‘Zero collusion’ can be equally bad

My take on collusion (e.g. pleasing participants in developmental interventions) has been changing in the last few years.   First, I was not aware at all that I may be doing it.   Then, I became aware of it and saw it as a bad thing – counter-learning. See previous post – Unconscious Collusion with Learners. I even sometimes found myself enjoying being an annoying consultant.   But in the last year or two, things changed further.  Collusion could be useful and sometimes even necessary for quality learning.   It could be useful data to gain understanding into the unconscious.   The article ‘Petriglieri, G. & Wood, J.D. 2003. The invisible revealed: Collusion as an entry to the group unconscious. Transactional Analysis Journal’ describes it well.   And to a certain extent, it is almost necessary in building up the ‘working alliance’ – a useful concept by Catherine Sandler in book ‘Executive Coaching – A Psychodynamic Approach’

Recently, I heard of a coach with psychotherapy background who struggles with own tendency to quickly and persistently name the unconscious processing, instead of the interest in the person.   I think of the case of ‘zero collusion’ i.e. a coach behaving always as an icy-cold analyst.   He / she shows only a poker-face for projection and directly confront participants with hypothesis of the unconscious.   

In a way, ‘zero collusion’ could be as ‘bad’ as the case of ‘full collusion’.  In fact, on reflection, it is not about how much the collusion is.   It is about whether we know what is going on.   To be specific:

  1. How much is the coach aware of the colluding acts?
  2. How much is the coach colluding to lower the client’s defense in order to better embrace change?
  3. How much is the coach even using the colluding acts, from both parties, as data for learning purpose?

The worst is that I collude (or not)… primarily to meet my own needs.  For example, I please the client in order not to be disliked.   Or I show no emotion / friendliness and only analyse in order to stay safe by intellectualizing everything.   

Interestingly, or boringly :), it goes back to our own self-awareness as practitioners to help others develop.

‘Immunity to Change’ vs Psychodynamics

[Photo source unidentified.  Please advise if anyone knows.  I will add the source accordingly]

I learnt to use the ‘Immunity to Change’ (ITC) approach (or the ‘4-column’ tool) in 2013.  See the post ‘Immunity to Change’.   In the last few years, I have been investing myself into the Systems-psychodynamics approach.   See the post ‘What may also be going on?’.

The more I use them, the more I realise they echo each other a lot.   To be more specific, the ITC approach can be described as a systematic way to apply the psychodynamics approach.   Let me take an example to reflect and illustrate what I see as the linkage between the 2 approaches.

Jeff (pseudonym) headed up the legal and compliance department.   He has repeatedly received feedback from his peer and subordinates to be aggressive.  For example, during some heated arguments, he would bang on the table and walk away from the meeting room.  Upon reflection, he knew that such pattern of behaviour, and more importantly the resulting perception, is not helpful to his work, his well-being, and his career aspiration.  To the last point, he bought in a lot the idea – ‘What Got You Here Won’t Get You There’.    

With some coaching work, he resolved to experiment something specific – to proactively demonstrate understanding to his counterparties.   We explored how he would do so, and role-played to prepare.   However, on review after a few months, he realised that he made little progress.   For example, he noticed that even when he has done something in favour of the counterparties privately, he would not share it and sometimes he would deny it.   He found himself continue to act tough and keep the distance.

With the psychodynamics approach, a common line of inquiry is around ‘What may you be gaining by refusing to show understanding (i.e. a behavioral pattern which the coachee knows consciously to be undesirable)?’   The conversation may help gradually discover his unconscious processing e.g. he was actually protecting himself from the fear of being rejected personally or being taken advantage of.   The possibility of being rejected or taken advantage of was a dangerous place which he did not allow himself any chance to walk into.    

It is like in the diagram – consciously (the ‘brain’) he wanted to demonstrate understanding to the others, but unconsciously (the ‘heart’) he protected himself by doing the opposite.

Such discovery is actually what the ITC approach sets out to do, to be specific, from the column 1 to column 4 like:

  • In column 1, we identify the improvement goal i.e. to demonstrate understanding and care.  
  • In column 2, we explore what Jeff has done or not done to keep the improvement goal from fully achieved i.e. Jeff denied any help he has done privately.   
  • In column 3, Jeff may discover in the ‘Worry Box’ that if he had to reveal his helping acts, he would feel the worry of being rejected or not appreciated, or even taken advantage of.    And the ‘Hidden Commitment’ will thus include items like ‘I am committed not to be rejected with my good intention’.   
  • In column 4, Jeff may discover his Big Assumption as ‘If I got rejected once, no one will ever take me seriously’

(The concept of ‘unconscious processing’ captures both the meaning of ‘Hidden Commitment’ and ‘Big Assumption’ in column 4.)

