Ghosts

We search for patterns, often without knowing that we are doing so, filling in what we can’t be sure of with what we can already grasp. And so we often relate to other people from our memories of them, or we project onto them aspects of ourselves to fill in the unknown we encounter in them.

But that’s not the end of it. We also easily and unconsciously relate to other people as if they were key figures from other systems and constellations of which we have been a part, in a phenomenon known as transference.

So you join a new organisation, and find that there’s some way in your new boss reminds you of your father. And even before you know it, you’re filling in the blanks as if that’s just who he is. When he doesn’t reply to your email, it feels like all the times you were ignored in your own family. When he’s short tempered or curt with you it reminds you of the times you were judged, and you imagine his reasons for judging you are the same as those you remember from home. You find yourself seeking his praise, repeating the ways you learned to get noticed as a child. And you feel warm and supported perhaps exactly when you get the kind of recognition you longed for when growing up, but feel unseen when he’s recognising you in other ways. And all the while, you have no idea this is going on.

And he, simultaneously, is responding to all the subtle cues that come from the transference you are experiencing. Perhaps you now remind him of his own child, and he finds himself treating you in this way. He looks to praise you the way he praised her. He is frustrated with you for what frustrated him about her. He is reassured when you respond in ways that feel familiar, and confused and exasperated when you don’t fit the pattern that years of habit have taught him.

Before you know it, you have planted the ghosts of brothers and sisters, mothers and fathers, teachers and enemies and lovers among your colleagues. And each one of them, in turn, has recruited you into a role you may know nothing about.

And all of you are in a dance that everyone is dancing, even though nobody can see the steps the others are following. On and on, through and through, transferred memories of families and systems that are not of this place, the weave from which your conversations and relationships, your delights and your many troubles, are spun.

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Left Out

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Conversations frequently left out of the discourse of professional life:

What you’re feeling – a potential source of enormous insight and connection to others

What you care about – especially if different from those around you

Your history – the story of everything and everyone that brought you to this moment, the discoveries and losses and experiences that have shaped you

Your weirdness – the unique artfulness and way of seeing that comes from you being you

Your imagination – your capacity to invent beyond the bounds of convention, the energy for life which stirs you to break out of the ways you’re held in

Your longing – the life and world you’re in the midst of bringing forth

We shut them out with excuses. They’re ‘soft’ subjects, while business is ‘hard’. They’ll open a pandora’s box or a can of worms. This is a work-place, not a therapy session.

We lose so much when we continue to exclude the passions and possibility of the human heart from so many of our endeavours. And it damages us too, because before long we reduce ourselves and others to shadows of ourselves, inoculated by our cynicism against demonstrating care for much that is of genuinely enduring value to human life. Is this really the way you and your colleagues began your journey into the life of work? Can you even remember?

That work should be this way was sold to us by the early industrialists who needed scores of people in their factories to button down, fit themselves in, and stay in line. They appropriated the language of rationalism and science to fashion people into tools, cogs, and components so they could build their great money making machines. And we bought it, continuing a pernicious myth that shallows our relationships and possibility.

The world faces many difficulties right now, and addressing them is going to take all the generosity, wisdom and heartfelt commitment we can muster. Do we really intend to keep on working to shut that out from the world?

Let’s commit to language

In this time when we’re seeing again how readily language can be used to undermine truth, disorient us, and turn us away from one another, let’s dedicate ourselves to recovering the sanctity and dignity of words.

Let’s remind ourselves that language matters, because it’s from language that we build all of our shared human life.

Let’s remember that this is about each of us. Because the everyday practices in our families and organisations include ways of using language to distort, cover-up, depersonalise, avoid and confuse. And that this, step-by-step, unravels its  life-giving power.

Let’s commit ourselves to using words in ways that preserve, and clarify, and deepen meaning and understanding. Let’s remember that we’ll often fall short, and will have to rededicate ourselves to the task, again and again.

And let’s keep reminding ourselves that the power of words to reveal, to illuminate, to uncover, and to share the precious fruits of knowledge between us is vital, rare, and easily undone.

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These are our values

The values you’ve declared for your organisation are not things that you can put on your wall, or lock away in a safe. You don’t have them. You can’t own them. And you most certainly can’t ’embed’ them in others, unless like rivets embedded in a wall you’re planning on using force.

You can’t even, in all truthfulness, say ‘these are our values’. Because values are, more accurately, works-in-progress, ongoing commitments to something that can never be completed.

You don’t have fairness, dignity, compassion, justice, creativity, honesty or service. You bring them about, most importantly when they’re least in evidence, when they’re most challenged, when they’re most called most into question by the complexities and compromises of life. And in each moment of action they are already in the midst of disappearing again.

When you relate to values as things they become things. The objects of lip-service. Inert, lifeless, hardly practiced.

Remember instead that values are a state of affairs that you’re actively working to bring about. You can’t embed them, but you can cultivate them. And that way they’ll have a chance of remaining alive in your hands.

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Human Resources

Intelligence. Creativity. Love. Strength. Openness. Connection. Inspiration. Tenderness. Discipline. Rage. Courage. Artfulness. Curiosity. Compassion. Wisdom.

All of these are human resources.

What we’ve done by calling people ‘human resources’ obscures this. It forces us into a category that includes money, electricity, technology and fuel. This way we become objects rather than subjects, commodities rather than people, tools for production rather than living beings, ‘it’ rather than ‘I’. It’s an example of what in philosophy would be called a category error – a misunderstanding of the nature of things.

So is it any wonder that the systems and language we invent seriously limit the expression of our true resourcefulness?

Behaviours we expect people to follow – as if human beings had no interior world of discernment, meaning, and feeling from which their actions flow.

Values we expect others to take up uncritically as if they couldn’t determine for themselves what they’re deeply committed to.

Competency frameworks we design as if skillfulness, artistry and human ingenuity could be reduced to a set of bullet points.

Management that aims to reduce individuality, creativity and surprise, as if people were an irritant that gets in the way of the smooth running of the machine.

None of these do anything to amplify the real resources human beings have to bring to their lives and work.

And while we might think we’re only treating others in this way, we can’t help but diminish our own humanity each time we treat people as if they had little humanity of their own.

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Eudaimonia

When we measure effort by results alone – return on investment, percentage growth, money made, units shipped – we easily forget that it’s the nature of human beings to be shaped by what we do. We’re profoundly affected by the actions we take, even if we choose to pretend that’s not the case. We become what we do.

