Cliché: ‘There’s no I in Team’. Linguistically correct; yet conceptually so wrong! Inspiring and effective teamwork is always a dynamic interplay between I, you, we and they. It’s the magic that occurs where personal leadership and team leadership intersect and collide; releasing fresh insight, energy and potential. Here (below) is a short case example. What do you think?
I remember their faces vividly. I was invited to work as team coach with a leadership team that was experiencing significant conflict. Our introductory meeting was filled with deafening silences, with team members looking around or down at their notes to avoid painful eye contact. The next step was to meet with each team member individually. A resounding, recurring theme emerged: the conflict was between 2 team members, with each of the 2 attributing the blame to the other, and the rest of the team were innocent bystanders. It was the 2 protagonists who needed to change.
I invited each of the bystanders, separately, to look back to the last time conflict erupted in a team meeting. ‘What happened?’ They each described the behaviour of the 2. ‘And what did you do?’ They each described sitting back, saying nothing. ‘And why was that?’ Their responses ranged from, ‘I didn’t want to get caught up in the conflict’ to, ‘I didn’t want to be seen as taking sides’ to, ‘I didn’t want to make things worse.’ I pressed on with the challenge, ‘So, as a leader, what could-will you do differently next time?’ They looked bemused, or alarmed, and shuffled uncomfortably in their seats.
What we are seeing here is an intersection between personal leadership and team leadership. The conflict between the 2 was influenced, or supported, or sustained, by the behaviour, the passivity, of the wider group. I teased out different scenarios with the bystanders, the kinds of interventions they could make instead: e.g. ‘I feel really uncomfortable when this kind of conflict breaks out in a meeting.’; ‘When you 2 fight, I find myself withdrawing.’; ‘Let’s find another way to tackle this that doesn’t get so heated.’; ‘Let’s look at how to hold robust conversations that feel more constructive.’
At the next team meeting, I invited team members to share their reflections from our conversations, along with what they would take responsibility for and what they were willing to do. I was amazed by the courage and humility that surfaced: ‘I sometimes sit quietly and don’t say anything when I should. I’m going to try to speak up in future. I want you to help me to do it.’; ‘I play it safe when I should take more risks. From now on, I’m going to say what I’m thinking and feeling, even if I feel scared.’ It was the start of a transformational leadership-team process…where everyone changed.
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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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An opportunity to receive questions.
‘Unless your ideas are ridiculed by experts, they are worth nothing.’ (Reg Revans)
You may have heard of Action Learning – a powerful tool used in organisations and between peers to learn in the context of action, and act in the context of learning. It typically involves one person presenting an issue, and then receiving critical questions from peers that enable them to think it through for themselves and reach their own solutions. In this sense, we could think of a conventional Action Learning process as a group-team of individuals providing coaching-consultancy to an individual.
I saw this idea turned on its head on a trip to Africa. An organisation was grappling with key strategic issues and invited leaders and professionals to form Action Learning sets to address them. Instead of one person presenting, however, the groups first spent time clarifying and crystallising their own issues. They then asked of themselves and each other: What are the critical questions that, if we could answer them, would provide us with strategic options? They finished by reaching agreement on solutions.
It’s the first time I had seen Action Learning used as a collective venture in this way. It was a a shared, relational process of inquiry, ownership and problem-solving wherein the group itself functioned simultaneously as both client and coach-consultant. I have seen similar patterns of approach used in Asia since. What strikes me is that this isn’t just a different, novel methodology or technique. It’s the product of a deep cultural mindset, belief and stance that sees, values and places the group first.
In my experience, there are corresponding benefits and risks to working in these different ways. An individual-orientation can develop personal insight, awareness and autonomy yet may lack ‘the whole is greater than the sum of the parts’ strength and cohesion in addressing change. A group-orientation, on the other hand, can bring the latter advantages to bear, yet faces its own risks including social loafing, conflict-avoidance or group-think. I’m curious, therefore: what have been your experiences of Action Learning?
