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The Pulse of Organisational Development is…

Greetings from a conference venue packed with shiny suits, touch screen displays, overflowing bowls of sweat, and just one big, red and inviting Heartstyles Heart (for those of you that don’t know, this is a character development tool that is currently deepening all the work I do –

We are exhibiting at this conference for the second time, and I wanted to share the shift in momentum and interest that I have observed from colleagues in the field.  Thus far this conference has been a fascinating check on the pulse of the field of organisational psychology, psychometric assessment, leadership development and coaching, and in the main I have been disappointed. The persistent desire to place an ‘=’ sign against every person and assumption about people, has made the field seem more narrow and irrelevant than ever.

The palpable anxiety around the full human experience has been counter balanced by an obsession with measurement and prediction and the ability to sell anything that ranks, ticks, orders and even condemns people. It was a worthwhile reminder that the field emanated in this country from the mining industry – exploiting resources seems to be in its DNA – and not much seems to have changed.

In this field there seems to be no space for the magical, for the unearthed potential, for curves of growth and learning that shift and meander like all organic things do. There is an avoidance of the blurry and unpredictable expressions and sources of emotion. I also haven’t seen so many black leather jackets in one room since a Michael Jackson ‘Bad’ concert.

But there have been glimmers. As if stumbling across an elephant swimming at sea (that actually did happen recently – but rather go with the metaphor), there has been surprise and intrigue at what we do with Heartstyles. Without fail, each person that hears of our unashamed celebration of humanity and heart in the workplace – grabs an info sheet and leaves me their name wanting to know more. From miners, to retailers, bankers and consultants, they all light up, as if we have given them permission to go with their intuition and embrace what really matters – seeing people as people and allowing them to question the reductionist approach to everything else being peddled in the hall.

Its as if we were permission givers to celebrate potential and humanity within the lines of the balance sheets and organisational organogram. I must say, it felt good, and we seemed more relevant than ever!




The Coach and her Porsche

She arrived in a Porsche and wore her status with comfort and celebrity swag.

That was how he described the moment he first noticed her as his small, matchbox-like rental pulled up next to her. To his surprise, he next saw her striding across the conference stage to own the podium.

‘She was a coach!’ he exclaimed. At this point the professor lifted his eyebrows close to his hair line and dropped his mouth so deep he almost swallowed his chin. I have become used to that sequence of facial expressions when it comes to coaching and Psychologists. It’s controversial but I am not that interested in the petty turf wars.

It seems the Prof was most affronted by the idea that coaches speak so openly about their ROI – evidently the topic of Porsche lady’s conference key note.  As a Clinical and Organisational Psychology Professor, he was challenged by the ease with which some coaches even believe they could ascribe their efficacy to themselves. And then the pearls came.

According to his understanding of the research, the personal attributes of an individual counselor, therapist or coach in defining the outcomes of a process are have less impact than the context, environment, life stage, clarity of need, desire, motivation levels and quality of rapport and and and. With that in mind, how could a coach or therapist claim an ROI that links directly to their inputs and efforts? Especially because it seems more external variables are to be considered. As a result sometimes poor coaches achieve success and great coaches seem to fail. So let’s focus on one aspect of the coaching relationship – Rapport.

I call it ‘Temporary Accelerated Trust’, and here are the facts. When time is invested in genuine rapport building (note it says ‘Genuine’) confessions and admissions of culpability among suspected terrorists were four times more likely than in low or no rapport engagements. Criminal detainees were also 14 times more likely to disclose information earlier in an interview, with 50% providing some self-incriminating statements and approximately one quarter of the detainees fully disclosing their guilt. From the realm of Terrorists and Criminals, rapport is basically the essential ingredient. It could be that the ability of a coach to build rapport, drives success more than anything else, and that without any training, an individual who can build rapport might out perform a qualified coach who can’t.  Could it be that the ability to listen, match and mirror, to be warm and quickly find common ground matters most?

That type of research should build humility, and I think it is all important – the training, the attributes, the context etc. The more we understand all these influences the more skilfully we can navigate the engagement.