And there are real consequences to our wilful blindness. Pushing ourselves ever harder to hit targets with no consideration of the bodily and emotional costs leaves us drained, anxious, depleted, and unwell. People die emotionally this way. Or our relationships shrivel. Or, frighteningly often, we lose our lives because we’ve attended so little to our own genuine care (in Japanese there is a special word, Karōshi – death from overwork – that names this phenomenon).

We’re equally traumatised and diminished when we repeatedly treat our colleagues or customers as if they are a means to an end, when we treat ourselves as if we’re a means to an end, when we speak corporate jargon that numbs and distances us from the truth of our experience, when we try to shoehorn our human fluidity and agility into rigid job descriptions and lists of corporately-sanctioned behaviour, when we mouth platitudes and sign up to ‘values’ in which we do not believe, when we turn up to meeting after meeting in which we have no role and no intent to contribute, when we abandon our cares and concerns in order to get ahead, when we live as if redemption will come in the future (when we get that promotion, job, car, or house), when we mute our own voice because we’re afraid, when we give up our artistry and integrity to serve a set of aims that are at odds with our own, and when we continually ignore the longing of our own hearts and the signals of our own bodies that we’re living at a remove from ourselves.

And yet all of these are what many of us have been taught is precisely what is required by the world of work. We’ve come to believe that success in these self-harming domains is the success we’re striving for. That productivity must always come ahead of care for ourselves and others. That this is simply what we have to put up with, or even that it’s good and necessary to have work be a means by which we absent ourselves from genuine flourishing. And by taking this to be true we enslave ourselves, willingly, to a convenient but destructive myth that has supported the kind of economy upon which many countries have relied for decades, a myth supported by the Cartesian premise that the human mind is separate from the body (so we don’t need to pay attention to the impact our work is having on us), that human beings are essentially broken (so we have to continually push harder to make up for our inadequacy), and that redemption will come from status or being able to buy more stuff (a premise which, itself, keeps the whole edifice going).

In the midst of all of this, it’s no wonder that so many people feel only half-alive, and that so few of us can imagine that work or life could be any different.

But there are other ways of being available to us, and we know them already.

The ancient Greeks had a word – eudaimonia – for the living and working practices of a life well-lived. It means living in accordance with life’s good spirit, living with a commitment to flourishing as well as to excellence in our endeavours. Specifically it means living in a way that cultivates virtues in ourselves and others – those qualities which themselves bring life into the world. Cultivating virtues cultivates our sensitivity to the needs of life and our capacity to do the pragmatic work needed in order for us to live well.

Indeed for the ancient Greek philosophers it was the very definition of excellence and an ethical responsibility to attend to the kind of human beings we become, even as we pursue our other aims and goals. To attend patiently to our practices, becoming more and more able to cultivate hope, compassion, wisdom, beauty, justice, mercy, patience, enthusiasm, peace, creativity and any number of other of virtues. And as we do so, becoming the kind of presence that makes it more and more possible for others us to do the same.

To actively work on the expression of virtues is to actively work on being an expression of life, which in turn breathes life into the people around us. And it’s not a luxury or an option either – we always need these qualities in the world, in the brightest of times and in the darkest.

Of course, cultivating virtue in ourselves is far from easy. We simultaneously have to work on our willingness to step forward and take risks, to work productively with our own inner demons, shame and self-criticism, to be able to let go of our preferences (giving up doing what we like and instead doing what’s called for), and to develop sensitivity for the needs of others and for the needs of the world. There isn’t much in the world of work for most people that encourages us to do that. Most of the time we’re more comfortable staying small, and afraid, and within the familiar bounds within which we know ourselves. And most of the time the culture we’ve cultivated in our organisations would have us do the same (even while we publicly extol the value of ‘thinking outside the box’ and run corporate wellness programmes that serve to cover up the difficulty we’re in).

Today, as we face a wide range of difficulties and tensions that are tearing at the way we’ve done things so far we could, if we wish, reimagine how we work, and reimagine leadership as we do so. We could define leadership in eudaimonic terms, making the work of ‘cultivating virtue in ourselves and others’ the primary task.

And we could, as we do so, find out how much more able we can be in responding to the world in ways that serve everybody, rather than only a narrow set of concerns shaped by targets, unquestioned growth, or our wish to fit in.

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Fear is easy

Fear is easy.

Really easy.

It spreads, like wildfire – my fear becoming your fear becoming their fear becoming my fear again.

It makes us feel special – if I’m so afraid, there must be important things to do, like saving myself or saving the company or saving the country. At last, because of fear, I have a role to play.

It makes things look simple – there is no choice here, no nuance, no time to talk together or think together about what’s really called for, or if we’re doing the right thing, or what the consequences over time might be. There is just action, this action, my action, and now.

It helps us look right – how dare you suggest another way, a different way? Can’t you see what’s at stake here? How risky this is? How much we have to lose?

It saves us from having to listen to one another – if you’re not with me you’re against me, and if you’re against me you must be wrong, and it’s because you’re wrong and all of those others of you who are wrong that we’re in this terrifying mess in the first place.

It saves us from having to think – that there might be another way to see this, that your point of view might have merit, or integrity, or something to offer.

It saves us from shame – at the ways I’m hurting you, or hurting myself, or hurting those who will come after us.

It sells – the idea that I’m the best, that my way is the right way, that we’re the chosen ones, that they’re out to get us, that you have to work harder, that you must never stop, that our values are under threat, that we have to do this vital but terrible thing, that after all it’s only business or politics or necessity.

It allows us to justify – these punishing targets, our culture of hyper-activity, my monitoring of your every move, the hours I expect you to work, our obsession with measurement and deliverables, my not listening, our race to the lowest common denominator, your being available at every moment, our treating others as objects.

Of course, fear works best when it doesn’t display itself as fear. It’s at its most potent when dressed up as civility, and best practice, and just-doing-business, and competency frameworks, and HR policy, and micro-management, and ‘smart’ goals, and this-is-work-not-a-playground-don’t-you-know.

Fear is easy, and fear is cheap, but it’s dignity that sets the human spirit free to contribute, and create, and address our difficulties, and listen, and change things, and improve our situation. And dignity takes work, and courage, and honesty, and sincerity, and integrity, and wisdom and compassion and humility and love.

