Is what you see ever really what you get?

“In the midst of movement and chaos, keep stillness inside of you.” — Deepak Chopra

One of the most exciting things about learning to scuba dive is the anticipation of changing the element you are experiencing and waiting to see the image you thought you were going to see. You are surprised, confused, elated and fulfilled all at once – you get what you expected, what you didn’t and a whole myriad of things in between! It makes you feel humble and grateful at the same time and this posture is necessary to adapt to the unknown, to unfamiliar surroundings. You remain in awe of nature as it rolls out in front of you, reminding you as it does that you are part of something much bigger. It reminds me of the awe I feel at the top of a mountain or watching a whale breach over the ocean. Simply extraordinary.

Whales appeared 50 million years ago. We’re lucky enough to share our planet with 90 different whale species and, just like human societies, whales have diverse cultures that vary across their different locations. One pod of whales communicates distinctly from other pods. Some whales indulge in mid-air aerobatics. Some prefer beach rubbing. Whales learn these behaviours, which they pass down from generation to generation as a part of their individual and collective identity. The silence of the ocean and the stillness of the water bring a lot of information to listen to. Even in stillness, there is movement. Sometimes it takes time for the molecules of change to shift form, but even when it feels like nothing is happening, transformation is taking place.

Lao Tzu reminds us that “to the mind that is still, the whole universe surrenders.” We should actively seek out stillness, even if it is against the norms of the cultures in which we live and work, particularly in the western world. When we do enter that inner world, we are truly present to the point where our five fundamental senses change. We hear the silence, we feel the energy, we are in osmosis with ourselves and our immediate environment. All parts of us are present and welcome in that sense of stillness, strength and oscillating between comfort and discomfort. We must get present to who we are and have the courage to step over our own fear and into the unknown to find out what other people think and what’s going on in their bubble.

We know that what you see is not always what you get as humans are innately complex and perfectly imperfect. We know that understanding that we will never have the same perspective as the person next to us allows us to step back from ourselves, and into our power as a person, a leader and a team member.

Introspection for scaling personal agency

It is always about where our responsibility lies, and how willing we are to look into the looking glass, to coin a famous phrase from Lewis Carroll. ‘Looking in the looking glass’ has become a phrase one might use to describe a setting or situation that is unfamiliar or abnormal where we have been transported to a strange or bizarre world. This is how the first steps of introspection can feel as we venture past familiarity into that weird space that can so quickly feel uncomfortable and judgmental. But the looking glass is where the work lies. This is the heart of effective and inclusive leadership and demonstrates the parallels between Alice’s journey and the journey of inclusive leadership. Her process of self-discovery as a symbol for the power of imagination, curiosity, and creativity, not just in childhood but passing through adolescence into adulthood, can be likened to the process of getting to know ourselves, understanding what is on the inside and why we react to certain things. As Carl Jung tells us, “Until you make the unconscious conscious, it will direct your life and you will call it fate.”

image credit : researchgate

We always have a choice. We can always impact our situation through personal agency, even if it is infinitely small. Choosing not to act is a choice. Choosing not to take personal agency is a choice. I discuss this in relation to the art of active allyship in my recent podcast with Poornima Luthra (listen here). Unless you intentionally and consciously decide to act, then you are a bystander. You can spend your life as a leader being a bystander. If you never look in the mirror, if you never get curious about what there might be beyond your own mental models and belief systems, you will never know what it looks like from a different perspective.

My tag line for working with unconscious bias is always ‘what you see is never what you get’ because such things are fluid, and because humans are a complex and inexact science. To come back to the analogy of scuba diving, the ocean makes it very clear that you may master yourself, but you don’t master the ocean. That humility is key to both survival and flourishing in this environment. Is this so different from the workplace?

We are the guardians of our own sense of worth, integrity and values, just as we are the guardians of our own dignity, and this should be non-negotiable with other people. We all have a preference for confirmation of what we think and will actively search out people who will confirm this (confirmation bias). Once we are aware of this, we can try and combat it regularly, noticing what we notice about how we think. For example, not walking through the world looking for evidence that we don’t belong, or that we’re not enough, because we will always find it, perpetuating self-limiting beliefs and constraining innovation and collaboration. The interdependent nature of relationships makes them inherently complex and uncertain. We can influence one another’s experiences, and particularly in close relationships, emotions, thoughts and behaviours are completely interconnected. Therefore, the quality of our relationships and the interpersonal trust we build determines how well we can scale this. We are all powerful but not as powerful as the capacity of a community to shape its future.

