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A new way of thinking: Systems thinking for leadership

As leaders, we need to look at the big picture to identify challenges and support our team to find productive solutions. We sat down with Paul Larkin, Senior Facilitator and Executive Coach at WLA, to discuss how systems thinking can allow us to strategically address issues for our teams.What is the difference between systems thinking and systematic thinking? Paul uses a frog analogy to explain the difference to the leaders he coaches.“If you wanted to understand a frog systematically, you’d take it to the lab, put it to sleep and methodically dissect it, learning about each part of its makeup in a linear, structured fashion,” he explained.“If you want to understand the frog’s system you’d go to the pond where it lives and observe how it interacts with its environment, what it eats, what eats it, how the nearby farms that fertilise their crops affect the ecosystem in which the frog lives etc. We see the bigger picture of the frog, how it is interdependent with other parts of the system in which it lives and how small changes can effect big change,” Paul concluded.So, rather than following a set process to look at individual parts, looking at something using systems thinking allows you to take a broader view, and identify the interdependent and external influences that can have an impact on the system and its parts that we want to understand. It’s about observing the environment – ecologists and economists are examples of professions that engage in systems thinking.Why don’t I already use systems thinking? As leaders, we are often thinking and problem-solving systematically. Taking action to resolve an issue is usually praised and seen as an indicator of positive influence and performance. There is nothing wrong with solving problems in a systematic fashion. But some problems are more complex and cannot be dealt with as readily.Systems thinking affords us an approach for working with complex problems in creative and sometimes counter-intuitive ways.How can I use systems thinking to create positive change in my organisation? By using systems thinking, you can step back from day-to-day problem solving, and consider the root causes of problems. You can identify interdependencies and understand the bigger picture.Paul uses the example of an IT department in a big corporation. Their team set KPIs around how quickly IT issues were resolved (90 percent of issues being fixed within a day). While this was an important measure, the team was focusing on ‘fixing’ problems, not on ‘eliminating’ problems – that is, addressing the causes and preventing the problems happening again.By taking a systems thinking approach, the team was able to shift their mental model and improving their performance. The team’s KPIs switched from the percentage of problems fixed to the percentage of problems eliminated, and within just a couple of months achieved a 70 percent reduction in problems and associated cost.This example highlights how a shift to systems thinking can increase productivity and solve recurring issues.How can I move into a systems thinking mind-frame?Taking a wider look at your organisation or team is the first step towards systems thinking.“Mentally stepping back and observing what is going on is crucial,” Paul explains. “Talk to people who are new to the organisation and who are not yet imbued with the culture and mental models that come with it – fresh eyes with different perspectives are critical.Paul also encourages leaders to have open conversations with teams: “Have a conversation with your team that explores their thinking, beliefs, mental models and values that inform how the team operates. Find out why they do things a certain way. Looking at other sectors and organisations with similar issues can also be a huge help.“Consider how success is measured in the organisation, as this often determines how people respond to different situations. There is a saying which goes, ’People will do what you ask them to do. Make sure you ask what you really want.’ What gets measured gets done. And over time, it creates beliefs (mental models) about what is the ‘right’ way to do the job.” Paul explains.What are some tips for systems thinking? The following, although not exhaustive, can provide some ways into addressing issues with a systems thinking approach:Identify a recurring problem in your team or organisation – look for patterns in results and people’s behaviour, individually and collectively.Look for interdependencies; how different parts of the system interact and affect other parts.Explore processes, performance measures and decision-making criteria to try and surface the team or organisation’s beliefs, values, and mental models (which is extremely challenging, involves many conversations and can prove the most fruitful).Do not expect easy or immediate results. Systems change usually involves many people, often with different agendas, to engage in dialogue and work together to achieve a common outcome. Is there an issue in your team that you can address using systems thinking? Share it with us in the comments below!

Explainer: What is the Gender Pay Gap, and where does it come from?

