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Stuck in corporate rut? Here's Grid help
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August 19, 2005

Organisations often waste, expend, abuse, misuse or neglect their managers' talents. "By the age of fifty, people are cooked," says Bruce Carlson, President and CEO of Grid International, a leading USA-based HR training company. A solution is available for organisations that want vibrant, creative, feisty employees.

First came Opportunity -- to buy Grid International, which Bruce Carlson did in a moment of passion; and then came Doubt -- about whether or not he could actually run the company.

Five years later, he is more comfortable in the CEO's chair but what about the company? And what about the Grid theory?

Under his guidance and keeping with the times, both have gone through a process of repackaging. "The Grid seminar has become more user friendly now, though the core essence of what Blake and Mouton proposed has remained unchanged," is his contention.

He helps people stuck in the corporate rut look at themselves and those around them afresh. The awareness of where they stand in the corporate rigmarole helps people handle interpersonal conflict better and infuses them with, what Carlson believes, the power to change.

The Smart Manager Managing Editor Gita Piramal interviews Carlson. Excerpts:

In what kind of situation or organisation does the Grid not work?

I have had difficulty getting to first base in government organisations. It's tough in highly structured organisations where there is almost total concentration of power at the top because those in power sense it as taking power away from them.

They don't see the longer-term benefits of increased efficiencies. I've had no success whatsoever with legal firms. When it comes right down to lawyers giving up their time to learn something, actually taking advice from others, and paying for it, it just doesn't fly.

Is Grid best implemented in an old company or in a start-up?

It works in both but is easier in a start-up because there is less baggage. So when you get in some of the team building exercises, you don't have to heal old wounds.

On the other hand, in a start-up, because of less truck and transportation between people, you don't get so deep into the processes. But it does help to set the tone of how the organisation wants to operate.

The Grid sounds like a marriage counselor: it talks about the lack of trust, how people have to get along, the need to resolve interpersonal problems. Where does the business, the larger organisational goal, the strategy come in?

You will always have a leader and leadership and will need vision, a business plan and business goals. The Grid alerts people about their behaviour and the consequences of their actions so that they can perform in a more effective way, consistent with the pursuit of the goal, objective, deals and values of the organisation.

How has the Grid evolved from the original concept to the 'Power to Change'?

The essence of Grid is the power to change. Blake and Mouton's last work was called Leadership Dilemmas. It's about 400 pages and a very heavy academic tome with the last six chapters being quite self-serving and self-congratulatory.

When I bought the company, it was apparent that the seminar was too long, the material too heavy and too academic, and it wasn't relevant enough.

We redesigned the seminar and rewrote the book keeping the essence of the Grid theory in place but cut out a lot of the dialogue, a lot of the academic stuff, and made it a lot more user friendly.

By labelling people, can the Grid cause more conflict than it can solve?

The Grid is a methodology that has been empirically proven and experientially tested over the last 30 to 40 years over the world. Its purpose is not to say that you are a 5,5 or 9,1 or 9,9. Some people do get the impression that it labels people.

What is right is to say that there are all these behaviours out there and we use all of them in varying degrees in our life although we tend to function in one of these behaviours most of the time.

If we can be aware of the impact of those behaviours in terms of producing results, and we use the Grid to tell us where we are, then it can help cue us to shift and adjust our actions and interactions and behaviour to be much more productive. It's as if you are lost in a forest, you bring out a compass and you say, "Okay, that's true north, I know that much."

The Grid helps you find legitimate information to get you out of the dilemma. For example, you and I are having a discussion, and you begin to feel that I am coming down on you, manipulating you and you can see no value in it.

The Grid training alerts us both to what is happening. You can say, "C'mon Bruce, back off. You are pushing me around here and I don't have to take that." Whether I am your subordinate or superior, I would take your comment as a legitimate observation because both of us know where this kind of behaviour could lead to.

I can respond by saying, "Thanks for letting me know. I tend to do that sometimes. Let's take this discussion towards a more productive direction."

