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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What do you really believe? It’s sometimes hard to know. We can believe something absolutely, with real passion and conviction, and yet act completely differently. The really weird thing is that we can convince ourselves that we’re living consistently with what we believe and yet the behavioural evidence, the decisions we take, the time and energy and resources we spend on people and things, can tell a very different story. Our human ability to deceive ourselves is quite remarkable.
Against this backdrop, words like integrity, genuineness, authenticity and congruence spring to mind as a stark contrast, posing a powerful and deep challenge to who we are and how we conduct ourselves in the world. We tend to think of these words as inner qualities, personal attributes, the idea of someone walking their personal talk whether anyone notices it or not. Yet they are often formed, outworked and sustained in the context of complex situations and relationships.
In this sense, we could consider the integrity phenomenon as having social and cultural as well as personal dimensions. It’s about the individual but it’s not only about the individual. So we can ask: Who best models integrity for us? If we live seek to live with integrity in all aspects of our lives, what impact and influence does that have on those around us? What cultural beliefs and values nurture and support it? What social conditions provoke and inspire it, often against all the odds?
What does this mean for leaders, OD and coaches? Here are some ideas: 1. Clarify our beliefs and values: what matters most to us? 2. Invite people to support and challenge us when we risk dissonance, self-deception or slip up on route. 3. Model, inspire, support and affirm integrity in behaviour, relationships, decision-making and culture. 4. Support and challenge, not collude, when working with clients. 5. Love, honour –and forgive – when we and others get it wrong.
‘Listen. Tactics and techniques matter – but not as much as what you believe.’ This was my advice to a CEO who was about to embark on a strategic change process. The question had been about to what extent and how to engage staff in it. ‘As you look out across the organisation, what do you believe about those you see? Picture the real people, the real faces. Do you see abstract human resources that can be retained or dispensed with depending on the outcome of the review – or passionate and talented people you’d love to have with you as you move forward from here?’
My point is this: what you believe about people influences fundamentally how you relate, how others experience you and how they’re likely to behave in response. If the idea I hold in mind is that you are a dispensable human resource, no matter what clever engagement tactics and techniques I use, at some level you will sense it, feel it, know it. You’re unlikely to trust me if what I say and do conflicts with what you’re picking up from me intuitively or subconsciously. It’s a mixed message. You will experience me as confusing, inauthentic, incongruent. You may resist or withdraw.
Now picture this. If the idea I hold of you is that you’re amazing, talented and that I really do want you on board, imagine the impact that belief has on you, on how you experience me, on how you feel as a result. The CEO chose this latter stance as it resonated well with his personal values. He also asked me to hold him to account personally throughout to ensure integrity and consistency. The change leadership team achieved high levels of useful and enthusiastic staff input and, to top it off, the Staff Council presented the team with a special award for modelling ‘partnership spirit’.
So, leader, OD, coach or trainer, what do you believe..?
'Thunderbirds are go!' It’s a tense and exciting moment - at least as a child. The international rescuers head off urgently to do their thing: a rescuing thing. Or it’s a knight on a white charger who races off to save, to rescue, a damsel in distress. Or it’s Jesus who rescues us from our universal 'human propensity to f*** things up' (Francis Spufford) - which, unlike Thunderbirds and fairy tales, I actually believe to be true.
And so it is that our beliefs, stories, fables and folklore are filled with accounts of honour and nobility expressed through acts of rescue. They touch, reflect and evoke personally and culturally a spirit of justice, mercy and compassion for others in need. They call us to reach beyond ourselves, our own interests and concerns, to respond to another, to help another where they are trapped, too weak or unable to help themselves.
This instinct, this value, this desire to rescue can however be a double-edged sword. What if, through my desire to rescue, I become the parent who always protects my child and denies them the opportunity to develop resilience? What if I become the leader, the line-manager, who solves everyone’s problems for them, creates unhealthy dependency and denies team members their opportunities to stretch and grow?
