conditions” (PSC Canada, 2008). The United Nations System Staff College (2004) offers a comprehensive definition of behavioural flexibility:
Managers require flexibility to work effectively and efficiently in constantly changing environments. They are open-minded and recognise the validity and benefits of new or differing views. They adapt their behaviours and approaches as necessary to better suit given situations. These abilities and attitudes enable them to quickly understand new requirements in a larger organisational context, adapt their roles to given responsibilities and effectively manage a diverse staff in new or changing environments. (United Nations System Staff College, 2004)
In a leadership context, Zaccaro et al (1991: 321) use the term “leader behavioural flexibility” to label “the ability and willingness to respond in significantly different ways to correspondingly different situational requirements”. Yate (1995: 41) takes this idea further and explains flexibility as “continual examination of situations” and stresses that when required, leaders need to utilize “creative adaptability in different contexts” and therefore use flexible thinking to apply their “existing knowledge base, in the abstract, to another context.”
5. Summary of Findings In cybernetic terms a team’s variety or diversity (Harrison & Klein, 2007: 1211) needs to match or exceed the variety or complexity of a problem to be effective. In a business context that means that a multi-national, multi-cultural and multi-functional team has a greater repertoire of options due to its within-team diversity (Williams & O'Reilly in Harrison & Klein, 2007: 1201) than a homogeneous team. Such a team is presumed to be better prepared to cope with change (Mendham, 2004) since each team member filters out and interprets particular elements of complexity for the entire team (Harrison & Klein, 2007: 1205). This contributes to an increased awareness (Ferrier, 2001: 858) that the skill or energy of the team exceeds the sum of individual skills or energies of the team members and nurtures the appreciation for the value of individual team members (Heerman, 1997: 233). Adair’s leadership definition of “vision into action” (in Chapman, 2008) implies a certain degree of behavioural flexibility; in his ‘action centred leadership model’ he suggests the three interdependent elements of task, team and individuals. Other authors add drive and adaptability to environmental changes to this list of attributes (Clegg & Birch, 2002: 4; Scarnati, 1999: 194). The need to focus on all these variables simultaneously poses a great challenge on a 13
leader; he can either attempt to control all the different variables or he has to tolerate ambiguity. A leader’s effectiveness accrues from the support of others but the questions remain whether flexibility itself is a “trainable, transferable skill “(Chapman, 2008) such as leadership and how much flexibility is necessary to ensure consistent leadership. The conclusion is that a leader needs to be able to proactively envision a team’s potential to lead it to maximum performance. He needs to demonstrate flexibility to create a coherent team environment and to acknowledge the importance of each team member towards controlling external variables. This way the leader can safely navigate in ambiguous waters with his main focus solely on within-team coherence and the modelling of objectives towards a goal. The team members are then empowered to autonomously come up with solutions for these objectives and will produce results depending on their clarity. The relationship between leadership and flexibility as well as the links between the law of requisite variety and issues in team performance provide the necessary theoretical basis for this research paper. After exploring the academic literature, the focus now shifts to real-life experiences. The perspective of the research part of this paper differs from the theories in the literature review to the extent that it employs a more practical approach. In order to draw conclusions from this research, it has to be seen as a self-contained examination of the hypothesis and therefore no direct references to the literature review above will be made. The findings of the research part will be contrasted with those from the literature review in the conclusion.
This chapter presents an overview of the methodology used in this research. Furthermore, its purpose, approach and strategy as well as the selection of the sample and issues of reliability and validity are briefly discussed.
1. Purpose and Approach There has been research which used competency measures for individuals via testing or observed group participants to categorize dynamics. However, the objective of this research is to identify the significance of flexibility for leadership in teams by analysing accounts of professionals based on their experience. A realist approach seemed to be most in line with the research objective since it assumes a “largely unidirectional relationship between meaning, experience and language” and is therefore well suited to theorize motivations, experience, and meaning in a “straightforward way” (Widdicombe & Wooffitt in Braun & Clarke, 2006: 85). The overall strategy of this project was to retrieve personal statements to a guiding hypothesis in a written form and then conduct a thematic analysis of the data to identify “repeated patterns of meaning” in this data (Braun & Clarke, 2006: 86).
