My journey deep into the Waray jungle of the Philippines started some 40 years earlier at exactly 11 minutes and 8 seconds into Mike Oldfield’s Ommadawn album, the sequel to his incredible, iconic Tubular Bells masterpiece. I was laid on the floor in my parents’ living room with headphones on, listening and absolutely entranced by this mysterious music as it led eerily into strange, haunting vocals and a mesmerising, rhythmic, drum beat. Just then, I looked up and saw images on TV of a very old black and white film of tribal people canoeing up a jungle river. It set my imagination on fire.
I play Ommadawn at 12 minutes and 28 seconds now and those same pictures and feelings come flooding back evocatively – moving, exciting and captivating me, just as they did back then. Music has a way of doing that, as can e.g. image, colour, place, touch, object, word, taste or smell. We may find ourselves suddenly and unexpectedly transported back in an instant, in memory and in experience, as if no time at all has passed in-between. This can be very powerful in leadership, coaching, training and OD. Who or what holds positive resonance to build on? Who or what triggers negatively, to avoid?
‘Will not conform.’ (Christian Biker)
Misfit. Outsider. Square peg in a round hole. Rocks the boat. Shakes the tree. Breaks the mould. You may have worked with one. You may be one. There are different types of deviance; configured around, 'acceptance or rejection of cultural values and goals' on the one hand and, 'acceptance or rejection of conventional ways to achieve them' on the other (Robert Merton). This means that, if you consider me disruptive, it’s likely to be because I challenge what you want and/or do, and/or how you do it.
A deviant person can feel very uncomfortable to be around, unsettling as a colleague and difficult to manage. The answer to the question, ‘Is he or she a good fit?’ will be a resounding, ‘No’. A deviant person is a testing stone that reveals a contrasting norm; and he/she may galvanise a sense of shared identity and purpose among those who do fit: ‘We are X, not Y’. An oft-unquestioned assumption is that the defiant-dissident should change to fit in, and not that prevailing goals or culture should change.
Yet constructive divergence can be a critical catalyst for transformation: ‘I’m proud to be maladjusted’ (Martin Luther King); ‘Well-behaved women rarely make history’ (Eleanor Roosevelt). Performance enhancers look for positive deviants that display exceptional qualities, then seek to replicate them. Psychological coaches help people to learn from their positive deviant experiences: ‘when the problem isn’t a problem’ (Mark Tyrrell). Radical leaders invite positive deviance to innovate, to break through.
How deviant is your thinking and practice? How do you enable positive deviance in others?
If at first you don't succeed? 'Try to hide your astonishment.' (Harry Banks); 'Hide all the evidence that you ever tried!' (Billy Collins)
There are things we can do, and there are things we are willing to do; and there is a great deal of difference between the two. I could be, for instance, capable of doing a particular job well but have absolutely no commitment to do so. I could, conversely, throw myself wholeheartedly into a job that I’m hopelessly incompetent at. If we like grids, we can draw two axes with can do/can’t do as one polarity, and willing to do/not-willing to do as the other. It makes a great, simple tool to use in e.g. recruitment and selection; performance management and development; talent and career planning.
I worked with an organisation that used ‘ready, willing and able’ as a core talent management tool; a variation of a standard performance vs potential matrix. Ready meant ‘can do’ (as above) and able meant ‘wider life and work circumstances-permitting’. It opened up some valuable and creative conversations when leaders and team members met to compare and contrast insights, aspirations and ideas on possible ways forward. The ‘able’ dimension also drew broader cultural, contextual and systemic factors into the frame: influences that lay beyond individual can-do and will-do alone.
In my experience, the ‘will-do’ dimension, which incorporates e.g. motivation, determination and perseverance, often proves vital. It taps into beliefs, values and character and sifts out, ‘I would love to do this, in principle’, from, ‘I am willing to do whatever it takes (within legal-ethical boundaries) to succeed.’ It’s also the aspect that many leadership, recruitment, coaching and training conversations pay least attention to; assuming that e.g. goals, experience, qualifications, knowledge and skills are enough. How do you ensure traction? How do you test, nurture and help sustain the critical ‘will’?
