‘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…..

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.

‘I know how to ….. but I don’t really want to’

 

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.

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.