I posted a blog a while ago where I proposed that four ‘Cs’ persistently undermine global efforts at development in the poorest countries: corruption, culture, conflict and climate. I spoke afterwards with Steve, an international development expert who has spent his life working with NGOs around the world, leading change strategies and interventions, running refugee camps etc. He said in all seriousness that I was missing a critical fifth C that is, in his experience, central to this equation: ‘Craziness’.
I started to laugh but stopped myself when I realised he wasn’t joking. Steve went on to explain with this example: Whilst working in Africa, he witnessed refugees burn down a primary school because of a personal disagreement between the head teacher, himself a refugee, and another person in the camp. He went on to say that we could attempt to explain such actions rationally but, unless we take into account the capacity for sheer human craziness, our efforts at development will be both naïve and limited.
This really got me thinking. I’ve never yet seen a craziness factor feature in a strategy map, theory of change, HR framework, coaching proposal or organisation development plan. So, I wonder…do we subconsciously and culturally edit out craziness because it doesn’t fit with our worldview, our theory of humanity? Conversely, could a resort to craziness-as-explanation simply be an admission of the limits of our ability to understand that which mystifies us, takes us by surprise, appears to defy all logic?
I don’t know – but I do think Steve may have a point. In our desire to structure, organise, manage and control, do we factor out, seek to remove or simply ignore the unpredictable, unmanageable, spontaneous, playful, mood-swinging aspects of our humanity that don’t fit our tidy, preconceived ideas and plans? If so, in doing so, do we miss out on the best of amazing, emergent, creative, human potential as well as find ourselves caught off-guard by its flip-side dark, destructive, shadows and risks?
There’s something about chronic illness or injury that is hard to cope with, not only for ourselves but for others too. In my experience, people often want to say, ‘Get well soon’ rather than, ‘How can I stand with you when there is no prospect of recovery in sight?’ Over time it starts to feel awkward. Every time someone asks, ‘How are you?’ with look of sincere hope of improvement in their eyes, it feels harder to say, ‘No change (and no realistic prospect of change).’ Their face drops and, after a while, they stop asking. We feel a relief of sorts not to be asked and yet, at the same time, increasingly alone.
We live in an age where we expect everything to be fixed…and fixed quickly. As technology speeds up communication, service and delivery, we become socially conditioned to a culture of the instant. We become increasingly intolerant of waiting. We want immediate responses, immediate results. It’s all about now, narrowing the time gap between action and response. In project management, it’s as if we want to eliminate lag altogether, impatient that one coat of paint must dry first before we can apply a second coat. If push comes to shove, we’ll trade quality for speed. Just do it. Now.
At heart – if it had a heart, it’s a culture of reductionism that seeks to accelerate maturation without trusting a process of slow change or an experience of being. It ignores the value of the present moment, the potential deep richness of the space between the now and the not yet. It discounts an eternal perspective and purpose, the larger frame that places everything now in context. It’s a leader who drives change without allowing people time to take their own journey. It’s a coach who presses clients to set goals before they’re ready to take that step. So, now: pause, reflect - and breathe..?
Who or what is important to you? Who or what do you value most? I’ve heard it said that we can know who or what we value in practice, which sometimes differs from who or what we value in principle, simply by looking at our diaries and bank account statements to see who and what we spend our actual time with and money on. It’s a crude measure but can be revealing – especially as we can be prone as people and groups to deceive ourselves by believing what we want to believe.
In Britain, we often value e.g. individuality, effort and achievement. You could think of this as affirming: standing on our own two feet, trying hard and reaching stretching goals that are perceived as worthwhile by UK culture and the wider nation-community. I’ve heard some people say that, as British, we are only impressed by a person, team or country that manages to achieve something better than we believe we could have achieved ourselves. ‘I could have done that’ is a subtle put-down.
Against this backdrop, I was challenged and inspired last week by a girl from a very different culture who discovered that a fellow student had been excluded from taking part in a drama production team because she had some difficulties with her speaking. This girl instinctively showed empathy and compassion, valued the person, reached out, drew her in and modelled social inclusivity rather than simple task achievement. I wondered what I would have done. She reminded me of Jesus.
