Category Archives: Alternative approaches

Struggling with the way things are? Time to notice what is

I’m feeling angry.

Sometimes, life brings us the very lessons we most want to teach others …again and again and again.  It’s the Ground Hog day of the teacher’s own learning.  We get to take the learning with humility or we get to pretend.

Our students always find us out.

So, with timely synchronicity, this week I received the response to an appeal I put forward a few weeks ago as a reminder of just how hard it can be to notice how things are, accept them, and move on from there.  There was nothing in the response to my appeal that gave me any comfort that justice (natural or otherwise) has been done.

The challenge of accepting what is

Maybe you’re familiar with the challenge of accepting what is.

You know your boss has had all sorts of training that suggests that seeing the best in people or working collaboratively (or… or… or…) is more likely to get good results and still, your boss is managing you in ways which leave you feeling your work isn’t appreciated, that you’re liable to be punished for breaching rules you didn’t know existed (or, worse still, for breaching rules that you know don’t exist), that the give is all coming from you and the take is all coming from your boss.  Every time you think about your boss you chafe against an approach which ought to be different.

You think the way your (insert brother, sister, spouse, mother, father, friend, colleague, other) is behaving right now is outrageous.  You can dress up the language (‘ineffective’, ‘unhelpful’, ‘inappropriate’ or whatever) but, fundamentally, you’re finding it heard to accept somebody else’s choices and you think they should be choosing something different.  You feel angry, upset, disappointed, frustrated…

You’re managing a member of staff who, by now, should have mastered a certain skill or who lacks motivation.  Hey!  Worse still, maybe you’re managing a whole team of people who lack the motivation or the polish or the commitment you expect to see in your team.  You can’t believe your team member(s) could be so unprofessional.  Maybe, even, you can’t believe your predecessor in the job could have let things go on so long the way they are.

At home, you’ve asked your son – repeatedly – to tidy up his room and he keeps on saying yes… and doing no.  You can’t believe he’s being so uncooperative and still expecting you to (insert cook meals, pay for his violin classes, drive him from A to B, give out copious amounts of hugs and emotional support, other) as if everything’s working perfectly.

Whatever the reason, you’re struggling to accept something that isn’t the way you’d like it to be – often, with good reason.

Living with Radio 4

Now, I want to take a moment to talk about my life long relationship with BBC Radio Four.

Growing up, the radio was always on in the kitchen at Malt House Farm.  At least, at some stage the “wireless” was always on until it became a radio.  And it was always tuned to BBC Radio Four.  Woman’s Hour, Alistair Cooke’s Letter From America… The Archers was on at 7pm in the evening, again at 2pm the next day and again on Sunday mornings.  I marvel now at how I was able to do my homework to the background noise of BBC Radio Four.

More recently, though, I have had periods of abstinence.  In particular, I have chosen not to wake up to the theme of “who’s to blame?” which seems to prevail on the Today programme.  Does there always need to be someone to blame?

I mention this because it seems to me that the idea that something or someone should be different is culturally sanctioned in my own corner of the world.  So if, like me, you’re chafing right now at something or someone that really isn’t working for you, you’re only doing something that is widely accepted as an okay way to go about your life.

How though, might this play out over time?

In the land of “things ought to be different”

I remember hearing of one company director who was fundamentally opposed to the strategic direction his company was taking and campaigned vociferously to reverse a decision to go in a particular direction.  When his arguments fell on deaf ears, he shouted a little louder and a little louder, without ever stopping to take stock.  You only had to look at the composition of the board to realise that the decision was not going to change.  Meantime, he gained a reputation for being difficult to work with and lost the good will of his peers.

And what about the leader who pursued her childhood dream and achieved it, striving to prove her parents wrong (“Is that really you, dear?”) by working towards and gaining a senior leadership role.  On a leadership course, feedback from her staff suggested that she had a very limited range of leadership styles and that levels of satisfaction amongst her team members were low.  She felt angry and resentful – after all that she’d done for them!  Still, twenty years into her career, she was still trying to prove her parents wrong.

Recently a friend of mine who is a senior employment lawyer pointed to some of the injustices that staff face in the hands of their employers.  The trouble is, she said, even when companies are clearly in breach of the law, it’s hard to bring a case and expect to continue to work in the organisation that has got it wrong.  And there are other costs, too… the emotional toll, the time, the money, the risk to your relationships with loved ones as they worry about you at first and then get irritated with you for what you’ve put them through over time.

Noticing what is

Some of the most effective leaders have an ability to notice what is.

The company director who can survey the board and and get under the rhetoric of his or her colleagues to notice what the Finance Director gets most excited about or to identify the tiny incongruities between what the CEO says and what he or she does in practice, has information that can inform decisions and lead to a more effective approach.  Can’t get the FD on board?  Let me tell him about the impact this will have on profit margins and how… since this is clearly what is most important to him.  Sometimes, too, noticing that you have some fundamental differences with your colleagues is an invitation to notice what’s most important to you and to consider what changes you can make that will lead you towards a life that is aligned to your values.

If you’re unhappy in your job, noticing that you have achieved your childhood dream but that this has not given you the joy and satisfaction you thought it would, or rid you of your concern that your parents might not think well of you, or even given you staff who are happy and fulfilled in their work or performing well… this, too, opens up the opportunity to notice the yearnings of your heart.  What is it you really want?  Your parents’ approval?  And what does that tell you about what, with or without any particular response from your parents, you really want?  Acceptance… understanding… love…?

The person who is considering taking his or her employing organisation to court may indeed have been  wronged by his or her manager, company or organisation.  The law may have been broken.  His or her manager may indeed have broken company rules.  Natural justice may not have been served.  These are, though, things that have happened and cannot be changed.  For this person, too, there some fundamental needs have not been met… for understanding, consideration, respect…  to recognise these needs is, in itself, to honour them.  More than this, taking time to notice these needs and all the emotion that comes with a situation in which they have not been met or have even been violated, can guide an employee in what to look for when making requests of a current manager or seeking to work with a new employer.

Noticing what is is about being curious about other people – how does he tick?  What are her chief concerns?  It’s about noticing the politics of an organisation.  What are the official rules?  The culture?  What happens in practice?  Noticing what is is also about being curious about ourselves.  What thoughts are we having?  What emotions?  What is happening in our body?  Noticing, too, is about being curious about the information that we don’t yet have.  What understanding do team members have of the job they are expected to do?  Do they have clear job descriptions?  When were they last updated?  What about their performance reviews – what did their line manager say?  Each question opens up new avenues of enquiry and takes us from the world of assumption.  We may not like the information that emerges and still, we are more informed.

