What’s your first instinct when you see a sign that says, ‘Don’t walk on the grass'? Do you see it as an instruction to be obeyed at all cost, a mere suggestion or an outright provocation to break the rules? There are, of course, certain mitigating circumstances where, for instance, the building you’re in is on fire and the only safe way to escape from danger is across the grass. Or you may be in a place littered with hidden landmines and the only safe option is to stay on the path. Under those types of circumstance, it would be fair to say the range of realistic options available to you is limited at best.
Those kinds of situation apart, however, what’s the first thought that comes to mind, the first feeling that you experience? I have to confess that these signs often trigger a playful, mischievous spirit in me – unless I could see some really good reason not to do it. I experience the same spirit, often accompanied by frustration, if I encounter rules, regulations, policies, procedures – anything that seems like constraining, life-wasting, pointless bureaucracy. I’m open to influence and persuasion but I need to believe that what I’m doing is worthwhile and I need to feel the freedom to choose.
This disposition has served me well at times, particularly in terms of questioning assumptions, challenging the status quo and finding different ways to think about and do things. It can, however, lead to a restlessness; an inability to settle down; a need to keep experiencing new things - new people, new cultures, new environments in order to feel truly alive. It can also mean that, if I’m not careful, I can drive colleagues whose role is to enforce policies and procedures crazy! So, what’s your instinct if you see the ‘grass’ sign? What are the pros and cons for your leadership, coaching or training?
(For more playful, subversive inspiration, check out: http://imgur.com/gallery/8frOy)
The UK is going through an unprecedented period of democratic turmoil. It’s not just the EU-Brexit debate. It’s about how to handle difference: how to balance the right to freedom of speech with the right to freedom from harm. It’s a debate that has erupted in earnest on university campus’ recently where proponents of critical debate are clashing with proponents of ‘safe space’. How to conduct rigorous debate that doesn’t result in people feeling offended, hurt, vulnerable or at risk.
I’m noticing similar phenomena and tensions arising in organisations too. The advent and rapid of development of e.g. social media have created new forms of leadership and engagement that depend less on formal authority and more on networks of influence. Social media conversations are typically less formal, more open than traditional organisational conversations. This can leave some people worried about offending customers, hurting profits, brand vulnerability or reputation risk.
At the heart of these debates are questions around identity, values, protection and trust. When faced with difference or change, especially if it feels unsettling or dangerous, it can trigger fight or flight, a defensive response, a desire to withdraw from, stop, close down or minimise the source of anxiety or risk. It’s a posture that is often driven by – fear. An alternative can be to lean into the conversation, the relationship, to be curious, to invite challenge, to take a posture of – hope.
This takes courage. I worked with one organisation that had the strapline, ‘Connecting People’. It created a staff newsletter, ‘Connect’ and included, on the back page, a column called, ‘Disconnect’. It positively encouraged people to post their irritations and frustrations. I’ve seen other organisations do similar things too, inviting people through e.g. social media to engage in open and honest conversations about things that matter and to co-create solutions. So – what’s your stance?
Why think outside of the box when you could dispense with the box altogether? Rosabeth Moss-Kanter commented recently on Twitter that ‘To lead real change, it’s not enough to think outside of the box. We need to think outside of the building.’ It reminded me of Chris Argyris who, some years ago, coined the phrase ‘learning loops’ to describe different levels of learning and application:
Single loop learning asks the question, ‘Are we doing this right?’, e.g. ‘Do we have a clear agenda for today’s meeting?’ Double loop learning steps back to ask, ‘Are we doing the right things?’, e.g. ‘Is a meeting really the best way to do this?’ Triple loop learning steps back further still to ask, ‘How do we decide what is right?’, e.g. ‘Are we focusing our attention on the most important things?’
Each step back brings new dimensions into the frame, surfacing and thereby opening assumptions to challenge. I think of it like concentric circles, ripples on a pond, ever moving outwards from the initial point of impact or concern. It exposes wider systems. It shifts the focus onto broader cultural or contextual issues in order to make sense of and take decisions within a narrower domain.
There are some parallels with strategic, tactical and operational lenses, aimed at ensuring effectiveness. Peter Drucker commented: ‘Nothing is less productive than to make more efficient what should not be done at all.’ How much resource do we waste in organisations inadvertently paying one person or team to burn the proverbial toast and another to scrape off the burnt bits?
