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2021 has been a busy year. With the quieter Jan, I am going to catch up with my reflection sharing here. I will start with a few real cases (without revealing any identity) memorable to me. I will tell a few stories and reflect on them.
The first case took place in an open Executive Development program which lasted over a year. Participants were country top or N-1 level executives of diverse background – e.g. nationality, gender, type of industry. Among my 4 group members, Daniel (pseudonym) worked in a muscular local organisation. He impressed me to be smart, reserved, disciplined and content with most things in life. Jackie (pseudonym) was one of the few Asian ladies who became a regional CEO in a large MNC, and a single parent. She appeared to be tired, sceptical and confused.
They started rather unmotivated to ‘work’ in the program, but interestingly for different, almost opposite, reasons. Daniel was happy with everything in life. It showed vividly in his drawing e.g. loving family, promising advancement in the career which he desired. When enquired, he said politely he did see anything he needed to work on in the program.
Jackie was the opposite. Nothing in life seemed to be working – worsening business performance, low morale, deteriorating relationship with boss, lack of support in personal life, etc. She described herself being in a ‘dark tunnel’. She was quiet and distracted in our first group session. When prompted, she said she was sceptical about this ‘coaching’ thing and in fact regretted starting this program!
I do not remember how exactly I responded to such resistance from both. Largely, I expressed appreciation to their frankness, focused on listening to understand and reserved my challenge later in the session. After all, in such first encounter, building Working Alliance (with me and among themselves) is most important. Their expressed resistance may well be out of the typical first-session anxiety e.g. ‘Will I belong?’, ‘Am I good enough?’, ‘Will I lose myself in joining the group?’…. It is important for them to feel safe to share and (thus) open to hear others’ stories. I challenged them later subtly e.g. by riding on related sharing by others. For example, as a member expressed reflectively what he wanted to work on in the program, I noticed Jackie being very much drawn into the sharing. I asked, ‘Jackie, imagine that you were finishing this program now, what would the thing you wish you have worked on in the past 1 year?’
The session ended ok. But the true magic happened a few months later. Jackie shared how she realised her directive style has not worked well in the increasingly matrix environment and how she were working to switch her leadership style. Other members gave her feedback, suggestion and questions to expand her thought. To our surprise, she also shared that she had been going through certain personal emotion challenge, and that how relieved she was feeling in sharing with the group. The room went quiet and the faces became soft….
I still remember vividly what Daniel then said, ‘Jackie, I am humbled by what you told us and the effort you put in working through the challenges. There is no reason I avoid facing my own….. I have been receiving feedback that I am too distant. I know it would be better for me and the organization if I can be more engaging to others. But it is hard and I have no idea how…’
Members joined in to help. The group basically carried itself throughout the session and I just participated as one of them. It was magical.
I subsequently came across a quote which articulated exactly such ‘magic’:
‘…As you experience yourself as incomplete or inadequate…. but still included and accepted ….and experience the capable people around you as incomplete and inadequate… but no less admirable… these experience seem to give rise to qualities of compassion and appreciation that can benefit all relationships and enable deep self-examination and thus development…’
from Robert Kegan in his book ‘An Everyone Culture‘
This essentially spells out what a coach should work towards in a group coaching setting, which is about developing individuals’ leadership through the group. Not to ‘enhance trust’. Not to ‘build the team’. Not to ‘get them through the storming stage’.
I reflected on the concept of ROLE in the last post – Why me again fixing the Wifi? I come across recently an unusual example in putting this angle of seeing things in use.
Since we started to keep a dog at home, my youngest one somehow has changed to become more independent. He was more willing (and sometimes even proactive) to take risk in groups. I started to ponder how keeping a dog may have contributed to the change? (well… without ruling out the possibility that they are just 2 un-related incidents) One common explanation is that a person will grow more mature by being given additional responsibility.
