Safety vs Freedom

 

‘It is often safer to be in chains than to be free.’Franz Kafka

I come across this quote on radio today.   It explains so well how often the covert challenge coachees face.   Sometimes, it is not the unreasonable boss, the difficult client, the toxic organisation, the bullying peer, the subordinates who never get it or the lack of skills / resources / time, etc which make change difficult.   At least not the only or prominent reasons.   It is sometimes the coachee’s own inertia to stay unchanged for the sense of safety.   Yet, I think such inertia could be hidden deep inside…. even without the person being aware of it.    Quick implications to the coach would probably be how to:

  • sense that such inertia may be there (or not!)
  • collect data to verify
  • gently bring this up to the coachee without triggering resistance (which is easy to come…. ‘Who are you to judge me?!’ )
  • invite exploration on what is behind such hidden inertia
  • jointly create ways to catch it in action

‘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.

The ‘Clash’ between Coaching and Training

I recently ran a rather typical management development program.   There were a few modules in a few days.   Each modules was built around a competency topic e.g. communication, change management.  In each module, the participants are supposed to learn some specific tools / models on that topic, and then pondered how to apply them.   Such design is rather conventional.

Somehow, I noticed myself becoming less excited about such approach.   On reflection, I believe I was uncomfortable to introduce tools / models to the participants without sensing the participants’ need for such knowledge.   Perhaps I can do even more to build the WHY / ‘burning platform’ first (not in the standard design)     Yet, the very act of building the ‘burning platform’ already sounds odd or even manipulative to me.

On further reflection, from the organisational perspective, it is actually unavoidable and understandable for the central learning function to make participants learn about stuff which the latter did not necessarily see the need to do so.   After all, what the employer wants may NOT be the same as what individual employees want.

I think my discomfort is out of my growing ‘coaching mind-set’.   I have been spending more and more time on executive coaching and group coaching in the last 2-3 years.   (There are many different understandings on what ‘coaching’ is.   Mine is more around helping the coachee finding own solutions)     I thus would find it odd in a training setting to bombard the participants with unsolicited content.

I guess there is no absolute right or wrong.   Basically, if I continue to do such off-the-shelf standardized training program, I need to do better to establish the ‘burning platform’, both inside and outside the workshop.   (By ‘outside the workshop’, I mean influencing the clients on things like how to design and roll out the workshop in relation to imminent and related business challenge, how to select and orient the participants and their managers)

Love Art in Yourself

I happened to hear on a radio show this quote – ‘Love art in yourself, and not yourself in art’ by Konstantin Stanislavski who is a prominent theatre practitioner.   In particular, he is widely recognized by his theories on actor training and preparation.   Though this quote is more for the actors in the theatre business, I felt it super relevant for coaches and facilitators.   Specifically, the quote is a great reminder to us.

One of the biggest challenges (probably THE biggest) in the business of coaching and facilitation is the practitioner himself / herself.     (Of course, equally, it is the biggest asset as well)    It is a challenge often because we often unconsciously focus on ourselves rather than the work, especially when things does not go well.    For example, in coaching, when the work actually needs us to keep silence to provoke thinking, we keep on talking in order to ‘appear’ helpful.    Another example in facilitation / group coaching, when the work actually needs to allow productive conflict, we say something to pre-maturely harmonize the exchange.

Often, we take care of our own psychological need rather than doing the work.

I also recall an exchange with my fellow coaches in a program.   This was basically a condensed action learning program.  We were pondering when we should intervene as the coaches.   I said probably we should only intervene if we have YES to the following two questions:

  1. Are the participants STRUCK enough to have emotional attachment to the experience?
  2. Am I sure it is not my own anxiety that drives me to intervene?

‘Love art in yourself, and not yourself in art’ (or in Chinese愛你心中的藝術,而非藝術中的你)

 

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.

Dilemma between Learning and Performance in Action Learning

[Regent Park in London, May 2017]

I am an advocate on action learning, or more specifically the practice of ‘Action Reflection Learning’ (ARL)    I believe we learn most effectively when we reflect on real work with real consequence.   A recent experience pushed me to think deeper on how to put this philosophy into practice. To be more specific, the question is ‘how much should the coach intervene?’

I was one of the coaches for an action-learning type workshop.   In short, the learners have some 24 hours to work together as teams on a real challenge faced by their organisation.   During the event, I felt odd when I heard expectation to help the learners do better in their project.   It seems to me that we care more about (immediate) performance than learning.   The problem is that making things easier for them can compromise their learning.

I realise that my philosophy towards action learning has shifted over the years.   This is probably because of the work in business schools in the last 2 years.  More at ‘Rethinking Experiential Learning’.    The new paradigm is that I better just observe rigorously, let them fail and then help them learning from the experience (including the possible anger towards my ‘not-helping’)  Participants can still learn something even if their projects ‘win’.  But the learning from failure (with reflection by facilitation / coaching) can be deeper and better retained.

A further reflection then came – When I worked as an in-house L&D years ago, I cared a lot about the learners’ performance in the projects.   I also did things to enhance their performance.   Why?   I wanted them to look good so that I or my department look good in front of the CEO who was present with the project outcome!    After all, it is much easier to show case project outcome than learning.

If I were an in-house today, even though with the ‘business schools’ experience, I honestly could not claim that I am 100% prepared for the participants to fail in the projects.

So, how to reconcile the dilemma?   Or again, how much should the coach intervene?   As one can imagine, there is no straight-forward answer.   On reflection, I think the better we address the following factors, the more the coach can let them fail and learn from the experience.

Sponsor selection – From the learning perspective, the function of the sponsors / judges is basically to create consequence to the projects.   In general, the more senior they are, the scarier the action learning becomes.   The global CEO whom the participants can rarely meet will put them into the ‘Panic Zone’.  On the other hand, using peer as judges will leave them in the ‘Comfort Zone’.   We can thus dial up and down accordingly to pursue the ‘Learning Zone’?   In addition, we can module-ise the challenge e.g. first round with the country CEO and so on.

Sponsor relationship – Sometimes the tendency, if not obsession, to show case learners’ performance is out of sponsor’s impatience as well as HR / L&D own sense of insecurity.   (I have it myself)    A learning-oriented action learning thus requires mutual trust between the sponsor and the HR / L&D.   From the latter’s perspective, this means continuous effort to nurture the sponsor on the reality of learning and build own creditability.

Duration – Learning and performance are more likely to co-exist if the action learning is long enough.   Say, if the program can last for 6 months, the learners can transfer the learning from previous failure into enhanced performance in subsequent modules.   On the contrary, if we just have, say, 2 days, learning will easily be compromised assuming the need to show-case.

Reflection space – Related to the last point, a short action learning program may not allow enough time for reflection.   This hinders deep learning (from failure).   First, there is literally no time to talk.   Second, coaches would hesitate to challenge too much since there lacks space for the participants to ‘recover’.   I would say in general one day of action will need half a day of reflection for a small group (4-8) of participants.

Coaches – For action learning to yield deep learning, we need coaches who are at least conscious about own anxiety.  They also need to be skilful and resourceful in facilitating just-in-time learning.

What do you think?    How else or what other factors to consider in order to produce a great action learning program given the organisational realities?