My Blog

On coaching, behaviour change and transformation ...

Changing behaviour first requires that we change our own

July, 2018

Transformative thinking and action requires transformative thinking and action, not more of the 'same old same old'. This sounds obvious, but as the story below will demonstrate, sometimes 'old habits die-hard' and established views and biases are regarded as 'truths' rather than views and perspectives, that could and should be re-examined and challenged as organisations, markets and the landscape continues to evolve.

Some months ago, I was asked to co-run a workshop for a group of global senior leaders within a large NGO. The workshop concluded a long strategy process and was intended to embed new ways of working to improve private sector fundraising and engagement.

I love workshops, and my colleagues and I brought a whole range of targeted exercises to deepen the learning of our participants and to activate change. All was going well. It was fun, and we were hitting our goals until the discussion turned to ways to better collaborate with the private sector. This word 'collaborate' in association with the private sector triggered an immediate and emotional response in the group that I will not forget. In the end, and all things considered, the workshop went well, and I got a useful reminder about how much words matter particularly where there are cultural connotations that we cannot ignore.

I have since reflected a good deal on this experience and the deeper challenge for this client and others where the commercial sector is viewed with so much suspicion that the very idea of close engagement and partnership is met with scepticism at best, as though the corporate motive - 'there must be profit in there somewhere' - is inherently shameful. Profit is not a dirty motive; it's a necessary and natural one for corporates and not inevitably in direct conflict at all with a motivation to 'do good'. On the contrary, the profit motive can and increasingly often is in alignment. It is this belief that underpins much of the work that is done today by consultancies and other partners working at the interface between corporates and non-profits on development and social benefit programmes.

More generally, this example illustrates an important point about the challenge of behaviour change when an organisation seeks to work in new ways. It begs the question how can a non-profit organisation ever embrace the principle of corporate engagement and forge new strong partnerships when their attitude and behaviours exude suspicion in the sector? Organisations and their leaders need to consider ways to challenge their perspective before they can affect the change they seek in their partners or indeed in their beneficiaries or broader society.

With my coaching hat on, I can assert that there is no single truth in any one perspective but some truth in every perspective. Unfortunately, very often, organisations and their leaders fail to see this and continue doggedly with their one-dimensional view. There are many, many examples of organisations - public, private and not-for-profit - which have paid a high price for their failure to explore wider perspectives.

Behavioural sciences have taught us that common 'heuristics' - the mental shortcuts we subconsciously take when forming views and decision-making - further reinforce this tendency to fixate on a single preferred view or course of action. There is significant evidence that poor judgement and decision making in teams and organisations, is often due to over-optimism in our own and in our group's ability, reluctance to speak out in divergence from the prevailing view, and we subconsciously seek out information which supports our existing worldview. These heuristics - optimism bias, group think and confirmation bias - can all get in the way of good decision making and result in low efficiency, poor deliverables, failures to meet targets and negative public image. Fear of conflict and desire to comply with the group is indeed one of Patrick Lencioni's 'Five Dysfunctions of a Team' as highlighted in his much-vaunted management must-read of the early noughties.

So how can organisations address this challenge? Simply acknowledging that there may be one is a good first step. And the thing about these behavioural biases is that they tend to be introspective in their nature. When making the same judgements about other people, we do not exhibit the same biases. So appointing someone separate from a project or team to act as 'Devil's Advocate' to challenge groupthink, optimism bias and confirmation bias, can help, and of course, diversity on boards and leadership groups is essential. NGOs for example, need to recruit more talent from the private sector as well as ensuring a good mix of age, gender, ethnicity and other diversity drivers on their teams: many are now doing so.

Team coaching and workshops also play an important role. Co-Active® Coaching uses creative and dynamic tools and approaches to hunt for, explore and experience different perspectives, then link these back to organisational purpose in a practical way that is both fun and enlightening, and it can lead to transformative realisations and action.

So for organisations - whether NGOs, corporate or other - to successfully drive change, they often need to embrace it first themselves, and this means experiencing it, not just paying lip service to new ways of working or using language as 'window dressing'. It can be an uncomfortable process, but it can be also be fun: it is nearly always necessary.

