'Beware the stories we tell ourselves.' (Brené Brown)
In fields of psychology such as TA (transactional analysis) and Gestalt, there’s an idea that, as we look back over our lives, we only notice key events that stand out to us as in some way significant. We don’t notice everything else. The events that hold our attention from our past are often those that we consider pivotal moments or experiences for us and that still carry emotional resonance. We join the dots between the events and, for us, the narrative that emerges becomes our ‘life story’.
(If you want to try this out for yourself, pause for a moment, take a sheet of paper and draw a line that, in some way, represents your life. Some people use an image of, say, a river as the line. Now mark key relationships, moments, events or experiences in your life on the line. You may want to draw these as, say, high points or low points – or as graphic images. When you are finished, tell yourself or someone else the story that has emerged. Notice how the story sounds and feels.)
This ability to create patterns and to tell stories provides a sense of continuity and coherence and enables us to make sense of our lives. Instead of recalling multiple random events, we experience life as journey. It’s like how we hear music as melody or flow, not as disconnected, separate notes. We do the same in teams, groups, organisations and cultures. We notice some things, don’t notice other things and create narratives based on what we see, believe and experience as significant.
Yet a story is necessarily selective. What now appears as true and coherent to us is one possible narrative, one version of events, one way of making sense of things. Furthermore, the more self-evident the story appears and feels to us, the greater the risk is that we are trapped, like Alice, in our own Wonderland. The stories we tell ourselves influence and reinforce what we notice and not-notice now, what sense we make of it, how we feel and how we anticipate-respond to the future.
So how to use these insights when working with clients? 1. Notice how a client depicts their issue, relationship or situation. What story are they telling themselves? How are they feeling as they do it? 2. Explore what they are not-noticing, what they are assuming, who or what is not featuring in the story, how the same facts or perceptions could be configured differently. 3. Enable them to experiment creatively with alternative stories to raise fresh awareness, insight and possibilities into view.
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?
At a crucial moment in World War 2, Winston Churchill is said to have consulted with two of his key advisors on how to proceed in the face of Nazi Germany’s terrifyingly-effective military advances. One proposed (my paraphrase), “We need to become more organised than the Nazis if we are to defeat them.” The other pushed back in response: “No, the key to victory lays in our unique ability to improvise and, thereby, to take the Nazis by surprise. Organisation is the enemy of improvisation.”
What a dilemma. It’s like Myers Briggs J meets P in stark confrontation. The challenge here was how to face a serious existential threat posed by a highly organised enemy and not only to survive it but also to win: whether to out-organise the organised or to out-wit the organised by doing what they least expect. Yet, in that moment, two people looked at the same data-information, made sense of what they saw in different ways, drew different conclusions and proposed very different solutions.
I see parallels in some of the opportunities and challenges that leaders, OD, coaches and trainers face today. In volatile, uncertain, complex, ambiguous (VUCA) and stressful situations, how often are our observations and decisions - and those of our clients - based subconsciously on (and thereby constrained by) implicit psychological-cultural assumptions and preferences, e.g. for certainty-structure vs fluidity-agility, rather than necessarily on what the situation itself calls for per se?
Take, for instance, restructuring and re-engineering projects to solve issues where different types of conversations and relationships could have been less costly and more effective; or formal change management programmes that adhere to strict policies and procedures whereas innovative change leadership could have achieved far better outcomes. This begs important questions: What lies beneath different analyses and ideas for solutions? How can we work with clients to raise them into awareness?
'Worthwhile elephants make it real.'
‘Of course.’ I can hear you thinking. ‘Tell us something we don’t already know.’ Or, perhaps – and quite reasonably so – you are wondering what on earth I am talking about. If, by chance, I have spiked your curiosity, let me break it down into 3 parts that form important ingredients of inspiring and effective conversations at work: worthwhile; elephants; make it real. It’s about a degree of focus and quality of contact that can release energy, engender engagement and achieve great results.
First: worthwhile. ‘If we were to be having a really useful conversation, what would we be talking about?’ (Claire Pedrick). ‘What outcome from this conversation will mean our time together will have been well spent?’ Or, ‘First things first – begin with the end in mind.’ (Stephen Covey). The aim here is to clarify goals and aspirations, test implicit assumptions and co-create focus. It addresses the question: ‘Of all the things we could spend time doing together, what would make this valuable?’
