Speaking truth to power

I don’t recall when I first heard this phrase. It’s one of those, for me, where I have to read it and re-read it just so I’m clear on what it’s saying. It’s a powerful short turn of phrase meant to infer that when the powerful are carrying on regardless, and their actions are causing harm or otherwise, there is a duty on the people to speak truth to them and demand change.

Bit heavy eh.

There are so many things in this turn of phrase to be able to understand and wield. If someone is driven to speak truth to power, there must be something pretty unjust happening, and that individual or group need the confidence to step up and make themselves heard.

We are used to individuals and groups doing this through formal means and we see it on national stage happening often. The Mid Staffs issues of care in hospitals, the CQC involvement in care homes, unions striking because of perceived unfair behaviour by big companies, the way UK politics has taken a beating at the last election. People have ways and means to be able to make their voice heard on the big things that matter.

But what about organisationally? How do we cultivate a work environment where people feel they can speak truth to power? This, I see, is one of those areas where OD truly comes into its purpose. What kind of organisational settings are there where people can feel that if they have a concern, it can be raised with confidence, and without repercussion.

I’m not simply referring to whistleblowing policies, or engagement surveys, or anonymous suggestions boxes or having internal or enterprise social networks. But how does a senior manager confront a senior director about their working practise to let them know there’s a problem with what they ask and it needs improving? How does a team member go to another department and let them know their process is inefficient and they’ve got an idea on how they can improve? How does the CEO of a company challenge his exec team to be more inclusive when he has knowledge that things aren’t right? How does one individual approach another and offer help to complete their project knowing it has little chance of success otherwise?

You can’t write a policy for these things to happen, mostly because these things aren’t about policies. They’re about dynamics between people. Call it culture if you want to, and as Laurie Ruettimann often says on her blog, we all play a part of the culture we are signed up to. You can’t legislate for someone to act in ways where they can speak truth to power. It happens because someone is so pissed off with the status quo that change must happen.

I have no easy answer here. There is no silver bullet and there is no golden nugget. This is one of those topics where people bury their heads in the sand because they don’t want to examine how these things happen. Either because they don’t want to deal with hard conversations like these, or because they’re fooling themselves into thinking they’re already hearing these conversations. This is where OD can influence those conversations to happen, and I think is one of the key purposes of being in such a role.

Sure it’s about trust and honesty and transparency and all of those things. But if you have someone who doesn’t want to be part of that way of doing things, then what? If you have a group of people who persistently don’t act in a certain way, then what? If you have an individual who is the one chomping at the bit and no one else is biting, then what?

What I do believe is that we can influence these things organisationally. We can find the right forums for people to do this. In my work as a facilitator, there are often times when I hear conversations, or edges of conversations and make a call about challenging what I’m hearing. That’s not me speaking truth to power, I’m just reflecting openly what I’m hearing. The truth to power gets spoken by the people present. Sometimes it works, and sometimes it doesn’t. Where it does happen, I know that I’ve created the right environment for it to happen. Where it doesn’t it tells me that I have more work to do in helping people raise their voice in a safe way.

What does this post get you thinking?

Being kind, the Internet and good stories

There are a lot of wise people who already talk about the value of being kind to others and showing and expressing appreciation. It’s all easy to understand and we can nod our heads. And I wonder, when we see these things in the world of social media, do we roll our eyes and skim passed as quickly as possible?

I know a good many people in the social space who just enjoy sharing good news stuff and motivational quotes and inspirational stuff. It’s their bag, I get it.

I also don’t knowingly know anyone in the online world who actively abuses others. Trolling, criticising with mal intent, verbal abuse, offensive language intending to harm and hurt, causing threat to others, that kind of thing. I see it plenty and read all sorts of stories about stuff like this, though, and I am constantly amazed at how and why people act in such ways.

