‘It’s a question of what the relationship can bear.’ (Alison Bailie)
You may have heard the old adage, the received wisdom that says, ‘Don’t try to run before you can walk.’ It normally refers to avoiding taking on complex tasks until we have mastered simpler ones. Yet the same principle can apply in relationships too. Think of leadership, teamworking, coaching or an action learning set; any relationship or web of relationships where an optimal balance of support and challenge is needed to achieve an important goal.
Too much challenge, too early, and we can cause fracture and hurt. It takes time, patience and commitment to build understanding and trust. I like Stephen Covey’s insight that, ‘Trust grows when we take a risk and find ourselves supported.’ It’s an invitation to humility, vulnerability and courage. It sometimes calls for us to take the first step, to offer our own humanity with all our insecurities and frailties first, as a gift we hope the other party will hold respectfully.
It's an invitation, too, for the receiver to respond with love. John, in the Bible, comments that, ‘Love takes away fear’. To love in the context of work isn’t something soft and sentimental as some cynics would have us believe. It’s an attitude and stance that reveals itself in tangible action. Reg Revans, founder of action learning, said, ‘Swap your difficulties, not your cleverness.’ A hidden subtext could read, ‘Respond to my fragility with love, and I will trust you.’
I joined one organisation as a new leader. On day 3, one of my team members led an all-staff event and, afterwards, she approached me anxiously for feedback. I asked firstly and warmly, with a smile, ‘What would you find most useful at this point in our relationship – affirmation or critique?’ She laughed, breathed a sigh of relief, and said, ‘To be honest, affirmation – I felt so nervous and hoped that, as my new boss, you would like how I had handled it!’
In this vein, psychologist John Bowlby emphasised the early need for and value of establishing a ‘secure base’: that is, key relationship(s) where a person feels loved and psychologically safe, and from which she or he can feel confident to explore in a spirit of curiosity, daring and freedom. It provides an existential foundation on which to build, and enables a person to invite and welcome stretching challenge without feeling defensive, threatened or bruised.
How do you demonstrate love at work? What does it look like in practice?
Does risk-taking freak you out or give you a buzz?
‘If you risk nothing, then you risk everything.’ (Geena Davis)
Snapping my leg sideways at the knee was a painful experience. It shattered my confidence too. I had been cycling when, unexpectedly, I hit a curb and flew off, unceremoniously, and hit the ground hard. The next year was a gruelling experience of trying to learn to walk again. The consultant told me, bleakly, that my biking days were over – as were my chances of ever hiking, swimming or climbing stairs again. I felt stunned, numbed, in shock. How could this have happened?
This changed when I met Leanne, a remarkable Olympic athletes’ physiotherapist. She asked if I’d like to cycle off road again. I told her what I had been told and had believed – that it wasn’t an option. Nevertheless, she persisted and posed the same question again. I felt frustrated and confused. I had already answered. She asked what I’d be afraid of happening if I were to cycle again. I responded that I risked sustaining further injury to my knee - and that really scared me.
This turned out to be a transformational conversation. ‘Every time you went out on a bike, you risked injury. Knowing what you know now, if you were to go back in time, would that stop you taking up cycling?’ ‘Not at all’, I answered. ‘Some of my best life experiences have been out on the mountain bike.’ ‘So,’ she replied, ‘It’s not about what’s possible so much as your attitude to risk. Will you allow that same risk of injury to prevent you doing what you love now?’
Six months later, I cycled the longest distance I had ever done off road. It was a breath-taking experience. I learned that risk isn’t just about balancing probability and impact. Positive risk-taking is about stance: taking what can feel like a leap of faith, being willing to crash and burn if it all goes wrong and, at the same time, to experience the possibility of discovering or achieving more than we had ever dreamed possible. When have you taken a positive risk? What did you learn?
‘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?
‘You’re wrong, pal.’ (Simon)
It was a different way to end a coaching conversation. Many leaders and managers would dance and wriggle around it, trying to find a less direct way of signalling disagreement, if at all. At least in UK culture, that is. Simon was coaching a colleague and decided to dispense with the niceties. After all, why waste time and beat around the bush if the answer is obvious? As far as Simon was concerned, the bloke was talking a load of nonsense and that was it. Enough. ‘You’re wrong, pal.’
In fact, the issue his colleague was presenting could have had some fairly significant consequences for a group of vulnerable young people. Simon felt accountable. He saw it as his job to put the bloke straight. The difficulty was how to do this in a coaching conversation. How to present a forceful-enough challenge whilst yet, at the same time, to retain his colleague’s responsibility to own and resolve it himself. This was confronting-coaching on steroids. Simple. ‘You’re wrong, pal.’
