Counter-intuitive truths about working with people

Simon Black – 

Working with people often involves bumping into ‘counter-intuitive truths’ (Seddon, 2003): ideas that contradict everything which we have been taught about managing people.

Leaders therefore need to think seriously about the people they are leading and their needs (i.e to enable those people to get on with the work) far more than thinking about the ‘principles of good leadership’. In other words, think about ‘followers’ more than yourself as ‘leader’.

In conservation, this allows us to avoid problems of working in remote sites (often in close proximity), having multicultural (or at least cross-cultural) teams, working in second languages (or with translation), having multi-disciplinary teams or mixes of unskilled and technical workers, and so on.  Here are some of the realities and things to watch out for:

• Don’t ‘do it to people’: understand the system of work first – how work should be purposeful and how the flow of work (the order of tasks) can be made helpful

trend line•   Don’t chase things that don’t
exist (like supposed ‘trends’ in data) or arbitrary targets

•   Build knowledge, not opinion

•   Culture change is not something that you 'do' to peopleDon’t rely on top down change; take a lead yourself and start small if necessary.

•   Teamwork is about Purpose, Goals & Process more than about Behaviour. A conflict between people may not be a personality clash but actually be about work organisation.

•   Decision-making can involve people in many different ways. Participation and input from others will only help if they have insight and useful knowledge. It will also be really unhelpful if knowledgeable and insightful people  in the team (or local community) are ignored.

•  Change can be quick & painless at the right point of intervention (especially if you don’t ‘do it’ to people)

•  Doing things that are ‘nice’ to people (appraisals, recognition, involvement), might not be nice for those people – especially if the obvious problems of work are not addressed.


Beckhard, R. (1972) Optimizing Team Building Effort, J. Contemporary Business.  1:3,  pp.23-32

Seddon, J. (2003). Freedom from Command and Control. Buckingham: Vanguard Press.

The Details AND the Big Picture: how do we keep the balance?

Simon Black – 

A ‘helicopter view’ is an important capability for a conservation leader. The leader needs to be able to examine details of the programme, then position that knowledge in the context of the wider programme purpose and vision. This includes how budgets are organised, resources planned, goals set and how external partnership  are arranged.

With a helicopter view the leader is well placed to delegate and coach the team, to intervene and support where needed, to revisit, change or improve approaches where required. Most importantly the leader can see where ‘the way things are done’ helps (or doesn’t help) the achievement of the team’s purpose.

  • Consider both project details and the big picture
  • See and understand internal & external organizational dynamics.
  • Know projects’ sphere of influence—identify solvable problems.
  • Establish budgets and a clear fund-raising strategy.
  • Design financial/non-financial metrics to relate to conservation
  • Provide information, technology & resource to assist the work.
  • Encourage cooperation & sharing with partners to improve work.
  • Anticipate unexpected outcomes.
  • Be prepared to seek specialist advice from external sources.
  • Integrate flexible management with professional/scientific rigor.
  • Use data on staff, communities, or society if it helps the program.

Further Reading:

Black, S. A., Groombridge, J. J., & Jones, C. G. (2011a). Leadership and Conservation Effectiveness: Finding a Better Way to Lead.Conservation Letters, 4, 329-339.