‘Tomorrow is the first blank page of a 365-page book. Write a good one.’ (Brad Paisley)
It was my first time at a Greenbelt Festival in the UK and I remember wearing simple sandals made from recycled car tyres and a leather headband to keep my hair out of my face. I painted a cross on my forehead, carried a bamboo flute (which I couldn’t play) and walked with friends amidst the crowds towards the centre stage. Radical social activist, Jim Wallis, was the keynote and he spoke passionately about a place in the Bible where Jesus reveals who and what matters to him in this world. I felt spellbound. It resonated deeply with my own spiritual convictions – nothing to do with religious moralising and everything to do with a vision, an ethic, a possibility, a relationship.
‘I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me.’ In this narrative, those to whom Jesus is speaking were puzzled and asked when they had done this. ‘Whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.’ Jesus was sharing with astonishing clarity the lens through which he views our priorities and relationships. The way we treat others in need – the poor, the outsider, the sick, the oppressed – is the way that Jesus considers we reflect and treat him.
Please God, as we enter this new year: shine your light of love, truth and hope through my life with ever-increasing brightness.
‘What is the human being? In our anti-metaphysical age, we regard the question as having little importance. It is, however, the most crucial of all.’ (Felipe M. De Leon)
A good friend in the Philippines – St. Paul as I affectionately call him because of his dedication to the Jesus and the poor – works with student educators, teachers of the future. Today, he supported his students to create their own art exhibition as a way of exploring the relationship between art and humanities. It’s a topic that interests me too. I’ve travelled and worked in many different countries in the world but I’ve never encountered a culture as vibrantly and spontaneously artistic and creative as the Philippines. Music, dance and colour are everywhere, and with such natural richness of talent.
I find myself wondering – why is this? By stark contrast, in terms of art, my own part of the world can appear and feel quite cerebral, introverted and restrained. (I notice that even using the word ‘feel’ in that sentence can feel edgy and a bit risky in my context.) St, Paul’s students, like so many others I’ve had the great privilege of encountering in the Philippines, inspire me by their passion, energy and uninhibited emotional expression. They danced for me on my birthday even though I’ve never met them before, rather than offering me a simple written greeting. They bring the ordinary things of life to life.
In ‘Life as Art’, Felipe M. De Leon makes similar observations and explores cultural and contextual conditions that contribute to this gift-phenomenon. In Filipino society, in which, ‘a person learns to develop an expanded sense of self – a sphere of being which includes not only his (or her) individual self but encompasses immediate family, relatives, friends…closeness to others allows (one) to be more trusting, open and freely expressive. Arts and crafts are richest, most creative and diverse in communal cultures. Food is tastier, speech more melodic and things of everyday life more colourful.’
De Leon goes on to comment on other distinctive dimensions of Filipino culture and spirituality that also play a part. Yet there’s something about the relational dimension that resonates very powerfully with me. I notice when I work with people and groups that, if they feel genuinely loved, valued and involved, they often find themselves at their most free, experimental and creative too. Conversely, if they feel isolated, undervalued or excluded, they are more likely to become defended, closed-in or shut-down. These amazing Filipino students have a lot to teach the Western world, and me…and I’m still learning.
'There is a universal human tendency to conceive of all things as like ourselves.' (David Hume)
In the ground-breaking, futuristic film ‘Her’ (2014), actor Joaquin Phoenix played the part of a man who falls in love with an artificially intelligent (AI) virtual assistant. The AI, whose voice was played by actress Scarlett Johansson, was capable of deep learning. It, or we could say ‘she’, spoke, responded and interacted with the protagonist in ways that we could imagine of a real woman in an increasingly loving relationship – and all via a voice. The movie played with the social-psychological possibilities and limits of the potential inter-relationship between humans and technology.