2. Thematic Analysis Thematic analysis is a method for identifying, analysing and reporting patterns within data (Braun & Clarke, 2006: 79). It is a foundational method for qualitative analysis that focuses on searching within the data rather than across data (Braun & Clarke, 2006: 81). A theoretical or ‘top down’ thematic analysis was selected with the aim of achieving a detailed analysis of some aspects of the data (Hayes in Braun & Clarke, 2006: 83). This was combined with a semantic
approach to focus on the explicit or surface meanings of the data and concludes with an attempt to theorize the significance of the patterns and their broader implications in relation to the literature review of this paper (Patton in Braun & Clarke, 2006: 84). According to AttrideStirling (in Braun & Clarke, 2006: 79), qualitative researchers need to include the often-omitted ‘how’ they did their analysis in their reports. Therefore the steps taken in this research will now be explained in greater detail. Research process In order to obtain the data for an analysis, an article including the hypothesis and its theoretical origin was posted in selected forums on professional business networks with a request for spontaneous statements to the hypothesis based on knowledge and personal experiences. When constructing the hypothesis the focus was on creating a complex question that could not be answered with a clear yes or no and would therefore result in diverse and averse answers. By not putting the hypothesis in a tangible context, respondents would have to use their own definitions of the term flexibility and thereby create the base for the thematic analysis. The research process strictly followed the 6-phase guide to performing thematic analysis as proposed by Braun & Clarke (2006: 87).
1. Data collection: The data was analysed by deconstructive reading and respondents were categorized according to approval or denial of the hypothesis, gender, professional background and language used. 2. Generating of codes: The data was then systematically analysed with regard to the main areas of interest (flexibility, leadership and team) and organised into “meaningful groups” 16
(Tuckett in Braun & Clarke, 2006: 88) to generate initial codes which Boyatzis (1998: 63) describes as “the most basic segment or element of the raw data or information that can be assessed in a meaningful way regarding the phenomenon”. According to Miles and Huberman (in Braun & Clarke, 2006: 88), the coding itself is to be seen as “part of the analysis”. 3. Searching for themes: Relevant data was then assigned to each code. The next step was to analyse the codes and to combine them into overarching themes. According to Braun & Clarke (2006: 82), “a theme captures something important about the data in relation to the research question, and represents some level of patterned response or meaning within the data set”. Focusing on the relationships between codes, themes and different levels of themes, the aim was to end up with a collection of “candidate themes” and sub-themes (Braun & Clarke, 2006: 90). 4. Reviewing themes: The devised set of candidate themes was then consistently refined and reviewed to check whether they worked in relation to the codes and to the entire data itself by using Patton’s criteria for “internal homogeneity and external heterogeneity” (in Braun & Clarke, 2006: 91). After this phase it was clearer how the different themes fit together. 5. Defining and naming themes: Following the review, the themes were defined and named. Then each theme was analysed to identify the essence of what it was about and to determine what aspect of the data was captured in the theme (Braun & Clarke, 2006: 92-93). 6. Producing the report: Finally the most compelling examples for each theme were selected and related back to the research question (Braun & Clarke, 2006: 93).
Reasons for choice The key advantage of thematic analysis is its great flexibility and the prospect of generating unanticipated insights (Braun & Clarke, 2006: 97). It is seen as a useful method when working with participants as collaborators as in the case of this research (Braun & Clarke, 2006: 97). Holloway and Todres (in Braun & Clarke, 2006: 97) argue that when selecting an appropriate research method, the analysis should be driven by the research question and broader theoretical assumptions and not be restrained by a commitment to method because of the danger to fall victim to ‘methodolatry’. Braun & Clarke (2006: 97) argue that a rigorous thematic approach can produce an “insightful analysis” in order to answer a research question.
