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Approaching the corporate heart


by Margot Cairnes, Simon and Schuster, 1998.


This is a call for heart and humanity in business in contrast to the ruthlessness and warlike attitude that often prevails. Separation of emotion from work leads to loss of meaning. Beyond techniques such as getting the right mix of competences and teambuilding activities, nurturing relationships is everyone’s responsibility. This is fostered by ongoing conversation - talking and listening as a way of life at work.

(Reviewed by Edgar Wille in February 2000)

(These book reviews offer a commentary on some aspects of the contribution the authors are making to management thinking. Neither Ashridge nor the reviewers necessarily agree with the authors’ views and the authors of the books are not responsible for any errors that may have crept in.

We aim to give enough information to enable readers to decide whether a book fits their particular concerns and, if so, to buy it. There is no substitute for reading the whole book and our reviews are no replacement for this. They can give only a broad indication of the value of a book and inevitably miss much of its richness and depth of argument. Nevertheless, we aim to open a window on to some of the benefits awaiting readers of management literature.)

Can there be love, heart and caring in business life?

This book insists that the old "warrior" ways of dictation and bullying, demanding and commanding just do not work and are not ethically right anyway. However there is still a feeling around that such ideas represent something that is too soft for the harsh climate of competitiveness, even though we do talk a lot about team work, empowerment and motivation.

When consultant Roger Harrison introduced "love in the work place" into a small book he wrote, some of his friends told him that his days as a consultant were numbered; no one would take him seriously. But his consultancy thrived, suggesting that he was putting into words a need that many felt, but dare not express so boldly. And on a larger scale this is what Margot Cairnes is doing in this book.

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Introducing the author

Margot Cairnes is a consultant who specialises in leading groups of business people to come to terms with their feelings as a means of achieving greater business success. This contrasts with the common attitude that business is rational and that feelings are off limit.

She speaks of the dehumanising and depersonalising tendencies in much of the business world. People are bewildered by the rate of change and long to "get back to normal". But we have to face up to the fact that there is no 'normal'. We cannot control all the contending factors that demand our attention; we cannot control our situation, but we can control our reaction. She goes so far as to say that the workplace is a fine "learning place", where personal, emotional and spiritual transformation can take place.

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Heroes and warriors

She describes people who thus use the experience of work as 'heroes' on a quest, to find their true selves in the course of an inner journey, just as classical Greek heroes did on their journeys. These journeys are undertaken in the real external world; they are not matters of psychotherapy or introspection. They recognise that it is whole beings who come to work, bringing intelligence, emotions and personal agendas. We cannot separate who we are from the work we do. Her heroes take responsibility for their own decisions and actions; they see life as an adventure and a voyage of discovery.

She contrasts these heroes with "warriors" who are the more usual standard in business life. Life is a battle. "You don't get anywhere if you don't fight for it!" Some business leaders run their firms as a battlefield. They must win at all costs. They suppress feelings and either give orders or obey them, often giving away joy and aliveness for the sterility of status and power. (They use mottos like "Kill Kodak" (FUJI) or "Beat Benz" (Toyota) to create a coherent mission.) Fun and poetry have no recognised place in warrior businesses, even if they have a knack of breaking out from time to time. These businesses are at home with measurement and order. They focus on things rather than relationships.

This may sound all rather distant from the practicalities of running a business. But Margot Cairnes asks how many mergers or joint ventures have foundered, because not enough attention was paid to feelings of employees, customers and suppliers. Organisation's have been slow to recognise what is regularly emphasised in even standard management literature, that the boundary between competitors and collaborators has become blurred (the word 'co-opetition' has been coined to describe this).

In the same mould of thought is the fact that organisation's are increasingly having to take into account the fact that people "feel" that industrial activities are impinging unfavourably on the environment and society in general. Businesses are also suffering because of the expectation that people will give their all to the business, to the neglect of family and private life, with growth in depression, fatigue and soul impairment. Youth and males tend to thrive more as warriors (for a time) and ageing warriors are discarded.