So, here’s the thing. What do you do as a leader, manager or coach if a person’s beliefs, values, behaviours, intentions or actions clash fundamentally with your own? What if you foresee serious consequences that they don’t see, or that don’t matter to them? What if it only becomes apparent in the midst of a coaching conversation? Do you stay silent, pose a question, offer an opinion, snatch the reins from them, or do something else? Would you ever assert: ‘You’re wrong, pal’?
‘If you equate listening with being silent, not disrupting the status quo, not interrupting another person’s monologue, not challenging their view of the world ...you’re not ready to be a coach.’ (Ana Karakusevic)
I’m paid to be disruptive.
Isn’t that, after all, at the heart of what it is to be a good leader, coach, OD change agent or trainer? There’s something about an encounter with leadership, a true leader, that leaves us changed and transformed. The best OD people I’ve known have challenged, stretched and reframed much of what I thought I believed. The best trainers have impacted my ideas and practice. The best coaches have left me startled, dizzy, at times disorientated, and yet, somehow…renewed.
There is, however, a cost to all this. Don’t always expect a warm welcome and smiles in the room. An honest HR colleague commented to me once: ‘You pose questions and perspectives that can make us feel jarred, frustrated and, at times, even threatened. You turn everything upside down, inside out – and you are absolutely right to do so.’ And this is where contracting and trust prove critical. Without a genuine spirit of relationship and intention of support, we risk simply p***ing people off.
So, how far are you a disruptive influence? How well do you build trust through risk-taking with support?
‘Come out from behind ourselves into the conversation and make it real.’ (Susan Scott)
Hiding for fear of discovery is an archetypal characteristic of human beings. Think back to Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden. Think too to an ex-colleague of mine who, employed as a police officer, donned his uniform every day and – strange as it may sound – spent his time impersonating a police officer. John Powell reflected this phenomenon well in his classic book, ‘Why Am I Afraid to Tell You Who I Am?’ It’s very often about fear of exposure, risk of rejection…imposter syndrome.
There are, of course, at times good reasons to hide. I think, for instance, of criminals on the other side of the law who attempted last night to evade the blinding glare of a police helicopter searchlight outside a friend’s house. It was a dramatic scene, accompanied by the throbbing and deep reverberation of chopper blades overhead. We could think of such hiding as a rational and practical act – at least in the sense that it relates to a realistic prospect of arrest and imprisonment if caught.
Yet we may find ourselves hiding for all kinds of other reasons too. Hiding often manifests itself in relationships and at work in subtle avoidance strategies. We may rationalise our hiding by telling ourselves that we can’t tackle a tricky person, a difficult issue, a daunting conversation, because we’re too busy, it’s not our job, they wouldn’t listen or it could make things even worse. In doing so, we may deprive ourselves and others of invaluable talent, trust, possibility – and hope.
Stepping out takes courage with humility, challenge with support. When have you stepped out from behind yourself and made it real? When have you enabled others to step out too?
‘You get what you tolerate.’ (Susan Scott, Fierce Conversations)
We were sitting by a window on an icy winter day. I was working with Bryan Emden, my coach at the time and a skilled psychotherapist. Part-way through the conversation, I felt a cold shiver and asked Bryan if he would mind if we moved to a different table. He looked back at me with cool, penetrating gaze then spoke. ‘It has been cold here for some time. I wonder how uncomfortable things need to get for you before you take action…and whether that reflects a wider pattern in your life and work?’
I was a bit taken aback because I had always prided myself on a decisive-activist mantra, ‘(almost) any decision is better than no decision’. Nevertheless, on reflection I could remember certain hard situations in which I had not acted early enough. I had feared that to do so could have made things even worse. We could call this an avoidance strategy, a defence against anxiety based on a fear of negative consequences. In CBT terms, I had catastrophised, predicted the worst possible outcomes.
At those times, the anxiety had sometimes increased to such a degree that it had triggered a fight-flight-freeze response within me. The fight option meant I risked becoming aggressive, the flight option becoming passive and, as a result, I simply – froze. One way I have learned to tackle this is to acknowledge the emotion and to challenge how sound the prediction is. It sometimes means doing the thing we fear most, to see what new opportunities it creates. To notice how we survive it.
It’s about resilience and, at work, it’s often about relationships. Claire Pedrick offers a stark challenge on this front: ‘What’s the conversation you need to have that you’re not having?’ Guy Rothwell advocates a willingness to listen openly and also to have the courage, the authenticity, to speak up. Rick James proposes exercising courage with humility, to grasp the proverbial nettle, to have the difficult conversation and yet to address the person with open hand, not clenched fist.
How do you handle challenging conversations?
