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?
Nick is a psychological coach, OD consultant and trainer, specialising in critical reflective practice.