October 16, 2012
As a sociatrist, I’m passionate about people in business developing greater ability to stand in each others’ shoes. It’s one of the cornerstones of the work we do at Quantum Shift and is central to nurturing greater health in organisations. This is often given the name “empathy”. I bristle a little, however, when I hear someone say, “I can have empathy for them, but…..” What’s that expression? Everything before the “but” is bulls**t. I go along with Professor Simon Baron Cohen’s idea that empathy sits along a spectrum. I also go along with Martin Buber’s suggestion that the point on the spectrum at which we start treating people as objects is when we are capable of cruelty. At the same time, I would extend this to say that we can go beyond empathy and develop the ability to role reverse with others. There is an embodied knowing that comes via the act of role reversal, beyond mere thought and cognitive understanding, which facilitates a deeper ability to live in someone else’s skin. Getting this at a head, heart and gut level changes our world beyond what we thought possible. It becomes harder to switch off our empathy and behave as if people are mere resources when we have a full experience of what it’s like for them. Personally, I also find that I am more able to stop myself mid-sentence when I hear myself saying, “I understand where they’re coming from, but….” and upon reflection, widen my perspective on the other person a little more. Role reversal helps to unshackle us from the (mostly unconscious) chains we keep ourselves in, with regards our views of other people.
In some circles, it is increasingly accepted that empathy is a key capability of a leader. Even in the face of research, some still ignore this. However, there is a growing tide of evidence that empathy is a core skill for the modern workplace. Empathic ability is positively correlated to better performance as a leader. It facilitates much improved working relationships and in the modern workplace, we often don’t get to choose who we work with. An increasingly diverse workforce creates challenges for us and in order for us to get things done, we need to learn how to get on with a greater variety of working styles, viewpoints and personalities. Getting a deep, felt sense of what it’s like for someone else grants us greater ability to make decisions, be inclusive, resolve conflicts and share responsibility.
I was deeply touched to read of a young man, conservative, self-confessed homophobe and Christian, who decided to live his life for one year as a gay man. He was moved by a Christian friend’s experience of being kicked out of home when she came out as a lesbian and decided that he really wanted to understand what it was like to be gay. This was no mere thought experiment; he was determined to truly walk in the shoes of a homosexual man. By immersing himself in the experience, which included coming out to his family, he developed a profound understanding of what it was like to actually be a gay man. He came out of the year with his faith reaffirmed, along with the belief that gay people need equal rights. I would attribute his insights to the fact that for one year of his life, he gave up his position and fully took up the role of another.
“The challenge of understanding another person and what it takes to truly feel understood by another is at the hub of human social existence”, according to Dr. Dani Yaniv at the University of Haifa, in his 2012 paper, “Dynamics of Creativity and Empathy in Role Reversal: Contributions from Neuroscience.” We are utterly and inextricably linked to all human life. That goes for business, too. Yet how easy it is to dispense with another’s viewpoint if it doesn’t match ours or disregard another’s experience if it’s too far from our ken or to dispose of someone’s creative contributions if they come from a value or belief system we think is irrelevant. I will put my hand up and say I am guilty of these things at times; there are moments when I wish I could have shown more equanimity, generosity of spirit and caring. I’m flawed; there, I’ve said it. Send me back to the factory to be re-programmed.
While it is an interesting paradox that we can never really know what someone else is experiencing, we can develop the ability to role reverse, thus allowing our knowing of others to deepen and unfold. We generate in ourselves a creative empathy that brings new ways of being with people. When we role reverse, we are wholly someone else just for a moment and left to learn from what we discover. Having had a mind-body experience of another’s world, our lives and the lives of others are changed forever, sometimes subtly or, in the case of that young Christian man, quite dramatically. Like that young man, our view of others is expanded, with our own selves intact. We are able to transcend ourselves through the act of role reversal.
Role reversal leads us outside our own experience and world view and into those of another. We cannot unlearn what we have learnt when it’s a visceral, whole person experience. We can, if we really apply ourselves, pretend not to know what it’s like from another’s point of view, but having truly given ourselves to the experience of another’s existence, this would require in us to take up a role of particularly selfish and uncaring dimension. What would be the use of that?