There is another angle which is about ROLE. The youngest kid in a family usually take up the role of ‘Patient’ or ‘Dependent’ i.e. meant to be taken care of. On intra-personal level, the ‘Care-giver’ has his / her own dose of superiority by helping. The ‘Patient’ has his / her own in ‘making’ the former help, and enjoy the affection given. On the group level, the ‘Care-giver vs Patient’ pattern of exchange gives the family (as a group) a sense of familiarity and thus psychological comfort. All would be happy to stay in such dynamics.
The arrival of a dog (especially a puppy in our case!) disturbed the role configuration. It took up the role of ‘Patient’, and the previous ‘Patient’ (as previously contracted in our case) shifted to the role of ‘Care-giver’. Interestingly, it seems helpful for all:
- For our youngest, the change unlocked him from the ‘Patient’ role. This seems to fit well his developmental need given his age;
- For the others, we can continue our sense of superiority with the new ‘Patient’;
- For the dog, it is ok for it to take up (and stay with) the ‘Patient’ role.
So, what is the lesson for team / individual development?
Recognize what role configurations are at play (almost never just one configuration stably at play in a group). When we realise one being locked into certain role which is not useful to own development or group effectiveness, consider the possibility of introducing a new member. This may break the group pattern whilst the new member may benefit in taking over the role. For example, hiring interns to release an existing member from the ‘Patient’ role. At the same time, the interns can benefit from being ‘helped’ and perhaps form a talent pool in the long term.
One day I found myself attempting to fix the Wifi at home again. I was somehow annoyed with it. ‘Why me again?’…. And I have already spent over an hour and the Wifi router was still not working! Oh, and I am always the one whom others at home will come to when any mechanical / electrical related thing is not working. I somehow have the ROLE of ‘technician’. And the ROLE is rather ‘stable’, in the sense that others just pass the ‘fixing task’ to me without trying themselves. We have never discussed and agreed on such ‘role arrangement’ but it just happened. Really how did it happen? Even more interestingly, I pondered what is in me making myself taking up such role despite the occasional sense of frustration of ‘Why me again?’.
On reflection, this actually illustrates the concept of ROLE in the systems-psychodynamics approach. Basically, the idea is that given individuals’ own dynamics and the group’s one, members tend to take up certain (social / psychological) roles in groups.
But wait…. ROLE in groups is a big word which I find often confusing in using it. It could mean:
- Formal role e.g. CEO, CFO
- Procedural role e.g. facilitator, time-keeper, recorder, gatekeepers
Here, I refer to Social / Psychological roles e.g. scapegoat, fool, victim, persecutor, taskmaster. And if I am to put a definition to the concept of ROLE, I would say ‘a role is a pattern of behaviors in relation to other members in the system, and along with other members to further certain purpose of the system’ So, for Social / Psychological roles, the system purpose is often to reduce psychological discomfort for the group. For example, by having someone who always appears to ‘screw up’ i.e. scapegoat, the group can deny / reduce any possible sense of collective failure i.e. ‘It is his failure, not ours’.
Really, how such roles got ‘assigned’ into individuals? My Wifi incident (though also about technical / procedural role) can help illustrate. On my personal side, I am better at such computer stuff and often feel good in being useful in helping others on this. Using the systems-psychodynamics term, I have the valency on this. On the system side, there is simply such need to have things fixed (and probably also psychologically to be ‘taken care’ by dad). So, roles are not only given by the group but also taken up by individuals.
This would be the same for Social / Psychological roles. For example, on personal side, the scapegoat may unconsciously derive comfort in being unfairly blamed as this allows him / her to complain about it and prove his / her worldview that the world is not fair. Perhaps even, after all, there is a nice sense of familiarity as the person has played such role with the older siblings for many years. On the system side, the group needs a reason why it fails the project, in order to avoid the discomfort if acknowledging collective incompetence (and even then the fear of giving and receiving feedback for each members).
But then, so what? How would it be useful in being able to notice and understand the above unconscious processing?
First, such awareness enables one to examine whether the Social / Psychological role taken up is actually useful, especially when one is ‘locked’ into such role. In the above example, the scapegoat can better choose whether to stay in that role. Second, the unconscious group purpose (e.g. to reduce discomfort) may contradict the group stated purpose (e.g. to support each other to develop). By being aware the role situation, a group can choose to avoid scapegoating but instead examine how to improve collective effectiveness by, say, sharing feedback to each other.
