‘Collusion arises when the coach is only asking questions in a supportive fashion, being non-judgemental and listening, aligning with the other's worldview and failing to challenge or give feedback from a different perspective.' (John Blakey & Ian Day)
In those days, we called it non-managerial supervision. These days, we’d call it coaching. My job involved meeting monthly with individuals who had been long-term unemployed. They were on placement, now, in a diverse range of community-based projects throughout London. The idea was to help participants discover and create the necessary confidence, competence and credibility to get paid employment. Some were supported with college training. All had the opportunity to gain valuable real-work experience.
Sonja was a young black woman, a single parent on placement as a classroom assistant in a local community school. I loved her bright spirit and admired her remarkable resilience in the face of the many life challenges she faced. Every time we met, I would try to affirm and encourage her. I had been unemployed and I knew some of the psychological and emotional difficulties it could cause. My coaching focused on support, hoping it would help her to continue to persevere and, through that, to flourish in her future.
Six months into Sonja’s one-year placement, we reviewed our sessions together: what was working well and what would most improve them as we moved forward. To my great surprise, Sonja challenged me to be more challenging: ‘Most mornings, I arrive at the school late. When I tell you it’s because I’m a single parent and it takes longer than I expect to get my kids ready before work, you accept my reasons and empathise with me. Yet, if I’m to get a job, I need to learn to stop making excuses and to get a grip on my life.’
I felt speechless, and yet this turned out to be a critical turning point in my coaching practice. Ana Karakusevic expresses this well: ‘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.’ I read resources, including William Glasser’s provocative Reality Therapy, and shifted the balance and orientation of my coaching to offer challenge from a base of support. It transformed everything.
‘Without transition, a change is just a rearrangement of the furniture.’ (William Bridges)
Lean forward and look into the room. Listen in carefully to the conversation. An organisation has decided to move to smaller and cheaper office premises in order to reduce its overheads. It will mean agile working: a shift to hybrid working, hot-desking and staff lockers. It appoints a change team to oversee the move, and the team notices a range of responses from staff, from passive apathy to active dissent. It faces a growing concern about what it perceives as resistance to change.
It tries hard with corporate communications to let staff know what will happen when and yet is increasingly bemused and anxious about the apparent lack of buy-in. The team invites me in as an external organisation development (OD) consultant to have a conversation with staff, an open exploration of issues and how to move things forward. Here’s a glimpse and summary, following initial rapport-building and relational-contracting to ensure a felt-sense of safety and trust in the room:
The change team had focused on practical changes (physical-transactional: what happens around us) and inadvertently failed to pay attention to corresponding human transitions (psychological-emotional: what happens within us). Notice the flow of the consultant conversation: from feeling, to meaning, to need, to solution. The style is invitational, enhancing the felt-sense of choice, influence and agency. Baskets are provided. Staff re-engage. The move goes ahead smoothly.
[See also: Change leadership principles; Organisations don't exist]
Out of the building
‘To lead real change, it’s not enough to think outside of the box. We need to think outside of the building.’ (Rosabeth Moss Kanter)
I’m in a coaching conversation with Anna, a client who feels stressed. She describes it as being like trapped inside a box, with no way out; where the box is her organisation, her job, the role she’s in now. The narrative she’s telling herself is that she has no possibility to escape from the debilitating pressure she’s experiencing. Her scope of authority to influence change is too constrained and she’s expected to deliver against targets that feel impossible. She feels totally helpless and hopeless. I acknowledge and empathise with how Anna is feeling, then ask if she’d be interested to explore potential options that could be available to her. At first, she pushes back, as if instinctively. ‘I don’t have any options – that is the problem’. I ask, inquisitively, to test the boundary a bit: ‘You could leave?’ ‘I can’t leave’, she replies, immediately and forcefully, ‘I have a mortgage to pay’. ‘So, the mortgage is part of the box?’, I ask. ‘Hmm. I guess it is’, she replies, more thoughtfully this time.
