North of Montreal, nestled amidst the rocky, forested outcroppings of the Canadian Shield, a group of ecosystem scientists are conducting a series of non-traditional pilot studies. This time, their experiments focus on improving workplace ecology, practicing how to work together in more fulfilling, inclusive, productive ways.
The Laurentians Biology Research Station, a leading-edge field research facility affiliated with the Université de Montréal, conducts teaching and research in ecology, ecosystem science, sustainability, climate change, and conservation. Long recognizing the urgency of applying high-quality research to environmental problems, Roxane Maranger, station director and professor of aquatic ecosystem science, saw the need for a more inclusive, generative work culture among her team members.
To address this challenge, Maranger and Nicolas Fortin St-Gelais, a postdoctoral researcher at the University Montreal participated in a training by Samantha Slade, founder of Percolab and author of Going Horizontal. The training posed the following questions: How do we accelerate the transition to more participatory leadership? How can we invite in more humanity without losing productivity? What if we really got at the root of the issue of engagement?
Participants had the chance to practice new ways of working together across seven distinct areas of practice found in any organization: autonomy, purpose, meetings, transparency, decision making, learning & development, and relationships.
For Maranger, the training offered new perspectives on what was possible in science and scientific stakeholder engagement. Lab meetings offered a place to try out meetings that are co-managed in a lower-risk environment, where an agile agenda emerged on the spot and brief initial check-ins could help diversify participation at meetings. “As the meeting started, we checked in by inviting people to talk about how they read scientific papers,” she said. “By starting with a shared practice everyone does a bit differently, everyone could then contribute. It immediately increased participation in the meeting.”
The team then moved on to check in around something more controversial, and increase comfort in discussing such issues. “We discussed our own gender biases when it comes to science,” Maranger said. “And people had already learned to contribute in this way, so we are seeing group norms begin to shift.”
From there, Maranger says they practiced depersonalizing feedback into their efforts to improve the quality of draft articles for scientific publication. Through the Going Horizontal workshops, they learned the importance of letting purpose be the leader over ego. “We focused on the idea feedback serves to improve the quality of the scientific article,” she said. “You may have put heart and soul into producing it, but you are not your article. We could see how our deeply rooted fear of ‘hurt feelings’ gets in the way of surfacing our collective wisdom.” By naming this as a core principle, Maranger said the group could then practice new feedback skills: “It is helping us shift toward more effectively communicating our best ideas.”
Tips from Maranger and Fortin St- Gelais for going horizontal in your workplace
• Introducing new practices? Start in a low-risk environment.
• Remind yourself that meaningful changes take practice and time. It may not be “just right” the first time, and that is normal.
• Take on one new practice at a time. Make your lessons explicit, and share credit.
• Think about “everyday” routines that might exclude people from participating. How could small shifts improve the quality of interactions and relationships in your workplace?
• Come back to purpose. By making clear, explicit connections to the “Why” of how things are done, it becomes easier for teams to commit to changing “How.”
It is not easy for a group to get beyond “politeness” as a collective culture. “Feedback can and should be actionable, specific, and kind,” says Slade. Over the past decade, Slade has co-designed and tested the practices with clients, building on participatory methods shared through the International Art of Hosting community. “So many of the interactions and beliefs we take for granted get in the way,” says Slade. “It turns out these are learnable skills. We must be far more specific about how to change interactions to build more generative working relationships. Then we change culture.”
In the longer term, the lab plans to bring in more participatory, generative methods of decision making. They recognize that shifting to a more horizontal culture can take time and will create feelings of discomfort. “Culture shift can get sticky,” Maranger said. “But given the degree of impact we have seen for our team, our students, and our communities, it is worth the effort. Together, we stand to gain a lot.”
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