Warriors charge from crisis to crisis with the adrenalin running, fixing things and regarding relationship building and reflection as a waste of precious time. Yet they are the people that are generally approved by our society. (There are exceptions like Richard Branson and Anita Roddick.) "We canonise the rich and the famous, regardless of their intrinsic value to themselves and to others." "Celebrities are merely people who are known for being known."

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The voyage of the hero

On the basis of classical heroes, Cairnes suggests three stages in the life of a business hero:

  • First they depart, they set out on their journey - they move out of their comfort zones, often encouraged by a mentor, who helps them to see who they are and who they can be
  • Second they experience the trials of initiation into their new journey; the future is unknown; there are no prescribed routes, but they are not warrior-like lone rangers, they have to blend with things as they are, rather than imposing their will
  • Finally real success comes if they then re-integrate with society; they share their learning with others and even inspire them to do likewise and learn to live life to the full, instead of existing in the shadow of what might be, believing themselves in the grip of circumstances.

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Harnessing the emotions

The author speaks of how we have been schooled to separate our human emotions from the work we do. She quotes Carl Rogers as saying that this is institutionalising emotional ill health, which is the source of so much workplace conflict and lassitude and apathy. With Rogers she advocates a move from fixity, remoteness from feelings and experience, impersonal functioning, to a recognition that we live in a fluid world, which requires us to be flexible in our thinking and feeling. We let go of fixed cognitive maps which get us stuck in ways of thought and action which have been rendered archaic by the march of events.

This change of attitude is all the more necessary as the life cycle of products and services is becoming ever shorter due to the rapidity of technological development. Our models, standard procedures and traditional approaches soon become outdated. It therefore becomes more important to learn how to learn rather than to amass a vast store of unchanging factual information.

Margot Cairnes stresses the need to share this learning process, involving our feelings as well as the changing information, because relationships are based on feelings as well as logic. She makes an interesting point out of the word 'conversation'. It comes from the Latin con versare - to turn with the other! "This", she says, "is the daily flow of life. We live in changing experiences and we explain them to ourselves and to others through conversation."

Such conversation goes beyond what is cold and scientifically measurable. Human emotions and relationships are "alive, human, messy, mysterious and ever changing." Business is so often constrained by what is measurable, testable, containable and controllable. Hence feeling and emotion is often outlawed in the workplace. Good ideas are lost through fear of ridicule or antagonistic moods lie hidden until they break out in virulent form.

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Flexible and free flowing

These concepts are presented in this book as highly practical. The borderless world and the global society make it imperative that free flowing, responsive people find themselves at the helm, because of these qualities, rather than because of traditional leadership standards of command and control. Situations are less and less amenable to such standards. Tolstoy is quoted in this connection.

Most men, including those at ease with complex problems, "can seldom accept even the simplest and most obvious truth if it be such as would oblige them to admit the falsity of conclusions which they have delighted in explaining to colleagues, which they have proudly taught to others and which they have woven thread by thread into the fabric of their lives".

Such men may think they are being rational, but they too are being driven by emotion, so deep that they cannot recognise it.

Giving up cherished mind maps in the light of changing circumstances feels as if it is a matter of going back to zero. Often we have to let go of what we thought was our power and join others in a common level of ignorance. We then have to accept that our ability to relate to others and to learn from every experience is our real strength that will bring good out of even what looked like disaster.

Robert Quinn's Beyond Rational Management (1988, Jossey Bass, San Fransisco) is quoted as giving three good maxims which students even at business schools do well to remember

  • the rules taught in text books are misleading
  • no one theory is inherently better than another
  • change is not inherently better than the status quo.

This is given as a warning that even the value of experience reflected upon and the outcomes of the reflection applied can be superseded by the rapidity of change. (Kolb's learning cycle recognises this by constantly going round the circle of experience? reflection - conceptualisation? testing? experience and so on, to avoid becoming stuck in a rut).

