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?! :)
I met with a group of Christian bikers yesterday who were discussing the Paris to Dakar rally. During the course of the conversation, the group leader spoke about the incredible teamwork and logistics involved in achieving success in such a gruelling event. He compared it by analogy to supporting each other as friends and fellow bikers on an exciting yet demanding journey of faith. He mentioned how we sometimes talk about the ideal team as a ‘well-oiled machine’. It was certainly a metaphor that appealed to the group. He went on, however, to challenge the metaphor. ‘A team isn’t a machine. It’s people. People like us. People like you and me. People who are different to each other, each with their own personality, talents – and quirky habits.’
He went on. ‘It’s that kind of team that I want to be part of. A team of friends who care deeply about each other, look out for each other, support each other, laugh together, cry together, pull together. A machine does none of those things. It’s cold, efficient, impersonal, inhuman. The machine metaphor is all about performance. The team I’m talking about is all about relationships.’ One bloke piped up with a playful glint in his eye. ‘This group is nothing like a well-oiled machine. It’s more like a buckled wheel – and I love it!’ As I looked around the room at these leather clad men, each with his own mixed life story of brokenness and success, I could see what he meant. There’s something about this team that's intensely human, personal and real.
I reflected more as I rode home. I thought back to teambuilding events I’ve been involved with, team coaching experiences, team models and technical scientific psychometrics. This man wasn’t simply advocating a different team model to the norm, a different team focus or approach. He was advocating a radically different existential–spiritual paradigm to that we find in many Western organisations today. He was challenging an over-emphasis on performance and efficiency that loses sight of humanity and meaning. I was taken back to a conversation with an African colleague who once commented, ‘I know Western organisations are preoccupied with targets and metrics. Our invitation, however, is to meet with us as people and to walk together.’
Is this hopelessly naïve, idealistic and unrealistic? What about all the pressures organisations face in increasingly competitive markets? What about increasing demands from boards, employees and shareholders for greater accountability, productivity and profits? What about organisational cultures that foster internal competition too? I agree, it’s a real challenge. It calls for visionary, courageous leadership, a radical step back to consider deep questions of identity, meaning and purpose at organisational and wider stakeholder levels. It begs profound questions, e.g.‘What is influencing our beliefs about what is most important to us?’ ‘What is driving our behaviour?’, ‘How can we be more human?’, ‘What legacy do we want to leave in the world?’
I’ve had the privilege of working with some leadership teams that have taken this challenge seriously. Admittedly, it felt counter-intuitive at the time, especially at first. How to build in a more explicit spiritual-humanising dimension to the organisation’s thinking, practice and culture in the midst of intense organisational busyness, pressures and deadlines? Wouldn’t it take more time than was available, slow things down? I could feel the understandable tension alongside the aspiration. One team decided to bite the bullet. Its 2hr meetings had constantly packed agendas. It struggled to work through everything and the pressure felt relentless. Some felt tired and wondered in conversations offline about their team’s sustainability and their own ability to cope.
We discussed how it would feel to check in with each other and with God at the start of each meeting - and they were open to experiment. We decided to allow 20 mins of each 2 hour meeting so that people could arrive and breathe before diving into business. As they settled in, they shared stories of how they were feeling, what was happening in their worlds at the moment, what was preoccupying them. They practised active listening, being genuinely present to each other. Sometimes they prayed. At the end of the 20 mins, they felt more relaxed and focused with a stronger sense of team spirit. They used the next 5 minutes to revisit the agenda: ‘What now stands out as most important to us?’ ‘How shall we do this?’, ‘What do we need to do this well?’
The team commented after practising this for a few months on how it had transformed their relationships and meetings. Their times together felt more focused, inspiring, energising, open, honest, human, and productive. They achieved higher quality and faster results. They began to identify ways of working that served them well (e.g. speak up; hear well; challenge; support) and used bright green cards light-heartedly to signal and affirm when anyone in the team modelled those behaviours. When others joined them for their meetings, they explained their new team culture and invited them to join in too. The effect was electric. It modelled inspiring team values and effective ways of working that extended beyond the team into the wider organisation.
So, some questions for reflection. What difference do you, your team and organisation want to be and to make in the world? How far and how often do teams you are part of feel and act like a human place? What are your best and worst experiences of team? What made the biggest difference? What kind of person, team or organisation do you aspire to be and become? What kind of personal, team and organisational leadership will it call for to succeed? What will 'success' look and feel like for those involved and impacted by it? What values, practices and culture will others notice characterise your team? What place, if any, do God, spirituality and prayer take in your thinking and practice as a team? I would love to hear from you!
‘Could you be more direct?’ I took part in a 2-day workshop recently, a Gestalt approach to conflict, challenge and confrontation in groups. There were 12 in the group, mostly therapists of one kind or another, and we started by introducing ourselves in 2s. ‘This is my life’ in 5 minutes. Next, after each had spoken, we commented on what we had noticed. ‘We’re the same in that…’ and ‘We’re different in that…’ It drew our attention to what we notice in first encounters and how we tend to deal with sameness and difference in groups.
