'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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'In ‘Leadership and Self-Deception’ (2006), the Arbinger Institute highlighted the subtle, subconscious and serious art of deceiving ourselves and others in organisations...without realising it. This short article says a bit more about this strange risk phenomenon and invites your insights and ideas on how to address it!
Is everything we know wrong?'
In 2010, the BBC released a ground-breaking Horizon documentary entitled, ‘Is Everything We Know About the Universe Wrong?’ It set out to question and challenge current, fundamental and widely-held scientific beliefs about the universe, particularly in relation to ‘dark matter’, ‘dark energy’ and ‘dark flow’. Perhaps the most radical dimension to the investigation was its willingness to wonder. Are our hypotheses, our cosmological theories, so convincing to us, so self-evidently true for us, that they blind us, close down uncomfortable questions, act as powerful psychological-cultural filters?
It coincided with the release of a plethora of popular books (e.g. Chabris & Simons’, The Invisible Gorilla, 2011; McRaney’s, You are Not so Smart, 2012) that set out to reveal and challenge our cognitive and cultural limitations and distortions. An underlying, recurring theme is that self- and group deception act in stealth mode. We are most deceived when we don’t know we’re deceived. We face the same challenges as leaders, coaches, OD or trainers: how to practise reflexivity/praxis ('critical reflective practice') whilst enabling other people, groups and organisations to do so too.
Thomas Aquinas offers useful psychodynamic insight here. If we face an unresolved question that captures our interest and imagination, it sets us off on a quest, a journey, of discovery. If, however, we find an explanation or solution that we find convincing, the mind comes to a standstill, our thinking comes to a halt. This is a reason why transformational teachers such as Jesus, Buddha and Socrates are famous for posing high order, high quality, questions, puzzles or paradoxes – searching, evocative, provocative stimuli that leave us deeply restless until, if possible, we find resolution.
So, some food for thought: As leader, coach, OD or trainer, what are you, or your clients, assuming or taking at face value? When have you, or they, leapt to a conclusion too soon, treating an open question as if it were a closed one? What rules, principles or received wisdom (e.g. ‘good practice’) do you, or they, consider obvious or sacred? When do you, or they, shut down questions or avenues of inquiry because they feel too difficult or sensitive to raise? Which tricky issues, experiences or conversations are you, or they, avoiding? How can you get self-deception out of stealth mode?
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‘The big question is, who rolls the dice?’ (Pav Ponnoosami)
You may have seen change models that depict human experience as a linear curve. The idea is that people progress through change by transitioning gradually through different emotional phases. On the whole, it’s a useful tool – except, that is, when it isn’t. Perhaps a more apt metaphor for complex change in organisations today could be a snakes and ladders board. (If you’re not familiar with this children’s game, it involves rolling a dice to move a piece from start to finish, step by step. If you land on a ladder, you accelerate forward. If you land on a snake, you slide backwards.)
That’s so often what happens in change – and so often what it feels like too. We step forward then, all of a sudden, someone or something hits us and knocks us off course. We trip up, fall down, get up, dust ourselves off, steady ourselves and find our feet again. We take another step, more cautiously this time and, unexpectedly, happily, something positive shifts. Wow, we leap forward now filled with fresh energy, confidence and hope. Success! We smile, breathe…then, shockingly, the ground gives way. Woah?! How did that happen? Where did that come from? Two steps forward, one step back.
Why is this metaphor useful? It creates a realistic expectation, an anticipation, that enables us to handle change. If we know in advance that change will feel chaotic at times; that multiple changes from different sources may well collide and create conflict; that not everything will be as smooth, clear, organised and coordinated as we may hope for; that sometimes our energy will dip or rise, that we may feel irritable, excited, annoyed all in the same day and – yet – that we will get through this; that the ‘miserable middle’ is only the middle; we can keep moving forward, pushing ahead.
It normalises what otherwise feels abnormal. It helps us not to panic. It begs interesting questions too. For instance: Whose game is this? Who decides the rules and why? What piece have I chosen to represent me – or my team? Who or what are the snakes and ladders here? Am I a ladder for others or a snake? How resilient and resourceful am I if I land on a snake? Who am I competing with? What would it mean to win? Who roles the dice? As leaders, coaches, OD and trainers, we can listen for the metaphors that our people/clients use; explore them playfully; experiment with alternatives.
‘I was embarrassed to ask the king for a cavalry bodyguard to protect us from bandits on the road. We had just told the king, ‘Our God lovingly looks after all who seek him.’’ (Ezra 8:22)
I don’t often laugh when reading biblical texts but this honest, heartfelt confession did make me smile. The writer, a role model and leader, found himself in a daunting situation and the faith he had felt in more secure circumstances now felt pretty daunting too. It was a moment of decision and it feels so contemporary, so real. Would he be willing to put his feet where his mouth had been? I can so relate to that tension. Do I stick with my vision, my beliefs, my values, when things get tough – or do I shrink back, compromise, take the easier road? Am I willing to take genuine steps in faith?
In the UK, we have ‘zebra crossings’ on busy roads, intended to provide safe crossing points for pedestrians. If I stand at the edge of a crossing and see cars flying past at speed, I may well hesitate to step onto the crossing for fear of being injured or killed. In fact, for visitors to the UK, choosing not to step onto the crossing will look and feel like a rational decision. Yet here’s the rub: until I take that first step, that step of faith, the cars are not obliged to stop. It’s only when I do so that the traffic will come to a halt, as if by magic. Change is what happens as we move forward.