3. Sample Selection A purposive sampling approach (Marshall & Rossman, 2006: 70) was selected in order to investigate the attitudes and beliefs about flexibility of professionals with experience in working with or leading teams. The platforms chosen to achieve this goal were selected groups in the professional networks of LinkedIn and Xing. The majority of replies were obtained from LinkedIn (71 percent) with the remaining 26 percent from Xing and 3 percent from external company forums. The distribution of replies in the selected forums was 16 percent NLP related, 14 percent general business and consulting related, 11 percent leadership related, and 5 percent systems thinking related. The remaining 54 percent were obtained through other general interest forums. The main advantage in the use of forums is their voluntary nature: After posting the hypothesis and information about its background there were no further comments posted to ensure the authenticity of the replies. Within six weeks between January and March 2009 there were 267 18
individual replies to these posts. All replies were considered for this research which resulted in a widely homogeneous sample with members generally not knowing each other (Marshall & Rossman, 2006: 71). The sample reflects the views of professionals originating mainly from the US and Britain with 82 percent of the replies in English and from Germany with 18 percent of the replies in German, which gives the study a clear Western bias. There were 75 percent male and 25 percent female respondents. Since there was no information about age distribution available, the main distinction used for this research was professional classification: 16 percent of the respondents were senior management and 14 percent middle management level. Apart from these two classifications there were particular professions that clearly stood out with consultants totalling 18 percent and coaches / trainers with 8 percent of the replies. Academics accounted for 3 percent with replies from professors and students. The remaining 41 percent of replies were made up of mixed professionals including entrepreneurs. Other dimensions of demographics like ethnicity, religion, political views and education were not retrievable and therefore neglected (Marshall & Rossman, 2006: 107). This research is committed to safeguarding the respondents’ privacy and keeps their personal information confidential. Replies are therefore coded by first name and professional classification only (Burton & Steane, 2004: 67).
4. Validity and Reliability According to Braun & Clarke (2006: 96), the criteria in general qualitative research assessment can be applied to thematic forms of analysis as well. When quantitative researchers talk about research reliability, they are usually referring to a research that is credible because of its use of statistical means while the “credibility of a qualitative research depends on the ability and 19
effort of the researcher” (Golafshani, 2003: 600). In terms of validity, Patton (1990: 39) sees qualitative research as research that produces findings originating from real-world settings where the "phenomenon of interest unfolds naturally" and Rubin and Rubin (2005: 226) claim that “themes and concepts are embedded” within the data. However, Taylor and Ussher (in Braun & Clarke, 2006: 80) state that emerging themes are a “passive account of analysis and deny the active part the researcher has in identifying these themes, selecting the ones of interest and then reporting them to the reader”. The results of this research are therefore influenced by the author’s personal biases and choices and the author is aware of his involvement and role within the research (Johnson & Onwuegbuzie, 2004: 20).
Now that the methodology is clear, the following paragraphs aim to achieve further legitimation for the statement of the hypothesis. They contain clarifications about the composition of the hypothesis including its implicit assumptions and an acknowledgement of the variables that affect the results. After that the results are presented followed by a summary of the main points.
1. Legitimation of Hypothesis Clarifications In the process of creating the hypothesis, the presupposition of NLP is to be understood solely as a vehicle to attempt a logical transition from Ashby’s law to the paper’s hypothesis. The paper refrains from any further referencing to NLP due to its controversial standing in
academics as well as its lack of scientific evidence. The NLP translation of Ashby`s law itself is quite presumptuous and the hypothesis is even further away from the original meaning. The main interest is to identify the respondents’ perception of flexible behaviour rather than attempting a 1-to-1-conversion of Ashby’s law into a business context. Cybernetics is based on cause and effect relationships where any element of the system can influence the whole system; in a cybernetic context it is therefore clear that there are many reasons why somebody could end up leading a team. The use of cybernetic principles and the law of requisite variety as a context provide a frame of reference for identifying common denominators between variety and flexibility. It is clear that requisite variety and flexibility are two different things; neither is a flexible person the same as a “variety of actions available to a control system” (Heylighen, 1992) nor is the term 'control' the same as 'leadership'. These links were made solely to create the hypothesis. In the wording of the hypothesis ‘will’ was selected instead of ‘may’ to install a provocative element to the statement that was intended to encourage discussion. The notion of ‘ending up’ leading was chosen to further generalize the statement and take the variable of time out of the equation. Assumptions Embedded within the hypothesis are certain assumptions, e.g. it is taken for granted that the person leading the team is the one who will ensure the best outcome for the team. The hypothesis asks neither what it takes to be a good leader nor how to build an ideal team; it is solely concerned with leadership and teams in general. It does however introduce an element of human choice in the selection of the leader, therefore implying an informal leadership role (Covey, 2009); in reality more often than not team members have no say in who will be the
formal leader of the team because the organisational structure institutes the leader. Another assumption is that all team members have equal qualifications and that these do not affect the choice of the leader. Variables There are many apparent variables concerning a leader; leadership strongly depends on a person’s will to lead, their personal learning history and character to name just a few. In terms of who is to be led, variables include the team’s size and the environment of the firm, the sector or industry as well as the culture of the organisation. Concerning the team members, examples of variables are competence, age, gender and experience as well as the length of time they worked together and whether the team reconvened on future projects. Another variable is whether the team members were sent or are there voluntarily and whether they performed formal functions or not. General variables identified include the question what to be flexible about, the complexity of the goal or problem situation, the objectives or obstacles, and whether there is one uniform task to perform. An important variable is also the stage of development of individuals, teams and companies as well as industries. However, this research attempts to identify common ground in the most general way, regardless of the infinite number of dependent and independent variables that are apparent; its aim is to introduce flexibility as a criterion for leadership and show its possible effects.
