How far can action learning (a form of small-group peer coaching) be useful in fast-paced and complex humanitarian contexts, in countries as diverse as Bangladesh, DRC, Iraq, Jordan, Malaysia, Myanmar, Somalia and Syria? What would it take to make coaching and action learning effective in these different cultural environments? These were questions I was invited to explore and test with ALNAP and ALA’s Ruth Cook during the past 18 months.
The idea was to train field-based practitioners in action learning techniques, then to mentor them as they adapted and applied them in disaster zones. Our goal was to learn from this experience too. Travel restrictions meant that workshops were all conducted online, which created its own challenges vis a vis patchy internet connectivity and access to training resources via cell phones, yet we-they persevered and the experience proved fruitful.
I was particularly interested in cross-cultural dimensions and dynamics in these training groups.
Workers in humanitarian crises face intense time pressures and it could have been tempting to short-cut personal introductions and press ahead with the task. In some cultures, investing in relationship and trust-building is integral to the task and, therefore, inseparable from it. We chose, therefore, to create opportunities, where possible, for participants to get to know and understand us and each other from the outset.
In Western models of action learning, emphasis is often placed on posing coaching-type questions that are short, sharp and direct. If, however, we don't pay attention to relevant cultural norms including relational preamble (e.g. ‘I am pleased to be here. Thank you for the opportunity to ask this question…’) such questions can be experienced as blunt, harsh or rude. It's important, therefore, to allow for different cultural framings and expressions.
We were aware that, in contexts such as the UK and USA, action learning tends to assume an egalitarian culture within a group, within which participants are and feel free to invite and pose challenging questions to one-another. In some cultures, however, where perceived authority and social status are based on e.g. age, gender or tribe as much as on formal hierarchy, careful composition of and contracting in groups are critical success factors.
In some cultures, to pose a question directly to an authority figure could be perceived as insubordinate, disrespectful or even insolent. Authority figures may be expected by others always to have the ‘right’ answers and to pose a question in a group risks shaming that person, a loss of face, if they are unable to answer it. One way to avoid this issue is to invite participants to write down questions and hand them to the person first, who can then chose which to respond to.
In some cultures, it would feel inappropriate for a participant to decide unilaterally on an action at the end of an action learning cycle without having first run the idea past their line-manager for approval. This may partly be indicative of where decision-making authority is held in that hierarchy. It can also signal deference to or respect for an authority figure. One way to address this would be for a participant to report back on agreed actions at a subsequent meeting.
When using a peer-consultancy version of action learning, in which participants are invited to offer suggestions for consideration as well as questions, particular challenges can arise. In some cultures, participants may feel compelled to accept the first suggestion that is offered, or to agree to whatever is suggested by a perceived authority figure. Again, writing down questions to offer a presenter can help to address this.
When using an appreciative version of action learning, in which participants help a person to identify what personal and contextual factors contributed to the success of an initiative, there can be challenges too. In some cultures, it can turn into a praise-party, with participants wanting to affirm the presenter rather than to tease out success factors. One way to address this is to allow space for praise first, then to move onto the more structured process.
In other cultures, a presenter may feel uncomfortable to comment on what they did well personally in case it sounds immodest. Two possible ways to address this are to invite the presenter to comment on what other people may have noticed about his or her contribution, thereby attributing the qualities to a third-party perspective rather than their own, or to depersonalise it as ‘This happened’ rather than ‘I did this.’
I am deeply indebted to all of the participants in this initiative who contributed so richly to our learning and ideas. What have been your experiences of coaching, training or action learning in different cultural environments? What have you learned - and what would you recommend to others?
(See also Nick's: Cross-Cultural Action Learning webinar, December 2021)
‘To demand perfection from someone is to crush them.’ (Joyce Huggett)
I’m a recovering perfectionist. Perhaps I’ll never fully get over it, but the first step is at least to admit it. In the olden days when we used to write things like letters, essays and reports on paper with a typewriter or pen (some of you won’t remember that far back), I can recall clearly a sense of dismay if I made a mistake at the end of a sheet, and ripping it up to start all over again. The thought of a crossed-out word, or Tippex, was far too painful to contemplate. Everything had to be…perfect.