Second: elephants. ‘The most valuable thing any of us can do is find a way to say the things that can’t be said.’ (Susan Scott). It’s about naming the proverbial elephants in the room or, in Gestalt, speaking the unspoken, saying the un-said. ‘What are we not talking about that, if we were to talk about it, would release fresh insight and energy in this conversation…and in this relationship too?’ This is an invitation to ‘radical candour’ (Kim Scott), to practise courage, disclosure and openness.
Third: make it real. ‘What matters most to you in this?’ It’s about being real…doing real…avoiding an unhelpful, distracting dance around the most important questions and issues in the room. Cultural complexities surface here: how to hold conversations that are open and honest and, at the same time, respectful of different cultural nuances and norms. The core principle here is ‘challenge with support’ (Ian Day & John Blakey): having the conversations we need to have to move things forward.
I was reminded recently of one of my sister’s ex-boyfriends in our teenage years. The lad was called Tom and, one day, he decided proudly to have his name tattooed on his neck. When he got home, however, he was dismayed to look in the mirror and read ‘moT’. ‘I can’t believe they spelt my name wrong!’, he exclaimed in near despair. My mother looked on in near despair too. How could her daughter be going out with this guy?? My sister laughed but poor Tom just looked puzzled.
I can hear so many satirical expressions immediately coming to mind: ‘Not the sharpest knife in the drawer; A few sandwiches short of a picnic; Proof that evolution can go in reverse’, etc. It’s as if we’re a lot brighter than Tom, less prone to such stupid mistakes. Tom misinterpreted what he saw but we see and understand things more clearly. Perception is reality and Tom needed a reality check. We’re not that easily tricked or confused. We’re not like Tom. We see things as they are.
That is, until we read books like David McRaney’s ‘You Are Not So Smart’ (2012). With a wide range of disarmingly simple-yet-profound examples, McRaney describes a whole host of ways in which we unknowingly and convincingly delude ourselves, pretty much every day. Alex Boese concludes on the back cover: ‘Fascinating! You’ll never trust your brain again.’ It’s as if the assumptions we hold about what is real and true about ourselves, the world, life and relationships need to be held…lightly.
Yet this poses some serious existential, ethical and practical challenges. Who or what are we to trust if we’re not sure what’s real or true? Who or what are we to take a stance on if we’re not sure if the ground we’re standing on is sound? Faith, doubt and belief come face-to-face with diverse related fields, e.g. social constructionism and Gestalt. This is rich territory for deep coaching, leadership and OD. So, tell me - what are your experiences of working with certainty and uncertainty, ambiguity and trust?
'There is a voice that doesn’t use words. Listen.’ (Jalal ad-Din Rumi)
I spoke with a friend and colleague recently. It was about a bizarre incident in the news where a group of leaders acted over a serious issue in a way that was clearly ineffective and self-defeating. Somewhat bemused by this, I found myself musing out loud, ‘What were they thinking?’ My friend responded wisely, ‘They weren’t thinking. They were driven by an overwhelming feeling.’ How easy it is to assume rationality in decision-making where, at times, emotion may play a far greater part.
It reminded me of many years ago when I became a passionate and pained activist for human rights in Central America. It was during a period when governments and allied death squads committed acts of unspeakable horror against the poor. Alongside fellow activists, I burned myself out for the people and for the cause. On reflection, however, I’m not sure what practical difference my efforts made. A co-activist commented in retrospect, ‘We were driven more by instinct than strategy.’
Such accounts could lead us to propose that rationality is far superior to emotion or instinct when it comes to decision-making and effectiveness. We could conclude that to think-things-through is the best course of action, prior to action. ‘You didn’t really think this through, did you?’ is a culturally-coded message that signals to a person, ‘You idiot!’, or, in more gentle diplomatic language, ‘If you had thought about this more carefully beforehand, you would have achieved a better outcome.’
On this note, Prof Eugene Sadler-Smith sheds some intriguing light. He discovered that some of the best leadership decisions are informed by intuition, not by rational process, and that leaders often post-rationalise their decisions if rationality is valued personally or culturally as more acceptable, reliable or sound than emotion or intuition. This revelation calls for a critical-creative balance of intuition and rationality, with each inspiring, informing and testing the other.
What do you think? What’s your intuition telling you?
‘Expectation is a belief that is centred on the future.’ (Wiki)
You may recall the now-famous words of Tom Peters: ‘It is better to under-promise and over-deliver than to over-promise and under-deliver.’ It’s a bit like the parable in Matthew’s gospel: a man has two sons and asks them do something. One says ‘No’ and does it; the other says ‘Yes’ and doesn’t. It signals that expectation is linked to relationship – and trust. If we expect something to happen, it’s as if, for us, it will happen. If it doesn’t, we may experience surprise, disappointment or relief.
