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?
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Accidents happen. How do you respond to incidents that knock your carefully-made plans sideways?
I felt a bit nervous as I entered the office and, then, decidedly embarrassed as I accidentally tipped a hot cup of tea down my smart white shirt. The client looked bemused, as if trying to stifle a smile, before racing out of the room to return with a bright yellow t-shirt. Kind man. Not to be out-done by this, my brother went to a formal, tense business meeting with a client. As he approached their office, a car mounted the pavement and hit him, sending him flying into a wet, muddy gutter. His case burst open and his papers went everywhere. It almost broke his thigh but it also broke the ice.
It’s funny how, sometimes, when things go wrong – paradoxically – it makes things go right. In both cases, what felt like a complete disaster in the moment turned out to be the very thing that enabled a different type of contact, a positive bridge of human empathy and relationship and a better outcome. An emotional experience of humour or relief melted the rational, technical barriers that could otherwise have proved more difficult to navigate. Yet how many of us would welcome such ‘accidents’ when they arise, or see only how they wreck our plans, expectations or delicate egos?
It calls for a different kind of awareness, expectation and stance in the world. It means being open to possibilities, opportunities and potential in whatever happens. It’s far less about being planned and more about being prepared. It’s consistent with Professor Richard Wiseman’s view of what makes some people (apparently) ‘luckier’ than others (https://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/p06t5w4d). In coaching, we call this developing a client’s resource-fulness. Often, it entails enabling a person to approach the world, work and relationships with open hands, mind and heart; faith, hope and love.
So – how do you respond to serendipitous ‘accidents’? How do you build clients’ resourcefulness?
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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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‘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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'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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'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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'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?
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