Mike Wilson is a great leader and challenged me with his typical warmth and smile: ‘Nick, I’ve noticed you always stamp draft on the front cover when you submit a paper, proposal or report. I’m going to encourage you not to do it next time and to see how that is for you...’ Mike was astute and had touched on a deep point. What did draft represent for me? Why did I do it? This event was some years ago now but I remember that conversation, that feeling, that revelation, vividly.
A previous leader had commented that I produced very high standards of work and yet, on the flip side, it sometimes I meant I spent too much time and effort on one task to the detriment of another. It was as if I was trying to do everything perfectly, irrespective of what the task called for. I felt continually pressured and stressed and blamed it on unrealistic demands. I needed to learn that, in most situations, ‘good enough’ isn’t mediocre or a failure. It really is good – and enough.
There are, of course, circumstances in which exceptionally high standards are important. I look at the Rio Olympics this week and marvel at the incredible training, stamina, ability and achievements. Yet if we apply the same principle to everything we do, we risk becoming anxious and disheartened, exhausted or depressed. I think the key here is in something about wisdom and discernment, perspective and choice. This is so much easier to achieve with support than on our own.
So here are some useful coaching options: 1. Psychodynamic, cognitive behavioural or personal construct coaching to explore and address beliefs and values. 2. Person-centred or mindfulness coaching to notice and handle feelings differently. 3. Gestalt, systems-based or social construct coaching to identify and address relational, cultural and contextual drivers. 4. Appreciative inquiry, strengths-based or solutions-focused coaching to build on ‘good’ and create a new future.
It was dark, at night, in heavy traffic. I could only just make out the shocking scene in front of me. I flipped up my visor and there, in the headlights, I saw a man beating another man badly. Without thinking, I pulled up on my motorcycle and quickly ran over to the assailant, arms outstretched and said, ‘Are you OK?’ He looked at me, puzzled, got back in his car and drove away. The other man, face covered in blood, thanked me…’You just saved my life.’
I felt puzzled too. I was astonished that I had approached the attacker with compassion and yet also noticed how it had diffused rather than inflamed the situation. DeBono calls this ‘lateral thinking’ – to do the counter-intuitive as a way of creating shift. It felt to me like God’s surprising wisdom. It was an important learning moment for me too. What can our actions inadvertently evoke in others? How far do we actually create what we experience?
Then I’m in Germany. I had been an anti-Nazi activist since I was 15 and here I was in the midst of a Christian social work project that aimed to influence neo-Nazi youth by reaching out to them. It ran against everything I felt and believed. Surely – we must oppose these people vehemently rather than open our arms to them?! And yet, over time, I learned important things about their psychology. Attacking would have stiffened their resolve and reinforced their beliefs.
Now to 9-11. Appalling scenes on TV and people crying out for revenge. I remember my first words: ‘We need to think very carefully before we respond. What reaction is Al Qaeda trying to provoke and what will that achieve for them?’ It was a complex situation and a controversial stance and yet, years later, the Middle East is in flames, Islamist extremism is spreading, the West lives in fear of terror and refugees are pouring across borders at unprecedented levels.
I think Gestalt psychology can offer critical insight here. Figure and ground: figure is what holds our attention, ground is the backdrop that provides the context yet lays out of awareness. So here we are in the EU with problems of rising nationalism. The far right parties hold our attention, provide a focus for our fear and scorn, yet the conditions that fuel their support, that drive people towards them, lay unexamined, out of consciousness, out of the spotlight.
Like a magician that tricks by misdirection, we can find our attention drawn to the person, the issue that lays immediately in front of our eyes and miss the vital background. It’s so tempting to go for it. We can feel justified in our actions, feel better about ourselves, yet how often do we compound the issue by what we do? How far are we creating the monsters that keep us awake at night? How can we spot the sleight of hand that deceives us so convincingly?
‘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.
Perhaps it’s natural to think about change in the new year. It marks a new calendar period, the start of brighter evenings, a change of seasons…depending on where you are in the world. The first time I visited Thailand was a big change for me, my first experience of Asia, somewhere I had longed to visit for years. It was December, the end of one year with a new year in sight. It was a development programme for leaders from 17 countries, an exciting experience.
One of the speakers, Dr Lim Peng Soon, led a day looking at Managing Transitions, based on William Bridges’ research and writings under that same title. I want to share some of his insights here, drawing on Bridges and some of my own insights too in case they may be of benefit to others. I’m also interested to hear more from you on this topic, e.g. what have you experienced, noticed or learned when leading or coaching others through change?
