Welcome All!

If you do not adapt, if you do not learn, you will wither, you will die.

Sunday, September 30, 2012

The Illusion of Objectivity in Organizational Development and Consulting

Field theory, gestalt psychology, and system theory provide perspectives and insights that can help you as a leader or consultant look in a different way at organizations, their challenges, and how to improve effectiveness. Below I'll cover some of these insights:  

-       Paul Watzlawick’s first rule of communication - It is impossible not to communicate – can be extended with “It’s impossible not to influence or to be influenced”. The very moment two or more people are in each other’s presence, whether they actively interact with each other or not, they immediately influence each other. Even if you’re a new leader in your organization or an outside consultant, the moment you step into the organization and start interacting, you are communicating, you are influencing, and you are being influenced. Yes, you will likely bring a fresher perspective than someone who has been with the company for a good number of years, but you will immediately be influenced by the organization and it’s people. You will never be a complete outsider with that so admired ‘objective perspective’. It just doesn’t exist. Your goal should not be to become that objective outsider but to know your subjectivity, to know what influences you so that you know your tendencies and biases and how they steer and impact your perceptions, your thinking, and your choices.

-       When you look at the organization and when you’re in contact with it’s employees, you are never focused on the total environment. You can’t possibly be, because you always, consciously or not, choose something to be in the foreground, something to focus on. This focus is often a deliberate focus based on your objectives. Just know what it is and that it inadvertently results in leaving other things to be in the background and to be less considered or not at all. What you pay attention to depends on many factors such as interests, needs, fears, past experiences, objectives, and expectations. There is nothing wrong with that, as long as you’re aware of it and knowledgeable about the dynamics your focus creates. This way you will have a better understanding of how your focus influences your leadership or your consulting.

-       So just to be clear: There is no such thing as one reality or one truth, not even yours. Never. Every reality is subjective and there always are multiple subjective realities at work. Subjectivity starts with your perception, which is always personal and subjective, creating unique dynamics and influencing interpretations in a unique way. Two people can be looking at the same team and perceive radically different dynamics. Even when these two people perceive the same things, their interpretations can be as different as tuna pasta is from beef stew. My conclusion: If you make statements about reality this can only be done while acknowledging the relativity of your statements.

-       The whole is always different from the sum of its parts. Your total organization is not the same as adding up all the people and it’s elements. Think of eating a piece of apple pie, which is not the same as eating a handful of the separate ingredients. You cannot truly understand an element of your organization without seeing the context of the whole organization, neither can you understand the whole organization if you just study the elements and put those results together.

-       Without awareness there is no contact. Increasing awareness is the first logical step and the most important goal of the Gestalt approach in organizational consulting. Awareness is the process of noticing and realizing the possible different meanings of what you notice. An essential condition to improve the effectiveness of people and organizations is increasing the awareness of every individual employee. When consulting an organization it is not so much about programming, re-programming, controlling, and prescribing as it is about helping increase awareness and facilitating the process of self-regulation and of creative adjustment that is already present in every organization. Your focus should be on taking away the hindrances which block the self-regulation and the creative adjustment of the people in the organization. This is quite different from the tell-and-sell approach of consultants and leaders who think they know it all or that they should know it all.

-       When problems develop, there is no one ‘identified patient’. As much as we all might wish to isolate the problem, system theory teaches us that all parts interact in many different ways. Enabling structures and behaviors are just one example of how other teams or departments play a role in creating, allowing, or exacerbating the problems. According to field theory, every symptom, illness, or distortion always relates to the whole organization. This is not to say that it isn’t possible for one person or one team to resonate strongest with the illness of the organization but isolating them and focusing solely on them to create a solution will not result in sustainable improvement.

Many thanks go to gestalt psychologist Kurt Lewin who developed field theory in the 1940s and who has inspired me to see interactions, challenges and processes in their context - in their field with it’s many influences. With the above beliefs and ideas I aim to add to the perspectives you are already using. Even though some of it might contradict with your beliefs and practices, it doesn’t necessarily have to be a choice between one or the other. I challenge you to combine them, maybe even into ‘third alternatives’, as the late Stephen Covey would call it. Take on a ‘no-victim approach’. You are always a part of the dynamic, whether you are a team member, a leader, a consultant or in any other role. You are part of the dynamic by being part of the organization and by what you choose to focus on and how you influence everyone you’re in contact with. As soon as you and I step into an organization we are a part of it and we have to acknowledge, understand, and leverage that influence. We better take seriously how we contribute to whatever dynamics are present and the subsequent accountability. I have in my 22-year practice and it has paid off for my customers. 