Well then, how are the 2 approaches different?    Though the line of enquiry is similar, ITC does it more programmatically and in a visually-friendly way.   It makes the psychodynamics approach more accessible to all, especially to those who values logics and structures.    

Another significant difference is that ITC makes the psychodynamics approach more action-able by having the ‘Big Assumption’ concept.    The psychodynamics approach is often argued to help make change by mainly building awareness e.g. when Jeff becomes aware how he gets caught up by his unconscious avoidance, he can choose better next time on how to act / respond.    ITC seems to do more than that.   The ‘Big Assumption’ concept in ITC allows the coachees to take concrete actions to make change e.g. run test and collect data to gradually invalidate the Basic Assumption.   Perhaps more importantly, it offers hope.   People sometimes end up just the experience of ‘stuck-ness’ in the psychodynamics approach – ‘So, I am doomed to fail in work relationship because of that powerful unconscious dynamics in me!!’.

On further reflection, of course, I can integrate the 2 approaches.  For example, after identifying with the coachee on some unconscious processing which has been prohibiting her from achieving what she wants, I can enquire into ‘What may you be assuming which keeps such processing alive?’.    And we then make it explicit and run test to weaken or modify the assumption.   

On the other hand, there are a lot of other elements in the psychodynamics approach which is not captured in ITC.   ITC does not look at the unconscious processing in inter-personal and group level.   Go back to the Jeff example – on the inter-personal level, Jeff’s failure to demonstrate understanding and care may actually be located primarily in his interaction with his right-hand man – Chris.   They may be locked into the so-called ‘prosecutor-victim’ pattern – Chris derived sense of safety in the victim role which he played with his older brother.   On one hand, he often complained to others about being mis-understood by Jeff.   On the other hand, he somehow enjoyed the resulting attention (both positively and negatively) from the CEO (like in the past from his parents).

There may also be something on the group level.   The legal and compliance department was recently under huge time pressure and resistance from the strong sales department as the former implemented a very demanding anti-money laundering procedure.   All in the department were stressed out.   Given Jeff’s valency and role, he was mobilized by the group to be the ‘unreasonable man’ in interacting with the sales department.

Why does Economics assume rationality?

To a certain extent, I regret that I was major in Economics in university.    Economics assumes that people are rational i.e. individuals always make prudent and logical decisions which provide them with the highest amount of personal utility.  For many years, I took this assumption almost like the truth unconsciously.    Well….  even if not the truth…  I saw it as the RIGHT to be.    One should be rational!   One should park the feeling aside!    Such judgement has been reinforced in my mind as it is the norm in the banking industry and in Hong Kong.   (I have worked in banks and lived in Hong Kong for decades.)

On reflection, even outside the Economics / Banking / Hong Kong domain, the world does not really seem to welcome irrationality.    Normally, when someone said, ‘He is irrational’, it often carries certain negative connotation.   

Why would the world push away irrationality?    I think it is about predictability.   Back to the definition mentioned above, if all are rational, we always make prudent and logical decisions which provide them with the highest amount of personal utility.     We can then more easily predict how the others will behave.   And human being generally prefers certainty.   One would thus want OTHERS (or even himself or herself) to be rational.     

Why do I regret?    First, more and more I realise that human being is hardly rational.  The assumption in Economics that people are rational fails more often than not in real life.   I recently note down a few examples:

  • Why people spend so much money on funeral?
  • Why would people have kids?
  • Why would people celebrate new year / birthday?
  • Why people would pay USD1,000 for a plastic bag?
  • Why would people still smoke after near-death experience caused by heart attack? 
  • Why do people fall in love?  

After all, why do economics have to assume rationality? Because we are not!   At best, one can only say that ‘human being is irrational but trying to be rational’

Second, worshipping rationality means denying feeling. But when we really think about it, our feeling about things is inevitable.   In fact, one can argue that feeling is our ultimate pursuit.    For example, think of our most hardworking colleague – why does he / she work so hard?   He would say because he needs to pay for the mortgage.   Why mortgage?   Because of the need to find a place to live.   Why?   Because he needs to keep him / his family warm and well-fed.   

Further, if we want to understand ourselves better, we cannot ignore our feeling.  Feeling is an important source of data for self-awareness.   For example, different people would have different feelings when they look at the same painting.   On the first level, such difference already is already an element of who I am.  After all, who I am is in a way defined by how I am different from the others.   On a deeper level, exploring why one would have certain feeling will reveal his / her assumptions and beliefs.   

This is getting closer to why I am talking about irrationality and feeling in this blog….  which is about coaching / learning / development.     I will continue in the next post on how working with and on feeling will contribute to coaching / learning / development.    

