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.
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?
Who or what is important to you? Who or what do you value most? I’ve heard it said that we can know who or what we value in practice, which sometimes differs from who or what we value in principle, simply by looking at our diaries and bank account statements to see who and what we spend our actual time with and money on. It’s a crude measure but can be revealing – especially as we can be prone as people and groups to deceive ourselves by believing what we want to believe.
In Britain, we often value e.g. individuality, effort and achievement. You could think of this as affirming: standing on our own two feet, trying hard and reaching stretching goals that are perceived as worthwhile by UK culture and the wider nation-community. I’ve heard some people say that, as British, we are only impressed by a person, team or country that manages to achieve something better than we believe we could have achieved ourselves. ‘I could have done that’ is a subtle put-down.
Against this backdrop, I was challenged and inspired last week by a girl from a very different culture who discovered that a fellow student had been excluded from taking part in a drama production team because she had some difficulties with her speaking. This girl instinctively showed empathy and compassion, valued the person, reached out, drew her in and modelled social inclusivity rather than simple task achievement. I wondered what I would have done. She reminded me of Jesus.
Why is this so significant? Our values reveal and shape something profoundly important about who we are in the world. They influence our stance, focus, decisions and boundaries. I’ve often found that working with values as a leader, OD, coach or trainer has had a transformational impact on people, teams and organisations. There’s something about, ‘What really matters to you in this?’ that can feel so much deeper than, ‘What are your goals?’ So – who or what matters most to you?
I took part in a workshop last week that focused on social media, work and leadership. One of the questions that Zoe Amar, the trainer, posed was, ‘What’s your personal brand?’ It was in relation to being clear and authentic about, say, who we are, what makes us distinctive, what others value about us, what we have to offer etc. I quickly thought about my own Twitter, LinkedIn and website profiles. How clear and consistent am I in how I portray myself, what is true about me and what matters to me, bearing in mind the different audiences and purposes for those profiles?
The phrase ‘psychological coach’ sprang to mind. ‘I’m a psychological coach’. I also do mentoring, training, facilitation, consultancy, writing and even some teaching yet, somehow, ‘psychological coach’ felt the clearest and most grounding. Perhaps it’s something about how I see myself, what I enjoy, what expertise I hold, where I feel my calling lays, where clients say I add value, how I see and approach what I do. The psychological part signifies a type, a focus, a style, an orientation to my work; the coaching part signifies developing and releasing hope and potential in others.
What this means in practice is that I tend to view and approach leadership, mentoring, training, facilitation, consultancy etc. through a psychological lens. I instinctively look at what enhances or inhibits people, teams, groups and organisations from psychological, relational, cultural and systemic perspectives. I draw on insights and practices from fields as diverse as social constructionism, Gestalt/field theory and cognitive behavioural psychology. I enable people, teams, groups and organisations to grow in insight and ability to create, achieve and sustain their transformation.
So – ‘I’m a psychological coach’. Inspired by my Christian faith and informed by my studies and experience, it’s at the heart of who I am in the world, my work, what I do and how I do it. What’s your personal brand?
What marks out professionals from practitioners, the best from the good? It’s a great question. One thing I would suggest is critical reflective practice (CRP). It’s a semi-structured way of learning in and through experience, often with support and challenge from peers, a coach or a non-managerial supervisor. It takes willingness and commitment, an on-going desire to learn, develop and improve. I want to suggest a four-stage CRP process (based on Kolb): experience; reflect; make sense; decide.
It will call us to pause, reflect and act; to be curious and test our assumptions, to expose our sometimes uncomfortable feelings and – for me – to pray for discernment and wisdom. Here are some sample questions. Firstly, experience: What happened? What was/am I aware of? Where was/is my attention? What was/am I feeling? What was/is the impact? Secondly, reflect: What was my intention? What beliefs or values were at play? What didn’t I notice? What assumptions was/am I making? What other options were/are available?
Thirdly, make sense: What are the bigger-picture issues (e.g. politics/principles)? What wider team or organisational issues does it reveal? What is the generic issue (e.g. conflict)? What theory or research could I draw on to inform my thinking and practice? What hypotheses am I making? Finally, decide: What have I learned through this? What do I need to do the same or differently in future? How I will I prepare next time? Do any wider issues need to be addressed? What will my next step be?
The third stage, ‘make sense’ distinguishes critical reflective practice from simple reflection on practice. It draws the experience and learning of others including academics and peers into the frame. It’s also the area that many professionals neglect because of time constraints – or because they are not sure how to do it. Simple ideas: journals, books, networks, conferences and LinkedIn groups. How good are you at critical reflective practice? What do you do to develop and sustain it?
‘People look for HD photos whereas what’s really possible is dots on a page.’
I met with an insightful strategy consultant last week who used this ingenious metaphor. We live in an era where leaders face increasing complexity, ambiguity and uncertainty. This can evoke anxiety, risk-aversion and paralysis in decision-making. Against this backdrop, it’s tempting to attempt to increase our certainty by gathering and analysing exhaustive (sometimes exhausting!) reams of data, information and evidence. It’s as if we may want and need to see a high definition photo where every detail is present and crystal clear before feeling confident enough to take a step forward.
