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:
How much is the coach aware of the colluding acts?
How much is the coach colluding to lower the client’s defense in order to better embrace change?
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.
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.
Really…. why team? Complementary competencies…. A sense of belonging…. Cross-learning opportunities… there are many answers to this question. I was reminded of one important answer during the Gobi race.
The picture is my sketch of a scene in the Gobi race. It was 3:55am of Day 3 in a middle of nowhere in the Gobi desert – It was quite a magical moment for me. The light in the tent would be turned on at 4am to wake us up to start the last day of the Gobi race. I somehow woke up earlier by myself…. probably around 3:30am. Half-awake in my cozy sleeping bag, I calculated in my mind how much time it would take to finish the 28km if we maintain 4.5 min / km…… or even 5 min / km…. I also tried to change the setting on my smart watch to show pace for every km, but I failed. I then quietly sat myself up…. thinking to pack up stuff for the day.
To my surprise, I noticed some others were waking up as well. Very quickly, I realized actually all were up, packing in the dark, before the ‘wake-up’ call, at the ‘daunting’ 4am!!! I felt energized, touched, hopeful and eager for the day!!! Of course, what happened for the rest of the day in the team loaded me with even more feeling on the notion of team.
What made ALL of us wake up so early in the morning? Why did I feel so good about such a scene? It is about a group of people committing strongly to do our best – much more than what each of us normally would. On reflection, I know that such a scene would still touch me deeply even if we finished last on the day. It is not about the result. It is also not about winning, award, or how others people see us. It is about committing together to stretch ourselves for a common goal.
It could be intrinsically motivating. I almost forget completely such power… since the sports team in university time.
What if we could remind the executive teams of such possibility?
It was Day 2 of the Gobi race and we were somewhere midway in the 96km race. Right in the middle of the day, all were tired and some were injured. Whilst I was at the front using the GPS to navigate, I noticed that Danny (pseudonym) was at the back of the line, and falling behind more and more from the pack. He did not look good.
I picked up the walkie-talkie and asked him, ‘Are you ok?’. He replied. ‘I am ok’ I then carried on the walking.
This sounds like a normal and caring exchange. But subsequently, I realize that this kind of ‘Are-you-ok-I-am-ok’ transactions is one of the BIG reasons why we performed so badly in Day 1 and Day 2. This is probably a major reason why teams at work failed to unleash its potential better.
Why so? It is about what was probably going on…. actually:
Overt >>> ‘Are you ok?’
Covert >>>‘‘You do not look good. You probably need some help to pick up the speed for us all. We do not want to finish last again! But I do not want to make you look weak. And I do not want to be rejected if I offer concrete help. I better just check gently only.’
Overt >>> ‘I am ok’
Covert >>> ‘Man, I am in big trouble. My leg can hardly move and I am slowing the team down. But I cannot look weak in front of the others. And you may not really want to help. You just asked out of courtesy. It is better to say I am ok’
Apparently, the ‘Are-you-ok-I-am-ok’ transactions covered up opportunities for the team to improve. A team can perform better than a collection of people only if the members can share their resources and capabilities. This means that a high-performing team can transfer ‘resources / capability surplus’ from the stronger to the weaker. (Note that one can be stronger in a particular aspect e.g. physical strength but weak in another e.g. navigation)
It was a big ‘Aha’ to me as this above ideas came to my mind during our joint reflection. I felt so shitty – How could I be consumed by the personal pride / fear of rejection at the expense of team performance? Instead of asking ‘Are you ok?’, it made more sense for me to just go behind Danny and pushed him, or to pull him with a hiking pole. Whilst I sensed that it was not just me gone off-task this way, I shared in our circle in our tent something like this,
‘I, may be even we, have been fxxking (deliberate choice of words) too polite to each other……. This has been keeping us from getting better…… To be specific, we have no option but SHAMELESSLY:
Ask for help
Others laughed and we started to talk about this problem. This apparently helped bringing the undiscuss-able more discussable. Subsequently, with other factors, we did step up our ‘shameless’ exchange of help on Day 3.
Further reflection will lead to the next question – how can a team battle against the obstacles (e.g. personal pride / fear of rejection) to ‘shameless’ exchange of help ? The ‘triangle’ in the book ‘The Five Dysfunctions of a Team’ answers the question well. What need to achieve is the vulnerability-based trust (as described by the model) i.e. readiness to admit mistake, weakness and concerns to the fellow team members. A key to build such trust is personal disclosure e.g. personal history, personality profile (and stories behind it), among other things mentioned in the book.
I feel so grateful of such lively and personal lesson in illustrating models in books.
Experiential learning to an extreme – a leadership development program in the form of a team walking race for 96km in 2.5 days over the Gobi desert (part of the Silk Road) Lot of memorable moments, and most importantly reflection on leadership, teamwork, learning design and my own development. Zero internet and each team sleeping together in a tent helped. Perhaps we were even mobilized by the collective unconscious of the Xuanzang 玄裝 history / myth to endure hardship and pursue wisdom…..
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.)
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.
A reflection on a recent ‘learning miracle’…. kind of. I conducted a day of group coaching with 5 executives in a business school program. Around 3 weeks later, I had a follow-up individual coaching call with each of them. Charles (pseudonym)said in the call that he was amazed in witnessing how 3 other members have changed after the group coaching day. In another call, Sandy (pseudonym) expressed repeatedly her excitement on how she became better in getting her message across by speaking less and more slowly. She also gave detailed description on her changed behaviors were well received in her global offsite meeting.
The magnitude of change was exceptional.
If it was just one of them making such rather drastic change, I would say I was lucky. Perhaps Charles was just unconsciously pleasing and colluding me a less pushy coaching call. Perhaps Sandy had been on the edge of change before the day, and the group coaching was just ‘the straw that broke the camel’s back’.
But we had a few of them making exceptional changes. Why? On reflection, the magic is probably around the following factors:
Open program– To start with, majority of the participants paid considerable sum of fee (by themselves instead of being sponsored) and effort to enroll into the program. This is very different from those programs which participants were reluctantly ‘invited’ to join because they are ‘talent’ or even because the program is ‘mandatory’.
Pre-coaching orientation– The professor has spent an afternoon with them before the group coaching orienting them into the ‘adaptive’ space. I have to say that he has successfully got them out of the expectation to be told of technical solutions.
Psychological Safety– We spent the morning of the group coaching day on personal disclosure. The process is well designed and I think I ran it reasonably well. This benefited a great deal to the afternoon sense-making on their individual 360 reports.
Feedback with Concrete and Comprehensive Evidence– The afternoon process made each participant facing their respective and detailed 360 reports together. We did it in a way that they cannot avoid the content consciously or unconsciously. And thanks to the morning, they went through the afternoon together with good receptivity.
Peer– As Sandy pointed out, she managed to change probably because she witnessed how the others were also working through their own struggles. This is both relieving and motivating.
My Being– I suspect my orientation was helpful as well. Somehow I adjusted the balance between being supportive and challenging. Putting more attention on psychological safety.
Yet, I am more amazed with another layer of reflection – they made change without any input on techniques and skills! This reinforces my belief that the key to behavioral change is more about ‘will’ rather than ‘skill’. This is especially the case for senior learners who have considerable working experience and been through countless ‘training courses’, reading, videos or advices from others. They own a great deal of conscious and tacit knowledge.
In other word, when learning does not happen, it is less about they do not know how but more about they do not want to, consciously or unconsciously. And so, why another training course with 135 slides and thick binders?
Or in a ‘so-what’ angle, whilst there is always limited resources on learning / development intervention, the emphasis should be put on enhancing the willingness to make change…. like considering the list above.