An opportunity to both practice mindfulness as well as to enter into an unusually powerful learning experience about our organisations’ dynamics (Oshry) is a rare experience – in fact it might well be unique. The ‘Resilient Leadership for Turbulent Times’ workshop that I attended last month certainly offered much to savour, for mind and for body.
By guest writer: Matthew Mezey, On-line engagement/culture change specialist and co-author of “Anti-Hero: the Hidden Revolution in Leadership & Change”. @MatthewMezey
During the part of the day based on Barry Oshry’s ‘Organisation Workshop’ simulation we were all given positions in the hierarchy of an imagined company as ‘Tops’, ‘Middles’ or ‘Bottoms’ (or outside stakeholders) – along with a series of challenging tasks to achieve. Actually, they’re often quite simple tasks but turn out to be needlessly challenging when one has to negotiate the all-too-familiar mess of misunderstandings and hierarchies of the company.
Because this concentrated capsule of full-speed organisational reality isn’t our usual workplace – it somehow becomes possible to begin to really see the dynamics that are at work, to get beyond our tendency to blame people and to blame groups. Instead we begin to empathise with the differing contexts that do so much to determine people’s behaviours – leaving the ‘Tops’ feeling overloaded, the ‘Bottoms’ disregarded, the ‘Middles’ crunched and the customers neglected.
The dawning of this awareness makes it possible to act differently, more productively – avoiding the cul-de-sacs of organisational life.
I love the notion that we can free ourselves from the inevitable behaviours of our organisational position and instead begin to work as a force for what is missing in our group’s efforts to grow, doing what needs to be done – even if it’s outside our comfort zone.
A powerful experience during the simulation for me came after I – in the role of an organisational learning grant-giving outsider – had managed to prompt the company’s first (and last) all-staff meeting to kickstart the funding/learning process.
Though this was all ‘a game’, it was amazing to see the strength of the presuppositions – frames, one could call them – that people unconsciously carried into the simulation from their own work lives.
Commenting on this all-staff meeting they’d been asked to attend, staff members told me “The decision is always already made” (by the Tops). “If this was a real-life meeting, it would’ve been with the Middles, not the Bottoms. They’d never listen to me”.
“Tops already had a plan for the meeting; I don’t feel I had input”, I was confidently told – even though I’d initiated the meeting, and I knew there was absolutely no covert plan already in place, just needing a veneer of pseudo-involvement.
My lesson: if you succeed in creating a truly open meeting to co-create a way forward, no-one will actually believe it is happening or take it seriously!
A feeling of trusted partnership with others is all too easy to lose, and perhaps even tougher to build in the first place….
Just seeing the tenaciousness, the virulence of these ‘stories’ – and others that came up – left me wiser to as to what the most effective actions would look like. Also more able to move away from knee-jerk reactions to people and groups – which can easily develop into an entire rancorous ‘sideshow – and to see instead the positional context that so often drives them.
What can quieting the mind and being more grounded and present have to do with looking at organisational culture?
A big question for me in all this was: how on earth do the individual Mindfulness practices that Joel and Michelle so capably led us through relate to the organisational simulation that John guided us all through?
Stepping back, however, I begin to see a similar process at work. The simulation allows us to move into the position of an observer, who is able to see the dynamics we are usually so totally immersed in that they are invisible. And doesn’t Mindfulness do the same thing – on an individual level – by turning the inner chatter, impulses and reactions we are continually subject to into an object that we can reflect on, at least for those few minutes during which we are able to stay present.
Both these practices are widening the areas of reality we’re able to pay attention to. As Joel Levey put it “We can only manage what we monitor; if we’re not paying attention then it’s just habit – individual and organisational”.
Michelle Levey put it even more simply: “Choice follows awareness”.
Interestingly, there’s a growing amount of evidence – including from 360-degree behavioural research – suggesting that those leaders with the widest span of attention are also those that are the most inspiring, effective and transformative. With all this in mind, it perhaps comes as less of a surprise to learn that one leading researcher/consultant behind some of this research, Prof Bill Torbert, has himself spent decades deeply involved in Mindfulness-style practices in everyday life.
What on the surface might seem to be most peripheral to organisational change and effectiveness, is perhaps amongst the most central and practical.