Richard Branson and Anita Roddick are offered as examples of the success of driving business in the free flowing way. Branson has worked instinctively, with little concern for models and theories; he sometimes gets it wrong, but overall following his heart has yielded results and gives maximum space to all the participants in the Virgin enterprises. Roddick went from one shop in Brighton to 1500 around the world by relying on her experience and her instincts. "There are no books written" she says " that tell you how to do it...Business should have human empathy attached...Business is about compassion and social justice-Businesses should not be judged on their balance sheet, but on how they look after the weak and frail".

This may sound impractical, but we have to face up to the fact that business constitutes a large part of how we run society - a larger part than governments who can do little more than provide frameworks, infrastructure and essential regulation in a free market environment. Such a view of our daily work enables us to dream and to believe that "I can make a difference".

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The Abilene factor

Margot Cairnes talks of what is known in management education circles as "the Abilene factor". This is based on the story of a family of three generations, who went on a long journey from the home where they were having a slightly boring family reunion to Abilene, a distant large town, for a meal. Hours later they returned, hot, weary and irritable to discover that no one really had wanted to go, but they all went along with it because no one was honest and all gave the impression that they wanted to go.

So people agree to decisions in meetings because it is too much bother to state what we really think, or it might upset someone, so we let it pass. This form of organisational deceit is very prevalent. Cairnes gives nine rules that organisations often follow, but which the approach she advocates would expunge from the culture.

  • It is not OK to talk about problems (instead of seeing it as the key to success).
  • Feelings should not be expressed openly (and so things go on as ever).
  • Communication is best if indirect, with one person acting as the messenger between two others.
  • Be strong, good, right and perfect (fear of been seen as vulnerable).
  • Make us proud (our enterprise is so good that any dissent is disloyal).
  • Don't be selfish (meaning that if you don't play the game exactly as they see it, colleagues will make you feel guilty).
  • Do as I say and not as I do! (I do as I please; you mustn't contrasted with the story of Ricardo Semler who transformed his business into a worker run enterprise? see his book Maverick).
  • It is not OK to play or be playful (but play is creative and develops aliveness. The summariser has been criticised as well as commended for saying that if work isn't fun it's not worth doing).
  • Don't rock the boat! (Let things stay as they are and use killer phrases like "we did it before and it didn't work"; "it wouldn't work in this company", "that's not how we do things round here", "X wouldn't like it").

She speaks of change programmes set up with the hidden agenda to make sure that change doesn't happen.

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The role of stories

The essence of this book is to develop the contrast between warriors and heroes, giving stories of experiences with both categories. Stories are fundamental to a book like this, because they narrate experiences, rather than theories or models in the abstract. Everyone who trains others should have a stock of questions to elicit people's current awareness on which to build or from which to launch out: a repertoire of stories to illustrate the learning and to encourage storytelling by the participants: a supply of practical activities to test out the learning in action.

Cairnes encourages people to notice what is happening in their lives and their emotional responses and to do it as it happens. (The summariser does this by keeping a daily journal. I don't feel I've lived until I've written it down. When I have written it down then I realise that I live at least seven days every day. If I die at 90 I shall be 630!). Such reflection on life enables one to see it and tell it as a story. Cairnes says "Story telling allows us to take instruction from other people's lives, cultures and experiences, and integrate as much of or as little of it as we want into our own."

Such learning is richer than that which comes in a textbook, with clear subheadings and seven points to remember. It is the basis of Action Learning groups where people share their concerns and act as consultants to each other. You discover that problems that you thought were unique to you are shared by others. Action learning groups often help senior executives to realise some of their own humanness as they open up to each other.

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Responsibility for relationships

A key point about relationships is that "any relationship worth having has to be based on respect for each person's individuality at the deepest level" for "nobody really knows what is happening inside another person". This is a piece of wisdom usually neglected by the warrior types in business, who seek to mould others to their own specifications. The formula to be preferred is expressed "I matter, you matter, we matter". Simple, but how often overlooked.

