I had precautionary tests this week for a potentially life-threatening condition. Thankfully, the results turned out to be OK but it’s experiences like this that often bring existential issues into sharp relief. Existential coaching focuses on helping a person explore his or her own sense of ‘being in the world’, that strange psychic awareness that we are in the world before what we are in the world. At times, such awareness can feel mysterious, unfathomable, disorientating and anxiety-provoking. It’s like one of those moments when, as a child, I gazed up into the night sky, saw the stars and the enormity of space, imagined space and time going on forever and felt dizzy and perplexed by it. It can also raise deep questions to the surface such as, ‘Who am I?’ and 'Why am I here?’
According to existentialist thought, our essence as a person isn’t fixed but we become who we are through the choices we make. Our choices are influenced by factors such as the assumptions, beliefs, judgements, hopes and fears etc. we hold about ourselves, the same we hold about others and how we experience and act in our relationships with others, in our everyday circumstances and in the decisions we face and make. Existentialist writers sometimes refer to this as our ‘stance in the world’, that is, how we perceive, position ourselves and act in our everyday lives. Our stance both reflects something of our sense of and our way of being in the world and shapes who we are and become in the world. I can share a personal example to illustrate this phenomenon.
When my youngest daughter was 7 years old, I took her to a theme park that had a very high and steep ‘death slide’. I was surprised and impressed to see her quietly but resolutely psyche herself up to leap down its harrowing slope. When she finally did do it, I asked her how she managed to bring herself to push herself off its terrifying edge. She responded in a way that humbled and amazed me: ‘Firstly, when you told me it would be OK, I trusted you that it would be OK, even though it looked so scary. Secondly, when I write about what we did today in my diary tonight, I want to be able to write that I went on the slide even though I was afraid of it, not that I didn’t go on the slide because I was afraid of it. That’s the kind of person I want to be.’ I felt awe-struck and speechless.
Curiously, we are often unaware of making choices, or deny to ourselves that we are making choices in order to avoid the responsibility that choice implies, and unaware of the underlying metaphysical world view we hold that both influences and is influenced by our choices. It’s as if we can live at a superficial level, sometimes choose to live at that level as a form of self defence or life-coping mechanism. The problem is that if we only live at that level, we may fail to be who we can become in the world; deny ourselves and others a deeper and more fulfilling life experience; struggle with contact in intimate relationships; expend our time, energy and resources on distractions that aim to suppress or avoid facing the discomfort and anxiety that existential issues can evoke.
One of the goals of existential coaching is therefore to raise world view and choice into awareness in order enable clients to live more authentic lives. It’s about enabling clients to acknowledge and deal with underlying anxiety, tensions and conflicts that could be experienced symptomatically in psychological, emotional, physical or relational difficulties or in problematic patterns of behaviour. Duerzen summarises this approach in Skills in Existential Counselling and Psychotherapy (2011) as, ‘to help people to get better at facing up to difficulties with courage instead of running away from them’. It necessarily involves a willingness to explore issues beneath the surface, a willingness to face anxiety and a willingness to explore alternative ways of being and acting in the world.
This reminds me of a volunteer assignment I did with a Christian social worker and psychologist in Germany not long after the Berlin wall came down and East and West were reunified. We were working in a social work project with young people, often from fairly poor and dysfunctional family backgrounds, who were being seduced by the far right to join new neo-Nazi groups. The groups provided these young people with a much-needed sense of identity, belonging and purpose in the world. As part of his practice, the social worker would touch sensitively on spiritual issues and questions where it seemed appropriate. A secular humanistic colleague challenged him vehemently on this, insisting that social workers should never stray into the spirituality arena.
The social worker empathised with his colleague’s concerns about professional ethics and the risks of pressurising and indoctrinating vulnerable young people. At the same time, he believed that true spirituality speaks to life’s deepest questions, experiences and actions. The social worker responded, ‘These young people often talk in therapy about their deepest fears, about life and death, issues that are very real for them. It’s often such fears that lead them to seek a sense of identity, security and purpose in these sinister groups. We cannot afford to separate our thinking or our practice into neat, distinct, spheres of influence. The matters we and they are dealing with bring profound psychosocial, existential and spiritual issues face to face in the room.’ I agree.