Yes, love. Not a much-respected word in many organisations or in politics, and easily dismissed by the easy politics and business of fear. But it is indeed love that reminds us how brilliant human beings can be, how capable, how varied, how much there is to marvel at in our situation and our capacity, and how much we need all of this right now, just as we always have done.

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When hiding anxiety only fuels it

A story about the trouble caused when we can’t talk about shame and anxiety in organisational life:

A global retailer struggling to meet the expectations of the markets, brings in a new measurement system for its stores, with more than sixty targets to meet.

A daily ratings table of stores is published internally, naming those meeting the targets and those falling short. It’s described as a logical move to increase performance in difficult times. And at the same time, it allows the board to deny the anxiety they’re feeling: “we’ve done everything we can do, and we’ve responded in a clear and rational manner to market conditions”.

Meanwhile, the ratings system has very effectively pushed the anxiety onto the store managers, where even respected, skilful, long-serving managers are reduced to a daily jostle for the top few spots. Unable or unwilling to challenge the system itself (after all, it’s apparently a rational response to the current difficulty), they start to put pressure on their department heads for the daily delivery of the targets. And, unable to start a conversation about how all of this feels to everybody, the department heads – fearful of being shamed – look for whatever they can do to hit their targets.

This is where the real trouble begins.

Because in the face of unnamable anxiety and the unbearable threat of shame, even respected, diligent department heads start to look for ways to game the system.

Numbers are fiddled. Statistics reinterpreted. Orders are left piling up in the warehouse because nobody can keep up with the new standards for shelf layout. Items in the store are relabelled so that products look like they’re available when the mystery shopper team comes around. Staff members are taken off other important duties to work on the tills when queue-length is measured, but the queues are allowed to reach enormous and frustrating lengths at other times.

The target numbers are, frequently, met – aside from for those few unfortunate store managers who aren’t wily enough to play the system – but standards drop relentlessly across the group and customers start to take their business elsewhere.

Public shame, skilfully dealt with. Skilful gaming of the system, denied. The organisation becomes a system for avoiding anxiety rather than serving customers. Nobody talking about it – “it’ll open a can of worms”.

You can see this same drama played out in hospitals, whole health systems, schools, retailers, service industries, transport, government, with huge and debilitating effect.

And in most places nobody’s talking about what’s really going on, because we’ve made mood undiscussable.

If we’re going to deal with all of this – and we must – we’re going to have to wake up to the fact that organisations are always made up of people, and people are always caught up in moods that shape what can be seen and what’s possible. Our insistence on understanding people as detached, strictly rational parts of a well-oiled machine is not doing anything to address these difficulties.

And without the courage to do this, we’re going to condemn ourselves to a future of looking good while we undo our best and most important efforts.

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Love made visible

Below, nine narratives, nine stories, about what work could be for.

Whether we choose one of these, or one of the infinity of others that are possible for us, there’s no doubt that our narratives have a powerful role in shaping our identity, what we notice, what we think is possible and important, and our relationship with others.

Change the narrative and we change what work is for and much about how we experience it. Change the narrative and we change our relationship with our difficulties and possibilities, with the sense we make of the past and of the future.

Do any of these offer a new way of seeing what you’ve been doing so far…

… and what you might take on next?

Work as…

.. a way of setting the world straight – fixing what’s wrong, making good, bringing integrity, standards, and justice into the world

.. love made visible – an opportunity to dedicate ourselves to our deepest commitments with our minds, hearts and bodies, and in relationship with others

.. a way to cultivate excellence – finding ways to do things better, with greater impact and with ever-increasing quality of attention and skill

.. an expression of artistry – work for its own sake, for the depth and expression and creativity that is unique to human beings

.. an opportunity to learn and discover – work as the pursuit of understanding, learning a field from end to end and using that learning to solve problems that would otherwise continue to challenge us

.. a way to lay down secure foundations – work as what makes it possible to have somewhere safe, dry and warm to live in, a shelter for ourselves and those we love, and the resources that will help us respond to unknown future challenges and possibilities

.. an exercise in freedom and hope – work as what enables us to break the confines of otherwise predictable lives – to play, to experiment, to meet people, to try out new things, to bring into our lives and into the world that which has not been so far

.. a challenge to the status quo – work as a way of upending things that need upending, revolutionising what needs revolution, using our power to shift cultures, expectations and the way things are done.

.. the practice of peace – work as a way of bringing people together, forging community and connection, relationship and shared purpose, a way of having our many differences serve us and each other rather than separate us

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Ghosts

We search for patterns, often without knowing that we are doing so, filling in what we can’t be sure of with what we can already grasp. And so it is, as I have been writing in the last few days, that we so often relate to other people from our memories of them, or we project onto them aspects of ourselves to fill in the unknown we encounter in them.

But that’s not the end of it. We also easily and unconsciously relate to other people as if they were key figures from other systems and constellations of which we have been a part, in a phenomenon known as transference.

So you join a new organisation, and find that there’s some way in your new boss reminds you of your father. And even before you know it, you’re filling in the blanks as if that’s just who he is. When he doesn’t reply to your email, it feels like all the times you were ignored in your own family. When he’s short tempered or curt with you it reminds you of the times you were judged, and you imagine his reasons for judging you are the same as those you remember from home. You find yourself seeking his praise, repeating the ways you learned to get noticed as a child. And you feel warm and supported perhaps exactly when you get the kind of recognition you longed for when growing up, but feel unseen when he’s recognising you in other ways. And all the while, you have no idea this is going on.

And he, simultaneously, is responding to all the subtle cues that come from the transference you are experiencing. Perhaps you now remind him of his own child, and he finds himself treating you in this way. He looks to praise you the way he praised her. He is frustrated with you for what frustrated him about her. He is reassured when you respond in ways that feel familiar, and confused and exasperated when you don’t fit the pattern that years of habit have taught him.

Before you know it, you have planted the ghosts of brothers and sisters, mothers and fathers, teachers and enemies and lovers among your colleagues. And each one of them, in turn, has recruited you into a role you may know nothing about.

And all of you are in a dance that everyone is dancing, even though nobody can see the steps the others are following. On and on, through and through, transferred memories of families and systems that are not of this place, the weave from which your conversations and relationships, your delights and your many troubles, are spun.