Why is this so significant? Our values reveal and shape something profoundly important about who we are in the world. They influence our stance, focus, decisions and boundaries. I’ve often found that working with values as a leader, OD, coach or trainer has had a transformational impact on people, teams and organisations. There’s something about, ‘What really matters to you in this?’ that can feel so much deeper than, ‘What are your goals?’ So – who or what matters most to you?
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.
Some years ago, I had the privilege of editing a ground-breaking book by Wai K Leong on coaching in an Asian cultural context. My interest and curiosity had had been sparked by some intriguing issues and dynamics I had encountered in my own attempts to coach people from countries including Singapore, Indonesia, Myanmar and Vietnam – with mixed success. More recently, I was invited to coach someone from the Philippines and the same issues arose. What I have encountered here tests the limits of Western coaching models and raises important questions for cross-cultural work.
Take, for example, a typical Western goal-orientated coaching question such as: ‘What do you want to do in the future?’ In the West, it sounds simple and straightforward… yet the question itself is loaded with implicit cultural assumptions about, e.g. aspiration, autonomy and time. Autonomy is particularly significant in an Asian context where cultural beliefs about the individual in relation to e.g. authority, responsibility, family, interdependence and relationships are absolutely fundamental. In light of this, I have been exploring and experimenting with alternative Asian cultural framings.
I tried a shift away from, ‘What do you want to do in the future?’ and towards a different pattern of questions: ‘What is your greatest hope for your family?’, ‘What is your family’s greatest hope for you?’, ‘What is your greatest hope for your own future?’, ‘How might you work through any differences to find a solution that is acceptable for both your family and you?’ The client’s face lit up and she smiled: ‘Now you are starting to understand Asian culture!’ I’m very interested to hear from others who have experienced cross-cultural coaching. How did you do it – and what did you learn?
Reflexivity – a research word. It means that when we explore something such as a strategy for the future or an idea for a significant life change, who we are in relation to what we are looking into will influence what we see – and what we don’t see – how we do it and what conclusions we draw from it. This is because our subconscious personal and cultural assumptions and biases along with our psychological filters and defence mechanisms can create blind spots and hot spots.
Gareth Morgan characterised the blind spot phenomenon as, ‘People have a knack for getting trapped in webs of their own creation.’ In other words, we can get stuck in our own way of seeing things. Similarly, Morgan characterised hot spots by, ‘What passes for rationality is often irrationality in disguise.’ That is, we may mask and try to justify our emotional responses by rationalising them. Reflexivity is the skill of identifying and addressing such spots to minimise their influence.
Blind spots are what we are not thinking about. They touch on what is invisible to us. They are concerned with (un)awareness. They are created by our beliefs. They reflect the paradigms we hold. If we challenge them, it can feel mind-bending. Hot spots are what we are not talking about. They touch on what is sacred to us. They are concerned with relationships. They are created by our values. They reflect the passions we hold. If we challenge them, it can feel heart-wrenching.
Here are some reflexive questions that can help. Blind spots: What are we assuming? What appears self-evident to us and why? Who do we need to involve in our exploratory process? How can we draw in contrasting perspectives and ideas? Hot spots: What are we avoiding? How will we handle power dynamics and vested interests? What will we do if we feel threatened or defensive? How can we hold robust conversations that feel safe? How do you deal with the hot and the blind?
We were talking about focus in leadership and coaching and my colleague, Pav, looked at me intently and said, quite simply, ‘Keep your eye on the squirrel!’ It did make me laugh. It’s a fun, colourful image that cautions us to stay focused, to avoid getting side-tracked, to beware of – like Alice in Wonderland – falling down proverbial rabbit holes (if you can forgive the mixed metaphor). Or to quote guru Stephen Covey: ‘The main thing is to keep the main thing the main thing.’