So what could existential coaching look like in practice? Firstly, the coach will invite the client to share their story, particularly focusing on issues that led them to work with a coach in the first place. The coach’s role at this stage is primarily to listen and, over time, to reflect back any beliefs and values that surface implicitly or explicitly in the client’s account, particularly in terms of how the client perceives themselves, others, issues and their situation. In this sense, the coach is acting as a sounding board and a mirror, enabling the client to grow in awareness of his or own world view. The coach will go on to focus on specific tensions that may emerge, e.g. between the client’s underlying beliefs and values and the stances or actions they are choosing in practice.
The intention here is to surface the client’s underlying personal and cultural metaphysic rather than simply his or her way of perceiving and responding to an immediate issue. This approach is based on a belief that the client’s general world view or stance-in-the-world will influence e.g. what issues the client perceives as significant; how they perceive, experience and evaluate them; what their subjective needs and aspirations are; what approaches and actions they will consider valid or appropriate; what actions they will be prepared to commit to and sustain etc. This approach also enables the client to explore any tensions within their world view, between that world view and those of others in their situation and between their world view and their actions.
The problem with the language of ‘world view’ in describing such an approach is that that it sounds too conscious, too cognitive, too coherent. The focus of existential coaching is profoundly subjective and phenomenological, that is, how the client actually experiences and responds to his or her being-in-the-world at the deepest psychological levels. In that sense, it’s as much about how a person feels, the questions they struggle with and what they sense intuitively as what they may think or believe rationally. Again, there are important links for me with a spiritual dimension. As I faced my own health-related tests this week, for instance, I experienced my faith in God as something more like a subconscious, mysterious, inner ‘knowing’ than a rational assent to a set of beliefs.
As the coaching conversation progresses, the coach may help the client identify choices he or she is making (including by default), potential choices he or she could take in the future and how to integrate the client’s choices with his or her chosen being and stance in the world in order to live a more authentic and thereby less conflicted life. At one level, this enables the client to become more aware of and honest about their decisions and actions and to act with a greater sense of freedom and responsibility. At another level, it opens up more opportunities for the future than the client may have perceived previously. It can feel very liberating and energising to discover fresh ways of perceiving and acting in situations that have previously felt stuck or entrapping.
Sample coaching methods could involve helping the client reframe experiences as choices or to change their language from passive to active voice. For example, ‘I have to write this report for my boss by Friday’ or ‘This report needs to be written by Friday’ sound and feel less empowering than, ‘I will choose to write this report for my boss by Friday’. It enables the client to take ownership of their choices and to weigh up alternative courses of action. After all, if it’s a choice, I can choose differently, although I will need to weigh up the relative pros and cons of different choices. My best choices are congruent with my underlying beliefs and values, e.g. in this case, respect for authority, the sense of a job well done or a desire to keep my job so I can pay my bills.
The coach is likely to help the client connect their choices with their underlying world view. One way to approach this is to use the ‘7 whys’ technique whereby each time the client explains why they are choosing a certain course of action, the coach responds with, ‘…and why is that important to you?’ until the client’s deepest values, aspirations and anxieties surface. I will end this piece by posing some brief existential questions for personal reflection: Who am I? What personal stance do I want to take in the world? How do I handle contradiction, ambiguity, uncertainty and paradox? What is most important to me? What is God or this situation calling for from me? How consistent are my choices with my values? How well do my actions reflect the person I aspire to be?
What’s your theory of change? What issues are you trying to address? What creates and sustains those issues? What kind of interventions and when are most likely to prove successful? What would success look and feel like, and for whom? What is your overall goal? These are some of the questions we looked at on a Theory of Change workshop I took part in yesterday. Theories of change are becoming increasingly commonplace in the third sector, paralleling e.g. strategy maps in other sectors. There are a number of reasons for this. Charities and NGOs are under increasing scrutiny from supporters and funders to demonstrate how their resources are being used to achieve optimal impact. This has created a whole industry in impact evaluation.
