Thinking out of the box sounds good in principle yet can be difficult to do in practice. What if, say, you are the box, or you don’t know you’re in a box, or you can’t see the box? What if others you’re working with are in boxes, or don’t know they’re in boxes, or want to put you in a box, or don’t like your box? I was asked once to coach and mentor an HR colleague who needed to learn to think outside of the box. I asked for clarification. It turns out they meant that she lacked, yet needed, strategic thinking and systems thinking for her role. She looked at me blankly. She couldn’t see what she couldn’t see.
I wondered how to enable her to make a shift from conceptual (‘strategic’, ‘systemic’) to practical; from abstract ideas to concrete examples that she could work with and learn from. She described herself as a detail person, trained to spot the critical points in the micro, e.g. salary spreadsheets so that reports were accurate and errors were avoided. I decided, therefore, to start with an example in the micro and to work out from there to a wider macro. This, I hoped, would gradually bring wider systemic and strategic issues and perspectives into view and highlight the links between them.
I invited her to bring an example from her work. She chose an email from a client in her business partner role. It raised a query about how to deal with a performance issue in his team. She had been about to respond to the email with advice on performance management policies and procedures. I invited her to draw a small box on a large, blank sheet of paper and to draw the person inside the box who was to be performance managed. I then invited her to draw a larger box outside of that box and to draw anyone or anything in that box that could be influencing the person’s performance.
As she considered this, various issues and key people came to mind. She wrote them in the box. I asked, ‘What might these different stakeholders hope you will take into account in addressing this?’ She jotted down those thoughts too. I then invited her to draw an even larger box around that one…and repeated the process until we had reached external stakeholders, opportunities and risks and future horizons. At each stage, she was able to consider significant questions and intervention options. It brought a wider picture into view so that she could see it. How do you deal with boxes?
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You may remember the poster. Seagulls in flight and simple words: ‘They can because they think they can’ (Virgil). It’s a great cognitive-behavioural insight. Faith is to act on what we believe as if it were true. How far are we held back by limitations in our thinking? How can we discover and release potential for what is truly possible?
‘Argue for your limitations, and they are yours.’ (Richard Bach)
Jonathan Livingstone Seagull blew my mind. I was 17 at the time, working in a tedious, meaningless job, just to earn enough money to buy my dream motorcycle. I remember a tradesman called Steve handed me the book. He had travelled the world and had a perspective and outlook that seemed to transcend what we were doing. I opened the pages and started to read. I immediately felt gripped, challenged and inspired. I could see myself, my life, hopes and aspirations in a totally different light. It ignited something deep within me. I felt breathless with excitement. It set my imagination ablaze.
Around that time, pop group Supertramp released, Logical Song: ‘When I was young, it seemed that life was so wonderful, a miracle, it was beautiful, magical. And all the birds in the trees, they'd be singing so happily, joyfully, playfully watching me. But then they sent me away to teach me how to be sensible, logical, responsible, practical. And then they showed me a world where I could be so dependable, clinical, intellectual, cynical…’ It was as if they were speaking my words, my voice. It resonated deeply with the profound existential restlessness I was now feeling. The lyrics went on:
‘There are times when all the world's asleep, the questions run too deep for such a simple man. Won't you please, please tell me what we've learned. I know it sounds absurd, please tell me who I am. Yet, watch what you say, they’ll be calling you a radical, a liberal, fanatical, criminal...’ These words rang out for me like a prophecy. I immersed myself in radical literature, in political activity and, in the midst of it, found Jesus. Now this was a truly explosive experience, catapulting me from Star Trek’s impulse to warp drive. It felt like my whole body and mind were filled with blazing light.
Family, friends and colleagues looked on, alarmed or bemused. I went into work, tore down demeaning pornographic material that covered the workshop walls, resigned from my job and studies, gave away my possessions and headed off to do full-time, voluntary, community development and human rights work instead. I was bursting with vision and energy and it completely changed the focus and trajectory of my life and relationships since. I’ve never looked back for a second. It taught me that so many limitations exist only in our minds. What limitations are you arguing for? Are they now yours?
How can I help you to discover and release potential? Get in touch! firstname.lastname@example.org
Well-being and resilience are hot topics in the world of work at the moment. The Stockdale Paradox offers a useful psychological outlook and stance. How do you handle faith, facts and hope?
‘Retain faith that you will prevail in the end, regardless of the difficulties and, at the same time, confront the most brutal facts of your current reality, whatever they may be.’ (Stockdale Paradox)
Someone commented recently on my ‘relentless optimism that everything will work out in the end.’ They saw this as a principle that guides my decision making, drawing on my faith as a follower of Jesus. I was a bit taken aback, partly because I had read in Jim Collins’ book, Good to Great some years ago that optimism can lead to naïve passivity in the face of challenge. On further exploration, it became clear that they meant I appear un-phased by some situations that could leave other people shaking. It’s as if I am open to, look out for, the possibility in, the opportunity in, what is. Sometimes.