The challenge of finding new perspectives

October, 2018

Finding the new perspective that helps solve a problem is always hard as humans are neurologically programmed to repeat old patterns of thinking. But by drawing on external stimulus we can jolt ourselves onto new pathways that lead to breakthrough thinking.

It’s hard to think differently. It’s hard to see things differently.

It is a fundamental truth that lies at the heart of the research and consulting industry in which I have worked for over ten years. In this world, insight experts help clients across sectors to see things differently by looking through the lens of consumers or citizens.

The new and often challenging perspectives that emerge are vital to stimulating innovation, and in the government sector, can result in interventions that drive better outcomes in public policy, public services and public communications.

Closer to home when wrestling with problems in our personal lives, we also often need such a ‘change of scene’ or external trigger to see things in a new light, as I have now also learnt as a coach. The reasons for this lie in neuroscience. Our brains are wired to automatically default to the lowest energy setting when tackling problems and it takes mental effort and energy to choose a new and different approach. Sometimes we are literally unable to do it without an external stimulus to shock us onto a new path.

We can’t help it. As Gregory Berns explains in his book, ‘Iconoclast’ – ‘The brain is basically a lazy piece of meat’. Like every other organ and species on the planet, the brain has evolved to become as efficient as possible in what it does. Cognitive energy – the energy our brain uses to process billions of stimuli every day – is finite, so our brain finds short cuts. Simply put, it takes too much energy to systematically process all the evidence available in every case to make decisions. Categorisation – where the brain draws conclusions and makes judgements based on previous experience - is one such shortcut that the brain routinely takes.

The Ponzo illusion illustrates this well. Italian psychologist Mario Ponzo used the image here to show how the upper horizontal line is perceived to be longer than the lower one, even though they are both actually the same length. The reason is that our brains are trained to view lines converging as a way of representing perspective – parallel lines receding into the distance like a train track, road or a sky scraper reaching up the sky.  These images are so commonplace that when presented with an image that resembles this, our brains short cut to the conclusion that this is what they are seeing.

But invert the image and the illusion no longer applies because perspective does not work the same way in reverse. We see the lines as they really are.

Categorisation can be based on our previous experience, or we can also use ‘the wisdom of the crowd’ to shortcut decision making, particularly where we are unsure. Previous experience and ‘group think’ can be efficient and low-risk means of decision making – and they certainly reduce the cognitive load.

But it’s not always the best way to make decisions or to solve problems. The challenge is that in many cases we are not even aware that this is happening – as in the example above.  Just being aware that ‘our minds can play tricks on us’ can be helpful in itself when faced with tough decisions and challenges. There are ways to force the brain out of is lazy mode of perception but activating them often depends on the element of surprise.  Hence the use of vox pops or video clips in the insight industry to ‘shock’ the client with the customer’s voice. The brain must be provided with something that it has never before processed, to force it out of its predictable perspectives. Such unfamiliarity forces the brain to discard its usual categories of perception and to create new ones.

It is therefore no great coincidence that many of the great innovators of our time have experienced break through moments not in the lab or at their desks but in an unfamiliar, novel environment.

So next time you’re struggling or stuck – as an organisation or an individual – consider how you can use this knowledge to help you to get out of the rut. Go somewhere different and new – outside is always good if all else fails. Get a perspective from someone you know sees things differently to you. Use your coach if you have one; considering hiring one if you don’t. CoActive coaching, as I now practice, uses methods of visualisation and geography to help the client to jump off a well-trodden neural superhighway in their brain and set off down a brand new neural pathway.

So, to sum up I will borrow the words of Marcel Proust: “The real voyage of discovery lies not in seeing new landscape but in seeing with new eyes.” The answer to that challenge or difficult decision is already somewhere in us; sometimes it just takes the jolt of a new perspective to see it.

2019 Resolutions : More 'AND' Less 'But'

January 2019

In a stuffy training room in a Hatton Garden conference facility in May of this year, I experienced one of those ‘ah ha’ moments when a colleague channelled her coaching courage to tell me: “You are very good friends with the word ‘But’”. A shift happened as I registered the truth in what she had said.