This kind of perfectionist streak can be a blessing and a curse. On the one hand, it can drive us to achieve dizzying heights that would otherwise seem impossible. On the other hand, it can leave us permanently frustrated, disappointed or exhausted. We may spend inordinate amounts of time and energy on tasks and relationships, where ‘good enough’ really would have been good and enough. There’s an opportunity cost too: I’m wasting resources that would be better used elsewhere.
Yet perhaps the most dangerous dynamic is if and when we begin to impose those same standards, expectations and demands on other people; irrespective of what the situation or relationship itself calls for. This is a risk of ‘red pen leadership’ – where a leader or manager (or, perhaps, parent or partner) takes issue with every slightest detail in another person’s e.g. appearance, performance or behaviour, to the point where the other person is left feeling damaged, diminished or despairing.
If you have perfectionist tendencies or are leading-coaching others who do, there are some useful insights from psychology that can help, e.g. psychodynamic: ‘What has happened to you that makes perfection feel so critical?’; Gestalt: ‘What are you not-noticing here and now?’; cognitive: ‘What assumptions are you making about who or what’s most important?’; systemic: ‘What cultural factors are driving your behaviour?’ I’m learning to breathe, pray, relax, be more pragmatic – and forgive.
My daughter is a guinea pig. This afternoon in the bright sunshine, I invited her to take part in an experiment. First, we stepped out into the street and, gesturing to a line of cars parked at the roadside, I asked, “If you were to buy a car, what colour would you choose, or definitely not choose?” She answered, “I’d love a white car.” “OK,” I replied, “let’s go for a walk into town and back. Your task is to count every white car that we pass. If you have the same number as me when we get back here, I will give you £10. How does that sound?” She grinned and willingly agreed.
An hour later, we stopped back where we had started and I asked her, “So, how many red cars did you see?” She looked at me blankly. “I didn’t see any red cars. I counted 206 white cars.” In fact, we had passed 93 red cars, yet she had been so focused on the white cars that she hadn’t seen a single one. This simple experiment illustrates an important psychological phenomenon known as selective attention: “The ability to pay attention to a limited array of all available sensory information…a filter that helps us prioritize information according to its importance.” (Bertram Ploog, 2013).
Gestalt psychotherapist Geoff Pelham comments that, in any given relationship or situation, we notice who or what matters most to us (The Coaching Relationship in Practice, 2015). This idea of who or what matters most reflects beliefs, values and emotions. In this exercise, my daughter was influenced and motivated by her beliefs (that this experiment would serve some useful purpose), values (the prospect of a £10 reward) and emotion (her choice of a colour she likes). These factors combined to ensure concentration on a task (counting white cars) that required selective attention.
Why is this insight significant in our work with people? The principle extends beyond literal-visual perception to deeper psychological processes too. Our beliefs, values and emotions subconsciously influence our focus and act as filters. We construe personal-shared narratives based on what we perceive. Such narratives appear to us as-if reality, as-if totality, and often without any awareness of who or what we have excluded. As such, narratives always point to and reveal, implicitly, who and what matters most to a person, group or culture, rather than to a definitive account of reality per se.
A key question is, therefore: who or what are we, and others, not-noticing? If we can enable a shift in perception, a re-shaping of a narrative, what then becomes possible?
Interested to do further reading in this area? See: The Art of Looking: Eleven Ways of Viewing the Multiple Realities of our Everyday Wonderland.
‘They may forget what you said, but they will never forget how you made them feel.’ (Maya Angelou)
It was a dire and inspiring experience, a hospital for children with severe disabilities in a desperately poor country under military occupation. Conditions were severe, the children were abandoned by their families and the staff were often afraid, suspecting the children were demon-possessed and, therefore, holding them disdainfully at arms’ length. A fellow volunteer, Ottmar Frank, took a starkly different stance. He was a humble follower of Jesus and I have rarely witnessed such compassion at work. I asked him what lay behind his quiet persistence and intense devotion. He said, ‘I want to love these children so much that, if one of them dies, they will know that at least one person will cry.’