So we are really looking at how to ask fundamental questions. ‘What is the purpose of our organisation in the world?’ I mean existentially or spiritually, not just pragmatically. 'Why are we here?', ‘What is shaping our values?’, ‘What are we aware of?’, ‘What are we blind to, filtering out?’, ‘What matters most to us, and why?’, ‘Why are we doing things this way?’, ‘Who or what is really driving this?’
This type of critique is where things get tricky and, potentially, revolutionary. Organisations, as people, shape their own perception of reality, what is real and what is true, by the way they construe situations, the narratives they create to explain their experiences, the rationalisations they use to justify their actions etc. And most of this is subconscious, hidden behind cultural filters and defences.
Deconstructing the box entails a willingness to acknowledge it first – to explore and reveal the unspoken, the unspeakable, the not-yet imagined. As leaders and coaches, it calls for vulnerability and courage. It demands a preparedness to challenge and be challenged, to open our eyes, perhaps pray, to expose our limits, our assumptions, our implicit collusion with what is and what appears to be.
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?
What is real, what is true, how can we know? These are questions that have vexed philosophers for centuries. In more recent times, we have seen an increasing convergence between philosophy and psychology in fields such as social constructionism and existential therapy. How we experience and make sense of being, meaning and purpose is inextricably linked to how we behave, what we choose and what stance we take in the world.
As a Christian and psychological coach, I’m intrigued by how these fundamental issues, perspectives and actions intertwine with my beliefs, spirituality and practice. Descartes once wrote, ‘If you would be a real seeker after truth, you must at least once in your life doubt, as far as possible, all things.’ It’s as if we must be prepared to suspend all assumptions about ‘what is’, to explore all possibilities and dare to think the unthinkable in order to grow and make our best contribution.
Things are not always as they at first appear. There are sometimes multiple explanations for the same phenomenon, depending on the frame of reference we or others use to interpret it (see, for instance, Gareth Morgan’s seminal work, Images of Organisation, 1986). We are sometimes blinded to what’s in front of us by our prejudices, preconceptions, cultural constraints or rigid views of the world. It can be hard to maintain healthy scepticism without cynicism.
I see it with clients, sometimes in myself too. A sense of being trapped by a fixed Gestalt, a cognitive distortion, an inherited or learned belief system. An inability to see, to recognise the box that we’re in, never mind to see or think outside of it. An avoidance of deep, difficult questions because of the discomfort, confusion or anxiety they may evoke. If we’re not careful, if we can’t find the right help when we need it, it may limit our lives and our learning.
I think this is where coaching can play a very important role, helping pose and address some deep questions. Nick Bolton commented insightfully in Coaching Today that, ‘To explore a coaching issue existentially is to understand the relationship that the presenting problem has to the human condition to which it is a response, and to remain focused on enabling a change of perspective that allows the client to move past their current challenge.’
He also provided some helpful examples: ‘For instance, how is a client’s procrastination around something that seems to matter to her a failure to remember that life comes to an end? How is a client’s need to be unconditionally loved by his partner an attempt to deal with existential rather than interpersonal isolation? (And the solutions are very different things). How is someone’s lethargy simply a part of their fear of taking responsibility for their life?’ (July 2013, p17)
A metaphysical, existential or theological dimension can shift the entire paradigm of the coaching conversation. The question of whether a client should apply for this or that job is influenced by her sense of purpose. If she is willing to consider that God may exist and have a plan for her life, the whole situational context will change. It can be a dizzying and exciting experience, yet it’s really a question of how courageous and radical we and the client are prepared to be.
It was really muddy this weekend and the woodland tracks were almost impassable. Almost. It’s precisely the almost-ness that makes this sport so challenging and exhilarating. I’m not that skilled on a mountain bike. I can do enough to complete rough tracks on hilly ground without falling off too often. Last year I went over the handlebars, not on purpose, when I hit a tree root hidden by bracken. It left me breathless, yet the element of risk adds to the thrill and adventure.
Each time I go out, I get that bit better. My legs get stronger and I improve my balance. I skip over a log where before I would have stepped off the bike to lift it over. I wince less when I get caught by brambles, digging their thorns through my trousers and shirt. I get a better sense of which puddles to ride through and which to avoid. I push on ahead whereas in earlier days I might have given up. I’m improving my stamina, my fitness and my biking technique – and it feels great.
Spurred on by a friend who has also joined this cycling sport, I signed up this week for a sponsored ride for a UK charity (http://www.justgiving.com/Nick-Wright40). It’s a stretching target for me, the longest distance I will have ridden since I was 15. It feels like testing myself, seeing what I’m capable of, paving the way perhaps to even greater challenges in the future. I think that’s where the fun is, that ‘not sure if I can make it’ feeling combined with a gritted determination to succeed.
