Can You Feel the Force? Hidden Dynamics of Leadership Blind-Spots


The events surrounding the demise of the charity Kids Company towards the end of last year and subsequent reviews have given me a lot of food for thought. The broader issue for me emerging from this is the blind spots that leaders repeatedly seem to have – in this case an unsustainable operating model and lack of financial reserves. The last few years is littered with other examples of leaders having blind spots in the public and commercial sectors with which we are all too familiar.

Egocentricity and hubris have been a focus in leadership research and development, but do they cause these blind spots?[1] These and other dysfunctional qualities may be contributors[2], although the alleged lemming-style behaviour of a colourful leader perhaps makes better headlines than the complex reality – remember ‘Fred the Shred?’. The risk is the continued focus on the individual leader as the key agent of change in organisations, despite evidence that most change efforts don’t achieve their aims[3]. Just visit the leadership and management feature page of LinkedIn’s SlideShare, where you are currently faced with three images of Jack Welch, the hero leader personified. Many CEO’s don’t last as long as he did.

Drawing on the work of Kurt Lewin, Gestalt psychology demonstrates the need to recognise the dynamic nature of relationships and how the relational field operates as a ‘whole’[4]. From this perspective, individual parts don’t always influence the actions of the whole system, rather the whole determines the place and role of the parts which keep the system in a dynamic equilibrium. The ‘Force-Field’ analysis tool derived from this work is well known in organisation development, although it is a simplified and mechanical version of Lewin’s original field theory. The dynamic equilibrium, or current reality, is difficult to change unless people become more aware of how the wider system of relationships operates and the impact this has on their thinking and behaviour.  Without this awareness, it usually takes a crisis to stimulate significant change, something we’ve witnessed a lot recently.

Just as individuals can display dysfunctional behaviours, so can working relationships have dysfunctional dynamics, particularly under conditions of pressure and stress. Inappropriate interpersonal strategies, such as arrogance or avoidance, can be played out in teams and in the wider organisation creating closed systems that are unable to adapt in a changing context[5]. Blaming individuals for problems, which is common, can be evidence of a lack of system awareness and the part that everyone plays in a dynamic relational field – often going beyond the formal boundaries of the organisation. It’s interesting that the report of the Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee on the collapse of Kids Company highlights the unwitting collusion that took place between Kids Company trustees, management and various external stakeholders, including Government and Auditors, to perpetuate an unsustainable situation[6].

In practical terms, systems awareness of this kind means, for example, being able to notice in the moment that no-one is willing to challenge the CEO or name the elephant in the room that is getting bigger at each meeting. Beyond this it means having the ability to stop the action and ask questions about how relationships are working, or not.

Peter Senge, one of the pioneers of system leadership, recently wrote with colleagues that:

Much has been written about these leadership capabilities in the organizational learning literature and the tools that support their development. But much of this work is still relatively unknown or known only superficially to those engaged in collaborative systemic change efforts[7].

Leaders need to be capable of stopping the action, exploring the culture and behaviour of the team and engaging with the wider organisation in a similar way. An independent coach/facilitator will often be needed to provide the initial challenge and support to create movement in the organisation system. However, this capability also needs to be developed in the organisation, for example, through action learning or a more systematic approach to reviewing relationships (see my previous blogs for further comment on this). This isn’t about developing the usual leadership competencies – vision, engagement and delivery. It’s about developing a collective awareness of behaviour and its consequences and through this facilitating systemic change. This won’t be news to many organisation development professionals, but Senge’s comment and the recent history of institutional failures suggest we still have a lot of work to do in this area.

May the Force be with you!

David Willcock
Liberating Potential Ltd.

[1] See for example Claxton, Owen and Sadler-Smith, Hubris in Leadership: A Peril of Unbridled Intuition? Leadership Journal (Sage) 2015, 11 (1) 57-78. In September 2013 Cambridge University Judge Business School held a conference entitled ‘The Intoxication of Power: Leadership and Hubris’.

[2] Hogan, R. Personality and the Fate of Organisations, 2007

[3] See for example Binney, Wilkes and Williams, Living Leadership, 2005

[4] Lewin, Kurt. Field Theory in Social Science, 1951

[5] See for example Willcock, D., Collaborating for Results, Routledge 2013

[6] House of Commons PACA Committee Report, February 2016. The Collapse of Kids Company: lessons for charity trustees, professional firms, the Charity Commission and Whitehall

[7] Senge P, Hamilton H and Kania J. The Dawn of System Leadership. Stanford Social Innovation Review. Winter 2015


Want to Change? Focus on Who You Are Now


In 1970 Arnold Beisser MD published a short article called the Paradoxical Theory of Change. Based on and explaining the Gestalt therapy method of Fritz Perls, he summarises:

‘… that change occurs when one becomes what he is, not when he tries to become what he is not. Change does not take place through a coercive attempt by the individual or by another person to change him, but it does take place if one takes the time and effort to be what he is — to be fully invested in his current positions. By rejecting the role of change agent, we make meaningful and orderly change possible.’

