‘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.
Anita asked during a coach training workshop this week if it’s appropriate to address emotion in coaching. After all, isn’t that stepping too far into a person’s personal space or risking a drift into therapy? Curious, I asked which dimension of the issue she was feeling most concerned about. Anita replied that she felt anxious about straying into what could feel like a counselling relationship. If she did, she said, she would feel both out of her depth and as if she had breached a professional boundary. I paused, then asked if it had felt inappropriate when I posed that question to her, or if she had felt compromised in how she answered it. She looked up, smiled and said, ‘No.’
Another coaching workshop and Brian, a colleague, was introducing reflecting back as a core skill. One participant looked increasingly frustrated and eventually blurted out, ‘You call this a skill but it’s like playing a game with someone, using techniques on them rather than holding a real and respectful conversation.’ Brian listened then responded calmly, ‘So, reflecting back feels to you like toying with someone, and that clashes with your value for authenticity.’ 'Yes – that’s it exactly!’ he replied with a burst of positive energy that took everyone in the room by surprise. After a brief moment, he and everyone else broke out in fits of laughter. ‘OK, now I get it.’
The principle here is that of modelling an idea, an approach, a method or a technique, rather than simply describing or explaining it. There’s something about experiencing that can feel profoundly and qualitatively different to understanding a concept purely intellectually. This insight lays at the heart of Gestalt coaching and experiential learning. It’s primarily about doing, not thinking, and seeing what emerges into awareness when we do it. I worked with a leadership team that agreed a set of and behaviours to govern its practice. It looked neat on flipchart paper but its potential for transformation didn’t emerge until they grasped the nettle and practised it.
What have been your best examples of learning by experience? How do you model this principle in your work with others?
‘The only exercise some people get is jumping to conclusions.’ (Hal Elrod)
A recurring theme in psychological coaching/OD is that of enabling a person or a team to grow in awareness of what they are believing, assuming, hypothesising or concluding. This could be about, for instance, themselves, another person, a relationship or a situation. In Yannick Jacob’s words, ‘Human beings are meaning-making machines’ (An Introduction to Existential Coaching, 2019). We are wired to see things as complete wholes and, where there are gaps, to fill them subconsciously – and therefore, by definition, without noticing we are doing it.
This reflects a core concept in Gestalt psychology; where you may be familiar with, say, an image of black shapes on a white background that viewers typically see as a ‘panda’. This assumes, of course, that the person seeing the image already has an idea of panda in mind – i.e. what a panda looks like. We join the dots or, in this case the shapes, to create something that we already know. In doing so, we superimpose meaning onto the image and, at the same time, exclude alternative interpretations. It’s as if, to us, if the image is self-evidently that of a panda. Full stop.
This panda-perceiving phenomenon can help us to understand how we, as individuals and as cultural groups, construe our ideas of reality at work. Drawing on limited data, we fill-in any gaps (e.g. with our own hopes, anxieties or expectations) to create what looks and feels, to us, like a complete understanding of a situation. Yet, in Geoff Pelham’s words, ‘The facts never speak for themselves’ (The Coaching Relationship in Practice, 2015). If we enable a person or a team to revisit the gaps and to hold their hypotheses lightly, fresh insights and opportunities can arise.
First, pay attention to how a person is feeling, or the mood in a team. Acknowledge the emotion without necessarily seeking to change or to resolve it. Instead, invite a spirit of curiosity, a desire for discovery. Next, facilitate a process of critically-reflexive exploration: e.g. of what meaning they are making of their experience; of what needs it reveals; of what strategies they are using to address them. Now, offer support and challenge to test assumptions, stretch boundaries, shift a stance. Be prayerful and playful. Release the panda to emerge as something new.
Well-being and resilience are hot topics in the world of work at the moment. The Stockdale Paradox offers a useful psychological outlook and stance. How do you handle faith, facts and hope?
