Tuesday 19 June 2018

Be careful what you wish for...

One of the things many people I talk with wish for is to work for an organisation that is values-led; or at least has a set of values aligned with those of the individual.  And one of the things I enjoy about working with so many universities, who now form the majority of my clients, is that I truly believe in the importance and value of learning in all its aspects.

So why do I sound a note of caution?

The reason is that I have also noticed that it is in values-led organisations (whether commercial, educational or third sector) that some of the most painful conflicts have arisen.  And perhaps the reason is obvious, but it took me a while to understand and articulate it for myself, so perhaps it will be helpful for others.

When we work for an organisation that is aligned with our values, we are engaged at a very deep level - and so is everyone else. So when differences arise about how we should act, they are deeply held, and also more difficult to discuss dispassionately.

I still remember vividly working with a Christian charity that faced a difficult dilemma. They were clear that they would recruit anyone who wanted to contribute to their charitable purposes; but when it came to Board appointments, things were not so clear. On the one hand, some believed that the values of equality and inclusivity, founded in the Christian virtue of Charity, demanded that they appoint people to the Board regardless of their religious affiliation (or lack thereof). On the other hand, others believed that the integrity of the organisation as a Christian charity, demanded that the Board (or at least the majority of the Board) should be believing Christians: Faith is also a Christian virtue, of course. Their concern was that removing the Faith-based requirement for Board appointments would inevitably result, over time, in the organisation losing its Christian ethos.

As you can imagine, people on either side of the debate felt very strongly indeed; and it was difficult to discuss the issue without the emotional temperature rising very rapidly.

Similar conflicts can arise in all arenas, of course. In a university, a proposal that would be beneficial to students but onerous to teaching staff is one example. Some would argue that the students' perspective is the most important - whatever facilitates their learning should be prioritised. But equally, others argue that motivated and productive lecturers are the most important determinant of student learning: so over-burdening and alienating them is clearly wrong.

And because our values are involved - because we are deeply invested in the issues - these conflicts are far more difficult to discuss and resolve than if we are arguing about some issue where our intellect - and our passions - are not so deeply involved.

So by all means work for an organisation that is led by the values that you adhere to - but don't indulge in the fantasy that everything will therefore be sweetness and light!

Thursday 14 June 2018

Why is truth-telling so hard?

I was at a meeting recently with a couple of very senior people (Let's call them A & B) and an HR person (let's call him X).

X had convened the meeting to discuss a proposal I'd written at X's invitation for a piece of work in the organisation, which A & B would need both to approve and be actively involved in developing and delivering.

Early on, I asked A & B if they had had a copy of my proposal - I didn't want to go over the whole thing again if they had, but I have learned to take nothing for granted.  They both said that they hadn't and X said he would send it through to them after our meeting.

As we left the meeting, X told me that he had indeed sent the proposal through to A & B before the meeting, but had thought it better not to mention that.

And so the truth was not told.

And I get that - I am sure that I have done similar in similar situations, and may well do so again.  But I have been ruminating on it ever since and a few things strike me.

One is that X's silence is easily understood: X did not want to embarrass A & B, especially in front of an outsider; and may have been wary of the consequences had he done so.

A second is that X may have been right. I don't know the organisational culture, or A or B as individuals, and it may be that X would have been victimised for pointing out that the document was in fact in both of their in-boxes.

And what harm was done, after all? Just a white lie, to save face for busy senior people.

But actually, I think harm was done.

For example, A & B may think X is less competent than he is - he should have sent the paper in advance.  Or they may discover it in their in-boxes and realise that he had sent it - and then judge him for not saying so. They have also been denied a learning opportunity: how was it that their systems had not flagged that there was a paper they should have read for this meeting? And X's behaviour suggests, and colludes with, a culture where the truth is not spoken to senior people, which is very unhealthy.

