It was pouring with rain outside so it seemed only fair to offer the workmen a coffee. I’m not sure what they were doing, something to do with repairing the road, but they looked very cold and very wet. The leader of the group looked friendly and surprised as I approached them. ‘Nobody ever offers us a coffee…they just glare at us for blocking the road.’
One coffee with two sugars later, he looked quite emotional. The rain was streaming down his ruddy face. ‘I never wanted to do this job. It’s not how I imagined spending my life.’ Now it was my turn to look surprised. ‘I passed my 11+ but there weren’t enough spaces at the local grammar school. That simple fact determined my whole life…and here I am now. It’s so unfair.’
I was a bit taken aback by this sudden outpouring. I struggled to find something to say but the words didn’t come out. He turned and climbed back onto the truck. ‘Thanks for the coffee, mate.’ I walked back into the house, stirred by his story and reflecting on moments in life that can prove so pivotal, moments that often feel entirely outside our influence or control.
I thought back to moments in my own life. Defining experiences, key people and relationships, music I’ve heard, things I’ve read, places I’ve been, studies I’ve undertaken, jobs I’ve done. Some felt like moments I created, others felt purely circumstantial, some felt like success, others felt like failure. It’s been a mixed experience and has shaped who I am.
What’s your story? What stand out to you as the defining moments in your life? Who and what has shaped you most? What are the key choices or decision points that have led you to where you are now? Which moments have felt within your control and which have felt beyond you? Have you ever sensed the strange and mysterious, clear yet confusing hand of God?
A good friend in the police service once commented how he would arrive at work each day, put on his uniform and spend the rest of the day ‘impersonating a police officer’. He had a clear idea in mind of how a police officer would typically speak and behave and so consciously acted it out. It was like playing a role in a theatre with the uniform acting as both costume and psychological prop. A young girl working as a prostitute on the streets of Bangkok told me how she always used a pseudonym when working with clients. This name kept her real identity hidden and provided her with an alternative persona. By doing this, she was able psychologically to disassociate and protect her ‘true inner self’ from the separate persona that was engaging in sexual acts with strangers. A priest spoke of the pressures he felt to live a public life under constant moral scrutiny. By wearing a dog collar, he identified with a faith, a role and a calling that demanded high levels of personal integrity. Over the years, he struggled and found ways to live a more integrated and authentic life commenting that, ‘the real question is not how to be a priest but how to be oneself who is a priest.’
The first example here is of a person who found ways to fulfil a role by copying the behaviours of role models within that specific professional culture. The second is a person who learned to survive by deliberately separating herself psychologically from her persona-in-role. The third is a person who sought to find ways to live out a role by becoming more truly himself within that role. I’ve worked with numerous leaders who have experienced similar challenges. How to live and cope with one’s own expectations of leader and leadership as well as those imposed by the organisation or culture, not to mention the actual or imagined expectations of the board, peers and staff. It can feel stressful, daunting, isolating, debilitating and anxiety-provoking. It can result in burnout. Sometimes it’s a case of ‘impostor syndrome’ where a person believes he or she has been appointed to a role under some assumed false pretext or mistake. In such a situation, the person may put on a brave face and live in continual fear of being found out. ‘Sooner or later, they will discover that I’m not as good or capable as they think I am.’ It’s a form of exaggerated negative self-evaluation.
I’ve experienced similar pressures myself, especially 6-12 months into a new job. During the first 6 months, I tell myself it’s OK not to know everything because I’m new. There comes a point at which, however, I risk placing expectations on myself that I should now know more than I do. It’s a type of personal anxiety (fear of failure) combined with social anxiety (fear of being negatively evaluated). One coping strategy is to wear a metaphorical mask like a stage actor. The problem is that it’s the same phenomenon the word ‘hypocrite’ points towards: literally, one who pretends to be what he or she is not. It lacks reality and authenticity, takes considerable energy to sustain and can lead to stress and exhaustion. It prevents the person being and contributing their best, as they really are. There are spiritual parallels in Christian theology where people are both challenged and encouraged to ‘move into the light’ or to ‘live in the truth’ where everything is exposed for what it really is. It’s as if we need to find a space, a relationship, where we can see clearly and be totally honest, real and accepted in order to build out from that place. It’s about learning honesty, integrity and peace.