The third sector is maturing too. No longer driven into action by empathy or altruistic instinct alone, organisations in this sector have more experience, more evidence of what works and what doesn’t and more analysis and understanding of why. The issues have turned out to be more complex than some had originally imagined, making significant and sustained progress challenging. Against this backdrop, a theory of change can prove valuable. It aims to clarify goals and outcomes and to work back to activities and other factors that will enable the outcomes to be achieved. In articulating these things clearly and succinctly (often in simple graphic flowchart form), underlying assumptions and causal links can be surfaced, explained and tested.
At heart, a theory of change answers questions such as ‘What are we trying to achieve?’, ‘What is necessary for the goal to be achieved?’ and ‘What’s the rationale behind our intervention strategy?’ In doing so, it makes the organisation’s focus, operations and use of resources transparent, accountable and more open to challenge and improvement as new research and evidence emerges. I find myself particularly drawn to the critical-reflective aspects. For instance, one NGO I worked with conducted a fundamental strategy review starting with these same principles, asking questions such as, ‘Why are people poor?, ‘What causes and sustains poverty?’, ‘What interventions make the greatest difference?’, ‘What is our optimal contribution?’
One of the interesting challenges for a third sector organisation is whose voice is represented in framing and answering such questions, e.g. donors, beneficiaries, trustees, staff, volunteers. A charitable organisation I work with currently conducted a strategy review recently, inviting feedback from beneficiaries using surveys, focus groups etc. to find out what they struggle with and aspire to and what role they would want to see the organisation playing in helping them address or achieve these issues. The needs and aspirations that surfaced have been summarised as ‘I’ rather than ‘we’ or ‘they’ statements in clear and colloquial language, keeping the focus on what each individual as beneficiary wants to experience as a result of the organisation’s actions.
This is a sharp contrast with some experiences I’ve had in the past. In one instance, a third sector organisation I worked with set up a drop-in project providing advice and support for long-term unemployed people. The Local Authority provided funding using ‘number of people using the service’ as its key success criterion. Paradoxically, the more successful the service was in enabling local people to find employment, thereby reducing the number of people who needed to access the service, the more the service was deemed statistically by the Local Authority to be failing. A theory of change can help surface such outcomes and assumptions at an early stage, enabling more constructive dialogue and agreement between agencies and stakeholders.
I believe the potential for theory of change extends beyond third sector organisations aiming to articulate their vision, strategy, plans and reasons behind them. I’ve used similar methodologies to explore and articulate an organisation development strategy within a third sector organisation. We started by exploring a number of questions with diverse stakeholders and groups such as, ‘What kind of organisation are we trying to develop?’, ‘Where are we now?’, ‘Why are things as they are?’, ‘What drives or sustains how things are?’, ‘What matters most to people here?’, ‘Who or what influences change?’, ‘What would it take to achieve the changes?’ This enabled us to create a map showing goals, activities, assumptions and causal relationships.
The same principles can be applied at team and individual levels too, e.g. for leadership, coaching, mentoring, training and counselling purposes. It enables dialogue between different parties and keeps rationale and assumptions explicit. If assumptions are clear to all parties, they can be challenged and revised in light of different preferences, perspectives, realities and evidence. I’ve used adaptations of this approach with people and organisations where Christian beliefs have been held as important and integral, developing the model as a theology of change. A theology of change may surface and articulate e.g. God’s purpose, values, presence and activity in the world, the role of the Spirit and Christians, discerning a sense of ‘calling’.
In my experience, the language and methods of applying theory or change need to be adapted for different purposes and audiences. It represents a logical-rational paradigm that is likely to work well for some people and cultures but not so well for others. Using Honey & Mumford’s learning styles as one possible frame of reference, theory of change (as the name implies) may appeal most to people, teams or cultures with a theorist orientation. Reflectors may be attracted most by its emphasis on surfacing underlying assumptions, activists by the evidential dimensions and pragmatists by its focus on outcomes. Perhaps the key lies in using the principles it embodies flexibly and sensitively in the context of real human dialogue and relationship.