What principles, beliefs or values guide your most important decisions? Olson (below) sounds a word of caution and Nickols offers a useful grid. Let me know what you think!
‘There are no solutions; there are only trade-offs.’ (Thomas Sowell)
It was a critical juncture in my life so I met with a friend and mentor, Adrian Spurrell, to think things through. I had lots of ideas and some concerns but struggled to clear the mental fog that was amassing in my head. What to choose, what to do, when there are so many issues and options in the frame yet no clear and definitive way forward? Adrian challenged me by drilling down hard to my values, to what (for me) is non-negotiable and what isn’t, to sift the proverbial wheat from the chaff. The serious conclusions I reached in that conversation 2 years ago have guided my major life decisions since.
This approach resonates with Dr Deborah Olson’s view in Psychology of Achievement (2017) who comments that: ‘When clarifying your goals, be clear about what you want – and consider the things you don’t want to risk.’ Don’t want to risk adds a useful and important dimension to more conventional goal-orientated conversations that focus solely on what we hope to obtain or achieve. I worked with one organisation where the founder lived an aspirational life and achieved amazing things at work but lost sight of his family. His daughter committed suicide. The ethical stakes can be very high indeed.
Fred Nickols offers a simple and practical tool called a ‘Goals Grid’ that can be used to help identify goals and priorities (https://www.nickols.us/versatiletool.pdf) at personal, team and organisational levels. It poses two key questions: ‘Do I/we have it?’ and ‘Do I/we want it?’, places these questions on the axes of a 2-by-2 grid, adds the alternative responses of ‘Yes’ or ‘No’ against each question and proposes an action for each domain. The resultant combinations and options are: Have + Want = Preserve; Have + Don’t want = Eliminate; Haven’t + Want = Achieve; Haven’t + Don’t Want = Avoid.
Nickols’ model can be applied flexibly and creatively to incorporate a diverse range of helpful angles in leadership, OD, coaching and training conversations; e.g. strategic-visionary, spiritual-existential, psychological-relational and tactical-systemic. It ensures that trade-offs are made as conscious decisions with transparency and awareness. It also reminds that, when reaching towards a brighter future, to notice, value and protect who and what matters most. ‘Not jeopardising what we already have can matter as much as gaining new things.’ (Olson, 2017). Always keep values in sharp view.
‘The problem is, we are protecting people when we should be preparing them.’ (Carole Pemberton)
How to weather a storm. Resilience has become a buzz word in organisations today, linked with well-being, positive risk, agility, adaptivity and sustainability. As an individual-personal level, the imperative is being driven by a growing awareness of and concern about mental health issues, experiences, influences and impacts, including in the workplace. At a wider organisational level, factors include ever-more complex global dynamics and a seemingly relentless need for change. All in all, it can feel like a perfect storm – leaving leaders, managers, people professionals and staff alike feeling perplexed and exhausted.
I worked recently with a forward-thinking public sector organisation in the UK. It was and is working through a merger with two sister organisations and recognised the criticality of building resilience by preparing leaders, staff and teams psychologically in advance for the transitions that this would entail; as well as to manage the practical change process itself effectively. I will share insights and ideas here that participants said they found most useful. We framed the experience as moving from an until-now-known reality to a not-yet-known future reality, through what sometimes may look-feel like a messy place in the middle.
1. Scary voids. In the absence of knowing exactly what a change and new future may hold, some people will fill the interim void with anxiety; others with hope. It’s normal – and partly influenced by what each person has experienced in the past. Hold your nerve. Reach out if you – or others – need help. 2. Small things are big things. In the midst of change and transition, the most insignificant of decisions and actions can take on great symbolic significance – positively or negatively. Don’t be surprised if this happens. Ask each other what small thing(s) would make the biggest positive difference – then, if possible, do it.