Further, there are often role-combination ‘template’ which help more quickly understand group behaviors e.g. persecutor-victim-rescuerÂ like in schools there is always a ‘victim’ who is clumsy, a ‘persecutor’ who bullies and then a ‘rescuer’ who saves the ‘victim’ from trouble. For those in Asia, you may recall in the Japanese cartoon Doraemon as a vivid example – the character ‘?? ‘ as the ’victim‘, ’??‘ as the ‘persecutor’ and ‘??‘ as the ’rescuer‘. (Of course, we shall always treat such explanation as hypotheses instead of absolute truth or root cause. See the post What may also be going on?)
Back to the Wifi incident, knowing that I contributed to ’taking up‘ the role, I will probably feel more OK with it next time….. if I choose to continue such role.
An executive made a casual remark in a recent intact team development workshop, â€˜Smoking (together) can fix a lot of our problemsâ€™. Health hazard aside, his quote does highlight something important on team effectiveness.
With context, what he meant is that when co-workers go out of workplace / meeting rooms and smoke together, they can talk more freely. A global CEO once said, â€˜What our organization needs is more â€˜agenda-free, non-transactionalâ€™ conversationsâ€¦.â€™
Often, such free dialogues help resolve deadlocks in the formal meetings or email exchanges. They are less bound by rigidities like seniorities, office norms / protocols, meeting objectives, etc. They feel more comfortable to ask questions (which often do not happen because it is associated with not-knowing, and thus a scary thing to do in formal settings) and express potentially controversial view. It is the â€˜off-the-recordâ€™ thing.
In addition, psychologically, smoking together can also be taken unconsciously as â€˜doing â€œbadâ€ things togetherâ€™ and such common experience generates sense of togetherness. Camaraderie lubricates team to work through difficult issues among members â€“ easier to advocate and enquire.
Reflecting further, this argument has interesting implications to team effectiveness intervention. First, it then makes sense to design such space into team interventions e.g. â€˜World CafÃ©â€™, even better â€˜Open Spaceâ€™, and even even better â€˜Walk and Talkâ€™ with a simple instruction â€˜Please have a walk and talk about things you two need to talk about but have not had chance to talk aboutâ€™.
(A side question – would a simple team BBQ be a good team intervention? Definitely yes, if the purpose is primarily on having fun and gaining a sense of togetherness. But if there are specific issues to be worked on, some gently-structured yet open processes like â€˜Open Spaceâ€™ will be more appropriate.)
There is another implication â€“ despite the argument above, team days / retreats are more often than not fully packed with centrally-determined topics and structures. Sometimes, even â€˜normalâ€™ open spaces like breakfasts, lunches and coffee breaks are â€˜invadedâ€™. Why? First, not all realise the benefit of the â€˜agenda-free, non-transactionalâ€™ conversations to team effectiveness. Second, whilst effectiveness of team effectiveness intervention is not easy to be evaluated, coaches and sponsors are easily drawn to gain comfort by having more â€˜activitiesâ€™ and â€˜deliverablesâ€™ given the money and time spent.
What does all these mean to coaches for team development?
To start with, coaches need to recognize the usefulness of such free space. Perhaps the question to be pondered during the design stage is â€˜Given where the team is, how much do the members need some “white space” to have dialogues on things determined by them (not centrally), in pair or small groups?â€™
The Cynefin framework would be helpful here â€“ â€˜What questions the team need to work on and where in the framework those questions belong?â€™ Such free space is useful when the team needs to tackle â€˜Complexâ€™ problem, where diversity and experiment are important.
Further, coaches need to be aware and thus resist the temptation to fill the workshop with â€˜activitiesâ€™ and â€˜deliverablesâ€™â€¦.. often unconsciously. Sometimes, the temptation is about the desire to be seen as â€˜doing thingsâ€™, instead of just â€˜letting the group talkâ€™. We need to be conscious how we define our role â€“ â€˜I am here to lead the conversation or even tell them the â€œanswerâ€â€™ vs â€˜I am here to hold the space for necessary conversations to emergeâ€™. All these require continual inner work in understanding own intra-personal dynamics.