(There are different definitions on the word ‘feeling’, and various arguments on how it is different from the term ‘emotion’ or ‘sensation’.    I refer ‘feeling’ as one’s own inner subjective, often irrational, experience.  It is sometimes more physical and observable e.g. tight stomach, headache, cold sweat. dizziness.    Sometimes, it is less so e.g. annoyance, anger, excitement.)

Danny Chan 陳百強

I guess only my fellow Hong Kong friends of certain ‘age’ will appreciate this post….  but whatever 🙂

I had a day of individual and team coaching sessions last month.   I arrived early to settle myself in my coaching room.   The first song coming from my iPhone was ‘不‘ (Translation: ‘No’) from Danny Chan 陳百強.    I was intrigued by the lyrics – what a sign for the upcoming coaching sessions.  This also points to the common resistance, unconscious or not, when enquiry goes deep.   The 2nd line makes me think of a common team issue of ‘artificial harmony’ vs ‘ productive conflict’.   Or, it reminds me of individuals’ defence of denial.

”請 不要問 請 不要問
只 想快樂 不 想有恨…..”

(Translation: “Please… do not ask.   Please… do not ask.   I want only happiness but not hatred”)

The song was released in the 80s.  Passing away young, Danny has been a legend to Hong Kong-ers of certain ‘age’.    I probably have heard his songs like this one a few hundred times.    Amazingly, new meanings arose as I listened to it in a coaching context.

When I paid attention to the rest of the lyrics, there are quite a few pieces reminding me of common issues I encountered with my coachees e.g.’.. 不顧生根 怕留腳印…’.   It sounds like the avoidance of genuine commitment to a team in order not to be hurt. 

Here is the song for those who loves it, and for those who have not encountered it.

‘What may also be going on?’

‘What is really going on?’   It is the question often used in the Adaptive Leadership practice as well as in the psychodynamics approach.   In the former, it is about being on the ‘Balcony’ rather than the ‘Dance Floor’, or the ability to be at both at the same time.  And being on the ‘Balcony’ could mean reading the political landscape as an example.

In the psychodynamics approach, the question is about understanding the covert dynamics on various levels e.g. intra-personal and group level.   For example, John always fails to refuse others’ request on him, resulting in him working too late and losing his own priorities.   He is frustrated about it and tries to improve without much success.  The overt view is that he is bad at saying no to others and should pick up some skills in doing so.   However, on a covert level:

  • Intra-personal – John may actually derives sense of safety unconsciously by being the victim of overloaded with others’ work….  just like the role he has played with his parents and siblings for many many years,
  • Group – The team may be playing to John’s valency to take on others’ work at the expense of doing his own work well.   This scapegoats John so that the team does not need to face its collective failure to meet business target.

So, it is useful to ask ourselves the question ‘What is really going on?’ instead of tackling simply the overt reason / view which does not really solve the problem.    Yet, some thoughts came to my mind recently on this question.   To ponder this question more, it actually implies subtly (especially when we often stress on the word ‘REALLY’ in the question)  that:

  • Ignore the overt reason / view
  • Figure out THE covert one.. which is like THE truth / answer

In fact, I have experienced myself and seen others like playing ‘detective game’ in finding the ‘real murderer’ in the name of this question.  Saying, ‘No, no, no… it is not.   Tell me what is REALLY going on’    On reflection, it is dangerous to do so.   I think more often than not there are always more than one reasons why someone behaves in a certain ways.   It is not ‘A leads to B’.    It is more like ‘A1 + A2 +….. + An leads to B’.   So, John could be really not skilled in saying no.   At the same time, he enjoys the familiarity and attention in the role of being dumped with others’ work.   And the group is scapegoating him at the same time.

What does it mean?   It means:

  • Do not deny the overt reason / view immediately
  • Always come up with multiple hypotheses on any covert dynamics

So, a better question to ask instead is:

‘What may also be going on?’

This embraces the overt one, and the notion of multiple dynamics.

Thinking further, I guess that it is not even about ‘A1 + A2 +….. + An leads to B’     The As do not act together in a linear way to influence.    They may actually be like in parallel universes.   One of the As is sometimes in action and sometimes not.    Or one of the As only commences to exist in the subject’s and / or observers’ mind because we see it in a certain way.  hm……

Virtual Coaching

‘What are the things that you normally do in face-to-face coaching but cannot be done on skype?’

Some time ago, I worked in a program with a few other coaches.   Because of misunderstanding on the schedule, a few coaches could not be available on the last day of the program where 1 on 1 coaching took place.  One coach advocated for them to conduct the 1 on 1 on skype.  At a point, he asked in a challenging tone, ‘What are the things that you normally do in face-to-face coaching but cannot be done on skype?’

