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?
Take a clean sheet of flipchart paper. Draw a small black dot in the middle. Ask people what they see, what they notice. Almost invariably in my experience, people will say, ‘A black dot’. I haven’t yet heard someone say, ‘A white sheet of paper’. I first saw this used in an anti-racism workshop. The tutor, Tuku Mukherjee, used it as a metaphor for how we tend to focus our attention on minorities in society and ignore or don’t even see the majority. The backdrop is, in effect, invisible to us.
In this example, the backdrop forms the context for the ‘minority’. In other words, ‘minority’ only has meaning vis a vis a perceived ‘majority’. I heard one astute black speaker say, ‘In the UK, I am viewed as an ethnic minority whereas, when I look across the world as a whole, I see that I am part of an ethnic majority.’ So what we see, what sense we make of it, is contextual. To understand what we notice, we sometimes need to shift our focus to the background against which it stands out.
Take, now, an example of a person who is ‘underperforming’ at work. This definition of the situation locates underperformance in the person, as if it represents a quality, aptitude or behaviour of the person him or herself. It leads us to consider how to improve the person’s performance, e.g. through mentoring or training. All things being equal, this may improve the person’s performance and, if so, we may view the situation as resolved. ‘X was underperforming…X is now performing…sorted.’
Yet what constitutes ‘good performance’ is defined by the backdrop, the wider organisation. What if performance expectations are unrealistic? What if the person does not have sufficient resources, guidance or support? What if systems, policies or procedures are such that they make the person’s work untenable? What if relationships or power dynamics are culturally toxic? What if instances of ‘underperformance’ form a repeating pattern in this organisation or team? Step back…look…see.
‘Constructive counterfactualisation’. What on earth?! I can almost hear the cogs whirring. This was the title of an intriguing seminar I attended yesterday led by Professor Chris Oswick. The main focus was on how to break out of proverbial boxes that trap our thinking and to find ways to challenge our taken-for-granted assumptions in order to broaden the range of options available to us. It reminded me a lot of DeBono’s lateral thinking – except with much more complicated-sounding language.
The main technique we tried was to create deliberate dissonance, e.g. by, ‘making the strange familiar or the familiar strange’ (Foucault). The idea here is to present the strange (e.g. an idea that contrasts starkly with that which we hold currently) as having some (surprisingly) similar qualities to that which seems more normal or self-evident to us, or to present something familiar and ordinarily unquestioned in such a weird or unusual light as to make it appear and feel strange to us after all.
Here’s an example. We often think of global poverty and related suffering as caused or exacerbated by military conflict, e.g. between two or more different ideologies, tribes or nations. We only need to look as far as Yemen in recent months to see this horrifying phenomenon played out in practice. This observation vis a vis ‘poverty vs conflict’ could be developed into a hypothesis that, say, military intervention is the antithesis to development. It has a face-value appearance of plausibility about it.
Yet now take, for instance, a scenario in which the military provides sufficient security (e.g. from an external aggressor) to allow sustainable development to take place. It flips the equation so that an alternative hypothesis could be juxtaposed that, in X context, military intervention is a necessary condition for development. This way of posing contrasting propositions to create dissonance and challenge accepted assumptions and norms can be powerful. How could you use it as leader, coach or OD?
Performance = Potential – Interference (Gallwey); Trust = Risk + Support (Covey).
‘Vocabulary, grammar, pronunciation’. If you’ve ever taught or learnt a foreign language, these words will sound very familiar to you. We could think of them as technical dimensions. They have an almost objective feel. The students I worked with in the Philippines last week have been taught well in English yet some still lacked confidence to use it. They were, at first, also unsure about how to navigate conversations with a person from the UK. We could call these psychological and cultural dimensions. Some were so preoccupied with doing it right that they struggled to do it at all.
We opened the workshops by inviting the students to experiment with some simple ground rules: 1. Be willing to try. 2. It’s OK to make mistakes. 3. Support each other. 4. Any question is OK. Next, we introduced (playfully) that I would present a medal to every person who would come forward and speak at the front for the first time. I would not correct their English. I would simply reward their courage to do it. By the end of the first workshop, every student left proudly wearing a medal. By the end of the third workshop, every student took part enthusiastically in open group conversation.
Taking a leaf from Timothy Gallwey’s research, we engaged the students in distractor topics (e.g. ‘Skin whitening in Asia’). The idea was to choose themes that the students would find interesting, provocative and meaningful. By focusing on the topic rather than on the language itself, the students became less self-conscious about their English and actually more fluent. In Gallwey’s terms, too much attention to performance can become an interference to performance. An overall approach? Open, relational warmth and positive reinforcement throughout: ‘What did well; Even better if.’