'The visible emerged from the invisible.’ (Lailah Gifty Akita)
In a week dominated by news headlines of violent clashes between Black Lives Matter (BLM) and English Defence League (EDL) supporters in the UK – and similar conflicts over the same critical issues elsewhere in the world – the words of Martin Luther King seem as resonant as ever: ‘Violence is the voice of the unheard’; a rage-filled cry and angry lashing-out of those who feel, and are treated, as if invisible. It raises some hard questions: Who do we see and not-see? What would open our eyes?
Invisible is a deep sense of unseen, unheard, unnoticed or ignored – and that in contrast to a perceived, seen person or group. If I’m invisible, it’s as if I don’t matter, count, or exist. ‘You need to be more visible.’ It’s about exposure, acting in ways that will attract others’ attention; others that matter to you; that have sway over, say, your livelihood or career. That often means dancing, however awkwardly, to their tune; doing and achieving what matters most to them, and making sure they see it.
To be truly not-seen, to feel invisible, is a painful existential state, imbued with rejection, hurt and fear. If we feel marginalised, excluded from who or what matters most to us and can find no legitimate means to get close, we may resort to more desperate means to fulfil our need. To be seen is to be acknowledged, respected and invited in. It recognises, speaks and affirms a sense of dignity and worth. I exist, I matter and I belong; I have a voice and I will be heard; I’m engaged with real skin in the game.
I see a biblical narrative of a slave girl who was treated unjustly, cast out with nothing yet miraculously encountered by God: ‘You are the One who sees me.’ To see someone, to really see and not simply to cast a passing glance, is a call of leadership. To enable people to see themselves, and others, in a vibrant, fresh light is a call of coaching, training and OD. It inspires, reveals and releases talent, potential and contribution. Who do you see and not-see? How could you make the invisible more visible?
‘My life has been filled with terrible misfortunes; most of which never happened.’ (Michel de Montaigne)
Imagination can be a rich blessing and a painful curse. On the one hand, it can enable the most amazing creativity and innovation; on the other, it can cause the most terrible suffering and pain. Learning to handle and harness the power of the imagination can be a very valuable skill. Yet it can feel like trying to tame a wild horse. We sense and feel its power and potential but can never quite control it. Sometimes it can inspire or entertain us; at other times, it can terrify or overwhelm us.
I remember an advert for an organisation that supports people with a frightening, degenerative, physical disease. It said quite simply, yet so poignantly, ‘It’s what goes through your mind that’s the worst’. I remember, too, a colleague who comments that, ‘The past exists only in memory; the future exists only in imagination.’ Imagination creates the possibility to experience as-if reality, now. So, if that means experiencing our happiest dreams – good; if our worst nightmares – not good.
An opportunity and a challenge is that the brain doesn’t distinguish sharply between actual reality and as-if reality. This means that, if we imagine something vividly enough, it can be as if, mentally, emotionally and physically, we go through that experience for real. That's great for fields like, say, Appreciative Inquiry that capitalise on positive imagination to create a better and brighter future; not great for professionals who experience, say, vicarious trauma or secondary traumatic stress.
How do you draw on the immense power of imagination to achieve positive change? How do you avoid or address its potentially damaging effects?
'Be careful what you wish for.' (Aesop)
‘People believe what they want to believe’ (Julius Caesar). Did Julius Caesar really say that? Your instinctive response will depend, in part, on what version of events you want to be true. If you hope he did, you are more likely to say yes. If not, then no. Take any front-page issue in the media and notice how quickly people form a strong opinion about it, especially on social media – often with wild passion and conviction yet only rarely with substantial evidence to support it.
Psychologist Art Markman PhD noticed that: ‘People are biased to interpret the evidence in ways that are consistent with their desires. That means that people may ultimately come to believe that the weight of evidence supports the position that they already wanted to believe was true. And they will believe this without recognizing that their own desires influenced the evaluation of the evidence.’ (Psychology Today, 2011)
In short, we think wishfully, and we don’t know it. To varying degrees, we see what we want to see and hear what we want to hear, and we filter, interpret and distort every issue, encounter or experience. It’s a swirling mix of subconscious desire, unconscious bias and emotional reasoning that influences what we notice, and don’t, and what sense we make of it. It shapes what we believe is real or unreal, true or untrue. It impacts on the conclusions we draw and the stances we take.