What if I become the coach who takes others’ issues onto myself, takes on too much responsibility, and thereby avoids challenging and developing the capacities of the client? Transactional Analysis ('Drama Triangle') can provide useful insights here, e.g. How is the client portraying themselves in their story; What is the client evoking in me, and vice versa; What patterns of relationship are being enacted here and now?
So here are some checks and balances I've found useful: What am I aware of when I work with this client, team or organisation? When am I most likely to slip into rescuer mode? What does this client, this situation, call for? What is in the best interests of the client? Looking at this relationally and systemically, what perverse incentives or unintended consequences could my own interventions inadvertently create?
I was co-facilitating a coach training workshop for leaders last week. Sun was streaming in through the windows and I was thinking about how to illustrate the concept of psychological filters and distortions. At that very second, I looked up and saw this perfect image. A real Plato’s Cave moment. Pointing to the window blind, I asked participants to imagine what the window frame is like behind it, based purely on what they could see. ‘Curved, bent, twisted, grey?’
In my experience as a psychological coach, this can be a most important and valuable insight. We continuously filter experiences so that what we perceive and what meaning we attribute to it is influenced as much by what is happening within us as anything that is taking place externally to us in the room. I’ll introduce four types of filter or influence in these notes below, along with a brief explanation for each: projection, transference, culture and emotion.
You may have heard the expression, ‘We don’t see things as they are, we see them as we are.’ This idea of projection is a simple and complex one. Watts illustrates it like this: imagine a projector on your shoulder, projecting an image onto a person standing in front of you. What you see is a combination of what they actually look like with an overlay of aspects of the projected image. This distorts what we perceive so that we partly relate to the person as they are, and partly as we are.
The principle here is that we subconsciously project aspects of ourselves onto those we encounter. At a functional level, it helps us to identify and empathise with people. It’s as if we recognise something of ourselves in them. However, we also project aspects of ourselves onto others that we don’t acknowledge or recognise in ourselves. Perhaps I’m not aware of how compassionate I am but see it in others around me. Perhaps what I find annoying in others is a denied aspect of me too.
Our perceptions are also influenced by our past. It’s as if we filter all new experiences through what we have experienced previously and what conscious (rational) or subconscious (intuitive) conclusions we have drawn from it. Human Givens therapists talk about this as pattern matching. If we encounter someone or something that reminds us of a previous person or event, it may re-trigger that previous experience so that we experience the new event along with the past.
I see this happen a lot in coaching conversations. Clients may react to experiences in the present as if they are unknowingly re-living similar experiences from the past and transferring something of those experiences onto how they are interpreting the present. This kind of resonance can create an amplifying effect, causing the person to overreact to a person or issue in the here and now. Surfacing the pattern, the transference, can be releasing and create a new sense of perspective.
What and how we perceive someone or something in a situation is also influenced by our cultural beliefs and values. It’s as if there is a permeable boundary between ourselves and others so that what we experience is us - but not only us. Cognitive behavioural research shows how what we feel in any given situation is influenced profoundly by what we believe about that situation. In this sense, our culture acts as a filter, influencing what we notice, or not, and what sense we make of it.
Finally, our perceptions are influenced by our physical and emotional state in the moment. If a person is feeling highly stressed, for instance, they may shift into fight/flight/freeze mode which significantly affects their cognitive abilities. He or she may experience a whole range of cognitive distortions that nevertheless appear to them, in that moment, as reality. I’ve written more about this in a short article: Fresh Thinking.
Perhaps the most significant point here is that for most of us most of the time, we are unaware of the filters we hold. We continually create and recreate our perceived realities. When we look at the window blind, we may assume we are looking at the window. We believe that what we perceive is what is. As far as we know, the window frame is curved, bent, twisted and grey – that is, assuming we know or believe there is a separate reality, a window frame, beyond the blind.
As leaders, coaches and facilitators, we can grow in awareness of our own filters and their potentially distorting effects. We can learn to notice when we are projecting or transferring onto people and experiences. We can grow in awareness of our cultural beliefs and how they shape what we perceive and what we value. We can grow in awareness of our emotional states – what triggers them and how to handle them in the moment.