We can distinguish between ‘change’ and ‘transition’ as something like this: change is what happens around us; transition is what happens within us. In other words, change is situational, transition is psychological or even spiritual. The latter is a process of reorientation from what-has-been to what-is-going-to-be. This involves moving from endings (leaving the past) through a ‘neutral zone’ (the inbetween phase) to a new beginning (the future state).
If change leaders don’t pay attention to leading transitions alongside leading change, they can lose talented people, struggle with communication as anxiety is high or trust is eroded, find low levels of poor performance or high levels of stress and absenteeism. This demands attention from the outset. How people experience leadership and change will have as much impact on the desired outcomes as practical change plans and programmes.
As Soon comments, ‘In change management you start with the end in mind. In transitions management you start with the end-ings in mind’. This points to the need to recognise that change often implies loss or leaving. Who will lose what? How far does it matter to them? How can we mark endings and show proper respect for the past? What can we hold onto alongside that which will change in order to ensure a degree of continuity?
The endings phase starts as soon as people become aware of the changes. As leaders, it’s a phase that at its best entails drawing close to people, listening to them, hearing their questions and concerns. Too much emphasis on a positive future can feel insensitive at this stage, especially if it seems to negate or prohibit people sharing how they feel about the loss that change implies. ‘When you’re feeling the pain, it can be hard to see the gain.’
The neutral zone is where people often feel ambiguous or disorientated. They may be starting to move on but haven’t yet let go of the past or grasped hold of the future. During this phase, the future may seem unclear, uncertain or scary. People may feel more confused, irritable and tired than usual. They may appear to zigzag between moods, sometimes enthusiastic, sometimes despondent. As leaders, listen, be patient and be prepared to provide support.
The new beginnings phase is where the proverbial psychological dust is beginning to settle, the future looks clearer, people start to feel more focused and energised and previous difficulties are perceived as opportunities or challenges. People are ready to move on, to push ahead with creating and stepping into the future state. As leaders, this is the time to positively envision, to stoke the fires of inspiration, to involve people in creative and engaging tasks.
In my experience, one of the biggest leadership challenges is to be sensitive and patient throughout the transition. Leaders tend to go through transitions faster because they create and lead the change. It takes time for other people to work through the changes the leaders have already processed. People can be inappropriately labelled as ‘resistant to change’ when they are simply working through a normal transition process and experience.
On this point, Soon cautions us to be aware of the ‘marathon effect’. Leaders may race ahead and become very critical of people apparently lagging behind, especially if they appear to be holding up the changes. In a marathon, the front row sets off first but it takes a while for the middle section to start moving and even longer for people at the back. By the time people in the middle and back sections are moving, leaders can be already racing off to the next initiative.
Finally, the fact that people go through the same change doesn't mean they go through the same transition. Some may embrace change enthusiastically from the outset, others may struggle at first but move on to become solid supporters in time. In Bridges' model, people tend to experience something of all three states simultaneously. It's really a question of which is the dominant state at any point in time and to act as leaders and coaches accordingly.
It was minus 7 so I got up early to scrape ice off the car windows. The journey to the train station that followed felt like torture. I got stuck behind a JCB for 10 miles with nowhere to pass. It reached a peak of 20mph and I kept glancing at the clock anxiously. Was I going to make it? I could feel the frustration like a tight knot in my stomach. Every passing moment felt like slow motion. I kept looking ahead, hoping for a clear stretch to overtake. It took forever. When I finally did get past, I felt like waving an angry gesture at the JCB driver. ‘How could you be such a *£%!&$* pain?!’
I left the car and jogged the final 10 minutes to the station. According to the clock, I’d missed the train but adrenaline spurred me on. On arrival, breathless, I discovered the train was running late. I caught it, stepped on board just as it pulled into the station. I sighed with great relief. Yet what a waste of nervous energy. The pressure I put myself under not to miss the train. The imagined exaggerated consequences if I were to arrive late. The risk of dangerous driving in icy conditions. My ungracious attitude towards the JBC driver. The life draining stress of an impatient journey.
How much of my life I live under self-imposed pressure. The deadlines I create for myself. The expectations I place on myself. The determination to arrive on time, never to be late. The avoidance of risks that could lead to a mistake. The drive to do everything perfectly. The unwillingness to let a ball drop. The desire always to do well, never to fail. Such pressures can drive me inwards, close me down, cause me to lose contact with God, lose contact with people. It leaves me tired, stressed, anxious, irritable, frustrated and self-centric. It’s not the kind of person I want to be.
I can almost hear God whispering to me, ‘Stop…look...listen...look up and around you…breathe…’ It’s about regaining perspective, keeping the most important things in view. Not losing sight of the people, the things, the issues, the actions that matter most. It’s about loosening my grip, learning to prioritise, learning to negotiate, increasing flexibility. I know these things in my head, I practice them in my work, but the experience this morning has flashed into consciousness with renewed energy and vision. It’s something about learning to live, to love and to know peace.
