Wednesday 28 December 2016

The Year in Review

2016 feels to have been quite a momentous year. I won't re-visit the large political events here; but at a local level it has been very positive.

Finishing and publishing Shifting Stories released a lot of energy for new learning: I also completed my post-graduate diploma in Executive Coaching and Mentoring, trained with Nancy Kline on her Thinking Partnerships programme, and organised the training for a number of colleagues and qualified in the Hogan assessment tools.  I have blogged variously about these throughout the year, so will not say more about them here, except to say that they have all added considerably to my repertoire as a coach, facilitator and consultant; and I have more development planned for next year (not least more work with Nancy Kline, and a Post-graduate Coaching Supervision diploma). 

I also read a large number of really helpful books, and have bought many more to keep me stimulated an learning, as well as attended a number of very valuable cpd events with Cumbria Coaching Network and the EMCC.

On the professional front, it has been gratifying to see a number of my coaching clients achieve great things, survive tough times, inspire others...  and many of the training events and awaydays I have facilitated have elicited similar feedback.  Moreover, the client base is growing, and the diary for 2017 is already very strong indeed.

Likewise, it has been particularly nice to read positive reviews of the book (both on Amazon, and also, somewhat less credibly, here); but even more pleasing to read reports of people putting the ideas into practice, with positive results (see here).

On the domestic front, we had a lovely holiday with our Outlaws (our daughter's husband's parents) sailing around Corfu on a catamaran; as well as a lovely family holiday in Scotland. And of course the major event of the year was the birth of our first grandson, James, who is with us for Christmas and the New Year.

And I notice that it is almost exactly a year since someone pointed out Charity Miles to me. I thought I might raise $250 for Charity Water over the year, just by my normal walking and running habits. In fact it has been more than $300, which is very satisfying. I started doing Donate a Photo more recently, but have contributed $190 worth of photos to Operation Smile. We have also developed substantial Kiva portfolios for the children; giving them Kiva vouchers as presents at Christmas etc. (If you don't know about Kiva, take a look - a fabulous scheme to help those in the developing world with micro-loans: encouraging agency, respecting dignity...)

All in all, despite the turmoil in the larger world, a positive year for us here...

So may I take this opportunity to wish all my clients, collaborators, colleagues and friends every blessing for a happy and successful 2017.

Thursday 15 December 2016

The Value of Iteration

The last few weeks have been very interesting. I am busy working with a client on the development of a significant leadership programme to launch next year.  Based on an initial conversation with the head of the organisation about some interesting work I have been doing elsewhere, we agreed that I should speak with senior people in the organisation, as well as the managers of potential participants, and some of the potential participants themselves.

The fundamental model includes a large element of participant involvement in the design: ie on day 1 of the programme (which is modular over several months) they say what they would most value working on during subsequent days.

However, in order to invite people to the programme and give them some information to help them decide whether it is for them, and also to give some shape to the day 1 co-design exercise, it is necessary to have a high-level outline and structure; and some ideas of the types of content they can choose between. A completely blank sheet of paper would not be helpful (at least, in this particular organisational culture - I can imagine trying that elsewhere!)

So I started by asking a number of senior people for their ideas, and based on a structure which one of them proposed, and others endorsed, I then had focus groups with potential participants, and their managers. These radically re-designed the draft programme in a number of significant ways; and to their credit the senior managers are accepting that even though there were benefits of the original proposed programme which are now being lost (but other benefits, of higher perceived value to the participants, are being gained). In fact the final revision is closer to the model I have used elsewhere than our first draft here…

And of course if we are to launch next spring, which is the ambition, we really need to get invitations out before Christmas, so that people can plan their diaries accordingly. So we are having to get final agreement in something of a rush, and, for reasons of geography, mainly by remote communications.

But I think we are almost there. And although it has felt a somewhat messy process, and almost as though we were going in circles at times, I am convinced it was worth it.

In the first place, it is essential to ensure the relevance of the programme to the participants as well as to the organisation. Likewise, it is important that the relevance is recognised: involving people in the process gives them more of a stake in the outcome. That is equally true of the line managers, who will be encouraging people to make time for the programme.  But also, we are learning a lot about the organisation by the mere fact of doing this: the different ways in which people in different roles conceive of the issues is itself very useful information. Further, there is something about getting the conversation - and the thinking - going about leadership before we even start that programme that may well prove helpful.

But I have to admit to a certain relief that we are nearly at the end of (the first part of) the seemingly endless iteration...

Saturday 10 December 2016

Conversational Intelligence?

I listened to an online presentation about Conversational Intelligence, the other day. It was largely a sales pitch by Judith Glaser for a very expensive programme, run by her, and based on her book of the same title.

