Question routines

Routines can be very helpful, as they enable us to deal with straightforward matters quickly, easily and efficiently. However, there are two potential problems with this. One is the danger of ‘routinization’, which is what happens when we overgeneralize and adopt a routine approach to non-routine situations – that is, we fail to distinguish between those situations that are simple enough to be dealt with in a routinized way and those that are not. The other danger is that routines become part of a culture and continue to be used long after the situation that first led to their development has ceased to apply. That is, they have become habits which were useful to begin with but are no longer helpful but continue to be used because no one has thought to do anything different. It is therefore important to question our routines from time to time, to see whether we are: (i) overextending them to non-routine situations; and/or (ii) still using routines that have long since lost their usefulness.

Don’t let forms shape your practice

I often encounter situations on training courses where people say things like: ‘We can’t do that; the form won’t let us’. Of course, forms are a way of recording and collating information and therefore have an important part to play. However, recognizing the value of forms and allowing them to dictate our practice are two different things. If the forms help, that’s great, but if they are framed in such a way that they are unhelpful, shouldn’t we be changing the forms rather than changing our practice to suit the form? So, an important question to ask is: How do we get a form changed? What are the feedback mechanisms we can use to let the appropriate people know that these tools (for that is what forms are) are not well suited to purpose and need to be revised? The effort required to do this could be well repaid by the progress made and is certainly a better alternative to allowing forms (rather than our professional knowledge and values) to shape our practice.

 

Everyone has 24 hours in their day

‘I don’t have enough time’ is a commonly heard claim in busy workplaces, and there is certainly a great deal of evidence to show that time pressures are very significant for a high proportion of people these days. However, what we have to recognize is that everybody has the same amount of time – 24 hours in each day, seven days in each week and so on. It is not the amount of time available that distinguishes some people from others in terms of work pressures; rather, it is what we try to do with that time. If we try to do too much, we can end up spreading ourselves too thinly and end up being far less productive than we might otherwise have been if we had planned our use of time more strategically. Similarly, some people respond to high levels of pressure by burying themselves in their work and do not take time to step back, plan, set priorities or develop effective strategies for managing that level of pressure. They risk getting stuck in a ‘hamster wheel’ of relentless pressure that does not get them very far at all. Managing high levels of pressure is a very challenging enterprise, but we very much need to develop strategies for doing so and not allow ourselves to try to do the impossible by being unrealistic about what can be achieved in the time available – for example, by internalizing, or colluding with, other people’s unrealistic expectations, rather than challenging them.

Accept what you can’t change

‘Facticity’ is the technical term for the things we cannot change, the things that are beyond our control. There will always be such things, and we have to get used to that. Some people have a problem because they tend to be defeatist. They accept things that they don’t need to accept – they fail to recognise that there are steps they could take to address their problems. However, the problem I am talking about here is the opposite of that. It refers to situations where people know there is nothing they can do, but they try to do it anyway. For example, someone who is interviewed for a job, but is unsuccessful may not be willing to let go of this fact. They may rail and rage against their potential employer, as if they have done them a significant injustice, rather than accept that, in the interviewing panel’s view, another candidate was better suited to the job. Not getting the job does not mean that you are a failure or that you are inadequate; it simply means you were not their first choice. Change what you can change, by all means, but railing against what you cannot change is a waste of time and energy and succeeds only in generating unnecessary bad feeling.

 

Conflict can be constructive

Conflict can range from mild disagreement to violent confrontation, and, especially in its stronger forms, can be extremely destructive. However, it would be a significant mistake not to recognize that, in the right circumstances and if handled skilfully and confidently, conflict can actually be constructive. This is because carefully controlled conflict can spur innovation, free people up from tramline thinking, generate considerable learning, provide opportunities for people who have previously been at loggerheads with one another to respect one another, allow us to see situations from new perspectives and so on. Conflict can be understood to be like fire. If it is controlled and handled carefully, it can be very productive and helpful, but if allowed to go unchecked, can be enormously destructive, raging out of control and drawing in a wide range of people who get harmed in the process. Developing the skills of handling conflict effectively is therefore a very important basis for best practice in working with people.

Conflict can range from mild disagreement to violent confrontation, and, especially in its stronger forms, can be extremely destructive. However, it would be a significant mistake not to recognize that, in the right circumstances and if handled skilfully and confidently, conflict can actually be constructive. This is because carefully controlled conflict can spur innovation, free people up from tramline thinking, generate considerable learning, provide opportunities for people who have previously been at loggerheads with one another to respect one another, allow us to see situations from new perspectives and so on. Conflict can be understood to be like fire. If it is controlled and handled carefully, it can be very productive and helpful, but if allowed to go unchecked, can be enormously destructive, raging out of control and drawing in a wide range of people who get harmed in the process. Developing the skills of handling conflict effectively is therefore a very important basis for best practice in working with people.

