My boss had been reading John Ortberg’s ‘Everybody’s Normal Till You Get to Know Them’ and it was time for us to plan our annual leadership team retreat. Looking for a theme title, he suggested half-jokingly, ‘How about ‘Everybody’s Weird’?’ I laughed at first but then thought for a moment…what a great concept and idea. It felt inspired. How to blow away any sense of normality and conformity and to meet each other afresh as we really are. Our creativity lies in our unique weirdness and what a great way to explore our individual quirkyness and its potential for the team and organisation.
Every group, every team, develops its own normative behaviours. Some even prescribe them by developing explicit competency and behavioural frameworks. It provides a sense of identity, stability and predictability. It can also improve focus and how people work together by establishing a set of ground rules, how we can be at our best. The flip side of all of this is that a team can begin to feel too homogeneous, too bland. It can lose its creative spark, its innovative spirit. The challenge was how to rediscover our differences, our wonderful, exciting, diversity in all its weird complexity.
We invited people to bring objects that represented something significant in their personal lives and to share their stories. We invited people to use psychometrics to explore their preferences to shared them in the group. We invited them to challenge the psychometric frames, not to allow themselves to be too categorised. We invited people to challenge stereotypes, to break the moulds they felt squeezed or squeezed themselves into, to look intently for what they didn’t normally notice in themselves and each other, to allow themselves to be surprised and inspired by what they discovered.
It felt like an energetic release. People laughed more, some cried more, others prayed deeply together. The burden of leadership felt lighter as people connected and bonded in a new way. It felt easier to challenge and to encourage. By relaxing into each other and themselves, people became more vibrant, more colourful, less stressed. They saw fresh possibilities that lay hidden from sight before. They discovered more things they liked about each other, fresh points of common passion, interest and concern. They built new friendships that eased their ways of working. It felt more like team.
What space do you and your organisation allow for weirdness? Do you actively seek, nurture and reward differences? Do your leadership style and culture bring out and celebrate individuals’ strange idiosyncracies, each person’s unique God-given gifts, talents and potential? Have you had experiences where a capacity for weirdness has enhanced your team or organisation’s creativity and innovation? Do you risk inadvertently squeezing out the best of weirdness by policies and practices that drive towards uniformity? Could a bit more weirdness be more inspiring and effective – and fun?! :)
It stands around the corner from an authentic Thai restaurant in central London. On the face of it, it’s an elegant building. As you walk past, however, you realise with surprise that the frontage is a façade, an elaborate shield concealing a plain office building that lies behind it. It’s a striking metaphor, a symbol of sorts for an inauthentic life. It challenged me powerfully yet silently to consider the masks I wear, the images I project to disguise my real self.
Some years ago, John Powell published a popular, short self help book, ‘Why am I afraid to tell you who I am?’ He explored how we attempt to protect our fragile egos and avoid our fear rejection by acting out roles or playing games. These are defensive routines aimed at minimising social anxiety or negative evaluation. By putting on a front that we believe will impress others, we attempt to feel better about ourselves and to win others’ approval.
At one level, these strategies can prove successful in life and work. It’s one reason why we pay attention to our physical appearance, the way we behave and conduct ourselves in public, the way we present ourselves at job interviews etc. From our earliest childhood experiences, we learn what wins love and affirmation from others within our key relationships, social environments and culture. We learn how to play the game.
At another level, however, keeping up appearances can prove self-defeating. Over time we may feel alienated from ourselves, not sure how we really are, and alienated from others, not sure if we are really loved and accepted. We can feel lonely, frustrated and tired. It’s as if, paradoxically, the façades we create to develop and maintain relationships can have the opposite effect, preventing authentic and intimate contact with others.
This presents us with a dilemma, an anxiety-provoking risk. What if I remove the mask, tell you what I’m really thinking, show you how I’m really feeling? Would you love and accept me for who I am or would you look at me with disappointment in your eyes? Will making myself vulnerable release you to be vulnerable too? Can we find a new way of connecting that feels more real, more authentic, less defended, less like a façade?
It can feel like a breathtaking step. The possibility feels exciting and yet the potential feels daunting. I’m reminded of Jesus’ call in the gospels: ‘remove the mask and come into the light’. There is further New Testament teaching too: ‘perfect love casts out fear’. If God can love and accept me as I am, perhaps I can learn to love and accept myself and to love and accept others too. Perhaps that’s where it starts, feeling truly safe with God.