One of the things talked about in the world of emotional intelligence is in understanding that all our emotions are useful and helpful to us, and that includes difficult emotions like anger and sadness. Our challenge when feeling these emotions is in being able to find safe and supportive ways of expression that allow the individual experiencing them to know they can do that. And one of the important elements in hearing these messages is in discerning if we need to actively support the resolution of those emotions.

In the online world, it’s so very hard to know what intent a person has when they share difficult messages. Are they ok? Why would they share that? What did they say? That’s just rude. How offensive. They could get in trouble for that. It must be their parenting. Don’t they have a sensor for saying these things?

When we then see people being kind it offers a counterbalance to such activity. When I advocate for #3goodthings it’s often because I want people to appreciate an acceptance of expressing the good they see, feel and experience. Good stories help connect us back to what it is to be human and to have faith in fellow people.

The challenge is in balancing wanting to share the good stuff, while not denying the bad stuff. Bad stuff happens too, and when it does, we need to be able to accept it and just let that stuff happen. It’ll pass and when it does, we can focus on the good.

With thanks to Julie Drybrough and Joey Stephenson for their thinking in helping me write today’s post.

Why learning at work isn’t the same as learning a hobby

One of the common pieces of rhetoric that comes with the social learning brigade is that the accessibility of information for improving your knowledge about a hobby is at your fingertips, and so should be the same at work. Except this is completely the wrong analogy and just doesn’t compare to the reality of what it means to learn a hobby.

When we have a hobby, it’s because something has sparked an interest in us to such an extent that we want to pursue that activity on a regular basis. It holds a personal meaning to us and we find value in doing the hobby. It might even be that the hobby is a strength of ours and allows us to find a way to express our strength in a way that is useful to us. Ultimately, though, a hobby is often about our self identity. It’s something we do regularly enough that it can define us in a certain way.

With the ease of technology we can create or find communities of people who share that hobby and we can have a proper discussion about it. That’s pretty awesome when it happens. You feel like you belong. You have a kinship with others. You share a common language. You’re prepared to accept words of wisdom and criticism and feedback. It’s all ok, because you have the support of others. Hobbies rule.

When we spend time learning about a hobby, there’s often no outcome in mind. We’re not setting out to do it to achieve a goal or an objective. We’re doing it because we want to do it. We’ll learn things along the way, and find information that helps us learn more. Technicalities become important. The right language becomes important. Development of skills becomes important. Feedback on what you’ve achieved becomes important. Nuances and subtleties become important. And it’s all with time as a non-factor. It doesn’t matter if it takes two years or two weeks to learn more. It’s a hobby, and so by nature is something done in pastime.

At some point, you might become so skilled at your hobby that you’re willing to share your knowledge with others. It’s never a given, and is always the option of the individual. If they choose to share their knowledge, that could happen in so many ways, and it might even become an option to be paid for that knowledge.

For sure, though, as part of the hobby, learning is a constant activity, and in the digital age, learning can happen instantly.

Everything I’ve described above just can’t happen at work because the context of workplace learning and development is vastly different.

The primary thing is that workplace L&D is fundamentally about skills development of some sort and is often timebound. If you need to use MS Excel, you can’t meander and take your time over a six month period. It has to be immediate and it has to improve performance. If it doesn’t then the L&D activity is worthless and useless. The social learning brigade argue that when people need to learn MS Excel they will search Google or YouTube to find the knowledge they need. Sure they will, but that’s not how learning or development occurs. It’s the discussions, the Q&A with a community and the testing and practise which support the L&D to happen.

What we’re now learning about our roles as L&D practitioners is how to better argue the case for embedding learning using holistic methods. What we’re also learning as L&D practitioners is how to design those holistic learning methods into the L&D provision. You can take the principles of hobby based learning and adapt them to workplace learning, but the analogy just doesn’t translate.