2. Research Results The tendency was with 97 percent of replies clearly towards rejecting the hypothesis. Only 3 percent of the respondents felt that it was the most flexible person in a team that would end up leading the team. However, the main focus of this research is not on the question itself but 22
on the different ways the respondents view flexibility. In the following paragraphs the respondents’ understanding of flexibility will first be investigated and its impact on leadership identified. Definition of Flexibility Most respondents associated the term flexibility with the ability to adapt to a particular situation or social and cultural environment. It was apparent that for a majority, flexibility is only one of many leadership traits and certainly not the first. The term flexibility was used mostly as a substitute for ‘being able to’ thus describing flexibility as a behavioural trait rather than a value. In a social context, flexibility was interpreted as the willingness to listen and the ability to be diplomatic. For many, flexibility also implied the ability or willingness to change. The majority of respondents saw flexibility rise from experience, a varied background and functional competency. The concept of flexibility was seen in many dimensions; mental, emotional, behavioural, social and professional flexibility are only the ones that were mentioned most. However, there was consensus about flexibility implying an increased ‘variety of options’ to choose from to achieve a desired outcome. Implications of flexible behaviour The analysis of the data revealed a strong polarity between positive and negative aspects of flexibility; this theme was therefore adopted as the guiding concept for the presentation of the research results. The respondents agreed that in order to achieve a goal a certain bandwidth or requisite variety was required to incorporate new information. This was seen to be necessary to be able to adequately deal with occurring changes. Flexibility was also seen as the creativity to proactively 23
come up with new alternatives. A flexible person was regarded as being patient and willing to learn from co-workers. They were to be open for new strategies and to incorporate others’ points of view; therefore they were seen as likely to be popular among co-workers and regarded as sociable. Aspects of flexibility which were considered to be counterproductive to the success of an organisation were flexibility with ethics and integrity, with values and principles, as well as with compliance and quality. Respondents agreed that flexibility with the final goal was to be seen as a weakness or liability. This aspect of flexibility was also associated with the terms ‘weak’, ‘yielding’ and ‘pliable’ and related to potential manipulation, thwarting efforts and causing chaos. Implications of flexible behaviour in a team In a team setting a flexible person was considered to have the ability to appreciate team dynamics and possess the creativity to find different ways of persuasion in order to get the majority of the team to take a certain position. The ability to appeal to a broad group of people and earn their trust was identified as a great asset in times when the team would get into stressful situations that challenged its coherence. Being able to draw from a wider range of options, a flexible person was expected to be the one to take the first step without hesitation and generate action to get a team to move. The willingness to commit to the team would also result in the flexible person taking on the role least desired by their co-workers. Flexible behaviour in a team was mostly understood as being open to others’ opinions in the sense of being curious and eager to implement change. Some respondents believed that increased flexibility would result in more impact and control in the team.
