'There is a voice that doesn’t use words. Listen.’ (Jalal ad-Din Rumi)
I spoke with a friend and colleague recently. It was about a bizarre incident in the news where a group of leaders acted over a serious issue in a way that was clearly ineffective and self-defeating. Somewhat bemused by this, I found myself musing out loud, ‘What were they thinking?’ My friend responded wisely, ‘They weren’t thinking. They were driven by an overwhelming feeling.’ How easy it is to assume rationality in decision-making where, at times, emotion may play a far greater part.
It reminded me of many years ago when I became a passionate and pained activist for human rights in Central America. It was during a period when governments and allied death squads committed acts of unspeakable horror against the poor. Alongside fellow activists, I burned myself out for the people and for the cause. On reflection, however, I’m not sure what practical difference my efforts made. A co-activist commented in retrospect, ‘We were driven more by instinct than strategy.’
Such accounts could lead us to propose that rationality is far superior to emotion or instinct when it comes to decision-making and effectiveness. We could conclude that to think-things-through is the best course of action, prior to action. ‘You didn’t really think this through, did you?’ is a culturally-coded message that signals to a person, ‘You idiot!’, or, in more gentle diplomatic language, ‘If you had thought about this more carefully beforehand, you would have achieved a better outcome.’
Yet, paradoxically, research by Prof Eugene Sadler-Smith challenges this profoundly. He discovered that some of the best leadership decisions are informed by intuition, not by rational process, and that leaders often post-rationalise their decisions if rationality is valued personally or culturally as more acceptable, reliable or sound than emotion or intuition. This revelation calls for a critical-creative balance of intuition and rationality, with each inspiring, informing and testing the other.
What do you think? What’s your intuition telling you?
‘Expectation is a belief that is centred on the future.’ (Wiki)
You may recall the now-famous words of Tom Peters: ‘It is better to under-promise and over-deliver than to over-promise and under-deliver.’ It’s a bit like the parable in Matthew’s gospel: a man has two sons and asks them do something. One says ‘No’ and does it; the other says ‘Yes’ and doesn’t. It signals that expectation is linked to relationship – and trust. If we expect something to happen, it’s as if, for us, it will happen. If it doesn’t, we may experience surprise, disappointment or relief.
Relief, of course, because it’s possible to expect the worst as well as the best. If our fears are unjustified, we call this catastrophizing. Conversely, if our hopes are unfounded, we call it naivety. Both indicate a disconnect between what is imagined and what is real – although we may not be aware of it at the time. That said, our expectations may be entirely realistic, based on firm predictability. Such expectations represent promise, certainty and, where positive, hope.
If our hopes and expectations are high and fulfilled, it can increase our sense of satisfaction, delight and confidence for the future. If not, we are likely to feel frustrated, hurt or disillusioned – and to lose trust. This is why, instead of aiming high, some parents, teachers or managers encourage their children, pupils or staff to ‘lower their expectations’. The intention is to reduce stress by avoiding the risk of disappointment. (This raises interesting questions vis a vis managing customer expectations!)
Alternatively, we may take positive steps to increase the probability of high expectations being met. We may pray hard, sign binding contracts, plan in detail, identify and address critical success factors, prepare contingencies, mitigate the effects of sub-optimal performance etc. Or, psychologically, we may practise mindfulness, increase resilience, learn to handle expectations and disappointments differently. As leader, OD or coach, how do you handle expectations and enable others to do so too?
‘A penguin walks through that door right now wearing a sombrero. What does he say and why is he here?’ (Google)
I searched Google recently for ‘weird interview questions’ and, among others, the vivid, sombrero-donned penguin example flashed up onto my screen. It was definitely my favourite. I mean…who would think to ask that question never mind try to answer it?
Its brilliance lays in its strange unexpectedness, zany imagery and sheer randomness. It’s a fantastic example of lateral thinking, a provocative-evocative approach designed to disrupt ordinary thinking, routines and expectations. A person’s response to such questions can reveal their personal and cultural assumptions, projections, imaginative-creative skills – and sense of humour! It can also stimulate fresh energy, insights and ideas.