I can see the sense in this. If we work to achieve a vision, to fulfil a strategy, it can enable us to be effective and efficient, to prioritise and reach goals. It can also help us to avoid dissipating energy, wasting resources. It’s a reason why, when coaching, I will ask clients questions such as, ‘What are we here to do?’, ‘What are you hoping for?’, ‘What is possible if we do this well?’, ‘What would a great outcome look and feel like?’, ‘How will we know when you have reached it?’
The flip side is that we can become so focused, fixed, planned, organised, that we may miss all kinds of serendipitous adventures and emergent opportunities that arise. A friend, Rob, commented on this recently: ‘When we look back in life, many of our best relationships and experiences came as a result of things which, on the face of it, at the time, appeared to go horribly wrong.’ A question for leaders, coaches and clients could be: how to be well-focused – and yet open to the potential of each moment?
Finally, what appears to us to be 'the main thing', the most important thing, depends a lot on what we believe, our values, how we are feeling, our cultural paradigm and what frame of reference we adopt. A shift in language, perspective or circumstance can change the whole way in which we view and construe something or someone. A related challenge for leaders, coaches and clients may be, therefore: how to keep our eyes on the squirrel – without becoming blinded or fixated by it..?
Ever had one of those situations where you have said or done something entirely innocently and the person or group’s response seems totally disconnected to what you said or did – or completely out of proportion to it? It can feel like you have stepped on a hidden landmine. It can take you by surprise and can leave you reeling from the impact. It can feel hurtful, confusing and disorientating. What is going on here? What can you do to make sense of it and to deal with it?
There are some really useful insights we can draw on from fields including psychodynamics, Gestalt, social psychology, social constructionism and systems thinking. They are all interested in human relationships, what happens when we interact with each other and why. I’m going to share a couple of insights here, briefly, because I think they can be very helpful for leaders, OD, coaches etc. In fact, anyone who encounters people, works with people, is keen to build good relationships.
Firstly, we experience everything and everyone we encounter through a psychological-cultural filter. The filter is, essentially everything and everyone we have experienced in the past, how we have felt about it and what sense we and others have made of it. This means that a person who, say, appears to overreact to you is encountering you through their own filter. The filter subconsciously influences their assumptions, perceptions etc. It may be about you…but it isn’t only about you.
Secondly, no encounter takes place in a vacuum. Even as you read this, you aren’t doing so in a bubble. The stuff that is going on around us, which includes things in our lives and work here and now as well as things we carry from the past and our anticipated futures, influences what we notice, what we value, what we prioritise, what we enjoy, how we cope etc. in any given moment. So, the ‘overreacting’ person? Acknowledge they have a backstory. Breathe, be open; ask, listen.
‘You’ve got to know when to panic.’ I smiled the first time I heard a colleague use this expression. He was talking about how every situation calls for its own particular response. If we only have one modus operandi, one approach to space and pace, we could well miss some important moments. Some of these moments could turn out to be work or business critical. Others could turn out to be, quite literally, life and death. I had one of these latter moments in a hospital last week.
I had a CT scan which involved being injected with a radioactive dye. Unfortunately, it triggered an anaphylactic reaction. The doctors responded quite casually at first, smiling and strolling around, chatting, until they realised I was quite literally about to lose my ability to breathe. My airways were swelling up rapidly and someone had removed critical drugs from the emergency crash kit. Only a nurse reacted in appropriate panic mode, ran to find drugs…and saved my life.
I have been in other situations where people, teams and organisations have acted in almost permanent crisis mode. It’s as if they have run on adrenaline, construing every situation as one that demands a dramatic reaction. Although some people love and work well with this type and level of stimulus, for others it can lead to high levels of stress and burnout. So it’s often something about finding a sustainable pace, reserving capacity for an emergency response if needed.
What does this mean for leaders, OD, coaches and trainers? How far do we and/or our clients settle into a fixed pace that suits us personally or culturally, irrespective of what may be called for or bring benefit? If so, how would it be if we were to experiment with alternative patterns? For some, this could involve slowing down to reflect or recover. For others, it could mean speeding up to increase energy or impact. Do you create enough space? Do you know when to panic?
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?
Nick is a freelance coach, trainer and OD consultant specialising in reflective practice.