I’m reminded of leadership, of parenting and of coaching. How can we keep ourselves and others at the cutting edge, the edge where we and they feel stretched and challenged yet most alive? How can we motivate ourselves and others to keep growing, to keep pushing boundaries of experience without feeling over-stretched or snapping? How can we develop our own and others’ resilience to persevere and to reach new heights that we or they would never have dreamed possible?
Reaching 64 lengths felt like quite a stretch. I normally swim around 25 so pushing for a mile felt exciting yet daunting. When I did reach the final strokes, I felt tired yet exhilarated. It was a good feeling, a feeling of achieving something beyond my normal boundaries, routine, comfort zone. In that moment, I felt more alive somehow as if I had extended my boundaries into a new space. I was spurred on to test my limits by a good friend who takes his own sport, motorcycling, to extremes, perfecting his riding technique in every detail and crossing continents in ways I only dream of. Rho Sandberg added inspiration in her deeply thought-provoking blog, ‘Working with our Edges and No-Go Zones’: http://thegritintheoyster.cleconsulting.com.au/blog/working-our-edges-and-no-go-zones.
Rho, a coach and consultant, comments on how each time we reach the border of our experience, it’s as if we reach an edge. The edge represents an opportunity for growth and something new yet it can also sometimes feel unsettling, disorientating and anxiety-provoking. We may at times hesitate, avoid or pull back to avoid the discomfort or fear of what may lie beyond. ‘Will I be able to handle it?’ It could be a new relationship, a new job or taking something familiar to the next level. The edge can symbolise adventure...and risk. I remember that feeling vividly, the first time I set off to hitch hike around Europe. I had never done it before and felt butterflies of anxiety and thrill as I made preparations and finally stood at the road side, waiting for that first lift that would signal the start.
Rho comments that, ‘An edge is the limit to what we know and are comfortable with’ and ‘a coach or consultant’s key contribution can be holding and supporting the client at the edge long enough for them to discover a little more about it’. This echoes with my own experience as coach, supporting people who face fresh opportunities and challenges in life or who are working through change and transition. It inspires me to continually develop my own thinking and practice too…how to keep growing, extending my own boundaries and not to stay within my safe circle of experience. My next challenge is to cycle 1,000 miles and I can already feel myself touching that edge. Rho’s advice: ‘The edge is an interesting place – I recommend taking a torch to find your way around.’
What is it that makes certain individuals stand out from the crowd? How is it that some people resist peer pressure, seize the initiative and radically break the mould? Is this kind of personal leadership, the ability to think freely, move proactively and act autonomously, something we should seek to attract and nurture in organisations? Could it release fresh energy, inspiration and innovation? The relationship between an individual, group and organisation is complex. Organisations as groups often foster consistency, continuity and conformity. We test people during recruitment for their potential fit, we induct and orientate people into the existing culture and we performance manage people to deliver preconceived products and services.
It’s a brave organisation that recruits and develops social revolutionaries, people who will instinctively challenge the status quo, think laterally, refuse to accept time-honoured traditions and push for something new. For leaders who operate in a conventional management paradigm, it can feel threatening, confusing and chaotic. The risks can seem too high and too dangerous. I worked in one organisation where we recognised our culture had become too settled, too complacent, too safe. People often commented on its warm, supportive relational nature but it lacked its former edginess, struggled to deal with conflict and desperately needed to innovate. The challenge was how to introduce and sustain a shift without evoking defensiveness.
Social psychologists offer some valuable insights here, for instance in terms of social loafing and diffusion of responsibility where individuals are less likely to act independently or with the same degree of effort if they perceive themselves as part of a wider group where responsibility is shared. A challenge in this organisation was how to stimulate personal initiative and responsibility. Social conformity is another social psychological factor where people are likely to act consistently with the norms of a group if
it provides them with a sense of acceptance and belonging within that group, or the approval of a perceived authority figure. A challenge in this organisation was how to ensure that personal initiative and responsibility were valued and affirmed.
We took a four pronged approach. Firstly, we worked with the leadership team with a skilled external consultant known for his outspoken, courageous, challenging style to develop a more robust leadership culture, capable of open and honest conversations without fear that this would undermine relationships. This enabled the top team to model a new cultural style. Secondly, we introduced a simple behavioural framework that positively affirmed personal leadership in terms including personal initiative, personal responsibility, creative thinking and innovative practice. This framework was embedded into the organisation’s recruitment and performance development to attract, develop and reward these qualities and capabilities.
