It was an energising experience, facilitating a group of leaders this week who are keen to build a new high performing team. We pushed the boundaries of normal ways of working to stimulate innovative ideas in all aspects of the team’s work. We used photos to create an agenda and physically enacted people’s aspirations to avoid falling into conventional patterns of heady, rational conversation.
It felt very different to meeting ‘because that’s what we do’. There was a different dynamic, energy and momentum. Participants leaned actively into the conversation, not leaning back in passivity or boredom. Yet it can be a real challenge to break free from tradition, from norms that trap a team in ways of doing things that feel familiar and safe but, deep down, lack inspiration or effectiveness.
In our meetings, how often do we pause before diving into the agenda to ask, ‘What’s the most important thing we should be focusing on?’, ‘How are we feeling about this?’, ‘What is distracting us or holding our attention?’, ‘What could be the most creative and inspiring way to approach this?’, ‘What do we each need, here and now, to bring our best to this?’, ‘What would be a great result?’
So I presented a simple model to the team with four words: content (what), process (how) and relationship (who) encircled around goal (where). In all my experience of working with individuals and teams, whether in coaching, training or facilitation, whether in the UK or overseas, these four factors are key recurring themes that make a very real difference.
They seem to be important factors that, if we get them right, make a positive impact. They lead to people feeling energised, more alive, more motivated and engaged. Conversely, if we get them wrong, they leave people frustrated, drained of energy, bored or disengaged. Worse still, if left unaddressed, they can lead to negative, destructive conflict that completely debilitates a team.
We can use a simple appreciative inquiry to reflect on this.‘Think back to your best experience of working with another person or team. How did you feel at the time?’, ‘Think back to a specific example of when you felt like that with the person or team. Where were you at the time? What were you doing? What were they doing? What made the biggest positive difference for you?’
One of the things we notice when asking such questions is that different things motivate and energise different people. That is, of course, one of the tricky parts of leading any team. So a next question to pose could be something like, ‘What would it take for this team to feel more like that, more of the time for you?’ and to see what the wider team is willing to accommodate or negotiate.
Now back to the model with some sample prompts to check out and navigate with a client, group or team. Notice how the different areas overlap and impact on each other. It’s about addressing all areas, not just to one or two in isolation. However, having explored each area in whatever way or level suits your situation, you are free to focus your efforts on those that need
Goal: ‘What’s your vision for this?’, ‘Why this, why now?’, ‘What are you hoping for?’, ‘What would make a great outcome for you?’, ‘What would be the benefits of achieving it or the costs of not achieving it?’, ‘Who or what else is impacted by it and how?, ‘Where would you like to get to by the end of this conversation?’, ‘An hour from now, what would have made this worthwhile?’
Content: ‘What’s the most important issue to focus this time on?’, ‘What is the best use of our time together?’, ‘What is the issue from your perspective?’, ‘How clear are you about what this issue entails?’, ‘What feelings is this issue evoking for you?’, ‘What do we need to take into account as we work on this together?’, ‘Do we have the right information and expertise to do this?’
Process: ‘How would you like to do this?’, ‘What approach would you find most inspiring?’, ‘What might be the best way to approach this given the time available?’, ‘Which aspects to we need to address first before moving onto others?’, ‘What would be best to do now and what could be best done outside of this meeting?’, ‘Could we try a new way that would lift our energy levels?’
Relationship: ‘What’s important to you in this?’, ‘What underlying values does this touch on for you?’, ‘How are you impacted?’, ‘How are you feeling?’, ‘What are you noticing from your unique perspective?’, ‘What distinctive contribution could you bring?’, ‘What is working well in the team’s relationships?’, ‘What is creating tension?’, ‘How could we resolve conflicting differences?’
The versatility of the model is that it can be reapplied to coaching, training and other contexts too. In a training environment you could consider, for instance, ‘What are we here to learn?’ (goal), ‘What material should we cover?’ (content), ‘What methods will suit different learning styles?’ (process) and ‘How can we help people work together well in this environment?' (relationship).