Sometimes, it starts with the emotion

I wonder if there’s any area in which you find yourself thinking that things ought to be different.  If there is, I invite you to notice…

…What is it that you feel so strongly about?  What do you feel?

…What thoughts are you having about the person or situation you’re struggling with?

…What do you know?  What do you not yet know?

…What can you do?  What is beyond your control or influence?

Yesterday, I tried hard to move quickly beyond the anger I feel about my own experiences in current months… and I did feel angry and upset.

It seemed important to notice what I know and what I don’t know… to find out who chaired the appeal, for example, who was at the meeting… and whether or not due process has been followed.  In the words of one friend –  “Aren’t appeals panels supposed to have discrete (i.e. no overlapping) membership with the original panel?”

Today I am just noticing my response to each new piece of information that comes my way.

I know I don’t want to feel angry for ever and still…

For now, that is how I feel.

Smoothing your path with compassionate collaboration

2013 was a challenging year for me personally and, if you’ve been reading my blog, you’ll know I made a somewhat chaotic start to 2014.  Exhausted, I have faced any number of new tests at a time when I feel my energies are depleted.

At work, in a state of exhaustion, I have faced inner struggle as my body tells me I need to rest and my inner Company Director tells me I need to crack on.  In need of space, I’ve found it hard to handle some of the challenges that face me personally and have had some difficult interactions with loved ones.

Only the other day, I missed signs that, triggered by something I’d said, a very dear friend was close to losing his temper with me – something he has never done in the quarter century we’ve known each other.

Conflict – a part of our human experience

It seems I am not alone.  Whether in the work place or at home, conflict – discord between ourselves and others or conflict within ourselves – is a regular part of the human experience.


In case you doubt it, I invite you to take a moment to notice what’s going on for you at this time.

Starting with yourself, are there any parts of you that are in conflict with each other?  Are you striving to move forward in some way and yet procrastinating?  Are there things on your “to do” list that, somehow, you are trying to avoid?  Have you set out your New Year vision for more exercise, healthier food, seeking a new job… and yet find that your actions belie your intentions.  If you recognise any example of this in your own life, you probably know just how much frustration, confusion, fear and other emotions you feel as part of this inner conflict.  It could even be that you feel strong emotions – fear, perhaps – about feeling those emotions.  You may even be trying hard to pretend that you’re “fine”.

Are you in conflict with anyone else, either in the way you are interacting with each other or in the way you are thinking of someone or feeling about them – be it a colleague (or colleagues), a friend, your partner or other family member?  Maybe you haven’t said anything and still, you’re fed up with the challenges you face when working with someone or some group of colleagues in your organisation.  Maybe you just can’t face going home once again to your teenage son’s sock pile, or to your partner’s admonitions that you’re late home – again.

Maybe you’ve even had a conversation with someone in the last ten days which was tense, angry, difficult.

On the path of most resistance

Recently, I was witness to an example of a conflict between a manager and one of his members of staff.

The manager, Greg, had found out that Jane, his staff member, had said no to a request from one of the organisation’s major clients.  It was her judgement that the company would struggle to meet the client’s requirements and, what’s more, to do so would be unprofitable.

The first she knew of any problems was when Greg sat her down and instructed her to make arrangements to meet the order – that day.  Jane knew that her team could not do that without letting down other clients and, what’s more, she was confused.  Why the instruction when she had a clear agreement with her boss to say no to any requests which would prove unprofitable to the organisation?  She asked for an explanation and was told Greg would get back to her following a meeting he was scheduled to attend.

This brief exchange left Jane feeling shocked and concerned.  She did, though, want to make clear that she wanted to find an outcome that worked for Greg and for her other clients.  She decided to drop him an e-mail to that effect and to let him know when she was available to talk about how they could fulfil existing orders and make room for this one.  She also included figures so that Greg could assess the profitability of this order.

She was shocked when Greg responded to say that he didn’t want to see her in the office for the rest of the week and would contact her by the end of the week to discuss any further disciplinary action.

Greg’s action put him squarely on the path of most resistance.  Rather than work with Jane, who had expressly told him she wanted to meet with him to find a way forward that worked for them both, he chose to work against her.

Fear – and the power of compassion

Greg didn’t know it, but he acted out of fear.

His great fear was that saying no to his largest client would damage a long-standing relationship.  And because it was Jane who had said no, when fear kicked in, he decided she was in the wrong and tried to exercise control.  Jane, who was more than willing to collaborate with Greg to find a way forward, was not happy to be suspended without good grounds.  Instead of holding a meeting to discuss a way forward that worked for everybody, Gregor’s action led to a lengthy process which consumed time and energy without actually working well for anybody.

In truth, we all have our inner Gregs and Janes.  The same kind of conflict occurs when we sponsor one part of ourselves at the expense of another.  Yes, we (that’s you and one part of you) think it’s a good idea to do do x – but goodness, how frustrating that one part of us is standing in the way!  What a stupid part!  It’s totally irrational!  Let’s push a little harder… push through…  The trouble is, whether we are dealing with inner conflict or conflict with some other person or group of people, this approach increases the struggle, the effort, the time needed to find an – often imperfect – way through.

In my work as a coach, I have found that struggle ends when compassionate collaboration starts.  In my conversations with clients, I invite them to notice what each part of them is really wanting.  As clients let go of judgement and start to really listen, they open up the possibility that parts of them that have been in conflict can begin to collaborate.  The question “which part of me is right?” gives way to a different question – “how can those different parts of me find ways to ensure all our needs are met?”

In her conversations with Greg, Jane recognised that he felt a great deal of fear.  She decided to stick up for her needs – but not at the expense of her manager’s.  She tried to understand his fears whilst also asking for revisions to the guidance he had given her previously, so that she could support him in managing the company’s relationship with a major client.  She also launched an appeal against the disciplinary action he had taken.

 Surprises on the road to ease

Sometimes, the choice to be present to everyone’s needs – to collaborate from a place of compassion – throws up solutions which surprise everyone concerned.  Jane could not know ahead of time, for example, whether her discussions with Greg would throw up new solutions or lead her to conclude that she didn’t want to work under such a regime.

In my own life, gaining clarity about my baseline requirements for working with one organisation recently led me to realise that yes, we want to work with each other but no, we don’t have the basis for any kind of agreement that would work for me.  I was surprised at just how relieved I felt as I leaned into this clarity and let go of trying to find a way to working together work.  I knew I would prefer to be on good terms than to work under an agreement that didn’t give me what I needed.