When it comes to empathy, it’s often easier to find it for people with whom we share some values or beliefs. As I referred to in my interview with Dan Oestreich, role reversal takes us beyond empathy, however. When we really get stuck with someone, when they “push our buttons”, it can be hard to find a way to understand that person. Their behaviours and attitudes mystify us and, left unaddressed, we can begin to characterise them by what we see as their faults. We do ourselves and others a disservice when we reduce someone to a bunch of “bad” behaviours. Doing this leaves the salesperson or customer service rep, for example, in a poorer position when they are not able to understand another person’s circumstances accurately. When we see another person’s behaviours as coming from a real and value-based place, we become freer to meet their concerns.
A manager we once worked with in the course of a leader development process described an employee she referred to as a “bad egg”. This manager, I’ll call her Stacey, had the wherewithal to know that this employee, whom I’ll call Emily, was not an intrinsically bad person, but that some of their behaviours at work made it particularly challenging to work alongside. What Stacey wanted to learn was a greater ability in herself to work with Emily. That was the first step: engaging her will. Stacey had made a conscious decision to bring her relationship with Emily into the domain of this workshop and declare that she wanted things to be better. She also recognised that there was something she could do differently in herself that would shine a light on how to approach her relationship with Emily. So, with Stacey, we set up a scenario between her and Emily. This was the second step: mustering the courage to examine the situation. As we began the re-enactment of the scenario, there was a moment when I directed Stacey to reverse roles with Emily. That is, she physically sat in Emily’s chair and adopted Emily’s role. For a moment, Stacey gave up herself and behaved as if she was Emily. This was the third step: giving up herself and becoming the other. There was no acting involved; she was being Emily. When she reversed roles and returned to her primary self, she looked at me and quietly said, “It’s gone.” When I asked her what she meant, she said that she longer viewed Emily as a “bad egg”. She became quite reflective at this point and I could see that she had had a sea-change in her attitude towards Emily. Some weeks later, at a subsequent session, I asked her how she was going with Emily and for a moment, she had to pause to recollect that she had had some issues with her, then said, “Oh, it’s fine now.” She had worked out, from her own creativity, how she could relate to Emily differently, having had the experience of being Emily. This, again, was no thought experiment. Stacey had immersed herself in the role of Emily, giving up her own values and beliefs, knowing that for the purposes of learning something new, she could safely give herself up momentarily and then to return to being herself, her awareness expanded.
This interpersonal process of role reversal facilitates a deep understanding of others that we struggle to achieve via a cognitive thought experiment. Once known, it cannot be unknown. It reveals the bigger picture (the wider system) to us in ways an intellectual exercise cannot. Once seen, it cannot be unseen. Once developed, the ability to role reverse also cannot be faked. It is a whole body capability which takes us beyond empathy.
Developing the ability to role reverse helps to free us to truly serve others; not as “dry” acts of duty, but as genuine service. How much easier it is to be the kind of leader that people need us to be when we are doing it out of an act of our will, not out of obligation. How much more effective we are as customer service officers if our default setting is applying our abilities to really “getting” the person we are dealing with. How much more satisfying it is as a salesperson to engage with another and know intimately what they are looking for.
Understanding others at work is not discretionary.
To my mind, role reversal is not a “tool”; it is not used selectively. It is something which is integrated into who we are and how we express ourselves in relation to others around us. It colours all our interactions and is not a thing to be switched on and off as it suits us. Even rhesus monkeys operate empathically. In an experiment, they were taught to pull a chain to obtain food. When they were shown another monkey receiving an electric shock every time they pulled the chain, they stopped pulling it. One monkey went without food for 12 days. I wonder what Milgram would say about that?
What do you say about that?
