It feels like walking on egg shells. That sense of tip toeing ever-so-carefully…a bit like making your way with nervous trepidation through a proverbial minefield. Every step feels dangerous. You don’t know what lays beneath. You’re never quite sure if you’re about to trigger something – Explosive!!! This kind of encounter, this type of volatile relationship, can feel incredibly difficult to navigate. It’s something about threat, uncertainty and unpredictability that can leave us anxious and stressed.
A real problem here is that it places – or, we place – the other person in a position of great power over us, especially if we fear their reaction. This is compounded if it is a boss, a peer or another authority figure who holds sway over our job, our family, our organisation or our community. We can expend huge amounts of mental, emotional and physical energy trying to placate them, to avoid being, saying or doing anything that may set them off. It’s a form of intimidation and control.
I worked with one leader who displayed wild mood swings at work. A mentor at the time invited me to envisage approaching this leader’s office…putting my hand on the door knob…turning it. What feeling did that evoke for me? I could feel the immediate tension in my stomach, that sense of ‘in the grip-ness’, not knowing – and fearing – who or what to expect on the other side of the door. I became aware that I would tend to modify my own behaviour to try to keep the peace at all cost.
A turning point was in discovering insights from Transactional Analysis (TA) that helped me to manage such interactions differently – although still rarely easily. I pray for courage and grace, to view the person through a prism of love rather than one of fear. I choose to relate in adult-adult mode, irrespective of what mode the person may relate to me in. I take a deep breath and name the dynamic and, if needed, walk away if it can’t be resolved. What have you found works for you?
I re-watched The Imitation Game and A Beautiful Mind this week. One of the things that occurred to me whilst enthralled by the brilliant portrayals of Alan Turing and John Nash was their apparent lack of social inhibition. They were willing to say the un-sayable, to challenge peers, authorities and so-called experts, unconstrained by established cultural and political norms. It’s as if this enabled them to think the un-thinkable too and I wonder how far this accounted for their incredible genius.
By contrast, a concern about offending is becoming increasingly commonplace in UK universities and, perhaps, wider Western liberal democracies as a whole. It’s tricky to balance freedom of speech with freedom from harm, especially in an age of extremism. However, as Joanna Williams (author of Freedom in an Age of Conformity, 2016) comments, what passes for formal education often appears more concerned now with social inclusion than with knowledge. What risks lay in this for us?
I spoke with some young people recently who commented on how scared they feel to say anything controversial at school. This is about more than holding and expressing a contrary opinion that others disapprove of. It is, in effect, about not being allowed to hold that opinion at all. This leads to self-censorship driven by social vetting by peers, often compounded by institutions. It can feel like only current mainstream views are permissible. All divergent views and voices are suppressed.
This has real implications for leadership, OD, coaching and training in organisations. What scope is there for truly radical creativity and innovation if people feel constrained from thinking the un-thinkable and imagining the un-imaginable? How can we model and support healthy, critical thinking and conversations? What can we do to spot and address it if a person or team is editing their questions, views and ideas to conform with what they perceive as culturally-acceptable norms?
Mike Wilson is a great leader and challenged me with his typical warmth and smile: ‘Nick, I’ve noticed you always stamp draft on the front cover when you submit a paper, proposal or report. I’m going to encourage you not to do it next time and to see how that is for you...’ Mike was astute and had touched on a deep point. What did draft represent for me? Why did I do it? This event was some years ago now but I remember that conversation, that feeling, that revelation, vividly.
A previous leader had commented that I produced very high standards of work and yet, on the flip side, it sometimes I meant I spent too much time and effort on one task to the detriment of another. It was as if I was trying to do everything perfectly, irrespective of what the task called for. I felt continually pressured and stressed and blamed it on unrealistic demands. I needed to learn that, in most situations, ‘good enough’ isn’t mediocre or a failure. It really is good – and enough.
There are, of course, circumstances in which exceptionally high standards are important. I look at the Rio Olympics this week and marvel at the incredible training, stamina, ability and achievements. Yet if we apply the same principle to everything we do, we risk becoming anxious and disheartened, exhausted or depressed. I think the key here is in something about wisdom and discernment, perspective and choice. This is so much easier to achieve with support than on our own.
