'Worthwhile elephants make it real.'
‘Of course.’ I can hear you thinking. ‘Tell us something we don’t already know.’ Or, perhaps – and quite reasonably so – you are wondering what on earth I am talking about. If, by chance, I have spiked your curiosity, let me break it down into 3 parts that form important ingredients of inspiring and effective conversations at work: worthwhile; elephants; make it real. It’s about a degree of focus and quality of contact that can release energy, engender engagement and achieve great results.
First: worthwhile. ‘If we were to be having a really useful conversation, what would we be talking about?’ (Claire Pedrick). ‘What outcome from this conversation will mean our time together will have been well spent?’ Or, ‘First things first – begin with the end in mind.’ (Stephen Covey). The aim here is to clarify goals and aspirations, test implicit assumptions and co-create focus. It addresses the question: ‘Of all the things we could spend time doing together, what would make this valuable?’
Second: elephants. ‘The most valuable thing any of us can do is find a way to say the things that can’t be said.’ (Susan Scott). It’s about naming the proverbial elephants in the room or, in Gestalt, speaking the unspoken, saying the un-said. ‘What are we not talking about that, if we were to talk about it, would release fresh insight and energy in this conversation…and in this relationship too?’ This is an invitation to ‘radical candour’ (Kim Scott), to practise courage, disclosure and openness.
Third: make it real. ‘What matters most to you in this?’ It’s about being real…doing real…avoiding an unhelpful, distracting dance around the most important questions and issues in the room. Cultural complexities surface here: how to hold conversations that are open and honest and, at the same time, respectful of different cultural nuances and norms. The core principle here is ‘challenge with support’ (Ian Day & John Blakey): having the conversations we need to have to move things forward.
‘Is that sufficiently unclear?’ (Richard Gold)
I took part in a fascinating workshop with Richard Gold this week. Richard is a Lego Serious Play facilitator who uses Lego as a colourful, creative, engaging and experiential tool to raise awareness, evoke insight and generate ideas with individuals, teams and groups. The method involves touching, moving, doing – physically – rather than simply talking about. It is a fun, visceral method that plays with metaphor and imagination and invites experimentation and team collaboration.
At each stage of the process, Richard offers minimal guidance, simple prompts, then asks in provocative spirit, ‘Is that sufficiently unclear?’ What a great question. It creates optimal space for serendipitous new experiments, insights and ideas to surface and evolve without being directive or prescriptive. It provides just-enough; inviting team participation, courage and co-creation. It reminds me of Henry Mintzberg’s ‘emergence’ – take a step forward and see what comes into view.
So that got me thinking about leadership, OD, coaching and training. There are situations where directive and prescriptive interventions are entirely appropriate. Yet how often – perhaps in our desire to impress, be helpful or achieve the outcomes we hope for – do we exercise too much control over the person, task or process? How often, in doing so, do we limit the potential for personal/team initiative, ownership, discovery and innovation? Are you sufficiently un-clear?
‘Come out from behind ourselves into the conversation and make it real.’ (Susan Scott)
Hiding for fear of discovery is an archetypal characteristic of human beings. Think back to Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden. Think too to an ex-colleague of mine who, employed as a police officer, donned his uniform every day and – strange as it may sound – spent his time impersonating a police officer. John Powell reflected this phenomenon well in his classic book, ‘Why Am I Afraid to Tell You Who I Am?’ It’s very often about fear of exposure, risk of rejection…imposter syndrome.
There are, of course, at times good reasons to hide. I think, for instance, of criminals on the other side of the law who attempted last night to evade the blinding glare of a police helicopter searchlight outside a friend’s house. It was a dramatic scene, accompanied by the throbbing and deep reverberation of chopper blades overhead. We could think of such hiding as a rational and practical act – at least in the sense that it relates to a realistic prospect of arrest and imprisonment if caught.