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Glorious

Our glorious, exhilarating, revolutionary Coaching to Excellence programme – a two-day programme on working compassionately and wisely with ourselves and others to lessen difficulty and to step in more fully to our lives – is running again in July. I’ll be there, teaching, in London July 18-19.

We’d love you to join us.

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On Aliveness

Important questions for any of us who care about our work:

  • Do the daily practices and rituals of my workplace cultivate aliveness and soul in me? In others? Or do they stifle life and squash the soul? (hint: it’s often our attempts to control that squash the very aliveness we need).
  • If they stifle, am I really prepared to live with the consequences of work that’s forgotten how to live? Really?
  • If I’m not willing to live with this, what am I going to do about it? What will I stop? What will I ask others to stop? What practices will I invent and initiate – even as an experiment – that could have things be different?
  • And am I ready to take the risky and vital step of leading… of being someone who treats this as with at least as much dedication as I show to our productivity, or to how much money we make?

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Organisational Ritual

Of course, our organisations are filled with rituals, though they can easily serve to split us apart from ourselves rather than connecting us up with one another and with our more courageous, contributory parts.

There’s the ritual of annual performance appraisal, which so often puts us in contact with our inner critic and our fear, inviting us in a defensive relationship with whoever we’re appraising or who is appraising us.

There’s the ritual of the meeting that everyone said ‘yes’ to but nobody wanted to attend, in which we gain access to the part of ourselves that denies what we’re really feeling and puts on a brave face.

There’s the ritual of the project presentation, with its deck of powerpoint slides that can be designed to inspire questions and curiosity but are often designed to dampen down life and keep everybody safe.

And there’s the ritual of goal-setting, which we can use to cover up how anxious we feel about how little control we really have, and which puts us in contact with the parts of us that reassure ourselves and others about what we don’t believe to be true.

I wonder at what we could we create if we were to more often and more purposefully invent enlivening organisational rituals rather than sleepwalking into ones which deaden. And if we designed our rituals to reconnect us daily with a sense of truthfulness, wonder, responsibility and connectedness to one another, and to remind us of the part we could yet play in this vast and unpredictable world.

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On Ritual

“As an archaeologist, my father always used to talk about the origins of language, of communication, being around a fire. When you think of that in relation to a theatre you realise that the audience is exactly the same scale as a sustainable human community from prehistory onwards, whether of 100 people or of 10,000. We become part of a collective imagining, we laugh at the same things, we find we are not alone. It’s why religion and theatre are so closely entwined. Priests know how to put on a good show. They understand that we all need rituals, patterns.”
Simon McBurney, Playwright and Theatre Director

We’ve largely forgotten the power and importance of ritual. Perhaps because we’ve conflated ritual with religion, and taken religion to be superstition, something we ought to be over by now in a society founded on science and reason. Or maybe we have a hard time seeing what ritual can do in a cause-and-effect way. If we can’t make a straight line from the doing of a ritual to a measurable improvement in something, we dismiss it as a distraction from the important work of getting things done.

Maybe. I think these are our public stories, the stories of so many organisations and the story of so much marketing (where buying and consuming products and services becomes the new ritual to replace all others). But in our private spaces and in our quieter moments I think many of us long for the redemptive, grounding, relationship-shifting power of ritual. I agree with Simon McBurney that we need ritual to help us rediscover an orientation to life and to one another that can be more nourishing and more whole than the spun-apart, face-it-alone, get-ahead narrative that undergirds so much of our lives.

Michael Puett and Christine Gross-Loh make the point eloquently when they describe how rituals allow us to rehearse a different relationship with life and with other people. In one example they outline the ritual qualities of hide-and-seek, which switches the usual order around, allowing the hiding adult to play at being vulnerable and small and the seeking child to rehearse being commanding, giant-sized, and powerful. Everyone knows that it is a game – games and play themselves are powerful rituals – and this is the very point. It’s the ‘constructed’ nature of the ritual that gives it its power to upend things and give us a first-hand experience of parts of ourselves that we might not usually encounter so easily. Vulnerability in the commanding adult. Power in the vulnerable child. And a reconfigured relationship between both.

I’ve long related to the rituals of my own Jewish tradition in this way, less as a matter of ‘belief’ but as practices honed and deepened over generations which, if carried out with intent, are very powerful invitations into a new standing with life. I know that when I pause with my family on a Friday night to say shabbat blessings over candle flames and sweet wine, I’m momentarily put back in contact with the part of myself that marvels at the existence of others, at the wonder of light, and at the good fortune of having food to eat and somewhere warm and dry that can shelter us. For a short while we share together in that aspect of us that can be grateful for all this, that knows that many people go short of their basic needs, that understands how small we are in a vast universe that we did not create, and that sees how little direct control we have over any of it coming our way.

Of course, once the ritual is ended, we return to the messiness and complexity of our lives. We find ourselves feeling separate from one another again, perhaps a little afraid at the state of the world rather than grateful, and maybe overwhelmed by the minutiae of daily life rather than awash with wonder and awe. To expect anything different would be to misunderstand the nature of ritual. Because rituals are not talismans or magic spells, capable of changing reality in an instant, or shifting our bodies and minds in a simplistic way. When understood this way, they inevitably appear shaky and ultimately a disappointment. Rather they are practices. And if done with the right intention and sufficient attention they teach us, as we enact them repetitively over time, what it is to be in the world and be with one another in a deeper and more attuned way.

Good rituals, so sorely missing in our culture, reintroduce us to that which is out of view, and that which we have left out, and in this way they can be profoundly transformative, deeply healing, and powerfully developmental.

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A conversation for clarification

Between the moment one person asks and the other responds comes a necessary but often neglected step – a conversation between both of you to determine what’s actually being asked for.

I know it sounds obvious when said this way but how often do you take the time to talk and listen before you say ‘yes’ (which most of us are conditioned to do) or ‘no’?

Without this conversation for clarification, it’s so easy to launch into a project that’s:

  • not wanted (those three pressured and frantic days writing a financial report when all that was needed was a single paragraph summary)
  • not yours to do (the hours you spent trying to understand the figures when there’s someone else who could do it in a half hour)
  • not something you were ever really prepared to do (and now you have to find a way to wriggle out of it, or delay, or pretend you’re busy, or make excuses)

Hierarchical relationships at work make this more difficult, of course. Perhaps you avoid the conversation because you don’t want to look like you don’t know, or like you’re unsure, or like you’re anything less than fully committed. And then there’s navigating feelings of uncertainty, or fear, or shame.