In time, I believe the fields of Psychology and Coaching will converge, and those that can provide support towards sustainable and observable behaviour change will claim their relevance in organisations. We may also extend our definition of ROI and focus it on human to human engagements that supports functionality and effectiveness, care and kindness and all those inherently human qualities that we see too little of in today’s world.

If that is what coaching can offer the world, then each coach deserves to drive a Porsche and own center stage.

We trust behaviours more than intent!

‘Trust me, it will all be OK.’

‘Trust me, my intentions are good.’

‘Trust me, just trust me’

Usually all said with a glint in the eye and a warm, nodding smile.

It seems trust is preoccupying not only my thoughts but my work too. Trust me, it must be important then (I write that with a grin).

Interesting how often we use the word, and yet may not fully understand what it means.

A cohort of leaders with whom I have worked for a number of years were recently discussing a series of events that transpired at a work function. The leader decided to take the management team to a fancy restaurant to celebrate recent results. Some team members made the most of the occasion with a bottle or three of wine. Others expressed their concern that those behaviours were not consistent with the values of the business, and set an inappropriate example. In my presence the conversation simmered, and both sides gathered their support. It was becoming real and dropping to the level of depth and insight that the team needed to explore (Trust and Conflict require attention in that team).

The leader then dropped the mute bomb, ‘You just have to trust my intentions’. Silence.

That was followed by a stern rebuke ‘We need to be careful about the perceptions we have about behaviour and rather focus on the facts about the behaviour.’

For a few moments I was impressed and genuinely beguiled by the seemingly coherent jumble of big words.  Then confusion. So what was he saying?

Partly I heard blame for something that someone did wrong. Maybe that impression came from the stare he aimed at the person who started the debate.

I basically heard him state that his intent should ‘just be trusted’ because it was more representative of the truth. And that is what made no sense because the assumptions we make about someone’s behaviour IS our truth, and the only way to shift that perception is to change the behaviour, or seek to understand directly from that person what their behaviour was intended to communicate. Boom.

My interpretation (maybe cynical but I believe well informed), is that he wanted the group to always give him the benefit of the doubt without having actually earned that right. That was a big mistake because it immediately closed any further conversations about the various perceptions and assumptions that his behaviours created. No matter what others may interpret from the behaviour, he expects everyone to assume positive intent. La la land theme song.

And then to the blame. Do you know that over 90% of all managers believe that a blame culture is the greatest destroyer of trust? What they mean is that when there is an error, a mistake or a less than desired outcome, if a leader hones in and loads blame onto an individual only, it sends tectonic reverberations through an organisation. Trust shatters.

In contrast, the leader who chooses to explore all the conditions that enabled the mistake or failure, starting systemically and ending with the individual, is likely to solve the causes and bolster trust.

To summarise. I won’t just trust you because you say so. I will have no idea what your intentions are unless you tell me, and in the absence of that, I will interpret your intentions through your behaviours and habits. As much as you might want me to trust your intent, your behaviour matters more, and leaks your true intent. And finally, when you single out individuals as the primary cause of discontent, I trust your judgement even less.

Here is a tip.

Be consistent and demonstrate your intent through your actions. Seek causes for what goes wrong from all the places where it might have started and depersonalise your perspective with curiosity and not blame.

Then, and only then, may I trust you.

Do we really know enough about People to develop them?

I froze. My cardboard coffee cup hung, mid-sip from my lips. The electric black and red slide projected across the whiteboard, drew all my attention. It was slick, the font slammed the desk with authority and the silky smooth tones of the presenters lured me in. Then panic. I was presenting next, and my attempt at answering the brief was, well…brief. The show continued with text books worth of frameworks and warm and fuzzy data. Confidence oozed across the boardroom table, and even I, sitting in my spot on the edge of the furthest bend from the screen, felt awed and intimidated. Had I got the brief so wrong? Had I finally been exposed as the imposter in the room?

It ended. And we all breathed.

Our eyes turned to the professor, sitting with a quizzical frown in the corner of the room. His leather jacket’s high collar hugged his neck, and took a decade off him.  His eyes squeezed like a finger on a trigger and then boom!

