At a crucial moment in World War 2, Winston Churchill is said to have consulted with two of his key advisors on how to proceed in the face of Nazi Germany’s terrifyingly-effective military advances. One proposed (my paraphrase), “We need to become more organised than the Nazis if we are to defeat them.” The other pushed back in response: “No, the key to victory lays in our unique ability to improvise and, thereby, to take the Nazis by surprise. Organisation is the enemy of improvisation.”
What a dilemma. It’s like Myers Briggs J meets P in stark confrontation. The challenge here was how to face a serious existential threat posed by a highly organised enemy and not only to survive it but also to win: whether to out-organise the organised or to out-wit the organised by doing what they least expect. Yet, in that moment, two people looked at the same data-information, made sense of what they saw in different ways, drew different conclusions and proposed very different solutions.
I see parallels in some of the opportunities and challenges that leaders, OD, coaches and trainers face today. In volatile, uncertain, complex, ambiguous (VUCA) and stressful situations, how often are our observations and decisions - and those of our clients - based subconsciously on (and thereby constrained by) implicit psychological-cultural assumptions and preferences, e.g. for certainty-structure vs fluidity-agility, rather than necessarily on what the situation itself calls for per se?
Take, for instance, restructuring and re-engineering projects to solve issues where different types of conversations and relationships could have been less costly and more effective; or formal change management programmes that adhere to strict policies and procedures whereas innovative change leadership could have achieved far better outcomes. This begs important questions: What lies beneath different analyses and ideas for solutions? How can we work with clients to raise them into awareness?
'Worthwhile elephants make it real.'
‘Of course.’ I can hear you thinking. ‘Tell us something we don’t already know.’ Or, perhaps – and quite reasonably so – you are wondering what on earth I am talking about. If, by chance, I have spiked your curiosity, let me break it down into 3 parts that form important ingredients of inspiring and effective conversations at work: worthwhile; elephants; make it real. It’s about a degree of focus and quality of contact that can release energy, engender engagement and achieve great results.
First: worthwhile. ‘If we were to be having a really useful conversation, what would we be talking about?’ (Claire Pedrick). ‘What outcome from this conversation will mean our time together will have been well spent?’ Or, ‘First things first – begin with the end in mind.’ (Stephen Covey). The aim here is to clarify goals and aspirations, test implicit assumptions and co-create focus. It addresses the question: ‘Of all the things we could spend time doing together, what would make this valuable?’
Second: elephants. ‘The most valuable thing any of us can do is find a way to say the things that can’t be said.’ (Susan Scott). It’s about naming the proverbial elephants in the room or, in Gestalt, speaking the unspoken, saying the un-said. ‘What are we not talking about that, if we were to talk about it, would release fresh insight and energy in this conversation…and in this relationship too?’ This is an invitation to ‘radical candour’ (Kim Scott), to practise courage, disclosure and openness.
Third: make it real. ‘What matters most to you in this?’ It’s about being real…doing real…avoiding an unhelpful, distracting dance around the most important questions and issues in the room. Cultural complexities surface here: how to hold conversations that are open and honest and, at the same time, respectful of different cultural nuances and norms. The core principle here is ‘challenge with support’ (Ian Day & John Blakey): having the conversations we need to have to move things forward.
I was reminded recently of one of my sister’s ex-boyfriends in our teenage years. The lad was called Tom and, one day, he decided proudly to have his name tattooed on his neck. When he got home, however, he was dismayed to look in the mirror and read ‘moT’. ‘I can’t believe they spelt my name wrong!’, he exclaimed in near despair. My mother looked on in near despair too. How could her daughter be going out with this guy?? My sister laughed but poor Tom just looked puzzled.
I can hear so many satirical expressions immediately coming to mind: ‘Not the sharpest knife in the drawer; A few sandwiches short of a picnic; Proof that evolution can go in reverse’, etc. It’s as if we’re a lot brighter than Tom, less prone to such stupid mistakes. Tom misinterpreted what he saw but we see and understand things more clearly. Perception is reality and Tom needed a reality check. We’re not that easily tricked or confused. We’re not like Tom. We see things as they are.