In the next year another movie, ‘Ex Machina’ (2015), saw Domhnall Gleeson playing the role of a computer programmer who encounters an AI robot, this time in the physical form of a beautiful woman played by Alicia Vikander. Gleeson is invited by a tech entrepreneur to test (a) whether she’s capable of genuine consciousness and (b) whether he can relate to her as ‘human’, even though he knows she is artificial. As the plot plays out, the AI skilfully seduces and manipulates the programmer, with apocalyptic implications as the AI plays out the relational game and wins.
One of the striking features of both dramas is the human ability to project our human qualities onto other people or things, in this case the AIs, in ways similar to those in which we may, say, attribute human qualities to a dog – and then relate to it as if it were in some way human. It’s a subconscious phenomenon, a blurring of the boundaries between reality and fantasy. We can know something to be true at a rational-cognitive level and, yet, still feel and behave as if a different reality were true. It’s like believing what we want to believe, when it fulfils a human need to do so.
‘The final frontier may be human relationships, one person to another.’ (Buzz Aldrin)
I met recently with small groups of asylum seekers and refugees from the Middle East and Central Asia. All commented on how grateful they are for the practical help they have received from the host countries in which they have settled in Europe – housing, health, education etc. and money for food, lighting, heating, water, clothing etc. Without such basic necessities, they could not have survived.
That said, their sense of isolation, so far away from home, family and friends etc, can be very painful to endure. Sometimes, having escaped persecution, conflict or war, they may feel anxious or reluctant to connect with people from their own countries of origin, in their host countries, because they may be from ‘the other side’. It’s hard to trust if trust has been absent, damaged or betrayed.
I ask what they need, what they hope for, what would be life-giving, more than just bearable. Their answer is simple and clear: human relationship, friendship, laughter, to be listened to, to feel heard and understood. Sometimes they lack confidence to reach out. They may fear rejection, feel insecure about their limited local language or worry about a risk of cross-cultural misunderstandings.
Host countries may risk focusing so much on strategy, policy and task that they lose sight of relationship. I’m inspired by Pete in the UK and Margitta in Germany. They are followers of Jesus. Whenever we encounter people who are asylum seekers or refugees, Pete and Margitta are welcomed with huge smiles. They see and treat people, warmly, as real people. Love is transformational.
‘How is that human systems seem so naturally to gravitate away from their humanness, so that we find ourselves constantly needing to pull them back again?’ (Jenny Cave-Jones)
What a profound insight and question. How is that, in organisations, the human so often becomes alien? Images from the Terminator come to mind – an apocalyptic vision of machines that turn violently against the humans that created them. I was invited to meet with the leadership team of a non-governmental organisation (NGO) in East Africa that, in its earnest desire to ensure a positive impact in the lives of the poor, had built a bureaucratic infrastructure that, paradoxically, drained its life and resources away from the poor. The challenge and solution were to rediscover the human.
I worked with a global NGO that determined to strengthen its accountability to its funders. It introduced sophisticated log frames and complex reporting mechanisms for its partners in the field, intended to ensure value for its supporters and tangible, measurable evidence of positive impact for people and communities. As an unintended consequence, field staff spent inordinate amounts of time away from their intended beneficiaries, completing forms to satisfy what felt, for them, like the insatiable demands of a machine. The challenge and solution were to rediscover the human.
A high school in the UK invited me to help its leaders manage its new performance process which had run into difficulties. Its primary focus had been on policies, systems and forms – intended positively to ensure fairness and consistency – yet had left staff feeling alienated, frustrated and demoralised. We shifted the focus towards deeper spiritual-existential questions of hopes, values and agency then worked with groups to prioritise high quality and meaningful relationships and conversations over forms, meetings and procedures. The challenge and solution were to rediscover the human.
Academics and managers at a university for the poor in South-East Asia had competing roles and priorities, and this had created significant tensions as well as affected adversely the learning experience of its students. The parties had attempted unsuccessfully to resolve these issues by political-structural means; jostling behind the scenes for positions of hierarchical influence and power. They invited me in and we conducted an appreciative inquiry together, focusing on shared hopes, deep values, fresh vision and a co-created future. The challenge and solution were to rediscover the human.