Yet we may find ourselves hiding for all kinds of other reasons too. Hiding often manifests itself in relationships and at work in subtle avoidance strategies. We may rationalise our hiding by telling ourselves that we can’t tackle a tricky person, a difficult issue, a daunting conversation, because we’re too busy, it’s not our job, they wouldn’t listen or it could make things even worse. In doing so, we may deprive ourselves and others of invaluable talent, trust, possibility – and hope.
Stepping out takes courage with humility, challenge with support. When have you stepped out from behind yourself and made it real? When have you enabled others to step out too?
On the face of it, the hottest early May bank holiday on record in the UK wasn’t the ideal time to run a marathon. After all, the risks of dehydration, heat stroke and exhaustion were high. I went, not to run but to support and take photos of my friend and mentor, Adrian Spurrell, as he and other athletes set out in high spirits to grasp this intense challenge. 20 miles in, I watched person after person stagger past, bathed in sweat, struggling ahead but determined to finish. Charity logos emblazoned proudly on their t-shirts, they were unwilling to give in to the sun’s relentless heat.
After a while, I noticed one man stop at the side of the path. He was desperately weary, bent over, clearly out of energy, rubbing his cramped hands up and down his painful thighs. He looked depressed, dejected and defeated. After a few minutes, however, two other runners appeared behind him. One paused briefly, smiled, put his hand reassuringly on the man’s back and spoke calmly but assertively, ‘Don’t stop. Keep walking. You can do this.’ The man’s face brightened a little, a glimmer of hope – and he stood straight, started limping…and walking…then broke into a jog.
It felt moving and inspiring to observe. The empathy and compassion, support and challenge of a fellow runner, a total stranger. What a difference it made. I would like to think that exhausted man finished the race, collected his medal and went home feeling proud of this great achievement. And what a wonderful example of a ‘good Samaritan’, the person who was willing to notice, to pause in that moment, to think beyond himself, to act decisively on behalf of the other. What a fantastic role model and metaphor for leaders, coaches, L&D and OD too. I want to be more like him.
'There is a voice that doesn’t use words. Listen.’ (Jalal ad-Din Rumi)
I spoke with a friend and colleague recently. It was about a bizarre incident in the news where a group of leaders acted over a serious issue in a way that was clearly ineffective and self-defeating. Somewhat bemused by this, I found myself musing out loud, ‘What were they thinking?’ My friend responded wisely, ‘They weren’t thinking. They were driven by an overwhelming feeling.’ How easy it is to assume rationality in decision-making where, at times, emotion may play a far greater part.
It reminded me of many years ago when I became a passionate and pained activist for human rights in Central America. It was during a period when governments and allied death squads committed acts of unspeakable horror against the poor. Alongside fellow activists, I burned myself out for the people and for the cause. On reflection, however, I’m not sure what practical difference my efforts made. A co-activist commented in retrospect, ‘We were driven more by instinct than strategy.’
Such accounts could lead us to propose that rationality is far superior to emotion or instinct when it comes to decision-making and effectiveness. We could conclude that to think-things-through is the best course of action, prior to action. ‘You didn’t really think this through, did you?’ is a culturally-coded message that signals to a person, ‘You idiot!’, or, in more gentle diplomatic language, ‘If you had thought about this more carefully beforehand, you would have achieved a better outcome.’
On this note, Prof Eugene Sadler-Smith sheds some intriguing light. He discovered that some of the best leadership decisions are informed by intuition, not by rational process, and that leaders often post-rationalise their decisions if rationality is valued personally or culturally as more acceptable, reliable or sound than emotion or intuition. This revelation calls for a critical-creative balance of intuition and rationality, with each inspiring, informing and testing the other.
What do you think? What’s your intuition telling you?
‘Expectation is a belief that is centred on the future.’ (Wiki)
You may recall the now-famous words of Tom Peters: ‘It is better to under-promise and over-deliver than to over-promise and under-deliver.’ It’s a bit like the parable in Matthew’s gospel: a man has two sons and asks them do something. One says ‘No’ and does it; the other says ‘Yes’ and doesn’t. It signals that expectation is linked to relationship – and trust. If we expect something to happen, it’s as if, for us, it will happen. If it doesn’t, we may experience surprise, disappointment or relief.