The question that followed shattered all the gloss off that porcelain presentation.

‘So where is Psychology in that impressive Industrial Psychology show?’

With the melting speed of butter in a pan, the snappy statements and bold predictions of success disappeared in confusion and concern. The presenters slumped.


‘You are Psychologists’ continued the cool academic, ‘so where in this presentation have you formulated a psychological perspective on the case study? All I see is an HR diploma, masquerading as an Industrial Psychologist, and pulling random frameworks and processes into a series of phrases and expected outcomes. It’s coherent, but makes no sense.’

The room went silent. I smiled on the inside, more out of relief than arrogance.

My training in Clinical Psychology was finally going to be relevant. I had begun to develop an aversion to the constant shrug of my shoulders and shake of my head when asked whether I knew that model or that framework in Industrial and Organisational Psychology speak.

The Professor continued.

‘If you cannot have a layered view on the psychological impact on people, real humans, then what is your role in organisations?’

The debate flowed, and what ensued was a startling series of admission and discoveries.

The long and short of it, is that too many people in HR and Industrial and Organisational Psychology, are under-equipped and unsure of their knowledge of Psychology and behaviour. They seem to evade emotion, and grasp for two dimensional processes, maps and diagrams to order their anxiety. The nett effect is the following:

  1. Too little enquiry and robust exploration of the ‘real’ brief. Often times just taking issues at face value.
  2. An uncertainty about psychological theory and evidence to frame their understanding of what drives behaviour.
  3. The development of a transactional relationship with leaders and leadership teams that reinforces a deterministic view on people and which makes it seem as if all people can be shaped, pushed and prodded through a process to change. Box ticked.

There is more, but in essence, I have learnt one key lesson. For too long I have steered people away from knowing that I am a Psychologist. I imagined people would recoil at the news. To be fair, at times they did, but if my world is focused on supporting individuals and teams to choose alternative behaviours that drive higher levels of effectiveness, then I had better understand emotion, cognition, habit, mental models, neuroscience, the mind, dysfunction, defence mechanisms, health and more. Without understanding that, it seems unlikely much will change.

The way things stand (this is going to sound harsh) many practitioners in the people field, do not understand people that well at all. They do know a lot, and intuitive feel and perception counts, but in many cases they are like computer hardware technicians, trying to work with the operating software. They experiment and fumble from button to button, and then we wonder why things change but stay the same, or why the profession is viewed with scepticism and low credibility.

It’s time to claim Psychology, and a deeper, informed understanding of people, as our primary differentiator in the people development game.

As the Prof kept asking with a smile ‘What is your psychological perspective?’

The Science of Trust – Part 2

A client of mine; an esteemed, silver-haired hotelier; once told me the secret to his success. He didn’t quite put it that way, but his message suggested as much. He proudly claimed that mastering the black and white aspects of service enabled comfort in the grey and that service excellence to humans was all hidden there. I liked that, but haven’t necessarily applied it to many aspects of my work.

In a field that seems fogged up in grey, I tend towards the black and white, often to further my legitimacy. Problem is, I often begin to believe my simplistic view of the world.

Let’s look at the idea of trust as an example of extraordinary colour that sits within the grey. This is a post aimed at me.

When you dip into the literature, Trust becomes a suitably complex topic of review, and superbly grey. Here are a few examples of what I mean.

Perspective 1: Some articles describe a clear difference between trust and distrust and although you might think they are opposites, some theorists don’t see them as opposite ends of a continuum. In fact, both trust and distrust are seen to be positive and negative. For example, high levels of trust may lead to group think which may lead to the exclusion of difference and thus potentially lead to unethical practices and discrimination. That is pretty negative. It is also important to admit that it is distrust on the other hand that drives processes, systems and structure. That could be seen as quite positive.

Perspective 2: Other research proposes that there are 4 co-existing reference points of trust. On the one end, High Trust which is defined by hope, faith, confidence, assurance and initiative, and on the other end Low Trust which is represented by no hope, no faith, no confidence, passivity and hesitance. Then there is Low Distrust which is defined by no fear, the absence of skepticism, the absence of cynicism, low monitoring and non-vigilance, and High Distrust which includes fear, skepticism, cynicism, wariness, watchfulness and vigilance. Mmmm.