It’s like the equation: ‘trust = risk + support’. A person is more likely to open up, to be real (which can feel risky) if, when he or she takes such a step, they experience genuine acceptance and support. It reduces anxiety, helps the person think more clearly and creatively, fuels their energy and motivation, enables them to hear critical feedback and builds trust for the future. Various coaching and therapeutic schools draw on similar principles, e.g. providing unconditional positive regard (e.g. person-centred); enabling a person to question and test their beliefs and assumptions in order to get a better sense of what is real (e.g. cognitive behavioural); experimenting with new behaviours to discover new experiences and ways of being and doing (e.g. gestalt). In my coaching work with a leader, I may encourage him or her to explore and grow using a range of approaches, e.g. draw graphic images, select objects/symbols or strike physical poses that depict (a) their idea of the leader they believe the organisation or others expect them to be and (b) the leader they believe they are or aspire to be, then explore the commonalities and differences. Alternatively, I may encourage the person to experiment wearing different types of clothing, to practice holding themselves in a variety of postures, to speak in different volumes or tones of voice to explore which they feel most comfortable with, to find a physical expression that best enables them to be who they are.
I may encourage the person to brainstorm what they believe others expect of them, believe about them as a leader and to test those assumptions openly with others. I may encourage the person to vividly imagine themselves as e.g. a humble, confident, capable leader and to role play it focusing on real scenarios, reflecting on thoughts, feelings, behaviours and responses as we do it together. I may provide the person with toy figures and invite him or her to create a configuration of their current key relationships (e.g. leadership team), then ask them to move the figures into different configurations to reflect on how that feels and what insights emerge. I may also invite them to reflect on past life or work experiences that have felt very similar (e.g. family, previous teams). I may encourage the person to step back and consider what their own experience might point towards culturally or systemically. If, for instance, the leader feels unsafe to be honest, what light does that shed on, for example, what is considered acceptable and unacceptable culturally within that environment and what can the leader do practically and realistically to influence positive change.
I would be interested to hear of others’ experiences in this area and how you have worked through them. Have you experienced ‘impostor syndrome’? Have you struggled to reconcile who you are with the role you find yourself playing? Have you coached, mentored or trained others working through similar personal or professional challenges? If so, I would love to hear from you.
Critical reflexivity…hmm…what’s that? Sounds complicated. I was re-reading one of my favourite books, An Invitation to Social Construction (2009) by Kenneth Gergen this morning which introduces this concept with the following explanation:
‘Critical reflectivity is the attempt to place one’s premises into question, to suspend the ‘obvious’, to listen to alternative framings of reality and to grapple with the comparative outcomes of multiple standpoints…this means an unrelenting concern with the blinding potential of the ‘taken for granted’…we must be prepared to doubt everything we have accepted as real, true, right, necessary or essential’.
I find this interesting, stimulating and exciting. It’s about journeying into not-knowing, entertaining the possibility that there could be very different ways of perceiving, framing and experiencing issues or phenomena. It’s about a radical openness to fresh possibilities, new horizons, hitherto unimaginable ideas. It’s a recognition that all assumptions and preconceptions about reality could be limiting or flawed.
I’ve found this critical reflexivity principle invaluable in my coaching and OD practice. How often people and organisations get stuck, trapped, by fixed ways of seeing and approaching things. The same cultural influences that provide stability can blind us to alternative possibilities. The gift of the coach or consultant is to loosen the ground, release energy and insight, create fresh options for being and action.
It certainly resonates with my reading of the gospels. Jesus Christ had a way of confronting the worldviews, traditions and apparent ‘common sense’ outlook of those he encountered in such a way that often evoked confusion, anger or frustration. It’s as if he could perceive things others couldn’t see. He had a way of reframing things that it left people feeling disorientated. He operated in a very different paradigm.
This is one point at which spirituality meets philosophy and psychology. I too get easily trapped in my own constructs so I pray to God to open my eyes, to reveal new insights and unrecognised opportunities. Jesus’ words speak to me with renewed impact. He came ‘to proclaim freedom for prisoners, recovery of sight for the blind, to set captives free.’ It’s about fresh awareness, deep liberation and a renewed life.
Gareth Morgan in Images of Organisation (1986) commented, ‘People have a knack for getting trapped in webs of their own creation’. It’s as if we can create ways of seeing the world personally and between us that become fixed and prevent us seeing alternatives. According to social construct theory, we never really see the world for what it is, but rather as how we learn to perceive and make sense of it. This means that we attribute meaning to people, objects and situations, rather than perceive them objectively.