Given the importance of change leadership and management capabilities in organisations, I believe it is worth reflecting on the implications of this theory, which is derived from practice that I have experience of making work.

Take for example someone I am coaching who is unhappy at work and in a dilemma about whether to stay in their current role or to leave the team/organisation. I could take a classic problem-solving approach to help them work out the solution – exploring the current situation, examining the pros and cons of staying or leaving, looking at options, developing a vision for the future and planning actions. All very logical, tried and tested. However, this will not necessarily resolve the internal conflict – stay or go – at sensory and emotional levels and achieve an integrated position. The decision will be a choice of options and may contain the seeds of the same dilemma, an attempt to grow grass that’s greener.

So what I might do with their permission is ask them alternately to be the person that wants to stay and then the person who wants to leave and to run a dialogue between the two. I will probably ask them to give a name to each of these positions – for example, ‘Ms Resilient’ and ‘Ms Freedom’ – names that in themselves may indicate the dynamic forces at work in the situation. I will facilitate the dialogue, asking questions to deepen understanding and explore their thinking, feelings and behaviour. By running this ‘two chair’ dialogue they invest fully in these positions, being who they are in the moment, and in my experience often achieve integration and resolution of the internal conflict. Following this it is often obvious what they want without having spent a lot of time and effort on a problem-solving process that can still leave them feeling uncertain and dissatisfied. The direction eventually comes from a naturally changed place rather than change being discussed and imposed by either of us. The latter may bring results but the former is more self-determined, insightful and satisfying and as such the actions agreed will be more effortless.

There are many implications of the paradoxical theory of change for organisation change – not least that most leaders and consultants are referred to as ‘agents of change’ and many organisation change efforts fail to deliver the desired outcomes. Yes organisations need change programmes, but when it comes to people and culture the same logical methods won’t necessarily reap the desired results. Behaviour is not a technology. Beisser went on to argue that the paradoxical theory of change applies as much to an organisation, community or society as it does to the individual. The need is to recognise and hear all the different interests in a change situation – including the alienated parts often perceived as ‘resistant’ – and through meaningful engagement achieve understanding and direction. Many systemic group interventions like Search Conference and Open Space are based on this principle. A central theme in my book is the need to develop open teams with the right balance of challenge and support behaviours for organisation change to succeed. See also in my previous blog ‘Want an engaged workforce?’ the point about helping people to see differently in a changing context.

Many commentators see leaders providing direction, but where should this direction come from? Is it right to set a vision/direction and then encourage people to sign up and follow – to ‘align’ themselves – or is the start point a process that includes all the different players, takes account of different positions and perspectives, achieves integration and results in direction? The leader needs to have a voice, but the willingness to be who they are and to help others to do the same may be a necessary condition for meaningful and successful change to happen.

David Willcock
Liberating Potential Ltd.

Want an Engaged Workforce? Help them ‘Finish the Business’


My previous blog on ‘unfinished business’ highlighted the importance of complete or ‘whole’ experiences to people, a principle that extends to our motivations and emotions. We are bothered by things that are incomplete or unfinished and they may stay with us until resolved and potentially interfere with our working relationships. So what further lessons might we draw from this phenomenon for people engagement and collaboration in organisations?

Give people whole tasks that are meaningful and realistic. Tasks are meaningful when they have clear added value in the wider scheme of things, depending on the nature of the organisation. Jobs may lack meaning if people are working on a small part and are uncertain where they fit in and the contribution they are making overall. This also contributes to silo working. Realistic means there is a realistic prospect of completing a quality piece of work given the context and expectations. Giving people whole tasks that are meaningful and realistic makes it more likely that people are going to be engaged in their work, identify with their team and organisation and collaborate with others.

Be disciplined in following through on things. Managers must never be complacent with their view of a situation or their own sense of satisfaction. They have to constantly engage with others to help them achieve completion. For example, following input from a team, explaining to them what decision was made, action taken and why. Lack of feedback and follow through is frustrating and team members will not forget when tasks are interrupted. In addition, individuals and teams need time for ongoing review, consolidation and learning in the context of the wider organisation. This reinforces the value of well managed performance review conversations.