That is, until we read books like David McRaney’s ‘You Are Not So Smart’ (2012). With a wide range of disarmingly simple-yet-profound examples, McRaney describes a whole host of ways in which we unknowingly and convincingly delude ourselves, pretty much every day. Alex Boese concludes on the back cover: ‘Fascinating! You’ll never trust your brain again.’ It’s as if the assumptions we hold about what is real and true about ourselves, the world, life and relationships need to be held…lightly.
Yet this poses some serious existential, ethical and practical challenges. Who or what are we to trust if we’re not sure what’s real or true? Who or what are we to take a stance on if we’re not sure if the ground we’re standing on is sound? Faith, doubt and belief come face-to-face with diverse related fields, e.g. social constructionism and Gestalt. This is rich territory for deep coaching, leadership and OD. So, tell me - what are your experiences of working with certainty and uncertainty, ambiguity and trust?
"Ignore me. I’m just having a bitch-moan-whine moment.” That made me laugh. I had never heard that expression before and thought, what a great way to signpost self-awareness and intention. So many conversations end up strained and, as a consequence, relationships lay in tatters because the underlying values, motivation and thought processes are assumed but left unexpressed. Work cross-culturally – whether that be in different counties or even with people from different personal and professional backgrounds or sectors – and you will almost certainly know what I mean.
It’s where we sometimes talk about crossed wires or, in Transactional Analysis (TA) terms, crossed transactions. I may say something tongue-in-cheek and you may take it as a serious comment. You may say something neutrally as an observation and I hear it as implied criticism. In other words, we infer things, particularly meaning and intention, based on where we are at personally or culturally in the moment, rather than necessarily on what the other person meant or intended us to hear or feel. This is an area where learning to signpost explicitly can make a very positive difference.
To signpost well involves being aware-in-the-moment, authentic in what we disclose, skilful in how we communicate and curious about the other. Aware: tune into what we believe, think and feel – here-and-now. Authentic: be honest and truthful – speak with congruence and integrity. Skilful: use language, signs and symbols that bridge or transcend personal, professional and cultural boundaries – sensitive to the person, context and relationship. Curious: check with the other what they saw, heard and felt – whether they know and understand what lay behind your actions and words.
What sense do you make of categorical, definitive statements? For example, ‘This book is excellent.’ ‘That person is annoying.’ Could it be that such truth claims say more about the person making them, perhaps also about the beliefs and values of the cultural worlds they inhabit, than who or what they are referring to? In coaching, what could they reveal about embedded, hidden and often subconscious assumptions, perspectives, constructs, needs, hopes, fears and expectations?
I had a difficult conversation tonight. Some close neighbours have 2 dogs that they leave outside barking and a son that kicks his football against the wall, fence and bins. The noise, the persistent intrusive disturbance, drives me crazy. I tried to tackle it in polite conversation but it ended badly. The neighbour was angry and frustrated with me and slammed the door with a loud bang as the conversation came to an abrupt end. I walked away feeling shaken, disappointed and stressed.
It is easy to imagine the kind of statements we could now be making about each other inwardly and, perhaps, outwardly in conversation with others. ‘That bloke is so inconsiderate!’ ‘That guy is so over-sensitive.’ It’s as if the statements we project convey objective, incontrovertible truths about the other, statements of what-is rather than statements of subjective opinion, of cultural possibility and, at a deeper level, of veiled revelations of how we are feeling and the pain and hurt of unmet need.
I worked with one leader, Richard Marshall, who took this principle very seriously. Every time I or another made a definitive statement, he would challenge us to personalise it. So, for example, ‘This meeting is a waste of time’ would be reframed as something like, ‘I feel frustrated in this meeting and would prefer to do X’. The effect was transformational. It surfaced underlying values and needs and made them explicit. So, is my neighbour unreasonable? I don’t know. I just need peace and quiet.
‘Thud…BANG!’ At its worst, it’s every 2.7 minutes. They go off every day, 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, 9 months a year, where I live. Farmers use these gas guns – which are like small canons – to attempt to scare birds from their crops. They are very loud…and largely ineffective. In an attempt to improve their effectiveness, farmers are increasing the number they install in their fields and the frequency of the bangs. It’s as if more canons and more bangs will scare away more birds.
