‘I was embarrassed to ask the king for a cavalry bodyguard to protect us from bandits on the road. We had just told the king, ‘Our God lovingly looks after all who seek him.’’ (Ezra 8:22)
I don’t often laugh when reading biblical texts but this honest, heartfelt confession did make me smile. The writer, a role model and leader, found himself in a daunting situation and the faith he had felt in more secure circumstances now felt pretty daunting too. It was a moment of decision and it feels so contemporary, so real. Would he be willing to put his feet where his mouth had been? I can so relate to that tension. Do I stick with my vision, my beliefs, my values, when things get tough – or do I shrink back, compromise, take the easier road? Am I willing to take genuine steps in faith?
In the UK, we have ‘zebra crossings’ on busy roads, intended to provide safe crossing points for pedestrians. If I stand at the edge of a crossing and see cars flying past at speed, I may well hesitate to step onto the crossing for fear of being injured or killed. In fact, for visitors to the UK, choosing not to step onto the crossing will look and feel like a rational decision. Yet here’s the rub: until I take that first step, that step of faith, the cars are not compelled to stop. It’s only when I do so that the traffic will come to a halt, as if by magic. Change is what happens as we move forward.
So back to Ezra – and to us. Faith is acting on what we believe, as if it were true. I can imagine that daunted feeling, that heart-racing moment, that deep-breaths experience before taking…that…step. It could be an unnerving time, a risk-taking venture, a profound exercise in trust; whether in God, our intuition, research, resources, training – or all of the above. It could also be a thrilling, life-giving adventure, taking us to the edges of what we had dared to imagine possible or hope for. As leader, coach, OD or trainer, how do you enable people to take scary steps? How do you do it too?
I was in Canada at 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 was astonished and alarmed to feel the building shudder each time the heavy vehicle went past. The doors inside my home rattled loudly, pictures slewed on the walls and cracks appeared around the window and door frames. I felt a new and urgent empathy with people living in earthquake-prone zones. I couldn’t believe it. Phone in hand, I hurriedly called the construction site manager. He sounded surprised but agreed to come and inspect the damage the following week.
Sure enough, the doorbell rang and here were 2 men dressed in hard hats and safety outfits on the doorstep. The contract manager with whom I had spoken previously introduced himself politely. The other, apparently the local site manager, stood back with distinct reluctance and scepticism written on his face. I reached out, shook hands then took them for a guided tour of the house, pointing out various cracks on route. Their reactions and responses couldn’t have been more different.
The contract manager listened carefully, took note of the damage and promised to ensure it would be rectified quickly, explaining what that would involve in practice. He also offered to inspect the exterior walls to check for any signs of structural damage. The site manager, by contrast, insisted in defensive tone that the vehicle could not have shaken the house, that the cracks could not have been caused by shaking and that they are, instead, a normal part of a building settling. Right.
So what are some lessons here for leaders, coaches, OD and trainers? I will list a few that spring to mind: 1. How open are we to invite and receive critical feedback on our leadership, interventions, actions or services? 2. How do others feel when they give us feedback? 3. How do we respond to feedback, especially if it is unsolicited or may leave us looking and feeling vulnerable, foolish or mistaken? 4. If/when cracks appear, what do we do to restore relationship, confidence and trust?
‘My English is terrible,’ he said, despondently, in near-perfect English. ‘I feel like I’m going backwards rather than improving.’ This recent, brief conversation with an asylum-seeker student typified a phenomenon that leaders, coaches and trainers often encounter in people and groups. A German social worker friend describes it as: ‘Eine Frage der Wahrnehmung’, which is, translated, ‘A question of perception.’ It’s something about perspective, belief what we notice and how we construe it.
In this vein, Dr. Terrence Maltbia commented astutely in a LinkedIn post this week that coaching and facilitation are ‘as much about mind-sets as skill-sets.’ This student (above) was far more competent, more skilful, than he realised. Yet his own assessment of his performance affected his confidence badly. This, in turn, affected his emotional state and what he believed himself capable of doing. The immediate coaching challenge was, therefore, to address his mind-set, not his language skills.
I asked and gestured: ‘Imagine a box. The box contains everything you know in English. How big was the box when you arrived in the UK?’ He gestured the shape and size of a tiny box. ‘And now..?’ He gestured a significantly larger box. ‘And so..?’. A wide smile broke out on his face. He sat up straight and his voice became stronger as he spoke: more confident, able and hopeful. In that moment, his perspective had changed and everything had changed with it. Eine Frage der Wahrnehmung.
Why is this important? A person’s performance at work can be regarded as a dynamic product of 4xCs: commitment, competence, confidence and credibility. Commitment: what we are willing to do; competence: what we are able to do; confidence: what we believe about ourselves; credibility: what others believe about us. In my experience, confidence is a critical recurring factor in enhancing or inhibiting a person’s effectiveness. So, I’m curious: how do you enable a change in perception?
