It’s hard to think outside our own thinking to do the as-yet unthinkable, yet that’s often where real transformation takes place. How do you do it? How do you enable others to do it?
What does a kilogram weigh on the moon? Is grass still green when it’s dark?
I had this fascinating conversation with a chemistry student last night about what can be known to be true and how. We touched on philosophy, theology and science and I left feeling like my brain had been bent and twisted in different directions. One of the key principles that came through is that we base our understanding of the world on what we believe or know to be true already. It’s a form of projection that creates a psychological sense of certainty and enables us to predict, test and move on. It’s also a phenomenon that can leave us profoundly mistaken – without realising it.
I listened to a radio interview with the controversial film director Quentin Tarantino. When asked to comment on the quirky, sudden and often dramatic mood swings in his films, Tarantino responded, ‘Who do you imagine I am directing in my movies – the actors or the audience?’ He went on to paint an image of himself standing invisibly behind the cinema screen like the conductor of an orchestra. The audience watches the film. He conducts the audience. The audience is the orchestra. It was a stunning example of challenging the assumed, reframing an experience, revealing the unexpected.
The moral of this story? Not everything is as it appears to be or what we may want or expect it to be. We are easily unaware or deceived. It’s why ‘critical reflective practice’ is so valuable and important as professionals, leaders, managers, teams and organisations. It’s about taking conscious, proactive steps to challenge, test and transform our awareness, assumptions, thinking, stance and practice – enabling greater inspiration, resourcefulness, resilience and effectiveness. (See: Thompson & Thompson, The Critically Reflective Practitioner, 2008; Bassot, The Reflective Practice Guide, 2016).
As leader, OD, coach or trainer, what have been your experiences of critical reflective practice? Where have you seen or experienced real transformation, radical re-framings or paradigm shifts?
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This short article addresses the question, how to spot and deal with untrue truisms that appear to be true. The tricky bit is that common truisms often guide and reinforce everyday beliefs, behaviour, decisions and actions – including at work. Untrue truisms can prove limiting, unhelpful or damaging. What do you think?
‘Ring a bell and Pavlov’s dog salivates.’ True? Not necessarily. It depends on the context in which the dog hears the bell (Anne Rooney, Psychology – How the World Works, 2019). ‘Brainstorming in a group generates more ideas than individuals generate alone.’ Not necessarily true either. It depends on whether individuals in the group have had opportunity to write down their own ideas separately first (Michael West, Developing Creativity in Organisations, 1997).
We could list many more frequently-proclaimed and widely-accepted truisms here that turn out to be not entirely true. ‘People don’t like change’. Oh, really? Perhaps closer to the truth could be a more qualified statement, ‘Some people don’t like change’ or, as a variation, ‘Most people don’t like having change forced on them’ where the emphasis is definitely more on forced – an implied denial of choice, freedom, influence or control – than on change per se.
The problem here lays in simplistic generalisations, superficial conclusions, trite clichés that may well sound plausible and convincing on the face of it yet lack validity and soundness. They present an idea of reality with an air of marked confidence, yet which doesn’t correspond with research evidence or lived experience. (Some contemporary politicians came to mind as I wrote that…but I won’t go there). Worse still, we and others may act on untrue-truisms as if they were true.
What can we do as leaders, coaches, OD and trainers to notice, reveal and test hidden, personal-cultural assumptions that are so often masked and disguised as statements of fact? Firstly, listen for words or phrases that signpost a claim is about to follow, e.g. ‘of course, ‘obviously’, ‘clearly’, ‘self-evidently’, ‘everyone knows that’. Secondly, acknowledge that the explicit truth claim represents an implicit belief. Thirdly, open it up for critical exploration and evaluation.
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'In ‘Leadership and Self-Deception’ (2006), the Arbinger Institute highlighted the subtle, subconscious and serious art of deceiving ourselves and others in organisations...without realising it. This short article says a bit more about this strange risk phenomenon and invites your insights and ideas on how to address it!
Is everything we know wrong?'
In 2010, the BBC released a ground-breaking Horizon documentary entitled, ‘Is Everything We Know About the Universe Wrong?’ It set out to question and challenge current, fundamental and widely-held scientific beliefs about the universe, particularly in relation to ‘dark matter’, ‘dark energy’ and ‘dark flow’. Perhaps the most radical dimension to the investigation was its willingness to wonder. Are our hypotheses, our cosmological theories, so convincing to us, so self-evidently true for us, that they blind us, close down uncomfortable questions, act as powerful psychological-cultural filters?
It coincided with the release of a plethora of popular books (e.g. Chabris & Simons’, The Invisible Gorilla, 2011; McRaney’s, You are Not so Smart, 2012) that set out to reveal and challenge our cognitive and cultural limitations and distortions. An underlying, recurring theme is that self- and group deception act in stealth mode. We are most deceived when we don’t know we’re deceived. We face the same challenges as leaders, coaches, OD or trainers: how to practise reflexivity/praxis ('critical reflective practice') whilst enabling other people, groups and organisations to do so too.
Thomas Aquinas offers useful psychodynamic insight here. If we face an unresolved question that captures our interest and imagination, it sets us off on a quest, a journey, of discovery. If, however, we find an explanation or solution that we find convincing, the mind comes to a standstill, our thinking comes to a halt. This is a reason why transformational teachers such as Jesus, Buddha and Socrates are famous for posing high order, high quality, questions, puzzles or paradoxes – searching, evocative, provocative stimuli that leave us deeply restless until, if possible, we find resolution.
So, some food for thought: As leader, coach, OD or trainer, what are you, or your clients, assuming or taking at face value? When have you, or they, leapt to a conclusion too soon, treating an open question as if it were a closed one? What rules, principles or received wisdom (e.g. ‘good practice’) do you, or they, consider obvious or sacred? When do you, or they, shut down questions or avenues of inquiry because they feel too difficult or sensitive to raise? Which tricky issues, experiences or conversations are you, or they, avoiding? How can you get self-deception out of stealth mode?
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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?
Nick is a psychological coach, trainer and OD consultant with over 20,000 followers on LinkedIn. How can I help you? Get in touch! firstname.lastname@example.org