I do get it. There are good reasons for basing decisions on research and evidence, especially in high-risk environments where to do otherwise could be reckless at best and dangerous at worst. Or if we miss great opportunities because we hadn’t looked well enough before leaping…or failing to leap. But what if such situations are the exception rather than the norm? What if ‘sufficient’ evidence is unavailable, or if it would take more time or other resources to gain it than we can afford, or if conditions are so complex and fluid that today’s truth fades quickly into tomorrow’s jaded history?
Picture this alternative. A blank sheet on which we place dots. We can place them wherever we want. The dots represent what we do know, what we have a gut feel for, what we could reasonably find out – if needed. We can add, remove or move dots as things progress. We can experiment with reconfiguring the dots into different, creative, shapes and patterns. We can play with colouring the space between the dots, around the dots, to see what picture, what possibilities, what passions emerge. I love this idea of the dots. Of joining the dots. Of steps in faith. Of creating future.
‘When I was a young girl, I slipped and fell down a deep well. I was only saved because my father happened to pass by and noticed my flip flops had floated to the surface.’ As I listened to her story, I felt transfixed…and terrified. This Filipina has survived so many life-threatening experiences that it blows any cats-with-9-lives stories I’ve heard into the proverbial weeds. As she recounts various tales from her life of growing up in the jungle on a remote island mountainside, I feel by contrast like I’ve lived in a sheltered cocoon, free from a freedom that creates so much adventure and danger.
I flash back now to a conversation with a German social worker about how it is today that so many people in so many prosperous, stable, Western societies engage in so many extreme sports. It’s as if people do something dramatic and place themselves deliberately at risk in order to feel alive. I once spoke with a female base jumper who said with a huge grin on her face, ‘It’s even better than sex!’ I have to confess that I struggle to imagine that but…hey, I also struggle to imagine throwing myself head-first off a building suspended only by an elongated elastic band. Each to their own.
The social worker hypothesised that our societies have become so sanitised, protective, health-and-safety conscious and risk-averse that at some deep psychological level we can feel dead. In an era where even the once-unconquerable Everest now appears trampled and tamed, have we lost the thrill of surviving, of overcoming-against-all-odds, of achieving beyond what we ever dreamed possible? Contemporary Western people and societies often feel listless, bored and frustrated and lack resilience, purpose and hope. Can we co-create healthy risks that enliven and not endanger?
I took part in an intensive Teaching English as a Foreign Language workshop at the weekend. It forms part of a longer course that leads to a TEFL qualification. The tutor, John Nelson, was inspiring and experienced as a teacher and offered great insights, ideas and challenge in a spirit of support. I noticed how valuable it felt to have a tutor, a mentor, a leader with us on our learning journey.
John wasn’t simply a detached expert who stood and pointed us in the right direction. He was committed to ensuring that we were able to grow and succeed in our work. He engaged with us – tuned into where we were, what mattered to us, what we could already do well, what we were struggling with or could improve – and helped moved us forward towards where we wanted to be.
At one point, John role-modelled a teaching session by enabling us to use basic greetings in an alien foreign language from scratch. At another, he gave us very specific feedback. I discovered that I can explain complex concepts simply…and that I can improve my teaching by engaging participants creatively in conversation around a topic first. I have grown in awareness, ability and confidence.
So what are some lessons here for leaders, trainers, facilitators, mentors and coaches? The points that stand out for me are: (a) intention – a commitment to helping others to grow; (b) relationship – working with others as people, not as objects to be done to; (c) expertise – crafting and using what we have to move others forward and (d) freedom – a willingness to experiment, laugh and play!
We ask questions for all kinds of reasons. For example: sometimes it’s for information, e.g. ‘Which button do I push to turn on the photocopier?’ Sometimes it’s to think out loud, e.g. ‘Hmmm…how will I get home now the train has been cancelled?’ At times it can be to look clever or put someone else on the spot, e.g. ‘How about we compare my grades to yours?’ At other times it’s to stimulate reflection and learning in people or groups, e.g. ‘What do you think is really going on here?’
Influential teachers such as Jesus and Socrates excelled in the latter, posing questions to stimulate awareness and insight. Conrad Gempf wrote a whole book on Jesus’ approach called, Jesus Asked (2003), drawing attention to how often Jesus posed questions – including in response to other people’s questions. There’s something about great questions that can strike deep into our soul, our psyche, our assumptions and beliefs. They can detonate, evoke, provoke, create movement, shift.
A question I may pose is, ‘What’s the question behind the question?’ I may use it in leadership, coaching, training and facilitation if I sense there is something deeper, unspoken, hiding or struggling to surface. Sometimes it moves the focus from an issue to a person, making it person-al in the best possible sense. For example: ‘How can we improve people’s performance?’ could be reframed as, ‘How can I know that what we’re doing is making a difference to what’s important here?’
Another question I may pose is, ‘What do you need?’ In many cultures, we are conditioned to be and to appear confident, capable and self-sufficient. To admit to needing someone or something can feel like a confession of guilt, weakness or failure. In this context, addressing the need that lays behind a question can be transformational. For example: ‘How can we improve people’s performance?’ could be reframed as, ‘How can I meet my need to feel wanted, needed and successful here?’
Nick is a freelance coach, trainer and OD consultant specialising in reflective practice.