If challenged on the implicit assumptions we are making and projecting outwards onto the world, our defensive reactions can be like putting our hands over our eyes or our fingers in our ears and singing, ‘La, la, la’ to blank out or drown out anything that may disturb us. We want to avoid the anxiety created by complexity or dissonance. The result can be to live in a state of psychological and cultural felt-safety, yet that may be grounded in delusion. So, some questions:
Why might I want this version of events to be true? What want or need would it satisfy for me if it were true? How would this being true serve an issue, a cause or a relationship that matters to me? What deeper wants or needs does this tap into; e.g. ‘I want things to be simpler’, or ‘... to be fairer’, or '... to feel safer.' What, in my personal, relational or cultural experience, is driving me to take this stance? What inconvenient facts am I ignoring in order to sustain my ‘truth’?
‘Words can inspire. Words can destroy. Choose your words well.’ (Peter Economy)
In English, we use an expression, ‘biting my lip’ to describe a moment when we’re yearning to say something, yet choose self-restraint. And there can be good reasons to hold back. Our words could prove hurtful or damaging…or decidedly career-limiting. Yet there are situations in which we should speak up. What if our safety filters auto-override our personal need for congruence; or the needs of a situation where our silence could be taken as tacit agreement or collusion?
What if our fears of the consequences of speaking out, for instance against some grievous injustice, allow the violation to go unchecked? What if we’re simply too shy or polite to speak out for risk of transgressing our own or others’ cultural expectations? Anti-Nazi Martin Niemöller’s words can still haunt us: ‘First they came for X, and I did not speak out because I was not an X’. It’s a silence that can leave our consciences seared and others devoid of support.
Yet we also know the amazing, positive, transformative power of words to spark the imagination, ignite a passion, set us brightly ablaze. Think of first-class orators, of Winston Churchill or Martin Luther King: of words that inspired such great conviction, commitment and courage. Words can reframe, reconstrue, change everything we think and believe is possible. Words can touch us deeply emotionally; instil confidence, engender hope, enable us to receive and convey love.
As a follower of Jesus, I love the mystery of words: ‘In the beginning was the Word, the early word, the first word, the I am who I am word, the with-God word, the was-God word. The without-whom-nothing word, an unheard-of word behind words. World-making word. Speaking the language behind language.’ Words used playfully, creatively, evocatively, provocatively can allow us to grasp and express reality, idea, concept, abstract and experience that lay beyond words.
At times, I have spoken words when I should have stayed silent and stayed silent when I should have spoken. It has felt like dancing on a knife edge; trying to weigh up pros and cons, rights and wrongs, implications and consequences, all in a split second. Sometimes, I have found myself lost for words, or I have used words clumsily or harshly without enough care for others. In seeking too hard to be more considered or diplomatic, my words have felt too weak, cautious or ineffective.
At other times, however, I have seen and felt the dazzling, dynamic influence that life-giving words can have on a person’s whole world, outlook and stance; a team’s relationships; an organisation’s effectiveness; a society’s vision and hope. I have seen how words can change…everything. I try to use words with courage, humility, creativity and love. What part do words play in your life, work and relationships? If we use words well, what becomes possible?
How progressive are you?
‘This is a new and progressive policy.’ There’s something about the word progressive that sounds like it’s an intrinsically good thing. After all, who would want to lay claim to an old and regressive policy? Progressive = good; regressive = bad, right? In principle, to be progressive is to be an advocate of social change; particularly when it comes to representing the best interests of ordinary people through politics. Would you vote for a politician or party that chose to stand against such things?