Add to that also the fact that most workplace learning tends to be centred around activities and tasks which most of us don’t care about and never want to care about. You use tools and models and techniques and systems at work because you have to, not because you have a deep seated desire to. I like using our LMS to help support the learning we offer to our workforce, but I don’t spend my spare time tinkering with it week after week, in forums, reading blog posts, discussing with others or any other type of activity with it. Partly because I don’t need to, but mostly because it’s just not that important to me.

Performance support, job aids, online communities of practise, open learning access, social network access, e-learning, face to face sessions are all useful and helpful ways to create holistic learning solutions. But just because someone has to use a system or learn about the culture of the workplace, doesn’t mean they want to spend their personal time actively doing exactly that.

Mindful practise at work

When I started to learn about mindfulness, I was immediately drawn to it. Sure that’s because I’m a lefty liberal who is pink and fluffy, and I found that I struggled with it. This was mostly because my experience of meditation is different and I couldn’t make mindfulness fit.

In the Sikh religion, meditation is done as a collective experience. Of course it can be done on your own, but the practice tends to be with a group of others. Mindfulness, then, for me was a challenge. How could I embody this way of thinking and focus while being by myself?

I’ve found that it’s in my day to day stuff and work practise that I’m more able to take on being mindful as opposed to sitting quietly. It tends to be in my interactions with others that I can open myself to being mindful in a way I may not do otherwise. Below are some further examples of how you can think about how mindfulness can be manifest in day to day work interactions.

Project work

Often when we’re working on projects there are moments when we become personally stuck. It can be beneficial at these moments to take a break from the project, even if only for a few minutes, and cultivate mindfulness. This can be done by getting a glass of water, going for a walk, of even just breathing. Remember, with mindfulness it’s less about the act itself and more about the experience of what you’re doing. Taking the time to fully and wholly just experience that one thing. What does it feel like? What does it make you think? What’s happening to your body? Where are you thoughts bring taken to? How can you focus just on the one thing?

In doing this, what you’re enabling is for the body and mind to be occupied with just one thought. When you’ve had the time to do this, you’ll then be able to decide how to move forward with the project. Not necessarily immediately but certainly with more options available to you as you’ve been able to separate yourself from it which gives space to think better on it.

Facilitation with groups

As a facilitator, one of the many skills involved is encouraging the group to be inclusive with one another. That means needing to hear different people, be aware of the overall discussion, watch for people and their contributions, not forcing people to talk but creating an environment where they can, listening to tonality of voices, and being observant of body language. The role of the facilitator in these situations is to help everyone be the best of themselves and contribute in ways that are useful and helpful to others.

It’s also about your own thoughts, feelings and focus and how you perceive these are being impacted or influenced by the group and how you can provide direction, instruction or guidance on moving forward.

Difficult conversations

For many managers at work, they need to have difficult conversations at some point. When these need to be had, emotions are already flying high and it can be tough to ensure that the conversation will go well even with being well prepared.

Being mindful in these situations enables the manager to be able to understand the fluctuation in their emotions as the conversation is being had and also in how the other person is responding. What that means is the manager should be able to respond in ways which are more useful to them and the other person to have a better conversation.

These are just some examples of how I see mindfulness in practise may be easier to understand for some and allows for a different set of exploration on how to cultivate the practise as individuals.

Time for a fresh perspective? #blimage

Earlier this week, Kandy Woodfield invited me to write a blog post as part of the #blimage blog challenge. The image she provided is someone standing on their head with the caption “time for a fresh perspective?”.

I’ve been doing a fair amount of facilitation based activity lately. Facilitation is where I shine, where I thrive and where I am truly at my best. It’s a craft and it’s a combination of skills which when brought together create an experience and that remains my focus. How can I help craft that experience as a facilitator?

I’ve also been in discussion lately with other about awards and accreditations and the benefit of pitching yourself against others. How can you know if you’re doing well if you don’t put yourself out there and benchmark against others? What does great look like, and how do you know if you’re doing great? How are you measuring your level of great and is it skewed to be in your favour?

