"When people are allowed to connect, amazing things can happen” says Marc Rittenberg of UC Berkeley Centre for Executive Education.
“I have no special talents, I am only passionately curious” said Albert Einstein, the embodiment of genius, putting his finger unerringly on something important. The need to enquire and experiment so that you can create something of value is well understood, and as that other 20th Century genius, Linus Pauling, explained “The way to get good ideas is to get lots of ideas and throw the bad ones away."
Marc Rittenberg, is an actor by vocation but he also holds a doctorate in International and Multicultural Education. He now focuses on working with people to improve their leadership and interpersonal communications skills through Active Communication. Rittenberg says “I am particularly interested in men! How they close down on empathy and shut out opportunities” through their male culture. “It eliminates the presence of intimacy and so prevents the possibility for people to speak-up”.
Rittenberg observes that in most organizations and in society, the male tendency to talk-over others, compete for space, and look for weakness in others is ultimately very damaging to innovation and growth. “When people are allowed to connect, amazing things can happen” notes Rittenberg. “We know that stories are vital to engage people, but story-tellers need to show some vulnerability and empathy, not necessarily in a ‘touchy-feely’ way, but in a human way, that shows that they are people too.”
The classic male approach of ‘joshing’ with each other, and reacting critically to ideas undermines their innovation at the outset, it creates atmospheres where fear of ridicule is more prevalent than the benefit of airing a notion or thought. Such unsupportive environments are clearly not conducive to openness and creativity. The challenge is that the players in such environments often display these behaviours unknowingly, or even in a spirit of good-humoured camaraderie – the intention is to level the playing-field between colleagues but in so doing it lowers it too; the opportunity to explore and experiment with ideas and concepts needs to be nurtured in a different atmosphere altogether.
The remarkable Brand Ambassadors’ Program at Avis South Africa in 2001 was developed with the help of Rittenberg, out of an idea from Avis SA CEO, Grenville Wilson. Its aim was to create culture change across the company's operations on three levels. The Active Communicating workshops designed with Rittenberg were for all employees, managers and staff, with a focus on interpersonal communication skills, values-based learning activities and relationship building skills. These workshops were designed to enable participants become better listeners, more empathetic individuals and discover personal acts of leadership that each individual would commit to to 'make Avis is better place to work'. In addition there was an advanced workshop for all managers to develop them as teachers and coaches for their staff. The Brand Ambassador (BA) values of ‘empathy, honesty and humanity' became central to the company and results were seen in increased profitability, sector leading customer service and job-fulfilment.
Markinor, an external educational consultant, when surveying the company noted that employees had little to say about the issue of ‘communication’. Many other companies had communication as the number one workplace problem and so it was highly unusual for no comments to be made. Markinor had never seen anything like this previously.
So what caused these changes? The workshops were very experiential, breaking down barriers with activities such as art projects and drumming circles. This developed increased employee self-confidence and self-esteem. The workshops were led by professional facilitators as well as Avis managers, who could lever the experiences to self-awareness and so develop lasting behavioural change. In addition the CEO was present at 80% of the workshops, actively sharing his story and strengthening the BA project with his personal sponsorship. A positive feedback loop was also created in that the extra profitability from the BA project was shared through employee bonuses.
While the Avis BA program showed its impact in increased profitability and customer service, underlying those changes was a greater sense of community and self-confidence amongst employees. This allowed for change to occur more naturally and innovations and improvements to be suggested more openly and engagingly. It is the antithesis of the male 'joshing' environment and an essential condition for corporate creativity and agility.
How transferable is the Active Communicating approach? Rittenberg has run similar workshops across the globe and has seen similarly enthusiastic results. A former MBA student of his from Haas School of Business at Berkeley, asked him to work with executives in Mongolia in early 2011. The one-off program was so successful that it led the organization to develop an on-going relationship with the Center for Executive Education at UC Berkeley which has since developed into a fully-fledged exec-ed provider in Ulaanbataar.