As I shared that, no, I wouldn’t work with this particular client, I let go of struggle and stepped into ease – and a new set of possibilities.  I was able to do this and to stay on good terms with a potential work partner because I gave full weight to my needs – and theirs.

It takes time and commitment to practise compassionate collaboration.  At the same time, to do so opens up ways to increase your effectiveness and create ease in your role as a leader and beyond.  I don’t want to understate the effort and discipline involved to develop in this area but I do want to offer you a first step:

I invite you to identify just one inner conflict or conflict with others and to get curious about what you need.  Get curious, too, about what others need.  And whether out loud or in your own heart start to say – to yourself, to others – “Hello.  I see you.  Your needs matter.”

A compassionate welcome to 2014

Last week I found that a message from a friend (“Dot, we haven’t seen you since your birthday!”) triggered an overwhelm of emotions – some I hardly dared own in the quiet of my own heart, let alone share with my friend.

The first emotion was anger.  Didn’t you read the letter I sent you at Christmas?!  In it I shared, as tactfully as I could, the experience I had of supporting a friend in a suicidal episode (an experience I also referred to in my blog posting entitled Preventing employee suicide).  How could my friend – if she’d read my letter – admonish me for our lack of contact over recent months?

Sitting with the anger, I quickly realised that it masked a layer of guilt.  It wasn’t just guilt about my lack of contact with my friend – no.

I am feeling guilty about all sorts of things right now.

My most chaotic New Year ever…
The truth is, this year has been my most chaotic start to the New Year  – ever.

I haven’t yet written all my Christmas cards (yes really).

I haven’t yet opened all the Christmas cards that loved ones have sent to me (sadly, also true).

I haven’t yet bought Christmas presents for all my loved ones.

And it’s not just about Christmas.

Last week, I spent hours catching up on my first couple of days back at work – opening December’s unopened post, sending invoices for the work I did last month, bringing my diary up to date and more.

I also spent time every day washing clothes, and sheets and towels.  I now have a huge pile of ironing to contend with.

I can still see all sorts of carnage that needs sorting out throughout the house.  My office needs a good clear out.  In my dining room, I need to move a cupboard back into place that was treated for woodworm and put the contents back in place.  I have decided that one of my priorities in 2014 is to create storage for a new hobby – buying and selling china on a well-known *ahem* on-line trading facility.

And my diary is already tightly packed.  On Saturday, I took part in a singing Day as a member of the London Symphony Chorus.  I have a number of feedback sessions in the coming days with assessment candidates I interviewed last year.  I am working intensely in preparation for the launch of my new website.

The list goes on…

…And yours?
I wonder if you, too, have stumbled into 2014 in a way that is less than ideal.

Maybe you’ve enjoyed time with friends and family and, still, you missed some longed-for quiet time over the Christmas break.

Maybe you spent the last couple of months last year meeting tight end-of-year deadlines and you know you’ve failed to plan for 2014.

Maybe you know you’ve got too much on your plate but you can’t see what you can cut out of your schedule, unless it’s the things you put in precisely because you wanted more “life” in your “work/life balance”.

Maybe you have so much in your schedule for 2014 and you still need to catch up with the remnants of 2013.

You’ve started the New Year feeling tired and in need of a rest.  Or perhaps you’re confused about what you want in the year ahead.  Or maybe you feel overwhelmed with everything that lies ahead.

The pressures that come with stepping in to a New Year
One thing I have noticed about Christmas and the New Year, is a certain amount of pressure we put on ourselves at this time of the year.

I’ve noticed, for example, how some people struggle to give an honest account of the year just gone because they believe that, somehow, their year should have been better.  Their career (or their spouse’s or children’s) should have been more sparkling than, in fact, it was.  Perhaps their relationships or even the people in their lives (spouse, parents, children etc.) should have been better.  More challenging still, perhaps they, themselves, should somehow have been better.

There’s another challenge, too – the pressure to be happy.  In the UK, for example, happiness is a matter of government policy.  In July 2013 the BBC reported a small increase in happiness across the UK as measured by a UK-wide annual well-being survey.  The pressure is often closer to home.  Friends and family can be so keen to see their loved ones happy that they offer solutions, unbidden, when we share our problems and challenges or even criticise us for feeling anything other than happy.  This pressure carries the risk that we start to hide our emotions from ourselves and others or to respond to authentic emotion with criticism and self-punishment.

The gift of keeping it real
One person who argues for something different is psychologist and author Oliver James.  I was grateful over the holiday to hear him (on BBC Radio 4) arguing for emotional health rather than happiness as a goal worth aiming for.

What is emotional health?  James argued for being present in the moment to our emotions rather than prescriptive about what we should be feeling.  My own experience is that it is the way we feel about our feelings (based on judgements of what is or is not acceptable) rather than our feelings themselves (what some call our primary feelings) that causes us most distress.

More than this, I would add that our feelings are a valuable gauge;  a guide to needs that may or may not being met.  When we give space for our authentic feelings in the moment, we open up a space for our needs – to welcome them, to experience them and, at times, to meet them.

Happy New Year
Last week, opening my heart to my feelings and to the needs that lay hidden beneath them, I noticed that, more than anything, I have a need for understanding from friends, family, even colleagues and clients, for the ongoing impact from having taken time to support my friend.  Taking time to understand my need also opened up the opportunity to ask for understanding.  I also caught myself in an interpretation (that my friend was intending to admonish me) and was able to honestly share my interpretation and ask, is that what you meant to do?  This was my way of keeping it real.

As I think of you, dear reader, I wish for you that you, too, step into 2014 with the gift of keeping it real.  I hope, for you, that you welcome whatever happens in your life in 2014, just as it is.  I hope for you that you find time and space for your authentic responses to the events in your life.  I hope that you release any pressure to create the perfect life or even to be perfect and, instead, that you welcome your life, just as it is.
Welcome to you.  Welcome to your emotions.  Welcome to 2014.

Dealing with challenging feelings: who is responsible for the way you feel?

“As I walked out the door toward the gate that would lead to my freedom,
I knew that if I didn’t leave my bitterness and hatred behind,
I would still be in prison”
Nelson Mandela
1918 – 2013

I have been super busy in the last four weeks with a trip to Munich for one client followed by a three-week intensive project to assess the graduates of a High Potential programme for another.  I completed the first draft of the last report and sent it off for peer review just hours before my sister-in-law, Judy, arrived from South Korea for the start of her Christmas tour of family and friends.  Today, I am pausing for breath.

During this period, we heard of the death of Nelson Mandela, on Thursday, December 5th, 2013.  Mandela’s death was not unexpected and still, it touched me deeply – he was truly an elder statesman of our age.

