Create unconditionality or step down!


Didier Marlier

November 11, 2016

From Disruption to Engagement

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Last week, I saw my home team, HC Villars, lose its game 8-1. They couldn’t have found a better way to celebrate the fact I had just renewed my membership, as they provided me with a reflection for today’s blogpost.

Villars is one of the 8 co-founders of the Swiss Ice Hockey League and has had a glorious past, being four times Swiss Champion (1910, 1919, 1963 and 1964) and in 1925 its team was so excellent that it formed by itself alone the Swiss National Hockey team… But where was that glory last week? By the 2nd goal we conceded, a picture started to emerge: The goal tender stayed one second too long on his back and the opponents picked-up the rebound and scored. The mistake could be attributed to him. But where were his team mates? They had deserted him. And after the goal, no one came in support to talk to him. And the rest of the whole game has been a painful demonstration of a “Non-Team”: players wearing the same jersey but not exchanging a single word (except blame) on the ice, team mates not watching each other, good players seeking to save the sinking boat alone instead of relying on their partners. When sitting on the bench (ice hockey is such an exhausting sport that players switch every 1-2 minutes), not a word, not a smile, not a blink of the eye… nothing. Full neutrality. Villars lost because they were neutral and disengaged with each other.

This morning, I was watching on Youtube, the Pop group who were my idols back in the 70’s: Emerson Lake & Palmer. The band was composed by the three most gifted individual musicians of that generation. They sold over 40 million albums, organized some of the heaviest tours of the pop/rock scene to date. But, as we know, picking the best people doesn’t necessarily create magic. Rumours soon emerged of tensions between the three artists and this quickly became apparent. They were not blending nor building on each other’s exceptional gifts, they had gone for “benevolent neutrality” where each one would have his moment in the show while the others would support or… wait. This classic of ELP (Pictures at an Exhibition) shows it strongly from the start (and, if you like that music, I hope you will enjoy listening to what I consider their most beautiful and moving song, The Sage, played and sung by… Greg Lake alone “I carry the Dust of a Journey that cannot be shaken away”):

That lack of Unconditional Engagement of my three heroes led to the demise of the group, unable/unwilling to pick-up the early signals of a changing taste in the market. How could they have listened to those signals when they were not listening to each other? Why would they have the humility to be curious about what the market whispers inaudibly when they were so clearly disengaged with each other needs?

Back to business, teams which are not unconditionally engaged with each other fail to strike the right balance between:

  • Transactional vs Relational: Often, in times of stress, we opt for an efficient and minimalist manner of communicating. This makes sense as it saves time and is to the point: “I call you because I need that”. The problem is that this kind of communication may become mechanistic and support a “Trading & Dealing” mentality. “The only reason why you are of interest to me is that I hope to get that from you”. By so doing, we miss the opportunity which could emerge from a more relational and open type of dialogue. Relational is slower, consumes more time but creates trust, curiosity and is fundamental to network.
  • Reactive vs Purposeful: Chaos and uncertainty tend to push people and organizations towards becoming defensive and reactive. In a June blog, I was explaining the theory suggested by an Oliver Wyman partner, Adrian Slywotzky, who suggests that the way to lead your competitors to exhaustion is to keep them reactive. An unconditional team will be far more difficult to derail towards a reactive state as what keeps it together is a strong and shared sense of Purpose. Unconditional organizations are cemented by a powerful and emotional sense of Purpose, which engages their people unconditionally with each other.
  • Content vs Context: Leaders who believe that their licence to operate relies exclusively on their knowledge and capacity to control through that authority, are in for big disillusions in the “VUCA world”. Disruptive leaders do not need to “lead from the front”. They consider that their main value resides in connecting intelligences of their network, encouraging, providing self-confidence. They “lead from the back”, obtain a better vision of who is on board, who is leading and towards which direction. Context leaders see who is deviating, who is slowing down, who is lost and needs being redirected as they lead from behind.
  • Egocentric vs Generous: Conditionality and transactionality tend to let people drift into an egocentric and selfish mode. Generosity is about empathy, about building a stronger community, being interested in what the other is going through. We have recently run a program where executives were opening up on the large challenge each one had at hand. The others were expected to support via inquiry, questions, advice, lateral thinking, sharing experience etc… This program has strongly helped to build a far less conditional and much more engaged culture there.
  • Exclusion vs Inclusion: The whole wave of Inclusion in so many organizations happens for one reason: We need to create “Intelligent Organizations”, capable of spotting weak signals, discerning emerging trends, thinking outside of the diktat of what the French call “Pensée Unique” (mainstream way of thinking). Diversity is just a result. Inclusion is a process by which I go towards those who think differently. Rather than letting my conviction button being pushed, I seek to understand and explore why they recommend something which seems so wrong to me. Inclusive cultures will be better equipped to create those “Intelligent Organizations” that will strive in disruptive times.

Creating unconditionality in our team starts with ourselves (70% of an organization’s culture is linked to the behaviour of its leaders). Creating unconditional organizations is becoming one of our most critical duties, if we are to be ready for the Future.


  1. Brian Downward

    Very interesting article. I have another version to offer you on ELP as an equally big fan and saw them twice during their heyday in 1974-75.
    Just after Pictures they created their two biggest hits including Brain Salad Surgery where the band was more together and less solo – the off-screen rifts and tensions between them created some of the best music of that age and in fact the band stayed together for 9 nine years.
    My conclusion is they knew their issues and managed them well and delivered some fantastic music as they travelled along.
    take care

    • Didier Marlier

      Dear Brian,
      I am so sincerely happy to have another ELP fan following this blog. They influenced so strongly my whole adolescence!
      My point was simply to underline that being so much into their silos, using “benevolent neutrality” (at best) towards each other, that, I regret what could have happened if the had truly been a team, truly engaged with each other… Truly unconditional.
      I do agree with your point though, that even so, they created magic but what would it have been with true unconditionality?
      Thank you very much for taking the time to write and share one of your passions, which I share too. Have a good wek.

  2. Willi Nass

    Hi Didier,

    Hope you’re doing fine.
    Loved this blog! Congratulations. In those challenging times, specially here in some of our South American Countries, more then ever, the get together of a group of recognized management starts shows that by far this is not sufficient to make the difference in an extremely adverse environment. Disruptive and diverse thinking harmonized by a strong commitment of the team around a common goal is the fuel to run the extra mile and make the difference.

    Very best regards


    • Didier Marlier

      Thank you Willi,
      And when I remember how you lifted a critical and impressive project out of its ashes, it seems to me that this is exactly what you did. It forced my respect! I hope to have the chance to see you in action again soon, abraço


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