March 30, 2012
I have been inspired by Paul Slater’s excellent article this week, Getting Teams Working, to reflect on some work I’ve been doing recently with a team. A good chunk of my training and experience has been in group dynamics and there is direct relevance of this body of knowledge to organisational life. In the workplace, there is some growing awareness of group dynamics as a key influencer of organisational effectiveness. Many people are now familiar with Bruce Tuckman’s group development model: Forming, Storming, Norming, Performing and Adjourning; and it is good that people who manage teams of people are opening their eyes to the processes that go on when humans gather together, for whatever purpose. Despite our best efforts, there is something mystifying that seems to get in the way of team effectiveness and it can be useful to look “underneath” at the dynamics and unexpressed assumptions out of which we operate.
Perhaps less well-known in this sphere is the work of Wilfred Bion. Bion trained in medicine and went on to develop an interest in psychoanalysis, eventually immersing himself in the study of groups and group process. He was commissioned into the British Army during World War II, working in military hospitals. Here he devoted himself to finding ways to treat post-traumatic stress and devised ways of working with these patients in a group context. Out of his work in group dynamics, he went on to write “Experiences in Groups” (1961) which became a seminal work in the field of group psychotherapy, providing a basis for the application of group theory in many other fields.
I think it’s important to remember that there are, indeed, many models of group development, Tuckman’s being perhaps the most well-known, and that these are more descriptive than prescriptive. What I mean by this is that these models are not stages we “take groups through” but they are phenomena that groups experience naturally. The various models are simply different lenses through which to observe these group phenomena and once observed, we can begin to make sense of the undercurrents that affect our teams and groups. From here, we can develop some capabilities within ourselves to respond more ably to what goes on in our teams.
All of those models have some validity in my eyes, but for me, the work of Bion seems to have been the one that has most unlocked some of the mystery of what goes on in groups. Anyone who manages teams, whether that be a project team or an ongoing team within a business, will have found that the work of that team sometimes seem to be sabotaged by things seemingly unrelated to its work. This is sometimes put down to “personality clashes”, politicking or competing professional interests. While this sometimes may be the case, there is another lens through which we can see underperformance or ineffectiveness in teams. I am currently working with a team who are embarking on a transformation process which may eventually entail some reorganising of their workloads, responsibilities and lines of authority and accountability. The manager has undertaken to initiate a process involving every member of this team contributing to shaping its form, so that they end up with a team structure that is fit for its purpose, rather than soldiering on with a structure that they have inherited from the past and which is proving to be ineffective and unwieldy. This process is, unsurprisingly, generating a little uncertainty in the team members.
Transition and change naturally provoke feelings of anxiety and uncertainty. Once again, we are dealing with feelings, whether we like it or not. As Louise Altman writes frequently on her excellent blog The Intentional Workplace, emotions are there; it is nonsense to pretend otherwise. Even if we try to hide our heads in the sand and focus purely on work outputs, what goes on underneath will impact on a team or organisation’s ability to be effective. I recommend having a look at Louise’s article, 5 Reasons Business Can’t Afford to Ignore Psychology for Another 100 Years. In it, she suggests that business can no longer afford to dismiss the impact of emotions on our abilities to work well and to be well. To continue treating people as resources and automatons a la Henry Ford (“Why, when I only want to hire a pair of hands, do I get a whole person?”) is very simply, unsustainable.
So if you are willing to peer underneath the functioning of your team, you will be treated to a fascinating display of raw human-ness. Above the surface, what we can see, is what Bion calls the “work group”. This is the stated and overt reason teams form. Groups and organisations come together to pursue sensible and realistic goals and this “work group” is what keeps people on task. Below the surface is what he calls the “basic assumption” groups. They are the unspoken assumptions about how the group operates. Bion asserts that teams sometimes fall into what he calls madness; this is the skewed functioning that arises in response to anxiety and uncertainty.
Bion observed three kinds of “basic assumption” groups: fight-flight, dependency and pairing. The “madness” of which Bion spoke and which he describes with these three “basic assumption” groups, is the anxiety that arises from change, unpredictability and volatility. In response to a VUCA environment, team members will adopt one of these basic assumptions, and the ensuing behaviours will interfere with the team’s ability to achieve its work goals effectively.