Relief, of course, because it’s possible to expect the worst as well as the best. If our fears are unjustified, we call this catastrophizing. Conversely, if our hopes are unfounded, we call it naivety. Both indicate a disconnect between what is imagined and what is real – although we may not be aware of it at the time. That said, our expectations may be entirely realistic, based on firm predictability. Such expectations represent promise, certainty and, where positive, hope.
If our hopes and expectations are high and fulfilled, it can increase our sense of satisfaction, delight and confidence for the future. If not, we are likely to feel frustrated, hurt or disillusioned – and to lose trust. This is why, instead of aiming high, some parents, teachers or managers encourage their children, pupils or staff to ‘lower their expectations’. The intention is to reduce stress by avoiding the risk of disappointment. (This raises interesting questions vis a vis managing customer expectations!)
Alternatively, we may take positive steps to increase the probability of high expectations being met. We may pray hard, sign binding contracts, plan in detail, identify and address critical success factors, prepare contingencies, mitigate the effects of sub-optimal performance etc. Or, psychologically, we may practise mindfulness, increase resilience, learn to handle expectations and disappointments differently. As leader, OD or coach, how do you handle expectations and enable others to do so too?
‘A penguin walks through that door right now wearing a sombrero. What does he say and why is he here?’ (Google)
I searched Google recently for ‘weird interview questions’ and, among others, the vivid, sombrero-donned penguin example flashed up onto my screen. It was definitely my favourite. I mean…who would think to ask that question never mind try to answer it?
Its brilliance lays in its strange unexpectedness, zany imagery and sheer randomness. It’s a fantastic example of lateral thinking, a provocative-evocative approach designed to disrupt ordinary thinking, routines and expectations. A person’s response to such questions can reveal their personal and cultural assumptions, projections, imaginative-creative skills – and sense of humour! It can also stimulate fresh energy, insights and ideas.
The jolts we experience mentally, emotionally and physically when we encounter such questions, especially if they come out of the blue…or red…or yellow…or any other colour that may appeal to or disturb us…can feel like, all of a sudden, riding a rollercoaster at breakneck speed with no seatbelt on – like being catapulted, confused, into strange and unusual worlds. Think Jesus and parables, Zen and koans or, if you prefer, Alice and Wonderland.
Leandro Herrero (Disruptive Ideas: 10+10+10=1000, 2008) proposes that the impact of a few simple, such disruptive ideas can be like dynamite. They are likely to be controversial and counterintuitive, risk being ridiculed or dismissed – and yet are disproportionate in their ‘potential to impact on and transform the lives of (people and) organisations.’ Sometimes small things really are big.
Where have you seen or experienced simple questions, ideas or actions create earth-shaking movement?
It was great fun to work with a professional cartoonist. Bill Crooks has a remarkable gift for capturing, expressing or stimulating a thought, an idea or a feeling with a few quick strokes of a marker pen. We were leading a workshop that aimed to reveal and challenge the assumptions that participants bring to customer, client and beneficiary relationships. Bill quickly sketched a large person looking down at a small person through a magnifying glass. He then asked the group, simply, ‘What do you see?’
Participants looked down, thought, discussed then spoke up. ‘We – the organization – are the large person. We are scrutinising the client.’ The inference here was that the organization holds the power, the influence, the prerogative to evaluate and to choose. The wider group agreed. Bill responded provocatively, ‘And what if, unknown to us, the client is connected to unseen networks that dwarf the power, the influence, the prerogative of our organization? Who now is looking down on who?’
It was a sobering moment. Silence hit the room. How easily we make assumptions about ourselves, about others, based on what we see, know or think we understand. Imagine, for a moment, the leader who believes that he or she holds far greater power and influence than individual front-line staff. Hold that thought. And now: think of front-line staff who are connected by social media to key networks and influencers in the organisation’s wider arena. Who now is looking down on who?