3. Mind games. People, teams and organisations construct narratives that help them make sense of their experience. Pay careful attention to the stories that you and other people tell yourselves – and each other – on route. Change the narrative: change the experience. 4. Rollercoasters. Transitions can feel like a bumpy ride, often feeling more like a ‘snakes and ladders’ game than a smooth change curve. Be patient, flexible and forgiving. One step at a time. 5. Building blocks. Reflect and help others reflect on life-work changes that have worked out well in the past – and how.. Engender resourcefulness. Inspire hope.
How do you develop personal, team and organisational resilience?
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Tuesday night. A close friend in Asia discovers she is in terrible financial debt through no fault of her own. She has supported a near relative through her studies at considerable personal cost and the relative has let her down badly. I ask her to ask the bank how much she needs to clear the debt. Wednesday night. She tells me, UK equivalent, £1000. She says, ‘Let’s pray.’ I agree. Thursday night. A biker in the UK who I don’t know well calls me and asks if I can meet him at a biker/truck stop café on Sunday morning. I wonder if I have inadvertently done something to upset him. I agree to meet.
Sunday morning. He’s waiting at the table and I sit down, nervously. He asks, ‘That girl in Asia you once spoke about trusts Jesus, right?’ ‘Yes’, I reply. He slides an envelope across the table towards me. Now I am puzzled. He says, ‘Jesus told me to give her this – as soon as possible. Can you send it to her?’ Intrigued, I say, ‘Yes.’ He continues, sternly. ‘This is nothing to do with me. It’s between her and Jesus. I don’t want to hear about it again.’ I slide the envelope into my pocket, thank him and leave. At home, I open the sealed envelope. £1000 inside in crisp, new bank notes. I am speechless.
I don’t know about you, but this type of encounter, this kind of experience leaves me stunned and amazed. It has happened to me on quite a few occasions in my life and I’m convinced it lays beyond ordinary, rational explanation. I’m going to be brave here and to call it a miracle. It’s unpopular in contemporary secular culture to talk about God or the super-natural in the context of work and I’m not going to get all religious because that would be inappropriate and annoying. I am, instead, hoping to provoke an open spirit of curiosity. Have we thrown out the baby with the bath water?
I remember reading Holloway’s book, Spirituality & Social Work (2010) and Mathews’, Social Work and Spirituality (2009) which re-introduced questions of faith and spirituality into domains where such considerations had effectively and, I would argue, over-hastily been dismissed as irrelevant. Having reacted rightly against ‘religion’ in its worst, oppressive forms, I detect a fresh openness to consider Who or what may lay beyond the boundaries of empirical science; especially when working with people and cultures for whom life-giving faith and spiritual dimensions are fundamental.
As leader, coach, OD or trainer, what role, if any, do faith and spirituality play in your practice? How do you work effectively with people and cultures who consider them critical? Have you ever seen or experienced something that caused you to question everything you had believed was real and true?
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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 good news is you have 200 people working for you. The bad news is they don't see it that way.' (Euan Semple)
I love how humour can transform, creating fresh perspective by shedding novel light on people, issues and situations in ways that plain comment or description just can’t. It can be a great technique for reframing, making the familiar unfamiliar and vice versa too. I worked with a colleague, Benjamin, who enjoyed using phases playfully. If something went wrong or didn’t work out as we had hoped, or if someone was sounding unduly pessimistic, he would simply grin disarmingly and say something like, ‘Ah well, every silver lining has a cloud.’ Humour can inject energy, diffuse tension, bring people together, make life and work more fun. Smiles and laughter are good for health and well-being too.
I worked with Richard, an occupational psychologist and HR leader who had a passion for developing talent and enhancing people’s commitment, capacity and contribution. He could have presented his case for change using formal statistics, spreadsheets and information. Instead he would start with an open, provocative smile, ‘There are people who left this organisation years ago...but still turn up for work every day.’ It had a very different qualitative feel to sarcasm, cynicism or bland statement of fact. It was a powerful use of irony to highlight an issue, evoke curiosity, challenge the status quo and invite a response. I could almost hear every person in the room thinking, ‘I wonder if that could be me?’