In a coaching context it could look something like, ‘How do you hope to develop through engaging in this coaching experience?’ (goal), ‘What issues, challenges or opportunities would you like to focus on?’ (content), ‘How would you like to approach this together?’ (process) and ‘What would build and sustain trust as we work on these things together?’ (relationship).
I’d be interested to hear from you. Do the areas represented in this model resonate with your own experiences? Which factors have you noticed tend to be most attended to or ignored? Do you have any real-life, practical examples of how you have addressed these factors and what happened as a result? In your experience, what other factors make the biggest difference?
‘What is most important about any event is not what happened, but what it means. Events and meanings are loosely coupled: the same events can have very different meanings for different people because of differences in the schema that they use to interpret their experience.’ These illuminating words from Bolman & Deal in Reframing Organisations (1991) have stayed with me throughout my coaching and OD practice.
They have strong resonances with similar insights in rational emotive therapy and cognitive behavioural therapy. According to Ellis, what we feel in any specific situation or experience is governed (or at least influenced) by what significance we attribute to that situation or experience. One person could lose their job and feel a sense of release to do something new, another could face the same circumstances and feel distraught because of its financial implications.
What significance we attribute to a situation or experience and how we may feel and act in response to it depends partly on our own personal preferences, beliefs, perspective and conscious or subconscious conclusions drawn from our previous experiences. It also depends on our cultural context and background, i.e. how we have learned to interpret and respond to situations as part of a wider cultural group with its own history, values, norms and expectations.
A challenge and opportunity in coaching and OD is sometimes to help a client (whether individual or group) step back from an immediate experience and reflect on what the client (or others) are noticing and not noticing, what significance the client (or others) are attributing to it and how this is affecting emotional state, engagement, choices and behaviour. Exploring in this way can open the client to reframing, feeling differently and making positive choices.
In his book, Into the Silent Land (2006), Laird makes similar observations. Although speaking about distractions in prayer and the challenges of learning stillness and silence, his illustrations provide great examples of how the conversations we hold in our heads and the significance we attribute to events often impact on us more than events themselves. He articulates this phenomenon so vividly that I will quote him directly below:
‘We are trying to sit in silence…and the people next door start blasting their music. Our mind is so heavy with its own noise that we actually hear very little of the music. We are mainly caught up on a reactive commentary: ‘Why do they have to have it so loud!’ ‘I’m going to phone the police!’ ‘I’m going to sue them!’ And along with this comes a whole string of emotional commentary, crackling irritation, and spasms of resolve to give them a piece of your mind when you next see them. The music was simply blasting, but we added a string of commentary to it. And we are completely caught up in this, unaware that we are doing much more than just hearing music.
‘Or we are sitting in prayer and someone whom we don’t especially like or perhaps fear enters the room. Immediately, we become embroiled with the object of fear, avoiding the fear itself, and we begin to strategise: perhaps an inconspicuous departure or protective act of aggression or perhaps a charm offensive, whereby we can control the situation by ingratiating ourselves with the enemy. The varieties of posturing are endless, but the point is that we are so wrapped up in our reaction, with all its commentary, that we hardly notice what is happening, although we feel the bondage.’
This type of emotional response can cloud a client’s thinking (cf ‘kicking up the dust’) and result in cognitive distortions, that is ways of perceiving a situation that are very different (e.g. more blinkered or extreme) than those of a more detached observer. In such situations, I may seek to help reduce the client’s emotional arousal (e.g. through catharsis, distraction or relaxation) so that he or she is able to think and see more clearly again.
I may also help the client reflect on the narrative he or she is using to describe the situation (e.g. key words, loaded phrases, implied assumptions, underlying values). This can enable the client to be and act with greater awareness or to experiment with alternative interpretations and behaviours that could be more open and constructive. Finally, there are wider implications that stretch beyond work with individual clients.
Those leading groups and organisations must pay special attention to the symbolic or representational significance that actions, events and experiences may hold, especially for those from different cultural backgrounds (whether social or professional) or who may have been through similar perceived experiences in the past. If in doubt, it’s wise ask others how they feel about a change, what it would signify for them and what they believe would be the best way forward.
