'The good news is you have 200 people working for you. The bad news is they don't see it that way.' (Euan Semple)
I love how humour can transform, creating fresh perspective by shedding novel light on people, issues and situations in ways that plain comment or description just can’t. It can be a great technique for reframing, making the familiar unfamiliar and vice versa too. I worked with a colleague, Benjamin, who enjoyed using phases playfully. If something went wrong or didn’t work out as we had hoped, or if someone was sounding unduly pessimistic, he would simply grin disarmingly and say something like, ‘Ah well, every silver lining has a cloud.’ Humour can inject energy, diffuse tension, bring people together, make life and work more fun. Smiles and laughter are good for health and well-being too.
I worked with Richard, an occupational psychologist and HR leader who had a passion for developing talent and enhancing people’s commitment, capacity and contribution. He could have presented his case for change using formal statistics, spreadsheets and information. Instead he would start with an open, provocative smile, ‘There are people who left this organisation years ago...but still turn up for work every day.’ It had a very different qualitative feel to sarcasm, cynicism or bland statement of fact. It was a powerful use of irony to highlight an issue, evoke curiosity, challenge the status quo and invite a response. I could almost hear every person in the room thinking, ‘I wonder if that could be me?’
For humour to work, it needs to have some resonance with what the audience already knows, perceives and experiences as real and true. I think back to the first time I read Scott Adams’ The Dilbert Principle (1996). I sat on my bed and literally cried laughing. It was for me, as for many others, a refreshingly new approach to shining a critical spotlight on the quirky, crazy and self-defeating politics of office life. This, however, signals that humour is culturally and contextually-relative. Have a glance, for instance, at satirical Despair.com. Are its posters funniest for those who have seen their earnest equivalents first? What have been your best experiences of humour at work? Who or what made them so effective?
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‘Who started this work – the organisation’s founder, or the child who inspired him to do it?’
This challenge came as a healthy jolt, a moment of insight and inspiration, from Carlos, a humble, radical leader working with poor communities in Brazil. It was at an induction event for new leaders of a now very large, global non-governmental organisation (NGO). Its history was being presented through the lens of the organisation’s founder and its successive global presidents. The founder was a war photographer who had been appalled to see the terrible suffering of children during the Korean War. An encounter with a child had galvanised his determination to do something about it.
The resultant NGO had worked very hard over the years to support poor and vulnerable children throughout the world and had indeed achieved some remarkable results. Over time, however, as the organisation had grown in scale and scope, it had started increasingly to view the world through an organisational lens rather than through the eyes of a child. The simple-yet-profound voice of a child had become lost in the midst of complex strategies, structures, policies, plans and programmes. The presidential perspective symbolised a shift from client/beneficiary-centric to organisation-centric.
Why is this important? Firstly, this child’s interaction with and influence on the founder challenges traditional ideas of leadership as a hierarchical-structural phenomenon rather than, as according to Chris Rodgers (2015), ‘an emergent property of people interacting together, not as an elite practice confined to those at the top of organizations.’ Secondly, this NGO’s experience highlights the risk of subtle-yet-critical drifts away from a customer-client, outside-in focus to an intra-organisational, inside-out/inside-inside focus. How can we address these issues as leaders, coaches, OD and trainers?
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I was in Canada at a change leadership event aimed at paving the way for a new global initiative. My role was as organisation development consultant, invited to share psychological and cultural insights that could turn out to be significant as things moved forward. I was new to change management on such a large, complex, international scale and, at times, felt out of my depth, as did a number of my colleagues who were experienced experts in the field. We persevered and it was a useful event.
At the end I asked Ric Matthews, programme leader, to give me some feedback on how he had experienced both me and my contribution during those 2 weeks. I was new to the organisation and keen to learn. He looked at me directly and gave me a fairly succinct list of things he had seen and had experienced as my strengths, along with a similar-length list of things that he had seen as my weaknesses. I could recognise everything he described and thanked him for his honesty and clarity.
Ric ended by saying, ‘My advice is to focus on and build on your strengths, not to focus on and spend effort addressing your weaknesses. Your weaknesses may in fact turn out to be the flip sides of your strengths. In addressing your weaknesses, you may inadvertently undermine your strengths.’ This was my first introduction to an explicit strengths-based approach to leadership and change. It felt energising, inspiring and liberating. It has had a huge impact on my work and career since.