So back to Ezra – and to us. Faith is acting on what we believe, as if it were true. I can imagine that daunted feeling, that heart-racing moment, that deep-breaths experience before taking…that…step. It could be an unnerving time, a risk-taking venture, a profound exercise in trust; whether in God, our intuition, research, resources, training – or all of the above. It could also be a thrilling, life-giving adventure, taking us to the edges of what we had dared to imagine possible or hope for. As leader, coach, OD or trainer, how do you enable people to take scary steps? How do you do it too?
I was astonished and alarmed to feel the building shudder each time the heavy vehicle went past. The doors inside my home rattled loudly, pictures slewed on the walls and cracks appeared around the window and door frames. I felt a new and urgent empathy with people living in earthquake-prone zones. I couldn’t believe it. Phone in hand, I hurriedly called the construction site manager. He sounded surprised but agreed to come and inspect the damage the following week.
Sure enough, the doorbell rang and here were 2 men dressed in hard hats and safety outfits on the doorstep. The contract manager with whom I had spoken previously introduced himself politely. The other, apparently the local site manager, stood back with distinct reluctance and scepticism written on his face. I reached out, shook hands then took them for a guided tour of the house, pointing out various cracks on route. Their reactions and responses couldn’t have been more different.
The contract manager listened carefully, took note of the damage and promised to ensure it would be rectified quickly, explaining what that would involve in practice. He also offered to inspect the exterior walls to check for any signs of structural damage. The site manager, by contrast, insisted in defensive tone that the vehicle could not have shaken the house, that the cracks could not have been caused by shaking and that they are, instead, a normal part of a building settling. Right.
So what are some lessons here for leaders, coaches, OD and trainers? I will list a few that spring to mind: 1. How open are we to invite and receive critical feedback on our leadership, interventions, actions or services? 2. How do others feel when they give us feedback? 3. How do we respond to feedback, especially if it is unsolicited or may leave us looking and feeling vulnerable, foolish or mistaken? 4. If/when cracks appear, what do we do to restore relationship, confidence and trust?
It can at times feel like everything is falling apart. And there is a reason for this. Because it is.’ (Neil Gibb)
I love the provocative spirit of Gibb’s words in this Introduction to his book, ‘The Participation Revolution: How to Ride the Waves of Change in a Terrifyingly Turbulent World’ (2018). The vividly dramatic, apocalyptic language suggests a world in process of fragmentation, disintegration and profound change, shattering old patterns and paradigms and signalling the birth pains of something radically new. It has resonances with Kotter’s burning platform metaphor: change now or die.
We can see glimpses of this shift phenomenon all around us on the world stage: e.g. global warming and related extreme climate change; multinational corporations transcending the power and wealth of nation states; increasing nationalism challenging international alliances and institutions; mass migration across national and cultural boundaries; a postmodern shift in trust from authorities to peers; a digital revolution that is transforming communications, cultures and relationships.
No surprise then that change leadership and management feature so strongly as recurring themes in contemporary leadership literature. Organisations – and people – can feel battered by multiple, relentless and ever-increasing waves of change that often feel outside of their control and yet to which they are nevertheless required to respond. It can leave leaders feeling anxious, bewildered, paralysed and tired. It can leave employees unsettled and anxious about an uncertain future.
Perhaps it’s enough to make anyone feel dizzy and disorientated. What kind of change curve can make sense of our experiences when we face so many changes from so many different directions all at the same time? Gibb proposes learning to ride the waves; a crash course in surfing, if you like. It sounds like a great idea in principle…but how do you do it in practice? If you are a leader, coach, OD professional or trainer, how do you enable others to navigate turbulent waves of change?
‘Who or what features in your holiday photos?’ (Richard Marshall)
I find the question intriguing. Richard is a psychologist who has lived and worked in different parts of the world. He observed that some people notice, focus on and value that which is the same as their ‘normal’; others that which is different. I’m definitely a difference person. I like and get a buzz from diversity – not in its politically-correct sense – simply from different-ness. Since earliest childhood, I have felt drawn to people, things, places and ways of seeing and doing things that are radically different to the norm, my norm. It has shaped profoundly my life, career, relationships and choices.
At school, I looked out for kids who were from different countries and spoke different languages. Unsurprisingly my own best subjects at school were languages too. Later, as my friends settled down in life, I hitch-hiked around Europe, loved the different cultures, currencies – and lamented when the Euro brought boring…sameness. I dreamed of marrying an exotic girl. I spent much of my adult life working in international NGOs, fascinated by so many new environments, cultures and people. I have studied and worked in 4 different professional fields: community work, TEFL, coaching and OD.
So, here’s the thing: how often have you heard the maxim, ‘People don’t like change’ or, ‘People are resistant to change’? A large swathe of change management literature is devoted to the theme. Yet is it really true? People may well resist change that is and feels imposed on them – in which case the resistance may be a response to a lack of choice, a loss of control, rather than to a change per se. As leaders, OD, coaches and trainers, how well do we notice and capitalise on the insight and energy of those who instinctively prefer creativity and innovation, difference and change? What do you do?
‘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?
Nick is a psychological coach, trainer and OD consultant with over 18,000 followers on LinkedIn. How can I help you? Get in touch! firstname.lastname@example.org