My boss had been reading John Ortberg’s ‘Everybody’s Normal Till You Get to Know Them’ and it was time for us to plan our annual leadership team retreat. Looking for a theme title, he suggested half-jokingly, ‘How about ‘Everybody’s Weird’?’ I laughed at first but then thought for a moment…what a great concept and idea. It felt inspired. How to blow away any sense of normality and conformity and to meet each other afresh as we really are. Our creativity lies in our unique weirdness and what a great way to explore our individual quirkyness and its potential for the team and organisation.
Every group, every team, develops its own normative behaviours. Some even prescribe them by developing explicit competency and behavioural frameworks. It provides a sense of identity, stability and predictability. It can also improve focus and how people work together by establishing a set of ground rules, how we can be at our best. The flip side of all of this is that a team can begin to feel too homogeneous, too bland. It can lose its creative spark, its innovative spirit. The challenge was how to rediscover our differences, our wonderful, exciting, diversity in all its weird complexity.
We invited people to bring objects that represented something significant in their personal lives and to share their stories. We invited people to use psychometrics to explore their preferences to shared them in the group. We invited them to challenge the psychometric frames, not to allow themselves to be too categorised. We invited people to challenge stereotypes, to break the moulds they felt squeezed or squeezed themselves into, to look intently for what they didn’t normally notice in themselves and each other, to allow themselves to be surprised and inspired by what they discovered.
It felt like an energetic release. People laughed more, some cried more, others prayed deeply together. The burden of leadership felt lighter as people connected and bonded in a new way. It felt easier to challenge and to encourage. By relaxing into each other and themselves, people became more vibrant, more colourful, less stressed. They saw fresh possibilities that lay hidden from sight before. They discovered more things they liked about each other, fresh points of common passion, interest and concern. They built new friendships that eased their ways of working. It felt more like team.
What space do you and your organisation allow for weirdness? Do you actively seek, nurture and reward differences? Do your leadership style and culture bring out and celebrate individuals’ strange idiosyncracies, each person’s unique God-given gifts, talents and potential? Have you had experiences where a capacity for weirdness has enhanced your team or organisation’s creativity and innovation? Do you risk inadvertently squeezing out the best of weirdness by policies and practices that drive towards uniformity? Could a bit more weirdness be more inspiring and effective – and fun?! :)
‘Could you be more direct?’ I took part in a 2-day workshop recently, a Gestalt approach to conflict, challenge and confrontation in groups. There were 12 in the group, mostly therapists of one kind or another, and we started by introducing ourselves in 2s. ‘This is my life’ in 5 minutes. Next, after each had spoken, we commented on what we had noticed. ‘We’re the same in that…’ and ‘We’re different in that…’ It drew our attention to what we notice in first encounters and how we tend to deal with sameness and difference in groups.
There’s something about sameness that can provide a sense of comfort, of security, of being part of something bigger than ourselves. When we feel insecure, we may seek out points of sameness in order to build rapport, establish connection and thereby reduce our anxiety. Safety in numbers. In this context, difference can feel distancing, even threatening. If we continue to focus on sameness, an awareness of group identity emerges, a feeling of belonging, a sense of differentiation between the ‘us’ and the ‘not us’.
This is an important principle in group and inter-group dynamics. The inclusive dynamic that creates a sense of group within a group is the same dynamic that can exclude others. If we focus exclusively on sameness within our group and on difference between our own group and other perceived groups, we create boundaries between us. If difference emerges within our group, we may ignore or resist it because it doesn’t fit the group norm, the norm we have subscribed to in order to feel secure. This can lead to collusion and group think.
A way to break through unhelpful group and inter-group barriers is to acknowledge what the group provides for us, its functional value at a social psychological level, and yet also to draw our attention to the differences between us within the group and the similarities between us (or at least some of us) and those (or at least some of those) in other groups. This has the effect of raising fresh awareness, reconfiguring group identities, enabling us to see different patterns of sameness and difference and thereby fresh possibilities.