Truisms are sometimes powerful. One of Cairnes' truisms: "We are all responsible for 50% of every relationship in which we are involved. When people have problems with a relationship, they usually set out to change 50% of that relationship. Unfortunately the 50% they try to change is the half for which they are not responsible and over which they have no control - the other person's 50%. Not only is this a total waste of time (because it simply does not work), but it actually aggravates the problems. If there is one thing people hate it is people trying to change them." Such coercive attempts create wounded, defensive people, who can't be changed.

Continuing her philosophy of nurturing relationships, our author quotes psychotherapist David Reynolds as saying that the most miserable people he has known have been the self focused, whereas the happiest have been those who give themselves away to others. This is not mere altruism or self denial, but the way in which such "heroes" come to know that they can make a difference in the world. They "invest themselves in the world". Cairnes uses the non business phrase "soul building" to describe this approach. With it we "stop blaming others, circumstances and history for those things we don't like and get on with the heroic task of making our lives, our relationships and our world work."

We become co-creators of the world in which we live and work, It is very different from regarding our work colleagues of all levels as "intelligent machines", thus undermining so much potential for creativity, dulling what is most needed for business success. When we strip out the humanity, the heart, from our relationships we end up interacting as role to role, rather than person to person. The analysis Cairnes thus offers is so simple that it is apt to be derided as common knowledge, but it is common practice to see people as roles and bundles of competences, and thus lose so much of what they could offer.

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Doubts about the competence philosophy

She says that her big complaint about most leadership and organisational change programmes is that they introduce skills, techniques and competences, which help warriors to be better warriors for a time. The aim should not be "to live up to some ideal standard excellence (the eighty competences for human perfection don't exist)". By implication she has grave reservations about the role oriented competence movement.

She speaks of the way in which leadership writers have isolated certain behavioural characteristics and attitudes that seem to be shared by great leaders. Corporations have adopted these behaviours and attitudes as "competences", which they require their leaders to exhibit. Business schools have set up courses to train aspiring leaders in these leadership competences. Meanwhile we all go on complaining that, "we have never needed leaders more, nor had more trouble finding them".

She criticises the assumption that you can separate the reality of the human heart and soul from the reality of leadership, as if by learning a few skills, practicing a few competences and going on a few more courses we can become leaders. This might do for warrior leaders, but not for leaders with breadth of vision and depth of character, based on inner strength, wisdom and grace. Following the recipes developed by old time warriors will not do this. Neither will being seduced by sound bites, public image or skills of presentation. We need leaders who will help us all to contribute and learn to stand on our own feet.

"Great leaders, however weren't trained to follow certain competences. Great leaders were simply competent. There is a big difference - a difference writers on the subject have overlooked."

Margot Cairnes also believes that our perceived imperfections may be our greatest strengths. The leader who is criticised as too soft may be the one who builds empathetic relationships that lead to situations based on outstanding trust, than which there is nothing more powerful.

She adds "the pain of our bungled moments opens our hearts, minds and souls to the learning that is so abundantly around us. When we stop trying to control the moment, we cease trying to force our lives and the world to be a certain way, we can be present with the reality of what is. Then the knocks, insults, jars, rebuffs, and apparent dead ends become sources of great learning. They become teachers that put us in touch with our own wisdom." She says that wisdom is gained "not in the teaching but in the learning; not in the talking but in the silences, in the reflection, in the feeling, in the noticing and in the action".

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Heroes need support

Margot Cairnes has much to say about support. The hero types know they need it. The warrior types think they must do it all themselves and needing support is a sign of weakness. To have a mentor is one way of gaining support, a safe person who will listen, who will accord you respect, because they respect themselves. A good mentor has no plans for your improvement, though they may help you accept yourself, make sense of and utilise your feelings. (The summariser well remembers the surprise a senior manager expressed at the end of a mentoring session, that he, the manager, had done most of the talking. I replied that that had been the idea.)

Our author breaks her own rule about rules and gives some rules for support groups:

  • when someone talks listen.
  • don't interrupt.
  • anything said within the group is confidential.
  • equal time, equal contribution - everybody gets heard, everybody contributes.
  • ask for feedback.
  • avoid judgement.
  • table your agendas.
  • talk for yourself - own your communication.
  • if you have something to tell someone, speak directly to that person.
  • clarify objectives and purpose.
  • respect each person's opinions and feelings.
  • respect personal differences.