If a group is operating from a fight-flight assumption, people behave as if the primary need is self-preservation. Threatened by change, people resort to either fighting something (or someone) or running away from something (or someone). A team leader will observe scapegoating, aggressiveness or unreasonable defensiveness amongst the group or alternatively, avoidance behaviours such as tangential conversations, overuse of humour as a distraction from serious issues, lateness to meetings or anything else that circumvents the work at hand.
If the group is operating out of dependency mode, the primary aim is to achieve certainty or safety. In other words, when things are unclear and changeable, the group strives to regain some sense of security. A dependency basic assumption says that protection will come in the form of one person and they become overly dependent on that one person to “fix” it or make it better. They abdicate responsibility and look to the identified leader, who is of course omniscient and omnipotent, to sort things out. A team leader who observes dependency behaviour will be greeted with acquiescent silence in response to a work-related question, a “just tell me what to do and how to do it” attitude or excessive flattery and “people-pleasing” behaviours. Conversely, the group may “rebel” against the leader; counter-dependency is the flip side of the same coin and the leader may feel like he or she is subject to mass mutiny, with their every decision, suggestion or initiative being rejected.
Pairing derives from the underlying assumption that the group will be saved by the pairing of two of its members, who together will metaphorically create a new messiah. Effective team functioning is frozen in the hope that two people will create the kind of leadership to take them to the promised land of “everything is OK”. This may take the form of a number of pairs emerging within a team or the whole team sitting back while one pair comes to their rescue. Team leaders will observe a pair of allies spending lots of time having private conversations which, unbeknownst to him or her, will be characterised by “S/he doesn’t know what s/he’s doing; if only s/he’d do it our way, things would be ticking along nicely.” During team meetings, the team leader will notice these two folks sharing knowing glances with each other, the unspoken message being, “See? S/he’s doing it again.” ”There you go, that’s what we were talking about earlier.” ”Told you s/he would say that.” It may be that these two do things at work that are outside the remit of the “work group” but they believe they are justified because they actually know best. Something in your gut tells you that these two are undermining you in some way, but it’s hard to put your finger on it.
When a group operates out of one of these basic assumption, it is important to remember that it is doing so unconsciously and is not aware of what is happening. The team becomes subject to the forces of its own dynamics and is immune to the logic and reason of external realities and work expectations.
When we first begin to observe these “basic assumption” behaviours, it can be tempting to resort to labels and become rigid or formulaic in our responses. There is nothing more frustrating than someone armed with a little psychological knowledge and adopting the mantle of Team Psychologist. Unfortunately there is no stock response to a team behaving out of one of these basic assumptions. There are no top tips or easy-to-apply strategies. Apply a lens so that you can make more sense of what is happening, but then go on to reflect. Each team has the right to its own character and its own story. When these underlying, unconscious processes take hold and begin to rope the leader in, and I believe they do inevitably, the trick is to learn how to respond with grace and humanity. Learning to keep going while “under fire” takes practice, resilience and lots of personal reflection on the part of whoever is in a position of leadership. Humans, when gathered together, are subject to deep psychological forces. If we are to keep our heads, we need to become aware of “what is ours” and what is a group phenomenon. Reflection is one of the best practices to help overcome the sense of frustration or overwhelm when we become affected by what goes on in our teams.
Becoming the kind of leader who courageously grapples with the dynamics of groups and teams requires ongoing interest and curiosity, magnanimity and humour. Attending to your team’s dynamics requires you to foster good relationships and open communication, tolerance for difference and collaboration. Therein lies the work of the 21st century leader.
July 27, 2011
Why do we still sometimes try to pretend that we don’t bring all of ourselves to work? We have emotions because we are human. Indeed, evolution has left us with a brain that is driven by our emotional responses to our environment. As much as we pride ourselves on our intelligence and logic, they sit in the passenger seat when we we live through situations with high emotional content. I once saw a quote that read, “Heaven preserve me from people who pretend they are not vulgar.” I would adapt that to say, “Heaven preserve me from people who pretend they are not emotional.”