Saturday, September 22, 2012

Spotlight on the Foundation of Emotional Intelligence

Picture this: You are enjoying a summer walk in the woods at dusk – the mosquitos are everywhere. Before arriving home you are fully aware of all the bites and the annoying itching. Or think back of your childhood to one of the probably many times you fell and hurt yourself. I am sure it came naturally to notice those sensations. It’s not exactly like you have to make an effort to notice how bad your skin is itching.

I just wished it were the same later in life, with other sensations and feelings, and especially in the workplace. I wished the feelings of beginning nervousness in a conversation, of unease when reading a document, or of doubt about a decision were as poignant as the result of that mosquito bite or as the stinging sensation when you fall on your bare knees. But it isn't. We haven't really learned to pay close attention to our sensations. We've been taught, at least in Western culture, to focus and not be distracted. Luckily it has become somewhat more common this past decade to focus on intuition, to address inner processes and how they might alert you to some aspect you might otherwise neglect or that might go completely unnoticed. But even then, if we do notice our sensations and feelings, many of us do not know how to effectively address these feelings nor the underlying or resulting processes.

So your question to yourself can be: Am I present and aware, in the moment – in this moment? Am I using all my senses?


Am I distracted, am I chasing the many thoughts that enter my consciousness at any given time? Am I ignoring things rather than noticing them?

The following should be absolutely clear. It's not about condemning the distraction, your sensations, or your thoughts. It’s about noticing them, knowing how they impact you, and it’s about bringing yourself back to the here-and-now, wherever that is and whatever you’re doing. 

If you search my blog for 'awareness' you'll find more articles on the topic - what it is, how it works, and how to increase your awareness.
In brief: take time to stop, notice, sense, and feel. Adjust your attitude, approach, and behavior accordingly. Or don’t adjust them, and just know how external distractions such as events in your environment and how internal distractions (often related to external events) such as worries, fear, and tiredness influence you.

Weekends are generally a good time to practice and enjoy your awareness, but aim to use it on je job, in meetings, when feeling tight, during presentations, while working on a report... You get the picture.

Just do it!

Thursday, September 20, 2012

Improving Team Performance as a Team Member

There are numerous team performance strategies and team improvement practices. Many of them are very useful but they generally focus on what the team leader should envision, say, model, inspire, and accomplish. I’d like to take a different perspective and look at what team members themselves can do to improve their team’s performance.

What works best obviously greatly depends on the purpose of the team, it’s maturity, the context, and much more. I’d like to highlight a few factors that I have seen work across the board during my 22 years in the business of increasing team performance. Factors that every team member can take to heart and that they can influence to their team’s advantage.

Manage and lead yourself first
Know yourself, be aware of yourself, be honest with yourself, and be creative with your improvement goals and actions. I am referring to the much discussed Emotional Intelligence. How do you score? Do you know at all? Do you actively solicit feedback and really listen to what is being said about you? Before you can influence, let alone lead others, you have to lead yourself. Who is your sparring partner who? Who will really tell you what she sees and what she thinks about your assumptions, choices, behaviors, and results? How successfully do you reflect and redirect?

Learn to lead others
It’s known by now, I’m sure: You don’t have to be in a leading position to lead. Luckily not, otherwise there wouldn’t be too much leading going on in the world. In order to lead others in your team (read: inspire, motivate, stimulate), you have to learn about and tap into each team member’s values, dreams, goals, and fears. Yes, this means you have to really get to know each other and learn how to inspire commitment to work hard and smart. This means you have to know each other in order to find ways to support and energize your team members when things aren’t going well. Leading others starts with knowing and respecting others.