‘What if you weren’t to pay the mortgage?’, I ask. She looks bemused. ‘It would mean I’d lose the house, of course’, she snaps. ‘And, if you lost the house?’ ‘That would be terrible’, she replies, ‘It’s my dream home.’ ‘So, the dream home is, perhaps, part of the box?’ I ask. Anna goes quiet. After a while, she looks up and responds, ‘I don’t want to lose my home.’ ‘So: it’s as if, to keep your dream home, you feel that you have no option but to stay in your current job to pay your mortgage?’ ‘Yes.’ ‘Imagine now, for a moment, dismantling or breaking out of the box that you feel trapped in. If you were to imagine a spectrum of options, ranging from the status quo to what you might think of as a most extreme solution (the ‘nuclear option’), what might they be?’ Anna picks up a piece of paper and a pen and starts to write. ‘At the extreme end, I could sell the house and downsize to a cheaper house or location, then I could get try to get a less expensive mortgage, but I don’t want to do that.’
‘At the other end, I could stay as I am and just accept that the frustration in my job is a price worth paying to keep the house that I love.’ ‘And..?’, I ask. ‘I guess I could apply for another job.’ ‘Say more?’ ‘Well, I could look at other jobs in my organisation.’ ‘Yet the organisation sounds like it may be part of the box too? What if you were to think outside of the box altogether?’ ‘True. I could look at job opportunities elsewhere, or even at a change of career that would feel more fun and fulfilling!’ ‘So, there are, perhaps, some options that could feel in tension for you? The house…or a career that could feel more fun and fulfilling? Which stands out as most important for you?’ ‘I hadn’t thought about it, but if I could find something I really love doing, I might just be willing to consider moving house to do it. Perhaps I’m allowing my attachment to the house to box me in.’ Suddenly, I see a lightbulb moment flash in her eyes. ‘Eeek…’ she says, ‘Perhaps the house is the box!’ Breakthrough.
Anna has left the building.
[See also: Boxes; Deconstructing the box; and Lateral instinct]
‘It’s not what you look at that matters, it’s what you see.’ (Henry David Thoreau)
Psychologist Albert Ellis, widely regarded as the founding father of what has today evolved into Cognitive Behavioural Therapy, noticed that different people responded differently to what were, on the face of it, very similar situations. Previously, you might have heard, ‘Person X feels Y because Z happened’. It assumed a direct causal relationship between emotions and events. Ellis’ observations challenged this, proposing that something significant was missing in the equation. After all, if this assumption were true, we could expect that everyone should feel the same way in circumstance Z.
Curious about this, Ellis concluded that the critical differentiating and influencing factor that lays between emotions and events is belief. It’s what we believe about the significance of an event that affects most how we feel in response to it. Here we have person A who hears news of a forthcoming redundancy with fear and trepidation. He believes it will have catastrophic financial consequences for himself and his family. Person B receives the news with positive excitement. She believes it will provide her with the opportunity she needs to pursue a new direction in her career.
Drawing on this insight, organisational researchers Lee Bolman & Terrence Deal proposed that, in the workplace, what is most important may not be so much what happens per se, as what it means. The same change, for instance, could mean very different things to different people and groups, depending on the subconscious interpretive filters through which each perceives it. Such filters are created by a wide range of psychological, relational and cultural factors including: beliefs, values, experiences, hopes, fears and expectations. This begs an important question: how can we know?
Hidden beliefs are often revealed implicitly in the language, metaphors and narratives that people use. To observe the latter in practice, notice who or what a person or group focuses their attention on and, conversely, who or what appears invisible to them. Listen carefully to how they construe a situation, themselves and others in relation to it. Inquire in a spirit of open exploration, ‘If we were to do X, what would it mean for you?’; ‘If we were to do X, what would you need?’ This is about listening, engagement and invitation. Attention to the human dimension can make all the difference.
Hearts and minds
In its now-classic album, Hemispheres, Canadian rock band, Rush, sing a dramatic story of a cosmic struggle between competing gods of love and reason; each determined to rule humanity on its own terms. It’s a creative mythological account of the very real dilemmas and tensions we face and experience in human decision-making of head vs heart. (If interested in a faith dimension, we can see this polarity resolved in Jesus, described in the Bible as ‘full of grace and truth’, and in his call to be ‘wise as serpents and tame as doves’). Yet, how hard it is to do this in practice.
It becomes more complex if we get caught up in emotional reasoning: ‘…the condition of being so strongly influenced by our emotions that we assume that they indicate objective truth. Whatever we feel is true, without any conditions and without any need for supporting facts or evidence’ (Therapy Now, 2021). It’s a blurring of heart and head so that the former appears to us, as if self-evidently, the latter. Betts and Collier, in their thoughtful review of refugee policy (Refuge, 2017) liken this to a ‘headless heart’; a decision driven by emotional response without due regard for consequences.