It is not surprising that, as well as giving news of Mandela’s death, of his funeral service and of his final burial at his home town of Qunu, journalists have been reflecting on Mandela’s life.  I have repeatedly seen extracts from the speech he made in 1964 at the dock, in what became known as the Rivonia Trial.  These words have been widely quoted:

“I have fought against white domination, and I have fought against black domination.  I have cherished the ideal of a democratic and free society in which all persons live together in harmony and with equal opportunities.  It is an ideal which I hope to live for and to achieve.  But if needs be, it is an ideal for which I am prepared to die.”

It happened that, at much the same time, I received a question from a client who was struggling to come to terms with his feelings about an experience he had had.  He wrote:

“I’ve been telling myself that other people are not responsible for the way I feel.  Yes, the things my manager did triggered a lot of anger, but only because of the thoughts I had at the time… I felt really concerned about staying in my job under such a manager and also afraid to leave my job in this difficult economy.  One of my colleagues has told me forcefully that my manager is responsible for my feelings – what he did was completely unacceptable.  I don’t know which way to turn…”

His next question made me think of Mandela:

“I’ve been wondering, is the whole business trying to ensure we don’t take a definite stance on where change comes from?  In other words, it’s not me or my boss who has to change… instead, let’s work out a way.  And when I attribute responsibility for my feelings to someone else, I’m at risk of taking the oomph out of my own effort?”

In the midst of grappling with this question, I have particularly been struck by the number of times journalists have reported that Mandela was “without bitterness” at the end of his 26 years of imprisonment.

Are you struggling to know who’s responsible for your feelings?
This posting is for you if you, too, are grappling with difficult feelings and don’t quite know who is responsible – or how to respond.

Perhaps someone has done something that has had significant – and negative – implications for you.  At work, for example, the failure of a colleague to deliver on his commitments means that you’ve let down a key client.  You can tell your manager that it was not your fault but even that puts you in difficulty – you don’t want to be someone who points the finger and besides, you know that your manager will hear no ill of this particular colleague.  This is, of course, just one example of experiences that might be stimulating pain, anger, frustration or anxiety at work.

It happens that I’m writing this posting in the final sprint towards Christmas when many people are grappling with issues within their family.  Maybe you find it difficult to spend time with your mother, father or sibling because they still do the thing you found so difficult as a child – be it the explosive temper, the lack of empathy, the competition with you or the coldness between them… whatever it is, as you come closer to spending time with them you feel the mounting anxiety, the anger, the frustration… who says they’re not responsible for the way you feel, given everything that’s happened over the years?

Without bitterness:  the ones who forgave
Mandela chose deliberately to let go of his feelings of bitterness and hatred.  He is not the only one.

Recently, I met a man whose daughter had been murdered and yet was entirely at peace with his loss.  When he spoke of his daughter it was with gratitude for the years they had had together rather than with any sense of anger towards his daughter’s murderer.

This was all the more striking because so many parents of murdered children are quoted in the media as saying how the loss of their child has ruined their lives for ever.  Their message is clear, “This person did something which has ruined my life.”  Again and again, the implication is that this enduring sense of loss, anger and bitterness is the only option available to the bereaved.  The message is also, clearly, “you did that to me.”

And who can blame them?

At the same time, Mandela knew, when he finally left prison in 1990 that any feelings of bitterness and hatred he took with him would, in themselves, constitute a prison.  For this reason, he decided to leave them behind.
When we take responsibility for our feelings, then what?
Often, when people consider the option of taking responsibility for their own feelings, they have two main concerns.  Firstly, they have concerns about the other person – will they get away with it?  Will they do the same thing again and with a similar impact on other people?  At root, they’re concerned that taking responsibility for their own feelings lets the other person or people off the hook.  Secondly, clients can be concerned that when they let go of the idea that someone else is responsible for the way they feel, they let go of their power.
These two concerns are closely related …and entirely without foundation.
Let’s take the second concern first.  If you’re feeling anxious or frustrated at the prospect of spending time with your family at Christmas, it’s a sure sign that you don’t feel confident that your needs – whatever those needs might be – will be met.  Perhaps you know that you don’t find it easy to be around your mother-in-law when she seems to resent all the work that goes in to hosting a family gathering.  You may even have strong feelings about the fact that she chooses to host a family gathering at Christmas given that she finds it so stressful and given that you’ve repeatedly offered to host lunch yourself.
As long as you hold your mother-in-law responsible for your feelings, you’re thinking that it’s your mother-in-law who needs to make changes.
You may also be struggling to give due weight to your own needs… are you willing to say, “my needs matter” and to make choices that reflect this belief?  This is often an area of great struggle, because it comes with all sorts of fears.  In particular, there’s a fear that can come when we realise that taking responsibility for own feelings means making choices that other people may not support…
…the choice to say no to an invitation from a relative to join them for Christmas, knowing family members will struggle to accept your choice…
…the choice to share your concerns about your manager with, well, your manager – even though you have no way of knowing how he or she will respond…
…the choice to move away from grief and towards joy after the loss of a child, even though society at large finds it hard to accept that grief and joy can exist side by side…
…the choice to hurt someone’s feelings (because if they’re responsible for your feelings you must be responsible for theirs, right?) or – more challenging still – to act, knowing that someone will struggle with your actions, and knowing that whatever they believe, it is what they think about your choices and not your choices themselves, which causes such pain…
When we make these and other choices with a sincere desire to meet our own needs and a willingness to support others in meeting theirs we do, increasingly, feel the power that comes with owning our feelings.  Instead of “yes, I feel angry that you…” we start to own that “yes, I feel angry that I…”  “I feel angry that I said yes to the job he offered me, even though I knew he was unreliable”.  From this place we can learn to do something different next time.
But what about that other concern?  The concern that someone may do the same thing again and with a similar impact on other people?
The truth is they might.
…the Christmas hostess may still want to be hostess and still feel resentment about all the work involved…
…the manager, whatever his or her weaknesses, may do the same thing again and again, without learning…
. .the criminal may repeat an act of crime…
Over the years I have found that, when we have concerns about the acts of others, it’s because we care deeply for people’s well-being.
…We care deeply about our own well-being…
…We care about the well-being of people who do things that hurt themselves, or others…
…We care deeply about other people who may be treated in the way we were…
In each case, we can take action.  To do so is to stand in our own power.
We are not, though, some omnipotent god and we cannot guarantee any particular response.
Our power lies in recognising that yes, this did not (or does not) work for me.  My needs are not met.  I accept that this person did the best they know how.  I accept that, given the way I see things, I am bound to feel what I feel.  I accept it is for me to decide what I will do now.  I accept that I cannot guarantee any particular response.
And you?  What’s next for you?
From Mandela, through work, to Christmas and our loved ones, I have given examples of some of the things that challenge us most.  I wonder what’s next for you.
If you’re struggling with difficult emotions, here’s my invitation to you… notice them, welcome them, own them.  What’s the emotion?  What’s stimulating that emotion in you?  What need are you yearning to meet?
And insofar as you know that it’s for you (and for nobody else) to honour your need and to do what you can to meet it, what one thing would you like to do next?
Perhaps there’s something you can easily do that will give you much greater ease as the year draws to a close.  Perhaps this line of questions opens up something much bigger for you.
Either way, lovingly, gently, I leave the responsibility for your feelings with you.