It often happens in leadership, training and coaching conversations. ‘So – what will you do?’, or ‘What’s your next step?’ The person responds with, ‘I’ll do X’ or, ‘I plan to do Y’ and we both leave feeling satisfied we’ve reached a conclusion. Yet we check in a month later and, guess what: nothing has happened. It’s a bit like those New Years’ resolutions that are great in principle but vaporise in practice. What’s going on here? Is the answer here to press for detailed goals and action plans?
We could. We could also probe more deeply at the decision-action phase. Here are some samples of probing questions: ‘Given everything else on your plate at the moment, what is it going to take in practice to move this up your priority list?’, ‘Compared to everything else you could pour your time and energy into at the moment, what is going to make this most worthwhile for you/others?’ or ‘Who or what is likely to prevent you doing this in practice – and what can/will you do about that?’
We could think of these as contextual questions or dependencies. They feature as the reality-check in 'GROW' and 'SMART'. Questions with more of a psychological orientation could include, e.g. ‘How much energy do you have for this?’ or, ‘How much do you really want this?’ or ‘On a scale of 1-10 how likely are you really to do this?’ We tend to use them, if at all, during the exploration phases of a conversation yet don’t often circle back at the end. It’s as if we take signs of decision at face value.
So, next time you reach the decision-action phase of a conversation, try a quick pause before you and the client stand up, shake hands and leave the room. Look – again – before you leap. If a person seems hesitant or lacks energy, go back to goals, aspirations, hopes and fears. How convinced is the person by their chosen route forward? How inspired do they feel to take the next step? Are there any relational, cultural, contextual or resource-linked realities that need revisiting first?
What’s your first instinct when you see a sign that says, ‘Don’t walk on the grass'? Do you see it as an instruction to be obeyed at all cost, a mere suggestion or an outright provocation to break the rules? There are, of course, certain mitigating circumstances where, for instance, the building you’re in is on fire and the only safe way to escape from danger is across the grass. Or you may be in a place littered with hidden landmines and the only safe option is to stay on the path. Under those types of circumstance, it would be fair to say the range of realistic options available to you is limited at best.
Those kinds of situation apart, however, what’s the first thought that comes to mind, the first feeling that you experience? I have to confess that these signs often trigger a playful, mischievous spirit in me – unless I could see some really good reason not to do it. I experience the same spirit, often accompanied by frustration, if I encounter rules, regulations, policies, procedures – anything that seems like constraining, life-wasting, pointless bureaucracy. I’m open to influence and persuasion but I need to believe that what I’m doing is worthwhile and I need to feel the freedom to choose.
This disposition has served me well at times, particularly in terms of questioning assumptions, challenging the status quo and finding different ways to think about and do things. It can, however, lead to a restlessness; an inability to settle down; a need to keep experiencing new things - new people, new cultures, new environments in order to feel truly alive. It can also mean that, if I’m not careful, I can drive colleagues whose role is to enforce policies and procedures crazy! So, what’s your instinct if you see the ‘grass’ sign? What are the pros and cons for your leadership, coaching or training?
(For more playful, subversive inspiration, check out: http://imgur.com/gallery/8frOy)
The UK is going through an unprecedented period of democratic turmoil. It’s not just the EU-Brexit debate. It’s about how to handle difference: how to balance the right to freedom of speech with the right to freedom from harm. It’s a debate that has erupted in earnest on university campus’ recently where proponents of critical debate are clashing with proponents of ‘safe space’. How to conduct rigorous debate that doesn’t result in people feeling offended, hurt, vulnerable or at risk.
I’m noticing similar phenomena and tensions arising in organisations too. The advent and rapid of development of e.g. social media have created new forms of leadership and engagement that depend less on formal authority and more on networks of influence. Social media conversations are typically less formal, more open than traditional organisational conversations. This can leave some people worried about offending customers, hurting profits, brand vulnerability or reputation risk.
At the heart of these debates are questions around identity, values, protection and trust. When faced with difference or change, especially if it feels unsettling or dangerous, it can trigger fight or flight, a defensive response, a desire to withdraw from, stop, close down or minimise the source of anxiety or risk. It’s a posture that is often driven by – fear. An alternative can be to lean into the conversation, the relationship, to be curious, to invite challenge, to take a posture of – hope.
This takes courage. I worked with one organisation that had the strapline, ‘Connecting People’. It created a staff newsletter, ‘Connect’ and included, on the back page, a column called, ‘Disconnect’. It positively encouraged people to post their irritations and frustrations. I’ve seen other organisations do similar things too, inviting people through e.g. social media to engage in open and honest conversations about things that matter and to co-create solutions. So – what’s your stance?
I'm a psychological coach, trainer and OD consultant. Curious to discover how can I help you? Get in touch!
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