‘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.
‘I have a dream.’ (Martin Luther King)
We were leading a strategy development process at an international NGO and wanted to envision ourselves and each other rather than to paint bleak pictures of burning platforms, a future to avoid or a present to escape. This was instead about inspiring wonder, hope and aspiration. ‘Imagine if…’ We invited people to paint, depict and enact future scenarios – the futures that our beneficiaries, supporters and we ourselves dreamed of. It was about imagining, hoping, reaching, aiming high.
There are parallels with the ‘dream phase’ of Appreciative Inquiry. This is where we invite people to imagine a different, brighter future: what they would like things (e.g. relationships, ways of working, success stories) to be more like, more of the time. There are also parallels with posing a ‘miracle question’ in solutions-focused coaching or therapy. This is where we invite a person to imagine vividly that a desired future state has already been reached or achieved. To experience it as if it really is.
This is important and here are some reasons why. If we focus our attention only on problems, deficits or undesirable states, it can evoke anxiety, drain energy and close-down creative thinking. I say ‘only’ because there are some situations (e.g. aspects of accountancy/IT/audit) where identifying problems/errors and fixing them can be very important. Some people also get a buzz, a real sense of achievement, from searching for, sniffing out or hunting down problems and sorting them out.
If, however, we focus entirely on problems, red-ratings or what is missing or broken, psychologically and culturally-speaking there is a risk that they grow out of proportion, that we become unhelpfully fixated on them and that we lose a broader perspective – thereby undermining vision, awareness and morale. If, conversely, we invite people to dream and tap into the power of positive imagination, it can inspire fresh hope, open new horizons, release creative energy and surface great ideas.
So – when was the last time you spent time dreaming..?
'We can be heroes.' (David Bowie)
I’ve known and worked alongside so many heroes that I can hardly begin to list them all. These aren’t famous celebrities, basking in wealth and media limelight. They’re ordinary people who have chosen to live extraordinary lives. I say chosen because they could all have done something different, something more ‘normal’, yet chose – and still choose – to take the road-less-travelled. It’s always a choice, even if it doesn’t always feel like a choice.
There’s Rudi. He’s a social worker in Germany who has committed his life and career to work relentlessly to prevent the social and political conditions that led to the rise of the Nazis. He looks on the rise of the AfD with alarm. And there’s Jasmin. She’s poor and lives among the poorest in the Philippines. She gives every spare peso and moment of her time – with scary degrees of self-sacrifice – to bring love and hope to the most vulnerable people.
Then there’s Sue. She was on the last plane out of Saigon to rescue mixed-race children at the end of the Vietnam war. The plane was riddled with bullets. She and the children lay terrified on the floor as the aircraft fled the runway. She rarely speaks about it now. And there’s Mike. He works with street gangs and drug addicts in the UK, putting his own welfare at risk because he sees potential in people where others only see broken, messed-up lives.
All of these people are ‘followers of Jesus’. They challenge and inspire me and serve as a continual reminder that every moment represents a decision, a choice to live a self-centred life or to serve a higher cause – whether that be God, humanity or nature-environment. I find it easy to get distracted, to slip into pragmatism, expediency, convenience or comfort. Yet I want to live a well-lived life. Who are your heroes and how do they inspire you?
It often happens in leadership, training and coaching conversations. ‘So – what will you do?’, or ‘What’s your next step?’ The person responds with, ‘I’ll do X’ or, ‘I plan to do Y’ and we both leave feeling satisfied we’ve reached a conclusion. Yet we check in a month later and, guess what: nothing has happened. It’s a bit like those New Years’ resolutions that are great in principle but vaporise in practice. What’s going on here? Is the answer here to press for detailed goals and action plans?
We could. We could also probe more deeply at the decision-action phase. Here are some samples of probing questions: ‘Given everything else on your plate at the moment, what is it going to take in practice to move this up your priority list?’, ‘Compared to everything else you could pour your time and energy into at the moment, what is going to make this most worthwhile for you/others?’ or ‘Who or what is likely to prevent you doing this in practice – and what can/will you do about that?’
We could think of these as contextual questions or dependencies. They feature as the reality-check in 'GROW' and 'SMART'. Questions with more of a psychological orientation could include, e.g. ‘How much energy do you have for this?’ or, ‘How much do you really want this?’ or ‘On a scale of 1-10 how likely are you really to do this?’ We tend to use them, if at all, during the exploration phases of a conversation yet don’t often circle back at the end. It’s as if we take signs of decision at face value.
So, next time you reach the decision-action phase of a conversation, try a quick pause before you and the client stand up, shake hands and leave the room. Look – again – before you leap. If a person seems hesitant or lacks energy, go back to goals, aspirations, hopes and fears. How convinced is the person by their chosen route forward? How inspired do they feel to take the next step? Are there any relational, cultural, contextual or resource-linked realities that need revisiting first?
Nick is a psychological coach, OD consultant and trainer, specialising in critical reflective practice.