This thought piece comes from executive coach, former governor and Integrity Coaching Associate, Ben Gibbs.
There is an ancient Persian tale about a householder who notices a bump in a rug. Whenever he tries to smooth the rug the bump reappears again, and again, and again. Finally, in frustration, he lifts the rug and out slides an angry snake.
Of course, the point is that this is how we tend to try to change things in our organisations; dealing only with the symptoms and not the underlying cause – the snake under the surface.
This is understandable, for we live in a rational age when we’re taught to believe only what we can see and to value only that which we can know. And so it goes for our professional development as leaders and managers, which trains us to view our colleagues as nothing more than rational actors, moving about on a surface in ways we might try to predict, and motivate with carrots and sticks. This perspective is so pervasive that we rarely question it.
Flattening the Bump
We just keep on trying to flatten the bump. But – at the risk of over-extending the metaphor – the longer we leave the snake under the rug (and the more we hit it), the more disruptive it will become.
Because the fact of the matter is that humans are far more complex than this impoverished view of the workplace allows. In all our beauty, we are subject to fantasies, contradictory wishes and desires, defensive and destructive behaviours, and anxieties. Put us together in groups and organise us with process and structure and things really get interesting!
The organisation becomes a system with a life of its own, rich in both conscious and unconscious, rational and irrational behaviour. And it is only by paying careful, mindful and humble attention to these dynamics, and exploring how people relate to one another and to the system, that one can get a full understanding of what’s going on.
This is the work I love doing with leaders, not just because it’s novel and a source of great enlightenment, joy and realisation, but also because it can unstick stuck processes, topple barriers to change, and unleash significant creativity. Helping leaders explore the emotional side of their work and teasing out their inherent capacity to understand what’s going on under the surface of organisational life is a vital step towards healthy, successful and sustainable change.
Managing the emotions that accompany change
This is because change is inextricably linked to our emotions and invariably triggers a range of conscious and unconscious responses, from excitement to sorrow, relief to anger, envy to compassion. Change will almost certainly also trigger anxiety across the whole system; anxiety about both the change itself and the emotions that are being (or may be) experienced. Something that fascinates me is what we do in response to these emotions.
For instead of just feeling them, we are inclined it seems to defend against them; to deny them, establish practices that mean we don’t have to confront them, or project them onto others, often to such an extent that achieving the change itself becomes more difficult. Viewing these dynamics as important data and encouraging the expression of emotion as vital communication are, therefore, key leadership skills.
Psychodynamics and Development
But – and there’s no easy way to say this – in terms of psychodynamics, you have chosen to lead change in one of the most complex and emotionally charged types of organisation! This is not least because of the dependencies and developmental requirements of children and adolescents, nor because of what happens when you put adults and children together. Critically, it is also because the main purpose of schools is to manage learning, and learning is one of the most anxiety-provoking forms of change there is.
The act of teaching involves the need to stir up emotions in order to motivate young people to learn, and then to help young people manage the emotions that result from the process of learning. To do this, teachers develop conscious and unconscious strategies to help their students cope with those emotions they can’t deal with themselves, containing, processing and re-presenting them back in ways that children can deal with.
These strategies are what we see in the rituals, routines, structures and policies of classrooms and of schools as systems. So when you seek to change these, you are disrupting the existing, hard-won and often tacit systems established over time to contain the anxieties of children and teachers. It’s no wonder that the emotional response – and therefore the resistance – from the system to the change itself is likely to be doubly acute.
For me, this makes it more important in schools than in most other types of organisation to systematically consider, reflect on and manage emotions. Of course, this has to be modelled by leaders and managers who have, through coaching, reflection and other forms of professional development, developed the language and skills required to engage in this sort of work, and the courage to look under the rug.
Building Learning Power – Expert Interview with Tim Small
In a short interview, former Headteacher and Integrity Coaching Associate, Tim Small discusses the emerging research into “Learning Power” and how the CLARA profile which has resulted from it could become a hugely useful tool for growth in our schools.