For leaders, one of the emotions that there seems to be most sanction over is workplace anger. It strikes me that this could be one of the most useful emotions for a leader. While we don’t want leaders having tantrums all over the place, anger can be a useful indication of something that is not quite right. Self-actualised leaders will be aware of their anger and be able to give it appropriate expression without damaging reputation or relationships. After all, it is not the emotion of anger, but the expression of it, which should be moderated at work.
So what use can you make of your anger at work? At Quantum Shift, when we work with clients, we are most often assisting them to deal with emotionally charged situations and relationships. Anger is often present. Working experientially, we ask people to recall a real-life working moment and we explore it in depth with them. You can try this yourself. First, recall a recent work situation in which you felt angry. Now ask yourself these questions:
What needs changing in my system? Anger can be an sign that all is not right in the world. It seems completely justified to feel angry about your Senior Management Team demanding better communication from you and your team while keeping you in the dark around matters that directly affect you. Your anger can mean that the situation needs changing. Anger can be a catalyst to get us off our behinds and do something about it. It can indicate something about the relationship with the person needs brought out into the open and rectifying, rather than simmering below the surface.
What does that situation remind me of from my past? Anger can be telling us that there is something about ourselves that needs healing. If you have been stirred to anger, ask: “Who was I angry with?”…..then “Who was I REALLY angry with?” or “What was I angry about?”….then “What was I REALLY angry about?” As we grow in self-awareness, we learn that there are some things from our past that have been left undone. These may be painful, scary or toxic but as Socrates is quoted as saying, “The unexamined life is not worth living.” Looking at some of these past hurts is the first step to clearing them out so they no longer infect us with the same amount of toxicity. It is vital that we turn these events and relationships from things which still push our buttons to things that are just stories we tell. Having a good old clear out will assist us to release our spontaneity, creativity and vitality.
What was the danger or threat? Anger is part of our evolutionary hard-wiring which fires off when we are under threat. Were you being undermined in some way? Was your team or wider organisation being compromised somehow? Was the CEO blaming members of your team for his or her own failings? Just as excellent leaders are ambitious for their organisations, excellent leaders also feel on behalf of their organisations or teams.
Left unattended, anger can simmer and become destructive–to ourselves, to our relationships with others or to our wider system. Whether we like it or not, it will find a way out. Do we keep such a tight lid on it that it oozes out via a passive-aggressive communication style? Do we expend so much energy on it to the point that we poison ourselves with chronic stress?
So let’s not misconstrue the notion of ‘controlling our emotions at work’ to mean that we can’t show them at all or that we must behave like emotion-less automotons at work. With greater self-awareness, we develop emotional regulation, which means we are able to express them in a mature and appropriate fashion. Authenticity at work is all about being who you are–ALL of you. We need to embrace all of our emotions, including anger, and become aware of what messages they are trying to send us. Left ignored, the triggers to those emotions may very well lead to our undoing.
July 11, 2011
I’m currently in the process of working with a bunch of Leader-Managers who struggle to engage with each other in conversations which some call ‘difficult’ or ‘challenging’. It has been useful for me to remember that there are two strands to this phenomenon: the cultural and the personal. Just as a ladder has two main rails connected by steps or rungs, if one rail is missing or faulty, the ladder fails to serve its purpose. Similarly, if either the cultural or the personal strands of ‘challenging conversations’ is absent or underdeveloped, the organisation may well find that there are a whole bunch of conversations that are just not being had.
When crafting a learning programme to address this phenomenon, it is therefore essential to address both the cultural and the personal. Send someone off to a workshop to develop the skills within themselves and put them back into an organisational system that does not support these conversations or acts to undermine Managers who try to have them, and what you may see is a Manager who grows increasingly frustrated with the ‘system’. These Managers may decide that it’s not worth trying to have performance conversations because they only end up looking like the office ogre; and nothing much changes. The conversations don’t get had; performance issues remain unaddressed and eventually snowball until they become personal; and HR (or the CEO) who sent the Manager on the workshop wonders why they bother to invest in training because “nothing ever really changes”, amplifying the cynicism that exists in some quarters about Learning and Development.