And I’ve been discussing with others about my blogging. I blog regularly and share my experiences, thoughts, insights, practice, and feelings openly. It was remarked to me that as a practitioner this is brave. I reflected that I don’t recognise it as that and understand how it can be seen that way.

For me, my practice started to significantly shift when I discovered social media. I became a quick advocate of this new technology and have remained so ever since. I don’t do social media particularly well, I’m just present a lot on Twitter and my blog. That doesn’t equate to quality. (Not seeking affirmation here). I’m present a lot because I come across such good content that is worth sharing. I’m currently amazed at my number of Twitter followers. People follow me for all sorts of reasons, and for that I’m pretty grateful. It doesn’t always equate to quality dialogue, that happens with a far less number.

What social media helped do for me is offer me perspectives on things I never knew I wanted to have a perspective on, or develop my thinking on. I now have positions on MOOCs, behavioural economics, marketing, recruitment, brands, cats, politics, life, family, religion and so much more because I’ve read things which force my thinking to kick into gear. I’ve read outrageously racist things, deeply sad things, highly offensive things, massively amusing things, life affirmingly beautiful things and all sorts. I don’t care if it’s short form or long form, it’s all been valuable.

This accessibility we now have is so amazing that it informs my practice. I can see the benefits of digital literacy and social media has not just for me but for supporting the development of the workforce. I’m there with it, living it, breathing it, embedding it I  all I do. Today in a meeting someone said they didn’t want to fall foul of having their phone on in the meeting. I shared that I’m really easy with it being on. He’s an adult, he’s capable of knowing if a phone alert is important enough to disturb us being together. When our smartphones are such a part of our lives, who am I to determine if you’re allowed to use it in my presence?

It’s not that social media in and of itself enabled me to develop and hone and craft. It’s the many things I became aware of that suddenly became things I wanted to do and be part of. I learned about unconferences. I learned about flipped classroom learning. I learned about memes. I learned about content strategy. I learning about UX. I learned about big data. I learned about Open Space. I learned about Appreciative Inquiry. I learned about lots of things which I wanted to take, investigate further, learn more about and incorporate into what I do.

It’s a long journey. It takes persistence, as Kandy talked about, and it means that as much as I might think my craft is good, I can’t become complacent because I have all these fresh perspectives supporting my personal and professional development.

Yo, Tim Scott, I nominate you for a #blimage blog post with this inspiration…


Developing a learning culture

I remember not so long ago, developing a learning culture was what L&D professionals were most concerned with. Thinking back on it, and reflecting on recent years of technology development, I wonder if we really understood what we wanted to achieve? Not in terms of the aim, but in terms of the how.

I mean not more than 10 years ago, online learning wasn’t really a thing because the technology wasn’t there, Encarta was probably still high up people’s reference list, Google was just becoming a thing, e-learning was pretty niche and restricted to compliance stuff, YouTube was becoming a thing too, communities of practise were proper out there if they happened at all, social media was My Space and Friends Reunited, On Demand TV was what you had with Home Choice and knowledge management systems were expensive.

I wonder if we look back on the companies who were lauded as having great learning cultures were the ones who were doing 70:20:10 type stuff but never had that name for it?

I look at today’s organisations, with the tech so much more advanced than we could imagine, and with much deeper understanding of what it takes to create a learning culture and how to design great learning solutions, and I wonder how we define that in today’s terms? Is it even still a thing that we are trying to pursue? If not, what is our goal as L&D/OD professionals?

My biggest challenge, in most organisations I’ve been with and in discussing with many others, is cultivating that change to happen through others in the business. Some examples:

A manager asked me to help think about how to develop customer service training. After discussing various supplier options and who the target audience was, I started asking questions around using internal capability instead of external suppliers. People are clever, get them together and we’ll create a solution that is homegrown. The manager will probably still go down the external route, but that conversation about internal capability has started. I’ll keep advocating it too as it’s the right thing to do.

