‘If you want to know what your true values are, have a look at your diary and your bank statement.’ (Selwyn Hughes)
Take any example of an important-to-you decision that you have taken during this past week. Consciously or subconsciously, directly or indirectly, it will have reflected something of your underlying beliefs and values. At one level, every decision we take with awareness represents the outcome of a choice point, analogous to a choice of a direction at an intersection in a road. Guiding principles are a way of choosing to align our decisions and behaviour with our beliefs, ethics and values.
I worked with a group recently where, during feedback, participants commented on how they felt impacted by what they saw and experienced as my ‘distinctive’ style and approach. Distinctive, by definition, means something different to that which they were used to or familiar with, rather than necessarily something totally unique per se. They were curious and asked me what, if anything, lay behind this – that which they had experienced – for me. What is it that makes the difference?
I held up a small, yellow, post-it note to the screen. On it are written 3 words in my own scrawled handwriting: Prayer, Presence, Participation. These are, if you like, the guiding principles that underpin me personally and all of my work professionally. I carry them with me and have them stuck on my desk, beside the monitor. I pause and focus on them consciously and deliberately before, say, writing a message, joining a conversation or running a workshop. They really do matter to me.
Prayer is inviting and opening myself to God’s insight, wisdom and power. He is able to reveal, do and achieve things that are truly impossible for me alone. Presence is ensuring quality of attention and contact with each person or group that I will meet. It’s viewing and approaching each person, each moment, as a sacred encounter. Participation is an invitational spirit that calls for humility and courage. It means engaging with people, not simply technology or any materials that we may use.
At the end of the conversation, I invited each person in the group to reflect for a moment – for as long as they needed– and to write down 3 words that, perhaps, they would choose to underpin their own practice. They did this thoughtfully, alone, then each shared with others in the group what they had written. This felt so much deeper and more meaningful than simple words on paper could capture or convey. It was about integrity, authenticity and congruence: choosing to take a stance.
What core principles guide the focus and parameters of your own decisions and behaviour? What stance are you willing to take?
‘Money – it’s a hit. Don't give me that do goody good bullsh*t.’ (Pink Floyd)
‘When I die, if I leave ten pounds behind me, you and all humanity may bear witness against me that I have lived and died a thief and a robber.’ (John Wesley)
Now that’s extreme. In his lifetime, UK Christian preacher John Wesley is estimated to have earned around £30,000 (roughly equivalent to £1,000,000 today). When he died in 1791, 47 years after having written these astonishing words (above), he was found only to have a few coins left in his pocket. He had given everything away. Wesley believed that to follow Jesus meant intrinsically to use whatever resources God had given him to help others in need. He challenged fundamentally those who believed that material acquisition was a blessing from God to enjoy for their own benefit. As his own income increased, he stayed at the same simple baseline and gave even more away.
I find Wesley’s example incredibly humbling and challenging. I live in a society that is individual-, wealth- and future-orientated. An implicit cultural imperative is that we should each make as much money as we can; both so that we can improve our own quality of life today and prepare for the future, confident that we will have plenty to spend then as now. I once had a long journey home from working among the poor in Cambodia. An intrigued Indian Hindu businessman travelling next to me on the plane confessed in bemusement that he found my work for a Christian NGO shameful: ‘Shouldn’t you be earning as much money as possible to increase your own family’s wealth?’
He had a point. To take care of one’s own family is, of course, an important, universal, human value. Yet, still, our worldviews collide. I find my life inspired by a different ethic, exemplified by Jasmin, a radical follower of Jesus 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 to bring hope to those who live without hope. Speak up for justice and truth – whatever the cost. Pray.’ That isn’t about self-righteousness. It’s not a denial of the visceral tug of anxiety and security. It is about choice, decision and stance.
What beliefs, values and principles guide your life? What do they look like in practice?
'Now kings will rule and the poor will toil, and tear their hands as they tear the soil. But a day will come in this dawning age, when an honest man sees an honest wage.' (U2)
The topic of ethics can sound and feel abstract, esoteric. Something confined to philosophy lectures. The mysterious realm of armchair academics. What does it look like in practice? Why has it become such a critical issue for organisations and societies now? Jasmin, a Filipina, is from the poorest of the poor. To her amazement, and as an answer to prayer, she finds herself with an opportunity to build a small kitchen.