Like so many people I’ve been making excuses for not going after what I really want. I tell myself what someone like me ‘should’ do or what ‘might’ happen if I do X or Y. Over the years this has taken many forms - I could go after that contract or promotion but I might fail; I could really let my hair down but people might judge me; I could ask for what I really want but I’ll be too disappointed if I don’t get it.

This is only natural. We are hardwired from the days of our hunter and gatherer ancestors to stay within the safety zone. Whenever we go to close to the zone of the new, adventure or risk, our internal voice - in CoActive coaching terms we call this our ‘saboteur voice’ - starts to shout out warnings. ‘Don’t go out there, you could get eaten by a sabre toothed tiger!... Stay safe. Stay alive!’

Meanwhile there are other more resonant voices within us that are telling us to ‘take your chance, live your life, get out there, give it a go, have fun!’ Part of the job of a coach is to help us to distinguish these different voices and to be more in choice over which voice best serves us at any time.

So, as a soon-to-be qualified new coach, I’ve been working on it. And as we enter a new year, I say enough! I am declaring 2019 the year of ‘more AND less But’.

For me, this means in 2019 qualifying and working as a certified, professional CoActive coach AND succeeding in and loving my global consulting work at Kantar Public; doing more sport than ever AND entering my sixth decade on the planet; being credible and grounded AND throwing myself into more messy moments of unbridled fun; being a fantastic Mum and wife AND travelling, working and taking lots of time out just for myself.

That means understanding that my career right now is not a straight upward trajectory in any formal career sense AND enjoying the journey, allowing myself to be messy, ill-defined and maybe even sometimes to fail.

These are my commitments for 2019. I’d love to hear yours. 

Being Normal

April 2019

There are two books which have made a big impression on me this year - Sally Rooney’s Normal People and Michelle Obama’s Becoming.

Sally Rooney’s Man Booker prize winning novel is the moving story of Marianne and Connell, two young people struggling to fit in and conquer their demons to live happy and fulfilled lives. Michelle Obama’s autobiography is the candid account of a journey from humble beginnings in South Side of Chicago to life as the First Lady of the United States and surely one of the most influential women in the world.

They are two very different books. Yet both are an exploration of the struggle to be an “OK human being” and to be “good enough”; both deal with the universal challenge of being accepted and, hardest of all, to accept oneself.

It’s a theme that resonates. In my early life I felt different and I hated it. Already struggling with the 70s taboo of growing up in a single parent family and the daughter of an Argentinian immigrant, my first name was Alejandra – uncommon and difficult to pronounce. My surname was “Boo” … well, enough said. It often felt as though ‘otherness’ and ‘wrongness’ clung to me.

My solution? Ditch the names. By my early 30s and thanks to marriage I had succeeded in rebranding to the blissfully easy ‘Alex Oliver’ that I own today. What a relief.

Well... yes, except that feeling normal or different happens on the inside not the outside.

In Becoming, Michelle Obama traces her struggles to gain acceptance in traditionally white dominated environments – Princeton, Harvard, corporate law and the White House. Even as she proves herself and succeeds time and time again, she still asks herself ‘Am I good enough?’ Similarly, although for different reasons, Marianne’s character in Normal People, is stuck in the belief that she is somehow ‘wrong’, despite being a prize-winning scholar and one of the most popular girls at university.

The irony in all this is that, of course, despite the differences in our backgrounds, our ethnicities and our personal stories, we are all so much more alike than we realise. Like Marianne and Michelle Obama, we are all struggling to get on, to be accepted for who we are, and to live our best lives possible.

And even when we want to be different, we are often more similar than we would like to admit, as I read recently in ‘One Thing I Learned this Week’ the weekly update by J. Walker Smith, Kantar Brand & Marketing Chief Knowledge Officer. In his “Difference” update, he suggests that even the most radical and individualist of non-conformists eventually synchronise with one another and end up looking and behaving in similar ways.