We can enable others to grow in awareness too, thereby broadening the range of possibilities, of options, available to them – and to us. I would be interested to hear whether anything I’ve described here resonates with your own experiences. Notice what the photo, my language, my way of presenting ideas evokes in you. How do you feel as you read this? What does it remind you of? What are you noticing and not noticing, including within and about yourself? I look forward to hearing from you!
How would you describe your coaching style? What questions would you bring to a client situation?
In my experience, it depends on a whole range of factors including the client, the relationship, the situation and what beliefs and expertise I, as coach, may hold. It also depends on what frame of reference or approach I and the client believe could be most beneficial. Some coaches are committed to a specific theory, philosophy or approach. Others are more fluid or eclectic.
Take, for instance, a leader in a Christian organisation struggling with issues in her team. The coach could help the leader explore and address the situation drawing on any number of perspectives or methods. Although not mutually exclusive, each has its own focus and emphasis. The content and boundaries will reflect what the client and coach believe may be significant:
Appreciative/solutions-focused: e.g. ‘What would an ideal team look and feel like for you?’, ‘When has this team been at its best?’, ‘What made the greatest positive difference at the time?’, ‘What opportunity does this situation represent?’, ‘On a scale of 1-10, how well is this team meeting your and other team members’ expectations?’, ‘What would it take to move it up a notch?’
Psychodynamic/cognitive-behavioural: e.g. ‘What picture comes to mind when you imagine the team?’, ‘What might a detached observer notice about the team?’, ‘How does this struggle feel for you?’, ‘When have you felt like that in the past?’, ‘What do you do when you feel that way?’, ‘What could your own behaviour be evoking in the team?’, ‘What could you do differently?’
Gestalt/systemic: e.g. ‘What is holding your attention in this situation?’ ‘What are you not noticing?’, ‘What are you inferring from people’s behaviour in the team?’, ‘What underlying needs are team members trying to fulfil by behaving this way?’, ‘What is this team situation telling you about wider issues in the organization?’, ‘What resources could you draw on to support you?’
Spiritual/existential: e.g. ‘How is this situation affecting your sense of calling as a leader?’, ‘What has God taught you in the past that could help you deal with this situation?’, ‘What resonances do you see between your leadership struggle and that experienced by people in the Bible?’, ‘What ways of dealing with this would feel most congruent with your beliefs and values?’
An important principle I’ve learned is to explore options and to contract with the client. ‘These are some of the ways in which we could approach this issue. What might work best for you?’ This enables the client to retain appropriate choice and control whilst, at the same time, introduces possibilities, opportunities and potential new experiences that could prove transformational.
What are your favourite coaching questions? I often use 3 that I’ve found can create a remarkable shift in awareness, insight and practice, especially in team coaching. I’ve applied them using variations in language and adapted them to different client issues, opportunities and challenges. They draw on principles from psychodynamic, Gestalt and solutions-focused coaching and are particularly helpful when a client or team feels stuck, unable to find a way forward.
* ‘What’s your contribution to what you are experiencing?’
* ‘What do you need, to contribute your best?’
* ‘What would it take..?’
Client: ‘These meetings feel so boring! I always leave feeling drained rather than energised.’ Coach: ‘What’s your contribution to what you are experiencing?’ Client: ‘Excuse me?’ Coach: ‘What do you do when you feel bored?’ Client: ‘I drift away, look out of the window.’ Coach: ‘What might be the impact on the wider group when you drift away?’ Client: ‘I guess others may disengage too.’ Coach: ‘How does the meeting feel when people disengage?’ Client: 'Hmmm…boring!’
Coach: ‘What do you need to contribute your best?’ Client: ‘It would help certainly if we could negotiate and agree the agenda beforehand, rather than focus on things that feel irrelevant.’ Coach: ‘So you want to ensure the agenda feels relevant to you. What else?’ Client: ‘If we could meet off site and break for coffee from time to time, that would feel more energising.’ Coach: ‘So venue and breaks make a difference too. Anything else?’ Client: ‘No, that’s it.’