Leadership and your relationship with your staff

Last month was Berlioz month for members of the London Symphony Chorus.  This year the ladies of the London Symphony Chorus had a gap of notable proportions in the schedule (no prom concert this year, and a – men only – performance of Verdi’s Rigoletto to start the season).  Our first concert in the series, on Sunday 2nd November – a performance of Berlioz’s Damnation of Faust – was my first concert since we sang Mark-Anthony Turnage’s At Sixes And Sevens at the Guildhall in July.
Many conductors – most conductors – make time for what’s called a “piano rehearsal” with the chorus.  This gives conductor and chorus the opportunity to prepare before the tutti rehearsals, in which everyone involved – conductor, orchestra, soloists and chorus – comes together for rehearsal.
This time, our first rehearsal was a tutti rehearsal with chorus, orchestra, conductor and soloists.  I was glad of the extra time which I packed with any number of chores before making my way to the Barbican for our first tutti on Saturday afternoon.
Getting on the wrong side of the class
It’s not unusual for the first meeting between the Chorus and their fellow musicians to stimulate discussion about the conductor’s leadership style and this, in turn, can lead to a discussion about events outside the chorus.  Sometimes, these events bear no relation to what’s going on inside the concert hall;  instead, they reflect a universal concern to be led in ways which are comfortable, constructive and productive.
This time was no exception – on the way to rehearsal on the Sunday morning, I found myself in conversation with one of my colleagues, a teacher by profession, who described the experience that every teacher has from time to time, of getting on the wrong side of the class.
You know you’re on the wrong side of the class because pupils start to misbehave.  It’s a wearisome experience and difficult to come back from – as you’ll know if ever you’ve been there.  It’s particularly difficult because, often, the misbehaviour of your team can be hard to pin down or even to describe as misbehaviour.  Maybe your team members start to turn up on time – but never early.  Maybe they do a full day’s work – but don’t go the extra mile.  Maybe the number of doctor’s appointments goes up in your team.  Over the years, I’ve noticed how creative people can be in signalling to their leader that (s)he’s on the wrong side of the class.
In your heart of hearts, you know that you’ve lost the support of your team but there’s nothing you can easily criticise: from time to time, everyone needs to take time to go to the doctor, right?
It’s all about relationship
In the corporate environment in which I mostly work, very little emphasis is placed on the quality of relationship between a leader and his or her staff.  Notions of what’s professional can get in the way of an open acknowledgement of the importance of relationship.  There’s a risk that, because the central role of relationship in the workplace is not acknowledged, it is, equally, not cultivated.
And yet, it is relationship that keeps you on the right side of your class.
Members of your team will go the extra mile when they sense that they matter and their contribution is valued.  Insofar as you cut them some slack based on an understanding of their real needs or a recognition that everyone makes mistakes, they will cut you some slack, too.  If you cover their backs, they will cover your back.  The list goes on.
There are big questions involved if you want to cultivate a relationship with your staff which is both professional and fruitful for everyone involved.  Perhaps the mother of all questions is this:  are you ready to give up “being in control” for an approach based on mutual learning and respect?  I say this because research tends to show that the use of a command-and-control approach to leadership tends to undermine staff engagement and motivation.
At the same time, an approach based on mutual respect demands more of us in terms of relationship.  It requires of us that we put out what we want back – giving respect, for example, where we want respect, or investing in our staff insofar as we want them to give their heart as well as their professionalism to their work.  Sometimes it requires us to have faith in our staff and their potential even when they have yet to deliver to a standard we require.
And it requires dialogue – a willingness to listen as well as to talk.
Cultivating a fruitful professional relationship with your staff
When your style of leadership is well-established, it can be difficult to know whether or not you’re cultivating the kind of relationship that keeps you on the right side of your class.  For this reason, your first steps need to be about bringing into your awareness the nature of your relationship with the people you lead.  Here are three things for you to reflect on as a way to get started:
  • What are your aspirations for your relationship with your staff?  To what extent do you aspire to work in partnership with your staff based on a relationship of mutual trust and respect?  It may be that your relationship with your staff is not even on your leadership agenda.  Perhaps, though, you do want to have a relationship with members of your team and words like “trust” and “respect” feel comfortable to you – something you aspire to and enjoy when it happens;
  • What words would you use to describe the relationship you have with members of your team and with your team as a whole?  To what extent do these words suggest that your relationship is in line with your aspirations?  As a member of the Chorus, for example, I have worked with a wide range of conductors with diverse styles and I notice how clear my personal preferences are.  I want to know that I’m working with someone who has a real passion – love, even – for the music they are conducting and who works to high standards.  I prefer to work with someone who works with me rather than with someone who takes out his (or her) frustration on me or who is, even, simply absent.  For me, this implies relationship – a relationship between a conductor and those (s)he conducts.  Relationship, building over time, is the accumulated effect or outcome of shared experiences;
  • To what extent do you cultivate a relationship with your staff in which you receive feedback as well as giving it?  And what feedback do you get from your staff?  It’s easy as a leader to focus on the limitations of those you lead.  It takes more courage to say “how am I communicating such that they are behaving in this way?”  It takes both courage and maturity to ask members of your team about their experience – and to be able to listen to whatever answers they give you.
And Berlioz?
I still remember singing Berlioz’s Trojans for the first time in the early 1990s.  This, too, was with the London Symphony Orchestra and Chorus, with Sir Colin Davis.  It was not my first experience of Berlioz (I had, after all, been singing the Shepherds’ Farewell since childhood) but it was my first experience on such a grand scale, and a truly magical one at that.
I did not know it but our conductor this time, Valery Gergiev, like Sir Colin, has been a life-long admirer of Berlioz.  On 10th October, writing in the Observer, Ed Vuillamy’s article was headed by the quote, “Berlioz inspired me long before I ever dreamed I would conduct.”
Our first concert, on Sunday 2nd November, was greeted warmly by the audience.  If the audience applause at the end of the concert was anything to go by, it was a performance of considerable aplomb.  For me, there was a vigour in the performance which was lacking at rehearsal (or perhaps – as one chorus member remarked wryly – we had friends in the audience).
Some critics were not complimentary.  Sebastian Scotney, for example, writing for The Arts Desk, use the word “perfunctory” in the course of his review and Mark Valencia, writing for What’s On Stage, highlighted something of which members of the chorus were only too painfully aware – the absence of our much-loved Sir Colin Davis.  He said of the chorus:
Most disappointing of all was the London Symphony Chorus, normally a tower of strength.  Their succession of soldiers, students, peasants, gnomes, sylphs, demons and ‘the damned’ were under-characterised and apparently under-rehearsed.  In Part Two the male drinkers seemed to frequent a very sober tavern and would have been more at home at a game of skittles than an orgy, while in Part Four the ladies of the Chorus (to the mirth of some sitting behind me) diligently checked their copies before delivering a single, hellbound scream.
Not every critic agreed.  Colin Anderson,writing for Classical Source, said (of the second performance, on Thursday 7thNovember):
It was the London Symphony Chorus that in many ways stole the show with focussed and unanimous singing that survived every microscopic detail that Gergiev (and Simon Halsey, chorus director) extracted from it.  Distinctions between soldiers, students, peasants and others may not have been that obvious, but the preparation and delivery was top class.
By the time chorus members finished five performances of Berlioz’s Damnation and Romeo and Juliet, critics were fulsome in their praise.  Nicolas Grienenberger, writing, said of the ensemble:
On ne peut que saluer l’engagement total du chef, attentif à tous les plans sonores, variant ici une dynamique, là un vibrato, et entraînant tous les musiciens vers une palette de nuances proprement stupéfiante, leur faisant oser des pianissimi impalpables à la limite de l’inaudible, forçant ainsi l’assistance au silence le plus absolu, et demandant à l’ensemble des spectateurs un présent devenu rarissime : leur écoute. Prodigieux également, le chœur du London Symphony Orchestra, d’une cohésion sonore et d’une clarté dans la diction exceptionnelles, d’une délicatesse dans le murmure qui n’a d’égale que l’intensité de leur éclat. A leurs côtés, les jeunes chanteurs formant les Guildhall Singers ne sont pas en reste, commentant l’action d’une superbe pâte sonore au phrasé élégant.
You don’t need to speak French to notice such words as “délicatesse” and “élégant”!
I was not at these subsequent performances and can only wonder; do these diverse critiques reflect the different tastes of the critics or did the quality of performance build over two weeks, in which the chorus sang five performances of Berlioz’s Damnation of Faust and Romeo and Juliet?  I don’t know.
I do, though, believe that – in business as much as in the concert hall – it takes time to build a relationship with your colleagues and, equally, with the work you are doing.  In short, whatever your work environment, it takes time to sing your way into the totality of the piece. 