But how can a yes be a yes, or a no be a no, unless you understand what it is you’re saying yes or no to? And how much precious effort and time gets wasted on the ‘yes’ that was yes to the wrong thing or never really meant at all?

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Productivity

Ten factors that are more important than the productivity you’re measuring:

  1. Who you have around you
  2. and who you’re supporting
  3. What you’re paying attention to
  4. and what you’re denying, ignoring, or turning away from
  5. What you’ve dedicated yourself to
  6. and how big the questions are that you’re asking
  7. The extent to which you’re doing your work from fear
  8. and the extent to which you’re doing your work from love
  9. How open you’re prepared to be
  10. and whether you’re willing to care

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Still

Who can by stillness, little by little
make what is troubled grow clear?
Lao Tzu, Tao Te Ching

So often, faced with a difficulty, a confusion, a blow to our expectations, we dive into activity. There must be a way, we tell ourselves, to resolve this. We have to do something.

Now.

So often this move into moving comes from fear. That we’ll be powerless. That we’ll be shown to be inadequate. That this event will change us, and we don’t want to be changed.

Such an anxious, frantic move is familiar habit for many of us in organisations, where motionlessness is seen as akin to death. And where the stillness it takes to clarify our troubles is considered an abdication of responsibility rather than an act of deep care and wisdom.

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Learning again how to trust ourselves

Rene Descartes’ method for discovering what’s true starts with a bold and radical move – distrust everything until it can be proven. It’s not hard to see how powerful a way this is to cut through superstition and confusion. By starting from first principles, and using step-by-step logic, he gives us a way to prove things for ourselves, doing away with our need to rely on anyone else’s claims.

In order to make the method work, it’s necessary to start with one thing that can be assumed to be true without proof – and for Descartes it was that he was thinking. Hence cogito ergo sum, ‘I think therefore I am’. The one thing I can be sure of is that I’m thinking, because here I am, thinking it! And in this move, he both makes his method possible and sets up the condition of our society ever since.

Without this we may never have lifted ourselves beyond the confusion of Descartes’ times. But when we take Cartesianism to be the only way to relate to the world (a project at which our education system is very effective) we quickly become estranged from ourselves. Our bodies, emotions, our subjective experience, and the experience of others are all to be doubted, or considered irrelevant. Even the existence of others is something we can no longer take for granted without proof (and conclusively proving this everyday, common-sense aspect of our experience turns out to be extraordinarily difficult in the Cartesian paradigm). Though we often don’t know it, we’re deeply educated in and profoundly conditioned by the Cartesian principle that thinking is paramount and that everything else is to be distrusted.

The consequence? We’ve forgotten how to trust ourselves.

We don’t know how to trust what’s true in the senses of our bodies (we’ve often barely learned how to pay attention to this at all). We don’t trust the felt-sense of situations, and we don’t know how to tell what action to action take when we feel distorted, disjointed, incongruent, afraid. We don’t trust what we love. And we don’t know how to listen deeply to the longing and song of our hearts.

We’ve become experts at distancing ourselves from ourselves. And because we can’t feel what’s happening to us we launch ourselves into many projects – in our work and in our private lives – that harm us, and harm others, and harm the planet. We justify our actions, if we’re prepared to justify them at all, as ‘reason’ or ‘business’ or ‘productivity’ or ‘best practice’ or ‘getting ahead’.

We need the cold, sharp blade of the Cartesian method as much as we ever did. But if we want to create lives and a world in which we can thrive, a world which brings about wisdom and beauty as well as truth, it’s time to learn how to feel things again. And it’s time to teach ourselves and our children once more about the discernment and understanding of the world that comes not just from the sharpness of our minds, but from the intelligence of our bodies and the sensitivity of our hearts.

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When only practice will do

When we rely on events to change things in our organisations – an executive residential, a training day on relationships, a session on ‘difficult conversations’ – we’re treating ourselves as if we’re machines. A new part, some oil in the right place, installing a patch to the operating system – that’ll do it.

When we imagine ourselves this way, we set ourselves up for such disappointment. We pour our hearts and our good intentions into the event, thinking that this time it will do the trick, this time the upgrade will work. And we wonder why things the next day seem pretty much the way they were before.

We’d be so much more effective, and so much kinder to ourselves, if we understood that we are living processes, shaped all the time by the practices we take up and by the relationships that surround us. We’d know then that events can help us, for sure, but that it’s not the events themselves that bring about the change we seek as much as our relationship to them. We’d see that unless we’re prepared to use events as an invitation to practice – with all of the uncertainty, all the learning that’s involved, all the letting go that practice entails, and all of the times that our practice goes awry and we have to commit to begin again once more – we can rightly expect our events to do very little at all.

And this point – that practice goes awry – is probably the most important. We know, intuitively, that a two-day event exploring the piano doesn’t make any of us a competent pianist. We’d expect to have many subsequent days of struggle and difficulty, with steps forward and setbacks, before we’d feel proficient. Before real music would be possible we’d expect days when our practice sounded disjointed or discordant, and to play many wrong notes from which we’d gradually learn the right ones. We’d expect to need help, and time to reflect on what’s happening. And we’d expect to experiment and practice again and again for many weeks.

It’s the same for the work of building trust between colleagues, for learning how to get out of our endless busyness and rushing so we can think, and for finding how to work together effectively, and skilfully, and joyfully.

If we understood this, I think we’d expect a lot less of events and see a lot more possibility in ourselves and in each other. And we’d know that our very difficulties are the path, not a reason to be discouraged, not proof that we’re getting it wrong, and certainly not a reason nor an excuse to avoid the difficult, life giving and essential work of practicing together what we say we most want to bring about.

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Over-reaching

A very dedicated and successful swimmer once told me that the way to extend your reach in strokes such as the crawl is first to over-reach. To add 5cm, practice extending by 10cm for a while. The over-stretch, she told me, teaches the body to settle into a new configuration so that, on relaxing again, your established stroke lands somewhere between where you started and what you reached for.

Over the coming days I want to see if I can point out some ways in which we’ve over-reached with the project that René Descartes started, and how we might restore to ourselves some measure of balance in which reason, with its power to cut through and generate truth, takes up its place alongside the no less important virtues of goodness and beauty in our organisations, our institutions, and our society.