So therein lies the challenge. As a leader and a coach, am I willing to make myself vulnerable so that others can be vulnerable too? Can I demonstrate unconditional love with such honesty that others feel safe to remove their masks, to take down their façades? Can I find new ways to relate to others with an increasing sense of trust and authenticity, creating ever-deeper levels of contact? It’s certainly a goal worth praying and striving for.
You may have heard it said, the longest journey a person must take is the eighteen inches from the head to the heart. It’s as if we can grasp an idea rationally, conceptually and yet still not allow it to touch us, to move us, to motivate us into action. What is this journey from passive assent to active commitment? What does it take to engender and sustain genuine engagement?
What could it entail, look and feel like in practice?
I did some work with a leadership team recently. In conversation beforehand, it was clear they believed that certain behaviour changes would enhance their effectiveness. They were convinced in principle about this but hadn’t yet tried it. At this stage, it felt like a proposition, a possibility. It was still at the head level, a compelling idea that made good sense rationally. We decided to experiment to see what would happen experientially.
The team chose three principles to focus on and practice. ‘Let’s be aware of space and pace (ensuring the right time and speed for each topic); rationality and intuition (being sensitive to analysis and feeling or discernment); speaking and listening (saying honestly what we are think and feel and tuning in to hear each other).’ We invited each other to hold up a green card each time we saw these principles being modelled.
It felt a bit clunky at first but the team members gave it a go and the effect was amazing. The conversation felt focused, deep and purposeful. The quality of contact between participants was enhanced and the work became more inspiring and effective. We paused to reflect on how well the team was modelling these principles at the end of each meeting and, over a short space of time, the impact was transformational.
I facilitated another group recently on solutions-focused brief coaching. It was a 90-minute workshop, a new event designed to inspire and equip leaders with a fresh approach to relationships. I wanted participants to leave with an experience of the difference this approach could make, to feel the positive impact rather than simply to understand the principles and concept. The
participants were enthusiastic and gave it a go.
We opened the workshop by inviting each person to share a current issue with the person beside them. The other person’s role was simply to help them think it through. The conversation had a 7 minute time limit, at the end of which they would reverse roles and repeat. We ended that piece by asking participants to give and receive feedback on how they had experienced the conversation, what had helped etc.
I then introduced the core principles and sample techniques of solutions-focused coaching, working interactively with the group to flesh them out. We looked at contracting, solutions-focused vs problem-solving questions and moving towards action and commitment. The group grasped the principles but I wanted to progress the workshop from idea to experience, from conceptual
understanding to compelling determination to follow it though.
So I invited the group to run a second 7 minute conversation with the person beside them, this time consciously practising this new approach. Again, after 7 minutes they reversed roles and repeated, followed by giving and receiving feedback. The shift in experience was extraordinary. The participants looked surprised and pleased at such a marked shift in their own skill and the positive impact on their partners.
The pivotal moment in each of these examples, in the team meeting and the coaching workshop, was the shift from rational awareness through physical/emotional experience to genuine conviction. Conviction based on experience can have a remarkable and truly transformational effect. It has the potential to lead forward from belief-in-principle to positive engagement, sustainable effort and profound change.
It was an amazing experience to stay in a log cabin on beautiful Saturna island, Canada, and to spend bright sunshine-filled days with change management experts from across the globe. At one point, we wondered how best to explore our own vision, passion and impact. I drew an eye, an ear and a heart on a flipchart pad and invited the team to split into small groups to consider 3 questions:
First, if we were the high performing team we aspired to be, what would others see us doing? What would they notice about our actions, our behaviours, our ways of doing things? Secondly, if we overheard someone we had worked with talking about us to a friend in a pub or cafe, what kind of things would we hear them saying? Thirdly, how would others feel as a result of encountering us?
I then invited the small groups to think creatively about how to portray their responses to these questions to the wider group, e.g. using drama or role play. The energy in the room was electric, filled with energy, laughter and creative ideas. We paused after each depiction to reflect: what did we notice, what seemed to make the biggest positive difference, what feelings did it evoke for us?
The team was able easily to identify the qualities and characteristics it would like to nurture, sustain and be known for. There was something about exploring our aspirations and potential impacts from others’ perspectives, putting ourselves into others’ shoes, using creative imagination and expression, that enabled us to think about added value in a way that felt genuinely illuminating and engaging.
I’ve used this type of approach on a number of occasions since, with similar positive effects. I’ve learned that engendering and sharing vision, that motivating, focusing and mobilising action, can best be achieved through an interactive process that enables emotional, spiritual, physical and relational engagement as well as more conventional cognitive reflection and participation.
Do you have similar experiences or ideas? If so, do share – I would love to hear from you!