This is quite different to a kind of positive thinking that says things like, ‘You can be whatever you want to be’, as if personal, cultural and contextual constraints don’t exist, or, ‘Don’t worry, you’ll be fine’ – when clearly you won’t be. Collins talks about the importance of confronting the brutal facts; that is, of actively seeking out and facing what could well look and feel like the opposite to how we would prefer things to be. In contrast to optimism or pessimism, it’s a kind of relentless realism. It demands honesty, courage, humility, and a hopeful outlook to avoid falling into paralysis or despair.
Achieving this perspective, attitude and stance isn’t always as easy, however, as it may sound. Psychodynamically-speaking, leaders, teams and organisations often develop subconscious and highly-effective defence mechanisms that protect them from dealing with issues that could feel threatening or anxiety-provoking. As a consequence, it can mean that we see what we want to see, hear what we want to hear and filter everything else out – without even knowing it. This may create both risky blind spots (what we can’t see) and dangerous hot spots (what we avoid facing).
To add to the complexity, according to Gestalt and social constructionist research, leaders, teams and organisations can become so focused-fixated on specific issues they consider most important that they inadvertently exclude wider perspectives or dimensions – again without realising it. This influences what they perceive as key, what they consider to be the brutal facts in relation to it, what they believe the options are and, therefore, what they decide to do in response to it. It’s as if the narratives we create function for us as as-if realities. How do you handle faith, facts and hope?
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‘Spontaneous counter-intuition.’ Those odd moments when, out of the blue, we find ourselves, suddenly and unexpectedly, acting radically-contrarily to our normal thinking patterns and behaviours – and yet with near-miraculous results. Have you ever experienced such a moment? What happened? What sense do you make of it?
'If you give children a problem, they may come up with a highly original solution, precisely because they don’t have the established route to it.’ (Edward de Bono)
It was dark as I meandered through heavy, stationary traffic on my trail bike, trying not to be dazzled by headlights of on-coming cars. Suddenly, I noticed the strange shadowy figures of two men, one man attacking the other, punching him violently in the face against his car. Feeling like Bradley Cooper on NZT in Limitless, I pulled over fearlessly and strode towards them. I flipped up my visor, approached the aggressor, held out my arms in open gesture and asked, compassionately, if he was OK. He looked confused, stopped and skulked away.
The other man, still propped against the side of the car with face covered in blood, thanked me profusely with breathy, gasping voice, ‘You saved my life.’ Now coming to my senses, as if waking up from sleep, I think I felt almost as surprised and relieved as he did. What on earth had just happened? How is it that I had acted so counter-intuitively in the moment and, in doing so, had ended the assault rather than escalated or become embroiled in it? I felt both stunned and amazed as I helped the man back into his car. It felt like a miracle.
Edward De Bono coined the phrase, Lateral Thinking, to describe an approach to innovation and problem-solving that involves use of creative techniques that disrupt normal thinking patterns and stimulate fresh ideas. His ingenious methods helped to solve the human-psychological problem, ‘How can I think out of the box when I am the box?’ They help to break the frozen gaze, the ‘fixed Gestalt’, the mental webs of our own creation that become so entrapping for us (Gareth Morgan). And he made it possible to learn how to do it too.
Yet how do we account for moments of instinct, of intuition, where we act, apparently laterally, without thinking, without conscious process of reasoning or decision-making? This looks and feels qualitatively different to lateral thinking, even if the results of it may appear so similar. How do we make sense of that sudden dream-like state, that doing the wildly unexpected thing that feels strange and unfamiliar, even to us? Is it something that we can learn, pray for, prepare for, especially in readiness for sudden crises? What do you think?
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‘How to develop a thick skin at work without being obnoxious.’ (Experteer)
The article title made me smile. We often think of people with thick skin as tough, resilient and, at times, insensitive to others. It’s as if thick-skinned people are able to handle high levels of relational tension or conflict without feeling hurt or bruised. A similar personal-relational metaphor we sometimes hear is Teflon. If you are unfamiliar with it, Teflon is a material with ‘an extremely low coefficient of friction’ (Urban Dictionary). If something is coated with Teflon, stuff doesn’t stick to it. Tensions and conflict simply slide off, leaving a Teflon person unaffected by relational stress.
Whilst thick-skinned or Teflon people may be insensitive to criticism or insults, other people may be overly-sensitive, feeling hurt by relational tension or allowing conflict to penetrate into their soul. A pastoral friend, Nikki Eastwood, uses a blotting paper metaphor to characterise this. If you are unfamiliar with it, blotting paper is an absorbent material, used to soak up excess ink when writing with a traditional ink pen. If we allow ourselves to absorb all the hurt, pain, frustrations etc. of other people, including that projected onto us, we can become debilitated, stressed and exhausted.
I worked for most of my life in human rights work and international non-governmental organisations (NGOs). Faced, at times, with unspeakable suffering of others, I became very run down. Eventually, I spoke with an insightful therapist, Shona Adams, who challenged my risk of over-empathising. In my desire to feel and communicate genuine contact with others, I learned that sometimes I stepped so far into others’ shoes that I stepped out of my own. It was as if I was experiencing others’ traumas vicariously, yet without the resilience that people in such situations often develop or discover.