So here are some useful coaching options: 1. Psychodynamic, cognitive behavioural or personal construct coaching to explore and address beliefs and values. 2. Person-centred or mindfulness coaching to notice and handle feelings differently. 3. Gestalt, systems-based or social construct coaching to identify and address relational, cultural and contextual drivers. 4. Appreciative inquiry, strengths-based or solutions-focused coaching to build on ‘good’ and create a new future.
‘Stop deciding ahead of time what to discover.’ (John Shotter)
It’s summer in the UK – holiday season. And I dislike planned holidays. I love to take holidays…but to decide and organise every detail in advance feels like sucking the life, the oxygen, the fun out of it! This can of course prove very tricky when sharing holidays with plan-ful people. For me, it’s a tight-loose principle. It’s about ensuring just enough structure to make it happen and, at the same time, lots of flex and freedom for serendipitous encounters and unexpected adventures to emerge.
I like the joy, excitement and stimulation of not-yet-knowing so the idea of planned discovery feels strangely paradoxical to me. How can we know for definite in advance what we may discover? It’s like a training course where we formulate learning outcomes in advance: ‘This is what you will learn.’ How would it be if we were to frame it differently: ‘This is the material we plan to cover. Come prepared for an exciting adventure of discovery! Who knows where the journey could lead?’
The same can be true of team meetings or conversations with colleagues. How quickly we fall into formulaic patterns and routines. It creates a sense of predictability, which can be good, yet often leads to frustration and boredom. It engenders what Heidegger calls listening as ‘already listening’, that is, listening, anticipating and interpreting through the filter of what we have already decided or believe. How different it would be if we were to meet each other in an excited spirit of inquiry!
So discovery can bring fresh energy, inspiration and innovation – yet what can we do to foster the conditions for it without trying to prescribe or design it ahead of time? Here are some ideas: Firstly, practise curiosity: be willing to not-know, experiment, take a risk. Secondly, be disruptive: do something different, try a new method, meet in a different place. Thirdly, step outside: visit other organisations, join cross-cultural teams, network widely. Try it – and see what you discover!
We never really work with ‘just an individual’ because human beings always exist within systems of relationship. (Malcolm Parlett)
You’re not alone. Neither are your colleagues or clients. OK, you may be alone in a room together (if I can use ‘alone’ and ‘together’ in the same breath like this) for a meeting, a training workshop, a catch-up, a coaching conversation. As you focus intently on the other person or group – their goals, interests, ideas, concerns etc. – it can be as if the wider world and its noisy distractions fade out of existence, at least for a moment. There is just you…and me…and us. Our space.
It is a kind of sacred space and it can feel – spiritual. It has a person-centred quality about it. We may conceive of what we bring as the gift of our presence, attention and expertise. It can be immensely affirming for the other and it ensures they feel seen, heard, valued and understood. It can feel like offering…love. But far be it from us to use the L word in a corporate context! So we will sanitise it for now with culturally-safer words like empathy and respect. Still with me?
Now a sting in the tail. There are some important risks here. In our heartfelt desire to be client-focused, how often do we hear trainers and coaches say things like, ‘My job is to help you reach your goals’ or, in marketing-speak, ‘Your success is my success’? I get the principle but it can lead us to approach our work in a blinkered way, as if the person exists in a relational, cultural and contextual bubble. Where are the ethics in this if our sole focus is on the client or group?
Take the person whose success will undermine the success of peers in other teams or the wider strategy of the organisation. Or the person whose success will impact negatively on people and groups in the wider community, e.g. politically, economically or environmentally. Our well-meaning interventions can inadvertently collude with or even facilitate hidden or unintended consequences. So: what can we do to address this? What are we willing to take responsibility for?
Coaching has become increasingly well-defined over recent years, particularly owing to great efforts by e.g. the International Coach Federation and European Mentoring & Coaching Council to clarify, advocate and promote core professional standards and ethics. I believe that, on the whole, this has been a useful development. It adds credibility to the field and, in principle, focus, parameters and accountability for those who study, train and practice within it.