We are talking here about the dramatic power of re-framing. As we change the metaphorical frame through which we view a person or situation, different pictures, perspectives, opportunities and challenges can emerge, change colour/shape or come into sharper focus. Shift the frame, shift what appears, how it feels and what options become available to us and to our clients. What have been your best experiences of reframing or achieving a radical paradigm shift? How did you do it?
‘I have three things I’d like to say today. First, while you were sleeping last night, 30,000 kids died of starvation or diseases related to malnutrition. Second, most of you don’t give a shit. What’s worse is that you’re more upset with the fact that I said shit than the fact that 30,000 kids died last night.’ (Tony Campolo)
The first time I heard those words some time ago, I was left speechless and reeling. Firstly, with the scale of the awfulness of the human tragedy and secondly – ashamedly – that I too was shocked to hear a Christian leader use the ‘S’ word. How easily we get distracted, preoccupied or fixated by things that really aren’t important and miss those that are. For those familiar with Jesus’ teaching, logs and splinters come sharply to mind. My last blog, ‘Whatever’, touched on a similar theme.
I visited the Philippines for the first time in 2016. I had visited and worked in various other countries in South East Asia with international charities but this was a new experience for me. One day in the hot sunshine, I sat on a kerb to listen to a talented marching band practising at the roadside. I was vaguely aware of people nearby but didn’t really take much notice. My attention was fixed firmly on the rhythmic band and music and on taking video that I could show friends on returning home.
After a while, I turned to speak to the young woman, a very poor Filipina, who had brought me to that place as her special guest. I was astonished to discover that she had vanished…and then even more astonished to see her with the other people, strangers, nearby. I became aware they were mostly elderly poor people trying to eke out a living by selling what little they could. This girl was on her knees, offering them the very food and drink we had brought for ourselves. I felt humbled and amazed.
This experience, alongside others in the Philippines since, has inspired and rekindled my desire to ‘cut the cr*p’ in my life and to live for Someone, something worthwhile. I hate that the poor are so vulnerable. It feels like a spiritual, existential journey for me. What journey are you travelling? Who is inspiring you? What are you inspiring in others?
‘The subtle art of not giving a f*ck.’ (Mark Manson)
The title grabbed my attention first – and it made me laugh! I loved the subtlety in its provocative unsubtlety. The subtitle: ‘A counterintuitive approach to living a good life’ caught my interest too. The central premise is that if we allow ourselves to care too much about too much – rather than, by contrast, discerningly about the people and things that really matter – we risk suffering undue stress, anxiety or depression. An important dimension of resilience is learning when not-to-care.
I’ve experienced this phenomenon at work. It was a leadership team meeting and the MD decided to take the whole team through an incredibly detailed, RAG-rated KPI grid alongside a micro-detailed financial spreadsheet line by line, cell by cell. I thought I was going to die. The organisation was struggling and the Director was convinced that tight management was needed. As we laboured through it point-by-point, it felt like all the oxygen had been sucked out of the room. Agony.
Or there’s the worried client who asks for coaching because he or she has become paralysed in a tricky relationship and can’t see a way through. The conversation starts and, as minute pass by and the details keep flowing without stopping for breath, it becomes clear that he or she has lost all sight of the metaphorical wood for the densely-crowded proverbial trees. ‘What really matters to you in this?’ can help pull the person out of the detail, back to the bigger picture. Pause. Breathe.
The principle here is: ‘Don’t sweat the small stuff’. It’s about perspective, focus and boundaries and it reflects beliefs, values and culture. It’s influenced by and influences emotional states. It’s not a nihilistic call to ‘Don’t give a f*ck about anyone or anything’. It’s about diving below, rising above, filtering, seeing through. As leader, coach or OD, how do you help people and teams discover who or what matters most? How do you enable clients to discern or decide an authentic sense of priority?
Nick is a psychological coach, OD consultant and trainer, specialising in critical reflective practice.