But also inter-personal dynamics – Often, such temptation comes, sometimes unconsciously, from the clientsâ€™ desire for control e.g. certainty on what the team members will talk about. After all, the client / sponsor can experience a great deal of anxiety in putting together a workshop e.g. spending the money, asking the leadership team (some less friendly than others) to put daily tasks aside, etc. Such anxiety can drive the person to go for high(er) control in workshop design especially in those â€˜high-controlâ€™ industries like manufacturers, banks, airlines. Like in 1:1 executive coaching, we need to work with the sponsor THROUGH such anxiety to realize what the task really calls for.
(Yes, intervention starts before the workshop. In fact, magic happens before and after. This is also why I always prefer to work on cases starting from diagnosis phase.)
How do you help teams having such spaceâ€¦â€¦ smoking or not :)?
I am reading again the article ‘What is the difference and what makes the difference?’ A comparative study of psychodynamic and non-psychodynamic approaches to executive coaching – by Vega Zagier Roberts and Michael Jarrett. Among many other things, I am particularly drawn to one conclusion that the coaching relationship matters more than specific theoretical schools or methods.
To be specific, it is ‘the quality of the relationship with the client – how much the client feel understood and safe’.
It is not rocket science. It is in fact often highlighted in coaching 101. In a way, it is basic but it is not always well-practiced for 2 reasons.
Collusion – The attempt to establish an ‘understanding and safe’ relationship overshoots and results in excessive collusion with the clients which prohibits difficult awareness and change;
‘How’ instead of ‘Who’ – The ‘relationship’ aspect can be easily put aside when the coaches focus on the method or session outcome instead of the person and the relationship.
On reflection, I most probably have been rather disciplined on the 1st issue. Well, in fact, may be too much sometimes as illustrated by my previous realisation like ‘Zero collusion can be equally bad‘. This also makes me increasingly conscious of my own practice on the 2nd issue. I am now shifting my attention….. If there are only a few things staying in mind before and during a session, they are:
- NOT the methods / models….
- NOT the hypotheses / ‘games’….
- NOT the next killer question….
- NOT the PRO….
- NOT the Competing Commitment / Big Assumption….
- NOT the coaching outcome….
- NOT me….or how much I am liked….
BUT the PERSON and our working alliance
I love the analogy used by my supervisor – ‘How are you like when you are having the moment with your kids?’ I am just with them. I am just curious. I just feel them.
Numerous articles on the internet have been discussing the on-going trend of remote working.Â Â Â I have my own milestone experience of such trend last week as I coached small groups for 4 hours on zoom.Â Â Â More importantly, it turned out to be much more effective than I imagined.Â Â Â Why did I find it so different, say, compared to my initial virtual group experience many years ago?Â Â Â
Of course, it was the better internet connection and interface nowadays e.g. facial expression in sync with the conversation. In addition, we got trained to be more zoom-savvy in the last few months. On the soft aspect, we are all more willingness to work virtually e.g. to overcome occasional bad connectivity. Further, interestingly, it helps when one knows that the others are willing to do as well.
On further reflection, the last few points are actually the â€˜productsâ€™ of COVID. It is well illustrated by the well-circulated image below:
This reminds me of the inspiring Youtube video by IMD President Jean-Francois Manzoni on the point of playing â€˜offenceâ€™, but not just â€˜defenceâ€™, in the time of crisis.
In practising Leadership, it is about taking â€˜Crisis as a Change Agentâ€™ â€“ people got â€˜heatâ€™ up which provides opportunity for one to practice leadership by putting people into the Productive Zone of Disequilibrium – see the HBR article â€˜Leadership in a Permanent Crisisâ€™.
I cannot then help wonder how about playing â€˜offenceâ€™ on Leadership Development? I would think of:
â€˜Crisis as a Mirrorâ€™ â€“ Crisis demands our responses, probably more than we want. Reflecting on our responses can reveal who we are (individually as well as collectively) e.g. our pattern of thoughts and behaviours.
