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.
(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 :)?
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.)
My take on collusion (e.g. pleasing participants in developmental interventions) has been changing in the last few years.Â Â Â First, I was not aware at all that I may be doing it.Â Â Â Then, I became aware of it and saw it as a bad thing â€“ counter-learning. See previous post – Unconscious Collusion with Learners. I even sometimes found myself enjoying being an annoying consultant.Â Â Â But in the last year or two, things changed further.Â Â Collusion could be useful and sometimes even necessary for quality learning.Â Â Â It could be useful data to gain understanding into the unconscious.Â Â Â The article â€˜Petriglieri, G. & Wood, J.D. 2003. The invisible revealed: Collusion as an entry to the group unconscious.Â Transactional Analysis Journalâ€™ describes it well.Â Â Â And to a certain extent, it is almost necessary in building up the â€˜working allianceâ€™ â€“ a useful concept by Catherine Sandler in bookÂ â€˜Executive Coaching â€“ A Psychodynamic Approachâ€™
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.Â Â Â I think of the case of â€˜zero collusionâ€™ i.e. a coach behaving always as an icy-cold analyst.Â Â Â He / she shows only a poker-face for projection and directly confront participants with hypothesis of the unconscious.Â Â Â
In a way, ‘zero collusion’ could be as â€˜badâ€™ as the case of â€˜full collusionâ€™.Â Â In fact, on reflection, it is not about how much the collusion is.Â Â Â It is about whether we know what is going on.Â Â Â To be specific:
How much is the coach aware of the colluding acts?
How much is the coach colluding to lower the clientâ€™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)â€¦ primarily to meet my own needs.Â Â For example, I please the client in order not to be disliked.Â Â Â Or I show no emotion / friendliness and only analyse in order to stay safe by intellectualizing everything.Â Â Â
Interestingly, or boringly :), it goes back to our own self-awareness as practitioners to help others develop.
In the â€˜Journey to the Westâ€™ story(è¥¿æ¸¸è®°), the Xuanzangâ€™s (çŽ„å¥˜) crew met with lots of demons in the Gobi desert. We met some as well in the Gobi race – a leadership development program. However, for us, those demons reside in our own minds.
Here is an incident when the demons showed up. A vivid and embarrassing example on how our unconscious processing prevents us from advancing towards our stated goalâ€¦.. even though we have the capability.
We had a new team member, Kenny (pseudonym), who joined us at the end of day 1. (Without disclosing too much the program design, we were basically â€˜forcedâ€™ in an evening to exchange an existing team member with a new one from another team.) When Kenny joined us in that evening, we did not do much except for exchanging names and some brief greeting. I believe all could imagine how comfortable it was for Kenny. After all, moving to share a tent with a group of already-connected strangers at short notice without reasonably-warm welcome was awkward.
In the next morning, we launched into the raceâ€¦ without much words with Kenny. Kenny chose to withdraw from the race in that afternoon. Apparently, his legs hurt too much and he explicitly said he did not want to be helped i.e. pushed or pulled by others. We lost a lot of score (for every withdrawal). We also lost his supreme ability on numbers and direct-ness, which we only discovered after the race. He could have contributed a lot in managing our pace and break down our â€˜politenessâ€™ dynamics.
During our After-Action Review, we first attributed the loss to our inability to integrate new members. We then realized that it was probably not true as most are experienced managers or coaches. The problem was that we did not really want to. We came up with very interesting hypotheses as follows. Basically, we were protecting ourselves unconsciously.
We were angry about the â€˜talent exchangeâ€™ activity itself – the command to expel a member out. Some were probably even angry (or embarrassed) about themselves saying / not saying something contributing to a memberâ€™s departure. Me for sure. We then projected such anger to the new member;
We do not want to get hurt again, and thus we do not want to invest too much in the relationship with the new. After all, we do not know when another round of â€˜talent exchangeâ€™ may come again;
We do not want to be seen as â€˜unfaithfulâ€™. If we were nice to the new, it seems that we did not care about the departed one
I found it so revealing, but also embarrassing â€“ how could I got so caught up by theseâ€¦. Inner demons / unconscious å¿ƒé” in action!!