There’s something about sameness that can provide a sense of comfort, of security, of being part of something bigger than ourselves. When we feel insecure, we may seek out points of sameness in order to build rapport, establish connection and thereby reduce our anxiety. Safety in numbers. In this context, difference can feel distancing, even threatening. If we continue to focus on sameness, an awareness of group identity emerges, a feeling of belonging, a sense of differentiation between the ‘us’ and the ‘not us’.
This is an important principle in group and inter-group dynamics. The inclusive dynamic that creates a sense of group within a group is the same dynamic that can exclude others. If we focus exclusively on sameness within our group and on difference between our own group and other perceived groups, we create boundaries between us. If difference emerges within our group, we may ignore or resist it because it doesn’t fit the group norm, the norm we have subscribed to in order to feel secure. This can lead to collusion and group think.
A way to break through unhelpful group and inter-group barriers is to acknowledge what the group provides for us, its functional value at a social psychological level, and yet also to draw our attention to the differences between us within the group and the similarities between us (or at least some of us) and those (or at least some of those) in other groups. This has the effect of raising fresh awareness, reconfiguring group identities, enabling us to see different patterns of sameness and difference and thereby fresh possibilities.
A later activity in this workshop was to practice immediacy. We split into two groups. One group sat in a circle in the middle of the room, the others around the outside observing those in the inside circle. The inside group was invited and encouraged to practise speaking very honestly, clearly and directly with one another. The conversation started.‘I would like to facilitate the group.’ ‘I’m happy for you to facilitate.’ ‘I feel anxious.’ ‘What do you feel anxious about?’ ‘I feel anxious in case those on the outside judge my performance.’
It continued. ‘If I lose interest, I will check out.’ ‘What will checking out look like, what will we see?’ ‘I will gaze out of the window’.‘What do you want us to do if we see you gazing out of the window?’ ‘Call it.’ ‘I don’t know what you are thinking or feeling and I want to know.’ ‘Why is that so important to you?’ ‘Because I don’t feel a connection with you, I feel distant from you.’ Our task was to focus on what was happening within and between us here and now and to articulate it openly and courageously, even if it risked evoking conflict.
Asking, ‘What is happening here and now?’ is such a powerful question. It draws attention of a group away from a topic, issue or abstraction into the immediate moment. ‘I’m thinking…’, ‘I’m feeling…’. The impact in the workshop group felt both profound and electric. To ask, ‘What is going on for me now?’ is a great way of establishing contact with myself. To articulate what I am thinking and feeling in a group or to hear others do the same invites others to be open too and, thereby, builds the quality of relational contact within the group.
This can prove tricky cross-culturally, especially where it could be considered inappropriate, disrespectful or even offensive to speak out in a group. In other situations, it may simply feel too risky to acknowledge openly what I’m thinking or feeling. The challenge in this workshop was to experiment with being more open, less constrained, than we would normally behave. ‘If I asked you on a scale of 10 how honest and up-front you are in groups, what would you say? What would really happen if you were to ratchet it up a notch?’
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.
Gestalt psychology emphasises the value of high quality contact, where contact is about presence, attention, engagement, relationship. I'm sure you've had the experience of being with someone who appeared bored or distracted. Conversely, think of examples when someone has really been there for you, with you, really listened hard. In that moment, you felt close, connected.
In the busyness of life, it can feel hard to stay in contact with ourselves, our physical environment, others around us. It's as if we live in a blur, a semi-conscious state, that deadens us to the richness of life and real engagement. It's a survival strategy, a way of dealing with complex pressures and demands, that can nevertheless leave us feeling empty, alientated, lifeless.
We can experience the same in our spiritual lives too, vaguely aware of a Presence that lies beyond but largely drowned out by other activities and preoccupations. We get bored, restless, dissatisfied, exhausted. Christian life can feel like a concept, an abstraction, a memory rather than a vibrant, life-giving relationship in the here and now.
In order to re-establish contact, a Gestalt therapist may encourage a person to pause, sit, notice what's going on in and around them at that very moment...thoughts, feelings, breathing, sights, sounds, their own body. The aim is to help raise into awareness that which lies buried, ignored, suppressed or unnoticed. It's about exploring the 'what else' of a person's experience.
Take 5 minutes. Allow yourself to relax. Notice your breathing. Notice your body, how you are sitting, how you are feeling in different parts of your body. Notice how you are feeling, where you are feeling it. Notice what thoughts are drifting through your mind, what is preoccupying you. Look and listen, what do you notice in the room, sights, sounds, smells, what do you notice outside?
This kind of practical exercise draws our attention away from the past or the future into the present. Now practice being present, really present to another person. Allow that person to fill your attention. Notice how they look, listen to them attentively, tune into how they are feeling. Notice how giving attention affects the quality and feeling of contact between you.