It was very interesting, if somewhat tantalising: interesting enough for me to order the book, but not to sign up to the (heavily discounted if you book now!) training programme for $$$$ - despite her earnest desire that I should join her 'dream team.'

The one thing I gleaned that really captured my attention was the notion of the impact of conversations - and in particular the opening moments of conversations - on the brain of the person with whom one is talking.

Glaser was suggesting that the opening moments are likely either to produce a response based on a release of cortisol, testosterone and norepinephrine - which will take the conversation in a difficult direction and leave the other person (and possibly you, given what we know about emotional contagion) in a bad place; or conversely, a response based on a release of oxytocin, dopamine and serotonin, which is more likely to lead to a creative confident conversation, leaving both parties euphoric.

And whilst I might be overstating it for effect, I think she may be onto something.  Particularly if one is in a leadership (or other powerful) role, I suggest it is easier than one might realise to prompt people to be nervous or defensive.  As Daniel Nettle points out in Personality (about which I have already blogged here) we are typically over-calibrated for worry. And if that is the case, and leaders are frequently, inadvertently, provoking cortisol dumps, we can deduce that that will have an impact on the emotional state, and ultimately the culture, of the organisation. For the worried or stressed individual that results from such interactions is likely to have further interactions with others, with similar effect; and the long-lasting residual effect of a cortisol dump adds to the problems.

Conversely, a leader (and I have witnessed this recently) who takes care to have positive conversations that leave people happier than when she started talking to them (the person I have in mind has been radical enough to talk about 'kindness' as a desirable organisational behaviour) can have a significant and highly beneficial effect on the culture of her organisation. And as I say, I have witnessed that recently, and Glaser's hypothesis suggests a plausible explanation.

But I have yet to read the book, so cannot really judge her ideas: I will blog further when I have done so.

Friday 2 December 2016

Personality - what makes you the way you are

I have just finished reading Daniel Nettle's book: Personality - What makes you the way you are. The first thing to say is that it is fascinating - engagingly written, so that it is easy and enjoyable to read, and also well-founded on a very broad reading of the relevant research (and some interesting by-ways) and properly referenced: a book (and an author) you can trust.

Daniel (full disclosure - I know him) starts by explaining why personality traits matter, and what the Big Five are. Then he considers the evolutionary context: why is there such variance in each of the Big Five in all human populations. This is all fascinating context, enlivened by vivid examples and anecdotes - such as the variance in the Beak of the Finch (which is the title of the second chapter).

The next five chapters look at each of the Big Five in turn, considering the nature of the trait, how it has been researched, the benefits and risks associated with high or low scores, and so on. Each chapter has a title exemplifying. or rather personifying, the trait under consideration. Thus the chapter on Extraversion is Wanderers, that on Neuroticism is Worriers; Conscientiousness, Controllers; Agreeableness, Empathisers; and that on Openness, Poets.

In each case, I finished the chapter with a far deeper and richer understanding of the trait than I had had previously; and I am not starting from a zero base-line. 

In passing, it also becomes clear why typologies such as the MBTI, whilst they may have some utility as a useful fiction, and a way of enabling some self-awareness and some interesting discussions, are not really adequate in representing where the state of scientific knowledge now stands with regard to personality. The Hogan tools fare rather better, as the HPI is based on the Big Five, and also uses scales rather than the binary approach of MBTI.

The penultimate chapter then looks at the nature/nurture debate, particularly drawing on twin studies, which are, of course, crucial in this context. The startling and counter-intuitive conclusion is that parental influence (excepting extremes of abuse etc) has no influence on the personality of their children. There is more work to be done on environmental influence, but that finding is clear and conclusive. Other candidates for influence (such as birth order) are also considered and, by and large, discarded. But, as I say, there is more work to be done here.
Daniel Nettle (centre) expressing some extraversion:
chairing a post-play discussion with the cast of
Hitting the Wall at Northern Stage on 30 November 2016

All this can leave one feeling somewhat fatalistic: if so much of my behaviour is driven by my personality, and my personality is largely inherited and influenced post-birth by factors we can't fully describe, still less control, where do I stand in terms of individuality, agency and responsibility.  Daniel addresses this in the final chapter, and in particular, the key question: can I change? Here he makes valuable distinctions between personality traits and how one might express them (including working against them, as well as finding benign rather than harmful expressions); but he also emphasises the importance of the personal life story - the meanings an individual constructs to make sense of his or her experiences, and the malleability of those.  This of course is a perfect fit with my work in Shifting Stories, so I was both pleased and relieved to find it here.

So I highly recommend this book to anyone interested in deepening his or her understanding of personality, and in particular the big five. And now I need to go through it again, this time making notes...