Client: ‘I don’t think I can influence where and how these meetings are held.’ Coach: ‘It sounds like you feel quite powerless. How would you rate your level of influence on a scale of 1-10?’ Client: ‘Around 3’. Coach: ‘What would it take to move it up to a 6 or 7?’ Client: ‘I guess if I showed more support in the meetings, the leader may be more open to my suggestions.’ Coach: ‘What else would it take?’ Client: ‘I could work on building my relationship with the leader outside of meetings too.’
These type of questions can help a client grow in awareness of the interplay between intrapersonal, interpersonal and group dynamics, his or her impact within a wider system, what he or she needs to perform well and how to influence the system itself. They can also shift a person or team from mental, emotional and physical passivity to active, optimistic engagement. What are your favourite coaching questions? How have you used them and what happened as a result?
It was an energising experience, facilitating a group of leaders this week who are keen to build a new high performing team. We pushed the boundaries of normal ways of working to stimulate innovative ideas in all aspects of the team’s work. We used photos to create an agenda and physically enacted people’s aspirations to avoid falling into conventional patterns of heady, rational conversation.
It felt very different to meeting ‘because that’s what we do’. There was a different dynamic, energy and momentum. Participants leaned actively into the conversation, not leaning back in passivity or boredom. Yet it can be a real challenge to break free from tradition, from norms that trap a team in ways of doing things that feel familiar and safe but, deep down, lack inspiration or effectiveness.
In our meetings, how often do we pause before diving into the agenda to ask, ‘What’s the most important thing we should be focusing on?’, ‘How are we feeling about this?’, ‘What is distracting us or holding our attention?’, ‘What could be the most creative and inspiring way to approach this?’, ‘What do we each need, here and now, to bring our best to this?’, ‘What would be a great result?’
So I presented a simple model to the team with four words: content (what), process (how) and relationship (who) encircled around goal (where). In all my experience of working with individuals and teams, whether in coaching, training or facilitation, whether in the UK or overseas, these four factors are key recurring themes that make a very real difference.
They seem to be important factors that, if we get them right, make a positive impact. They lead to people feeling energised, more alive, more motivated and engaged. Conversely, if we get them wrong, they leave people frustrated, drained of energy, bored or disengaged. Worse still, if left unaddressed, they can lead to negative, destructive conflict that completely debilitates a team.
We can use a simple appreciative inquiry to reflect on this.‘Think back to your best experience of working with another person or team. How did you feel at the time?’, ‘Think back to a specific example of when you felt like that with the person or team. Where were you at the time? What were you doing? What were they doing? What made the biggest positive difference for you?’
One of the things we notice when asking such questions is that different things motivate and energise different people. That is, of course, one of the tricky parts of leading any team. So a next question to pose could be something like, ‘What would it take for this team to feel more like that, more of the time for you?’ and to see what the wider team is willing to accommodate or negotiate.
Now back to the model with some sample prompts to check out and navigate with a client, group or team. Notice how the different areas overlap and impact on each other. It’s about addressing all areas, not just to one or two in isolation. However, having explored each area in whatever way or level suits your situation, you are free to focus your efforts on those that need
Goal: ‘What’s your vision for this?’, ‘Why this, why now?’, ‘What are you hoping for?’, ‘What would make a great outcome for you?’, ‘What would be the benefits of achieving it or the costs of not achieving it?’, ‘Who or what else is impacted by it and how?, ‘Where would you like to get to by the end of this conversation?’, ‘An hour from now, what would have made this worthwhile?’
Content: ‘What’s the most important issue to focus this time on?’, ‘What is the best use of our time together?’, ‘What is the issue from your perspective?’, ‘How clear are you about what this issue entails?’, ‘What feelings is this issue evoking for you?’, ‘What do we need to take into account as we work on this together?’, ‘Do we have the right information and expertise to do this?’
Process: ‘How would you like to do this?’, ‘What approach would you find most inspiring?’, ‘What might be the best way to approach this given the time available?’, ‘Which aspects to we need to address first before moving onto others?’, ‘What would be best to do now and what could be best done outside of this meeting?’, ‘Could we try a new way that would lift our energy levels?’
