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  • Writer's pictureMaxime Fern & Michael Johnstone

Provocation is also a powerful and necessary leadership tool for doing good

Our world is full of people and events which provoke us, leaving us feeling divided, antagonistic, and despairing.

Recent events ranging from Brexit in the UK, Putin's invasion of Ukraine, Hurricane Ian in the US, and repeated devastating floods in Australia, and, of course, the ongoing impact of COVID-19 have all unsettled us personally and disturbed economies and societies.

Some of these deeply unsettling events are a product of nature and we can only react and become better prepared, but those that are made by people are different.

The ripples from Britain's withdrawal from the EU are still being felt, witness the political turmoil in the British Parliament, and Putin's war shows what happens when one person's provocative acts are used for a malevolent purpose.

Our work around the globe as leadership advisors and coaches and our recent research have shown us that provocation is also a powerful and necessary leadership tool for doing good, for improving the lives of citizens and for fostering transformational beneficial change in business.

We saw this, for example, while consulting to Google when Larry Page introduced the idea of 10Xing innovation.

The expectation was that employees would create products and services that are ten times better than their competition. It was the basis for Google's outrageous "Moonshot" projects, for example, the self-driving car or an artificial brain.

We remember at the time how bewildered and uncertain many engineers were. They felt provoked and cajoled into thinking and acting differently and began to examine more intensely the assumptions they made about how work gets done and innovation occurs. 10X sent a jolt through the company that was initially deeply disturbing but ultimately productive.

The provocation was purposeful and designed to help people examine the status quo and how it restricted them. It was designed to push and nudge people into discussing the unthinkable and to cross examine day-to-day practice, including how they each contribute to their ongoing problems.

But you do not have to look far to see examples of the abuse of provocation - witness the spectacle of well-known Republican supporters making fun of the vicious attack on Paul Pelosi. Donald Trump jnr thought it was clever to post an image of underwear and a hammer under the banner "Got my Paul Pelosi Halloween costume ready".

This form of provocation is easy- it fires supporters, reinforces the righteousness of one's own position, and requires no smart design or new action. It is a cheap way to temporarily elevate oneself in one's own tribe. Not only is it unproductive, but it does also little to heal wounds, or begin the hard work of finding new pathways to a better and common future.

The attack on an elderly man, or the murder of a teenage First Nations boy on a Western Australian street, provokes us all. At risk is more division, rage, and upheaval. But leaders who rely of divisive tactics can learn a lot from the constructive provocation of Mechelle Turvey, the boy's mother, who urged the community not to exploit her son's death but rather use it as a catalyst for change. The provocation here was gentle, firm, and clear- do not do what is easy, do not use your rage and anger to create more division and hurt to feel better.

"Do not misuse my son". Having difficult conversations and revealing truths is uncomfortable but the disturbance that follows such moments can and does lead to breakthroughs. Then provocation is productive and purposeful.

There are several reasons to provoke people constructively. For example, we can help people learn and deepen their understanding of the problem and avoid actions that makes the situation worse. We can help people face the uncomfortable truth of how the status quo, our go-to responses, keep things as they are. And we can provoke to stimulate more innovative thinking, to create space to try things out and experiment to innovate our way forward.

This constructive provocation can range from gentle to confrontational, depending on the situation. For example, Rene Jones, the chief executive officer of Buffalo based M&T Bank, used the death of their foundation CEO to challenge his business to transform how they operate and think.

He insisted that they become more innovative and take more risks while also maintaining the reliability a mainstream community bank. He asked his colleagues to live with uncertainty that exists during change so that they could harvest the benefits while also sticking to what they do best- serving customers. Provocation was not dramatic, but it did challenge the conventional wisdom of what a successful bank should do and for a while staff and customers felt unsettled as the benefits became more obvious.

Noel, the site manager at a large industrial plant understood the risks of provocation but saw that the resumption of work after a devastating strike was an opportune time to make a significant change. He used the crisis to introduce collaborative Kaizen improvement methods to involve operators in decision making and dialled down the old command and control methods. Though not a new idea elsewhere, the introduction of Kaizen was a radical departure for this business. The provocation matched the development stage of that organisation and allowed workers the chance to think and act differently for the common good.

The lessons from our research show that provocation does not have to be destructive. It can and should be used for our collective good. It is a skill set, albeit a tricky one, that can be learned and practiced. The invisible, unproductive status quo that holds us back can be challenged. Imagine the fundamental adaptation that would occur if even 10 per cent of us noticed and challenged how we inadvertently continue or exacerbate the very thing we say is harmful, unacceptable, or dangerous. We encourage you to consider a little more skilled provocation.


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