I think this is important not only because we’ve used the sharp-sword of detached reason in places where it destroys rather than nurtures (I started to lay some of those out in this post), but because we’ve done ourselves a huge disservice in worshipping the cartesian method to the exclusion of all else. Whenever we’ve used it inappropriately – forcing it into places where it cannot help us, such as in our attempts to scientifically measure love, or meaning, or care, or art, or ethics – we’ve blunted it, confused it and diminished its power.

I can’t help but think that our misuse and misunderstanding of the methods of objective reason contribute to the spread of quack cures that look convincing because of their scientific-sounding language, to the many failed projects to measure and produce ‘engagement’ in our organisations, to our all-too-easy trust in the explanations given by our politicians, and to our obsession with education systems that train our children to score well in exams (and in easily measurable subjects) rather than develop wisdom and skilfulness in living.

Perhaps by being clearer about where objectivity helps us, and where it does not, we can cut through our confusion about reason itself. And this is important because just as we can’t flourish without goodness and beauty, we certainly can’t flourish without reason either.

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Five narratives for leadership

Five narratives for leadership…

… a way to get liked, respected, or to get what I want (all variations on an idea that leadership is an opportunity to fulfil my needs)

… an application of expertise – being the person who knows what to do, reliably, so that other people can be told what to do too (leading by being ahead of others and having other people be like me)

… a way to make sure people are measurably productive at what we’ve decided is to be done – rewarding with bonuses and prizes, threatening by withholding them, cajoling, pressuring, motivating, engaging, punishing, cascading (all variations on a theme that leadership is about getting others to produce measurable efficiency and productivity)

… a way of inviting a new conversation – asking questions that nobody is asking, pointing into collective and individual blindspots, helping others say no as often as yes, welcoming truth and difference, enrolling in compelling stories or counter-stories that allow others to make meaning of what they’re doing and free themselves to take action, and in doing so become skilful at coordinating their actions with one another (leadership as laying out a space of possibility by the stories and conversations we weave)

… a way to help others marshal their efforts by meeting the realities of the world – learning how long things really take, going with the forces of life rather than fighting against them, finding out how to take care of ourselves so that we are resourceful and creative, giving up doing what’s familiar in favour of what’s needed now, working with the complexities and unpredictability of big systems rather than trying to pretend the world works like clockwork (leadership as a way of helping others ever more effectively and wisely bring their intentions to the world as it is)

… a way of taking up our responsibility towards life – responding with acuity and sensitivity to the unknown and unknowable, taking care of the cross-generational consequence and possibilities of our actions, helping others overcome their fear and frozenness so they can contribute, being wide awake and present in the midst of it all and inviting others to be the same, helping others deepen their understanding of life and flourish within it, nurturing what needs nurture and undoing what needs undoing, practicing radical kindness, acceptance and generosity (leadership as a spiritual path)

Are any of these what leadership is to you?

And what’s the consequence – for you, for others, for those who’ll come after you – of the narrative you’re currently choosing?

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The human function curve

This is the human function curve, the model which underlies what I wrote about our sense of unbreakability yesterday.

Performance (the capacity to act effectively on what we intend) is shown on the vertical axis. The horizontal axis shows what happens as stress or bodily arousal increases.

Some features of this graph that are worth noticing.

(1) The anabolic phase

Up until the inflection point in the middle of the graph, performance increases as stress increases. Some people call this ‘good stress’. It’s a function of our active engagement, our awakeness to what we’re doing, and our care.

In straightforward terms, the more we care and the more engaged and active we get, the more our capacity to act effectively increases. In this phase the body is in an anabolic state, actively supporting its own growth, energy, and self-maintenance.

And with sufficient attention to cycles of self-care, rest, exercise, and support – which help us stay towards the left side of the curve – it can be possible to remain in the anabolic phase over long periods.

(2) The catabolic phase

But there is a certain level of stress and activity, which differs for each of us, when the body’s response changes. In this catabolic or over-extended phase, the body starts to break down its own structure in order to supply the energy that’s required.

Just past the inflection point – if we notice – it’s still possible to restore ourselves by stopping and taking exquisite care. Sleep, appropriate and nourishing food, rest, and attention from others can return us to our self-generating capacities.

(3) Tipping past exhaustion

Because we’ve experienced increasing performance with increasing effort, and because we live in a culture which pays the body scant attention and seriously underestimates the need for renewing practices, we readily misinterpret what’s going on in the catabolic phase.

We think that our shrinking capacity is because we’re not trying hard enough – and our extra efforts push us to the right on the graph, exactly the direction that will cause us most harm

What works in the anabolic phase is totally inappropriate for the catabolic phase. Here, the more we try the more we damage ourselves and the more our capacity decreases. 

The appropriate move at this stage is to stop. Completely. 

But stopping, admitting we are not perfect, letting on to our vulnerability, asking for help – all of these are considered undesirable or impossible by so many of us.

Just when we most need to get on to our own humanity and physical limits, just when recovery without serious damage is still possible, we push on.

(4) Towards ill-health and breakdown

But they need me. But I’ll fail my performance review. But everyone is working this hard. But it’s the end of the quarter. But that project is about to ship. But it’s not possible to stop. 

But I’ll be letting them down.

But you don’t understand.

If we continue, as so many of us do, our bodies cannot cope any more. We get struck with a fever, an infection, or a much much more serious condition.

In this phase, let’s be clear, we put our ongoing capacity – and our lives – at profound risk. Though it rarely feels that way because, let’s face it, I’ve been ok so far.

And even though it’s abundantly clear that what’s required is taking care of ourselves, and insisting those around us take care of themselves too, so many of us continue to tell ourselves that it’s a luxury, an indulgence, and something we’ll get to only someday.

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On the performance of others

I’ve been arguing here for a while that human beings are deeply affected by what we’re around, including by other people. We are far from the separate, solitary, unitary individuals that our contemporary understanding (or at least the understanding of the past 200-300 years) would have us be.

This has far-reaching consequences for much of the ‘common sense’ by which we think about ourselves.

In the world of organisations in particular, it’s considered good practice by many to give people enduring labels such as ‘high performer’, ‘low performer’, ‘star’ or ‘troublemaker’. Whole performance management systems are based upon the premise that this is a reasonable thing to do.