Ottmar’s words and his astonishing way of being in the world still affect me deeply today; the profound impact of his presence, and how my own ‘professional’ support and care felt so cold by comparison. I remember the influence he had on others too – how, over time, some others started to emulate his prayer, patience, gentle touch and kindness – without Ottmar having said a word. It invites some important questions for leaders and people, culture and change professionals. If we are to be truly transformational in our work, how far do we role model authentic presence and humanity, seeing the value in every person and conveying through our every action and behaviour: ‘You matter’?
‘The mind is a fire to be kindled, not a vessel to be filled.’ (Plutarch)
Curiosity killed the cat. True? The allegations were never proved. As far as I’m concerned, curiosity is innocent and the accusations were fake news. My 5 year old daughter asks me, ‘Dad, why is it cold downstairs but hot upstairs?’ ‘Because warm air rises’ I reply, gesturing a floating-upwards movement with my hands. ‘But why does it rise?’ Now that’s curiosity. Posing a question beyond the question; being not-satisfied to accept things at face value.
Curiosity is a pre-requisite for learning, discovery and change. It’s a psychological state and a metaphysical stance. It means I am open; willing to engage actively in a spirit of invitation and inquiry. It means I am seeking; I want to know and, as such, I’m excited by fresh insights, ideas or challenges to what I think I already know and understand. As such, it’s a healthy and courageous antidote to the fight-flight-freeze response of defensive anxiety.
What does curiosity entail in practice? How can we do it? 1. Suspend our already-knowing; hold it lightly, as-if possibility. 2. Expose ourselves to new and diverse people, cultures and experiences. 3. Listen and hear, especially for useful dissonance with our own assumptions and beliefs. 4. Be courageous in seeking critique and in responding graciously, with humility. 5. Inspire colleagues and clients to practise it too.
Can I help you develop greater curiosity in your work? Get in touch!
Cliché: ‘There’s no I in Team’. Linguistically correct; yet conceptually so wrong! Inspiring and effective teamwork is always a dynamic interplay between I, you, we and they. It’s the magic that occurs where personal leadership and team leadership intersect and collide; releasing fresh insight, energy and potential. Here (below) is a short case example. What do you think?
I remember their faces vividly. I was invited to work as team coach with a leadership team that was experiencing significant conflict. Our introductory meeting was filled with deafening silences, with team members looking around or down at their notes to avoid painful eye contact. The next step was to meet with each team member individually. A resounding, recurring theme emerged: the conflict was between 2 team members, with each of the 2 attributing the blame to the other, and the rest of the team were innocent bystanders. It was the 2 protagonists who needed to change.
I invited each of the bystanders, separately, to look back to the last time conflict erupted in a team meeting. ‘What happened?’ They each described the behaviour of the 2. ‘And what did you do?’ They each described sitting back, saying nothing. ‘And why was that?’ Their responses ranged from, ‘I didn’t want to get caught up in the conflict’ to, ‘I didn’t want to be seen as taking sides’ to, ‘I didn’t want to make things worse.’ I pressed on with the challenge, ‘So, as a leader, what could-will you do differently next time?’ They looked bemused, or alarmed, and shuffled uncomfortably in their seats.
What we are seeing here is an intersection between personal leadership and team leadership. The conflict between the 2 was influenced, or supported, or sustained, by the behaviour, the passivity, of the wider group. I teased out different scenarios with the bystanders, the kinds of interventions they could make instead: e.g. ‘I feel really uncomfortable when this kind of conflict breaks out in a meeting.’; ‘When you 2 fight, I find myself withdrawing.’; ‘Let’s find another way to tackle this that doesn’t get so heated.’; ‘Let’s look at how to hold robust conversations that feel more constructive.’