If you’re tempted to cut back on L&D when budgets are tight, think twice. ‘Isn’t it easier to cut staff training than to make cuts in other business areas?’ Easier, maybe; wiser, maybe not. Let me pose four inter-related reasons why business leaders should pause before letting the axe fall.
Consider your talent. Talented people are those who make a disproportionate contribution to your organisation’s success. They’re the ones who leave a big hole if they leave. They’re also the ones who will find it easiest to leave if you don’t invest in their learning and growth.
Consider what makes your business succeed. Whatever your business is and does, I can guarantee it will depend on knowledgeable, skilful people. Disinvest in people development and, over time, your knowledge and skills base will erode and your performance with it.
Consider engagement. Engaged people are those who put in discretionary effort, sell your business by their enthusiasm, inspire and motivate others to do their best. Such people love to learn and grow. Cut back on L&D and you risk losing the hearts of your most committed players.
Consider your customers. They look to your business with high expectations of high quality products or services, and high quality customer service. If customer experience is compromised by poor service from untrained or disheartened staff, you can wave goodbye to their cash.
But what are the corresponding demands on L&D? Is L&D as an investment of value per se? It does symbolise valuing and investing in people. Nevertheless, the onus lies on L&D professionals to ensure its value in terms of attraction, retention, development and business results.
I would be interested to hear of any examples from organisations where business leaders have chosen to continue or increase investment in L&D in hard economic times. For example, what were the drivers, what convinced you, how did you achieve it, what were the results?
Strategic thinking is about keeping the big picture in view. It’s often about asking the right questions, questions that frame or reframe an issue and place it in a broader perspective. It’s about stepping back, raising awareness, challenging assumptions, discerning what’s most important. This demands listening to God, our environment, ourselves and each other.
In order to do this well, we need to develop an ability to step back from immediate detail, plans and activity. Imagine yourself with a camera. It’s about zooming out to see the wider landscape, the ‘what else’ that can go unnoticed. It’s often the bigger frame that makes sense of what we’re seeing when we zoom in. It provides context, a basis for meaning-making.
The value of stepping back mentally, metaphorically zooming out in this way, is that we can re-evaluate our priorities, our direction, what we’re spending time and resources on, how we’re approaching things, whether we’re focusing on the right things, whether we’re allowing ourselves to become distracted by things that are not adding optimum value.
One way to develop our strategic thinking ability is to jot down sample questions that can help draw the big picture into view. ‘What do our customers or beneficiaries value most?’, ‘What are our competitors planning and doing?’, ‘What are the major forces driving change in our environment or sector?’, ‘What challenges and opportunities are emerging over the horizon?’
Be open and curious. ‘What would a great outcome look and feel like for our different stakeholders?’, ‘What do we do best?’, ‘What do we feel called to do?’, ‘Who are our potential allies?’, ‘What assumptions are we making?’, ‘What are we avoiding?’, ‘How are we constraining ourselves?’, ‘What might someone else see that we’re not seeing?’
Another way is to start with a day to day issue, perhaps something you’re working on at the moment. At an operational level, the key concern is how to do it well to achieve the desired results. It’s as if the frame has already been set. ‘This is what I need to do. I will spend my time, effort and resources on working out how best to achieve it, then do it.’
Now step back from the same issue a little and ask yourself or invite someone else to ask you some wider tactical questions. ‘What is it that makes this task so important?’, ‘What other ways could I achieve the same, or even better result?’, ‘How does what I’m doing dovetail with related tasks that others are doing?’, ‘How well does this serve our overall team goals?’
Take successive steps back until the questions you are asking draw the wider external environment and future considerations into account (as above). Now you are likely to be approaching a strategic level. The further you step back, the more research it is likely to entail. It’s about moving outwards from your normal frame of reference to consider wider issues that may prove pivotal.
What all these questions do so far is to develop an awareness of ‘what else is in the picture that we should take account of in our key decisions?’ In other words, they focus on the ‘what’. The next stage involves discernment, or the ‘so what’. What does all you’ve been thinking about, looking at, exploring and researching point towards that could be significant?
Facing multiple issues, knowns and unknowns, clarity and ambiguity, can feel bewildering. In light of this, moving forward may best involve working with others, drawing on shared thinking, experience, intuition, listening and prayer. ‘What are we hearing?’, ‘What should we pay attention to and what can we safely ignore?’
