Most of us have been trained to think of an organization as a collection of individuals. When providing performance feedback, we evaluate and reward each person independently. But, this is a huge error, because culture actually drives most of the behaviour within an organization. And, the majority of conflict is between roles, not people. Recognizing that everyone is inextricably interdependent, higher functioning leaders provide performance feedback to both the entire team and each individual. When analyzing results in their organizations, these leaders examine their own behaviour and the context they’ve shaped.
To demonstrate the power of context, we’ve created a tool called Pond Thinking™. If a fish starts swimming erratically, we never blame the fish. We always look for the environmental factors that might be causing the problems (nutrients, toxins, etc.). But, when employees are underperforming, the first question often isn’t about how context could be impeding their success (role clarity, conflicting goals, inadequate resources, etc.). Instead, we tend to label people as underperformers. As a practical definition, we define contextual thinking as the cognitive habit of examining behavioral root causes outside of people and within the organizational context.