A person may hold the opposite extreme, the ‘heartless head’, where he or she believes every decision must be informed or supported by rational thinking or objective evidence - and emotion or intuition are disregarded as irrelevant or unsound. We see this in cultural environments where, as Eugene Sadler-Smith observes, leaders feel compelled to post-rationalise intuitive decisions in order to make them more acceptable to colleagues (Inside Intuition, 2007). It’s a stance that risks dismissing beliefs, values and other dimensions of sense-making, motivation and experience.
John Kotter brings words of wisdom here (Leading Change, 2012): to pay attention to our own default biases and to take account of those of others too, if we’re seeking to influence change. On presenting vision, he offers a helpful rule of thumb, ‘convincing to the mind and compelling to the heart’. The Myers-Briggs Type Indicator (MBTI) provides useful insight into different preferences that influence decision-making too. Rush’s epic song ends with its own solution: ‘Let the truth of Love be lighted, let the love of Truth shine clear…with Heart and Mind united in a single perfect sphere.’
Off the hook
'To err is human. To blame it on someone else shows great management potential.'
That made me laugh! It’s a fun variation of Hubert H. Humprey’s, ‘To err is human. To blame someone else is politics.’ But wow – how easy it is to deflect and project our own faults and failures outwards onto others. We see it happen all over the place, from interpersonal relationships to international relations. It’s a way of defending ourselves; of trying to avoid or escape the costs of responsibility; of promoting ourselves; of appearing innocent or superior. It’s about helping us to feel good about ourselves and-or wanting someone else to feel good about us.
It's quite tricky if we don’t know we’re doing it – and it can lead to potential high-risk consequences. ‘Self-deception is like this. It blinds us to the true causes of problems, and once we’re blind, all the solutions we can think of will actually make matters worse.’ (Arbinger Institute: Leadership and Self-Deception, 2000). This poses a difficult question: how to deal with our blindness if we don’t know we’re blind? And what if, if we’re honest – for whatever reason – we don’t want to know? An old adage goes: ‘There are none so blind as those that won’t see.’ Ignorance is bliss?
I’ll start with the last question first. If I’m working with a person in coaching or a group in action learning and I sense resistance in this area, I won’t push too hard. It could, for instance, trigger repressed trauma or suppressed anxiety. Instead, I may pose an invitation, e.g. ‘Is this something you would find useful to explore further? What, for you, would be the potential benefits of exploring this, or the potential costs of not exploring it? If you were to explore this, what support or challenge would you need from yourself, me and-or others?’ It’s their call, their choice.
Next to the first question. This touches on a field known as critical reflexivity. It’s like holding up a mirror to ourselves rather than fixing our gaze elsewhere or onto others. We can think of it as something like this: ‘What within me – e.g. in my own past, culture or world – is influencing what I’m thinking, feeling and doing now?’ This could include, for instance, our beliefs, values, hopes, fears and expectations. It could also include hidden vested interests; that is, things we want to protect or preserve and-or to acquire or achieve. Such influences act as subconscious filters.
In coaching and action learning, I work with people and groups to help them learn to pose searching questions to themselves in a spirit of open curiosity and discovery, e.g. ‘Who or what is holding my attention in this relationship or situation? How am I feeling? Who or what am I not-noticing? What assumptions am I making? How is my past influencing my present? Who or what matters most to me now? How might I be evoking this response in the other party? What am I willing to take responsibility for? What do I want or need? What am I willing to stop, start, change or compromise?’
The outcomes and benefits of this approach can be truly transformational. It calls for humility, courage, authenticity and a willingness to exercise personal leadership and agency, yet can open up all kinds of fresh possibilities – and hope. Imagine, for instance, to approach an adversary, prayerfully, in the midst of conflict: 'We are in such a mess. I'm sorry...and, as I look at how we got here, I could have handled my part in this better...' It’s a stark contrast to avoidance, accusation and finger-pointing. What a possibility to co-create a different relationship – and a different future.
(See also: Spots; Art of Deception; Stealth)
Test and learn
‘The willingness to experiment, it turns out, is the chief indicator of how innovative a person or company will be.’ (Hal Gregorson)
Test and Learn is an experimental, adaptive technique, used to address complexity, uncertainty and innovation. It’s useful in situations where, say, past experience isn't a reliable guide for future action because e.g. critical conditions have changed. It’s also useful when moving into new, unchartered territory where the evidence needed for sound decision-making can only be generated by, ‘let's suck it and see’. It shares a lot in common with action research: create a tentative hypothesis, step forward, observe the results, try to make sense of them, refine the hypothesis, take the next step.