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Team building

Cairnes also has something to say about teams. She says: "Building a fixed entity called a team is a redundant concept; what we need now are hardy, workable relationships that we sculpt and transform according to purpose, need and circumstance. We are in the age of networks that form and reform, locally, nationally and globally, within, across and between companies." The most successful networks are those wherein individual difference is valued and personal and relationship growth is promoted.

Some bosses are suspicious of networks that employees create for themselves. In spite of her high idealism Margot Cairnes shows practical awareness in this connection. She encourages people to be politically aware of the currents at work in their organisations. She advises people to find out the political lie of the land and be prepared to work gradually with warrior type bosses who may feel threatened if you appear too overtly to prefer the hero mould. Recognise that a boss is a person too and has a job to do and an agenda to carry through, but as you become skilled in relationship management, you may reach the stage where you could manage Genghis Khan, suggests our author.

Our author also suggests that we look for mentors who will help us "to bridge the gap between our inner world and our outer day-to-day circumstances and relationships, helping us to bring about magical, sleight of hand transformations in our lives, business and world? who can help us bring our growing heart and soul into the political and social reality of our world." This is a highly skilled and exacting task; finding people who are sufficiently worldly, adequately wise and appropriately heroic is very, very hard.

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Being a hero - not a soft option

Margot Cairnes is not a "softie " herself. She faces up to the themes popularised by Charles Handy that there is a sea change in the employment situation and that jobs for life are not to be expected. People have to learn to stand on their own feet, less dependent on paternalism from a company. They may spend part of their life working for an organisation, but then they will develop a portfolio of skills and achievements which they can sell to a portfolio of clients. This will be easier if during their full time company employment they have moved into the hero mould, rather than remaining in the warrior state.

Her definition of strategy takes into account all the foregoing. It is "simply jargon for being sufficiently clear about what you want and sufficiently in touch with yourself, those around you and your environment to be in a position to create, notice and capitalise on opportunities, thus ensuring that you achieve your long term and medium term objectives". This means that you have to think on your feet, be continually reading and rereading the environment and nurturing a whole range of relationships.

Another demonstration that Margot Cairnes is not just a starry eyed idealist, head in the clouds, feet not touching the ground, is seen in her treatment of tough love. This was a phrase originated to help parents cope with recalcitrant teenagers on whom they were being soft. In business the key element is to be open with people about the dangers into which they are falling and then to let them feel the consequences of their actions. Thus they will learn and you will have done them the highest favour possible. During the process you have to be proof against accusations of heartlessness.

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We can make a difference

With this awareness of realism in her thinking we are the more ready to respond to her closing words:

"May you rise to the call the next time you hear, see or smell it, laying aside your timid self effacing, dry self limitations and daring to see who you are in your truest and brightest light."

"It is only when a significant number of individuals take up the challenge to be all they can be that the business world will change. It is only when individuals in their thousands decide to go on the hero's quest that society will evolve into the kind of place we want for ourselves and our children. It is only when we, each and every one of us, in all our human imperfections, decided to take full personal responsibility for making the world a better place, through being all we can be, that real enduring change will occur."

"The wonder, the great wonder, of this way of thinking, living and working, is that it seems so alive, so rich and so full that every living second becomes a reason to give thanks just for the privilege of being alive. Every living second becomes a psalm of praise not just for the good times, not just for the wins, but for every aspect of our life - the whole emotional, spiritual and interpersonal range of experience. Life on the hero's quest then becomes an ongoing chorus of thanksgiving just for the wonder of life itself."

When I first picked up this book I felt it was a little too idealistic, Going through it the second time to write this summary, I felt its full impact and emerged from the work of summarising, revived at a time when I was becoming a little stale. I felt a new zest to follow what she calls the hero's quest, There is no substitute for reading the book itself and I hope you will not rest satisfied with my summary.

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