During the Global OD Matters Dialogue, I was asked to elaborate on contextual intelligence and why it matters for organization development practitioners. I have written and presented this concept to different audiences globally several times. Therefore, it is accurate to state that 'context is everything, especially when operating on unsettled sands. To ensure businesses thrive, leaders should cultivate contextual intelligence as an organization-wide capability. Sadly, an understanding of context is still considered a reserve for those at the top echelons of the organization. In a dynamic and emergent change environment, relegating contextual intelligence to executives is inaccurate and extremely dangerous. This article highlights the why, what, and how of contextual intelligence.
Without sounding academic, I define contextual intelligence as "an appreciation of a system's structural and cultural attributes, and the internal and external drivers, trends, and influencing patterns that inform the work the organization is doing". A system, in this case, can be a team, an organization, a community, or a nation. People in any system should appreciate their context's nature, relationship, and complexity. This enriches and enhances decision-making, adaptation, innovation, and agility. Without understanding the dynamics of their context, how can people function optimally? How can the system they operate in actualize its potential?
It's sad that despite understanding the prevalence of emergent change in today's environment, organizations perpetuate approaches and routines that give people a surface-level understanding of the systems they work in. Through enriched contextual immersion, people appreciate their system's structural and cultural attributes and, most importantly, how these attributes drive peak performance. The structural context looks into the administrative mechanisms of an organization. This also includes an organization's governance, processes, and power structures. On the other hand, cultural attributes encompass the deeper basic assumptions, perceptions, values, beliefs, and attitudes shared by an organization, including the underlying patterns of behaviour, structural forces, and the resultant mental modes.
Though ignored in most corporate conversations, the prevalent dilemma of classifying contextual intelligence as an executive-level capability to be demonstrated only during strategic retreats is that of learned helplessness. People learn helplessness when the system does not give them room to explore and exploit. Learned helplessness emanates from a dearth of curiosity and imagination.
How do we enhance people's contextual intelligence while driving peak performance?
Deconstruct hierarchical silos
The ‘2022 Humanizing the Workplace Report' noted that "organizations love hierarchies and most societies in Africa are extremely hierarchical". It is time to appreciate that hierarchical structures are outdated. People should not be limited by 'hierarchical boxes'. Leaders must replace 19th Century industrial age hierarchical silos with interconnected, collaborative networks. To get rid of hierarchical silos while nurturing the spirit of inquiry among organizational members, The Humanizing the Workplace Report recommends realizing our humanness and the role of dialogue, embedding human-centred values in the fabric of an organization, and seeing people more than titles. How does this translate to contextual intelligence? People become free to express themselves, engage in candid conversations, and explore contextual factors.
Foster a self-responsibility mindset among organizational members
We have heard calls for organizations to treat people as 'family'. This makes perfect sense, but 'organizations are natural, unitary, human energy systems, with individual and collective emotional energy profoundly at play.' When people at work confuse the system with family, they perpetuate the danger of seeing leaders as 'parents' with responsibility for making decisions on their behalf, including decisions about their personal growth and development. Most people are stuck in this 'parent-child' syndrome in organizations. People in organizations need a self-responsibility mindset. Self-responsible employees are curious, imaginative, exploratory, productive, and creative. They are self-driven in understanding contextual factors in their organization, industry/sector. Hence, it is time to avoid the predominant 'manager-subordinate' syndrome.
Nurture Gadflies and manifest the power of provocative questions
I define a gadfly as "a person who intentionally annoys or criticizes by challenging the status quo of assumptions and thoughts, or manifests unique and different perspectives in order to provoke others to consider different avenues of perceptions and actions". A workplace gadfly can be equated to a corporate jester. Leaders must embrace people who ask profound and intense questions. To enhance contextual intelligence, the organization should partner with emerging questions to understand the internal and external environment dynamics. Sadly, in organizations, people get victimized, punished, and reprimanded for asking questions. Leaders must encourage people to ask questions to understand reality. After all, the reality is socially constructed. To manifest the power of contextual intelligence, leaders nurture safe spaces for people to be curious and to ask poignant questions. Create a culture that rewards curiosity and imagination. This can do wonders for your brand and your life.
Awaken the spirit of inquiry
Knowledge for use, in any situation, exists on a continuum of inquiry. Creative inquiry illuminates the path to knowledge and transformation. This is closely connected to nurturing workplace gadflies and promoting the ability to ask provocative questions. Organizations should promote a 360-degree inquiry culture among all organizational members. In traditional organizations, only supervisors, managers, and leaders were considered fit to inquire. This is not the case in 21st-century organizations. In today's organizations, leaders appreciate that ideas can come from anyone. Inquiry is not just about asking questions. It is about our curiosity, intentionality, emergent learning, and our ability to create safe space for exploration and further engagement.
Reflect on your leadership practices and your organization's culture and respond to the following questions:
- How are we adopting approaches that foster cross-functional collaboration while deconstructing hierarchical silos?
- How do our systems, processes, and procedures promote self-responsibility among all organizational members?
- How comfortable are we with people asking provocative questions and challenging structures of domination and the status quo?
- How are we nurturing the spirit of inquiry?
- What is the business case for cross-cultural collaboration, employee self-responsibility mindset, nurturing gadflies, and creative inquiry?
In conclusion, contextual intelligence is a strategic imperative in today's organizations. The high stakes of nurturing this capability can be seen in productivity, profitability, and sustainability gains. Organizations should start seeing contextual intelligence as a corporate-wide capability. As such, all organizational members need to be contextually intelligent. Leaders play a critical role in enhancing contextual intelligence among organizational members.
Dr. Justine Chinoperekweyi is an OD, Leadership & Governance scholar-practitioner. He consults under Centre for Organization Leadership and Development (COLD) and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or www.drjustine.net