This is, however, where waters start to get muddy. Who are the so-called ordinary people and who knows and decides what’s in their best interests? Are the ‘ordinary people’ uniform in their experiences, hopes, needs and aspirations? What if making progress in one area or demographic has detrimental impacts in another? If everyone insists their policy is progressive, and if policies disagree sharply on fundamental issues and goals, does ‘progressive’ have any meaning at all?
At this point, we may shake our heads in wonder, bewilderment and dismay. Yet I can offer us a solution; a new and progressive code-breaker, if you like. Progressive means, ‘Going in the direction I want things to go in’; regressive means, ‘Moving away from the destination I want to reach’. Simple. So, next time you hear someone stake a claim to the word – pause and inquire deeply into what lies hidden beneath it: beliefs, assumptions and values; whose goals and interests it serves.
‘I don’t believe in riches, but you should see where I live.’ (U2)
My house is made of cardboard. It’s called a new-build, but the ‘build’ bit has to be taken with a very large pinch of salt. If you cough outside, the walls shake. Cold air howls through the double-glazing, conveniently blowing the dust off the curtains. Cracks decorate the walls and door frames in elegant postmodern style and the slightest of sounds travels through everything. The builders on-site blare out music daily, with a thumping bass so loud that many nightclubs would envy it.
They drive heavy machinery persistently so very close to the house that everything – and I mean, everything – shudders. The room lights flash on and off like a delinquent strobe as they go past. My alarm clock travelled 18cm across the window ledge and turned to face the opposite direction. ‘It’s just the house settling; nothing to worry about.’ There are tyre tracks across my front lawn. The workers are completely and utterly impervious to feedback, as if specially trained to not-hear.
Best and worst of all, there are ‘Considerate Constructors Scheme’ posters displayed (or ripped down by angry locals) all over the site. If you ask me, that’s the rich icing on the metaphorical moving-in cake. It makes a painfully ironic joke out of corporate core values. As I heard one brand expert say, ‘If you don’t live out your values, they’re not worth a flying f***’. I might have said, ‘…the paper they’re written on’, but hey – she might have had a rough time with builders too.
Here’s the thing: Values matter. They’re about truth, integrity and trust. Bottom line: Make it real. Actions speak louder than intentions or words.
Do you need help with discovering, creating or living your core values?
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It’s a breath-taking moment as Dad hands me the keys. The bike has been well-hidden beneath dark covers for many years now, yet when we peel back the sheets to expose to sunlight, the chrome and paintwork glisten like new. I can feel an adrenaline rush rising rapidly within me. I’ve owned 22 bikes and crashed 19, but that doesn’t detract from this raw excitement. With a crazy-wide grin running three times round my head, I slip the key gently into the lock. Turn. Click. Nothing. Oh. Wrong key.
Nevertheless, in a fit of naïve optimism, I try every other key on the ring. No chance. We spend the next 2 hours searching the entire house – and you would not believe how many keys we find and in such strange places, many of which we have no idea what they are meant for. I try every one over and over in the lock, hoping desperately that by some weird magic at least one will release it; even though they are clearly the wrong type, shape and size. The stubborn lock refuses to budge an inch.
Rethink. Ah – my parents know a local car mechanic. I call him. ‘Please tell me you have a set of bolt cutters to hand’. ‘No,’ he replies, ‘but I do have an angle grinder.’ Another 2 hours later and here we are side by side, both on our knees, with shrieks of metal and a blaze of sparks flying everywhere. Pause. Wait. Clunk. The lock drops off. Awesome! An overwhelming sense of relief. ‘What do I owe you for that?’ ‘Nothing’, he replies, ‘I’m also a biker.’ Cool. Warm rush of fraternal feeling.
So here’s the thing. If at first you don’t succeed…try and try again. If your best efforts turn out to be futile, don’t give up. You may just be barking up the wrong tree (sorry - I tried really hard to think of a biker metaphor there – but couldn’t). Pray, and then have a go at lateral thinking to see what new ideas come to mind. If all else fails and you still find yourself stuck up the proverbial creek without a paddle (sorry again), reach out to others. They may just hold the key (aaargh!) to your success.
I'm a psychological coach, trainer and OD consultant. Curious to discover how can I help you? Get in touch!