Acknowledge the whole person. People don’t just come to work to perform, they perform in order to live. Acknowledging the whole person means taking a holistic approach to people as human beings. This includes paying attention to the different thoughts, feelings, motives, styles and preferences that people bring to working relationships that often extend beyond the work they do. It also includes getting to know people beyond the work and acknowledging that in the context of the team. By taking a more holistic approach people have the opportunity to integrate aspects of their personal and work lives and feel more complete, rather than the two being separated and potentially ‘alienated’. Sometimes our work in coaching leaders involves helping them to be more who they are in the broadest sense rather than feeling constrained by who they think they ought to be at work.

Coach people. Coaching is consistent with giving people whole tasks that are meaningful and realistic, following through on things and acknowledging the whole person. Coaching people to think through and solve their own challenges draws on their internal resources, releases energy and potential, connects them with others and results in learning, satisfaction and ownership.

Help people to see differently in a changing context. Our previous experiences are organised ‘wholes’ of experience or patterns which are often referred to as ‘mental models’ – how we see and make sense of the world. In a changing and complex environment we cannot always recognise the patterns that help us draw on this experience and this results in confusion. The prevailing mental models may also just be the wrong ones to make sense of the new situation– something the big supermarket chains have recently experienced with the competition from Aldi and Lidl. Leaders need to engage with people in change, facilitate perception-sharing and help them see things differently in order to find the right direction. This needs to be a proactive process rather than one that makes sense of the change when it’s too late. There are a number of meeting methods available for leaders to draw on. Action learning used in the right way can be a powerful method for engaging people in the change process, challenging assumptions and existing frames of reference whilst supporting people through the confusion. Conference methods such as Future Search and Open Space get the ‘whole system’ in the room, including partner organisations, to work on common challenges.

Develop open cultures. In the previous blog I mentioned the importance of developing open organisation cultures which minimise the risk of unfinished business in working relationships. Open cultures also support the lessons explained above. Leaders have a key role to play here as role models and team facilitators. More strategically, they need a clear focus on relationships as an important part of their role – giving relationship management equal priority alongside the task and process elements of organisation. More information on this can be found in my book.

In summary. If people:

  • see the bigger picture
  • see the value of their contribution
  • are given ownership and responsibility
  • learn from experience
  • are acknowledged for who they are in the broadest sense
  • are engaged in making sense of change
  • are encouraged to be open about how they think and feel

then this will help achieve a more engaged and collaborative workforce.

David Willcock, Director
Liberating Potential Ltd.

Back from Holiday? Time to Deal with the ‘Unfinished Business’.

9781409464297 cropped_v_cover (800x530)

Returning to work, were there some unfinished tasks that surfaced in your mind from time to time whilst on holiday, at least in the first and last few days?

In an experiment about memory recall reported in 1927, the psychologist Kurt Lewin gave subjects a sequence of simple tasks to complete. In some cases they were allowed to finish their work and in others they were interrupted so the task was not completed. Asked subsequently what they could remember, in the majority of cases it was the interrupted tasks. This demonstrates our natural tendency towards completion and the satisfaction that comes from that. We are bothered by things that are unfinished and they may stay with us until resolved. The principle extends to our motivations and emotions. We seek to satisfy our needs and when that is frustrated it can result in ‘unfinished business’.

In working relationships unfinished business is common and can lead to problems in performance and the quality of working life. For example, if in a meeting someone unfairly criticises you and you don’t respond, that is a potential interruption in the relationship which can impair future contact. It may not be appropriate to say something in the meeting, but often there is no follow-up for whatever reason – lack of opportunity, concern about the other person’s reaction, thinking it’s not worth bothering about etc. Defensive behaviour can result, e.g. avoidance or lack of cooperation.

Of course, whatever the situation, it isn’t always appropriate or possible to respond in the way you want to. You have to do what is possible under the circumstances to reconcile things in your own mind and ‘move on’. Nevertheless, unfinished business can be an invisible millstone around the neck of organisations so it is important to develop as much openness as possible in working relationships. This is fundamental to achieving a flexible, adaptable and high performance culture.

One senior team I was developing was stuck in a very fractious and argumentative way of being. The team had been formed after a reorganisation and people brought together from different parts of the organisation. Many of them spoke fondly of their previous team and the sense of purpose they enjoyed there. I discovered that there were some legacy issues between members of the new team and also that they were upset about what had happened to colleagues who were made redundant. On a team event I ran a session where they could talk openly about their feelings and find some resolution before focusing on the needs of the current team.

Developing a more open culture isn’t always easy. What is appropriate openness for one person may not be for another. Often the journey needs to be facilitated, which can be expensive. What can help is to make having more open conversations a ‘norm’ for the organisation – standard common practice. Having a process endorsed by the organisation can be a cost-effective way to do this. The Relationship Insights Generator™ or RIG is one such process. Based on my book “Collaborating for Results: Silo Working and Relationships that Work” (Gower, 2013) it helps people review and improve the working relationships they have with others they engage with on important work – including cross-functional and cross-organisation work where different silos need to work together. This is not a psychometric assessment requiring qualifications. It is a series of practical steps based on research and experience to help people think through the strengths and weaknesses of working relationships and plan improvements. Targeted at critical projects and initiatives it can help organisations reduce the risk of unfinished business and the performance, financial and human costs that can occur.