By Jane GilmoreThis blog is part of our Expert Commentary series, bringing you insights into some of the unspoken challenges women face in the workplace, from experts with lived experience. The series explores a range of topics and perspectives to highlight the ways inclusive and compassionate leadership practices can benefit everyone.The gender pay gap is one of those things that is both simple and complex at the same time. The official national gender pay gap figure, which is calculated by the Workplace Gender Equality Agency (WGEA), is currently 14.2 per cent.WGEA takes data from the Australian Bureau of Statistics and works out the difference between what men and women earn for full time work (excluding overtime and bonuses) and express it as a percentage of men’s earning.So, very simply, this is how WGEA calculated the Gender Pay Gap on the latest data from August 2021.Average Weekly Full Time Ordinary Earnings:Men: $1837Women: $1575.50Difference: $261.50Divided by men’s earnings: $261.50 / $1837 = 0.1423Gender Pay Gap = 14.2%The method is reasonable if we’re trying to understand whether there is a difference in what men and women earn for the same hours of work. But if we’re trying to understand the difference in gender based economic security, we need to look at the bigger picture.Many women, especially women with children, do not work full time over their entire lives. Additionally, overtime and bonuses are not shared equally between men and women.Data from the Australian Bureau of Statistics shows that of parents with children under six years old, 94 per cent of men and 65 per cent of women are in the workforce. Of those parents who do work, 60 per cent of mothers work part time, compared to 8 per cent of fathers. And 48 per cent of mothers with children between the ages of 6 and 14 are still working part time.Taking time away from work, or reducing working hours, means women have fewer chances to increase skills and experience, which affects career progression and promotion opportunities. It also means women are making lower superannuation contributions during their child raising years.Additionally, female dominated industries, such as childcare and administrative work, are among the lowest paid in the country. Male dominated workforces tend to be much better paid. The intricacies of this are complicated, but it mostly boils down to what is perceived as “women’s work” is undervalued and underpaid, while still requiring high levels of skill and dedication.The accumulated lifetime effects of women’s underpaid and unpaid work are proven in the drastically disproportionate superannuation balances at retirement age.According to not-for-profit organisation Women in Super, Australian women retire with 47 percent less superannuation than men. Around 40 percent of older single retired women live in poverty.If you’re a woman reading this and you find it scary, you’re right to feel that way. The Covid-19 pandemic put pressure on all the forces that impact women’s working lives. Women lost more jobs at the beginning of the pandemic and were more likely to return to casual jobs when they did get work again, which makes them more vulnerable to job and income losses in future lockdowns.Women in all age groups were also more likely than men to withdraw their entire balance under the emergency superannuation access scheme in 2020, and women overall withdrew a greater proportion of their superannuation than men. Women over 50 were already the fastest growing group of homeless people in Australia and this will only get worse as housing affordability worsens and older women have less superannuation to pay living expenses when they stop working.Fixing the gender pay gap is a monumental task, but it’s not impossible. We need government to make policy that encourages parents to share the paid and unpaid work of raising children equally. We need businesses to actively engage in looking at their own gender pay gap, which means doing an internal audit of how much they pay everyone in their organisation and whether there is a significant gender difference in their senior management. WGEA provides a number of tools businesses can use to evaluate their gender pay equity and start to address it.We can’t change something we don’t measure, so often the simplest way to start is to measure what’s happening in our own organisations. At the very least, it gives us a place to start and demonstrates a willingness to act. That is no small thing.Jane Gilmore was the founding editor of The King’s Tribune. She has a Master of Journalism from The University of Melbourne and is now a freelance journalist and author, with a particular interest in feminism, media and data journalism. Jane is the creator of the FixedIt campaign, which highlights victim blaming and erasure of male violence from news headlines. Her book FixedIt: Violence and the Representation of Women in the Media was published by Penguin Random House in August 2019.

Advisory Board: Maintaining Momentum for Change

A burst of attention and nation-wide marches protesting workplace sexual harassment and the treatment of women marked the beginning of 2021. But hopes this would lead to rapid and widespread change in many workplaces haven’t been met, according to discussion at the latest Women & Leadership Australia Advisory Board meeting.The momentum from the outcry and focus earlier this year has faltered as clear action, and overt leadership commitment, remains patchy.But while that crucial shift has often failed to materialise a number of board members reported some changes, with an increase in claims of harassment and bullying, greater demand for advice on building workplace inclusion and efforts to provide safe channels for complaints.Several noted that pressure to address the problem was a recognition of the increasing risk harassment and bullying represents for many organisations due to serious financial and reputational costs.The need to offer employees reporting channels that protect them from career backlash and effective resolution mechanisms is slowly sinking in too.Perhaps just as importantly, several board members noted preventative steps have been introduced in some organisations. This includes training on respectful workplace relationships, bystander training and a focus on proactive identification of harassment/bullying cases.On a broader level, work is continuing to address the poor culture in Parliament House and the Global Institute for Women’s Leadership is working to develop a Code Of Conduct in parallel with the review being led by Sex Discrimination Commissioner Kate Jenkins.The recently enacted Victorian Gender Equality Act 2021 provides a template for other States with a legislated framework for mandatory measuring and reporting progress towards gender equity by public sector employers.A less overt shift noted by some members was an overdue recognition from boards and executives that bullying and harassment faced by women are driven by gender inequity which is a strategic business issue – and needs attention beyond HR.Racism remains a brutal reality for women from diverse backgrounds, the board heard, and demand from business for information and advice on addressing the toxic mix with sexism is on the increase. There has been growing impetus for change from #BlackLivesMatter and Stop Asian Hate campaigns.But even raising the topic usually has repercussions, especially for younger or less senior women employees.Meanwhile, even though the economic recovery appears to be underway, women continue to bear the brunt of increased unpaid work.Women in a number of WLA programs continue to report high levels of exhaustion and anxiety from the burden of unpaid work as the pandemic progresses and concern about the future of their jobs. Many also feel a lack of power to call out bullying.Despite some progress in the business community, WLA has also identified a need for more male leadership training on creating inclusive workplaces, and organisational bystander training.As an experienced provider of leadership development and gender equity initiatives, WLA has an opportunity to extend its offering to include men in inclusive leadership programs, through its sister organisation Australian School of Applied Management. The need to keep up the momentum for change remains a concern for WLA and the board.Regardless of the recent slow pace of progress, however, most agreed the high-profile events this year have acted as a long overdue circuit breaker for employers.The key messages from the discussion:The transition from talk to action on workplace sexual harassment and gender inequity needs more commitment in organisations – including senior leadership training on identifying and addressing the problems and bystander training to create safety for employees and tackle backlash for those reportingSenior men are struggling to respond to the current changes and the demand for women’s empowerment – lack of understanding/fear is preventing leaders from speaking out about the need for action which targeted education could address   Intersectionality remains a significant barrier and disadvantage for many women with widespread racism yet to be effectively acknowledged or tackled in many workplaces, and few options to safely raise concerns. Women & Leadership Australia’s work is supported and guided by a prestigious and highly respected national board of advisors. Find out more here.

Put out to Pasture - Ageism in the Workplace

All of life is an adventure. Every stage of it brings new perspectives and experiences and getting older is no different. Ageing is – in many ways – delightful. There is a calm that comes with having lived for many decades, a recognition that what you have got is probably all you are going to get and, for many of us, that turns out to be just fine – as long as we are not actually on the breadline or struggling to keep a roof over our heads, but more about that later. I have learnt that it is often the striving for more that creates the angst, not the failure to get it.


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