She looks for contractors to do the work. The first question she checks is whether the labourers are paid a fair wage. In a country and industry marred by corruption, exploitation is rife. The second is whether they will build with love, if they will pour their hearts as well as their construction skills into achieving a good result. This is so different to a purely commercial transaction. It’s about spirit, attitude – and trust.
Against this backdrop, I find it helpful to think about ethics, at its simplest, as values with a moral dimension. For Jasmin, it’s about lifestyle, relationship and stance. Stance infers a choice. We are faced with a decision-point, a junction in a metaphorical road. Pragmatic wisdom would suggest a weighing up of costs against benefits. Ethics would ask who is affected and how? What would be ‘good’ and ‘right’?
Why this, and why now? I look up and look around: corruption; media manipulation; climate change; environmental disaster; poverty; human rights abuse; war. How did we get here? I see the poor and vulnerable affected the most and the worst. Yet still, closer to home and within me: a temptation to put my own interests first; to close my eyes; to dull my heart; to deceive my mind; to choose the easier and expedient path.
So, what does ethics look like? I ask Jasmin and her life speaks: ‘Pray, love and take a stance.’
‘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.
‘I’m not in your situation. And neither am I you in your situation.’ (David Cooper)
A stretching skill in coaching, action learning and facilitation is often to step back and to stay back. I may imagine vividly what I might think, how I might feel and what I might do if I were in the situation a client has described. Nevertheless, as David Cooper has summarised so well (above), the truth is I’m not there and I’m not you. A risk is that I may inadvertently and subconsciously project myself onto the world of the client. Why is this important and how can we use it?
Firstly, the client portrays a challenge, dilemma or opportunity from their own perspective. It’s a personally and-or socially-constructed view with associated feelings that may reveal all kinds of hidden assumptions, beliefs, values, hopes and expectations. These may be quite different to what the same situation could hold for the coach. Exploring how the client construes the situation and what lays behind and beneath it for them can unlock fresh insight and potential.
Secondly, factors that stand out to the client as significant in a situation can be very different to those that stand out for the coach because of differences in what people notice, what value they attach to it and what meaning they make of it. What a person notices is influenced psychologically by what’s important to them. What, therefore, surfaces into awareness (or not) for the client can shed useful light on underlying personal-cultural assumptions, beliefs and values.
Thirdly, how the coach could act in the client’s situation - and the consequences of their actions - would be influenced by their own lived experiences, their personal preferences and cultural norms, their own networks of relationships and the knowledge and skills they can draw upon. Unless the client’s issue has a definitive right or correct solution, the optimal way through for the client may be quite different to that for the coach. I’m not in your situation – and I’m not you.
It’s a simple tool I may use with people who feel stuck or who are struggling to gain traction with an issue. Imagine a person is facing a dilemma: they want to have more disposable income at the end of each month, but can’t work out how to achieve it. They face 3 principal options: to increase their income; to reduce their expenditure; or both. Or a person wants to lose weight and they, too, have 3 principal options, to: increase their physical exercise; to reduce their calorific intake; or both.
A basic 4x4 grid can come in useful here. I may take a piece of paper or, if working online, open a whiteboard on screen that the other person can also see and write onto. On one axis, I will draw a polarity: ‘Willing to do’…’Not willing to do.’ On the intersecting axis: ‘Can do’…’Can’t do.’ It creates 4 possibilities: Willing to do and can do; Willing to do but can’t do; Can do but not willing to do; Can’t do and not willing to do. It also forms a visual graphic that segments different dimensions of experience.
Now, in relation to each of the options (for instance: vis a vis income and expenditure; or exercise and dieting - above), I will ask the person to jot down their own responses in each quadrant. I will then invite them to reflect critically on what they have posted there: for example, What do they notice? How honest are they being with themselves? What presuppositions might they be holding? Who or what could be influencing what they have written in each area? Who or what could make a shift?
More often than not, a person discovers they are indeed making assumptions that are limiting their horizons and actions; or that they are unwilling, for whatever reason, to do whatever it would take to achieve their goals. The first area can touch on blind spots (things they don’t see); the second on hot spots (things they don’t find easy to talk about). It may take considerable courage to admit to oneself that, for instance, ‘I’m not willing to put my money where my mouth is, or to take a risk.’