Personal and social construct psychology are interested in how people, groups, organisations and societies create their own ‘reality’. The language, images, metaphors and stories we use both reveal and reinforce how we see, experience and respond to the world. So, for instance, if we talk about a team, an organisation, an organisational structure etc, it may be to us as if those abstract entities actually exist in their own right, rather than simply as a way of thinking about and organising our psychosocial perceptions and experience.
Depending on what images, beliefs, values and assumptions we hold about such ‘constructs’, we can find ourselves holding fixed views that blind us to alternative ideas and options. Social construct coaching is not about unearthing ‘the truth’ but exploring alternative constructs. Social construct coaching aims to help a person or group to surface, examine and challenge the constructs they have inherited and created and to experiment with creating alternative constructs to see what they may reveal, release and enable. Sample techniques:
*Invite the coachee or group to depict a real work scenario, e.g. by drawing on paper, using objects (e.g. toys) or configuring people in a room to see what picture (or ‘construct’) emerges.
*Encourage the coachee or group to reflect on what has emerged, e.g. who or what have they included and why, how have they positioned themselves in relation to others and why etc.
*Challenge the coachee or group’s assumptions, e.g. who or what is missing, what evidence is there to support any assumptions, what evidence could point towards contrary conclusions?
*Urge the coachee or group to consider how people from diverse situations might perceive or approach the scenario, e.g. from different genders, cultures, ages, jobs, positions in hierarchy.
*Support the coachee or group to experiment with radical alternatives, e.g. draw the diagram upside down, swap roles and places, play with opposite words, images and metaphors.
Person and social construct coaching can enable changes in perception, resulting options and personal-cultural behaviour. The most exciting examples result in a fundamental paradigm shift, a total reconstruction of how an individual or group perceives, shapes and responds to the world.
Who or what has most influenced your OD thinking and practice? What maxims or principles do you bear in mind as you approach organisational issues from an OD perspective? Someone asked me this question recently and I crystallised my response into seven statements, drawing on background influences including Morgan, Schein, Bolman & Deal, Gergen and Burr:
*Organisations do not exist but people do.
*Every action is an intervention.
*Actions have symbolic as well as rational meaning.
*What’s important is not what happens but what it means.
*The same event has different meanings for different people.
*People get trapped in their own psychological and cultural constructs.
*What passes for rationality is often irrationality in disguise.
These statements, taken as a whole, create a metaphorical lens through which I often view, analyse or interpret a situation or experience. They help me to consider an underlying question, ‘What is really going on here?’ before attempting to work with a client or organisation to devise a way forward. What maxims or principles do you use to guide your practice?
‘My car is red.’ ‘Big deal,’ you may say, ‘my car is blue, green or silver.’ On the face of it, ‘my car is red’ simply sounds like a point for information, principally about the colour of the car. But is that really all it conveys? The relationship between language, culture and personal constructs is complex and profound. ‘My car is red’ conveys all kind of hidden personal and cultural messages.
‘My’ relates to ‘I’. It says something about how I see myself in relation to others, my ‘self’ as separate and distinct from others. It’s a culturally-constructed ‘I’. ‘My’ says something about possession. I consider the car in some way ‘belongs’ to me. This notion of possession, of belonging, is a cultural construct. It’s about the relationship between ‘me’ and ‘other’.
It points beyond my personal beliefs, my personal constructs, to a wider cultural context, how the relationship between people and objects is perceived and organised in my cultural environment. It has political and economic implications, touches on issues of rights and legality, shared implicit values, rules and behaviours that the culture I live within accepts and endorses.
‘Car’. At a literal level, I picture the car and I see an object that has a particular function, a mode of transport. As I explore my ‘car’ phenomenologically, I realise it evokes feelings of comfort, convenience, freedom, enjoyment for me. Culturally, it also represents something about relative wealth, social status, mobility. It's an object and a personal-cultural symbol.
If I had never seen or heard of 'car' before, or any such vehicle, and encountered one out of context, I could only guess what it is, what it is designed for. I would have no idea how to operate it, what its capabilities are, what significance it carries in my actual cultural environment. In other words, the whole idea of 'car', what it means, is culturally constructed.