The negative aspect of flexibility was depicted as agreeing to anything and being easily manipulated. This would cause the flexible person to add new things to their already full plate and they were seen to eventually do most of the work but get the smallest reward for their efforts. Some pictured a flexible person as avoiding confrontation and choosing consensus over alignment. Respondents repeatedly used the terms ‘wishy-washy’ and having ‘no backbone’ in their descriptions. There was the notion that when a certain kind of hierarchy evolved within a group, the flexible person was portrayed as voluntarily tending to, or being forced to, serve. This argument was consistent with the idea that a flexible person would be the first to move to another team. Implications of flexible behaviour in a leader The responses about flexible behaviour in a team differed from the responses about a flexible leader to a great extent. Therefore the next paragraphs look at positive and negative aspects of a flexible person in the role of a formal leader. According to the majority of respondents, a flexible team leader would give the team a great amount of freedom and space and then harness the potential of the team by adopting ideas from team members. Thus the team would be indirectly involved in the decision process and this would boost the level of motivation in the team. In addition to that, a flexible leader would be willing to accommodate divergent view points within a team and have an increased capacity to compromise. In this context flexibility was associated with the ability to ‘bend without breaking’ as well as the capacity to ‘bounce back’; Alejandra (professional) illustrated this by using the example of a bamboo, which “when bent comes back stronger”. Another aspect of flexibility was the ability to match the personal values of team members and to simplify
complex issues which was seen to greatly increase the chances of getting others to buy into the leader’s agenda; a flexible leader could then align his outcome with the outcome of the team and use each of the team members effectively as a means to get ahead and outrival competitors. As a downside of flexibility in a leader, respondents identified an inability to make a decision or a tendency to quickly overrule it. In decisions that would benefit a large portion of the team but not all, a flexible leader would hesitate; for this the expected consequences included delay, diversion from the actual goal and no results. This behaviour was also seen to be prone to confuse team members who would then want to see a solution and subsequently exert pressure on the leader. Matthew (senior management) states that the least productive people he has coached are those that “change their minds at the slightest resistance or input from their team”; they “become so flexible that nothing gets done”. Shiju (consultant) amplified this argument and claimed that a flexible leader would “try his hand at everything ending up being unable to prove himself at anything”. In this context a flexible leader was also pictured to expect flexible situations, and that is not always an option. Igor (trainer) pointed out that if “flexibility as a value” was not respected by other team members, there would be a lack of legitimation for leadership. Flexibility in this context was also linked to being lax with team mates and was concluded to result in an ineffective team and a poor leader. In turn, respondents saw this resulting in a loss of respect for the flexible leader and the danger of being overruled by his team members; Jeroen (professional) used the example of a new manager that is supposed to bring change into an existing team who ends up “being led by employees” and “children overruling their parents”; both examples were assumed to happen
because a less flexible person would focus on their position regardless if they were right or wrong. Implications of flexible behaviour in a follower A clear trend towards seeing the flexible person as a team player rather than the leading figure of the team could be identified in the course of this research. Therefore, the implications of flexible behaviour in a follower are now pointed out. Anthony (professional) compared the concept of a flexible follower with the perception that “nature abhors a void and things tend toward the path of least resistance”. Respondents considered it unnecessary for a flexible individual to challenge an actual team leader; they would just let the formal leader do their job due to their flexibility to be lead by others. Tina (senior management) also stated that a flexible person can even follow a leader they do not fully agree with "as long as progress is being made towards the team's objective." Many respondents pointed out that a flexible person might feel more comfortable in a team role where they could make use of their integrating skills and relax tensions caused by the actual team leader. In this context a flexible follower was seen as extremely valuable and able to draw on their strengths. This way, a flexible person was seen as extremely capable and even able to unconsciously lead both team members and superiors. Allan (consultant) noted that a flexible subordinate would then be the one “leading the leader” or flexible enough to "lead from any chair” as Patrick (professional) calls it. The respondents also illustrated negative aspects of a flexible follower: they would be likely to conform and would tend to go along with other’s decisions as well as take directions without question. They would try to be helpful to everyone in the team and put the needs of others 27
before their own. Guru (professional) claimed this to be the reason for flexible followers to become extremely efficient assistants, who would end up as “management pets”. This behaviour was believed to result in frustration. Claire (professional) even suspected a link into stress and sickness in the work place or the flexible follower deliberately sabotaging the team. Implications of inflexible behaviour in a leader After considering implications of both flexible leaders and followers, the focus now shifts to the opposite of a flexible leader, the inflexible leader. In the responses there was a clear tendency towards a positive perception of inflexible behaviour in a leader. The reasons for this are outlined below. A great amount of respondents linked inflexibility to stability and decisiveness. Inflexible leaders were seen to perform well in situations that demanded solidity and inflexibility with procedure and were called upon if there was a need for delivering tangible results in due time. They were seen as effective in leading into a certain direction because they would be inflexible when it comes to goals or objectives; they were even expected to be prepared to suppress contradictory opinions if that was required to keep the environment in a team stable. However, the respondents agreed that an inflexible leader would be able to use a flexible person the best way; Matthew (senior management) exemplified this notion with the captain of a “stormtossed boat at sea”. Respondents also saw the advantage of an inflexible leader for the team in their predictability; their main accomplishment would be to provide the team with a clear path to rely on. Negative aspects of an inflexible leader identified were that they would have more limitations and were only able to cope up to a limit of complexity. They would be comfortable only in a 28
fixed frame of reference with fixed rules as provided by large companies with structured hierarchies. Team members were seen to experience the inflexible leader as a bully who did not take their view point into consideration. An inflexible leader would also seem stubborn in a situation that required dynamic motion and legitimate their leadership solely through the level of sanction available to him; seen as the “person with the gun” (Neil, consultant), they would be obeyed by the team provided everyone believed the gun would be used if they did not. John (consultant) pointed out that occasionally a person who had “tenure but no other qualification” was named the leader of a team because they did not add value elsewhere. An inflexible leader was even associated with being the weakest link in a team; Fides (professional) illustrated this with the example of a “group of children that walk along a narrow path” who would “naturally walk at the pace of the slowest”.