Find the right pace

When it comes to working with people and their problems get the pace right is perhaps one of the most difficult things to do, but do it we must. That is because if we are going to slowly we may miss opportunities to move forward – for example, ‘missing the boat’ when someone is in crisis and motivated to make important changes. If we move too swiftly, we may create (or exacerbate) insecurity and anxiety and thereby hamper progress in terms of whatever need we are trying to meet or problem we are trying to solve. So, how do we judge what is the best pace? There is no hard and fast rule but mainly it comes from looking closely at the situation, gauging reactions to our input and picking up the clues about how comfortable or otherwise the person(s) involved appear to be. Difficult though this may be, it gets easier with experience provided that we stay tuned in to the need to consider pace as an important feature of our work.

 

Silence does not equal consent

This is a mistake I made many times early in my career: making a suggestion or proposal, having no one object to it and then assuming that the lack of explicit objection constituted agreement to what I had put forward. I then had the unpleasant experience of watching my plans fall apart as people did not cooperate with them or play their part in moving things forward – or even, on some occasions, actively sabotaged what I was trying to do. It only slowly became apparent to me that they were never really ‘on board’ in terms of what I had proposed but, for whatever reason, had chosen not to voice their disagreement. So, there is a very important lesson in this: we cannot assume that silence equals consent. A lack of explicit disagreement is not the same as agreement. So, if we are relying on others to bring our plans to fruition, we need to make the effort to ensure that they are genuinely in agreement and make it clear that if they are not, they should say so.

 

 

 

Don’t confuse experience with learning

It is commonly assumed that the more experience a person has, the more learning they will have done, and thus the more they will have to offer, but it’s important to realise that this is a very unsafe assumption to make. We don’t have to go far generally to come across someone who has a lot of experience, but has learned relatively little from it. There can be people with three years’ experience in a particular field who have done an excellent job of drawing out the lessons from that learning, of really making that experience count in terms of improving their practice and developing their confidence. But, there can also be people with thirty years’ experience who have done very little learning during that time. The technical term for this is ‘plateauing’ – that is, climbing to begin with, but then levelling off and not getting any higher (in terms of knowledge, skills and effectiveness).

‘Experience is the best teacher’ is a saying that we used to hear a lot at one time, despite the fact that it isn’t true. It is what we do with experience that is the best teacher. Just having an experience will teach us nothing, of course. We have to draw out the learning from that experience for it to really make a difference to us. We should not confuse experience (which provides the raw materials for learning) with actual learning, just as the ingredients of a cake are not the cake – it’s what you do with the ingredients that produces the cake. This is why learning support processes like supervision, mentoring and coaching can be so invaluable, because they can play a very helpful role in ‘processing’ experience, making sense of it in ways that enable us to learn and develop.

What is also important about this is that it helps us to understand the importance of an active approach towards learning. To get the most out of the learning opportunities life presents to us (whether in our working lives or our private lives), we need to play an active role, we need to make things happen. Unfortunately, the way our education system works, the opposite is often what is encouraged – a passive approach where other people take charge of our learning (teachers, trainers, tutors and so on) and we tend to go along with what they decide, what they organise, what they prioritise and so on. But, we are increasingly recognising that the people who are most successful in converting their experience into learning are the ones who adopt an active approach to their own learning needs (‘self-directed learning’, to use the technical term).

Sadly, having lots of experience, but not having learned much from it can actually be counterproductive – that is, we are not only missing out on learning, but the boredom and lack of stimulation in experiences that are not producing learning can numb our senses, reduce motivation and job satisfaction, discourage creativity and contribute to burnout. Consequently, a lot of workplace problems (and, indeed, potentially in our personal lives) can boil down to experience without learning, without the stimulation, reward, motivation and progress that learning can bring.

A lot of basic learning happens spontaneously (young children learning how to walk, for example), but the more advanced and complex the learning, the more we need to make the effort to bring it about, rather than make the mistake of just assuming that experience will automatically produce learning. Each day, week, month or year of experience will no doubt make us older, but it will not necessarily make us wiser.

Living and learning

Living and learning

It was Friedrich Nietzsche who said that what does not kill us makes us stronger, and he was nearly right. Only nearly? Yes, because much of what does not kill us has no effect on us whatsoever – it simply passes us by. Our life experience has the potential to make us stronger, but only if we capitalise on the opportunities presented. So, a more realistic aphorism would be: what does not kill us has the potential to make us stronger if we take the trouble to learn from that experience.

But much will depend on our understanding of what learning is all about, how the model of learning we adopt conceptualises it. For example, if we take the traditional model of learning as one of gathering facts and figures, filling our heads with information that may or may not be useful at a later date (the ‘banking‘ model of learning that Paulo Freire was so critical of), then that presents us with little scope for learning from life experiences.

What can also hold us back in terms of models of learning is the tendency to see learners as having fixed personalities (or ‘essences’, to use the technical term) – for example, when people say things like ‘it’s my nature, it’s just the way I am’, as if change is not possible. Such a model of learning assumes that the individual remains untouched by their learning, except for perhaps having added a few more bytes of information to their hard disk or giving them the opportunity to practise skills.