â€˜Crisis as a Labâ€™ â€“ Crisis also provides a lot of opportunities to experiment our different responses, if we are prepared to put some consciousness in the process.
Like Manzoni said, instead of focusing on â€˜defenceâ€™ only, playing â€˜offenceâ€™ generates energy. I feel excited in imagining to put together an action-learning type of intervention or to coach by following these 3 anchors 🙂
Sorry.Â Â Â This is another post which probably only my Cantonese readers would be interested.
I am re-reading the book â€˜Games People Playâ€™ by Eric Berne on Transaction Analysis.Â Â Â It is very helpful in identifying unconscious processing on interpersonal or group level which actually undermines the stated objectives.Â Â Â Â But I am here discussing the concepts. There are a lot of material online e.g. Tom Butler Bowdon’s blog explains the concepts quite concisely.
Instead I want to reflect on the games’ names. There is some magic in how Berne named each gameÂ Â Â For example, he called the first game in the book â€˜If It Werenâ€™t For You IWFYâ€™.Â Â Â (I highlight briefly at this article end what he meant by ‘Game’ and this particular one IWFY)Â Â Â Â Â Â The use of such colloquial language helps capture not only the meaning of the game but also the general sensation one would have when we say or hear such language.Â Â Â And there is some fun in it!Â Â Â
But such colloquial language by nature resonates well only to the native speakers.Â Â (And I believe there are local games particular to different cultures / social groups.) ThisÂ prompts me to have some fun in coming up names in my mother tongue â€“ Cantonese on a few games as follows.Â Â Â What else will you think of which carries the sensation even better?
NIGYSOBÂ â€“ â€˜Now Iâ€™ve got you, you son of a bitchâ€™ – Somehow allowing others to take advantage on self on trivial matters , andÂ feeling justified in venting almost unlimited rage against the person.Â Â Â Actually has been looking for similar injustices, received them with delight and exploited them with the same vigour.
>> There is a popular Cantonese saying for that – â€˜ä½ ä»Šæ¬¡ä»²å””æ»,Â å¥‘å¼Ÿ!â€™Â
SWYMDÂ â€“ â€˜See what you made me doâ€™ – Somehow allowing self to make a small misfortunate / mistake as a result of an interruption in order to give him a lever for ejecting the intruder.
>> Again, this popular one – â€˜ç‡ä½ æžæˆæˆ‘å’â€™ is probably the equivalent.
WAHMÂ â€“ â€˜Why does this always happen to meâ€™ – Repeatedly getting oneself into misfortune or choosing to see the misfortunate aspect.Â Â Â Trying to win the contest of misfortune.
>> How about â€˜é»žè§£æˆæ—¥éƒ½ä¿‚æˆ‘â€™? Or even a more contemporary one â€˜æˆ‘æ£ä¸€ä¿‚åœ°ç„é»‘ä»”çŽ‹â€™?
IWFYÂ â€“ â€˜If it werenâ€™t for youâ€™ – Somehow got self into a constraining situation in order to avoid confronting fear outside those constraintsâ€¦. and enjoy the potential compensation by complaining to the one who imposes those constraints.
>> I think of this one – â€˜å¦‚æžœå””ä¿‚ç‚ºå’—ä½ â€™. Unfortunately, this line is what some parents say to the kids often in order to influence with guilt. Oh, and there is sometimes a more aggressive version – â€˜å¦‚æžœå””ä¿‚ç‚ºxå’—ä½ â€™
(Game â€“ Berne defines it as â€˜an ongoing series of complementary ulterior transactions progressing to a well-defined, predictable outcomeâ€™.Â Â Â Basically, we engage into unconscious patterns of behavioral interaction with others in order to achieve some hidden gains.Â Â For example, in IWFY, a woman complains regularly how her husband restricts her activities e.g. starting a career.Â Â Â Actually, she gains by not having to face the anxiety in finding a job, and she can complain about the restrictions which makes her spouse feel uneasy and gives her all sorts of advantages. Of course, men do this as well.)