So, many years on from my younger, differently named self, I have come to celebrate my difference as well as my same-ness. (I even slightly regret the loss of the attention grabbling difference that the ‘Boo’ name creates.) The right way to be is the right way for me, not for anyone else. I don’t need to be ‘good’ like anyone else or ‘successful’ like anyone else, or even ‘happy’ like anyone else. All I need to do is to figure out what is the right way for me, today.

Easier said than done and this in itself is a journey. But it’s one I recommend. 

A consultant’s journey into Co-Active Coaching®

March, 2018

There are many journeys into Co-Active Coaching® and no typical one. My journey from a background in strategy consulting and evidence-based policy making, may or may not be one of the more unusual, but it certainly had its challenges.

I came to Co-Active Coaching with a set of assumptions about coaching and about myself: that coaching was about listening, and that I would be good at it given my professional background. But I quickly learnt that my training as a qualitative researcher and in triangulating evidence to strategize, actually had very little to do with being a great coach.

Co-Active Coaching is about listening. But the listening goes way beyond what we call ‘Level One’ where our brain is actively making connections, drawing down data from our experience or from what we’ve heard before. Rather Co-Active Coaching is about ‘dancing in the moment’, fully entering the client’s space, connecting and listening more deeply at ‘Level Two’ where we set aside all other reference points, assumptions and hypotheses to give our full focus to our client’s words and being. And then even deeper at ‘Level Three’ where we listen to a wider set of cues - body language, energy level and the environment all around – even drawing on a ‘6th sense’ to hear emotions and influences which are unspoken.

When the notion of drawing on intuition rather than solid evidence was first presented to me, I was taken aback. I was surprised, to say the least, to hear our otherwise eminently credible, ex journalist course leader asserting that a passing police siren heard in a coaching session could be heralding a warning to the client being coached. But curiosity kept me in my seat and I completed the 3-day course. One week later I signed up to the core curriculum and as I write I am well into my journey to becoming a qualified Co-Active Coach. Here’s why.

Although the theory of neuroscience does not form part of the Co-Active training course, nor indeed did it originally underpin the Co-Active model, I am realising more and more that the Co-Active practice is steeped in it. Behavioural science teaches us that human beings are creatures of habit. Heuristics or mental short cuts influence day to day decision making and judgement. This is necessary – our cognitive limits mean that there is only so much thinking that each one of us can do. Mental short cuts make life easier for us and reduce the cognitive load. And our natural tendency to overweight aversion to risk vs. the possibility of gain, is borne from the instinct to keep ourselves safe.

But these behaviours also mean that we can get stuck in our perspectives and judgement – seeing things the way we have always done, avoiding risk, missing things and finding it hard to discover new perspectives or to see things clearly. In neuroscience terms, the more a neural pathway is used in our brain, the stronger it becomes.

However, science has shown that our brains also demonstrate neuroplasticity. Co-Active Coaching offers a set of approaches and tools to shift our client’s perspective. By listening at a deeper level, we are unable to reflect back unacknowledged views and judgements. This in itself can be challenging but also revelatory. By drawing on creative references and cues, we can invite our clients to see new viewpoints. Drawing on intuition to make a call on what is going on or where an answer may lie, may unlock a whole new set of possibilities. In effect the tools of Co-Active Coaching help clients to forge new neural networks, respond more calmly to stress, and access more resources for better decision making. This inevitably leads to more effective and fulfilling lives. I can attest from my own experience and witnessing the journeys of my fellow students, that this is very powerful, potent stuff.

So, this coactive coaching journey has been challenging for me. In wearing my new coach hat, I’ve had to learn that I bring value not in presenting tidy evidenced-based solutions to my clients, but in offering them a relationship and a safe space in which they can explore, learn, play, find their own solutions and take action, if they want to. I’m exercising muscles I didn’t know exist and having a lot of fun in the process too. I’m entirely sold on co-active coaching - which, it turns out, is based on sound evidence - and I'm loving the journey. I’m open to the universe and excited about whatever comes next.

For more on this, see Co-Active Coaching and the Brain – article by Ann Betz, CPPS -