“We Are An Organisation At War With Ourselves”
“We are an organisation at war with ourselves.” When a courageous leader expressed these words in a recent workshop the whole room paid attention. They were said without judgement. More as a sort of weather report or to bring me up to speed with the participants' current leadership challenges.
Succinctly and without any drama that leader had expressed their struggle in a way that was visceral and captured the lived experience of those in the room. He had not taken sides, instead he had presented a snapshot, that we might also think of as a view from the balcony.
He was not the most senior leader in the room, just the person ready at that moment to speak openly about what he really saw going on.
Being able to recognise and seize moments of cultural change like this is incredibly important. The cohort of leaders was fully present. The issue was alive for them. These are the moments in which culture change happens – if we are alert enough to recognise and seize them. And this was one of those opportunities...
Harnessing Transformational Opportunities
What happens next, in these situations reflects both the wisdom of the group and the agility of the leader or facilitator in the moment.
It might have been a moment in which the group descended into a state of futility and defeat. In fact, from time to time the voice of futility and hopelessness emerged as stories were told of individuals who had risked trust in the new culture, only to meet with a punitive response from the old guard.
These stories of disappointment and experiences of being let down in the face of cultural change initiatives have a capacity to breed distrust, to reinforce the status quo. They are stories of an organisation in change, where the reality hasn’t yet grown to meet the aspiration for a better way. So how can they be met?
Firstly the confusion, frustration and disappointment that accompany these experiences needs to be squarely acknowledged. Then they need to be framed as stories of an organisation in change and unpacked in the context of a change narrative, rather than left as a fait accompli.
If they are explained away too quickly it is dismissive. Instead we need to learn to deeply unpack what is going on, in a way that befits what is at stake.
So how did we do that?
The Culture Is Alive In The Room
While it would have been easy to think that we were speaking about the forces of a culture ‘out there’, roaming the halls of a larger organisation, that culture was of course present within the room. The old guard, champions of change and those not yet sure and committed were present in the moment. And hence the opportunity for change. For a leader or facilitator it is both a wonderful opportunity and a moment for caution and some nervousness. The conversation will not go well unless every person feels deeply respected and understood. A delicate balance around all interests needs to be struck. If the group is pushed through a zealousness around change, then resistance will go underground, only to exact revenge in a more private setting.
Each of the voices or roles present needs to be invited to speak about the world from their view. Of course, a skilled facilitator is unlikely to name ‘the old guard’ or ‘the ambivalent’ or ‘the change agent’ as such, but they will recognise these perspectives as they speak. By being alert to these roles - as roles - we avoid stereotyping any individual into a fixed position and can begin to work with cultural forces that are larger than any one person. We recognise that while the roles are present, the people in the room are in a state of discovery and flux.
What did ensue was a wonderful conversation – in fact an unfolding conversation over several days - about the cultural forces at play. We were able to dig deeper and engage in honest conversation about the history, the beliefs and the habits that shaped organisational culture. There were frank explorations about where the power within the organisation had lain, and what it was like to experience a loss of power in the interests of greater transparency and diversity. The leaders present spoke of the changing social contract and the way some members of the organisation were dealing with those losses.
When the courageous leader who unknowingly initiated this conversation, named it as he saw it, he highlighted the need for transformation. For no organisation can be at war with itself indefinitely. By speaking about the issue, we were able to gain a balcony perspective.
The Ripple Effect
Conversations of this kind have a ripple effect. The leaders present in that room will return to their roles more able to facilitate dialogues about cultural change as a result of our shared time on the balcony, reflecting on the forces at play within the culture. They will be able to help others achieve greater understanding of ‘what is going on around here.’
These conversations took place within an in-house conflict management coaching program we were delivering. They provided a shared focus, enabling us to model team and group coaching. In addition to the large group conversations, individuals were able to process their own experiences within the culture, before and during the change, in their small coaching practice groups. Many sensitive coaching dialogues ensued in which individuals explored their own role in the culture change, learnt to articulate their needs and dealt with past and present hurts and assumptions – both their own and others. By working on themselves, leaders address sources of reactivity that have the potential to get in the way of transformation efforts.
Collectively and individually, questions of identity were explored. The process of meaning making was supported by the use of powerful coaching questions that got beneath habitual thinking.
In closing, I would just like to say thank you to the brave leader who helped us all adopt a balcony view, and to explore rather than get caught in acting out the forces of an organisation in the midst of change. These conversations are the stuff of change. They enrich our lives.