It can at times feel like everything is falling apart. And there is a reason for this. Because it is.’ (Neil Gibb)
I love the provocative spirit of Gibb’s words in this Introduction to his book, ‘The Participation Revolution: How to Ride the Waves of Change in a Terrifyingly Turbulent World’ (2018). The vividly dramatic, apocalyptic language suggests a world in process of fragmentation, disintegration and profound change, shattering old patterns and paradigms and signalling the birth pains of something radically new. It has resonances with Kotter’s burning platform metaphor: change now or die.
We can see glimpses of this shift phenomenon all around us on the world stage: e.g. global warming and related extreme climate change; multinational corporations transcending the power and wealth of nation states; increasing nationalism challenging international alliances and institutions; mass migration across national and cultural boundaries; a postmodern shift in trust from authorities to peers; a digital revolution that is transforming communications, cultures and relationships.
No surprise then that change leadership and management feature so strongly as recurring themes in contemporary leadership literature. Organisations – and people – can feel battered by multiple, relentless and ever-increasing waves of change that often feel outside of their control and yet to which they are nevertheless required to respond. It can leave leaders feeling anxious, bewildered, paralysed and tired. It can leave employees unsettled and anxious about an uncertain future.
Perhaps it’s enough to make anyone feel dizzy and disorientated. What kind of change curve can make sense of our experiences when we face so many changes from so many different directions all at the same time? Gibb proposes learning to ride the waves; a crash course in surfing, if you like. It sounds like a great idea in principle…but how do you do it in practice? If you are a leader, coach, OD professional or trainer, how do you enable others to navigate turbulent waves of change?
I can’t imagine how it must feel. To rush into darkness in the middle of the night, torrential rain pouring down, seconds later a flood of thick mud crashing through your home, in just moments destroying everything you own and have worked for. This happened to some close friends in the Philippines this week. A typhoon brought widespread and heart-breaking devastation. The poor have no insurance, no savings to fall back on and to recover. I hate that the poor are so vulnerable.
Yet what happened next astonished me even more. Having ensured her parents and children were safe, this Filipina girl hitched a ride into a nearby town, bought bags of warm bread and returned to distribute them to her stunned and shocked neighbours. She then returned to the town to cajole local officials into assembling an emergency response before, finally, setting off to search for a safe and dry room to rent. That was the start of an extraordinary week, entering this New Year 2019.
In the following days, she bought emergency supplies of rice, noodles and other essentials for people living in a nearby jungle village whose homes had been flooded too. They were cut off by a raging, swollen river without food or shelter. She adorned each package carefully in gift wrap so that hearts as well as bodies would be touched and warmed. She then navigated the river, trudged through sodden forest and rice fields and handed over the gifts to astonished, grateful families.
Wow. What a response: this instinct to look out towards others in crisis, to reach out rather than to shrink back, to open up rather than to close down. I reflected on how self-focused I could be, prioritising my own needs over those of my neighbours, paying attention to my own concerns first. I ask what motivates her and she responds simply yet profoundly, ‘It’s what Jesus would do.’ What’s your first instinct in a crisis? Does it evoke self-preservation or radical altruism? What do you do?
‘Of all the things that sustain a leader over time, love is the most lasting.’ (Kouzes & Posner)
I honestly believed I was following Jesus until I took my first step into the Philippines. I had become a Christian some years earlier and, as such, had tried to centre my life on the Christ of the gospels. I say ‘tried’ because it has been a rocky ride so far. Highs, lows and everything in between. I swing from burning inspiration to faltering faith, from close to God to straying widely off the path. I always struggle with church-as-institution and with my own stumbling discipleship. Then I encounter a poor Filipina, a girl who grew up on a remote jungle mountainside, whose life transforms everything.
She is wild, crazy, passionate, funny and compassionate. Much like Jesus – whom she loves – she both inspires and terrifies me: inspires me by what’s possible; terrifies me by what it may call from me. Her life models her own radical mandate: ‘Whatever status or power you have, use it for those who are vulnerable; whatever money you have, use it for the poor; whatever strength you have, use it for the weak; whatever hope you have, use it to bring hope to those who live without hope. Speak up for justice and truth – whatever the cost. Pray.’ She lives it literally – and that scares me.
Where I see issues, she sees people. While I’m still thinking about it, she’s out there doing it. Her self-sacrificial lifestyle looks and feels profoundly reckless and unnerving. It unsettles me. It alarms me. It evokes a spiritual-existential crisis. It shakes everything in me to the core. Yet it also kindles fresh glimmers of light. I see amazing hope on the faces of people whose lives she touches. I see the ordinary-extraordinary miracles that God performs through her every day and it strengthens my own faith. She evokes a yearning in me to see and love Jesus and the poor more deeply: whatever.