What such labelling always leaves out is any understanding that we have any affect upon one another.

Someone who you are sure is a troublemaker may, indeed, be a gift of possibility when around others. A ‘low performer’ can easily be someone who contributes enormously when they’re in different company.

Being so sure about others’ enduring qualities without looking at your own role in how they show up means you’re missing a huge opportunity to effect change in whatever organisation or system you’re involved.

How people ‘perform’ around you, will – in the end – have as much to do with you, as it ever did with them.

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Simple, Complicated, Complex, Chaotic

Here’s a way to categorise the things we work with (from Dave Snowden), and the things we struggle with:

1 Simple

Things we can make sense of quickly and easily, for which no particular expertise is required beyond what we’d all be expected to have in our culture.

A light switch is a good example of ‘simple’. It’s obvious how it works, and what it does. On is onOff is off. And that’s it. There are no other ways to use a switch. No nuance, no special techniques, no room for creativity. A switch is just what it is.

We can learn how to deal with simple phenomena easily – a simple set of instructions, a little while shown it by another person, and we’re done.

2 Complicated

Complicated phenomena, such as the engine of a car, require something different. Most of the time an engine, to most of us, is a simple phenomenon. We turn the ignition, and off we go. But when the engine breaks down, or needs tuning, it becomes clear to us that it’s not simple at al.

Quite specific and broad-ranging expertise (theoretical and practical know-how) is required to work with a complicated situation. Any fault may have a number of causes, and it takes discernment and skill to both to discover the causes and to fix them. Many years of study may be required, and lots of practice. But built into our understanding of complicated phenomena is the understanding that there is a cause which leads directly to the problem and, with the right skilfulness and tools, dealing with the cause gets the engine working again.

We learn how to deal with complicated phenomena by developing expertise.

3 Complex

In complex phenomena, the link between causes and effects is much less straightforward and, in most cases, there is no way of saying that this cause produced this effect.

Organisations behave as complex phenomena much of the time, in large part brought about by human free will, our mysteriousness even to ourselves, and the complex web of interactions that changes us even as change things. Because every relationship and conversation I’m in affects me as I affect the conversation and relationship, and because this is happening in many interactions simultaneously, there’s really no way of knowing quite what causes anything.

Expertise can only get us a little way here. What to do has an emergent quality. We discover it out only as we engage in doing and experimenting, and it relies on our openness and our capacity to feel our way.

4 Chaotic

With chaotic phenomena, such as occur in many sudden and unexpected crises, we can’t find any link between cause and effect. There’s no way of knowing what will happen from what we do, but we have to act anyway. Best practice and expertise can’t help us.

It’s our ability to come up with novel actions and new ways of making sense, to free ourselves from our rigidity and habit, to observe accurately and truthfully, and to trust ourselves in the middle of not knowing what’s going on that serve us here.

So much of our difficulty, and our suffering, comes from failing to see that there are these different kinds of phenomena and that they require different kinds of response. In particular, in so many of our organisations and in our politics, it’s our determination to treat everything as if it’s simple or complicated that gets us into so much trouble.

Perhaps it shouldn’t surprise us that our determination to understand everything as a machine where an expert can determine cause and effect – the same instinct that leads us to punishment and reward, carrot and stick, bonuses and KPIs, process and best practicebehaviour frameworks and forced-ranking performance ratings, rigid hierarchies and command-and-control – doesn’t seem to help us nearly as much as we imagine in our organisational lives.

It’s only when we see the limits of expertise, in so many of the domains that matter in our lives, that we can open ourselves to responding in a way that’s called for. And that’s why working on our development matters so much – because development is always a process of loosening our grip on what we’re most certain about, and most rigid about, and opening more and more to the world as it presents itself to us rather than the world as we’ve concluded it to be.

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Planetary Bodies

Finding out how much you’re shaped by the others who are around you could easily be a cause for resignation.

After all, if it’s not all down to you, what’s the point of taking any responsibility for what you do? From here it’s all too easy to attribute everything that happens to ‘the system’ or ‘the culture’.

But that would be too narrow a position to take, by far. Because – even in a complex situation such as an organisation, or a community, or a family – everyone is bringing everyone into being. Like the bodies in a planetary system, each of us is not only subject to the pull and push of others, but is an active part of bringing ourselves and others into our orbits around one another. We don’t have unlimited power to shape what happens around us, but we’re not at all powerless either.

This requires us to take more responsibility, not less. To see change for the better as the result of many small acts of choice – choices that can only start with each of us.

And this is why attending to our development is so important. Because development always includes learning to move from reacting to responding – seeing through our automaticity and becoming more able to be the authors of what we do as the world presents itself to us.

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Shaping One Another

We’d had a testy exchange earlier in the week and by the time we met, I was sure that he really had it in for me.

Except, he quite probably didn’t. But I was quite sure of how he was going to be in this interaction, and who I was in response. And so I was careful, detached, defensive, and withholding of myself. And the more I was that way with him, the more his sense of distrust and discomfort with me was amplified. Pretty soon we were both spinning away from one another in a spiral of distance and mutual recrimination.

And what’s startling about this is not, perhaps, the obvious point that my story about all this shaped how I was with him. It’s that my story about him also profoundly affected how he was with me.  

We don’t just shape ourselves with the stories we tell ourselves. We shape one another, bringing each other forth even when we might think our stories and interpretations are private and personal.

Seeing this opens up enormous possibilities.

Firstly, and most immediately, that I might actively work to see what interpretation I’m bringing to people and situations, and believe my own stories less readily.

And, secondly, we might start to question the highly individualistic accounts we have about what happens in our organisations. Because if the way he is with me is shaped by my stories, how much more so is the way we all are in our work shaped not just by our own stories but by the stories of all those we are around.

In our organisations, and in our communities, we are all bringing one another into being. This renders many of our simplistic cause-and-effect accounts of performance and outcome very shaky indeed. And it ought to have us deeply question the way we give feedback, hold one another accountable, carry out performance reviews, explain success and failure, and blame others when things don’t go the way we’d hoped.