The problem is: it doesn’t work, it drives local residents crazy and it is actually counter-productive. Research shows that birds quickly ignore the bangs. They realise there is no actual threat. The more the bangs, the more the birds become immune to them. In fact, research also shows that, over time, the birds are actually attracted by the bangs, using them to locate sources of food. So, apart from the dubious ethics of using these guns close to residential areas, what is going wrong here?
The simple answer is that these farmers have inadvertently locked themselves into a pattern of faulty assumptions and self-defeating behaviour. Their desperation to protect their crops drives them away from rational thought to a more defensive and defended stance. If they could find a way to step back far enough to revisit the results they desire and the factors that support or undermine them, they could potentially discover new tactics that would make a more positive difference.
Organisations call this stepping back to examine and challenge implicit assumptions, to reflect on and address causal and influencing relationships, strategy mapping or creating theories of change. Professionals who apply the same principles to their work call it reflective practice. It’s about being willing to pause-reflect-act in the midst of the busy-ness of doing in order to think widely and deeply, conduct research, learn from experience and produce better results. How do you do it?
What’s your angle? We use this expression to check out a perspective, a way of seeing things, of presenting things. The angle itself is designed to convey something as interesting, eye-catching, novel, unique. There’s another way of thinking about ‘angle’ too. A friend commented yesterday that, if we look at a protractor, we see how a slight shift at the centre leads to a significantly different end point at the perimeter. The shift represents a change of direction and trajectory.
So here we are at the start of a New Year. The decisions, the angles, we take, here and now, will influence where we finish in the future. They may seem small and insignificant in the moment yet, each time we change our angle, the direction in which we face, we change our trajectory too. In many aspects of life, the cause-and-effect consequences are not as linear and predictable as lines on a mathematical tool. Nevertheless, it’s as if every choice and decision, in some way, counts.
We can also look at our lives, circumstances, choices and decisions, from different angles. Leaders, coaches, OD and trainers refer to this as ‘reframing’. It could involve, say, looking at ourselves, our relationships and situations through different metaphorical frames or lenses, from different angles or vantage points, from different points in time or stakeholder perspectives etc. This can open up new insights and possibilities that may otherwise lay obscure or hidden to us.
I believe this is where coaching to develop critical reflective practice can be so important, valuable and useful. It can enable us to grow in awareness of our beliefs, values, assumptions and preoccupations – our default angles, if you like. It can enable us to consider fresh options and implications that will guide our focus, attention, behaviour, decisions and actions. It can enable us to live authentic lives and to work with greater insight and freedom. So – what’s your angle?
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?
‘What language does a racoon speak?’ This young girl looked at me intently, clearly expecting an answer. I felt compelled to respond quickly, in the moment. ‘I don’t know. I guess…Racoonish?’ That seemed to satisfy her curiosity, at least for now. The thing that struck me most in this brief encounter was her wide-eyed, uninhibited enthusiasm for exploration, discovery and learning. She clearly felt unfettered by adult-type assumptions, e.g. by a belief that she should already know.
I sat in an HR team meeting where participants became preoccupied with how best to store annual leave request forms. They proposed various systems and procedures and evaluated them for their relative pros and cons. As the conversation progressed, along with the time it was taking for the team to resolve this, I felt increasingly curious and bemused and so interjected, quite innocently, ‘Why do you keep annual leave forms?’ Blank faces all around. Oh. End of that item. Move on.
But what was going on here? These were bright people in professional roles. A real risk is that ‘professionalism’ can lead to ever-increasing demands for sophistication. Instead of asking simple questions, seeking simple solutions, we can become too complex, too complicated and miss key issues and ideas that lay hidden in plain sight. We associate child-likeness with childishness and therein lies a big mistake and a lost opportunity. Jesus said, ‘Be like children’. I say, ‘Amen.’
So here is a suggested antidote. A colleague describes coaching as the ‘art of the obvious’. There is important truth in that. When we face a situation, whether in leadership, OD or coaching, ask, ‘What would a child ask?’ (or even better, ask a child), ‘What’s the most obvious question that we’re not asking ourselves?’ e.g. ‘Why on earth are we doing this?’ Be willing to laugh and experiment too: ‘What would be the most radical, unorthodox, playful, creative solution to this?’ Give it a try!
Nick is a psychological coach, OD consultant and trainer, specialising in critical reflective practice.