What makes a great influencer? What influences you? What have been your best and worst experiences of influencing other people? What have you found makes the difference?
Influence is sometimes described as the art or psychology of persuasion. It’s about creating a shift in a person or group’s beliefs, thinking, feelings, attitudes, actions or behaviour. We’re influencing all the time through our everyday social interactions but not always in the ways we would hope for. For example, as you read what I’m writing here, your own views about influencing will be affected at some level. It could strengthen your existing beliefs or create a shift, no matter how small. The art of influencing is at heart about enabling a shift in the direction that the influencer hopes for.
This implies at the outset that influence demands intentionality. It implies a deliberate act, a strategy or sorts, with a particular goal in mind. This intention is not always clear, however, even to the influencer. We’re not always sure what influences our own behaviour, even if we rationalise or post-rationalise it at a conscious level. So, for instance, I could tell and convince myself that I’m behaving or acting in a certain way because that explanation feels more personally or socially acceptable, even if deeper factors or motivations are at work at subconscious or unconscious levels.
Assuming for argument’s sake that I have a clear and conscious intention or goal in mind, what can I do to create a shift in another towards my desired direction? As a leader or manager, I could use my positional power to demand a change in action or behaviour. It could result in compliance to achieve reward or avoid punishment, or resistance as an effort to avoid the change. It’s unlikely, however, to change the other party’s underlying beliefs, values, attitudes etc. in the way that I may hope for, especially if I want to achieve transformational and sustainable change.
This is of course one of the critical challenges of change leadership: how to move a person or group to a psychological place where they choose freely to change without coercion or external pressure. It’s the same kind of challenge faced by trainers and marketeers: how to influence people’s attitudes, choices and behaviours without access to formal power or authority to ensure those changes happen. It begs interesting and important ethical questions, e.g. how to achieve a shift without unethically manipulating people or groups, especially those who are vulnerable.
In my experience, a key factor in influencing is understanding what matters most to other people. This is often the starting point for market research, surveying targeted populations to find out what they choose and why. If I understand what matters to you, what you value most, I can frame my product, service, idea, argument, language etc. in terms that will make it feel familiar, acceptable or attractive to you. In advertising, I may use people or images you consider iconic, admirable, inspiring or trustworthy to build a psychological bridge towards you – and to entice you to cross it.
The same principles apply to influencing in the workplace. Recognising that employee engagement influences talent retention and organisational performance, many organisations conduct staff surveys, pulse checks, focus groups etc. to understand how the organisation feels to those who work for it. Such surveys provide opportunity for leaders and staff to influence the organisational culture and climate and for staff to influence what leaders pay attention to. Some of the more sophisticated surveys check ‘what matters most to you’ alongside general satisfaction scores.
Many organisations also use a whole variety or initiatives including competency frameworks, performance management systems, reward and recognition strategies to identify, publicise, affirm and reinforce behaviours that leaders consider most valuable for the organisation. All of these processes aim at some level to influence perspectives, attitudes and actions. The leadership agenda involves not only understanding what matters most to staff but influencing what people will choose in order to align personal choices and decisions with what the organisation wants or needs.
So, what are the key factors that enable us to be effective influencers? Firstly, have a clear and explicit intention. If we have mixed or hidden motives, we lack integrity, others will pick it up intuitively and it will undermine trust. If you’re unsure what your true motives are, reflect on this honestly with a critical colleague or friend beforehand. Secondly, research and understand what matters most to other people. If we can tap into others’ language, culture, values and goals and address them well in what we propose, we are more likely to build bridges and achieve win-win solutions.
Thirdly, have a clear sense of what we want others to think, feel or do differently. This enables us to design and communicate messages clearly. I often ask myself before presentations or meetings, for instance: ‘What do I want people to think, feel and do as a result of what I do today?’ Fourthly, reward changes in ways that others value and appreciate. If we ask those we seek to influence, for instance: ‘How do you want to do this?’, ‘What would make this worthwhile for you?’ or ‘What would make a great outcome for you?’, it demonstrates humanity, relationship, humility and respect.