But you are still labeling people. Let's say two people do a Grid session together. One is a 1,1 and the other a 9,9. Both know each other's score. Don't you think that affects the interaction between these two people from that point onwards? Could it not create more conflicts than it was meant to solve?

How would that happen?

Though we say we want change, greater productivity and better efficiency, we all suffer from feelings of superiority or inferiority, that I am better than her or she is better than me. Once Grid comes into the picture, we have a tool to measure ourselves. Such feelings are no longer tacit and internal, they are articulated in public, and this can create more conflict. Grid tells you, this is where I fall and that's where you fall. You have this much further to go, I am already far ahead. Now what? She can tell me and I have to listen to her because she is far ahead.

In your example, are you a person who is happy and content to be in that 1,1 place?

What would that mean?

Do you aspire to be better?

Don't we always? The fact that we have gone through a process like Grid that demands change means that we are geared towards change.

Well, that could also mean that someone in your organisation hopes that you are geared towards change.

Even so. I could say, 'Let's try it.' But after trying, we find that the situation has worsened. How do we handle that? Because at the end of the day, we are humans, we have many more attributes than being 'authoritative' or the 'country club type' etc. There is ego.

Yet, you accept that there is a better way of operating.

There could be.

You also accept that post-Grid, you have more clarity about where you are and where you want to go. It has introduced a new dilemma, a new pressure because there is tension now between where you are and where you want to go.

But our contention is that this is a more productive tension because there is more clarity around the dimensions.

Grid doesn't make everything sweet and nice. In fact, it can make the situation really quite rugged in an organisation when people start becoming more candid and straight forward, when the truth begins to be spoken.

It can become a much more vigorous organisation than when people were sliding by with their perception of the way things are.

So, yeah, it can create some difficulties, but we think that the quality of difficulty has improved. There is a lot more clarity.

Isn't it more difficult to resolve such difficulties? If I am in an organisation, I more or less know where I am and where I want to go, which is why I joined the organisation in the first place.

I don't agree with you. Most people are locked into a situation where there are bills to pay, a mortgage, schooling, food to buy and that means a job and a boss.

We live a sophisticated survival game. In that game, you are really coming from fear and you access the negative aspects of yourself. In Grid, what we try to do is to create an environment where you are inspired and motivated to bring your best because you know that you will be treated well.

I spend a lot of time working in different cultures around the world and I have to say that the state of organisation cultures around the world is not very healthy.

There are a lot of men and women over the age of 50 in organisation life who in my view are cooked. They have lost their best stuff: it's been wasted or expended or abused or misused or nobody's paid attention to it or they've tried their best but it hasn't worked.

They are in a state where they are thinking, "I will last here another ten years so that I will have enough money to retire." This is not an individual who is thinking creatively, who cares and still takes risks. But what you want in an organisation are vibrant, creative, even feisty individuals.

Why fifty?

Oh, I just used a figure. It could happen even earlier. At the same time, that's fifty years of experience and wisdom. There is no way, just no way, that a 34-year old Harvard- or Oxford-trained graduate can have the requisite contact, perspective, judgment or wisdom.

But they are cooked. . .

But you don't have to cook them and there are organisations which don't.

You find this in Germany and Ohio and Tokyo. . .

Tokyo, Tokyo, yeah. Japan is one exhausted nation: overworked, pressurised, two hours to get to work in the morning and two hours to get home at night, work from 8.00 am to 8.00 pm. It is not uncommon to find managers who haven't been home in a month and a half. They live in Osaka and work in Tokyo, working seven days a week.

It's a culture that has really, really wound itself down the performance road in an extremely unhealthy way. In India, in the little exposure I have to Indian companies, I see a lot of hierarchy.

How important is India is in your overall plan?

India has actually become quite important over the last few years for me personally. I began coming here about three or four years ago and enjoyed the experience immensely. We have now added a second group of associates to the group that has been there for fifteen or more years.

India is now actually doing a fair amount of business for us. The whole IT sector and the software sector is a big piece and we want to try and get involved in that.

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Published with the kind permission of The Smart Manager, India's first world class management magazine, available bi-monthly.

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