More information about the RIG and the book can be found on the Liberating Potential Ltd. website.

David Willcock
Liberating Potential Ltd.

Can Restructuring Break Down Organisation Silos?

9781409464297 cropped_v_cover (800x530)

One way organisations try to improve collaboration is to restructure, for example moving from a functional, hierarchical to a matrix structure. Structures do need to be contingent and in today’s world there is a need for more cross-functional as well as inter-organisation working. But does structural change lead to the changes in working relationships needed to achieve the required results? My answer is: only if the relationships are given equal attention alongside other aspects of business planning and delivery.

People in organisations default naturally to silo working. Two key personal benefits of silo working mentioned in my book – what people hang on to – are belonging and control. These are fundamental desires that people have at different stages of relationship development (Schutz 1988). Some of the things they don’t like about ‘out of silo’ working are:

  • The potential lack of clarity
  • Increased workload
  • Trusting others that they perceive as less capable
  • The complexity of dealing with different people
  • Compromising on preferred ways of doing things

In short, it’s about comfort with the familiar, including relationships, and retaining a sense of control. People want to do what they came to do, such as focus on their specialist work and deliver results – preferably without the delays that wider engagement might involve. This affects the level of contact and degree of openness that people need to work together within teams and across organisations.

One implication is that working relationships may not be aligned with new governance structures. Some people will continue to get things done in a way they are used to and through people they feel comfortable with. This can lead to confusion and stress in the organisation as the necessary adaptations are not realised.

Work on developing new relationships needs to happen at strategic and operational levels – getting the right operating framework in place and making sure that changes in working relationships are built into the day-to-day work, for example projects with relationship and decision-making plans. Work I have done with leaders and teams has helped them examine their current networks and reconfigure them according to the priorities of the new context. They can be surprised how much time and energy they are putting into relationships that are no longer a priority, sometimes because those people are also investing their time and energy in them – and that feels good! They may need to maintain working relationships, but realign them with the new governance arrangements.

The complexity of organisations and change can reinforce a natural tendency to work in silos. Unless time and energy is put into developing working relationships following a restructuring, serious business consequences can emerge.

David Willcock
Director/Leadership Coach
Liberating Potential Ltd.

A New Relationship Agenda for HR?

The need for HR Directors to examine their approach to relationship management is the subject of my feature article on the HRZone website this month.

David Willcock
Liberating Potential Ltd.

Making Sense for Change

Lack of awareness of being in a silo, never mind the impact and implications of silo working, came up a lot in research interviews. Increased awareness provides a context for change (Arnold Beisser, 1970). It can shine a light on previously unconscious barriers and facilitate natural change. Awareness in relation to others creates a different ‘sense’ of the situation and can mobilise energy to take fresh action. We cannot easily carry on acting as we did in the changed context.

Busy managers in organisations spend a lot of time and energy ‘doing’ things because that’s what they are paid to do for the most part and it also fits with their preferences. Their default behaviour is to focus on their own and their teams’ work and results. The perception is that others are too busy — they must be because they are. It’s much quicker to just get on with things and do it themselves anyway. They protect their own overworked colleagues and potentially go into a bunker when things get more difficult. They become blinkered and just don’t see that they are ‘silo working’. It’s out of awareness.

Spending time in awareness and sense-making can be frustrating and feel like a waste of time. However, as the old saying goes, if you keep on doing the same things, you’ll keep on getting the same results. If we don’t keep the tendency towards silo working in our awareness and keep working at it, we revert to default behaviour and personal comfort zones. One of the key qualities of leaders who role model collaboration that came up repeatedly in research interviews was the ability to take a step back, to make sense of what’s going on and to explore the wider and deeper issues. Some referred to it as a problem-solving ability, but what they did was engage with others to explore issues and arrive at collaborative solutions. A lot of the paradoxes and problems in organisations today are too complex for individuals to solve on their own. The new paradigm is participation, involvement and collaboration. Keeping things ‘simple’ can be an avoidance of dealing with the complexity. This complexity is more often than not in our relationships with each other.

We need to reflect, and learn individually and with others, in order to continue to feed our awareness and capacity to respond in a rapidly changing and uncertain world.

Extract from Collaborating for Results: Silo Working and Relationships that Work (also available on Amazon)

David Willcock
Liberating Potential Ltd.