Your personal need for integrity

What has this tea pot got to do with integrity?


For me, it all began with a tea pot.

In February of this year, I bought a tea pot in my local Oxfam shop in Blackheath.

Let me tell you, I had no need of a tea pot.  But I loved this one so much – the vibrant colours, the weight and the feel of it – that I decided to buy it, along with six bowls in the same pattern.

It was a chance purchase, which opened up a whole new hobby for me…  I started to look for items to match this tea pot and discovered eBay.  I decided to make my collecting habit self-funding, selling items for which I no longer have a use and beginning to buy and sell items from Greenwich Auction House and the market at Lee Green.

This was a new habit for me, and at the same time, wholly familiar.  I have always been drawn to objects of beauty.

Owning my personal “quirks”

Such is my love of beauty and order that, sometimes, it is the object of some hilarity.

Last week, for example, I was in Germany, running a development programme with a group of colleagues.  My colleagues were quite taken aback when I realised that my outfit for Day 2 was a terrible match for the name badge I was wearing.  I was able to laugh with them at just how much it meant to me… and still, it did mean something to me.

I can’t help but tidy up the displays when I’m looking for books in shops.

If I decide to do something – learn a language, play a game, write a report, sing, whatever – I want to do it well.

In the language of Hogan’s MVPI (motives and values) questionnaire, I have a primary value, which Hogan calls aesthetics.  This is defined as “focusing on innovation, style and appearance”.  Low scorers care about functionality;  high scorers care about creative self-expression and the look and feel of their work.

Knowing this has helped me to make connections between a wide range of activities in my life… it’s the reason, for example, I’ve gravitated towards roles at work which involve quality in some shape or form… a curiosity about what it takes to be effective as a leader, a desire to embody fully my values around communicating in ways which honour everyone’s needs, a desire to help others – especially people in leadership roles – to find greater ease.  I could go on…

It also shows up all over my private life…  it’s the reason I love to take a house in disrepair and turn it into a place of beauty, or prefer to have a statement “sculptural” set of shelves in my kitchen (thank you, Gary) than yet more cupboards… even though I need the storage space.  It’s the reason for my long-standing relationship with the London Symphony Chorus.  It’s the reason why writing a blog-posting is, for me, a pleasure rather than a chore.

Not only has knowing this helped me to make sense of my past, it is also helping me to plan for my future – to move increasingly towards living my life in line with my values.

Your personal need for integrity

Whatever the pros and cons of employing people with integrity in an organisation, you may already be aware of your own deep need for integrity – a need to live your life in line with your own values.

You know when you’re living your life in integrity with your values.

When you are, you feel comfortable and at ease.  You experience moments of deep satisfaction.  Your life is peopled with activities that you enjoy.  If your values are people-based, your life is peopled by people you enjoy.

There are moments when you feel deeply uncomfortable, too.  Perhaps you are finding no joy in the life you are leading.  Maybe you are doing things in your personal and professional life which lack meaning for you, because they have no connection with your values.  Worse still, maybe you are really struggling with aspects of your life, because those aspects – activities, people, job – stand squarely in opposition to everything you hold dear.

What’s more, we do not live in isolation.

Not just a benign force – values and the amygdala hijack

As we came away from our course in Germany, my colleagues and I took time to review the feedback from participants.  One participant’s comments clearly got under the skin of one colleague – why on earth would anyone say that about the principal trainer?  How could it possibly help?

Our principal trainer was unmoved.

