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Bring In The Jester: Encouraging Open Interaction in the Workplace

ASSOCIATIONS NOW, November 2008, Feature

By: David T. Riveness

Today's association leaders can learn a few things from court jesters of old: Namely, the will and skill to speak truth to power and to expose blind spots in others' thinking. Funny hats, however, are encouraged but not required.
Summary: They may have worn funny costumes, but jesters were free to speak their minds. Today's leaders stand to gain a great deal by welcoming the quick wits and straight talkers within their organizations. (Titled "Bring In The Jester" in the print edition.)

Stepping forward as an effective leader in an organization today is not an easy task. As the business reality of any marketplace continues to shift, grow, and take on new complexities, the issues, positions, and perspectives that leaders need to incorporate into their thinking increase exponentially.

In a strange paradox, as the situations and issues that leaders face grow more complex, the organizational processes and cultural norms that might assist those leaders in accessing all the information around them remain absent in many organizations. This puzzling situation may be partially explained by an aspect of group dynamics that developed all the way back in the courts of 14th-century China.

Hung-wu became emperor of China in 1368 and founded the Ming dynasty, which ruled for nearly 300 years. Soon after becoming emperor, Hung-wu began to centralize power back into the imperial government under his direct control. Very quickly he discovered the daily mountain of work proved too much for one man to handle, even for an emperor. In response, he created a large team of advisors designed to consistently gather vast amounts of information, synthesize it, and then report it back to him in condensed versions to be used in his deliberations. As these advisory bodies became commonplace, and even began to be used as templates by leaders in lesser courts, something unintended started to occur. Few of these advisors challenged accepted wisdom, questioned the status quo, or voiced concerns out of fear of displeasing or contradicting the leadership. Advisors frequently chose to keep opinions, facts, and perspectives to themselves, even when speaking up might have greatly influenced the leader's understanding. As a result of these increasing gaps in information and perspective, Hung-wu and other Chinese leaders began making faulty decisions and took actions they later regretted.

We All Have Blind Spots

Leaders at all levels often find themselves, by choice or by practicality, disconnected from the realities within their organizations. Far too often they respond by surrounding themselves with assistants, committees, and advisors charged with providing them with the information and perspectives they desperately need. However, just as in Hung-wu's case, these advisors often become "yes men" (and "yes women") mirroring the leader's own thoughts, sometimes fearful of disagreeing and sometimes making the assumption that supporting what they think is the "management perspective" is the best way for them to safely advance their careers. This results in blind spots in awareness that affect the decisions and actions taken in every nook and cranny of an organization.

Consider a more modern example: In early 1985, Coca-Cola, after two years of taste tests and research, launched New Coke with great fanfare. Public reaction was immediate and overwhelmingly negative. On July 11, only 79 days after its launch, Coca-Cola meekly pulled New Coke from store shelves. What is fascinating is the number of people who worked for Coca-Cola at the time who admit they knew the product would be a failure, but felt they couldn't get the organization to see their perspective. They believe the decision makers at Coca-Cola had blind spots in their thinking processes that could have been illuminated by many throughout the organization, potentially averting the marketing disaster.

The trouble with blind spots is that you don't really know you have them. (Want to experience a blind spot for yourself? See the sidebar at the end of this page.) Blind spots can exist in your perception of how you are viewed by others, in assumptions made about an organization's health, in the current understanding of member satisfaction—the list can go on and on. If left unaddressed, blind spots keep individuals and organizations from reaching their full potential, causing faulty decisions, allowing destructive behaviors to continue and opportunities to be missed. Paradoxically, blind spots often do remain unaddressed, with their consequences going unchecked for a very long time. Just as in the visual exercise in the sidebar, individuals' brains continuously send the message that they don't have blind spots at all.

Speak Truth Like a Jester

So where does an association leader turn to find the solution to this organizational dilemma? Back to Imperial China, of course. The answer came to the emperor's courts in the guise of jesters.

At some point Chinese leaders realized the risk they were taking by surrounding themselves with those who supplied no true advice, reflecting only the leader's own opinions. Just as this need for a "teller of truth" was becoming evident, the traditional clowns that had entertained the court started to use their position to subtly comment more directly on the affairs of the day. Jesters, free from the restraints and fears other advisors felt, often expressed thoughts no others would voice, thereby opening up new perspectives, insights, ideas, and options to the leader. Leaders even began to ponder new ways of thinking that may have been at odds with their own initial perspectives and assumptions.

The concept of jestership I write about in my book The Secret Life of the Corporate Jester: A Fresh Perspective on Organizational Leadership, Culture and Behavior is about learning to leverage this unique perspective in contemporary organizations. Modern corporate jesters hunt for, and illuminate for others, those blind spots in thinking and action that keep individuals and organizations from reaching their full potential.

Creating an organizational culture that develops, values, and supports jestership is one of the most important steps an executive can take for his or her association, no matter its size, mission, or membership.

Indeed, jesters can exist in all types of organizations, even in the structured scientific world. Consider Richard Feynman, who most came to know as a Nobel Prize-winning physicist. Those who worked with him knew his other side: an open-minded, curious man who loved to challenge the status quo. Since his childhood he had developed a habit of not taking anything for granted, of questioning everything, of pursuing whatever lay at the heart of any mystery. He often suspected that others couldn't see what he perceived and felt it was his responsibility to help them gain that perspective.

On January 28, 1986, the space shuttle Challenger exploded, killing all seven astronauts on board. Feynman was included on the presidential commission appointed to study the tragedy and determine its cause. After the commission's work was accomplished, many questioned whether the committee would have discovered the cause of the incident without Feynman's questioning of the surface conclusions many seemed satisfied with. Fellow committee member General Donald Kutyna said, "Feynman brought this driving desire to get to the bottom of any mystery. No matter where it took him, he was going to get there, and he was not deterred by any roadblocks in the way. He was a courageous guy, and he wasn't afraid to say what he meant."