Identify, Live, and Enforce Core Values
Core Values are most often set by leaders in collaboration with their team, or so it should be. In every day life it’s the team that must make these values a reality in practice. It is you! So how do you life the identified values? Where do you get off course and with what consequences and adjustments? How do you help inspire and enforce your team’s values? Do you really hold yourself and each other accountable? This is another responsibility that in most organizations falls squarely on the leader. In a high performance team, however, you see mutual accountability at work. If a member of the team fails to deliver you don’t want the leader to have to intervene. You want the team to do that and you are part of that team. This is what makes a team a mature team. However, when holding yourself and team members accountable, make sure to identify and solve real problems rather than dancing around the hot pot and using distractions to shy away from what really needs addressing and improving.

Strive for continuous performance improvement
Complacency, satisfaction-overdose, and entitlements are devastating forces that are negatively related to team (and individual) effectiveness. Teams do not exist to create feel good situations. Leaders decide to invest in building great teams because great teams can enhance the organization’s performance significantly. Teams exist to make the enterprise more effective, flexible, innovative, and successful. If a team’s performance is not improving, the team must figure out why and resolve the issue. All teams are ultimately evaluated on their performance. Don’t let success be the breeding ground for complacency.

Get comfortable with tension, conflict, and team rivalry
The other side of the coin called team rivalry is that it weeds out inefficiencies, it keeps people focused, and it fuels the natural competitive nature of high performers. As Mark de Rond tells us: “Don’t confuse what things feel like, with what they really are… Differences of opinion are not just inevitable - They are useful and they are crucial”. They inspire new ideas and ways of doing things and they unravel blind spots and groupthink, all leading to more and better results. What team member or leader wouldn’t want that?

What have you done lately to improve the performance of the team(s) that you are a member of? 

Tuesday, September 18, 2012

Building trust through disagreement and disappointment

Bonding, developing rapport, following through on promises, asking questions, listening, thinking and acting as a business partner – yes, they are all major ingredients of building a trusting relationship, most certainly. Trust is comprised of sincerity (authenticity & openness), credibility (logical & consistent), reliability (truthful & consistent), and transparency (clarity & openness). But why do we so often translate these elements just to practices like keeping promises and delivering what’s agreed upon? This is only one side of the coin and I’m about to present you a different one.

We all know that people tend to buy from someone they like. We also know people buy from someone they believe understands their business, their circumstances, and their problems independent of their own sales agenda. What you might not realize is that people return to buy more from someone who has the courage and the skills to do what most of us dread – what many of us have learned to label as disrespectful and that is to openly disagree, to provoke in order to awaken, and possibly to disappoint by selling ‘no’ or selling by something else than was originally requested. I’ll give you two examples.

1. Not every customer is meant to be your customer.
I once invested in a company who quickly turned out to see me as a mere on-demand supplier of coaching and workshops, not as a partner. They expected ready-made, instantly available coaching programs and workshops like you buy a do-it-yourself kit for whatever job you need done around the house. This is not how I operate. First, I wish to know the team or individual employee I’ll be working with - if I think I should work with them at all - and second, I appreciate time to reflect on a request, on the organization and on how I can best serve its needs. Yes, I do have things on shelves, of course. I successfully recycle what has worked in the past. But I do not go in blind with a good set of eyes. I ask questions, I observe, I process, I design, and I discuss, redefine, retune, and redesign – or I don’t design at all. All this happens before I start a project and most of it is complimentary and doesn’t take long. After having seen me succeed with a few coaching projects and workshops in their company, my contact person expected me to jump into situations and requests. I was their supplier of quick solutions, I had proven myself to be quick, nimble, knowledgeable etc. However, to be true to my beliefs and method and to stay in a trusting relationship, I had to deliver ‘no’. I will not be pressured into quick delivery. Not for the sake of not wanting to be pressured but for the reasons already mentioned. After quite a few persuasion attempts and of course conversations in which I learned more about the organization’s needs and wants, I decided we were not a good match. My contact was more than surprised and disappointed. I was kindly reminded that I was taking an unusual stance by declining to be their partner for Learning & Development – it was a big company with many employees. Fast forward: A few months later this company recommended me (for being so trustworthy) to another business who became a regular client, and they themselves hired me a year after my turn-down. I was hired for a specific project under conditions we could both believe in and work with and the trust I enjoyed was unshakable.