My colleague was expressing one of her most important values – yearning for recognition for her colleagues as much as for herself.  It was not, though, a high value for the trainer himself.

I can claim no moral high-ground when it comes to the amygdala hijack.  Only recently, I was shocked to be on the receiving end of an approach which was the antithesis of everything I aspire to in terms of leadership and communication.

Truly shocked.

And I let that person know.

The thing is, I suspect that the same person who was behaving in ways I found so unacceptable was also responding to her own amygdala hijack.  I had trodden on her toes – her values – by mistake.

It wasn’t pretty.

It’s easy to condemn the amygdala hijack.  Daniel Goleman, in his books on emotional intelligence, highlights the primitive part of the brain which is the seat of the amygdala hijack.  When we “act out” in response to such a hijack, we are likely to do things we later regret.

At the same time, the amygdala hijack tells us – loudly – that some value is not being met.  Sometimes, it’s telling us about something immediate, something about the here and now.  Equally, a clash of values can be a long, slow burner which leads us slowly towards major decisions… can you continue to work for a boss or an organisation which does X, Y or Z without thinking of the consequences?  How can you sustain a marriage with someone whose values, you discover, are so different from your own?

Moving towards greater personal integrity

If you want to move towards a life of greater personal integrity, you need to understand what’s important to you.

The Hogan MVPI is one tool I use in my work with clients.  When I first took it myself, I had been through so many psychometric tests I doubted I would learn anything new.

Its effect has been profound.

If you would like to explore options for you or for others in your organisation, please contact me.

You can though, move towards a greater understanding of your own most personal values without investing in coaching or the results of a questionnaire.

Instead, try these questions on for size and see what they tell you:

  • When have you been most happy in your life?  Your moments of greatest satisfaction tell you a lot about what’s important to you.  Take time to reflect on events and experiences that have stimulated the greatest sense of joy, contentment or meaning for you.  Notice what themes there are across these events – what is it that made you happy?  In my work with leaders, for example, I have seen how some love to develop their people and others to knock targets to smithereens.  What is it for you?
  • When have you been most angry in your life?  Say hello to the amygdala hijacks in your life – they have a lot to teach you about what’s important to you.  Notice what themes there are at times when you’ve been most angry.  Notice what themes unite the themes.

Me and my tea pot

I hope that, by now, you understand the relationship between a humble tea pot and personal integrity.  For me, the Denby arabesque tea pot speaks to my love of beauty.  Your values will certainly be different and have different manifestations even if they are the same.  But I tell you this, the more you are living your life in integrity with your values the more you will find pleasure in life.

It’s interesting, too, that when you are living life in integrity with your values you will, increasingly, take pleasure in the tiniest of things.

Recruiting for integrity? Be careful what you wish for!

What is your concept of “integrity”?

Recently, I worked with a client to shape a new competency model for leaders across the organisation.  There was a time when organisations would pay a lot of money for deep research to establish which behaviours marked out their most effective leaders, but this seems to be less fashionable nowadays.  Few organisations have the budget and some find it hard to believe that yesterday’s stars are the right people to meet the very different challenges of today – let alone tomorrow.

No, this was a more pragmatic approach, mining the wisdom of leaders themselves about the core leadership challenges they expect to face in the next 5-10 years, about those people who are handling these challenges most effectively, and about the core behaviours demonstrated by their chosen role models.

One behaviour, integrity, came up as key – and not for the first time.  It seems that, no matter what the challenges of the era, organisations aspire to employ men and women of integrity.

What is “integrity”?
Often, when clients discuss integrity, they think of someone who has clear values and who acts in line with those values.

The person who shows integrity makes promises and keeps them, and acts in ways which are consistent with the values they espouse (some call this “congruity”).  What’s more, they are not easily swayed from their values, even when acting on personal values carries a high risk.  Ideally, the man or woman of integrity speaks up about wrong-doing in the company and challenges poor decisions, with the greater good of the organisation in mind.

Implicit in the concept of integrity is the idea of “good” values – honesty, for example, probity, perhaps.  Clients also associate integrity with wisdom and emotional intelligence, too.

“How,” you may be asking yourself, “could such a person be anything other than an asset?”

Why organisations don’t like integrity in practice
Years ago, I was briefly the colleague of Annie Machon, a former MI5 officer.  She left the organisation I was working for quite suddenly after her partner, David Shayler, hit the news here in the UK after blowing the whistle on some aspect (I do not remember what) of MI5 practice.

Whistle-blowing is just one thing that people do who act with integrity.  In recent history, for example, whistle-blowers Edward Snowden and Julian Assange have been talked about around the world. (Read 5 Famous Whistleblowers Who Shaped History to learn more).  But who loves the whistle-blower?  Rarely is it the higher echelons of the organisations whose practices (mal- or otherwise) have been revealed.

There are other reasons why organisations don’t much like integrity in practice.  If you’ve ever been in a meeting, for example, in which one of your colleagues has made the case – repeatedly – for or against some proposal based on a set of personal values that you don’t share, you will know how much time can be lost in circular discussion.  Especially when the individual’s values are out of alignment with the values of an organisation, integrity can be – quite frankly – a real pain in the arse.

There’s something else, too… that integrity without insight, the behavioural flexibility or even the position to influence or persuade can impede progress towards an organisation’s most fundamental goals.  And who judges whether the (wo)man of integrity is appropriately standing his or her ground or (as Jeffrey recently said of Edward Snowden in the New Yorker) a “grandiose narcissist who deserves to be in prison”?

If you want your leaders to show integrity, and if you want the result to be positive for you or your organisation, there are things you need to get right.

Getting it right when recruiting for integrity
Here are just four things for you to think about before you include “integrity” as a competency in your model of effective leadership:

  • Are you clear about your organisation’s core values?  Integrity can be a hindrance as much as a help if your leaders show integrity in line with values your organisation does not espouse.  Before you look for integrity in your leaders, you need to get clear on the core values of your organisation.  Only then is helpful to understand if your recruits share your values and can embody them in practice as well as espouse them in theory;
  • Integrity is just one behavioural ingredient:  Think carefully about what other behaviours your leader needs in order for integrity to be an asset to your organisation.  Do your leaders show empathy, for example – the ability put themselves in the shoes of their colleagues and to look at things from another point of view?  Do they show judgement – the ability to see the issue under examination in a larger context or to weigh the pros and cons of a particular forward path?  Integrity without empathy or judgement can look like just plain bloody-mindedness;
  • There may be other things besides leadership behaviours:  If your concern is to promote a certain set of values, you need to look beyond the integrity of individual leaders.  Recent scandals in the UK’s NHS, for example, point to a wide range of issues which undermine patient care.  What checks are in place when recruiting new staff?  What training is provided to develop core skills associated with good patient care?  What is the impact on staff of short-staffing or other issues?  The list goes on;
  • It may not be integrity that secures adherence to values:  This is something organisations struggle with and still, when your organisation’s values are clearly outlined and reflected in policies and practices which have been designed to support them, it may not be the integrity of your leaders that keeps people on track.  Instead, it may be other behavioural qualities such as a desire to do well.