All of which reminds me of Patrick Lencioni on trust (and the associated need for vulnerability), and also later on telling the truth (with regard to accountability) and how easy it is to excuse ourselves from doing so.

Of course, it is easier for me as an outsider, to tell the truth: I can walk away more easily if it goes wrong.  And of course, that gives me a graver obligation to do so.

And that reflection makes me think of the organisations where I am not an outsider: a couple of charities with which I work. In one, I have some leadership responsibilities, and in the other I am a pawn on the ground, as it were. But in both cases there are issues about which I am having to think carefully about telling the truth.  

And the reason in both cases is that I have raised issues or queries quite openly and with little forethought, and then found that I have been met with a very strong, negative reaction from senior people.  Which brings me back to my question: why is truth-telling so hard?  And in the organisational context, it is frequently because of the (fear of) potentially negative responses of those with power.

Yet organisations need the truth to be told; leaders need people to be able to speak honestly and openly to them; or else they are leading without complete information, and possibly without insight.  And the led (including me) need to find the courage to speak our truth, and also the wisdom to do that in a way that reduces the likelihood of a defensive response - but we need not let the fear of such a response stop us from speaking all together, or we collude with the dysfunctionality of the organisation.

Sunday 10 June 2018

Playing with pictures

Recently, at the instigation of my good friend and colleague Jan Allon-Smith, I bought a set of three packs of Visual Explorer Cards, as developed by the Centre for Creative Leadership.

I have been experimenting with them in a variety of settings: a team awayday, coaching and coaching supervision; and for different purposes: checking in and out at the start and end of the day, exploring coaching and supervision issues, and eliciting feedback after a peer-observed supervision session. 

They have proved very fruitful in all three contexts, as one might expect: stimulating a slightly left-field (or as some would say,  right-brained - but let's not get into that argument just now...) approach to the issues under discussion, as I had hoped and indeed expected.

But what I found very helpful, and had not foreseen, was the way in which they served as reference points later in a conversation, to issues discussed earlier.  Thus in the supervision session, I asked the coach I was supervising to select and talk about images at various stages of our conversation. Quite early on, for example, I asked her to choose a picture (and then talk about it) representing how she would like her coaching client to be at the end of a coaching session. Later in the conversation, on more than one occasion, we were able to refer back to that: 'if you want your client to be... [gesture at appropriate card], how does that inform how you choose between these approaches?...' It proved a remarkably effective shorthand way of referring back to a whole set of ideas that had been unpacked earlier.  At the end of the supervision, I invited the coach to take photos of the pictures she had chosen, as part of her note-taking from the session, which she thought a particularly useful and powerful way of helping her to remember what she had been exploring.

In describing that to my wife and business partner, the ever-insightful Jane, she pointed out that the pictures were serving a similar purpose in this context to the naming of stories in the ManyStory approach. How had I not seen that? So now I'm off to blog about that on the Shifting Stories site...

It is worth saying that the Visual Explorer cards are very expensive, and if one had the time and inclination, one might do as well to buy a large stock of postcards (if I were in London, I might simply have gone to the South Kensington museums and a couple of art galleries and bought one each of every card they stocked).  One of my colleagues at the Coaching Supervision Group suggested buying the pack of 100 Penguin Book Cover Postcards  - but my reservation here would be that too many feature mainly words, and all have words on the covers which would change the dynamic....

Having said which, the only advantages of the CCL images over a rich selection of good varied visual postcards  (though I am sure that they would argue they have been carefully selected etc etc...) are that they come in neat plastic boxes to keep them in good condition when carried about, and that they look made for the job - which, if one has cynical clients, or one is concerned about maintaining a very professional image, may be valuable.

My final reflection on all this is that I used to use far more visual imagery in my work - particularly when I was running Creativity Workshops on a regular basis, which I have not done for a few years now. I wonder if I have retreated somewhat into a 'safer' world of more word-based practices - so a healthy reminder to keep refreshing my work and approaches.