Test and Learn is used in fast-paced, fluid environments, such as by rapid-onset disaster response teams where conventional strategizing and planning isn't realistic or possible. By the time a detailed plan is formulated, things have moved on - and the paper it's written on is sent for recycling before the ink has dried. Test and Learn is also used by marketing teams when testing new products or services or seeking to penetrate new or not-yet-known markets. It provides tangible evidence based on customer responses which, in turn, enables change or refinement before investing further.
What psychological, relational and cultural conditions enable Test and Learn to work?
When have you used Test and Learn? How did you do it? What difference did it make?
(See also: Unpredictable; Adaptive)
A good ending
‘Good endings make sense, evoke emotions like contentment, anger, sadness, or curiosity, shift the person’s perspective or open her mind to new ideas. Good endings bring the person to some kind of destination.’ (Alex J Coyne)
Lilin Lim, my sister-in-law, reads the back page of a novel first to decide whether it looks like the story is worth reading. There’s something about a good ending that can make whatever went before it feel worthwhile – the time, effort or, at times, struggle to get there. Think back to your own life and work peak experiences: e.g. birth of a child, achievement of a desired promotion or qualification, overcoming of a disability or fulfilment of a dream that, perhaps, felt hard at the time yet worked out well in the end.
Conversely, think back to seminars, workshops or meetings you have taken part in that didn’t result in anything remotely meaningful to justify the investment. Academic Peter Cotterell commented satirically that, similarly, many lectures and articles can feel like, ‘a plane in the sky that takes off well yet finds itself circling in the clouds and can’t find a way to land.’ Stephen Covey said, ‘Begin with the end in mind’, a perspective that resonates well with the biblical idea of an end-revelation to draw us forward.
This same principle applies in coaching and action learning. If we open a conversation with questions such as, ‘In relation to X, where do you want to be an hour from now?’ or ‘Of all the things we could spend the next hour doing together, what, for you, would make this time well spent?’, it can help ensure an explicit sense of focus and purpose from the outset – and raise into critical awareness Gary Rolfe’s movement towards an ending: the ‘Now what?’, before considering the ‘What?’ and the ‘So what?’
David Clutterbuck suggests ending this type of conversation with an invitation to the client to reflect and summarise for him- or herself, using a simple 4xI framework: ‘What are the Issues we’ve talked about; what are the Insights that you’ve had; what are the Ideas that we’ve generated; what are your Intentions now?’ It’s a consolidating technique that can enable a sense of learning and closure for the client and a transition into action. It helps to avoid the risk of a session simply...fizzling...out.
Rosie Nice poses useful grounding questions: ‘Are there any other dimensions you would like to explore before moving into actions? Would it be helpful if we were to consider some questions to help you think through what actions you might take? What’s the main thing you are taking away, having had opportunity to think this through?’ Sue Murkin ends with: ‘Given what you know now, how will this impact on your work? How could you see yourself using this? What will you do now?’
How do you avoid perpetual drift or an abrupt crash landing? How do you create a good ending?
‘What is it your plan to do with your one wild and precious life?’ (Mary Oliver)
Íñigo López de Loyola suggests a fast-forward in your imagination to the end of your life, then to ask yourself seriously from that standpoint what you will want your life story to have been. Having decided it, rewind back to the present and ensure that your vision of the future guides your priorities, decisions and actions now. This idea resonates with Stephen Covey’s 'begin with the end in mind', and Simon Sinek’s 'start with why'. According to John Kotter, if our vision is convincing enough to the mind and compelling enough to the heart, we are most likely to see it through. Without such a vision, we may drift meaninglessly.
I believe the best visions are rooted deeply in ethics and values and, in essence, a fulfilment of them. I have been incredibly inspired by Jasmin’s vision, a poor follower of Jesus who lives among the poor in the Philippines: ‘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.’ The challenge is not just in the aspiration itself but in her sheer determination to live it out in practice. She scares me.