3. Summary of Findings The responses were thematically organised and three main themes were identified; in the following paragraphs the balance between flexible and inflexible behaviour, the motivation for flexibility and the significance of flexibility itself are presented in more detail. Balance between flexible and inflexible behaviour Jeannel (senior management) explains that if a “team's string is too tight, it breaks”; if it is “too loose, the team can't really perform”. Everyone has a certain degree of flexibility, it is important to be aware that flexibility by definition is neither positive nor negative. It is all about what a person chooses to be flexible about and in which context. According to Mike (senior management), “a strength maximized is a weakness”; an excessive amount of flexibility is
therefore not desirable and would ultimately lead to failure. Therefore finding a balance between the extremes of flexible and rigid behaviour is the way to stabilize a team. Motivation for flexibility As Babette (professional) pointed out, there is a need for flexibility “within the team that is not necessarily with the leader”. Flexibility contributes to leadership but flexibility in itself does not make a leader. Joseph (professional) agrees that a leader needs flexibility, but “flexibility with definition”. Sydney (senior management) also stated that the “motivation behind the flexibility needs to be discovered and defined, in order to determine whether the flexibility will be successful or not”. According to John (consultant), “not all flexible people make good leaders and not all flexible people want to be a leader”. Significance of flexibility It is important to note that in the long run a leader is replaceable; the most flexible person is not. Volker (professional) wrote that the leader might change but “the one who keeps the team going remains”; therefore the flexible person can be considered the “most important” person. According to Renée (professional) this significance to the organization will result in recognition of apparent potential through development and training for this person. Due to the fact that the level of flexibility in a person is not recognizable at first sight, a person’s attitude towards it can be assessed fairly quickly by asking the right questions. Depending on the task at hand, consideration should therefore be given to match a person’s attitude towards flexibility with the right type of job, e.g. where administrative site-specific tasks may look for inflexibility in a person as a selection criterion, a globetrotter or virtual team environment may almost expect an eagerness to demonstrate flexible behaviour.