Have you noticed how different people respond differently to change? Some go very quiet, some completely freak out, some bombard with questions, some seem comfortable with the big picture. There are various ways of understanding why and, even better, practical ways to take this into account when planning and communicating change.
Here below are some insights and tips from a friend and colleague, Richard Marshall, drawing on insights from Myers Briggs Type Indicator (MBTI). For more on this tool, check out the Myers & Briggs Foundation (http://www.myersbriggs.org/
). The ideas shared here are intended as indicative rather than definitive, suggestive rather than prescriptive.
In MBTI terms, people with an extroverted
preference like energetic communication, time to talk about what’s going on, to be spoken with, to have opportunity to share their own views and ideas in conversation, to be involved. People with an introverted
preference like written communication, time to reflect, one to one conversations, to be asked for their views.
People with a sensing
preference like real data, detailed explanation of what’s happening and why, specific information about what will change and when, a realistic picture of the future and clear guidelines. People with an intuitive
preference like to know the overall rationale, a general plan or direction, opportunity to co-create a vision, opportunities to influence.
People with a thinking
preference like to know the logic behind decisions, clarity in decision making and planning, a clear view of the goals and structure, fairness and equity in the changes. People with a feeling
preference like to know that leaders care, that impacts on people have been recognised, how people will be supported, what values underlie the changes.
People with a judging
preference like a clear, concise action plan, defined outcomes with clear goals, a structured timeframe, no new surprises and a commitment to see the changes through to completion. People with a perceiving
preference like an open ended plan, general parameters, flexibility with lots of options, room to adjust goals and plans.
The important thing is to remember that every individual is unique. The same person may respond differently in the same kinds of circumstances depending on how he or she is feeling, what else is happening in his or her life etc. As a rule of thumb, check out with the individuals and teams concerned: ‘how would you like us to do this’ before leaping into action.
Do you work in organisation development (OD) or human resources (HR)? Or do you work in leadership and management and feel curious to know what these fields are, what they cover and what the differences are between them? Do you feel confused by distinctions when, after all, they are both concerned with human aspects of organisations? I will attempt to introduce both fields below and to explain common focus areas, differences between them and what kinds of people tend to be drawn to them.
What is OD?
OD is a broad field of thinking and practice. Different organisations use this term differently, to mean different things. OD practitioners often have a psychological and systemic orientation and focus their attention on areas such as leadership, culture and engagement. They are interested in questions like, ‘what human-related factors are influencing this organisation's success?' ‘why are things as they are?’, ‘how could we be more innovative or effective?’
Their core skills include relationship-building, questioning, reflecting, influencing, reframing and sense-making. OD practitioners are often found working alongside top teams, providing internal consultancy, guidance and coaching. They aim to raise awareness, stimulate fresh ways of thinking, challenge the status quo, build capacity for the future, enhance organisational experience and effectiveness.
Key words associated with this field: e.g. strategic, leadership, culture, values, relationships, teamwork, engagement, inquiry, challenge, opportunity, influence, concept, change, innovation, dynamics, perspectives, reframing, sense-making, capacity,
learning, development, impact.
What is HR?
HR is a fairly well-defined field of thinking and practice. Different organisations use HR in different ways. As a general principle, however, HR practitioners often have a legal, policy and process orientation and focus their attention on areas such as employment and performance management. They are interested in questions like, ‘what staff resources do we need?’, ‘how can we attract, recruit and retain the best people’, ‘how can we ensure people perform well?’
Their core skills include relationship-building, influencing, applying legal/policy frameworks and assertiveness. HR practitioners are found operating at a number of different levels. These range from HR strategizing through business partnering through policy implementation to payroll. They aim to ensure that staff resources are well deployed and that people are treated fairly and consistently.
Key words associated with this field: e.g. employment law, policy, structure, competencies, jobs, talent, contracts, frameworks, staff, recruitment, selection, contracts, management, performance, appraisal, reward, retention, employee relations, discipline, grievance, salary, payroll, benefits.
What do OD and HR have in common?
OD and HR are both interested in the relationship between people and organisations. They both regard people as a key contributor to an organisation’s success. They both have a humanistic outlook, an ethical belief that people should be treated
What are the differences?