Alternatively, you could invest in some sort of ‘culture change process’ that highlights the need for the organisation to shift its thinking around performance conversations. This may result in people becoming excited about new possibilities. They now see that being ‘people friendly’ and ‘performance oriented’ are not mutually exclusive. They become hopeful that things will finally change around the place as all those poor performers will FINALLY get a good talking-to. Without attending to the ‘personal’ strand, however, you may find that there are a number of Managers who lack the capability to challenge their staff, their peers or their own bosses without damaging working relationships. Growing a culture that affirms performance conversations is not, after all, a green light for a no-holds-barred free-for-all 1970s style encounter group where you just tell everyone what you think without being aware of the consequences. Without addressing the personal, you may also find that there are still some Managers who beat around the bush so much because of their own internal ‘stuff’ that people are left wondering what point they are trying to make.
An effective programme is one where both the cultural and the personal are addressed. It can be easier to start with the cultural, simply because the things that influence someone’s ability to have these conversations inevitably involves emotions such as fear or disappointment, and starting with the bigger picture can defuse any hijacking of what should be a constructive analysis of the phenomenon. Get a group of Manager-Leaders to discuss questions such as:
- How often do we all challenge others in this organisation?
- What determines how often we do this?
- What are some barriers to this happening?
- What makes it easy for this to happen?
- What would need to change in our organisational culture in order for these conversations to happen more frequently and effectively?
Starting off with the big picture depersonalises the issue from any one Manager or group of Managers and also can uncover the fact that many folks struggle with similar things. This can also warm people up to taking the next step, which is to look at the more personal aspects. These are the things which each person can develop in themselves. An effective programme, when focussing on this strand, will incorporate experiential techniques that coach Leader-Managers to practise new behaviours and to integrate them in such a way that they become part of their repertoire of responses to people.
Addressing the organisational culture as well as the personal capabilities of each Leader-Manager, therefore, is essential if your investment is to pay dividends. Taking such a systemic approach will also require time and patience in order for the shifts to embed and for the improvements in performance, staff retention and teamwork to filter through, but filter through they will.
August 3, 2010
>I liked this article in today’s harvard business review http://s.hbr.org/aw8ePX
It’s an area that is sometimes overlooked when leadership is talked about. I’m talking about conflict capability. The leader is responsible for overseeing the dynamics of the team or group they are leading and this doesn’t always mean making sure everything is hunky dory all the time. It includes ensuring that there can be conflict in the team.
Years ago, when I was co-working as a family therapist, one of my colleagues said something about assessing whether the family was ‘conflict capable’. I met with some families who really knew how to row, and as a newbie, I imagined that those would be the families who were doomed to years of misery or who would be the most challenging to work with. Not at all. They were the families who had an ability to get everything out on the table, to examine difference, to be with their passions and emotions. The quieter families, who never raised a cross word, who constantly smiled at each other (though on reflection, they were only smiling with their mouths, not their eyes) were the ones where you could feel the underlying frustrations they had with each other when you walked in the room, but nothing was ever said. We all know that feeling of walking into a group of people and you just sense some kind of irritation or discord, but nothing is ever spoken-that’s your limbic system picking that up. Things that really need to be said just don’t get said; they go underground.
One of the key bits of that HBR article is where it says that a big part of the job of the leader, the director of the film in this case, is to create enough trust where conflict can come out. Naturally, I’m not suggesting that we go around all day picking fights with each other. Neither would I suggest that we go out of our way, as leaders, to generate personal animosity amongst our teams. Far from it, in fact, there is far too much interpersonal violence in our lives as it is. The kind of conflict I’m suggesting is the kind where ‘what needs to get said, gets said’. It is important that we ensure that this does not become an excuse for bad behaviour, though. I’ve had someone say that to me as a justification for what I viewed as inexcusable rudeness and bullying of colleagues. But sure enough, there is plenty that needs to get said in our teams and groups that will forge stronger working relationships and allow us to really work collaboratively.