As Vanessa Merit Nornberg of the wholesale body and custom jewelry company Metal Mafia wrote on inc.com this past Friday: Rather than attempt to be everything to everyone, you can and should focus on growing your business with the right customers, for example companies who can get real value from your products or services, and who recognize that the relationship has to be mutually beneficial. The right customers are willing to tell you when you have done something well, but also when you could do something better. So they know they can trust you.

2. The truth must be told. I will do it with courage, candor, and consideration - but the truth will be told.

A manufacturing company active in the field of engineering and construction of steel structures such as for oil platforms received a recommendation from one of my customers to contact me for the communication training they were contemplating for about 100 of their factory personnel. I was asked for a first meeting where I inquired about who else they might be talking with. The only other company they were talking to turned out to be a well-known coaching & training consultancy business, established, successful, and published. I was surprised, honored, and yes, somewhat nervous. I asked my questions, probed deeper, presented my beliefs, ideas, and approach and wrote a proposal. To my surprise I was chosen to deliver and so I did, but not after asking what made them choose me. Their answer was clear: the quality of the questions I asked, the care with which I had written the proposal, the content that I presented and the candor I had shown during the conversation. Half way through the intakes and some of the training sessions with the 10 groups that I had to work with a concerning theme became apparent: A coercive leadership style from top management. After some careful consideration I insisted on a conversation with the founder and CEO of the company and collected all the courage and creativity I could. I was very aware of the fact that I was to risk a customer that I was proud to call my customer after having ‘beaten’ my much larger and more established competitor. I was equally well aware of the fact that employees could have several reasons to portray only part of the truth or to portray a non-truth. So here I was, sitting across the table from the CEO. I assessed whether he was aware of his style (yes), whether he agreed to my definition of that style (yes), whether it was a conscious choice to use this style (yes), whether he was aware of the positive and negative consequences of his style – the answer unfortunately being ‘yes’ again. And the guy really seemed to mean it. 

I explained how I could not continue my training sessions since they were not only aiming to increase staff’s communication effectiveness but also to increase their critical thinking and their creativity and independence which had all been worded in the proposal and which would not be supported by, let alone used by, leaders with the described leadership style. We had a discussion and weren’t sure how to proceed – or I should say: he wasn’t. I  respectfully told the CEO what I saw happening, what it meant to me in my role there, what I feared was going on in his company, and how leadership style was involved and had to change. Of course this was a non-topic so I immediately choose to withdraw from the project. He was stunned, tried to joke himself out of it and was pretty creative and persistent in trying to convince me to stay on the job. I did not and thanked him for the opportunity to learn, for the trust he had placed in me, and relayed that I was sorry we could no longer collaborate. I negotiated a closing session with the group I hadn’t finished yet and that was the end of it.

So how is any of this related to trust? Staff had to be able to trust me to do the right thing. This whole company had to be able to trust me in deciding whether our values and practices were aligned and ready to help reach the stated objectives, which they were not. I walked away knowing that I could not trust the CEO nor many of his leaders in a way I wished I could, and knowing that, he could not trust me to do what he wanted me to do. And without trust, no collaboration, no project, no outcomes.

A last brief example: a machine operator with many psychologically related complaints and sick days whom I was coaching was totally surprised, if not to say shocked, when I told him during his second coaching session that I was afraid he was not willing to let go of his self-induced problems and of the image of ‘problem-child’ because the benefits of getting attention, being let off the hook, and of ducking responsibilities were too big. Belief me, the guy wasn’t very happy with me in that stage of his coaching project, but trust was built.

So, to build and demonstrate trust you:
-       Show you are there and really present
-       Show you care and listen
-       Show you are committed and determined, also regarding values
-       Show you have courage and provide relevant feedback
-       Show your limitations, doubts and mistakes
-       Show you are an expert even if it implies unraveling something dark, denied, and difficult

In a trusting relationship you might have to disagree with your client. In a trusting relationship you might have to shock your client. In a trusting relationship you might have to disappoint your client by not-delivering. In a trusting relationship you might have to reconsider a promise you made.