There are challenges too, not least the process and cost of credentialing to be recognised by the professional bodies. This can be prohibitive for practitioners who don’t have access to the time or financial resources to do this in spite of having, potentially, extensive knowledge, skill and experience in the coaching arena. The risk here is that increasing professionalism leads to increasing exclusivity, dictated more by economic circumstances than passion or expertise.
There are wider and deeper questions. Coaching is without doubt a powerful field of research and practice that can make a very significant impact. Its focus on reaching goals and solutions can enable people to live and work with greater focus, better ideas and higher levels of commitment. I have felt and witnessed it so many times that I am beyond need for convincing. Yet, as I read and speak with fellow coaches, it often feels like something important is missing.
How far are our coaching assumptions, models and approaches (e.g. vis a vis personal efficacy and choice) appropriate to non-Western cultures - yet applied uncritically? How well do we enable clients to grow in insight and resourcefulness as reflective practitioners – beyond reaching goals or solving issues? How willing are we to raise and challenge systemic implications of client choices – e.g. for families, teams, organisations and wider cultural groups?
Am I alone? What do you think?
Working cross-culturally can be a fascinating, illuminating and enriching experience. Picture this: here is an interview panel for a job in the UK. The candidate is from South East Asia and the lead interviewer asks her to comment on her strengths and weaknesses. The candidate bows her head. Her long hair falls across her face and she falls into silence. The interviewer restates the question, this time enunciating each word slowly and clearly in case she hadn’t understood. Still silence.
The interviewer now looks awkward. I feel curious so I ask the candidate, gently, ‘Is there something about the question that makes it difficult for you to answer?’ She lifts her head and responds in apologetic tone: ‘Yes. In my culture, it would feel very immodest to talk about my own strengths in this way.’ I say, ‘OK…so if we were to ask you to leave the room for a moment and to invite your colleagues into the room, what kind of things do you think they might say to us about you?’
Her face brightens immediately and she reels off a list of things she excels in and things she could develop further. It was as if, culturally, it was OK to talk about herself in this way from a third party perspective but not OK to talk about herself directly. Plaister-Ten (The Cross-Cultural Coaching Kaleidoscope, 2016) talks about this type of encounter and experience as working with the cultural self and cultural mandates. It’s about learning to navigate cultural beliefs, assumptions and norms.
Plaister-Ten also offers some interesting culture-based coaching and interview questions, e.g. ‘What do you think members of your family would think about that?’ (if respect for elders and allegiance to family is high); ‘What do you think your boss would do in such a situation?’ (if power-distance is high); ‘If you were in a position of power in the government, what would you do about that?’ (if deference to institutions is high). So, I’m curious – how well do you navigate different cultures?
The best bit about the first day of a new year at school was getting a brand new exercise book. I remember writing my name v…e…r…y carefully on the front cover, trying to make my writing as neat as possible. And then the first page, blank and clean. I remember the feeling too as I wrote on it for the first time. The new page was a thing of perfect beauty. I didn’t want to make any mark that could spoil or detract from it. The pen would glide smoothly on the soft, fresh paper. Exquisite.
The new book represented a fresh start for me. No matter what successes or mistakes I had made in the previous year, no matter how many scribbles on the cover or crossings out on that year’s tattered pages, it was all behind me now. I could start all over again. All that new day, the future, held for me now was potential. And that experience, that awareness of endings and beginnings, has stayed with me, firstly when I became a follower of Jesus and then in my professional life too.
Gestalt psychology places interesting and helpful emphasis on ‘closure’. It marks the ending of one phase, one episode, one experience and thereby creates positive psychological and emotional space and energy to transition healthily to another. There are parallels in personal development and change leadership too. It’s as if by pausing, acknowledging and honouring one stage of our lives or work, it can enable us to face, invite and embrace the future with open arms, minds and hearts.
So what does this mean for leaders, OD, coaches and trainers? 1. Plan for key milestones, e.g. in strategies, projects and personal lives. 2. Invite people involved to say how they would love to mark them. 3. Create space to address the past, e.g. celebrations, failures and learning as well as thanks, apologies and forgiveness if needed. 4. Pay careful attention if people feel stuck, unable to move on. 5. Engender a sense of blank sheet and renewal as people move forward.
Nick is a coach, trainer and OD consultant.