Now – a question: what are the lessons here for leadership, mentoring and coaching?
A ‘university for the poor’. The past 2 weeks have been an inspiring and humbling experience at so many different levels. A close friend invited me to train and facilitate students, faculty and staff at a college in the Philippines that supports young people who cannot afford university education. It’s based in the inner city, shares basic facilities with various other government institutions and backs onto a market that, at times, fills hot and humid classrooms with a foul stench of waste.
It’s my third time in the Philippines and I’m always struck by the wild, extroverted and, in some ways, quite crazy culture. Dance, song and loud music are everywhere (as are people with guns), intermingled with sounds of all kinds of passing traffic and street dogs barking. The students here greet me with wide-eyed enthusiasm. It’s unusual to receive a visitor from the UK and they are curious, intrigued and keen to learn. We run classes for 3 days and the energy in the group is exhilarating.
At the end of the week, the students first sing a song to me then, one-by-one, come forward with hand written letters and cards, beautifully coloured and designed. I want to cry and yet fight back the tears. They are thanking me but I owe them so much. We move to workshops with faculty and staff using positive psychology and appreciative inquiry. Like the students before them, they are passionate, playful and professional. We laugh, work, sing, dance and learn together.
These memories stay with me: Their faith in Jesus that shines simply and brightly without inhibition. Their vision for the poor that extends beyond academic theory to personal and social transformation. Their kind welcome and hospitality to me as a total stranger. The very special friend who worked so incredibly hard – yet so carefully avoided the limelight. The open-hearted generosity of students who said, ‘We want others to experience what we have experienced here.’
Have you ever felt truly seen? Perhaps the romantic gaze of a secret admirer from across the room? Perhaps a boss, colleague or friend who acknowledged your best efforts, talents and achievements? Perhaps an encounter where you felt exposed, vulnerable – and yet accepted? There’s something about being seen that can be and feel tremendously affirming, reassuring and life-giving. In some cultures, it’s as if we don’t truly exist until seen by another; whether that be e.g. God, a lover, a friend or a family member. In some deep existential way, I know that I am because you perceive me.
Consider the alternative: how it is to be and to feel unseen, ignored or invisible. It’s as if, somehow, our very humanity, value and existence can be unrecognised, marginalised or diminished. It can feel socially, psychologically and existentially alienating. I was struck, therefore, by the moving example of a student friend in the Philippines this week who spontaneously stepped outside her own world. This girl visited and said hello to some of the poorest people who live in shacks at the roadside beside her college. In this simple-yet-profound act she saw the unseen and, in doing so, the invisible became visible.
I believe there are parallels in our organisations here. I think back to some amazing leaders and colleagues who have seen me, often spotting gifting and potential that was not-yet-alive in my own awareness. I also think back to places that have felt stifled by hierarchy and bureaucracy, where people were viewed by job titles and as employees rather than as whole, creative, wonderfully-complex human beings. As leader, coach, OD or trainer, who do you see and not-see? What have been your best/worst examples of seeing and being-seen? What can you do to see the unseen..?
If you’ve ever lost a set of keys, you’ll know how frustrating it can be. I once left my keys in the ignition switch of a car. I could see them through the driver’s window dangling tantalisingly at me but couldn’t get inside the locked car to retrieve them. More recently, I moved house and found a whole container of keys that I couldn’t recall ever using. I had kept them in a safe place but now couldn’t remember what they were for. I left them with some trepidation, hopeful that the new owners could use them yet nervous that at some point in the future I may discover I need them.
The thing about keys is that they unlock things. (They lock things too but I’m going to focus for now on the unlocking part). Without they key, whoever or whatever lays behind the locked-lock is there all the same and yet inaccessible and unavailable to us. In that sense, insofar as our connection with who or what lays behind the lock is concerned, it’s as if they or it exists for us only in potential. Our reasons for locking are interesting too. We sometimes lock to keep things safe; at other times we lock to keep ourselves or others safe. In effect, a key can be a means for release or for constraint.
I think there’s a useful metaphor here. In organisations, groups and people, who or what lays locked away that, if released, could become, enable or achieve great things? Who or what are the keys that could unlock, resource or set free that amazing hope and potential? I believe this is a treasure that leadership, coaching, OD and training can bring. It’s about being present, reaching out, listening, being curious, posing questions, sharing ideas, taking risks, trusting intuitions. In biblical terms, it’s about spotting and nurturing God-given gifts and talent. Are you the key to someone’s lock..?
