Does your organisation have ‘hidden’ behaviours?

Dec 03, 2018
Let’s take a deep-dive under the iceberg in search of unhelpful ‘mental models’ in the workplace...

We noticed that people’s inability to collaborate wasn’t just about their misunderstanding of the strategy, it was because they didn’t understand their own unconscious motivation.”

This is a quote by leadership coach and Zen Buddhist chaplain, Claire Genkai Breeze, in a recent interview for Coaching at Work magazine. It echoes some of our own observations when working with leaders and their teams across a variety of professional environments. Unconscious motivation – it’s a biggie.

In the same article, she continues: “Part of our job as coaches is to help people spot what is habitual and what the consequences are, nested against the business strategy”. Again, this is something we would identify as constituting a big part of our own work.  Helping people spot patterns both in their own behaviour and within their working system in general creates a significant part of a coach’s value to an organisation. Identifying patterns is a key element in the work of uncovering both individual and organisational unconscious motivation. We uncover the stuff that derails meaningful collaboration and, in so doing, help create a space in which creative and sustainable new ways of working together can emerge.

One of our team recently worked with a director on the ‘partner’ track in a London firm. She turned up 55 minutes late for a two-hour coaching session. In the world of systemic coaching, we call that ‘an event’. An occurrence that gives some insight into the current reality of an individual’s working world. Or, possibly – as the ‘systemic iceberg’ graphic seeks to demonstrate – an insight into that individual’s wider systemic organisational culture.

On probing into the event in some depth, our coach began to uncover some interesting stuff (another important technical term!) both about our client and the organisation in which she worked; stuff that had very real consequences when ‘nested against’ the firm’s business strategy.

Systemic coaching is all about leveraging our observations into ‘maps’ that will help our clients create a vision, strategies and tactics with which to reach their desired future; and also, to understand the level to which current organisational structures are producing dominant patterns of behaviour. One of the most helpful of these ‘systemic maps’ is the ‘iceberg’ that we’ve illustrated. It looks for patterns of behaviour occurring across an organisation – either in the moment, or across the organisation’s history – and interrogates the most dominant of these patterns in a way that uncovers both the systemic structures that produces them as well as the prevailing assumptions, beliefs and values that sustain those structures. Systems coaches call these assumptions, beliefs and values ‘mental models’, and the challenging and subsequent reshaping of organisational mental models has become big business in the leadership development world these last few years.

So how was all this relevant to our late arriving director? What unhelpful organisational mental models lurking under the firm’s waterline surfaced during the truncated coaching session that ensued? And how did the coach go about helping his client to uncover them as they carried out the conversation?

First, he listened closely to her story; seeking to understand her world rather than criticise her behaviour. “I’m so, so sorry,” she began, “I was getting ready to come over to the session when the relevant partner called a project team meeting to go over some issues around the billing situation, and I couldn’t get away.”

“Do these ad hoc meetings occur often?” the coach asked. “Does the partner expect everyone to immediately change their business plans on a whim to discuss the current state of the work in progress?” See, he was looking for patterns; we’re subtle like that.

Having established that a partner calling unscheduled meetings about billing wasn’t a hugely regular occurrence in itself, the coach might have been forgiven for moving the focus of the session onto more personal terrain – time management, expectation setting, communication skills, or any other of her shortcomings that had come to light through the whole ‘55 minute-gate’ heel-kicking experience she just put him through. But his instinct was to dig deeper – another important facet of the coaching conversation – and to follow his curiosity into different aspects of the director’s working experience.

“Was there any way you might have been able to ask one of your senior managers to represent you at the meeting?” he asked. “I mean, had this been a client meeting, would you have been able to make me wait for 55 minutes while you discussed a billing issue? Do you ever do that?”

And in asking this question, the coach exposed a pattern of behaviour in this aspiring partner. “No, had you been a client, that would have been a suitable reason to hold the work in progress meeting at another time, but unfortunately you aren’t – so there wasn’t much I could do. And as for delegating to a senior manager, I don’t have anyone I can delegate that level of work to. I need these meetings to go well. Actually, I’ve had to cancel quite a few non-client meetings last minute because of update meetings about certain projects.” And there we have the pattern.

“But don’t you guys have protocols around who can represent whom when there is a conflict of interest like this?” asked the coach. By interrogating the structures, he was hinting at the possibility of designing an alternative structure that might allow for a more effective approach to getting things done. He was digging to uncover some assumptions, beliefs or values that might be prevalent in the organisation – prevalent and creating an environment in which it seems reasonable to keep a paid external coach waiting for 55 minutes out of a relatively expensive two-hour session.

Without dragging this out too much, we can tell you that in the short ensuing conversation, the coach layered more probing follow-ups onto the ‘protocols question’ noted above. The client was able to identify several of these unhelpful mental models that were present in her organisational system. She identified them; understood why they were stumbling blocks to the firm’s espoused vision for the future; considered how they needed to be challenged and changed – at least in her own head and in her own sphere of leadership within the firm if she was going to make a meaningful impact in her journey towards becoming a partner.

By elevating the conversation from events to systems structure and beyond, experienced executive and team coaches can help leaders make clearer sense of their own experiences and use those experiences to formulate more effective solutions to the problems at hand. Mastering systems thinking can dramatically help leaders move their organisations away from what is known as ‘the trajectory of what is’ (that place of believing that an organisational future is always predicated on what has gone before) and onto ‘the trajectory of what could be’ (a space in which teams and organisations can create their own future, unrestricted by fears, habits and out-dated practices from the past or present).

And then, with their own unconscious motivations exposed, challenged, reflected upon and perhaps rewritten, colleagues can begin to meaningfully collaborate on creating something magnificent and special within their organisations.

SÎan Lumsden and Ian Mitchell are co-founders of Eighty20 Focus, a real-time executive coaching organisation.