‘Retain faith that you will prevail in the end, regardless of the difficulties and, at the same time, confront the most brutal facts of your current reality, whatever they may be.’ (Stockdale Paradox)
Someone commented recently on my ‘relentless optimism that everything will work out in the end.’ They saw this as a principle that guides my decision making, drawing on my faith as a follower of Jesus. I was a bit taken aback, partly because I had read in Jim Collins’ book, Good to Great some years ago that optimism can lead to naïve passivity in the face of challenge. On further exploration, it became clear that they meant I appear un-phased by some situations that could leave other people shaking. It’s as if I am open to, look out for, the possibility in, the opportunity in, what is. Sometimes.
This is quite different to a kind of positive thinking that says things like, ‘You can be whatever you want to be’, as if personal, cultural and contextual constraints don’t exist, or, ‘Don’t worry, you’ll be fine’ – when clearly you won’t be. Collins talks about the importance of confronting the brutal facts; that is, of actively seeking out and facing what could well look and feel like the opposite to how we would prefer things to be. In contrast to optimism or pessimism, it’s a kind of relentless realism. It demands honesty, courage, humility, and a hopeful outlook to avoid falling into paralysis or despair.
Achieving this perspective, attitude and stance isn’t always as easy, however, as it may sound. Psychodynamically-speaking, leaders, teams and organisations often develop subconscious and highly-effective defence mechanisms that protect them from dealing with issues that could feel threatening or anxiety-provoking. As a consequence, it can mean that we see what we want to see, hear what we want to hear and filter everything else out – without even knowing it. This may create both risky blind spots (what we can’t see) and dangerous hot spots (what we avoid facing).
To add to the complexity, according to Gestalt and social constructionist research, leaders, teams and organisations can become so focused-fixated on specific issues they consider most important that they inadvertently exclude wider perspectives or dimensions – again without realising it. This influences what they perceive as key, what they consider to be the brutal facts in relation to it, what they believe the options are and, therefore, what they decide to do in response to it. It’s as if the narratives we create function for us as as-if realities. How do you handle faith, facts and hope?
How can I help you build well-being and resilience? Get in touch!
'Beware the stories we tell ourselves.' (Brené Brown)
In fields of psychology such as TA (transactional analysis) and Gestalt, there’s an idea that, as we look back over our lives, we only notice key events that stand out to us as in some way significant. We don’t notice everything else. The events that hold our attention from our past are often those that we consider pivotal moments or experiences for us and that still carry emotional resonance. We join the dots between the events and, for us, the narrative that emerges becomes our ‘life story’.
(If you want to try this out for yourself, pause for a moment, take a sheet of paper and draw a line that, in some way, represents your life. Some people use an image of, say, a river as the line. Now mark key relationships, moments, events or experiences in your life on the line. You may want to draw these as, say, high points or low points – or as graphic images. When you are finished, tell yourself or someone else the story that has emerged. Notice how the story sounds and feels.)
This ability to create patterns and to tell stories provides a sense of continuity and coherence and enables us to make sense of our lives. Instead of recalling multiple random events, we experience life as journey. It’s like how we hear music as melody or flow, not as disconnected, separate notes. We do the same in teams, groups, organisations and cultures. We notice some things, don’t notice other things and create narratives based on what we see, believe and experience as significant.
Yet a story is necessarily selective. What now appears as true and coherent to us is one possible narrative, one version of events, one way of making sense of things. Furthermore, the more self-evident the story appears and feels to us, the greater the risk is that we are trapped, like Alice, in our own Wonderland. The stories we tell ourselves influence and reinforce what we notice and not-notice now, what sense we make of it, how we feel and how we anticipate-respond to the future.
So how to use these insights when working with clients? 1. Notice how a client depicts their issue, relationship or situation. What story are they telling themselves? How are they feeling as they do it? 2. Explore what they are not-noticing, what they are assuming, who or what is not featuring in the story, how the same facts or perceptions could be configured differently. 3. Enable them to experiment creatively with alternative stories to raise fresh awareness, insight and possibilities into view.