Thirdly, we held an annual ceremony where staff were invited to nominate peers for awards where they had seen positive examples of such qualities demonstrated in practice. The peer aspect helped raise awareness and reinforce personal leadership as a cultural quality valued and affirmed by the organisation and to capture real stories that illustrated what it looked like in practice. Fourthly, we created a new innovation post, appointed an innovation enthusiast and allocated a new budget to stimulate and enable creative thinking and innovation across the organisation. This created a culture shift and a tangible symbol of the leaders’commitment to move in this direction. A willingness to question the status quo became a cultural value.
A corresponding challenge was how to engender a spirit of personal leadership that took the wider system and relationships into account. If individuals only operated independently and didn’t take account of or responsibility for the implications of their decisions and actions on others, relationships would become strained, the organisation would become chaotic and it wouldn’t achieve its goals. To address this issue, we introduced the notion of shared leadership alongside personal leadership, emphasising and affirming the value of collaborative working alongside independent initiative. This too was reflected in the annual staff award ceremony and in recruitment, development and rewards. It was a matter of creative balance.
As a tool for developing greater personal and shared leadership, I have found the following questions can be helpful: Who are my cultural role models? Who have I seen demonstrate great personal leadership? What can I learn from them? What would it take to contribute my best in this situation? What will I do to make sure it happens? In the past 12 months, where have I shown personal initiative? When have I held back from saying what I really thought or felt for fear of disapproval? What are the impacts of my actions on others? How far do I take responsibility to help others manage the implications of my decisions? How can I work collaboratively to achieve better win-win solutions? What difference do I want my life to make here?
It stands around the corner from an authentic Thai restaurant in central London. On the face of it, it’s an elegant building. As you walk past, however, you realise with surprise that the frontage is a façade, an elaborate shield concealing a plain office building that lies behind it. It’s a striking metaphor, a symbol of sorts for an inauthentic life. It challenged me powerfully yet silently to consider the masks I wear, the images I project to disguise my real self.
Some years ago, John Powell published a popular, short self help book, ‘Why am I afraid to tell you who I am?’ He explored how we attempt to protect our fragile egos and avoid our fear rejection by acting out roles or playing games. These are defensive routines aimed at minimising social anxiety or negative evaluation. By putting on a front that we believe will impress others, we attempt to feel better about ourselves and to win others’ approval.
At one level, these strategies can prove successful in life and work. It’s one reason why we pay attention to our physical appearance, the way we behave and conduct ourselves in public, the way we present ourselves at job interviews etc. From our earliest childhood experiences, we learn what wins love and affirmation from others within our key relationships, social environments and culture. We learn how to play the game.
At another level, however, keeping up appearances can prove self-defeating. Over time we may feel alienated from ourselves, not sure how we really are, and alienated from others, not sure if we are really loved and accepted. We can feel lonely, frustrated and tired. It’s as if, paradoxically, the façades we create to develop and maintain relationships can have the opposite effect, preventing authentic and intimate contact with others.
This presents us with a dilemma, an anxiety-provoking risk. What if I remove the mask, tell you what I’m really thinking, show you how I’m really feeling? Would you love and accept me for who I am or would you look at me with disappointment in your eyes? Will making myself vulnerable release you to be vulnerable too? Can we find a new way of connecting that feels more real, more authentic, less defended, less like a façade?
It can feel like a breathtaking step. The possibility feels exciting and yet the potential feels daunting. I’m reminded of Jesus’ call in the gospels: ‘remove the mask and come into the light’. There is further New Testament teaching too: ‘perfect love casts out fear’. If God can love and accept me as I am, perhaps I can learn to love and accept myself and to love and accept others too. Perhaps that’s where it starts, feeling truly safe with God.
So therein lies the challenge. As a leader and a coach, am I willing to make myself vulnerable so that others can be vulnerable too? Can I demonstrate unconditional love with such honesty that others feel safe to remove their masks, to take down their façades? Can I find new ways to relate to others with an increasing sense of trust and authenticity, creating ever-deeper levels of contact? It’s certainly a goal worth praying and striving for.