Spiritual-existential and psychological coaching can often prove helpful here, in that they enable a person to explore their underlying beliefs, values and motivations and what they or others may be doing subconsciously to sabotage themselves and their success. It creates a safe, supportive and challenging space and relationship in which to stand back, reflect, evaluate and re-engage from a more authentic stance. What do you desire most in life or work? Are you willing and able, or not?
(See also: Grit and Get a grip)
‘When the bombs were falling like rain, Jennie stayed here with us.’
As a leader in international NGO, Tearfund, Jennie had always struck me as a quiet and unassuming person. We visited community rebuilding initiatives together in Lebanon just after the harsh and brutal civil war. Amidst shattered buildings, lives broken by sectarian conflict, aerial bombardment of the Beirut power station (just as we arrived) and Syrian ‘peacekeeping’ troops everywhere, we met with Christian leaders who recounted countless stories of heartache and hope.
One of the things that struck me most was their deep reverence and respect for Jennie. Whenever she spoke, they listened with profound attention. Curious about this, I asked one of the leaders about it afterwards. He replied, ‘During the war, most NGOs withdrew because it became too dangerous for them to stay. Jennie was different. She refused to abandon us. When the bombs were falling like rain and we had nowhere else to run to or hide, Jennie stayed here with us.’
I felt completely speechless, humbled and amazed. I imagined myself in that same situation: how I would almost certainly have fled for my own safety – and have found or created very good reasons to justify myself for doing so. Yet what an impact now. The leadership and influence that Jennie was able to bring to this work by having been-with; not based on any hierarchical status, power or authority she held, but on a deep and incarnational, presence, relationship and trust.
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.’
Diversity: a problem to be solved...or an opportunity to be grasped? What do you think?
'Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly.' (Martin Luther King)
DEI, EDI, DIE..acronyms, used interchangeably with a similar meaning. It’s the stuff of diversity, equality/equity and inclusion. If the very sight of those words makes you yawn with boredom or roll your eyes with frustration, DEI experts and advocates need to ask why. To see a glowing example of passion, creativity and inspiration in this arena, have a glance at Shine!
The challenges that EDI sets out to tackle are important, complex and human. They affect very real, vulnerable and disenfranchised people in organisations and the wider world. Most DEI policies and plans I see represent implicitly: (a) a legal rights-based approach; that is, to offer protection against illegal discrimination, and ensure equality of access to opportunities and resources; and (b) a humanistic values-based approach; that is, to treat everyone respectfully as human beings, and appreciate the differences between people. Both offer a critical baseline for healthy conduct and behaviour in liberal-democratic societies.
We could think of these approaches as, essentially, ideologically-based. They flow from a vision of organisations and societies in which, in particular, people and groups that are non-dominant and less-privileged are offered special protection and support so that they, alongside others, can enjoy free and fulfilling lives. They recognise a genuine risk in any group or society that less-powerful people will be and become marginalised by the cultural interests and priorities of the privileged majority. Against this backdrop, EDI initiatives often prioritise, first and foremost, legal and policy requirements as core foundations.
An underlying challenge for these types of ideological approaches is how to gain and sustain traction if others, especially those in powerful positions, don’t share the same vision and values, or a desire to prioritise them. An unintended consequence of effective recent social-political lobbies such as LGBTQ+, BLM and Extinction Rebellion has been to create a silent-silenced group that, for reasons of expediency, presents a convincing, socially-presentable façade, yet with no real substance behind it or commitment to change. Climate activist Greta Thunberg calls this out as the cynical ‘Blah, blah, blah’ phenomenon.
For the DEI venture to exert greater transformational influence and impact, I believe those who promote it need to become better at evaluating and demonstrating the tangible benefits of diversity: especially to the pragmatist-sceptics. It’s not enough to create and enforce laws and policies, important as they are for protection, equality and inclusion. It’s not enough to appeal for kinder, fairer and more tolerant organisations – although, as a follower of Jesus – I see such qualities as having intrinsic value. EDI's core proposition that 'diversity is a good thing' will prove far more persuasive if it can show convincingly why.
