Doing is a third meta competency. This meta competency involves the ability to generate action, both at the individual and organizational levels. It includes not only understanding the human physiology that produces action and plays a key role in learning, but also the subtle but powerful role awareness of one’s internal bodily sensations plays in performance. It also includes the often invisible, underlying structures that facilitate or stymie action.
Our actions most directly, visibly influence the results we create in the world. Without action, ideas and purpose are not manifested in the physical world, no matter how good the idea or how strong the human connectivity. Action is the muscle of leadership.
Doing stimulates learning. Repetitive action (i.e., practice) creates the neural grooving that is essential to embedding memory. Also, actions cause reactions that create information (i.e., feedback) that is fodder for learning. Experiential learning can be far more powerful than research-based learning, as it engages body, mind and emotion in the learning process. As Confucius said, "I hear and I forget; I see and I remember; I do and I understand."
Our physiology is instrumental to deep learning, when our responses are so automatic that we act before our brain has time to form a thought, let alone a plan. The term “embodied skill” refers to this ability to put complex actions on autopilot, so that “what comes next” or “how to respond” becomes second nature. 85 I remember as a fencer at UNC-CH, the repetition with which we practiced our footwork and blade work created “muscle memory,” such that our bodies could respond at lightning speed during bouts, much faster than our minds could participate. Deeply entrenched habits (both positive and negative) also fall into this camp. For example, when we are emotionally triggered, our pre-frontal cortex is bypassed and we operate from the ancient amygdala; we react before we have time to think.
Interoception, the ability to sense stimuli arising from within the body, is a powerful entry point to lasting behavioral change. By directing attention to our internal experience, we can intervene to change the defaults of our nervous system and create new behaviors that are supported by new grooved neural pathways. 86
The role of action in learning (and thus performance) also is seen in specialized organizational processes designed to take advantage of this. Action Learning,87 an action-oriented, reflective process used by diverse groups to simultaneously solve complex problems and accelerate learning and leadership development, has been proven to be very effective. 88 89 Self-proclaimed “action tanks” (in contrast to research-oriented “think tanks”) organize themselves to take advantage of the power of action in learning, by employing rapid “do-learn” sequences to learn what works through experimentation. Similarly, rapid prototyping 90 is commonly used by software developers to quickly understand what works and doesn’t (and adjusting accordingly) by building and testing.
How This Meta Competency Operates
It had been long believed that our actions are a linear product of our rational mind. We now understand that our actions flow from a more complex cocktail, that includes thoughts, feelings, beliefs, habits, experience, instincts – from the essence of our being. We also now know the reverse is also true: how we act directly influences how we think, feel, and experience ourselves. The adage “fake it until you make it” speaks to the power of “action experiments,” when taking action can help create the conditions through which you change your mind. Act first and let your rational perceptions catch up later. Consider the innumerable examples of when individuals do not believe they are capable of something until they try it and prove themselves wrong (and thereby shift their self-perception).
Our bodies, the vessels of doing, are remarkably complex. The notion that our bodies carry out the orders of our brains, in some kind of one-way command-and-control style system, has been debunked as neuro-psycho-biology shows us the intricate interconnectedness of our nervous system. We now know that our thoughts, feelings and beliefs can directly shape our physiology. (In one study, hotel maids who were told that their cleaning activities were comparable to a cardio workout, lost weight, without changing any other habits, while the control group, who was not told this, did not lose weight. 91 In another study, the grenelin levels rose in people who believed they were eating indulgent, high calorie, high fat foods, compared to when they ate identical foods that they believed were low calorie, low fat.) 92 Conversely, our physical activities can directly influence our mental states. For example, the act of controlled breathing has been shown to reduce stress, increase alertness, and boost our immune systems. Lesley Alderman of the New York Times reports, “Studies have shown that breathing practices can reduce symptoms associated with anxiety, insomnia, post-traumatic stress disorder, depression, and attention deficit disorder…. ‘If you breathe correctly, your mind will calm down.’ “ 93 94 95 96 97 98 99
In fact, interoception, the awareness of our bodily sensations, is a gateway to deep internal knowing and relational attunement. We refer to “gut checks” when we scan our internal landscape for physiological signals about what feels right or “off.” Many mindfulness practices focus attention away from the thinking mind and toward in the interiority of the body, as a gateway to accessing greater information. Our ability to tune into our own internal, physiological felt sense is a prerequisite for attuning to others. Dan Siegel describes how “internal awareness is a vital part of emotional and social intelligence” and how the “capacity to be aware of our bodily state in a balanced way is important for both self-understanding and the ability to be empathic and compassionate.” 100 “Attunement, both internal and interpersonal, shares the same fundamental resonance circuitry and mutually reinforces itself.” 101
Externally, how you hold your physical posture can influence your social status. Amy Cuddy found that “Dominance and power are highly correlated with perceived competence, and people make inferences of competence based on how dominant someone appears.” 102 103 Thus, not only does this change in posture shift your own experience of power and competence, but it influences others to perceive you and treat you as powerful and competent. 104
At the team and organizational level, structures help drive action. By structures, I refer to all the human-determined formal design elements that suggest how people will work together in a system. These can include the formal reporting structures (e.g., traditionally hierarchical or networked), roles and responsibilities, decision rights, incentives, 105 106 107 processes, systems, communication protocols and more. Typically, these structures are purposefully designed to drive effective, efficient action. If the implementation of strategy is slow, ineffective, or inefficient, it is often because these organizational design elements are not in place or not clear or aligned. 108 Take the example of agile innovation teams. These small, interdisciplinary teams solve large, complex problems by developing modular solutions through rapid prototyping with tight feedback loops, which are then integrated into the larger whole. 109 This organizational structure supports accelerated innovation.