Relationship: ‘What’s important to you in this?’, ‘What underlying values does this touch on for you?’, ‘How are you impacted?’, ‘How are you feeling?’, ‘What are you noticing from your unique perspective?’, ‘What distinctive contribution could you bring?’, ‘What is working well in the team’s relationships?’, ‘What is creating tension?’, ‘How could we resolve conflicting differences?’
The versatility of the model is that it can be reapplied to coaching, training and other contexts too. In a training environment you could consider, for instance, ‘What are we here to learn?’ (goal), ‘What material should we cover?’ (content), ‘What methods will suit different learning styles?’ (process) and ‘How can we help people work together well in this environment?' (relationship).
In a coaching context it could look something like, ‘How do you hope to develop through engaging in this coaching experience?’ (goal), ‘What issues, challenges or opportunities would you like to focus on?’ (content), ‘How would you like to approach this together?’ (process) and ‘What would build and sustain trust as we work on these things together?’ (relationship).
I’d be interested to hear from you. Do the areas represented in this model resonate with your own experiences? Which factors have you noticed tend to be most attended to or ignored? Do you have any real-life, practical examples of how you have addressed these factors and what happened as a result? In your experience, what other factors make the biggest difference?
It’s Christmas Day and I could have better used the title Christmas mess-edge for this short piece. The story of Jesus Christ isn’t just a sweet and sentimental account of a baby boy born in Bethlehem 2000+ years ago. If it’s true, it’s about God entering the very real messiness of our lives and world and offering the potential to transform them into something completely new. Something beyond our wildest dreams, hopes or expectations. Something that stretches and transcends the boundaries of all human existence and experience.
I’ve known something about this notion of stretching boundaries over this past year, about extending the edges of my own experience. I bought a new bike in the spring, challenged myself to cycle over 1000 miles in 6 months and over 50 miles in a single ride. I had never done anything like that before and yet I did it. I also challenged myself to swim 1 mile 3 times in the same week. And I did it. It felt like I had crossed over an important physical and psychological line, achieving things that had previously felt impossible for me.
I wrote and had published my first article with the British Association for Counselling and Psychology (BACP). I’d written lots of articles for different publications before but this felt like the next step up in a professional field that sits close to my heart. The editor of Coaching Today invited me to write on spirituality and I jumped at the chance. To top it off, I did my first ever series of radio interviews on spirituality too. It was a great opportunity and a novel experience so sit in a recording studio and to share my beliefs openly on air.
And if that was the end of the story, there would be no need for a Jesus, at least for me. But it’s far from the end. I’ve struggled and failed on so many fronts. Sometimes, I haven’t even struggled when I have known I should. I’ve known deeply and personally what Francis Spufford aptly calls the universal ‘human propensity to f* things up’ (Unapologetic, 2013). At times, I’ve failed in relationships, made mistakes at work, fallen short of my own standards, spoken when I should have kept quiet and kept quiet when I should have spoken.
What’s more, one of my closest friends has fought courageously with terminal illness. I’ve felt hopeful and helpless, trying to offer support where I could yet knowing I can’t make it OK. I’ve yearned to take the anxiety away but known that I can’t. I’ve watched Syria in the news, the damage that human beings are able to inflict on each others’ lives, on whole countries and regions. I’ve felt impotent and confused. Not all the time, but enough to know that redeeming the world is something I can take part in yet, ultimately, lies well beyond me.
And so as I reflect on Christmas, I know what it is to be an aspiring yet fragile human being. I’ve felt exciting moments on the edge of success and have known what it is to screw up and need forgiveness. I have felt the amazing love of others, often undeserved yet tangible all the same. At that first nativity, I believe God himself entered the messy complexity of our lives and world with the most profound message of love and hope possible. Not just in words but in a life well-lived and a promise of presence and eternal life. Merry Christ-mas!
Nick is a coach, trainer and OD consultant.