Another manager asked me to consider how to deliver training on a system to all people in the company. I am firmly against mandatory training on such things as that’s never the way to get buy in for the system. Instead I’m going to create a whole advertising campaign about it using insights from marketing – and don’t forget folks, marketing works. I’m also going to make use of Skype for Business (the new name for MS Lync) to deliver learning to people at their desks and have people going out to sites and troubleshooting for people live.

These are my challenges. I’m clearly an advocate for a broad range of learning solutions, and it’s about what works for the organisation, and it’s also about how I advocate for those solutions when business leaders come to me wanting a training course.

Context has always mattered. What works in my organisation may not work in your organisation. What worked in a previous organisation may work in this one with some tweaks. In creating a learning culture, it’s the context which always wins and determines how a learning solution can work.

Why it’s hard to be emotionally intelligent

I’ve been doing some reflection on why emotional intelligence can be such a tough subject for people to understand. The crux of things comes down to the fact that emotions drive behaviour. We may not want to believe that, but it’s true. Once we accept that, is when we can start to develop our understanding of how this happens in ourselves and in others. Once we understand how our emotions affect us, we can choose to act in ways which help us cultivate better relationships. That’s emotional intelligence. And it ain’t easy.

Beyond this understanding of what it is to be emotionally intelligent, I’m working through the ‘but why can’t people just get it’ challenge. I believe there are two factors to the answer to this question.

The first is in knowing what the baseline is for someone else. Knowing someone’s baseline is about knowing what does normal behaviour look like for them? And that’s hard, because everyone’s normal is highly individual and very nuanced. Once you understand someone’s baseline, if that persons behaviour changes unexpectedly and significantly, then we can be pretty sure they’ve has an emotional reaction to something which needs to be explored, and hopefully support them in being better.

In personal relationships (partners, friends, loved ones), it can be naturally easier to know the baseline for the other person. That doesn’t mean we always respond appropriately if they’re having an emotional reaction, it just means we are better able to recognise when they’ve had an emotional reaction.

In working relationships, establishing a baseline can be hard particularly because we don’t have the time to develop that understanding with everyone we work with. With our team members it’s going to be easier to gain that knowledge, but with peers and colleagues who we see infrequently, it’ll be a challenge and fraught with assumptions we need to battle.

And we can’t forget the importance of a persons culture on what their baseline might be for them. For example, heavy gesticulating of arms is expressive communication for Italians, is seen as overly excessive by the English, and as aggressive by Indians. What this also points to is everything we’ve ever known about body language was from flawed insights.

The baseline. Hard to gain that insight at all, once we have it and we see unexpected significant changes, do we know how to respond better to help support that person and build relationships?

The other factor is in knowing what triggers an emotional reaction. In some work I’ve done with Phil Willcox on this he describes this as catching the spark before the flame. It’s a great turn of phrase. Every emotional reaction happens because of a trigger. That trigger, like the baseline, is unique and individual to everyone. But less obvious is what triggers we all have. Even with partners and those who know us intimately, this may not be obvious. Our triggers will motivate us, they will protect us, they will build empathy, and they will stop us from certain actions.

That’s where deeper work around personal coaching or counselling can be beneficial. In understanding our triggers better, we can catch that spark before the flame and better decide what action we want to take next. What are the specific things that happen before you are surprised? Before you get angry? Before you hate something? Before you laugh? Before you feel love or affection? Before you are afraid?

In knowing these things we can make better informed decisions about what emotion has been or is about to be triggered and we can modify our behaviour for a better outcome if we recognise our normal reaction may not be appropriate or helpful.

It’s quite deep all that stuff up there, isn’t it? Which is partly indicative of how difficult it is to be emotionally intelligent and at the same time provides an insight into what level of reflection/insight is needed to cultivate and support development of emotional intelligence in ourselves and in others.