An alternative model of learning that can get us away from these limitations is what is known as existential learning, rooted in existentialist philosophy. According to this approach learners are not fixed entities to be topped up with additional information or more well-oiled skills. Learners are people on a life journey, changing in response to the circumstances they find themselves in. We are constantly faced with situations where we have to make decisions, where we have to choose which branch in the road we go down. Those decisions shape not only the direction we go in, but also who we are. That is, we are not fixed entities on a journey, we are that journey; the journey is a central part of our spirituality, our sense of who we are and how we fit into the wider world. For many that sense of spirituality comes from religion, but, whether religious or not, we all have a spiritual path we are following.

Not so long ago any mention of spirituality outside of religion would have been met with muttered barbs of ‘tree hugging’ and being ‘wired to a moonbeam’. But, increasingly now it is being recognised that spirituality is an important part of being human and that we have to get past any reluctance to engage with spiritual matters. Existential learning recognises this.

Existential learning is learning that changes us in some way, that empowers us to do things differently, to see things differently and, importantly, to feel things differently. Existential learning transforms us in some way. As Nietzsche would see it, it makes us stronger.

There is a parallel here with leadership, particularly self-leadership. A leader is not just someone who keeps the organisational wheels turning, but rather transforms the situation to make sure that they are turning in the right direction (following the best path). Self-leadership is about making sure we are clear about where we are going with our work and our lives more broadly (our path) and what decisions we need to make to follow that path and get where we want to be. Existential learning means making the changes we need to in order to be able to get the most out of our journey.

Existential learning is a key part of the Avenue Professional Development Programme: www.apdp.org.uk

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Influencing organisational culture

‘Essentialism’ is the technical terms for the idea that each us has a fixed nature: we are who we are and there’s not a lot we can do about it. Despite ample evidence to show that this is a seriously flawed way of thinking, it remains a very common (mis)understanding of human psychology. While it would be foolish not to recognise very strong and lasting patterns of behaviour, though and emotional response in each of us, it would be equally foolish not to recognise that people can and do change.

Such changes can be self-initiated – that is, as a result of an explicit decision made: ‘I will be more patient from now on’; ‘I must cut down on fatty foods as I am worried about my cholesterol levels’; and so on. However, they are often in response to the circumstances we find ourselves in and we may not even notice we have changed, so subtle can the differences be. This is often the case in an organisational setting where the influence of other individuals, of groups and of the organisational culture can be very strong.

I want to now focus on the organisational culture issues as these can be particularly significant. This is because cultures influence us in very powerful but very subtle ways – we slide into commonly accepted norms and patterns, generally without recognising that this process is happening.

This can be good or bad, depending on the circumstances. For example, some cultures are very negative and are characterised by a degree of defeatism and cynicism, manifestations of low morale. On the other hand, cultures can be very positive influences, encouraging a supportive set of relationships, promoting learning, creativity and innovation and generating a sense of security. This is the hallmark of good teamwork – the sense of shared endeavour that makes people feel that, however challenging the workplace may be, ‘we are in this together’.

This is where leadership comes in. A major challenge for any leader is to be able to influence the culture in a positive direction, to bring about positive changes and to block negative ones. ‘Challenge’ is exactly the right word, as influencing a culture is a very difficult and demanding undertaking. But it is also a challenge that is worth investing time and energy in, as the positive benefits can be immense, while the price we pay for allowing a negative culture to persist is very high indeed.

Managers therefore need to take these issues very seriously and be prepared to develop the knowledge, skills and confidence to be able to shape cultures positively.  These can be developed, although not overnight. It involves building on our existing interpersonal skills to develop trust and credibility.

However, in my People Skills book, I make the point that it is not just managers who are leaders – professional staff can and should see themselves as leaders too. So, we all need to be thinking about what influence we can have on the culture around us and not just leave this to managers. For me this is part of self-leadership – the ability to be clear about where we are going with our work, career and life overall and helping to create the circumstances that will get us there plus the commitment to doing so.

Cultures are sets of habits, unwritten rules and taken-for-granted assumptions that develop into shared meanings. If we want to influence the culture in a positive direction, then we need to identify the negative elements and challenge them, while also recognising the positive elements and building on them.

How easy or otherwise it is to influence a culture will vary from circumstance to circumstance. Sometimes, it can be a long and difficult journey, but at other times, it can be relatively straightforward – for example, a culture characterised by a lack of communication can easily be changed by team members making a concerted effort to communicate with one another. Cultures are very powerful, but they are not all-powerful. We have a choice, we can either seek to influence our culture or we can resign ourselves to becoming passive victims of that culture, with all the detrimental effects that entails.

Neil Thompson’s latest book is People Management (Palgrave Macmillan, 2013), which is a follow up to his highly successful People Skills (3rd edn, Palgrave Macmillan, 2009) and the highly acclaimed The People Solutions Sourcebook (2nd edn, Palgrave Macmillan, 2012). His books are available from http://astore.amazon.co.uk/neilthomp-21/.