The jolts we experience mentally, emotionally and physically when we encounter such questions, especially if they come out of the blue…or red…or yellow…or any other colour that may appeal to or disturb us…can feel like, all of a sudden, riding a rollercoaster at breakneck speed with no seatbelt on – like being catapulted, confused, into strange and unusual worlds. Think Jesus and parables, Zen and koans or, if you prefer, Alice and Wonderland.
Leandro Herrero (Disruptive Ideas: 10+10+10=1000, 2008) proposes that the impact of a few simple, such disruptive ideas can be like dynamite. They are likely to be controversial and counterintuitive, risk being ridiculed or dismissed – and yet are disproportionate in their ‘potential to impact on and transform the lives of (people and) organisations.’ Sometimes small things really are big.
Where have you seen or experienced simple questions, ideas or actions create earth-shaking movement?
It was great fun to work with a professional cartoonist. Bill Crooks has a remarkable gift for capturing, expressing or stimulating a thought, an idea or a feeling with a few quick strokes of a marker pen. We were leading a workshop that aimed to reveal and challenge the assumptions that participants bring to customer, client and beneficiary relationships. Bill quickly sketched a large person looking down at a small person through a magnifying glass. He then asked the group, simply, ‘What do you see?’
Participants looked down, thought, discussed then spoke up. ‘We – the organization – are the large person. We are scrutinising the client.’ The inference here was that the organization holds the power, the influence, the prerogative to evaluate and to choose. The wider group agreed. Bill responded provocatively, ‘And what if, unknown to us, the client is connected to unseen networks that dwarf the power, the influence, the prerogative of our organization? Who now is looking down on who?’
It was a sobering moment. Silence hit the room. How easily we make assumptions about ourselves, about others, based on what we see, know or think we understand. Imagine, for a moment, the leader who believes that he or she holds far greater power and influence than individual front-line staff. Hold that thought. And now: think of front-line staff who are connected by social media to key networks and influencers in the organisation’s wider arena. Who now is looking down on who?
We are talking here about the dramatic power of re-framing. As we change the metaphorical frame through which we view a person or situation, different pictures, perspectives, opportunities and challenges can emerge, change colour/shape or come into sharper focus. Shift the frame, shift what appears, how it feels and what options become available to us and to our clients. What have been your best experiences of reframing or achieving a radical paradigm shift? How did you do it?
‘I have three things I’d like to say today. First, while you were sleeping last night, 30,000 kids died of starvation or diseases related to malnutrition. Second, most of you don’t give a shit. What’s worse is that you’re more upset with the fact that I said shit than the fact that 30,000 kids died last night.’ (Tony Campolo)
The first time I heard those words some time ago, I was left speechless and reeling. Firstly, with the scale of the awfulness of the human tragedy and secondly – ashamedly – that I too was shocked to hear a Christian leader use the ‘S’ word. How easily we get distracted, preoccupied or fixated by things that really aren’t important and miss those that are. For those familiar with Jesus’ teaching, logs and splinters come sharply to mind. My last blog, ‘Whatever’, touched on a similar theme.
I visited the Philippines for the first time in 2016. I had visited and worked in various other countries in South East Asia with international charities but this was a new experience for me. One day in the hot sunshine, I sat on a kerb to listen to a talented marching band practising at the roadside. I was vaguely aware of people nearby but didn’t really take much notice. My attention was fixed firmly on the rhythmic band and music and on taking video that I could show friends on returning home.
After a while, I turned to speak to the young woman, a very poor Filipina, who had brought me to that place as her special guest. I was astonished to discover that she had vanished…and then even more astonished to see her with the other people, strangers, nearby. I became aware they were mostly elderly poor people trying to eke out a living by selling what little they could. This girl was on her knees, offering them the very food and drink we had brought for ourselves. I felt humbled and amazed.
This experience, alongside others in the Philippines since, has inspired and rekindled my desire to ‘cut the cr*p’ in my life and to live for Someone, something worthwhile. I hate that the poor are so vulnerable. It feels like a spiritual, existential journey for me. What journey are you travelling? Who is inspiring you? What are you inspiring in others?
