‘Smoking can fix a lot of our (team) problems’

(Source: press.ikidane-nippon.com)

An executive made a casual remark in a recent intact team development workshop, ‘Smoking (together) can fix a lot of our problems’.    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, ‘What our organization needs is more ‘agenda-free, non-transactional’ conversations….’

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 ‘off-the-record’ thing.  

In addition, psychologically, smoking together can also be taken unconsciously as ‘doing “bad” things together’ and such common experience generates sense of togetherness.  Camaraderie lubricates team to work through difficult issues among members – 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. ‘World Café’, even better ‘Open Space’, and even even better ‘Walk and Talk’ with a simple instruction ‘Please have a walk and talk about things you two need to talk about but have not had chance to talk about’.   

(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 ‘Open Space’ will be more appropriate.)

There is another implication – despite the argument above, team days / retreats are more often than not fully packed with centrally-determined topics and structures.   Sometimes, even ‘normal’ open spaces like breakfasts, lunches and coffee breaks are ‘invaded’.   Why?   First, not all realise the benefit of the ‘agenda-free, non-transactional’ 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 ‘activities’ and ‘deliverables’ 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 ‘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?’   

The Cynefin framework would be helpful here – ‘What questions the team need to work on and where in the framework those questions belong?’   Such free space is useful when the team needs to tackle ‘Complex’ problem, where diversity and experiment are important.  

Further, coaches need to be aware and thus resist the temptation to fill the workshop with ‘activities’ and ‘deliverables’….. often unconsciously.  Sometimes, the temptation is about the desire to be seen as ‘doing things’, instead of just ‘letting the group talk’.  We need to be conscious how we define our role – ‘I am here to lead the conversation or even tell them the “answer”’ vs ‘I am here to hold the space for necessary conversations to emerge’.   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 clients’ 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 ‘high-control’ 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 space…… smoking or not :)?

Playing ‘Offence’ in Leadership Development

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

Numerous articles on the internet have been discussing the on-going trend of remote working.   I have my own milestone experience of such trend last week as I coached small groups for 4 hours on zoom.   More importantly, it turned out to be much more effective than I imagined.   Why did I find it so different, say, compared to my initial virtual group experience many years ago?   

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 ‘products’ of COVID.   It is well illustrated by the well-circulated image below:

Is COVID-19 Forcing Your Digital Transformation? forbes.com

This reminds me of the inspiring Youtube video by IMD President Jean-Francois Manzoni on the point of playing ‘offence’, but not just ‘defence’, in the time of crisis.  

In practising Leadership, it is about taking ‘Crisis as a Change Agent’ – people got ‘heat’ up which provides opportunity for one to practice leadership by putting people into the Productive Zone of Disequilibrium – see the HBR article ‘Leadership in a Permanent Crisis’.

I cannot then help wonder how about playing ‘offence’ on Leadership Development?  I would think of:

‘Crisis as a Mirror’ – 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.

‘Crisis as a Lab’ – 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 ‘defence’ only, playing ‘offence’ generates energy.   I feel excited in imagining to put together an action-learning type of intervention or to coach by following these 3 anchors 🙂

    

‘Games’…. in Cantonese

The psychological game – NIGYSOB i.e. ‘Now I’ve got you, you son of a bitch’

Sorry.   This is another post which probably only my Cantonese readers would be interested.

I am re-reading the book ‘Games People Play’ by Eric Berne on Transaction Analysis.   It is very helpful in identifying unconscious processing on interpersonal or group level which actually undermines the stated objectives.    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 game   For example, he called the first game in the book ‘If It Weren’t For You IWFY’.   (I highlight briefly at this article end what he meant by ‘Game’ and this particular one IWFY)      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.   And there is some fun in it!   

But such colloquial language by nature resonates well only to the native speakers.  (And I believe there are local games particular to different cultures / social groups.) This prompts me to have some fun in coming up names in my mother tongue – Cantonese on a few games as follows.   What else will you think of which carries the sensation even better?

NIGYSOB – ‘Now I’ve got you, you son of a bitch’ – Somehow allowing others to take advantage on self on trivial matters , and feeling justified in venting almost unlimited rage against the person.   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 – ‘你今次仲唔死, 契弟!’ 

SWYMD – ‘See what you made me do’ – 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 – ‘睇你搞成我咁’ is probably the equivalent.

WAHM – ‘Why does this always happen to me’ – Repeatedly getting oneself into misfortune or choosing to see the misfortunate aspect.   Trying to win the contest of misfortune.

>> How about ‘點解成日都係我’? Or even a more contemporary one ‘我正一係地獄黑仔王’?

IWFY – ‘If it weren’t for you’ – Somehow got self into a constraining situation in order to avoid confronting fear outside those constraints…. and enjoy the potential compensation by complaining to the one who imposes those constraints.

>> I think of this one – ‘如果唔係為咗你’. 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 – ‘如果唔係為x咗你’

(Game – Berne defines it as ‘an ongoing series of complementary ulterior transactions progressing to a well-defined, predictable outcome’.   Basically, we engage into unconscious patterns of behavioral interaction with others in order to achieve some hidden gains.  For example, in IWFY, a woman complains regularly how her husband restricts her activities e.g. starting a career.   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.)

‘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 Team?

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?

Other posts on Gobi:

‘Are-you-ok-I-am-ok’

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
  • Accept help
  • Offer 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.

Leadership Development in Gobi desert

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…..