Perspective 3: Trust can be divided into two types – Affective Trust and Cognitive Trust. The first is focused on an emotional state and connection with others, whilst the other is focused on competence and capability. These types of trust can be distinct from each other, and so we could have a high level of Cognitive Trust, but a low level of Affective Trust, and vice versa. More grey. I love it.

It may be too much grey for me to make sense of. On one level I get it, it’s actually all saying the same thing, but on another level, what I am beginning to appreciate is that a black and white view of what trust is, may be too narrow.

So what does that all mean? Well, it is all very valuable, and I have to ask myself how this all fits with my evolving thinking on the building blocks of trust, especially in teams.

Perspective 4:

1. Be reliable, do what you said you would, be on time, deliver, just be plain old boring and dependable. This is a powerful trust builder.

2. Be Honest – or as I often say ‘Appropriately honest’, and more significantly don’t be dishonest.

3. Keep as many of the Background Conversations, or and chit chat into the Foreground. Involve the people you are talking about, speak up when the time is right and don’t break away into reckless corridor and side conversations.

4. If you master the first three right, then you might have earned the right to some Vulnerability. This doesn’t come first as many team builders would like you to think.

Get these all right and I believe you will build a high trust, low distrust relationship that is comfortable with the positive contributions of Distrust and cautious of the blind spots of Trust; and enhances Affective and Cognitive Trust.


The Science of Trust – Part 1

Last week a CEO asked me ‘if anything had really changed in the people development space over the past 15 years?’

The declining angle of his eyebrows and gaze gave away his real question ‘is there anything that you could tell me, that I don’t already know?’

I love a challenge.

I responded with deep knowing in my belly and firmly stated that the answer was most certainly ‘No!’

He smiled.

‘So what can you tell me about all the things that haven’t changed?’ he asked.

Again, the smirk in his tilting lips masked the real question ‘So why have we not mastered all the basics we have known for so long?’

Again, as if spurred by a rush of adrenaline, I boldly stated ‘in the end, it will always be about relationships, and the pivot of Trust that they are built on. We simply continue to struggle marrying the demands of our work with the sensitivity of nurturing lasting connection’.

For an accountant in a global fund management business, he unexpectedly nodded his head in sage like agreement.

I think I passed.

There is a common thread to this conversation that I regularly have in boardrooms.  All the teams that I work with want to master relationships. They seek to understand the meaning of trust, what it is, how to build it and what to focus on to be more deliberate about it. It’s so fundamental to all relationships and yet we don’t always understand how to build, guard and shape it.

How do you understand the fundamentals of Trust?

The silent majority may rule

‘It would never happen’ is what they said. They laughed and ridiculed. ‘

Too much is at stake’ they warned. ‘We would wind back the clock,’ they guffawed.

‘Surely not!’ they protested.

And then it happened, exactly what shouldn’t have, and we all had to face the fact that there was a majority of people who remained silent for most of the time, until it actually counted. Literally.

How did we miss that, and was it possible that the turmoil and uncertainty that has plagued society ever since, could have been avoided?

To many the answer is simple, just reverse the Trump and Brexit effect, and we go back to a world in order, with predictability and altogether simpler.

I think not.

These rifts have always been there, dormant and hidden in the hearts and minds of large majorities of people. With lip biting and behind-closed-door-rantings, those sentiments have been alive and yet ignored, and wished away as a minority view. The facts now tell a different story.

I am as fascinated about how the world will respond to this, as I am to reflect on what this dynamic might tell us about the silent majority in organisations. I am not that interested to know who supports which political point of view, but am curious to understand how a dominant view or status quo, might make it ill advised, uncomfortable and difficult for people to express alternative thoughts and narratives. What may be even more relevant to organisations that attempt to perform and execute on their strategy and mandate, is how this silent majority might enact their point of view. If they can’t say it, how will they behave it? Will they do it overtly or without obvious detection?  Equally, how will the holders of the dominant view, possibly the few who hold the most power, respond? At what point might it be too late to arrest a significant rift?

