'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 progressively 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? Who rolls the dice? What would it mean to win? 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 compelled 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 in Canada at change leadership event aimed at paving the way for a new global initiative. My role was as organisation development consultant, invited to share psychological and cultural insights that could turn out to be significant as things moved forward. I was new to change management on such a large, complex, international scale and, at times, felt out of my depth, as did a number of my colleagues who were experienced experts in the field. We persevered and it was a useful event.
At the end I asked Ric Matthews, programme leader, to give me some feedback on how he had experienced both me and my contribution during those 2 weeks. I was new to the organisation and keen to learn. He looked at me directly and gave me a fairly succinct list of things he had seen and had experienced as my strengths, along with a similar-length list of things that he had seen as my weaknesses. I could recognise everything he described and thanked him for his honesty and clarity.
Ric ended by saying, ‘My advice is to focus on and build on your strengths, not to focus on and spend effort addressing your weaknesses. Your weaknesses may in fact turn out to be the flip sides of your strengths. In addressing your weaknesses, you may inadvertently undermine your strengths.’ This was my first introduction to an explicit strengths-based approach to leadership and change. It felt energising, inspiring and liberating. It has had a huge impact on my work and career since.
If you’re familiar with appreciative inquiry and-or solutions-focused coaching, you will notice resonances with a strengths-based approach. It’s about building on what is going well, shifting our attention from problems to solutions, moving our gaze from deficits to possibilities. It’s being aware of what we do well, using and developing it and releasing our full potential to become all we can be. How do you use this type of positive psychology in your work as leader, coach, OD or trainer?
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?
‘My English is terrible,’ he said, despondently, in near-perfect English. ‘I feel like I’m going backwards rather than improving.’ This recent, brief conversation with an asylum-seeker student typified a phenomenon that leaders, coaches and trainers often encounter in people and groups. A German social worker friend describes it as: ‘Eine Frage der Wahrnehmung’, which is, translated, ‘A question of perception.’ It’s something about perspective, belief what we notice and how we construe it.
In this vein, Dr. Terrence Maltbia commented astutely in a LinkedIn post this week that coaching and facilitation are ‘as much about mind-sets as skill-sets.’ This student (above) was far more competent, more skilful, than he realised. Yet his own assessment of his performance affected his confidence badly. This, in turn, affected his emotional state and what he believed himself capable of doing. The immediate coaching challenge was, therefore, to address his mind-set, not his language skills.
I asked and gestured: ‘Imagine a box. The box contains everything you know in English. How big was the box when you arrived in the UK?’ He gestured the shape and size of a tiny box. ‘And now..?’ He gestured a significantly larger box. ‘And so..?’. A wide smile broke out on his face. He sat up straight and his voice became stronger as he spoke: more confident, able and hopeful. In that moment, his perspective had changed and everything had changed with it. Eine Frage der Wahrnehmung.
Why is this important? A person’s performance at work can be regarded as a dynamic product of 4xCs: commitment, competence, confidence and credibility. Commitment: what we are willing to do; competence: what we are able to do; confidence: what we believe about ourselves; credibility: what others believe about us. In my experience, confidence is a critical recurring factor in enhancing or inhibiting a person’s effectiveness. So, I’m curious: how do you enable a change in perception?
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?
I can’t imagine how it must feel. To rush into darkness in the middle of the night, torrential rain pouring down, seconds later a flood of thick mud crashing through your home, in just moments destroying everything you own and have worked for. This happened to some close friends in the Philippines this week. A typhoon brought widespread and heart-breaking devastation. The poor have no insurance, no savings to fall back on and to recover. I hate that the poor are so vulnerable.
Yet what happened next astonished me even more. Having ensured her parents and children were safe, this Filipina girl hitched a ride into a nearby town, bought bags of warm bread and returned to distribute them to her stunned and shocked neighbours. She then returned to the town to cajole local officials into assembling an emergency response before, finally, setting off to search for a safe and dry room to rent. That was the start of an extraordinary week, entering this New Year 2019.