I was reminded recently of one of my sister’s ex-boyfriends in our teenage years. The lad was called Tom and, one day, he decided proudly to have his name tattooed on his neck. When he got home, however, he was dismayed to look in the mirror and read ‘moT’. ‘I can’t believe they spelt my name wrong!’, he exclaimed in near despair. My mother looked on in near despair too. How could her daughter be going out with this guy?? My sister laughed but poor Tom just looked puzzled.
I can hear so many satirical expressions immediately coming to mind: ‘Not the sharpest knife in the drawer; A few sandwiches short of a picnic; Proof that evolution can go in reverse’, etc. It’s as if we’re a lot brighter than Tom, less prone to such stupid mistakes. Tom misinterpreted what he saw but we see and understand things more clearly. Perception is reality and Tom needed a reality check. We’re not that easily tricked or confused. We’re not like Tom. We see things as they are.
That is, until we read books like David McRaney’s ‘You Are Not So Smart’ (2012). With a wide range of disarmingly simple-yet-profound examples, McRaney describes a whole host of ways in which we unknowingly and convincingly delude ourselves, pretty much every day. Alex Boese concludes on the back cover: ‘Fascinating! You’ll never trust your brain again.’ It’s as if the assumptions we hold about what is real and true about ourselves, the world, life and relationships need to be held…lightly.
Yet this poses some serious existential, ethical and practical challenges. Who or what are we to trust if we’re not sure what’s real or true? Who or what are we to take a stance on if we’re not sure if the ground we’re standing on is sound? Faith, doubt and belief come face-to-face with diverse related fields, e.g. social constructionism and Gestalt. This is rich territory for deep coaching, leadership and OD. So, tell me - what are your experiences of working with certainty and uncertainty, ambiguity and trust?
Take a clean sheet of flipchart paper. Draw a small black dot in the middle. Ask people what they see, what they notice. Almost invariably in my experience, people will say, ‘A black dot’. I haven’t yet heard someone say, ‘A white sheet of paper’. I first saw this used in an anti-racism workshop. The tutor, Tuku Mukherjee, used it as a metaphor for how we tend to focus our attention on minorities in society and ignore or don’t even see the majority. The backdrop is, in effect, invisible to us.
In this example, the backdrop forms the context for the ‘minority’. In other words, ‘minority’ only has meaning vis a vis a perceived ‘majority’. I heard one astute black speaker say, ‘In the UK, I am viewed as an ethnic minority whereas, when I look across the world as a whole, I see that I am part of an ethnic majority.’ So what we see, what sense we make of it, is contextual. To understand what we notice, we sometimes need to shift our focus to the background against which it stands out.
Take, now, an example of a person who is ‘underperforming’ at work. This definition of the situation locates underperformance in the person, as if it represents a quality, aptitude or behaviour of the person him or herself. It leads us to consider how to improve the person’s performance, e.g. through mentoring or training. All things being equal, this may improve the person’s performance and, if so, we may view the situation as resolved. ‘X was underperforming…X is now performing…sorted.’
Yet what constitutes ‘good performance’ is defined by the backdrop, the wider organisation. What if performance expectations are unrealistic? What if the person does not have sufficient resources, guidance or support? What if systems, policies or procedures are such that they make the person’s work untenable? What if relationships or power dynamics are culturally toxic? What if instances of ‘under-performance’ form a repeating pattern in this organisation or team? Step back…look…see.
This impressed me. This woman has been deaf since birth and lip-reads. Struck by how naturally she speaks and with apparent ease in conversation, I'm curious and ask if she can hear anything of her own voice. She replies, ‘No - nothing’. Even more intrigued, I ask, ‘So…how do you know what volume you are speaking at?’ ‘Trial and error’, she replies. ‘I started to speak when I was a child. If someone leaned back as if trying to move away from me, I realised I was speaking too loudly. If they leaned forward as if straining to hear me, I knew I was speaking too quietly. Simple.’ And brilliant.