For humour to work, it needs to have some resonance with what the audience already knows, perceives and experiences as real and true. I think back to the first time I read Scott Adams’ The Dilbert Principle (1996). I sat on my bed and literally cried laughing. It was for me, as for many others, a refreshingly new approach to shining a critical spotlight on the quirky, crazy and self-defeating politics of office life. This, however, signals that humour is culturally and contextually-relative. Have a glance, for instance, at satirical Despair.com. Are its posters funniest for those who have seen their earnest equivalents first? What have been your best experiences of humour at work? Who or what made them so effective?
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This short article addresses the question, how to spot and deal with untrue truisms that appear to be true. The tricky bit is that common truisms often guide and reinforce everyday beliefs, behaviour, decisions and actions – including at work. Untrue truisms can prove limiting, unhelpful or damaging. What do you think?
‘Ring a bell and Pavlov’s dog salivates.’ True? Not necessarily. It depends on the context in which the dog hears the bell (Anne Rooney, Psychology – How the World Works, 2019). ‘Brainstorming in a group generates more ideas than individuals generate alone.’ Not necessarily true either. It depends on whether individuals in the group have had opportunity to write down their own ideas separately first (Michael West, Developing Creativity in Organisations, 1997).
We could list many more frequently-proclaimed and widely-accepted truisms here that turn out to be not entirely true. ‘People don’t like change’. Oh, really? Perhaps closer to the truth could be a more qualified statement, ‘Some people don’t like change’ or, as a variation, ‘Most people don’t like having change forced on them’ where the emphasis is definitely more on forced – an implied denial of choice, freedom, influence or control – than on change per se.
The problem here lays in simplistic generalisations, superficial conclusions, trite clichés that may well sound plausible and convincing on the face of it yet lack validity and soundness. They present an idea of reality with an air of marked confidence, yet which doesn’t correspond with research evidence or lived experience. (Some contemporary politicians came to mind as I wrote that…but I won’t go there). Worse still, we and others may act on untrue-truisms as if they were true.
What can we do as leaders, coaches, OD and trainers to notice, reveal and test hidden, personal-cultural assumptions that are so often masked and disguised as statements of fact? Firstly, listen for words or phrases that signpost a claim is about to follow, e.g. ‘of course, ‘obviously’, ‘clearly’, ‘self-evidently’, ‘everyone knows that’. Secondly, acknowledge that the explicit truth claim represents an implicit belief. Thirdly, open it up for critical exploration and evaluation.
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‘Who started this work – the organisation’s founder, or the child who inspired him to do it?’
This challenge came as a healthy jolt, a moment of insight and inspiration, from Carlos, a humble, radical leader working with poor communities in Brazil. It was at an induction event for new leaders of a now very large, global non-governmental organisation (NGO). Its history was being presented through the lens of the organisation’s founder and its successive global presidents. The founder was a war photographer who had been appalled to see the terrible suffering of children during the Korean War. An encounter with a child had galvanised his determination to do something about it.
The resultant NGO had worked very hard over the years to support poor and vulnerable children throughout the world and had indeed achieved some remarkable results. Over time, however, as the organisation had grown in scale and scope, it had started increasingly to view the world through an organisational lens rather than through the eyes of a child. The simple-yet-profound voice of a child had become lost in the midst of complex strategies, structures, policies, plans and programmes. The presidential perspective symbolised a shift from client/beneficiary-centric to organisation-centric.
Why is this important? Firstly, this child’s interaction with and influence on the founder challenges traditional ideas of leadership as a hierarchical-structural phenomenon rather than, as according to Chris Rodgers (2015), ‘an emergent property of people interacting together, not as an elite practice confined to those at the top of organizations.’ Secondly, this NGO’s experience highlights the risk of subtle-yet-critical drifts away from a customer-client, outside-in focus to an intra-organisational, inside-out/inside-inside focus. How can we address these issues as leaders, coaches, OD and trainers?
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Nick is a coach, trainer and OD consultant with over 15,000 followers on LinkedIn. How can I help you? Get in touch! firstname.lastname@example.org