Feynman's character illustrates the two main skills of a corporate jester. The first is the ability to perceive blind spots in thinking and action. This involves a commitment to look beyond the obvious, to put aside the evident interpretation or perspective. Jesters work to increase their lateral thinking skills and continuously search for methods to widen and expand their perspectives.

The second ability of a jester, and perhaps the more difficult aspect of jestership, is a highly developed skill at passing insights on to others in a way that doesn't feel challenging, humiliating, or unsupportive. This is very different than just playing the devil's advocate. Most people don't want to be directly confronted with their blind spots; indeed, their egos often flatly reject the notion they might even have blind spots. If you take on the role of jester without developing this second skill, you could be entering a minefield of denial, defensiveness, or plain rejection. A jester must make a commitment to understand and leverage effective communication methods, emotional-intelligence theory, and learning-style models. I refer to this aspect of jestership as the art of storytelling.

Encouraging the Jesters Around You

So how can the concept of jestership be applied in your association?

The most powerful application of the jester concept is the creation of a culture of jestership in an organization. If the creation, acceptance, and support of jesters can be made a cultural norm, the entire organization wins. An association that makes jestership a priority for its staff can create an environment in which each staff member feels a responsibility and accountability to help their fellow staff members eliminate blind spots and is committed to do so in a way that is effective, supportive, and positive.

So where to start? First, share the concept of corporate jestership with your staff, and ask for their support in making it come alive within your association. Ask each one of them to concentrate on developing skill at discovering, acknowledging, and addressing their own blind spots.

Your staff will quickly discover that the very nature of blind spots make them difficult to illuminate by oneself. Even though your staff might have some wonderful self-reflection, they probably won't see anything but the faint traces of their own blind spots unless they involve other people. Sitting alone in an office or cubicle just thinking about what they don't see won't produce much revelation. Encourage your staff members to examine, ponder, and discuss jestership with each other.

As some of your staff make a personal commitment to jestership and their own blind spots fall away, they will start to appear different. Others will begin to recognize in them new abilities, insights, and understanding. Those that did not commit to the idea of being a jester at first many soon show a new interest. Help them. Encourage them.

Once you have a critical mass of staff members pursuing the ideals of jestership, you can encourage them to step into the jester role more publicly. This requires taking on a more open and active role as a jester in the association. Encourage staff members to speak their mind more often in staff meetings, invite them to challenge the status quo, and even encourage them to illuminate any blind spots you might be exhibiting.

Remember to encourage and reinforce staff to take on this role with care, creativity, and grace; it can be very tricky or even dangerous if entered into haphazardly. Ask your staff to choose when and how to step into the role of jester and to always do so in a way that makes others feel valued and esteemed. Give private feedback as to the way they are being perceived by others as they try to take on the mantle of jester. It may seem a little daunting at first, but the more you continue to support and encourage genuine jester behavior, the more it will occur.

As more staff participate, jester-like thought and behavior will spread throughout the association. At some point, if enough people adopt the paradigm, you will see a shift in the entire organizational culture. Staff will be more likely to be honest and open in discussions. They will be more forthcoming in sharing perspectives that differ from those of the majority opinion. They will be open to feedback and to aggressively addressing blind spots others help them discover about themselves and more likely to give you valuable feedback as to your leadership. Walking around a transformed organization, you will wonder just what happened. The truth will be that you happened. You made a leadership commitment to bring jestership to your association.

As the concept of the corporate jester is embraced in your association, you should make sure it is noticed, supported, and enshrined. Look for ways in which processes and policies can support it. Make sure new staff understand what it is. Help those who have not completely adopted it to start seeing it as a cultural expectation.

Organizations that exhibit this level of cultural jestership are rare, interesting, and engaging environments to be a part of, and they are extremely successful at what they set out to do. I challenge you to make your association an example of one of them. So, are you ready? Put on your multicolored cap and get started.

David T. Riveness is the founder and CEO of Corporate Jester as well as the author of The Secret Life of the Corporate Jester: A Fresh Perspective on Organizational Leadership, Culture and Behavior. Riveness has made a sample jestership exercise available online at Email:

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  Jamie Notter , November 04, 2008
I think the topic of speaking the truth is terribly important. The idea of a Jester as a speaker of the truth is interesting, and I like the way David Riveness applies the concept to organizations, arguing for cultures that support jestership (now there's a consultant word you don't hear every day), which he defines as:

hunting for and illuminating to others the blind spots in thinking and action that keep individuals and organizations from reaching their full potential.

As Riveness points out, however, the hardest part about being the jester is not discovering the blind spots, but in communicating them in a way that people can hear it and respond to it. Say it the wrong way, and it could be "off with your head!" Jestership requires effective communication skills and understanding emotional intelligence. It's hard to have your blind spots pointed out.

So here's something to reflect on. Riveness talks about the power of creating a culture that supports jestership, and I completely agree. Bottom line: a culture that supports telling the truth is going to be more effective. What's interesting is that we NEED to move in that direction. In other words, the standard culture to expect is one where it is hard to tell the truth.

Isn't that shocking? Or, at least, shouldn't it be shocking? Why do we put up with NOT telling the truth?

Another thing to think about: jestership is a critical leadership function that is clearly the domain of those NOT in power. Not that the top of the org chart shouldn't be telling the truth and pointing out each other's blind spots--they should. But it's just harder when you're at the top. People without authority bring a unique perspective and have different eyes that can see different blind spots.

Don't forget: leadership is not about power; it is about the capacity of the whole system to shape the future. Are you actively supporting the leadership functions of those not in power?


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