There are some interesting parallels to this approach in fields such as Gestalt coaching and OD action research. It’s about trying something new – an experiment, if you like – and being open to, sensitive to, the experience, the response. This type of feedback loop can enable us to learn, grow, innovate and improve. It takes courage to take a step into not-yet-knowing; attentive observation skills to notice what happens; critical reflective research skills to make sound, meaningful sense of it and, last but not least, personal and professional judgement to make good decisions and act on them.
So, what does this point towards as leaders, OD, coaches and trainers? I believe it’s about recruiting, releasing and rewarding people who seize the initiative: responsible risk-takers willing to try something new, more likely to seek forgiveness than permission. It’s also about creating healthy relational and cultural conditions where positive qualities – e.g. wonder, curiosity and inquiry – thrive and are supported. It’s about experimenting and learning without fear of blame or failure. ‘There is no such thing as a failed experiment, only experiments with unexpected outcomes.’ (Fuller).
I took part in a workshop last week that focused on social media, work and leadership. One of the questions that Zoe Amar, the trainer, posed was, ‘What’s your personal brand?’ It was in relation to being clear and authentic about, say, who we are, what makes us distinctive, what others value about us, what we have to offer etc. I quickly thought about my own Twitter, LinkedIn and website profiles. How clear and consistent am I in how I portray myself, what is true about me and what matters to me, bearing in mind the different audiences and purposes for those profiles?
The phrase ‘psychological coach’ sprang to mind. ‘I’m a psychological coach’. I also do mentoring, training, facilitation, consultancy, writing and even some teaching yet, somehow, ‘psychological coach’ felt the clearest and most grounding. Perhaps it’s something about how I see myself, what I enjoy, what expertise I hold, where I feel my calling lays, where clients say I add value, how I see and approach what I do. The psychological part signifies a type, a focus, a style, an orientation to my work' the coaching part signifies developing and releasing hope and potential in others.
What this means in practice is that I tend to view and approach leadership, mentoring, training, facilitation, consultancy etc. through a psychological lens. I instinctively look at what enhances or inhibits people, teams, groups and organisations from psychological, existential and systemic perspectives. I draw on insights and practices from fields as diverse as social constructionism, Gestalt/field theory and cognitive behavioural psychology. I enable people, teams, groups and organisations to grow in insight and ability to create, achieve and sustain their transformation.
So – ‘I’m a psychological coach’. Inspired by my Christian faith and informed by my studies and experience, it’s at the heart of who I am in the world, my work, what I do and how I do it. What’s your personal brand?
My brother handed it to me proudly with a smile on his face. The case looked more tatty than when I had seen it last and the shoulder strap had snapped, hanging down to the floor. As I unbuckled the case and lifted it out carefully – almost reverently – I could see he had looked after it well. It was an old Webley Vulcan .177, an air rifle I had bought when I was just 13 years old. It was my treasured possession for many years when I did target shooting. As the case slid to the floor and I caressed the wood and metal in my hands, I felt an adrenaline rush as vivid flashbacks rushed through my mind.
I was 15 when someone tried to burgle the house at midnight. My parents were away on holiday and I was inside – alone. I could hear someone outside trying to break through the back door. I slid out of bed, grabbed the rifle, loaded it, opened the window, called out a warning (trying to avoid my voice shaking) and fired a shot at a metal bin in the garden. The loud bang reverberated in the dead of night and it startled me as much as them. They fell silent. I closed the window, held my breath and, after a few moments, heard them scrambling over the garage roof to escape into the night.
Why am I sharing this? As leaders, OD, coaches and trainers, we may focus on practical, thinking and feeling aspects of change and lose sight of the impacts of physicality, of environment, of doing-it. It is when I touched and held the rifle that I felt it, that my imagination was triggered. It’s often when we visit a place, meet a real person, do a thing, try something new (rather than think about, reflect on, imagine it, ‘as if’) that startling awareness, insight and ideas rise to the surface. We discover intuitively and viscerally – and it can propel us forward. If we touch something, it touches us.
I'm a psychological coach, trainer and OD consultant. Curious to discover how can I help you? Get in touch!