‘The subtle art of not giving a f*ck.’ (Mark Manson)
The title grabbed my attention first – and it made me laugh! I loved the subtlety in its provocative unsubtlety. The subtitle: ‘A counterintuitive approach to living a good life’ caught my interest too. The central premise is that if we allow ourselves to care too much about too much – rather than, by contrast, discerningly about the people and things that really matter – we risk suffering undue stress, anxiety or depression. An important dimension of resilience is learning when not-to-care.
I’ve experienced this phenomenon at work. It was a leadership team meeting and the MD decided to take the whole team through an incredibly detailed, RAG-rated KPI grid alongside a micro-detailed financial spreadsheet line by line, cell by cell. I thought I was going to die. The organisation was struggling and the Director was convinced that tight management was needed. As we laboured through it point-by-point, it felt like all the oxygen had been sucked out of the room. Agony.
Or there’s the worried client who asks for coaching because he or she has become paralysed in a tricky relationship and can’t see a way through. The conversation starts and, as minute pass by and the details keep flowing without stopping for breath, it becomes clear that he or she has lost all sight of the metaphorical wood for the densely-crowded proverbial trees. ‘What really matters to you in this?’ can help pull the person out of the detail, back to the bigger picture. Pause. Breathe.
The principle here is: ‘Don’t sweat the small stuff’. It’s about perspective, focus and boundaries and it reflects beliefs, values and culture. It’s influenced by and influences emotional states. It’s not a nihilistic call to ‘Don’t give a f*ck about anyone or anything’. It’s about diving below, rising above, filtering, seeing through. As leader, coach or OD, how do you help people and teams discover who or what matters most? How do you enable clients to discern or decide an authentic sense of priority?
‘Vision without systems thinking ends up painting lovely pictures of the future with no deep understanding of the forces that must be mastered to move from here to there.’ (Peter Senge)
Huyen Tran definitely stood out as a star performer, paradoxically owing to her awareness of team systems and dynamics. While most others in this global INGO – like in so many other organisations at the time – were fixated on identifying individual differentiating capabilities in order to recruit for, develop, reward and retain them, Huyen, a humble and thoughtful HR leader in Vietnam, observed that those individuals we regarded organisationally as 'great' rarely worked or succeeded in isolation.
This recollection came to mind at a, ‘Working with Teams as Systems’ seminar this week. Sue Powell, the trainer, commented on a growing body of research that shows how fields including leadership and coaching are shifting their attention from individual development towards team development. It’s something about noticing the reality, paying attention to risks and valuing the potential of inter-dependence, whether that be between individuals, teams, organisations or wider stakeholders.
What we notice – and not – and what sense we make of it is a recurring theme in Gestalt psychology and social constructionism. If, for instance, we live and work in an individual-orientated culture, we are likely to notice the individual and attribute success or failure to their own effort and skill rather than to, say, the cultural, contextual and relational systems of which they are intrinsically a part and which form the essential backdrop – and, thereby, critical field of influence – for their success.
What we and others consider as success will vary from context to context, culture to culture, time to time. Who or what contributes to that success or, conversely, lack of success is the key question here. As a leader, OD or coach, how well do you notice and work intentionally and skilfully with the dynamic inter-plays between individuals, teams and their environments? How far do you recognise the impact and influence of your own presence, behaviour and actions on systemic fields too?
‘I want it all and I want it now.’ (Queen)
I’m not the most patient of people. Some have a remarkable gift of serenity, an ability to stay calm and peaceful and to……..….wait. I sometimes wish I was more like that more of the time. It reminds me of M. Scott Peck’s ‘The Road Less Travelled – A New Psychology of Love’ with its emphasis on the value of delayed gratification. It’s like Antoine de Saint-Exupéry’s fox in ‘The Little Prince’. The fox teaches the Prince how important it is in taming, anticipating and arriving to learn to…..…….wait.
This is not, or course, to say that waiting per se is an absolute imperative or virtue at all times and in all situations. If, for instance, the fire alarm went off while writing this piece, wisdom would demand an instant response: ‘Leave the building – now!’ Yet how is it that, culturally, we appear to have become so incapable, so intolerant, of waiting? Is it that our sense of time horizons, partly driven by communications technology, are getting narrower and narrower, shorter and shorter, near-instant?