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Learning to walk

What it takes to learn to walk:

Having things around us to hold onto – sofas, chairs, people’s legs
Experimenting – learning by doing rather than by thinking it through
People to model walking for us
People to applaud us, encourage us on
People who know what we’re working on and are willing to let it happen
Falling
People who are willing to let us fall
Spaces that will allow us to fall
Allowing ourselves to be clumsy
Gentleness with ourselves
Sufficient time
Caring enough about it to stay at it
Our willingness to open to a new and unknown world

How rarely we allow our learning to be this way. Increasingly, and particularly in our organisations, we want learning to be quick, simple, obvious, least-effort, fail-safe, planned from end to end. We want to not make mistakes, not look stupid, not expose ourselves. We want immediate, measurable results.

We want to not be troubled by what and how we learn.

We want to know where we’re going before we set off.

We don’t want to be surprised.

We apply these criteria even to what’s most rewarding, most meaningful, and most pragmatically useful to us.

And even when it’s quite the opposite of what’s actually, most practically, called for.

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Confusing the path with those who walk it

I can see few clearer examples of the consequences of confusing paths and people than in the National Health Service here in England.

We are in a period of acute austerity, which has resulted in the wide-scale degradation (some would say dismantling) of social care services, leaving hospitals filled with elderly people who should not be there at all but have nowhere else to go. This, coupled with a funding model for hospitals that pays them less for caring for such patients than for other vital services, forces those who run NHS Trusts to choose between:

(1) running up a huge deficit to prop up the failing social care system, while continuing to provide the services that people rely on

(2) or greatly cutting back on spending in order to balance the books, either by limiting elective surgery (which, while not life-critical, can have an enormous effect on the quality of life of the people served by the hospital), or by cutting back on the quality of care, with all the attendant risks to safety and dignity of patients.

Each choice is fraught with difficulty and the potential for harm. And each is the product of a much wider societal, political and economic environment which itself shapes the paths that are possible.

When we fall back on our familiar individualistic interpretations, we quickly conclude that someone must be to blame for having to make such choices at all. And this leads us to conclude (a) that the people involved in making such choices must clearly be incompetent or misguided, otherwise they’d be able to make the right decision, and (b) that someone else – a new leader, someone with their head screwed on – will be able to sort it out.

And all of this draws our explanations away from the path itself and what creates it, and towards those who find themselves on it.

We get blinded to the systemic difficulty by our insistence that it’s personal.

And this in turn lays out and reinforces a particular kind of path of its own – one which holds even talented and committed people responsible for that which they cannot control, and leads those who would otherwise wish to contribute to stay well away.

It’s easy to see the effect of this path on people’s willingness to step in: the average tenure for an NHS Chief Executive is only two and a half years (Source: NHS Leadership Academy), nearly 1 in 10 NHS Trusts has no finance director, around 1 in 8 has no director of operations, and vacancies for these posts remain unfilled for months at a time (Source: The King’s Fund).

In the NHS the discipline of good path-making has implications at all levels, including the political and policy situation that could brought about by government if the will was there (the purposeful cultivation of paths that could have the NHS thrive instead of the cultivation of those that have it and those within it flounder). But the phenomenon is also visible at a much more local level in smaller organisations, because the narrative of individual accountability is a background assumption upon which many so organisations are founded.

And until we’re willing to treat the systemic and collective practice of path-making as a serious project in our organisations and in our wider culture, we’re writing ourselves again and again into paths that sustain the very difficulties we most want to solve.

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Changing the path

We human beings are both path-makers and path-followers. Both are important, but it’s our innate capacity to follow paths that makes possible so much of what we are able to do, and gives it its character.

Notice this in your own home. How the door handle draws you to open the door, how the kitchen table is an invitation to sit, how the half-full fridge calls you to open its doors and find something to eat. Notice how a library is a place you find yourself hushed and reverential, how you push and shove to take up your place on a crowded train even though you would do this nowhere else, how you rise in unison to shout at a football game, how the words on the page guide you through the speech you are giving even when you’re not concentrating closely on them, how you quicken your step in a darkened alley, how you find yourself having driven for hours on a busy motorway without remembering what actions and choice any of the minutes entailed.

Our capacity to follow the paths laid out for us is no deficiency. That the paths support us in the background, and that we do not have to think about them, is what frees us for so much of what is creative and inventive in human life – including our capacity to design entirely new paths for ourselves and others.

To be human, then, is always in a large part to find ourselves shaped by what we find ourselves in the midst of.

It is all of this that exposes the limits of our individualistic understanding of people and their actions – an understanding we use to make sense of much of what happens in organisational life. For when we are sure that it is the individual who is the source of all actions and behaviour, we are blind to the paths that they find themselves in the midst of.

And as long as we concentrate only on getting individual people to change, or firing or changing our leaders until we get the ‘perfect’ right one, we miss the opportunity to work together to change or lay out the new paths which could help everyone.

Indeed, working to change the paths that lend themselves to whatever difficulty we wish to address may be the most important work we can do. And this always includes our developing – together – the skills and qualities that support us in being purposeful path-makers in the first place.

 

Safe, or so it seems

Our fear of freedom is a profound source of difficulty in our organisations.

We’re afraid of taking up our own freedom, because with freedom comes risk, and with freedom comes responsibility.

If I speak up, create something new, make a dent in things, allow my feelings to show, do what matters, say no to something, or question a process, person or idea… then who knows what might happen? I might inspire someone, influence a whole system, do something that really matters, fail, be embarrassed. I might be loved, adulated, judged, hated, despised or – for some of us worst of all – not noticed at all.

No, better not to take up our own freedom.

It’s way too risky.

And we’re afraid of others taking up their freedom, because we fear our own wishes will be thwarted or we’ll be ashamed.

If others are free then I might get questioned, I may lose my sense of control, I may get judged, my ideas might be sidelined, I might be less powerful. I might feel vulnerable, afraid, surprised, opened. I might find out I don’t know as much as I thought I knew. I might find a whole new path opening up before me, or end up somewhere quite different from where I expected.

No, better not to allow others to take up their freedom.

And so we curtail our liberty in every direction. We become the inventors of and followers of rules that don’t serve us. We declare boundaries where none are needed, or fail to declare them when they could help. We stay small, in predictable bounds. We bury ourselves in email. We invent processes that keep us feeling safe and secure. We try to fit in at the expense of standing out. We do things because they’re ‘best practice’ but not because they help. And we do what we can to avoid making a ruckus, inviting trouble, or allowing ourselves or others to shine.

It’s tiring. It leaves us diminished and scattered and at odds with our own aliveness.

But at least it’s safe.

Or so it seems.

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