Based on this thought, and taking into account the complexity of today’s systems, a critical component of leadership is to first generate understanding of and compassion for oneself. Only then can we turn towards others with care, empathy, and a responsiveness to their needs that builds interpersonal trust and connection. Academic research continuously underlines that the highest performing teams have the most connections and create a safe space in which to work. These leaders are intentionally inclusive and asking themselves honest questions to create opportunities for connections to happen. Brené Brown tells us that true belonging is a spiritual practice: “the ability to find sacredness in both being a part of something and in having the courage to stand alone; I am a part of something bigger, but I will also stand alone when I need to”. This is the result of introspection and self-awareness on the part of a leader, to understand their value base, their trigger points and their mental models. It is the hallmark of a leader who knows how to create a safe space and how to connect themselves to others in an inclusive way. This of course is not without its challenges, and you can read more about those challenges in this month’s Moments of Insights magazine (read here). So, how does this play out in organisations and how can we scale the momentum, enthusiasm and courageous vulnerability so that it sticks?

Courageous conversations for collective agency

Can you recall an occasion on which you were trying to get other people on your side, trying to influence and create a space where things could happen? The lever for this is to have conversations that are meaningful, deeper, uncomfortable, courageous, sometimes difficult and incredibly impactful. The quality of collaboration depends on the quality of the conversations, and authentic conversations are the key to creating the conditions for both collaboration and inclusion to happen. I discuss this further in another recent podcast in which Tanvi Gautam and I delve into the different conversations that make up a journey of deep collaboration (listen here).

image credit : lilia Daffi (HSP programme)

Latent tension arises from conflict and a lack of conversations. This then gives rise to both surface tension and deep tension from different sources of conflict, e.g. status conflict or interpersonal conflict, which require different tools for resolution. More authentic and in-depth conversations are required for us to create the feeling of togetherness and collective accountability. The four building blocks of inclusive systems – empathy, psychological safety, co-responsibility and collective vision – underline this. So often things remain unsaid, and tensions rise due to undefined accountability, unclear roles and responsibilities, and ultimately no collective agency of how to achieve the vision (based on the hypothesis that all parties are aligned on the vision). There are various warning signs we can watch out for: divergent views of individuals within a company signals a lack of clarity; a blame culture signals a lack of accountability; people who say one thing and do another signals a lack of safety and willingness to speak up – the list goes on.

One question that is seldom asked, however, is that of can we collaborate too much? The answer is yes – collaboration is tough and places even more demands on employees. Maybe sometimes collaboration isn’t the answer. Research from the BCG Henderson Institute on this topic tells us that “groups tend only to discuss information they have in common rather than share their unique insights”. This means that collaboration doesn’t effectively enable collaborators to pool their information or ideas and therefore we are missing out on more innovative insights. Collaborative burnout and overload are common in matrix structures with multiple stakeholders and insufficient support for the necessary skills to collaborate at a deeper level. The same is true of realigned strategies and business models and an absence of an alternative. All this puts pressure on the human systems of organisations and the collaborative footprint of work is generally poorly managed. So how can we make this an operational reality?

Operationalising collaboration

The ‘co-concept’ (e.g. co-creation, co-responsibility, co-regulation) is vital in leadership, as all conversations form a tapestry, provide insight and understanding, and facilitate progress. This in turn creates a synergistic system rather than distinct conversations that are had by few and don’t necessarily create the momentum to impact many.

We must begin by acknowledging that humans are messy and fallible and that we will fail, in order to unlearn and relearn. We must accept that collaboration is inherently difficult and start asking questions, reflecting both as individuals and as teams on how we can improve the quality of our interactions to bring about innovation and transformation. We must be aware of the limits of collaboration as a standard or default answer and create a culture where we have alternatives both in terms of tools and approaches.

Leaders must be able to define and make these choices and move from a passive stance to an active stance so that they can start visualising and designing what this environment could look like. Some helpful questions might be: What skills do I need? How can I equip my peers and teams to start with the hard inner work and move out to a more collective design of how we collaborate more efficiently? Should we sometimes be doing things individually or differently to maximise impact and motivation? If so, what are the criteria for this? It is important to understand the ‘what is’ and the ‘what isn’t’ in this space, to get curious and speak to people by engaging in authentic and courageous conversations. We must look at the environment in terms of culture as well and ask ourselves: What mindsets are present here? What are the unwritten assumptions and biases? Do I ask people what they’re really feeling? Do I regularly challenge myself and my perspectives openly with my peers and teams?

Collective intent and co-created collective agency to make asking such questions the norm would look like an aligned set of common objectives that are recognised and rewarded. It would be a space where people can express their hopes, fears, ideas and challenges, an environment in which we can create new practices and habits. We could role model the behaviours we need to see to retain our competitive advantage as the world of business evolves. We could humanise our approaches. Walking the talk, sense-making collectively and constantly co-creating the ‘how we do things around here’ is key to creating collaborative advantage. Because we are more intelligent together.

Thank you for reading.

If this resonates with you please share your thoughts in the comments, and subscribe for more thoughts on human systems.

You can also find more subjects like this in my podcast, Let’s talk Transformation, available on Apple Podcast, Spotify, and Google Podcast.

If you’re looking to build and lead agile ecosystems differently, check out our Human Systems Practitioner course :

Suzie Lewis

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