My own vision is shaped by a trust in God too. I slip and slide on route and have sustained and caused too many scars to prove it, yet Jesus still influences profoundly the purpose, focus, boundaries and possibilities of my life and my work. As I get older, I'm experiencing a subtle and gradual shift from what I want to do in the future, to what legacy I want to leave behind me. It doesn’t feel like a mid-life crisis. Echoing Richard Rohr, it feels more like a falling upward than a falling apart. I still want to make a significant, positive and tangible difference in the lives of the poor and most vulnerable people in the world. I – you – we can be hope.
What’s your vision for 2022 and beyond? How will it influence your decisions now?
Agents of change
‘The opportunity to make effective personal choices is highly unequal.’ (Robert A. Dahl - After the Revolution)
New Years’ Resolutions. A time and practice in Western cultures when some of the more reflective or impulsive among us will commit to do something new. It could be, for instance, a new relationship, a new job, a new home, a new diet or a new fitness routine. For many people, very soon after having made a decision, the resolve will dissolve and be lost in the mists of time. Yet central to this idea of resolution is the notion of personal choice and, with it, the principle that I can succeed in achieving what I choose – if I’m willing to do whatever it takes.
I often create (prayerfully) a list of key aspirations at the start of each year, then put practical steps in place so that, all things being equal, I will be able to look back at the end of that year and see that I have fulfilled them. The goals are intentionally inspiring and stretching. They are, with God’s help, within my grasp and, therefore, possible. On the whole, this discipline works by ensuring focus, parameters and accountability. It also centres on people and things that are genuinely important to me and, thereby, taps into values, motivation and determination.
We can think of this choosing-acting-influencing phenomenon as exercising personal agency. Shaun Gallagher describes this as, ‘the sense that I am the one who is causing or generating an action’. ‘I can choose’ is a profound existential, psychological and political statement and stance. It means I can break out beyond the apparent default of my circumstances. We hold the potential to be catalysts of real change in the world, within ourselves as well as in broader relationships and situations – and this brings opportunity and responsibility.
I can choose and you can choose. I think vividly of Jasmin in the Philippines, a poor woman among the poor who chooses to follow Jesus’ call and example, whatever the cost. Rather than allowing herself to be limited by her circumstances or by expediency, she exercises radical personal agency and transforms everyone and everything in her path. Malala Yousafzai and Greta Thunberg are famous examples of women too who take personal choice, action and influence seriously – and, similarly, at considerable personal risk.
There are wider dimensions. A person's sense and scope of agency are affected by structural factors that transcend the individual, e.g. social status; wealth; education; gender; ethnicity; culture. Mustafa Emirbayer and Ann Mische observed that a person’s lived experience limits what possible alternatives or future scenarios he or she is able to imagine. Paulo Freire proposed, on a similar basis, that critical consciousness (‘conscientisation’) is a necessary condition for people to exercise freer choices and agency for change.
I worked with a client from Myanmar and asked her what she dreamed of. She looked at me blankly then responded that she was unable to conceive of a different reality to the one that she had lived until now. She felt crushed by the mental and practical constraints of living as an ethnic minority in a country dominated by a military dictatorship. The impact of unequal and unjust social-political power is not a fixed determinant of agency – but the stark psychological and tangible inequalities of choice and opportunity it engenders are significant.
Other influences include personal confidence, competence and capacity. If a person operates psychologically and relationally from a secure base with trust and support, he or she is more likely to choose to take a positive risk. If, conversely, someone is and-or feels alone and has experienced or anticipates unfair discrimination, negative evaluation or other painful consequences, to act can feel hazardous – especially if the stakes are high. Agency can demand energy, courage and resilience. A person may not (yet) feel ready, willing or able to take that step.
If a client is unaware of or avoiding personal agency, William Glasser suggests stimulating his or her sense of reality, responsibility and relationship in order to enable more life-giving choices. If stuck in a pattern of apathy or passivity, John Blakey and Ian Day propose offering high challenge with high support. If we risk inadvertently colluding with or disempowering a client, Reg and Madge Batten advise focusing attention on what the person can do for him- or herself and, only after that, what we could do by agreement with them, or on their behalf.
Viktor Frankl, victim of Nazi persecution concluded that, fundamentally: ‘The one thing you can’t take away from me is the way I choose to respond.’ In our personal, social and political lives, we can see how a person’s choices, actions and influence are affected by a diverse range of factors. These include the privileges a person may hold (or not) and the opportunities he or she has benefited from by birth, background or context. Jesus – help me choose this year to exercise my own agency for the life and liberation of others. We can be hope.
(Would you like to discover how to exercise greater personal agency? Get in touch!)
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