At the next team meeting, I invited team members to share their reflections from our conversations, along with what they would take responsibility for and what they were willing to do. I was amazed by the courage and humility that surfaced: ‘I sometimes sit quietly and don’t say anything when I should. I’m going to try to speak up in future. I want you to help me to do it.’; ‘I play it safe when I should take more risks. From now on, I’m going to say what I’m thinking and feeling, even if I feel scared.’ It was the start of a transformational leadership-team process…where everyone changed.
How can I help you build a more inspiring and effective team? Get in touch! email@example.com
'The good news is you have 200 people working for you. The bad news is they don't see it that way.' (Euan Semple)
I love how humour can transform, creating fresh perspective by shedding novel light on people, issues and situations in ways that plain comment or description just can’t. It can be a great technique for reframing, making the familiar unfamiliar and vice versa too. I worked with a colleague, Benjamin, who enjoyed using phases playfully. If something went wrong or didn’t work out as we had hoped, or if someone was sounding unduly pessimistic, he would simply grin disarmingly and say something like, ‘Ah well, every silver lining has a cloud.’ Humour can inject energy, diffuse tension, bring people together, make life and work more fun. Smiles and laughter are good for health and well-being too.
I worked with Richard, an occupational psychologist and HR leader who had a passion for developing talent and enhancing people’s commitment, capacity and contribution. He could have presented his case for change using formal statistics, spreadsheets and information. Instead he would start with an open, provocative smile, ‘There are people who left this organisation years ago...but still turn up for work every day.’ It had a very different qualitative feel to sarcasm, cynicism or bland statement of fact. It was a powerful use of irony to highlight an issue, evoke curiosity, challenge the status quo and invite a response. I could almost hear every person in the room thinking, ‘I wonder if that could be me?’
For humour to work, it needs to have some resonance with what the audience already knows, perceives and experiences as real and true. I think back to the first time I read Scott Adams’ The Dilbert Principle (1996). I sat on my bed and literally cried laughing. It was for me, as for many others, a refreshingly new approach to shining a critical spotlight on the quirky, crazy and self-defeating politics of office life. This, however, signals that humour is culturally and contextually-relative. Have a glance, for instance, at satirical Despair.com. Are its posters funniest for those who have seen their earnest equivalents first? What have been your best experiences of humour at work? Who or what made them so effective?
How can I help you create a more inspiring and effective workplace?
Get in touch! firstname.lastname@example.org
‘Who started this work – the organisation’s founder, or the child who inspired him to do it?’
This challenge came as a healthy jolt, a moment of insight and inspiration, from Carlos, a humble, radical leader working with poor communities in Brazil. It was at an induction event for new leaders of a now very large, global non-governmental organisation (NGO). Its history was being presented through the lens of the organisation’s founder and its successive global presidents. The founder was a war photographer who had been appalled to see the terrible suffering of children during the Korean War. An encounter with a child had galvanised his determination to do something about it.
The resultant NGO had worked very hard over the years to support poor and vulnerable children throughout the world and had indeed achieved some remarkable results. Over time, however, as the organisation had grown in scale and scope, it had started increasingly to view the world through an organisational lens rather than through the eyes of a child. The simple-yet-profound voice of a child had become lost in the midst of complex strategies, structures, policies, plans and programmes. The presidential perspective symbolised a shift from client/beneficiary-centric to organisation-centric.
Why is this important? Firstly, this child’s interaction with and influence on the founder challenges traditional ideas of leadership as a hierarchical-structural phenomenon rather than, as according to Chris Rodgers (2015), ‘an emergent property of people interacting together, not as an elite practice confined to those at the top of organizations.’ Secondly, this NGO’s experience highlights the risk of subtle-yet-critical drifts away from a customer-client, outside-in focus to an intra-organisational, inside-out/inside-inside focus. How can we address these issues as leaders, coaches, OD and trainers?
Can I help you develop authentic and client-focused leadership and culture?
Get in touch! email@example.com
I was in Canada at a 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 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.
I'm a psychological coach, trainer and OD consultant. Curious to discover how can I help you? Get in touch!