‘Is red’. This attributes properties to the car, as if ‘redness’ is inherent to the car, an actual colour of the car. It’s about the car, it’s not about me. It’s a metaphysical view, how I believe things are in the world. To be more accurate, I could say, I experience the car as ‘red’, where ‘red’ is the colour I experience in the brain when I see the car in white light. Is the car still red when it’s dark?
But ‘red’ is a social construct too. We use red to denote a colour, a label that distinguishes one colour, or a group of similar colours that fall broadly into ‘red’ within my culture, from other colours. I don’t simply see and categorise colours at a personal level, I live within a culture that distinguishes between and organises colour categories in very specific ways.
I inherit the language I use, language that creates its own ways of framing and categorising. I also inherit my own cultural environment and history. My thinking and experience is profoundly influenced by these inheritances. At the same time, I have my own unique experience of the world. How I act in the world shapes language and culture too, it’s a mutually-influencing process.
So, ‘my car is red’. Simple to say, profoundly revealing when unpacked. It says something about me, how I perceive and experience the world and myself in the world, and also something about the beliefs, constructs, values and practices of my wider cultural environment. Revealing such assumptions, opening ourselves to re-examination, can be a radical route to transformation.
'We don’t see things as they are, but rather as we are.’ (Anais Nin)
I’m fascinated by how we construct reality. We interpret experiences then filter and form our perceptions of future experiences based on those interpretations. This is meaning-making in action. It’s a social as well as personal process; our meanings are shaped by others as well as ourselves.
The challenge lies in distinguishing between subjective and objective reality. If I imagine my subjective constructs are a true and accurate perception of reality as is, a whole and definitive view of who I am, who you are and how things are, I risk closed-mindedness and all kinds of delusions.
This calls for openness, humility and an ongoing willingness to challenge my own beliefs and perspectives and to invite challenge from others. (At one level, this blog itself represents such an invitation; an open space to share and receive insights and ideas between people).
How I perceive reality, what sense I make of it, what beliefs I form about it, what conclusions I draw don’t only shape my thinking. They also influence how I feel and how I behave, how I approach new situations and other people, what decisions I make about how to live my own life, how I influence other people.
‘The key determining factors in how we feel from moment to moment are the pictures we make in our imagination and the way we talk to ourselves in our head. We refer to these images and sounds as internal representations, and they are just that – representations of reality, not reality itself.
‘Your internal representations of reality are unique to you – your own personal way of perceiving the world. They are your own map of the world but, as with any map, they are incomplete and filled with generalisations, deletions and distortions.
‘This is the reason why two people can witness the exact same event and yet experience it completely differently. In the words of the father of modern linguistics, Count Alfred Korzybski, ‘the map is not the territory’. (Paul McKenna)
I feel challenged, released and inspired by this viewpoint as a Christian. I hold certain beliefs with deep conviction and yet if I superimpose my own constructs onto God, I risk creating an image of God, a fixed view of him, constrained by the limits of my own experience, interpretation and imagination.
It applies to my relationships with other people too. If I superimpose my own assumptions and perspectives, like a person holding a projector that projects images onto the other, I will never meet the other person for who they truly are or recognise and release them to be all they are and can be.
Do we have a core, coherent personality or are we really fractured selves? Personal construct psychology suggests our sense of coherent self may be something we superimpose onto ourselves to feel more coherent - a kind of rationalisation of our experience to feel more whole and unified as a person. It makes sense to me as a possibility.
It's a bit like life. I look back over my life and see a pattern emerge. Is the pattern really 'there' or do I subconsciously superimpose a pattern as a way of post-rationalising my experience so that it feels somehow less random and chaotic and more unified and meaningful? It's a philosophical and psychological hypothesis I find intriguing.
It's as if I choose certain experiences selectively from memory and then draw imaginary lines between them. If this is the case, it opens me to alternative constructions that could change how I understand myself, my life story, and thereby open up fresh possibilities for the future.
A Singaporean friend asked this morning, 'Why is this so interesting for you at this point in your life?' I found that question very thought-provoking. Perhaps I'm at a place of re-evaluating lots of things, viewing my life and the world through different lenses as a way of making new sense of them.
It's often a struggle to find meaningful language to express such difficult ideas that lie at the edge of language and experience. I would be very interested, therefore, to hear from any other people grappling with similar ideas, concepts and experiences. May God guide us with insight, wisdom and freedom.