‘Who or what features in your holiday photos?’ (Richard Marshall)
I find the question intriguing. Richard is a psychologist who has lived and worked in different parts of the world. He observed that some people notice, focus on and value that which is the same as their ‘normal’; others that which is different. I’m definitely a difference person. I like and get a buzz from diversity – not in its politically-correct sense – simply from different-ness. Since earliest childhood, I have felt drawn to people, things, places and ways of seeing and doing things that are radically different to the norm, my norm. It has shaped profoundly my life, career, relationships and choices.
At school, I looked out for kids who were from different countries and spoke different languages. Unsurprisingly my own best subjects at school were languages too. Later, as my friends settled down in life, I hitch-hiked around Europe, loved the different cultures, currencies – and lamented when the Euro brought boring…sameness. I dreamed of marrying an exotic girl. I spent much of my adult life working in international NGOs, fascinated by so many new environments, cultures and people. I have studied and worked in 4 different professional fields: community work, TEFL, coaching and OD.
So, here’s the thing: how often have you heard the maxim, ‘People don’t like change’ or, ‘People are resistant to change’? A large swathe of change management literature is devoted to the theme. Yet is it really true? People may well resist change that is and feels imposed on them – in which case the resistance may be a response to a lack of choice, a loss of control, rather than to a change per se. As leaders, OD, coaches and trainers, how well do we notice and capitalise on the insight and energy of those who instinctively prefer creativity and innovation, difference and change? What do you do?
‘The teacher works with the students; the students work on the language.’ (Caleb Gattegno)
The Silent Way. It sounds like a monastic tradition. As a student at International House Newcastle last week, I was invited by teachers, Sally Muse and Jane-Maria Harding da Rosa, to lead a teaching-English class in…silence. The experiment was to demonstrate and experience the power of silence in a learning process. It can sound counter-intuitive for leaders, managers and trainers who are used to directing, guiding and imparting knowledge. It involves evoking, eliciting and enabling discovery with minimal input and interference from the teacher. I led the class without speaking a word.
So now I’m thinking about leadership, OD, coaching, mentoring and training. The Silent Way calls for discernment, discipline and self-restraint, providing just-enough input where needed so that people are able to focus, grasp, struggle-with and find their own way forward. The image come to mind of a parent stepping back, letting go, coaxing with gestures and smiles as a child takes its first steps. It’s hard at first yet, in overcoming the barriers, in achieving the task, the child finds courage, confidence and new abilities. The parent offers challenge and support but it’s the child who walks.
There are useful parallels here in e.g. coactive leadership, process consultation, non-directive facilitation and coaching. It’s not always about holding absolute silence. It is about having a clear intention; paying attention to who is doing the talking and why; noticing what the impacts are on the relationship, the person’s growth and the outcomes. Very often, listening and minimal prompts are good and enough: e.g. ‘So?’, ‘And?’, ‘Then?’, ‘Who?’, ‘What else?’, ‘Next?’ You can almost see and hear the cogs whirring. Do you ever say too much when silence could achieve a better result?
'Beware the stories we tell ourselves.' (Brené Brown)
In fields of psychology such as TA (transactional analysis) and Gestalt, there’s an idea that, as we look back over our lives, we only notice key events that stand out to us as in some way significant. We don’t notice everything else. The events that hold our attention from our past are often those that we consider pivotal moments or experiences for us and that still carry emotional resonance. We join the dots between the events and, for us, the narrative that emerges becomes our ‘life story’.
(If you want to try this out for yourself, pause for a moment, take a sheet of paper and draw a line that, in some way, represents your life. Some people use an image of, say, a river as the line. Now mark key relationships, moments, events or experiences in your life on the line. You may want to draw these as, say, high points or low points – or as graphic images. When you are finished, tell yourself or someone else the story that has emerged. Notice how the story sounds and feels.)
This ability to create patterns and to tell stories provides a sense of continuity and coherence and enables us to make sense of our lives. Instead of recalling multiple random events, we experience life as journey. It’s like how we hear music as melody or flow, not as disconnected, separate notes. We do the same in teams, groups, organisations and cultures. We notice some things, don’t notice other things and create narratives based on what we see, believe and experience as significant.
Yet a story is necessarily selective. What now appears as true and coherent to us is one possible narrative, one version of events, one way of making sense of things. Furthermore, the more self-evident the story appears and feels to us, the greater the risk is that we are trapped, like Alice, in our own Wonderland. The stories we tell ourselves influence and reinforce what we notice and not-notice now, what sense we make of it, how we feel and how we anticipate-respond to the future.
So how to use these insights when working with clients? 1. Notice how a client depicts their issue, relationship or situation. What story are they telling themselves? How are they feeling as they do it? 2. Explore what they are not-noticing, what they are assuming, who or what is not featuring in the story, how the same facts or perceptions could be configured differently. 3. Enable them to experiment creatively with alternative stories to raise fresh awareness, insight and possibilities into view.
Nick is a psychological coach, OD consultant and trainer, specialising in developing critical reflective practice.