I met with a group of Christian bikers yesterday who were discussing the Paris to Dakar rally. During the course of the conversation, the group leader spoke about the incredible teamwork and logistics involved in achieving success in such a gruelling event. He compared it by analogy to supporting each other as friends and fellow bikers on an exciting yet demanding journey of faith. He mentioned how we sometimes talk about the ideal team as a ‘well-oiled machine’. It was certainly a metaphor that appealed to the group. He went on, however, to challenge the metaphor. ‘A team isn’t a machine. It’s people. People like us. People like you and me. People who are different to each other, each with their own personality, talents – and quirky habits.’
He went on. ‘It’s that kind of team that I want to be part of. A team of friends who care deeply about each other, look out for each other, support each other, laugh together, cry together, pull together. A machine does none of those things. It’s cold, efficient, impersonal, inhuman. The machine metaphor is all about performance. The team I’m talking about is all about relationships.’ One bloke piped up with a playful glint in his eye. ‘This group is nothing like a well-oiled machine. It’s more like a buckled wheel – and I love it!’ As I looked around the room at these leather clad men, each with his own mixed life story of brokenness and success, I could see what he meant. There’s something about this team that's intensely human, personal and real.
I reflected more as I rode home. I thought back to teambuilding events I’ve been involved with, team coaching experiences, team models and technical scientific psychometrics. This man wasn’t simply advocating a different team model to the norm, a different team focus or approach. He was advocating a radically different existential–spiritual paradigm to that we find in many Western organisations today. He was challenging an over-emphasis on performance and efficiency that loses sight of humanity and meaning. I was taken back to a conversation with an African colleague who once commented, ‘I know Western organisations are preoccupied with targets and metrics. Our invitation, however, is to meet with us as people and to walk together.’
Is this hopelessly naïve, idealistic and unrealistic? What about all the pressures organisations face in increasingly competitive markets? What about increasing demands from boards, employees and shareholders for greater accountability, productivity and profits? What about organisational cultures that foster internal competition too? I agree, it’s a real challenge. It calls for visionary, courageous leadership, a radical step back to consider deep questions of identity, meaning and purpose at organisational and wider stakeholder levels. It begs profound questions, e.g.‘What is influencing our beliefs about what is most important to us?’ ‘What is driving our behaviour?’, ‘How can we be more human?’, ‘What legacy do we want to leave in the world?’
I’ve had the privilege of working with some leadership teams that have taken this challenge seriously. Admittedly, it felt counter-intuitive at the time, especially at first. How to build in a more explicit spiritual-humanising dimension to the organisation’s thinking, practice and culture in the midst of intense organisational busyness, pressures and deadlines? Wouldn’t it take more time than was available, slow things down? I could feel the understandable tension alongside the aspiration. One team decided to bite the bullet. Its 2hr meetings had constantly packed agendas. It struggled to work through everything and the pressure felt relentless. Some felt tired and wondered in conversations offline about their team’s sustainability and their own ability to cope.
We discussed how it would feel to check in with each other and with God at the start of each meeting - and they were open to experiment. We decided to allow 20 mins of each 2 hour meeting so that people could arrive and breathe before diving into business. As they settled in, they shared stories of how they were feeling, what was happening in their worlds at the moment, what was preoccupying them. They practised active listening, being genuinely present to each other. Sometimes they prayed. At the end of the 20 mins, they felt more relaxed and focused with a stronger sense of team spirit. They used the next 5 minutes to revisit the agenda: ‘What now stands out as most important to us?’ ‘How shall we do this?’, ‘What do we need to do this well?’
The team commented after practising this for a few months on how it had transformed their relationships and meetings. Their times together felt more focused, inspiring, energising, open, honest, human, and productive. They achieved higher quality and faster results. They began to identify ways of working that served them well (e.g. speak up; hear well; challenge; support) and used bright green cards light-heartedly to signal and affirm when anyone in the team modelled those behaviours. When others joined them for their meetings, they explained their new team culture and invited them to join in too. The effect was electric. It modelled inspiring team values and effective ways of working that extended beyond the team into the wider organisation.
So, some questions for reflection. What difference do you, your team and organisation want to be and to make in the world? How far and how often do teams you are part of feel and act like a human place? What are your best and worst experiences of team? What made the biggest difference? What kind of person, team or organisation do you aspire to be and become? What kind of personal, team and organisational leadership will it call for to succeed? What will 'success' look and feel like for those involved and impacted by it? What values, practices and culture will others notice characterise your team? What place, if any, do God, spirituality and prayer take in your thinking and practice as a team? I would love to hear from you!
Nick is a freelance coach, trainer and OD consultant specialising in reflective practice.