This is an interesting question.   At that time, I really could not think of anything.  After all, I do not touch my coachee.    Well, I guessed he has a point.

Recently, I was reflecting with another coach on some coach training (preparing individuals to become ICF accredited coach) which is done 100% online.   The above question on virtual coaching comes back to my mind.    We came up with some interesting realizations.

Yes, there is really nothing which you normally do in face-to-face coaching but cannot be done on skype.   Yet, it is not about what I DO, it is about what I SEE / SENSE.   There are things which I normally SEE / SENSE in face-to-face coaching but cannot be done on skype!!  For example:

I cannot see:

  • how the coachee comes into the scene – how she walks, what she carries, etc;
  • how she sits;
  • how closed / open is her posture;
  • how tight she holds her fists;
  • how she takes up the space in the room;
  • what she is looking at when her eyesight turned away from the camera;
  • etc

I cannot sense:

  • the feeling I would have on the coachee with the data mentioned above (I suspect counter-transference works better with these data)
  • the feeling the coach is experiencing in the room e.g. the temperature, the stuffiness

So what?   I think it depends on what kind of coaching it is.  If the approach is primarily ‘technical’ e.g. using GROW model to review a project plan, the above constraints do not really matter.   But if the approach involves work on the irrational stuff e.g. the psycho-dynamics approach, the coach needs to be aware of, or even better, to find ways to compensate for the above constraints.

 

The Good Old ‘Images’

 

This post is again about the fundamentals of learning – the use of images.    I came across the above image on ‘Moneyball of Leadership” video by Charlie Kim.   Charlie used it to illustrate his speech on how poor execution can kill even brilliant strategy

When I saw this image, an intervention jumps into my mind.     Imagine yourself an intact team sitting in a room.   After some check-in, show the image with some silence.   Depending on the intended topic of reflection / conversation (without restraining other things to emerge), we can ask the following questions:

Revealing the problem

  • ‘What do you see in the picture?’
  • ‘How would you feel if you are the painter’s supervisor?’
  • ‘In what occasion at work you experienced the similar?’
  • ‘What was the impact to the work performance?’
  • ‘What possibly caused such problem?’ 

Sharing practices

  • ‘How did you / the others tackle the situation?’
  • ‘What worked?   What did not?’

Encouraging self evaluation

  • ‘What was possibly in the painter’s mind when he / she did this?   Craft a line to describe the voice in his / her head, like those in a comic book.’
  • Put all those lines on a flipchart, and then ask ‘Share with your learning partner here an occasion where one of those voices once shows up in your own heads’
  • ‘How did you feel at that time?’
  • ‘If your mind changed at that time, what triggered such change?’

With relevant set-up and questions, one single image can provoke powerful reflection and learning conversation.

Dancing with the Surprise

Less than 12 hours before starting a 2-day Leadership Development workshop, the client told me that they need to take the first 1 hour away from the workshop.  The new country head as the sponsor will introduce an ‘Action Project’ to the participants.  The first thought came to my mind was that it may not be a good idea because:

  • The ‘Action Project’ means demanding work for the participants in the coming few months. Introducing it in the beginning would probably take away the participants’ attention from the workshop
  • The country head is new to most in the room. We have little idea how his speech and his project will be in the line with workshop
  • Last but not the least, the participants did not know in advance that they need to work on an ‘Action Project’ at all!

Yet, on second thought, I found myself curious to let go.  I chose to experiment with this unpredictability.   After all, my client could not do much about it at that time.   I was very much in the state of ‘Be prepared and prepared not to use what you prepare’ in my previous blog post.

At the end, it turned out to be an enhanced learning experience for the participants.   Basically, I leveraged the participants’ strong attention towards the project to land the learning for the workshop content.   For example, a piece of workshop content is about the notion that people have different behavioural preferences.    I challenged the participants to apply the learning to prepare for the Q&A session with the sponsor on day 2.   The driving questions are ‘What behavioural preference did XXX demonstrated and why?   How would you engage him better tomorrow given your preference?’   I also facilitated them to talk about the possible dynamics within their respective project team using the behavioural preference language.

The underlying learning philosophy is very much the ‘Action Reflection Learning’ (ARL) I mentioned before.   Learning retention is higher for ‘Just-in-time’ rather than ‘Just-in-case’ learning.    See ‘ARL approach’, ‘Learning Sustainability’ and ‘Action Learning in Action’ .

The more important reflection is that I can let go better.   It is driven by my rising inclination to work with ‘what is in the room’ rather than ‘what I prepare’ or even ‘what is on the PPT’.   The fact that I have spent majority of my time on executive coaching certainly contributes to this inclination.

I am curious how else I could be different in the future….  Let the learning continues.