A later activity in this workshop was to practice immediacy. We split into two groups. One group sat in a circle in the middle of the room, the others around the outside observing those in the inside circle. The inside group was invited and encouraged to practise speaking very honestly, clearly and directly with one another. The conversation started.‘I would like to facilitate the group.’ ‘I’m happy for you to facilitate.’ ‘I feel anxious.’ ‘What do you feel anxious about?’ ‘I feel anxious in case those on the outside judge my performance.’
It continued. ‘If I lose interest, I will check out.’ ‘What will checking out look like, what will we see?’ ‘I will gaze out of the window’.‘What do you want us to do if we see you gazing out of the window?’ ‘Call it.’ ‘I don’t know what you are thinking or feeling and I want to know.’ ‘Why is that so important to you?’ ‘Because I don’t feel a connection with you, I feel distant from you.’ Our task was to focus on what was happening within and between us here and now and to articulate it openly and courageously, even if it risked evoking conflict.
Asking, ‘What is happening here and now?’ is such a powerful question. It draws attention of a group away from a topic, issue or abstraction into the immediate moment. ‘I’m thinking…’, ‘I’m feeling…’. The impact in the workshop group felt both profound and electric. To ask, ‘What is going on for me now?’ is a great way of establishing contact with myself. To articulate what I am thinking and feeling in a group or to hear others do the same invites others to be open too and, thereby, builds the quality of relational contact within the group.
This can prove tricky cross-culturally, especially where it could be considered inappropriate, disrespectful or even offensive to speak out in a group. In other situations, it may simply feel too risky to acknowledge openly what I’m thinking or feeling. The challenge in this workshop was to experiment with being more open, less constrained, than we would normally behave. ‘If I asked you on a scale of 10 how honest and up-front you are in groups, what would you say? What would really happen if you were to ratchet it up a notch?’
There’s something comforting about being part of a group, fitting in, belonging. It enables me to relax, feel rooted, feel part of something bigger than myself, feel accepted by others. It helps me to feel safe, secure, loved. I sometimes choose which groups to identify with, e.g. those who share similar passions, interests or values to my own. At other times, I find myself part of groups by default, e.g. those who share my nationality or culture.
There’s a fascinating principle in social psychology that describes how we learn scripts and roles throughout life. Scripts are how people behave in different situations, roles are the parts we learn to play in those situations. How I ‘should’ behave at work, in a restaurant, whist driving on public roads etc. are all governed by social conventions or schemata, that is, implicit or explicit rules or codes of conduct that determine what is acceptable in each context.
It’s easy to see how such norms arise and why they are perpetuated. At one level, playing out scripts enables social predictability, harmony and cohesion. It’s one of the reasons why encountering or moving between cultures with different norms and rules can feel so uncomfortable. At another level, groups often have a self-reinforcing influence. We develop patterns of thinking and behaviour that are repeated and become subconscious and normative.
These are some of the reasons why challenging group thinking and behaviour can be so problematic. On the one hand, we and others may have a vested interest in sustaining group culture because of a psychological need to belong. On the other hand, group norms can become so entrenched that questioning them can feel bemusing, annoying, disruptive or subversive. Established groups have inherent potential for self-preservation and self-defence.
Against this backdrop, I’m intrigued by Paul’s comment in the New Testament which says (my paraphrase): ‘(a) Don’t be shaped from without by how things work (literally, schemata) in the world around you but, instead, (b) be radically changed literally, metamorph) from within by a renewing of your mind.’ I’m struck by parallels with contemporary insights from (a) social psychology and (b) cognitive behavioural psychology.
It acknowledges how people are shaped by culture. It’s an unavoidable social psychological principle. From our earliest experiences of social interaction, e.g. within a family, friendship, school, club, community or organisation, our thinking and behaviour are shaped by shared language, experiences, values and norms. At the same time, it challenges us to ‘wake up’, to become aware, to break out of hypnotic prevailing influences.
For Paul, this is more than a purely cognitive exercise. It’s a spiritual transformation that will result in a profound shift of insight, perspective, values and behaviour. It’s something that God desires to do in, through and between us. It's a transformation that will set us free to see the world through fresh eyes, to reevaluate social norms and to act with autonomy. It will provoke resistance but it's also the way to authentic life.
Nick is a coach, trainer and OD consultant.