And what about you?
I hope this posting has helped you to think through some of the issues that face you if you are thinking of including integrity as a core leadership behaviour in your organisation.

Having said this, I also want to point to something more personal – your own need to live a life of integrity.

This, though, is the stuff of another blog posting.

Covey’s first habit: be proactive

Following the recent death of Stephen Covey, I have been revisiting his most famous of books, The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People.  On my way to meet a client I take time on the train to read about Covey’s first habit:  be proactive.

In this first habit, Covey targets the opportunity for self-determinism that sits between stimulus and response.  This is about the difference between an unconscious reaction and a carefully chosen response.  Covey uses the story of Viktor Frankl who, in the Nazi death camps in World War II, realised that (in Covey’s words) “he could decide within himself how all of this was going to affect him”.  Covey is careful to differentiate between being proactive and taking the initiative.  He says:

[Proactive] means more than merely taking the initiative.  It means that as human beings, we are responsible for our own lives.  Our behaviour is a function of our decisions, not our conditions.  We can subordinate feelings to values.  We have the initiative and responsibility to make things happen.
This assertion tests me – because I hold the view that emotions have a wisdom to which we need to listen.  But quickly I settle into an understanding of what Covey is saying.  Given my own values for example, I would choose to view the emotion of anger as a sign that some need is not being met and to recognise that I am telling myself some story about how someone else is responsible.  If I act on the stimulus – react – without thinking, I am likely to lose my temper.  If I respond in line with my values, I am bound to take time out to process my emotions before choosing my response.  So far, so good.

Covey offers a further idea which is the consequence of taking this kind of responsibility and which challenges me greatly:

[…] until a person can say deeply and honestly “I am what I am today because of the choices I made yesterday”, that person cannot say, “I choose otherwise”.

Later he refines this idea by adding:
It’s not what happens to us, but our response to what happens to us that hurts us.  Of course, things can hurt us physically or economically and can cause sorrow.  But our character, our basic identity, does not have to be hurt at all.
And further:
Any time we think the problem is “out there”, the thought is the problem”. 
When we think the challenges in our businesses are down to the market, when we think we have a “problem” member of staff, when we complain that our wife/husband/boss/sister doesn’t understand us… when we wish that things outside us were different, we are not being proactive in Covey’s use of this term.  When we focus our attention on  those things we can do something about, we are being proactive.
Covey offers a number of ways to apply this first habit, of which I highlight just one:
1.  For a full day, listen to your language and to the language of the people around you.  How often do you use and hear reactive phrases such as “If only,” “I can’t,” or “I have to”?
Please let me know how you get on.

Are you ready to have other people happily help you grow your business?

It’s not often I do it and still… today I’m sending out details to my network of an event I’ll be attending on 29th March, when Jason Stein of Heart of Business will be offering a workshop for small business owners under the banner: 

Are you ready to have other people happily help you grow your business? 

Jason has ten years experience as a certified nonviolent communication trainer in the States and has a passion for business. I know him via Heart of Business

If you’re interested to learn more, take a look by clicking here. You’ll find details of the course and also an interview with Jason which may be of interest whether or not you’re interested in attending the event. 

Especially if you’re finding it hard to make the contribution you want to make in the world and to achieve the level of income you yearn for to meet your needs comfortably, Jason is someone you might like to know about.

Oh!  And whether you’re interested or not get this:  I’m sharing details of Jason’s workshop because of requests he made of his network in recent weeks.  The first was a no-pressure, how-would-you-like-to-help request he made when he was first thinking of planning his trip.  Way to go, Jason!

Hidden influences in the world of work

My nephew, who is an aficionado of QI and a fan of obscure and quirky facts, recently shared a couple from the world of classical music – that Beyonce is a distant cousin of composer Gustav Mahler and that Pierre Boulez  was preceded by a brother who died before he was born and who was also named Pierre.

Boulez’ experience reminded me of the work of Bert Hellinger in the field of family constellations, which suggests that to be named after a dead relative, whilst a loving and well-meaning gesture by one’s parents, can bring unintended and unhelpful consequences as all sorts of aspects of the parents’ experiences – their grief at the loss of a child, for example, or the weight of an increasingly idealised image of the deceased – increasingly become entwined in the experience of the young child.

The principles that underpin family constellations apply as much in the workplace as they do elsewhere in life, so that I was curious a while back to listen to John Whittington sharing his experiences as a constellations practitioner with a group of fellow coaches.  I write on the subject today from the perspective of an interested lay-person, curious about the hidden influences that shape our experiences in the world of work.

There is of course, the direct transfer of our experience of family dynamics into the workplace.  It’s a common experience for even the most senior of professionals to expect their line manager to behave towards them in the way their parents did – or to hope that their line manager will offer something of the love and care they yearned for from their parents but didn’t get.  Such expectations are often outside our conscious awareness, or perhaps we’re aware of them but haven’t stopped to question our assumptions about the relationship between a manager and the person s/he is managing.

Some examples reflect responses to experience in the workplace.  In one organisation, for example, a mistake by one employee cost the company a significant sum of money.  But there was a larger cost:  after the employee was dismissed his colleagues understood that to make a mistake was unacceptable and their assessments of risk included a large and unacknowledged dose of the irrational.  This habit quickly became ingrained in the company’s unwritten rules:  because nobody addressed the issue head on, no conscious decisions were made about what adjustments were needed in the company’s approach to risk and yet many adjustments were made.  These were not always for the commercial good.

In his talk John Whittington gave an intriguing example of constellations, when he described how he had asked a group of students on an MBA course to stand in a circle in order of age so that the youngest would end up standing next to the oldest.  When they did, something didn’t feel right to Whittington and he said so, waiting patiently until one of the group owned up:  they had been lying about their age.

Why does this matter?  To work with constellations is to recognise the hidden forces at play in the workplace and to engage with them – in other words to engage with the full range of information that is available and to shine a light on information that is otherwise hidden.  This opens up new possibilities for making progress in areas where previously the organisation, or people within it, were stuck.  It also opens up the possibility of improved health and well-being for the organisation and those who work within it.