If you’re familiar with appreciative inquiry and-or solutions-focused coaching, you will notice resonances with a strengths-based approach. It’s about building on what is going well, shifting our attention from problems to solutions, moving our gaze from deficits to possibilities. It’s being aware of what we do well, using and developing it and releasing our full potential to become all we can be. How do you use this type of positive psychology in your work as leader, coach, OD or trainer?
I think I saw an angel this week. I was walking into town the day after Christmas when I noticed a young man walking ahead of me, beer can in hand, dressed like a skinhead and looking decidedly rough. He stopped momentarily and stooped to the ground. I imagined he was going to drop his can at the roadside and I thought, cynically and silently, ‘Typical’. Instead, to my complete surprise, he picked up another empty can and continued walking. As we progressed, he picked up can after can, bottle after bottle, all discarded by revellers the night before. I was surprised, puzzled and intrigued.
As we entered the town, I found myself continuing to follow him. He came to a rubbish bin and carefully dropped the cans and bottles inside it. Now I was really amazed. Instinctively, I felt in my pocket and pulled out some coins. Walking across the road, I smiled, held out the cash towards him and said, ‘Here - buy yourself a drink. I was so impressed to see you doing that.’ Now he looked surprised, puzzled and intrigued. ‘You don’t need to do that,’ he said shyly, ‘I’m just trying to look after my neighbourhood.’ I noticed wet blood across his knuckles, as if from a fight. A real paradox.
He held out his hand and asked my name. I told him, asked his and he replied. We shook hands and parted ways. I felt nervous about the blood on my hands and, discretely, rushed off to find a place to wash. At the same time, I felt humbled, confused and inspired by this curious character. How quickly and easily I had judged him. How he was the one that had picked up litter, not I. How he did what was needed without seeking recognition or reward. How he modelled good citizenship without saying a word. I think I saw an angel this week. A true spirit of Christmas and a vision for a new year.
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?
‘Britons’ top three favourite accents are Irish, Welsh and Geordie. The least favourite are Brummie, Scouse and Cockney. People with a Yorkshire and Welsh twang sound the happiest followed by Scouse. The Southeast sound the most intelligent and Glaswegians sound the angriest.’ (Howarth, Dec 2017)
Isn’t it interesting that accents carry such connotations and evoke such feelings? I arrived some years ago at London School of Theology in the South of England as a new student. It was a daunting experience: that first-day-at-school feeling. At the first evening meal, I heard another student speak with a Northern accent and instantly connected with him. We became great friends. It was as if our common accent gave us a deep point of contact – a ‘secure base’ (Bowlby) in an alien environment.
Accents, like other cultural distinctives, create and sustain a sense of unique identity and belonging. They distinguish 'us' from 'them', creating a socio-psychological boundary, an existential and emotional safety barrier, a metaphorical extended family, in the midst of a larger and potentially overwhelming complexity. I remember moving to a new area to engage in community development work. I had to learn the local accent convincingly in order to be accepted by local people. Accent influenced trust.
Accents can serve as a useful metaphor for cultural issues in organisations too. Here are some useful questions for leaders, OD practitioners and coaches: What functions as a secure base for people in this team/organisation? What brings hope and fulfilment here - or provokes anxiety or resistance if threatened? Where, when and how have helpful boundaries in this organisation become unhelpful barriers? Where may I need to learn a new ‘accent’ in order to build credibility and relationship?
‘I have a dream.’ (Martin Luther King)
We were leading a strategy development process at an international NGO and wanted to envision ourselves and each other rather than to paint bleak pictures of burning platforms, a future to avoid or a present to escape. This was instead about inspiring wonder, hope and aspiration. ‘Imagine if…’ We invited people to paint, depict and enact future scenarios – the futures that our beneficiaries, supporters and we ourselves dreamed of. It was about imagining, hoping, reaching, aiming high.
There are parallels with the ‘dream phase’ of Appreciative Inquiry. This is where we invite people to imagine a different, brighter future: what they would like things (e.g. relationships, ways of working, success stories) to be more like, more of the time. There are also parallels with posing a ‘miracle question’ in solutions-focused coaching or therapy. This is where we invite a person to imagine vividly that a desired future state has already been reached or achieved. To experience it as if it really is.
