I was recently facilitating a leadership development programme, and in the room next door another ‘organisational development consultant’ was delivering a workshop on organisational change to a UK government institution. Due to a technical fault, we had visibility of their slides in our room - they were aware of this and assured us there was nothing confidential included and so we agreed we would deal with this distraction in our room as we didn’t need the use of the projector and had quite a large space.
Throughout the day I noticed an array of text-heavy slides, full of models and theories and ‘steps to...’ in what I judged to be a very old-school training slide deck. How, I thought to myself, were this group of leaders possibly digesting and applying all of these different frames of reference to their own reality in such a short space of time!? Whilst I wasn’t in the room, so I can’t be sure, it didn’t feel (judging from the pace at which slides were changed) that there was much space for conversation, where people were able to reflect on their experience of change. This assumption was confirmed to me, when in the bathroom I overheard a couple of ladies talking about how boring the day had been so far. I felt irritated that this type of training was still being sold (and to a well-recognised institution) and sad that the wealth of knowledge and experience in that room about what change actually feels like within their context was being missed entirely.
A part of me felt a little smug that our programme, without tables, slides or a fixed agenda was more forward-thinking than what was happening in the room next door. However, I couldn’t help but notice a slight twinge of hypocrisy when I really started to examine whether we were doing anything different in the grand scheme of things. Whilst our experience was probably more enjoyable - outside walks, a chance to connect and learn from other people in their organisation, our participants were still away from their day-to-day reality. We were, after all, working in a nice hotel, and being introduced to concepts that, if not used carefully could remain fairly abstract to the reality of their experiences at work or at home.
Just like next door, we introduced various concepts, models and frameworks (just not as many) to ostensibly help participants reflect on their experiences in different ways. And, whilst we attempted to bring a critical lens to the concepts we introduced such as ‘vulnerability’ or ‘shared self-awareness’ I am still aware that these ideas could easily get taken away as an idealised answer. If not that, then at least distract from the reality of what people are feeling or thinking about difficult situations or relationships.
Also, just like next door, I am being paid as a ‘leadership development/organisational change’ consultant (with supposed expertise) to support and guide people in the process of change and transition at work. I am a part of a craze that has become all-encompassing - one that professor Andre Spicer would refer to as the ‘Wellness Syndrome’ (Cederström, Spicer, 2015)- a growing majority of people (and organisations) becoming dependent on advice and guidance from therapists, coaches and self-development experts. Whilst I have an awareness of this, and a desire to approach my work differently than what I’ve experienced, or even done myself in the past, I am still conscious that there are limitations to how and what I do and the impact this has on those I work with. I no longer promise certain outcomes, or submit to a client’s desire for clearly defined learning objectives; I feel more confident in how I share with them that I don’t believe this is possible.
Yet I still do this work, and still believe it has some positive impact on people’s lives (otherwise I wouldn’t do it). So, in some ways I am still an evangelist, albeit a more critical one, for personal and leadership development. I do believe that spending time reflecting on how we are with ourselves, with others and with what goes on in our relationships is useful in learning, adapting and ultimately getting better at working and living together.
I guess going back to my original question, are we doing anything fundamentally different than in the room next door? I think we are. I think we are providing a more realistic take on what it is to live and work in messy and complex situations; we aren’t trying to ease people’s anxiety by offering any clear answers or solutions, but rather acknowledging that there is no ‘fixing’ these things, only ways of approaching them that might be more useful for individuals than what they are currently doing. Providing spaces for people to talk about what is really going on for them, even when it feels tough, and linking this to the perspectives of others - hopefully enabling greater group insight and therefore possibilities.
The Wellness Syndrome: 2015. Carl Cederström, Andre Spicer:
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