The final phase, the ‘now what’, involves making strategic decisions. These are the fundamental decisions that will form the basis of subsequent strategising and planning. The best decisions provide focus and clarity. ‘This is how the strategy will achieve our vision’, ‘This is what we will do and not do’, ‘This is how we will resource the organisation to achieve it.’
The process as a whole is about learning to plan with our eyes open. It’s about seeking to be open, exercising wise judgement and making sound decisions. In light of the fluid, rapidly changing and often unpredictable environments that many organisations are facing these days, strategic review and re-focus is now more often an on-going than periodic venture.
Dave arrived clutching a notepad and pen in hand. ‘Can we use this meeting to create a strategy?’ I was his coach and intrigued by this request. ‘I guess we could do that,’ I replied, ‘and I’m wondering what else is in the picture that may explain why you’ve brought it here.’ He looked surprised at first, then a little sheepish. I continued, ‘It might normally be something you would work on with your line-manager. After all, it’s his role to mentor you in this area.’
Dave put his paper down, sighed and explained how he and his line-manager had had an argument that week. Things felt very frosty between them now and Dave felt abandoned with the strategy piece. So I proposed options for the way forward. ‘We could use this meeting to look at the strategy, or we would use our time to explore how you might move forward in your relationship with your line-manager. What would be the best use of this time for you?’
Dave chose to switch the agenda to the relational piece. If he could resolve that, he could work on the strategy with his line-manager and that would be more effective in the long run anyway. It was a good lesson for me in pausing and stepping back one pace before diving in. ‘Why this, why now?’ or ‘What else is going on here?’ can be useful questions to ask oneself or the client before racing ahead into action points.
Sarah looked stressed as she handed me the report. ‘Could you cast an eye over this for me before I forward it to the management team?’ I noticed the tension in her voice. ‘What kind of feedback would you find helpful at this stage?’ I asked. I had learned through experience that, sometimes, when a person asks for feedback they are really seeking affirmation. ‘Any comments on how it could be improved’, she replied.
I glanced at the report and it looked confused, unclear. I felt surprised because, when this person had spoken on the subject earlier, they had sounded very clear. I started to make amendments to the text in an attempt to streamline it but it quickly looked like a teacher’s red pen all over the page. So I stepped back and thought, ‘what would make the biggest improvement?’ and jotted down a few notes along those lines instead.
Nevertheless, I still felt uneasy. What was really going on here? I mentioned my unease to Sarah and commented on how the written piece came across very differently to her spoken presentation. ‘I don’t like putting things in writing’, she replied, ‘I struggle to say what I really want to say.’ ‘How critical is it that you should submit a written report?’ I asked. She looked surprised, hadn’t thought of that. ‘What format would enable you to present at your best?’
Sarah went away and discussed this idea with her own line-manager. She had assumed a written report was needed whereas he now assured her it wasn’t. As a result, she decided instead to leave the report and to present orally to the management team. I could see a huge weight lifted off her shoulders. Once again, it was valuable to step back from the immediate presenting task to consider what might lie behind it.
And so it strikes me there’s wisdom in being curious, in exploring the story behind the story. Not jumping to conclusions too quickly, not looking before leaping. I need to be careful of my own need to feel needed, my own need to resolve the dilemma that could drive me to focus on addressing the immediate presenting issue. I need to learn to pause, breathe, pray, take one step back and enable the client to do the same.
Management literature is filled with guidance and case studies on how to change organisational culture. Some view culture as an overarching descriptor of ‘how we do things round here’. Others view it as a shared underlying belief system that influences behaviour and practice.
I think there’s some truth in both these viewpoints. They point to the shared nature of culture, that is, it includes the individual yet extends beyond towards a group: its values and ways of acting. It’s this shared dimension that differentiates culture from individual thinking or behaving.
Yet it still feels like something is missing. Culture is a felt experience. Observing culture, studying it, analysing it, isn’t the same as directly experiencing it. It’s something about what it feels like, what it means personally, existentially to be part of something bigger than myself.
And yet it isn’t just something I feel. It’s about a mood, a shared experience, something we within the culture feel, together. It’s an intangible phenomenon, a group dynamic, that feels tangible. It guides us, moves us, motivates us in subconscious ways that feel natural and mysterious.
This is one of the reasons why culture change programmes are so problematic. If culture was simply about thinking or behaviour, it would be possible to devise methods that motivate and enable change in these areas. In some situations, that may well be all that is needed.
In transformational change, however, we must pay attention to deep rooted existential issues, psychodynamic and social psychological phenomena, cultural climate and experience. It’s about working-with, certainly not doing-to, and that demands humility, wisdom and patience.
Nick is a freelance coach, trainer and OD consultant specialising in reflective practice.