I may have something useful to offer here. For many years, I have had the privilege of working internationally with leaders and professionals from diverse cultures and backgrounds. I often use a powerful, small-group, peer-coaching method called ‘Action Learning’. It enables people who face wicked problems to make better decisions, faster. Diversity in such a group is a critical success factor because it enables a person to unpack an issue, stress-test her or his assumptions and create innovative solutions – precisely because peers pose stretching questions from vastly different perspectives and experience-bases.
One organisation I worked with had a strong commitment to DEI. It employed people from a wide range of countries and backgrounds and worked hard to ensure that everyone was treated in the same way. Ironically, its efforts had inadvertently blinded it to the value of difference. It missed completely the significant potential that such diversity can offer when running projects, dealing with challenging issues etc. I invited the leaders to engage in a simple experiment – to create problem-solving and innovation teams based on radical diversity as the key team criterion, irrespective of formal role. The results were truly astonishing.
As EDI progresses, develops and learns, I believe that this kind of testing, evidencing and presenting of practical benefits, alongside issuing or enforcing an ethical call, will prove vital and fruitful. It will be an invaluable area for further research. I work with asylum-seekers and refugees who often feel depressed and frustrated by being characterised as helpless victims, rather than as resourceful contributors who want to show they can make a difference. Legal rights-based and humanitarian values-based approaches to DEI are a critical bedrock. A benefits-outcomes approach could ensure an additional life-giving dimension.
‘Your choice point is the space you're in right before you make a decision.’ (Martha Tesema)
You are choosing to read this blog – you could have chosen to do something else instead. You are choosing to read it now – you could have chosen to read it at a different time. In fact, according to psychological choice theory, everything you do is a choice. You’re not always aware of it and it won’t always feel like it. The implications and consequences of choosing one course of action over another can sometimes be so different and so stark that it can feel to, to all intents and purposes, as if there is no choice. Yet you are still likely to choose the action that, for instance, aligns most closely with your values; or has the greatest perceived benefits; or has the least risks or detrimental effects.
The implications of this theory are radical and extreme. If every action you take represents a choice, and if you can grow in awareness of the choices you are making at each moment, a vast array of possibilities opens up to you. As you approach any decision, it will be like reaching a road junction, with always at least 2 options available to you. You will no longer be trapped or driven entirely by circumstances. You can exercise greater freedom and personal agency. You can learn to navigate adaptively through choices, like tacking into the wind on a sailboat. You can become more creative and innovative. You can visit places, reach destinations, that you never dreamed imaginable.
There is a flip side. If you really are free to choose, you’re also responsible for your every action. It could feel easier to tell yourself that you have no choice – especially since you can’t anticipate every potential ripple effect. It would relieve you of the burden of accountability. You could also feel quite overwhelmed by the dread of having to make choices at every moment in time, in every situation. It could feel like existentialist Jean-Paul Sartre’s nightmare, ‘condemned to be free’. You may try to alleviate the anxiety by telling yourself that you’re a product of your background, upbringing, culture or circumstances. Then you could stop over-thinking, over-analysing, and get on with your life.
So, how to handle this paradox? How to create the liberating freedom of expanding one’s sense and reality of choice whilst also to acknowledge the ethical and practical responsibilities it carries with it? First: awareness. Here’s a simple exercise. Write down a paragraph of no more than 100 words that describes the last meeting you had with a colleague. Now, underline every word that represents a choice point in what happened. If you do this rigorously enough, you will be amazed at how much of the text is highlighted. Now the stretch, a thought experiment: jot down at least 2 different choices you could have made at each choice point. Try to be creative and courageous as you do this.
Second: responsibility. To build on this exercise, jot down a list of key criteria that will help you to ensure focus, priorities and boundaries to your decisions and actions. Here are some examples: ‘make best use of my time; achieve my career goals; develop the team’s potential; improve quality of relationships; create best value for stakeholders’. These criteria reflect and represent your values. Finally, test the actual choices you made, and the hypothetical choices you could have made, against these criteria to take note of what you could have done differently, what you could do next time and what lines you will not cross. Now – it’s your choice: given what you know now, what will you do with it?
(See also: Choose; Choice; Agents of Change)
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