This is important and here are some reasons why. If we focus our attention only on problems, deficits or undesirable states, it can evoke anxiety, drain energy and close-down creative thinking. I say ‘only’ because there are some situations (e.g. aspects of accountancy/IT/audit) where identifying problems/errors and fixing them can be very important. Some people also get a buzz, a real sense of achievement, from searching for, sniffing out or hunting down problems and sorting them out.
If, however, we focus entirely on problems, red-ratings or what is missing or broken, psychologically and culturally-speaking there is a risk that they grow out of proportion, that we become unhelpfully fixated on them and that we lose a broader perspective – thereby undermining vision, awareness and morale. If, conversely, we invite people to dream and tap into the power of positive imagination, it can inspire fresh hope, open new horizons, release creative energy and surface great ideas.
So – when was the last time you spent time dreaming..?
The best of intentions. How often we do things with good motives and yet, in spite of that, our actions have unintended consequences. It’s often because we haven’t known or understood the wider implications of what, where, when, how or with-for whom we do something. We may, for instance, offer support to a specific person, team or group…only to discover that a different person, team or group perceives that intervention as partisan, favourit-ist or creating unfair advantage.
Here’s an extreme. A friend was delivering aid to a poverty-stricken village in Sudan when he was stopped at gunpoint by militia from a neighbouring village. He was forced to the ground with rifle barrel pressed hard against the back of his head whilst the group relieved him of the vehicle and relief supplies. It turns out the group and its community were envious and resentful that they were being effectively ignored whilst supplies were being provided to a different village.
Or here’s a less extreme example. I spoke with an emotional intelligence (EI) specialist this week about using psychological mentoring, coaching and tools to raise awareness and insight, with a risk that some clients may use it in weaponised form to manipulate colleagues or customers. It points to a real need to pay attention to wider systemic, cultural, ethical, political and longer-term considerations when seeking to do the right thing – a principle known as ‘primum non nocere’.
If you’re a leader, coach, OD or trainer, here are some questions for critical reflection: When have you acted in good faith to resolve one issue, only to discover that your interventions have inadvertently incentivised, precipitated or exacerbated another? How do you manage the tension of never fully knowing or understanding the potential implications of everything – and yet still taking meaningful stances, decisions and actions? What is your best advice on ‘do no harm’?
I worked with a leadership team recently where we experimented with reframing statements from problems-focus to solutions-focus to see what would happen if we did. The team had been grappling with difficult issues for some time which had led some to the near-resigned conclusion that there was little hope of change. I wondered whether part of the challenge and resulting mood lay in the psychological-linguistic framing of the issues rather than, necessarily, in the issues themselves.
I was curious and invited the team to be curious too about how the issues were being perceived, construed and articulated within the team – a kind of team self-talk, if you like. If someone said, ‘X will not work because of Y’, we experimented with reframing the statement as a question instead, e.g. ‘Given Y, what would it take for X to work?’ It shifted the conversation from a definitive, closed end to an open, curious, exploration of new possibilities and ideas. It created fresh energy too.
I’ve worked with some clients where a person may comment that, for instance, ‘X is a good idea in principle but it would never work here.’ It’s often a response from someone who has worked a long time in the same place, has been around the proverbial block a few times or is starting to feel a bit jaded. I try to tune into the mood, acknowledge the underlying feeling and then reframe it: ‘OK, so what would work here?’ or, perhaps, ‘If X is a good idea, what would it take for it to work here?’
In my experience, solutions-focus works best when done in an open (e.g. prayerful) spirit, eliciting values (what matters to you – to motivate), creative visioning (what do you/we hope for – to inspire), appreciative inquiry (what’s working well – to build on) and affirming strengths (what are you/we good at – to draw on). Positive appraisal of the present with optimistic aspiration for the future lead well into: ‘So, what would need to happen for that to happen?’ and, ‘The next step?'
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 filter 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 edit 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?
Nick is a coach, trainer and OD consultant with over 15,000 followers on LinkedIn. How can I help you? Get in touch! firstname.lastname@example.org