These principles are really important in Christian leadership. It's about paying attention to how we arrive in meetings and enable others to arrive. It's too easy to rush in, race ahead with an agenda, without really first becoming present to and with one another. It's about how to establish high quality, meaningful contact with oneself, others in the room and God, to really hear and discern.
(I love Richard Rohr's comment in Things Hidden: 'God's face is turned towards us absolutely...it is we who have to learn, little by little, to return the gaze.' It conveys the profound and startling revelation that God is already present to us, already in deep contact with us. In this sense, spirituality is something about becoming present to the Presence, the God who is already with us.)
Take an aide-memoire into your next meeting. Ask yourself silently, 'What is the quality of my contact with myself...with the other people in the room...with God...with the subject matter we are considering?' 'What can we do to improve the quality of contact in order to bring out the best in ourselves and each other?' You may be amazed at the difference it can make.
I've found one of the most powerful questions to ask in a meeting is, 'What do I need in order to bring my best contribution?' It's based on a wider question, 'What do we need to be engaging and effective?' If I exercise personal leadership, if I'm proactive and take responsibility in a meeting, I will pay attention to what I and others need and seek to address it.
I was in a leaders' meeting recently and, as we were about to move onto the next agenda item, I felt the need for a comfort break. I felt tempted to try to suppress it, to ignore it, but noticed how it was affecting my attention. I didn't want to interrupt the flow of the meeting and felt a bit embarrased to raise it but decided, nevertheless, to exercise this personal leadership principle.
'Would you mind if we pause for a 5 minute comfort break before we move on?' The others looked at me, surprised, then started to laugh. 'I'm so glad you suggested that', said one person, 'me too' said another, with looks of relief on their faces. We paused for a break and returned feeling more focused and energised. It was a simple step that really enhanced the quality of the meeting.
I met with another leader recently who commented how he finds meeting difficult if everyone is speaking and he can't think fast enough to interject. By the time he has formulated what he wants to say, the conversation has moved on. His best contribution is lost. How much do we lose in meetings by not paying attention to what people need?
I asked, 'What do you need in such a moment, to bring your best contribution alongside others?' 'Space to think.' 'How much space would you need?' 'Oh, perhaps a minute or so before we move on.' 'So how would it be if you proposed to the chair that you all pause for a minute or so after each agenda item, to see if anything else emerges, before moving onto the next item?'
His face lit up. He had a practical solution. Imagine the potential to transform the quality, experience and output of meetings by such simple, practical steps. It would require him to pay attention to what he needs and to speak it out in the meeting, not just to think or feel it. It takes courage to break into normal patterns of meeting behaviour, but the potential for change is considerable.
I was invited to another meeting where the agenda was packed full. The team hadn't met for a while, had each been involved in intense activity or travelling. This created pressure to become even more task focused than usual. I asked them to pause and reflect at the start, 'What do you need here and now to arrive well, to be fully present to one-another and the tasks ahead?'
They went quiet, thoughful, then spoke about how they felt the need to connect with each other before moving onto the formal agenda, to share something of what they had been doing since they last met, what was on their minds and hearts now, to pray together to seek God's guidance and wisdom. They spent the next 30 mins doing just that, and the whole meeting was transformed.
This focus on need fulfilment need has its roots in Gestalt psychology, the notion that our performance is likely to be affected if we don't pay attention to what we need and take steps to resolve it. We can't always fulfil everything we need and sometimes what we need may conflict with the needs of others. Nevertheless, we can still speak up - and explore the possibilities.
'That was a great meeting.' 'You're joking, it was terrible!' It's hard to imagine these two were in the same room at the same time. How can different people's experience of the same meeting be so different? I sometimes get asked for advice on good meetings, how to manage good meetings.
It's an interesting challenge. After all, what constitutes a good meeting is highly contextual. In some cultures, relational aspects take precedence over tasks; in others, tasks take precedence over time. In some organisations, formal, structured meetings are preferred. In others, flexible creativity is the norm.
It partly depends on purpose. 'What are we here to do?' or 'What would a good outcome of this meeting look and feel like?'. It's also partly about timing and situation. In a crisis, a short task driven meeting may be appropriate; in other circumstances, spending time getting to know each other may take priority.
But it's not just cultural differences that are significant. People's preferences are personality driven too. So some people prefer meetings to be highly structured, organised. Others in the same meeting may prefer fluidity, an emergent agenda, a 'let's see what happens' approach.
Some people will insist that a good meeting involves circulating an agenda in advance, having fixed timings against item, ensuring the purpose of each item is clear and agreed (e.g. for information, for discussion, for decision), carefully documenting agreed action points to ensure follow-through.
Others will place greater emphasis on ensuring everyone is heard and understood, creating an environment where everyone can be honest about what they are thinking and feeling, addressing agenda items in a way that inspires passion and engagement, ensuring the content feels meaningful.
So the question becomes, 'In light of what we are here to do, how would we like to do it?' This takes openness and a willingness to negotiate. It's about exploring what's possible, what will enable different people to engage and contribute their best, what will ensure the meeting achieves its goal.