"Ignore me. I’m just having a bitch-moan-whine moment.” That made me laugh. I had never heard that expression before and thought, what a great way to signpost self-awareness and intention. So many conversations end up strained and, as a consequence, relationships lay in tatters because the underlying values, motivation and thought processes are assumed but left unexpressed. Work cross-culturally – whether that be in different counties or even with people from different personal and professional backgrounds or sectors – and you will almost certainly know what I mean.
It’s where we sometimes talk about crossed wires or, in Transactional Analysis (TA) terms, crossed transactions. I may say something tongue-in-cheek and you may take it as a serious comment. You may say something neutrally as an observation and I hear it as implied criticism. In other words, we infer things, particularly meaning and intention, based on where we are at personally or culturally in the moment, rather than necessarily on what the other person meant or intended us to hear or feel. This is an area where learning to signpost explicitly can make a very positive difference.
To signpost well involves being aware-in-the-moment, authentic in what we disclose, skilful in how we communicate and curious about the other. Aware: tune into what we believe, think and feel – here-and-now. Authentic: be honest and truthful – speak with congruence and integrity. Skilful: use language, signs and symbols that bridge or transcend personal, professional and cultural boundaries – sensitive to the person, context and relationship. Curious: check with the other what they saw, heard and felt – whether they know and understand what lay behind your actions and words.
There’s an old Taoist story. It teaches that the answer to everything that goes apparently well or badly is maybe. ‘I got a new job. That’s great, isn’t it?’ Maybe. ‘I just crashed my car. That’s terrible, isn’t it?’ Maybe. The reason for maybe is that we don’t know the wider context or consequences of any encounter or event. We cannot predict all the ripple effects, some of which may continue down through the years or into completely different relationships or parts of the world. What we construe as a curse in the moment may turn out to be a blessing in disguise and vice versa. It’s complex.
Some of this is about framing and re-framing. We can view the same situation, the same moment, through different metaphorical lenses and see what different pictures emerge. Take, for instance, a change in any team in any organisation. The change will have pros and cons – and different pros and cons depending on which stakeholder perspective we or others view it from. It could touch on, say, wider roles, relationships and resources. Maybe depends on viewpoints and values: who is impacted and how, what it means psychologically and culturally and how it feels for them and others.
Maybe is also about time lags and time-frames. A change that creates pain now may result in positive benefits in the future or vice versa. An action we take here and now could trigger unintended consequences, a chain reaction down the line that we could never have imagined or anticipated. As such, maybe calls for openness, curiosity and humility. It calls us - and clients - to learn to approach 'knowing' and 'certainty' in tentative spirit, particularly in fluid (VUCA) environments. For me, it calls for prayer and patience too, to seek God’s insight and wisdom. What does maybe mean for you?
‘What are you willing to take responsibility for?’, ‘What are you willing to commit to?’, ‘What are you willing to do?’ These are important questions in leadership and coaching. After all, people may appear to agree or give passive assent to all kinds of things, especially if they believe that ‘Yes’ is the correct answer in that culture or context. It doesn’t necessarily mean they will do it or, perhaps, that they will do it e.g. in the spirit or timeframe or to the standard hoped for. Half-hearted efforts are sometimes worse than not-do, especially if they result in poor quality or dangerous short cuts.
Our willing-ness touches on deep beliefs, values, intention and motivation. If I am willing to do something, assuming I am able to do it too, it points towards a choice, a decision, an action, a behaviour. It’s the energy behind movement, the driving force that makes something tangible happen. We can often sense the ‘will’ emotionally and physically, a mysterious inner dynamic that propels us forward. It’s like shifting a car into gear, releasing the clutch, feeling that pull. Without the will, the best thoughts and ideas may stay in-principle and never become outworked in practice.
This is the notion behind John Whitmore’s W (Will) in GROW and David Clutterbuck’s 4th I (Intention) in 4xIs in coaching. If we stop simply at, ‘What actions will you take?’, we risk a person drawing up an action list, a list of actions-in-principle. The ideas generated here may stay at head level and not touch the spirit or galvanise the soul. ‘What matters most to you in this?’ and, ‘What would make this worthwhile for you?’ tap into values and emotions. Moving from there to, ‘So - in relation to that, what are you willing to take responsibility for?’ creates traction, momentum and commitment.
Nick is a freelance coach, trainer and OD consultant specialising in reflective practice.