1. Conclusions and Theoretical Contributions This paper provides fundamental insights into the underlying processes of flexible behaviour in leadership. Provisional theoretical contributions were made by highlighting the need for balance when applying flexibility. In addition to that the motivations for flexibility were explored and the significance of flexible behaviour was exemplified. Although flexibility as the main reason for the choice of a leader was dismissed by this research, it was clearly identified that a minimum level of behavioural flexibility is important in a leader. The results show similarities with the definition of leadership proposed by Adair (in Chapman, 2008) to the extent that consistency of character is acknowledged to be beneficial for the coherence of the team and that the appropriate degree of flexibility is situation dependent. Contrary to the position of the literature review, the importance of empathy and a potential for individual or team development of the leader was not seen as a requisite for leadership in the findings. The major focus was rather on achieving tasks and delivering results than on withinteam coherence. Instead of a ‘drive to achieve’ as proposed by Clegg and Birch (2002: 4) or an ‘adaptability to environmental changes’ (Scarnati, 1999: 194), there was a tendency to focus on the ‘will to lead’ as the main attribute of a leader. After clarifying this motivation, the necessity for awareness of the implications of flexible and inflexible behaviour became important in the debate. Where the essence of the literature review is all about flexibility and its advantages, the research results identified a perceived negative side to flexible behaviour. As outlined in the analysis, flexibility can, if applied in the right situation and a suitable environment, contribute to “bring out the best in people” (Shiju, consultant). When used in an inappropriate way, there
is the danger that this flexibility may actually harm its bearer; there is a fine line between serving the team’s best interests and being exploited. Adding to the findings of the literature review, the flexible leader in the analysis was found to be clearly linked to tolerating ambiguity and the inflexible one to focusing on control. Looking at extremes, the consequences for the team were perceived to be more positive with an overly inflexible leader than a too flexible leader. This was due to the fact that a coherent team environment was seen to originate from stability; thus a leader who is predictable was preferred over one that is visionary. In the case of an inflexible formal leader the research indicated that here the support of the team originates mainly from the structure of the organization rather than the personality of the leader. Flexibility in general is therefore not to be seen as a leadership trait per se, however, in times of uncertainty the ability to adequately deal with ambiguity is likely to be the “difference that makes the difference” (Jagat, professional).
2. Implications for Future Research and Practice Future research should build upon this study by further investigating the significance of flexibility and attempt to create a common, universally applicable definition of the term flexibility in a business context. Open questions include whether there is another single factor or a combination of factors that can be isolated as a cause for informal leadership. It should further be investigated to what extent team performance is affected if a leader is flexible or not and whether it would influence the outcome if the team was only comprised of leaders. For this research a qualitative approach to data analysis was appropriate. Further studies into this area
of research should include a quantitative research approach and use statistical means to validate the findings of this paper. The relevance of this research for the practical business context consists of its contribution to raise awareness of flexibility when choosing a leader for a particular environment. This paper introduces the matching of a leader and a situation in terms of flexibility as a way to improve the relationships within an organization. In addition to that the increased awareness of the impact of flexibility and the choice of whether or not to act or react flexibly in a particular situation is also beneficial on a personal level in almost every aspect of life. Finally, this paper might serve as a personal motivation towards training and self development activities since it reminds the readers to consciously and proactively increase the variety of options available to them to be equipped for future challenges.
3. Limitations To conclude this paper, it is essential to look back and keep in mind that qualitative research cannot be used for definitive theory testing (Bryman in Sumner-Armstrong et al, 2008: 855) and that the interpretation of the data through thematic analysis is clearly subjective and biased. Although an attempt was made to limit the bias in the research sample through the use of multiple platforms and different forums, the vast amount of variables mentioned earlier make interpretation difficult. Due to the different backgrounds of the large sample of 267 professionals, the research was not able to sufficiently target a certain group to make precise predictions. Since the respondents volunteered their opinions freely, it is possible that there are unidentified common characteristics that influence the findings, e.g. respondents differ from other professionals due to their membership in professional online networks and their 33
active involvement in special interest groups which indicates that they have the time available to answer such questions, that they value networking and share a willingness to contribute. Regardless of the limitations above, the current research provides useful insights into the implications of flexibility for leadership and identified preliminary questions for future research of the relationship between leaders and followers.
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1. Forum Article
"Is it the most flexible person that ends up leading a team?" Dear everyone, I am currently researching for my dissertation, the topic is: “How cybernetics can test the following statement: The most flexible person in a team will end up leading the team.” I am looking for spontaneous statements to this hypothesis; please share your view or real life experiences. A little background to the choice of topic: 1. The original ‘law of requisite variety’ formulated by W.R. Ashby (1956) states that: “The larger the variety of actions available to a control system, the larger the variety of perturbations it is able to compensate.” http://pcp.lanl.gov/reqvar.html 2. This is adapted to a presupposition of NLP: “In NLP the ‘Law of Requisite Variety’ in a given physical system, is that the part of the system with the greatest flexibility of behaviour will control the system.” http://www.nlpscotland.com/law-of-requisite-variety.htm 3. Adapted to an actual business context my hypothesis states that: "The most flexible person in a team will end up leading the team. “ I am currently working on defining the terms of flexibility, leadership and team in a tangible context. "Is it the most flexible person that ends up leading a team?" What do you think? Thanks a lot and all the best from England,
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