It strikes me that people remain silent for a couple of reasons. Either they wish to protect a secret thought or idea, or no one is listening. My sense is the silent majority might fall into both camps, and so here are a few questions to ponder:

  • What does this mean for leaders in a volatile and ambiguous world?
  • How do leaders of a dominant view allow alternative perspectives in without judgement and exclusion?
  • How do they enhance their depth of listening, to read more than just words?
  • How well do leaders understand the deeper psychological dynamics of change, and threat and survival?
  • How can leaders hold the tension between multiple views of the truth?

In my observations, leaders who are most tuned into their own psychological blueprint and who understand why they behave the way they do, are best equipped to have empathy and curiosity towards those that may sit in the silent majority. They feel less threatened by multiple interpretations of the truth and are not easily shaken by the opposing views to their own. They lean towards the unspoken and taboo, and invite it in to be named and explored. In short, they confront reality, and with that as their foundation see more of what is, rather than what they wish it to be.

That seems to be a critical condition for success.

How Cultural Rift can tank your business

Here’s a story about the relationship between a small office and its head office. It is inspired by true events and triggered by the insights from an article on ‘cultural rift’.

There was once a successful people development business that had an impressive reputation in its market. It attracted national clients and thereafter a pool of highly skilled facilitators and coaches. Soon, international corporations came knocking. Those were the good days and they lasted over a decade. To spur further growth, the shareholders decided to open an office in another city. It was a different market place, much slower, more loyal to its incumbent suppliers and rather indecisive. An influential pool of high caliber coaches and facilitators chose to live there too, and this new office became their home. Penetration into the new market was initially slow, but with the credibility of the brand and people associated to it, growth became rampant. The economy was being battered by head winds, but the new office endured. It should have been a happier time, but it wasn’t because a rift began to emerge between the two offices. Animosity and friction escalated. The primary source of conflict was a perceived mismatch of values. The home base valued business performance, profitability and sustainable processes, while the newer office valued innovation, deeper relationships and the community of people that served the brand. These didn’t have to be mutually exclusive, but they became barriers to harmony and synergy, and after five solid years, it fractured the business. The exodus of key people followed. It became nasty and personal. An unfortunate end.

It turns out that this sequence of events is quite common. In fact, it should be something all organisations seek to understand and navigate. In effect, each organisation has a dominant culture that holds within it numerous subcultures. These subcultures are created by variances in leadership styles, functions and geography. They are normal and inevitable.  They can offer many advantages to an organisation if they are considered as a valuable component of the whole. However, if these variances are seen as counter culture or as a threat, then a destructive, downward spiral follows.  The first signs of a cultural rift include a shift in the sentiment among employees of the sub culture who begin to feel unwelcome and without a sense of belonging. A demanding and domineering primary culture will attempt to force control and hierarchy. Resistance from the subculture follows.

If however these variances are embraced as potential contributors to a new organisational future, or seen as a more diverse set of identities, then numerous benefits are proven to be the result. Research bears this out.

If only the Head Office had embraced the diversity, innovation and community of its offshoot, and the newer office in turn had appreciated the rigour, structure and safety of a guiding and solid hand, then these supposed irreconcilable differences could have been drivers of exciting opportunities. Too often, due to ignorance, these cultural variances are viewed as rifts, rather than exciting sources of creativity and emerging future relevance.

Are you Inhibiting or Enhancing the Transfer of Learning in others?

Initially I thought the specific focus of my thesis was clear, but the more I read the more I discover how much insightful research has already been done. With every new article, I gasp at the treasure trove of information out there – available but oddly out of reach in some academic dungeon. I think I can help, because to assist me in digesting and understanding key insights from what I read, I find it useful to share them in succinct summaries. Here is my first highlights package, straight from the library! Title:The Relevance of Organizational Subculture for Motivation to Transfer Learning, by Toby Marshall Egan.

This is for all my colleagues and peers who dedicate their lives to Learning and Development of others.