Where have you seen or experienced a drift away from the human? Curious to discover how I can help? Get in touch!
You arrange to meet with a colleague and, on the afternoon of the appointment, she neither turns up nor cancels it. It can feel disappointing or frustrating, especially if you had spent ages preparing for it, or had rescheduled other things to make room for her in your diary. There may be, of course, all kinds of extenuating circumstances that had prevented her from arriving or letting you know. We could imagine, for instance, that her car had broken down on route, or that she had got stuck in traffic in an area with no mobile phone signal. She might have been held up in another meeting that overran and from which, for whatever reason, she had felt unable to excuse herself.
Feelings of hurt or resentment can arise, however, if we allow ourselves to infer deeper meaning and significance from the no show. This can be especially so if it forms part of a wider and repeated pattern of experiences. Could it be, for instance, that her unexpected absence (again) is revealing a subtle and subliminal message such as, ‘Spending time on A is more important to me than spending time with you on B.’ Or, beneath that, ‘I believe my work on A is more important than your work on B’. Or deeper and worse still, perhaps, ‘I’m more important than you.’ The latter could well leave us feeling devalued and disrespected and, if unresolved, damage the relationship itself.
I worked with one leader, Mike, who modelled remarkable countercultural behaviour in this respect. If Mike were in a meeting that looked like it may need to overrun, he would: (a) pause the meeting briefly (irrespective of how ‘senior’ or ‘important’ the person was whom he was with); (b) speak with whomever he was due to meet with next (irrespective of how ‘junior’ or ‘unimportant’ that person was); (c) check if it would be OK with them to start their meeting later or, if needed, to defer it; and (d) take personal responsibility to resolve any implications that may arise from that rescheduling. Needless to say, Mike’s integrity and respect earned him huge loyalty, admiration and trust.
When have you seen great models of personal leadership? How do you deal with a no show?
‘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 tenderly.
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?
‘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)
In my first encounters with the Philippines, I was surprised by how often people asked me about my meals. ‘Have you eaten?’ This included during conversations online. I learned, over time, that the question arises out of an economic context in which food is often scarce owing to high levels of poverty, and a cultural context in which the health and well-being of one’s neighbour is considered important. It means the question is literal and it calls for a literal response. If I answer ‘no’ while I’m there physically, I’m likely to be offered and given a meal; even if the person who’s asking is poor.
Rudo Kwaramba, a Zimbabwean colleague, explained a similar dynamic whilst working together on an assignment in Uganda. I had been invited there to help an NGO address a key challenge: that managers in rural community-based projects were, apparently, bad at addressing poor performance. Rudo reflected: ‘In wealthy countries, if you can’t earn an income or lose your job, your government provides you with financial support; if you become injured or unwell, your health system or insurance covers you. In poorer countries, people can only look to each other for support.’
It means that, in such contexts, to establish and maintain positive relationships with one’s extended family and neighbours is essential for survival. It also means that to support the health and wellbeing of one’s neighbours is critical too. There is a sense of radical interdependence, a pragmatic-ethical need, that drives cultural behaviour. Against that backdrop, we discovered that managers who were living and working in the same communities as their staff felt unwilling and unable to address poor performance – in case it damaged the network of relationships. It was the core issue for them.
This insight moved the culture-shift question in the work from a simplistic-transactional, ‘How to change the performance management system’, to a deeper-relational, ‘How can we hold honest conversations that don’t harm community?’. It proved transformational. As I focus back on South East Asia, I notice that as some countries have grown in wealth, they have experienced a corresponding shift towards individual-orientated cultures. It's as if: the richer I am, the less I need you. ‘Have you eaten?’ is often retained, yet as a simple greeting, not as a literal inquiry or as an invitation to a meal.
So, I’m curious: what have been your experiences of working cross-culturally? What have you learned?
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 relate back to the group at a subsequent meeting on what actions have been agreed.
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)
I'm a psychological coach, trainer and OD consultant. Curious to discover how can I help you? Get in touch!
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