It’s difficult to draw direct comparisons and contrasts because OD practitioners work mainly as coaches and consultants to leadership teams whereas HR practitioners operate at many different levels, ranging through strategic HR, business partnering and transactional-administrative tasks. However, there are some general common characteristics outlined in the table below, bearing in mind these vary from practitioner to practitioner and from organisation to organisation. These differences create potential for synergy and, sometimes, sources of tension.
OD practitioners tend to:
Work mostly with leaders and leadership teams.
Focus on teams, groups or the organisation as a whole.
Locate the origin of issues in the organisation as a human
Strive to retain a degree of detachment to see things others
Pay attention to broad themes, issues and trends.
Question, challenge or reframe the status quo, to see and do
Work on initiatives with different client groups.
Work as coaches, consultants or facilitators, building others’
Focus on psychological aspects of leadership.
Spend relatively high amount of time on developmental, future-orientated initiatives.
Have a reflective, intuitive, conceptual orientation.
Have professional background/studies rooted in leadership,
learning and social sciences.
Feel comfortable with questions, ambiguity, uncertainty and
HR practitioners tend to:
Work mostly with managers and staff.
Focus on individuals and their immediate line relationships.
Locate the origin of issues in the individual or his/her
Strive to become embedded to engage with others in their
Pay attention to immediate tasks, issues and demands.
Seek to standardise policies and practices to ensure greater
Work long-term with the same client group.
Work as business partners or service providers, ensuring good delivery and practice.
Focus on practical aspects of management.
Spend relatively high amount of time on remedial, problem-solving activities.
Have a practical, rational, technical orientation.
Have professional background/studies rooted in employment law, policy and practice.
Feel comfortable with solutions, clarity, certainty and
What could a typical OD role look like?
This varies from role to role and organisation to organisation. In my own experience, I've been responsible in OD roles for strategy and change, values and culture, leadership and management development, staff and team development, internal communication and staff engagement, performance management and development. However, the following are common:
Develop effective leaders and leadership teams through coaching, consultancy and facilitation.
Support effective change leadership through providing guidance and building leadership capability.
Work alongside leaders to develop an inspiring, engaging and effective organisational culture.
Create leadership development opportunities (e.g. seminars/training, mentoring, action learning).
Oversee the L&D function, focusing on management, staff and team development.
When does OD work with HR?
OD and HR practitioners most commonly work collaboratively in areas including the following:
Change leadership and management.
Performance management and development.
Talent management and development.
Induction and training.
If you've had different experiences of OD and HR, or hold different views about what they are and the differences between them, please do share your views here too! I would be interested to hear more.
Something I've noticed in my coaching practice has been a tendency to default to rational analysis as my dominant style. It’s about reflective thinking. I once spoke with a coaching colleague about some tensions I was experiencing vis a vis a forthcoming trip to Myanmar, about concerns I had about placing a national colleague there at risk. I commented that I was struggling, ‘to get my head around it’ and, apparently, gestured towards my head.
As I continued to talk about it, this colleague observed that I was now gesturing towards my heart. I wasn’t aware of doing this at the time. He challenged me: “You describe this as something you need to get your head around whereas it actually touches on emotional concerns and deeply held values. It’s something you need to get your heart around.” I suddenly became aware of how I was rationalising an emotional struggle and felt confused about why I might do this.
At a later coaching workshop, I was invited to draw a systemic view of an issue I was dealing with at work. I drew the system, using circles to depict the different parties involved. My coaching partner drew my attention to this and challenged me: “I wonder how it might be if you were to draw people instead of circles. It’s as if you are depicting the scenario in rational conceptual terms rather than expressing and exploring it as a human emotional experience.”
I want to continue to learn how to be more aware of what I am feeling in the moment in order to make greater use of self, of counter-transference. My dominant modality is thinking, hence my instinctive focus on rationality, even if I’m aware of the client’s emotional state when I choose to focus on it. I’m often only aware of what I was feeling during the session when I reflect back on it afterwards. It can feel like an opportunity lost.