On further reflection, the question is how we could possibly overcome such psychological obstacle. Basically, we need 2 things:
Good self-awareness in noticing quickly own feeling of ambivalence to welcome and thus such inner demons
A clear and commonly-committed goal in place
Then, the person who is aware of such inner demons can say something like that:
â€˜Hey, we are probably feeling bad about XXX leaving. I do. And we probably are feeling ambivalent about YYY joining. To be frank, I do. And I suspect there are some inner demons in action (as mentioned above). But we have a goal to achieve and it is not fair to YYY. I thus invite all to see YYY as he is, instead of what we project him to be. We also need to YYYâ€™s contribution to achieve the goal together. What do you think?â€™
Not easy but possible. If someone can do it, this is truly an act of leadership.
A reflection on a recent â€˜learning miracleâ€™…. Â kind of. Â Â I conducted a day of group coaching with 5 executives in a business school program.Â Â Around 3 weeks later, I had a follow-up individual coaching call with each of them.Â Charles (pseudonym)said in the call that he was amazed in witnessing how 3 other members have changed after the group coaching day.Â Â Â 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.Â Â Â 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.Â Â Perhaps Charles was just unconsciously pleasing and colluding me a less pushy coaching call.Â Â Â Perhaps Sandy had been on the edge of change before the day, and the group coaching was just â€˜the straw that broke the camelâ€™s backâ€™.
But we had a few of them making exceptional changes.Â Â Why? Â Â On reflection, the magic is probably around the following factors:
Open programâ€“ 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.Â This is very different from those programs which participants were reluctantly â€˜invitedâ€™ to join because they are â€˜talentâ€™ or even because the program is â€˜mandatoryâ€™.
Pre-coaching orientationâ€“ The professor has spent an afternoon with them before the group coaching orienting them into the â€˜adaptiveâ€™ space.Â Â I have to say that he has successfully got them out of the expectation to be told of technical solutions.
Psychological Safetyâ€“ We spent the morning of the group coaching day on personal disclosure.Â Â The process is well designed and I think I ran it reasonably well.Â Â This benefited a great deal to the afternoon sense-making on their individual 360 reports.
Feedback with Concrete and Comprehensive Evidenceâ€“ The afternoon process made each participant facing their respective and detailed 360 reports together.Â Â We did it in a way that they cannot avoid the content consciously or unconsciously.Â Â And thanks to the morning, they went through the afternoon together with good receptivity.
Peerâ€“ As Sandy pointed out, she managed to change probably because she witnessed how the others were also working through their own struggles.Â Â This is both relieving and motivating.
My Beingâ€“ I suspect my orientation was helpful as well.Â Â Somehow I adjusted the balance between being supportive and challenging.Â Â Putting more attention on psychological safety.
Yet, I am more amazed with another layer of reflection â€“ they made change without any input on techniques and skills!Â Â This reinforces my belief that the key to behavioral change is more about â€˜willâ€™ rather than â€˜skillâ€™.Â This is especially the case for senior learners who have considerable working experience and been through countless â€˜training coursesâ€™, reading, videos or advices from others.Â Â 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.Â Â And so, why another training course with 135 slides and thick binders?
Or in a â€˜so-whatâ€™ angle, whilst there is always limited resources on learning / development intervention, the emphasis should be put on enhancing the willingness to make changeâ€¦.Â like considering the list above.
â€˜It is often safer to be in chains than to be free.â€™Franz Kafka
I come across this quote on radio today.Â Â It explains so well how often the covert challenge coachees face.Â Â 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.Â Â At least not the only or prominent reasons.Â Â It is sometimes the coacheeâ€™s own inertia to stay unchanged for the sense of safety.Â Â Yet, I think such inertia could be hidden deep insideâ€¦. even without the person being aware of it.Â Â Â 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