In the following days, she bought emergency supplies of rice, noodles and other essentials for people living in a nearby jungle village whose homes had been flooded too. They were cut off by a raging, swollen river without food or shelter. She adorned each package carefully in gift wrap so that hearts as well as bodies would be touched and warmed. She then navigated the river, trudged through sodden forest and rice fields and handed over the gifts to astonished, grateful families.
Wow. What a response: this instinct to look out towards others in crisis, to reach out rather than to shrink back, to open up rather than to close down. I reflected on how self-focused I could be, prioritising my own needs over those of my neighbours, paying attention to my own concerns first. I ask what motivates her and she responds simply yet profoundly, ‘It’s what Jesus would do.’ What’s your first instinct in a crisis? Does it evoke self-preservation or radical altruism? What do you do?
I think I saw an angel this week. I was walking into town the day after Christmas when I noticed a young man walking ahead of me, beer can in hand, dressed like a skinhead and looking decidedly rough. He stopped momentarily and stooped to the ground. I imagined he was going to drop his can at the roadside and I thought, cynically and silently, ‘Typical’. Instead, to my complete surprise, he picked up another empty can and continued walking. As we progressed, he picked up can after can, bottle after bottle, all discarded by revellers the night before. I was surprised, puzzled and intrigued.
As we entered the town, I found myself continuing to follow him. He came to a rubbish bin and carefully dropped the cans and bottles inside it. Now I was really amazed. Instinctively, I felt in my pocket and pulled out some coins. Walking across the road, I smiled, held out the cash towards him and said, ‘Here - buy yourself a drink. I was so impressed to see you doing that.’ Now he looked surprised, puzzled and intrigued. ‘You don’t need to do that,’ he said shyly, ‘I’m just trying to look after my neighbourhood.’ I noticed wet blood across his knuckles, as if from a fight. A real paradox.
He held out his hand and asked my name. I told him, asked his and he replied. We shook hands and parted ways. I felt nervous about the blood on my hands and, discretely, rushed off to find a place to wash. At the same time, I felt humbled, confused and inspired by this curious character. How quickly and easily I had judged him. How he was the one that had picked up litter, not I. How he did what was needed without seeking recognition or reward. How he modelled good citizenship without saying a word. I think I saw an angel this week. A true spirit of Christmas and a vision for a new year.
‘Of all the things that sustain a leader over time, love is the most lasting.’ (Kouzes & Posner)
I honestly believed I was following Jesus until I took my first step into the Philippines. I had become a Christian some years earlier and, as such, had tried to centre my life on the Christ of the gospels. I say ‘tried’ because it has been a rocky ride so far. Highs, lows and everything in between. I swing from burning inspiration to faltering faith, from close to God to straying widely off the path. I always struggle with church-as-institution and with my own stumbling discipleship. Then I encounter a poor Filipina, a girl who grew up on a remote jungle mountainside, whose life transforms everything.
She is wild, crazy, passionate, funny and compassionate. Much like Jesus – whom she loves – she both inspires and terrifies me: inspires me by what’s possible; terrifies me by what it may call from me. Her life models her own radical mandate: ‘Whatever status or power you have, use it for those who are vulnerable; whatever money you have, use it for the poor; whatever strength you have, use it for the weak; whatever hope you have, use it to bring hope to those who live without hope. Speak up for justice and truth – whatever the cost. Pray.’ She lives it literally – and that scares me.
Where I see issues, she sees people. While I’m still thinking about it, she’s out there doing it. Her self-sacrificial lifestyle looks and feels profoundly reckless and unnerving. It unsettles me. It alarms me. It evokes a spiritual-existential crisis. It shakes everything in me to the core. Yet it also kindles fresh glimmers of light. I see amazing hope on the faces of people whose lives she touches. I see the ordinary-extraordinary miracles that God performs through her every day and it strengthens my own faith. She evokes a yearning in me to see and love Jesus and the poor more deeply: whatever.
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