So, what can we do to build healthy, constructive relationships that are neither too Teflon to the point of insensitive arrogance on the one hand or too over-empathetic to the point of unhealthy confluence on the other? How can we develop emotional intelligence and resilience? Firstly, listen actively for expressed and unexpressed feelings of others. If you’re unaware or unsure, be curious and inquire. Secondly, establish and maintain a clear psychological boundary and relationship between your experiences and those of others. It may be about you but it’s not only about you.
If you would like help with creating and sustaining healthy, inspiring and effective relationships at work, get in touch! firstname.lastname@example.org
‘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?
It’s different to waiting, constructive waiting, when waiting itself is the wise and expedient thing to do. Procrastination is more about putting things off, not doing the constructive thing, avoiding what we need to or should do. It’s as much a psychological state, an oft debilitating stance, as an action or inaction. It’s the topic of reams of jokes too – suggesting that is has resonance, raising that awkward smile-when-found-out feeling, personally and culturally. We know it and recognise it in ourselves.
Yet why do we do it? Why do we put something off until tomorrow – or forever – that we know, at some level, would be better done today? Think of all those tasks, conversations, unresolved issues and that unfinished business that crowd in on us mentally and emotionally, running like background programmes that drain us. Think of how much energy it takes to avoid, to hold off, to delay rather than to do. We convince ourselves it’s about priorities – ‘the urgent and the important’. Maybe.
Think of it this way. Procrastination achieves or safeguards something for us. It fulfils a conscious or subconscious need. It could be a need to feel safe if a conversation feels too risky. It could be a need to feel self-esteem if a job feels too big or too hard. It could be a need to feel in control if an array of tasks feels too overwhelming. It could be a need to feel purpose-ful if our work seems meaningless. It could be a need to feel loved if a relationship appears at stake. It could be that we are just…tired.
So, what can we do if we notice a spirit of procrastination creeping insidiously into our clients? How can we help break the lethargy, the corrosive downward spiral it can create over time? 1. Acknowledge the need (above). 2. Challenge to decide. (The act of deciding is energising: ‘Optimism of action is better than pessimism of thought.’) 3. Challenge to act. 'Don’t overthink. Just do it – Now.' 4. Offer support to snap out of it, to jolt into action, if the client feels stuck. 5. Notice – and celebrate – achievement.
‘You can’t always control who walks into your life but you can control which window you throw them out of!’ (Anon)
It can be one of the worst feelings. To lose control. To be out of control. It’s also one of the main root causes of anxiety, depression and stress. To have control suggests to have choice, to have power to decide, to have agency, to be free. To lose those things, to have them taken away from us or to discover they lay out of reach for us can feel scary, disorientating and debilitating. It’s a critical consideration in change leadership, coaching, OD and training: how to handle issues of control.
I met with a change team recently that discussed how best to support people through transition. They had a very positive intention and created some great ideas. The critical and missing ingredient was to invite and involve the actual people they aimed to support in choosing what they would find most useful. The simple felt-experience of choosing can create a psychological sense of control in the midst of bewildering and anxiety-provoking change – and that can make all the difference.
I worked with a leadership team that felt overwhelmed by challenges they were facing. Their environment was so turbulent, complex and unpredictable that they struggled to understand it and to know what to do in response. Their felt sense of out-of-control-ness evoked anxiety and that made it difficult to think straight. Their solution lay not in exercising greater control but in letting go of their psychological need for control. They learned adaptive-responsive, emergent leadership instead.
How do you work with issues of control?
‘Britons’ top three favourite accents are Irish, Welsh and Geordie. The least favourite are Brummie, Scouse and Cockney. People with a Yorkshire and Welsh twang sound the happiest followed by Scouse. The Southeast sound the most intelligent and Glaswegians sound the angriest.’ (Howarth, Dec 2017)
Isn’t it interesting that accents carry such connotations and evoke such feelings? I arrived some years ago at London School of Theology in the South of England as a new student. It was a daunting experience: that first-day-at-school feeling. At the first evening meal, I heard another student speak with a Northern accent and instantly connected with him. We became great friends. It was as if our common accent gave us a deep point of contact – a ‘secure base’ (Bowlby) in an alien environment.
Accents, like other cultural distinctives, create and sustain a sense of unique identity and belonging. They distinguish 'us' from 'them', creating a socio-psychological boundary, an existential and emotional safety barrier, a metaphorical extended family, in the midst of a larger and potentially overwhelming complexity. I remember moving to a new area to engage in community development work. I had to learn the local accent convincingly in order to be accepted by local people. Accent influenced trust.
Accents can serve as a useful metaphor for cultural issues in organisations too. Here are some useful questions for leaders, OD practitioners and coaches: What functions as a secure base for people in this team/organisation? What brings hope and fulfilment here - or provokes anxiety or resistance if threatened? Where, when and how have helpful boundaries in this organisation become unhelpful barriers? Where may I need to learn a new ‘accent’ in order to build credibility and relationship?
‘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?
Nick is a coach, trainer and OD consultant with over 15,000 followers on LinkedIn. How can I help you? Get in touch! email@example.com