Relief, of course, because it’s possible to expect the worst as well as the best. If our fears are unjustified, we call this catastrophizing. Conversely, if our hopes are unfounded, we call it naivety. Both indicate a disconnect between what is imagined and what is real – although we may not be aware of it at the time. That said, our expectations may be entirely realistic, based on firm predictability. Such expectations represent promise, certainty and, where positive, hope.
If our hopes and expectations are high and fulfilled, it can increase our sense of satisfaction, delight and confidence for the future. If not, we are likely to feel frustrated, hurt or disillusioned – and to lose trust. This is why, instead of aiming high, some parents, teachers or managers encourage their children, pupils or staff to ‘lower their expectations’. The intention is to reduce stress by avoiding the risk of disappointment. (This raises interesting questions vis a vis managing customer expectations!)
Alternatively, we may take positive steps to increase the probability of high expectations being met. We may pray hard, sign binding contracts, plan in detail, identify and address critical success factors, prepare contingencies, mitigate the effects of sub-optimal performance etc. Or, psychologically, we may practise mindfulness, increase resilience, learn to handle expectations and disappointments differently. As leader, OD or coach, how do you handle expectations and enable others to do so too?
‘I have a dream.’ (Martin Luther King)
We were leading a strategy development process at an international NGO and wanted to envision ourselves and each other rather than to paint bleak pictures of burning platforms, a future to avoid or a present to escape. This was instead about inspiring wonder, hope and aspiration. ‘Imagine if…’ We invited people to paint, depict and enact future scenarios – the futures that our beneficiaries, supporters and we ourselves dreamed of. It was about imagining, hoping, reaching, aiming high.
There are parallels with the ‘dream phase’ of Appreciative Inquiry. This is where we invite people to imagine a different, brighter future: what they would like things (e.g. relationships, ways of working, success stories) to be more like, more of the time. There are also parallels with posing a ‘miracle question’ in solutions-focused coaching or therapy. This is where we invite a person to imagine vividly that a desired future state has already been reached or achieved. To experience it as if it really is.
This is important and here are some reasons why. If we focus our attention only on problems, deficits or undesirable states, it can evoke anxiety, drain energy and close-down creative thinking. I say ‘only’ because there are some situations (e.g. aspects of accountancy/IT/audit) where identifying problems/errors and fixing them can be very important. Some people also get a buzz, a real sense of achievement, from searching for, sniffing out or hunting down problems and sorting them out.
If, however, we focus entirely on problems, red-ratings or what is missing or broken, psychologically and culturally-speaking there is a risk that they grow out of proportion, that we become unhelpfully fixated on them and that we lose a broader perspective – thereby undermining vision, awareness and morale. If, conversely, we invite people to dream and tap into the power of positive imagination, it can inspire fresh hope, open new horizons, release creative energy and surface great ideas.
So – when was the last time you spent time dreaming..?
The best of intentions. How often we do things with good motives and yet, in spite of that, our actions have unintended consequences. It’s often because we haven’t known or understood the wider implications of what, where, when, how or with-for whom we do something. We may, for instance, offer support to a specific person, team or group…only to discover that a different person, team or group perceives that intervention as partisan, favourit-ist or creating unfair advantage.
Here’s an extreme. A friend was delivering aid to a poverty-stricken village in Sudan when he was stopped at gunpoint by militia from a neighbouring village. He was forced to the ground with rifle barrel pressed hard against the back of his head whilst the group relieved him of the vehicle and relief supplies. It turns out the group and its community were envious and resentful that they were being effectively ignored whilst supplies were being provided to a different village.
Or here’s a less extreme example. I spoke with an emotional intelligence (EI) specialist this week about using psychological mentoring, coaching and tools to raise awareness and insight, with a risk that some clients may use it in weaponised form to manipulate colleagues or customers. It points to a real need to pay attention to wider systemic, cultural, ethical, political and longer-term considerations when seeking to do the right thing – a principle known as ‘primum non nocere’.
If you’re a leader, coach, OD or trainer, here are some questions for critical reflection: When have you acted in good faith to resolve one issue, only to discover that your interventions have inadvertently incentivised, precipitated or exacerbated another? How do you manage the tension of never fully knowing or understanding the potential implications of everything – and yet still taking meaningful stances, decisions and actions? What is your best advice on ‘do no harm’?
Nick is a psychological coach, OD consultant and trainer, specialising in critical reflective practice.