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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.

Shooting ourselves in the foot?

There I was sitting, with eleven esteemed HR consultants, all sporting Masters Degrees in Psychology and we tackled the definition of ‘Leadership.’ The result? It was much like discovering that the Zulu language has literally hundreds of names for a cow; the inputs were inconclusive and subjective. No truth or fact emerged.

Let’s be frank, Psychology is not a truly scientific discipline a lot of the time. We struggle, for example to succinctly and coherently explain what culture is, how the mind and brain interact (if at all). We have multiple perspective and views on Motivation and Personality traits. I could go on. We talk a lot about a lot, and often end up shooting in the dark for answers. It seems though that we are still obsessed with certainty and scientific place, and thus may not encourage the scientific paradigm that compels us to challenge and attempt to disprove everything that we believe (or would like to believe) is the truth. We don’t have a disciplinary wide focus that tries to poke holes into all and every theory, idea and so called ‘truth’. So we simply don’t do that, and end up having more theories. We thus talk a lot, about a lot, more of the time.

A Professor of Mathematics made this typically blunt judgement;

‘the problem with psychology is that you are not trying to work your way towards a universal theory, as a result you are breaking it down into further smaller theories.’

The process of science is to eliminate the weak theories and in psychology, it’s evident, we may be doing the exact opposite. Ever noticed how many ideas proliferate with different words and frameworks, and yet essentially are saying the same thing?

Here is the question we might all want to consider as we attempt to find a legitimate place in industry. For every piece of data or fact that we consume and use to enhance our credibility, do we go back to the original study? To the target group? To the time and context? Do we understand the assumptions that were made at the time of that research? Have we looked at the source of it all?

I am sure, because of my own experience that we generally don’t. As a result we trust the author, or article or highlights package and invariable share this as the gospel truth with our stakeholders. So does Culture really eat strategy for breakfast? Find me the evidence!

It seems that in order to move our body of knowledge forward we might need to move away from a dogmatic acceptance of everything we read and hear and want to believe, and  should rather apply a healthy scientific scepticism.

Addicted to the science of people?

Psychometrics is essentially about predicting the future, especially when it comes to people and their organisational fit. Some might say, it’s all pretty much a best, bet guess about how people will behave going forward.  Every psychometric test falls within the scientific paradigm which sounds pretty harmless, and even impressive, until I understood what that actually means.

The Scientific or Positivist paradigm assumes that reality is stable and exists even when we don’t. That is based on a fundamental assumption that we cannot trust people and must thus come up with consistent and reliable measurement tools. In short, our opinions and views must be ignored and bypassed.  The scientific model also agrees to pursue disproving all previous insights and proven assumptions, and thus demands a continual skepticism. And there is no space for any grey.

To be honest, my whole body doesn’t reverberate with excitement at this world view.

The Interpretative paradigm suggests that we can never really know what is real and that everything is interpreted through our history and is totally subjective. There are thus multiple realities, and lots of grey.

According to the Constructionist paradigm, reality is a construct based on the interactions between people and things, therefore no people and no interaction, then no reality. Even more grey. Let me remind you that science does not like grey.

Here is my challenge. I believe strongly in the latter two paradigms, but according to the ethics of science and psychology, I must wholeheartedly believe in the scientific model, and nothing else, if I am to administer psychometric assessments. Oops, to be honest I didn’t know that. What is apparently more of a transgression, is conducting a test and then picking apart the findings from the perspective of another paradigm. Apparently that is like making a chocolate waffle, and asking a wine taster to rank it among the best Merlot in the world.  I think I do this a lot.

Key learning: it is time to be more deliberate and intentional about how I lean on science in my pursuit of relevance and credibility. Whilst skepticism is a scientific value, I can not let my skepticism with psychometric assessments muddy the results. I would be better served trying to disprove the underlying assumptions and thus adding to the field of Psychology. That we don’t do well at all, more of that next time.

What makes a true Organisational Development Consultant?

I work with a broad swathe of people specialists. Learning and strategy experts too. They call themselves many different names, from executive coaches (although many don’t coach executives), to facilitators (who mainly train), to consultants (who do little more than simply respond to the immediate brief of a client) and even consulting psychologists (who are actually not that at all). The truth is, many people working in the people development space scramble to find words to describe what they do, and when they do settle on a name, it’s usually long and triple barreled. In other words, clumsy. So here is how I might be able to help. If you are in the people business, both within and outside of organisations is this what you do?

1. Aim to improve employee well being
2. And organisational effectiveness
3. And support planned change interventions that influence and impact the above

If that’s pretty much what you do, then you might be (drum roll), an organisational development specialist. Still triple barreled but accurate, or maybe not.

Let’s try again, do you:

1. Identify a problem/challenge facing an organisation?
2. Then Design an intervention to solve it?
3. Then Evaluate impact and entrenchment of the new way of doing things?
4. Then Enable the intervention to be internalised and accepted?

Mmm, number 3 and 4 are tricky, and I know for a fact many don’t get it right, and more scarily, don’t even attempt them. So maybe you are not yet ready to be an OD consultant. Let’s look at these and see what they tell us, do you:

1. Focus only on micro-approaches at individual level for example, you are just a coach.
2. Have only one solution to offer for example a single tool or content
3. Take on ad hoc and random work within an organisation just to pay the bills
4. Do not exclusively aim to raise morale and attitudes of people within an organisation

A yes to any of these, and I am sorry to say, you are further and further away from being a true OD consultant. Here is the final list, and it’s all about ethics, and you may need to imagine a final hammer being nailed into your aspirations of a multi syllabled title. Have you ever:

1. Misrepresented or exaggerated the efficacy of your work
2. Colluded with a certain party or function to serve their interests within an organisation
3. Misused data (or misunderstood research) to serve your own ends and gain more work
4. Manipulated or coerced people into working with you
5. Overstated your qualification to work within organisational change and effectiveness
6. Over emphasised organisational results and profits as a result of your engagements

Ouch! Not many people will admit to these at the next Community of Practice gathering but these lists have certainly made me think. I have no doubt our intentions are good, but are we ALL equipped to bleed across the boundaries of our own focus area and truly claim to be OD consultants. My blunt response is no, and here is why; because if OD consulting is about supporting planned change to enhance organisational effectiveness and employee well-being, then we had all better be specialists in change, behavioural science and complex systems. Not many people can claim that pedigree. Makes you think, doesn’t it?