If systems, processes, and structures are the “train track” that support efficient and effective action, motivation is the fuel on which the train runs. Thus, in the way that curiosity fuels the seeing meta competency and caring fuels the connecting competency, motivation fuels the doing meta competency. The source of human motivation (and thus how leadership “can motivate employees”) has been a puzzle for decades, resulting in many theories. 110 More recent findings in this field focus on the role of autonomy, mastery and purpose 111 and meaningfulness, choice, competence and progression. 112 Amabile’s and Kramer’s research on key motivators of creative work in contemporary businesses reinforces “The Progress Principle: Of all the things that can boost emotions, motivation, and perceptions during a workday, the single most important is making progress in meaningful work. The more frequently people experience that sense of progress, the more likely they are to be creatively productive in the long run. Whether they are trying to solve a major scientific mystery or simply produce a high-quality product or service, everyday progress, even a small win can make all the difference in how they feel and perform.” 113 Thus, we see the symbiotic relationship between motivation and action: motivation fuels action; effective, meaningful action (i.e., “making progress in meaningful work”) is what propels motivation.
Cutting across the organizational, team and individual levels, there is another subtle way in which structure drives action. Relationships, conversations, and group dynamics can all have underlying structures, that are created through repetitious patterns of actions. These structures are not usually visible to the untrained eye, and yet they can dominate outcomes. To continue with the rail metaphor, “The structure of a conversation carries the content like railroad tracks.” 114 That visceral feeling of “Here we go again…” is a gut suggestion that the structure is driving the outcomes. When a structure is “stuck” it hinders the productivity of a relationship, conversation or group. Ironically, it can take tremendous energy to keep a “stuck structure” in place, even as it fails to achieve positive results. Thus, significant energy can be released and reclaimed, by unearthing and shifting an underlying stuck structure. World-class behavioral interventionists are trained to help clients do just that. David Kantor developed his theory of Structural Dynamics to give language to three underlying and inter-related structural levels of interactions. By making these visible, leaders are able to “see” them and then intervene on them, to enhance the quality of interactions. 115 Diana Smith maps the underlying structure of a relationship using her act-impact framework. (She identifies 5 common underlying structures of relationships.) 116 Left-hand/right-hand column cases can be used to exposed the underlying structure of a specific interaction. Polarity 2x2s can be used to expose a stuck structure within one’s own mindset.
How to Develop This Meta Competency (“Do More, Better”)
How can leadership develop the doing meta competency? Depending on the nature of the need, here are a variety of approaches:
- Practice attuning to the interior experience of your physiology. Listen to the information flows of your body.
- Understand your relative action propensity. 117 Leadership can explore the specific contexts in which it has a strong, appropriate propensity for action and others where it may be prone to too much or too little action. It can develop strategies for adjusting and engaging in reflective practice.
- Identify underlying “stuck” structures in relationships or interactions and intervene, in order to improve outcomes.
- Utilize somatic approaches to shift undesirable conditioned responses or physiologically embed new learning.
- Purposefully align organizational architecture (e.g., systems, processes, incentives, decision rights, etc.) to support the effective, efficient implementation of the strategy (and support of healthy culture). Design the organizational architectural elements to promote motivational forces. As appropriate, utilize action-oriented learning processes as part of the organizational and team architecture (e.g., Rapid Prototyping, Agile, etc.).
- Utilize action-oriented learning processes (e.g., Action Learning, DeeperFunner’s Collaborative Intelligence, etc.).
- Utilize the power of repetitious action/practice to embed desired actions, responses or skills, at the individual, team and organizational levels.
Key Points Summary: The “Doing” Meta Competency
The doing meta competency is the domain of action, the muscle of leadership. Action is the concrete manifestation of ideas, emotions, and states of being in the physical world that most directly influence results. This meta competency includes:
- The propensity of leadership for action (vs. inaction), as well as the ability to execute effectively and efficiently.
- The internal information flows that are resident in our bodies.
- The physiology of the human body that generates action and plays a key role in learning.
- The structures, systems, and processes that support organizational action (e.g., org design, technology systems, work processes, incentives, decision rights, etc.).
- The subtle, underlying structures that underpin human interactions (i.e., conversations, relationships, etc.).
Effective action (that is aligned with a compelling, meaningful direction in the context of productive relationships) propels progress.
Action plays an essential role in learning, which is why experiential learning is more effective than research-based learning. Repetitive action (i.e., practice) creates the neural grooving that is essential to embedding memory. Action causes reaction and thus feedback which is fodder for learning. Our physiology is so instrumental to deep learning it is also called “embodied” learning. Specialized organizational processes take advantage of the role of action in learning to boost performance.
The notion that our bodies carry out the orders of our brains, in some kind of one-way command-and-control style system, has been debunked. Individual actions flow from a complex mix of thoughts, feelings, beliefs, habits, experience, instincts, and states of being, and, they conversely, influence how we think, feel, and experience ourselves.
Our thoughts, feelings and beliefs directly shape our physiology; conversely, our physical activities directly influence our mental states and our physical posture can affect our social status.
If the implementation of strategy is slow or inefficient, it is often because the action propensity of leadership is insufficient or the organizational design elements (e.g., org structure, technology systems, work processes, incentives, decision rights, etc.) are insufficient, unclear, or misaligned.
“Stuck structures” (caused by repetitious patterns of actions) in relationships, conversations, and group dynamics can also stall progress and be exceedingly frustrating. Significant energy can be released and reclaimed by unearthing and shifting an underlying stuck structure.
© 2021 Carolyn Volpe Cunningham