  • In excess of $130 billion is spent each year on employee learning and development in the US alone.
  • Unsurprisingly there is a keen interest to understand what influences an employee’s level of motivation to transfer new knowledge and skills from the classroom to relevant workplace application.
  • Organisational culture plays a role in this process. The question is how?
  • We now know that there are multiple cultures within a single organisation. There is usually a Primary Culture and many Subcultures (which are unique subsets of the primary culture).
  • Leaders of teams and functions tend to create subcultures through their unique translation of the larger organizational culture. It’s a natural progression.
  • BIG TAKEAWAY 1: These subcultures have a more significant influence on motivation to transfer learning than the primary culture.
  • Cultures can be defined. This research focused on 3 different types.
  • A Bureaucratic subculture is defined by a leader that focuses on task and task accomplishment, and emphasises structures, technical support, plans, and procedures to support collective goal achievement.
  • Innovative and Supportive subcultures are defined by a leader that focuses on the development of mutual trust, team commitment, and effective relationships with followers. These leaders establish this rapport through engagement, encouragement, support, and signalling to followers both an acknowledgment of their individuality and the importance of mutual obligation.
  • BIG TAKEAWAY 2: Bureaucratic subcultures inhibit motivation to transfer.
  • BIG TAKE AWAY 3: Innovative and Supportive subcultures enhance motivation to transfer.
  • BIG TAKE AWAY 4: The Primary culture has a low impact on employee motivation to transfer learning.

The key message: organizations interested in influencing the motivation to transfer learning, must focus their efforts on shaping effective organizational subcultures. The attention and expectation should thus be on the direct line manager and his/her influence on the culture they have created. Intuitive, but here is the research to prove it.

7 Reflections on the OD field

It is not often in life that a decision yields returns that exceed my expectations. Especially positively.

As a Clinical Psychologist working in the field of Organisational Psychology, I have often flirted with studying further, mainly to build some conscious competence in the latter field. The thought of scratching about the inner psyche of psychiatric dysfunction and furthering my studies in Clinical work was unappealing. Enter Consulting Psychology, the twin hull yacht of the field, riding on the combination of both. I signed up almost immediately.

It is the first time in 15 years that I have embedded myself within psychological academia and to my surprise, it has felt more friendly that foreign.

These are the 7 Things that I commit to reminding myself about after my first 8 weeks back as a student:

  1. Read More of the Right Things: As a professional knowledge worker I have been reading the wrong things much of the time. Too much internet based summaries, not enough academic source materials. I feel at times like I have been sleeping in a capsule and have now awoken to a new world. Reading dense academic articles may be draining, but the insights are invaluable. I will share those over time on this blog too.
  1. Be Eternally Sceptical. I use statistics and facts with little interrogation of accuracy. I trust authors and theorists too much, and along the way, I believe I miss aspects of essential truth. It’s time to stop only looking for data that supports my beliefs and word view.
  1. A lot of People are Winging it. My understanding of Clinical psychology is sound, but as I have re-treaded across the field, I am now aware of just how many people are ‘winging’ it. Sometimes dangerously. I am more convinced than ever that working in a collective of complementary skills should be a key demand from all our clients.
  1. Lean on the Field: For most of my career I have been hiding my Clinical background. It freaks people out. I now need to stop apologising for it and recognise that unlike any other field in people development, it provides insights into the conscious and unconscious aspects of peoples experiences that unlocks immense insight and value. It is a deep and wide treasure trove of understanding.
  1. Relationships are still All there is. Need I say more? We have moved beyond knowledge, and whilst diving into a focused academic pursuit is challenging and rewarding, the manner in which the world will receive and share in those insights depends on the quality of the relationships all around me.
  1. Personal Psychology is ever Present and Influential. No matter what we choose to control and wish away, ignoring the impact of personal psychology on groups and organisations is a big mistake.
  1. Believe in our Professional Value. The more I delve, the more I realise that within the libraries of psychology lie answers and perspectives on all the challenges facing modern organisations, teams and individuals. Translating that into the workplace is priceless, and therein lies our immense value.