Biblical writers talk a lot about the need to ‘wait on the Lord’. It’s something about seeing things from a wider perspective, a wider timeframe, trusting God to work things through in eternal-time. I see resonances in Adam Kahane’s ‘Solving Tough Problems’ where he advocates, counterintuitively in our cultural era, stepping back from difficult, complex issues, rather than trying hard to think our way through them, to allow space and time for solutions to emerge, to rise into consciousness.
Dr Lim Peng Soon cautions us to be aware of the ‘marathon effect’. Leaders, coaches and other change agents may race ahead and become impatient with people lagging behind, especially if they appear to be holding up the changes. ‘In a marathon, the front row sets off first but it takes a while for the middle section to start moving and even longer for people at the back. By the time the middle and back sections are moving, we may already be racing off to the next great idea and initiative.’
How good are you at…………waiting?
‘You get what you tolerate.’ (Susan Scott, Fierce Conversations)
We were sitting by a window on an icy winter day. I was working with Bryan Emden, my coach at the time and a skilled psychotherapist. Part-way through the conversation, I felt a cold shiver and asked Bryan if he would mind if we moved to a different table. He looked back at me with cool, penetrating gaze then spoke. ‘It has been cold here for some time. I wonder how uncomfortable things need to get for you before you take action…and whether that reflects a wider pattern in your life and work?’
I was a bit taken aback because I had always prided myself on a decisive-activist mantra, ‘(almost) any decision is better than no decision’. Nevertheless, on reflection I could remember certain hard situations in which I had not acted early enough. I had feared that to do so could have made things even worse. We could call this an avoidance strategy, a defence against anxiety based on a fear of negative consequences. In CBT terms, I had catastrophised, predicted the worst possible outcomes.
At those times, the anxiety had sometimes increased to such a degree that it had triggered a fight-flight-freeze response within me. The fight option meant I risked becoming aggressive, the flight option becoming passive and, as a result, I simply – froze. One way I have learned to tackle this is to acknowledge the emotion and to challenge how sound the prediction is. It sometimes means doing the thing we fear most, to see what new opportunities it creates. To notice how we survive it.
It’s about resilience and, at work, it’s often about relationships. Claire Pedrick offers a stark challenge on this front: ‘What’s the conversation you need to have that you’re not having?’ Guy Rothwell advocates a willingness to listen openly and also to have the courage, the authenticity, to speak up. Rick James proposes exercising courage with humility, to grasp the proverbial nettle, to have the difficult conversation and yet to address the person with open hand, not clenched fist.
How do you handle challenging conversations?
‘I know you think you understand what you thought I said but I'm not sure you realize that what you heard is not what I meant.’ ‘I guess I should warn you, if I turn out to be particularly clear, you’ve probably misunderstood what I said.’ (Alan Greenspan)
You may have had that experience of communicating something you thought was perfectly clear, only to discover that the other person got the completely wrong end of the proverbial stick. How is that possible? Was it something in what you said or, perhaps, how you said it that influenced how the message was received, distorted or misunderstood? Whatever the cause, when it does happen, you can both feel bemused, confused or frustrated – and the consequences can be difficult, damaging or dangerous.
I want to suggest this occurs mainly as a result of mismatched beliefs, values, assumptions and emotions in four critical areas: language, culture, context and relationship. There are, of course, situations in which a person may wilfully misinterpret what you said or simply choose to ignore you. However, I’m thinking more here about when it happens inadvertently and out of awareness. It’s something about what influences (a) what we infer and (b) how we interpret, when we communicate – so that we can improve it.
The language question means the same words can mean different things to different people, even in the same language group. The culture question means the assumptions I make appear obvious or self-evident in the groups or teams I belong to. The context question means I interpret what you say based on my own perspective and understanding of the situation. The relationship question means I filter what you say based on what I perceive and feel about the nature, dynamics and quality of our relationship.
So – this where a spirit of inquiry can help: Check what the other has heard and understood. Notice the language they use. Be curious about their cultural and contextual perspectives. Sense how they are feeling. Build trust.
Nick is a psychological coach, OD consultant and trainer, specialising in critical reflective practice.