Waving, fishing, thriving but not drowning.
Hi Counsellors, Mentors, Coaches, Change Agents, Leaders, Next Stage Radicals, it’s me with my water metaphors... again.
“Hey, I’m drowning here and all you’re doing is describing the water!”
It’s clear that, in almost all sectors, morale is very low and pressure very high. My recent conversations with several specific colleagues, in the NHS, Civil Service, Education and Business, and then more generally, plus reading the news and social media, suggests we are in deep churn (when a surfer is under the water, unable to breathe, or know which way is up to air - when organisations are under huge pressure and unable to do the basics, let alone develop)
"I’m stuck in a rut of, overwork, tiredness and feeling somewhat disillusioned environmentally, politically and at work..." (Chair of a Council)
“On top of this...personally, I’m juggling a mid-career, mid-life crisis with heavy family and financial responsibilities too… it is affecting my health”. (Civil Servant)
In a statement of the bleeding obvious, all of us have personal issues including health, relationships, finances. Each work team has their specific needs too. On top of these will be the organisational expectations, often Government and finance determined. And with the C's seemingly unabated, how can we helpers prepare colleagues and friends to surf these waves of rising pressures, increased needs and wants and begin to find coherent sets of issues to address?
We all know that, especially in such turbulent times, the need to develop, adapt, change and improve continues…indeed it may well need to increase, to cope with the perfect storms. This is all predictable but is the increased helplessness, self-preservation and survival mood of colleagues, leading to a push back against the development activity we are asked to lead? Any development activity?
"Oh no...not you again…. .look we are SO BUSY... we’re only just keeping our heads above water.. .... we can't cope with all this transformational change stuff… it will just have to wait..."
(Department Lead Consultant - normally a keen change agent - quoted by NHS Trust Improvement Director)
The real fear, shared by those I have been talking to, is that many, who were once effective advocates, leaders for change, are themselves tired out, stressed, even ill. Is this a new reality, facing those trying to implementing transformational change during tough times of churn? Are we helpers too experiencing a critical increase in learned helplessness and hopelessness ourselves? Tell me if I am catastrophysing. I do remember being somewhere like this before.
I remember a School Improvement colleague going into a Special Measures, so called, “Failing" School, and facing a room full of demoralised faces. He suddenly realised they were expecting, when he overheard,
“Yet, another bollocking from another prat, who has no idea of what it’s like working here, almost certainly couldn’t hack it anyway and, has obviously escaped front-line pressures years ago”
But what really irked him was being given a motivational thump on the back by the Director of Education,
“Go in and work your magic, inspire them, motivate them, like you always do!”
It was a genuine attempt to fire him up, just once more, but it had the opposite effect. But they could all leave the school site and go into what we now refer to as a normal world. How does that feel when the "new normal" is a world of increasing Covid and Climate Emergency?
What might we do?
A recent discussion of these fears with an international group of colleagues, all keen helpers, “The Next Stage Radicals” seemed to suggest they too saw these fears and we began to tease out some thoughts.
Some stressed the critical starting point, for many of us commissioned to seek improvement, is to remind ourselves to work from “Where they are”, as individuals and teams, rather than take on the mantle of yet another who goes in to suggest ideas or worse, “hector them about where they should be”. We agreed that creating the right circumstances for even thinking about development and change has to be a fine balance between listening and developing an honest understanding of the specific individual and team's current conditions and, only then, seeking a realistic set of explorations about what a more desired state of affairs might look like.
So, we felt, unless we show acceptance of individual views and respect differences, we will be greeted with a wall of cynicism, distrust, even fear. Cynicism is an understandable bastion against any extra work that “feels false”, especially if it parades itself in complex terminology and, as a cynical colleague observed, "endlessly circular diagrams". This becomes hopeless when it comes on top of waves of cuts, an already excessive workload and staff shortages.
Some maybes…. (offered in the hope they may coalesce into strategies)
FIRST, maybe counterintuitively, it might mean us soorting the pressure SYMPTOMS as a priority and leaving the longer term transformational stuff for later. So, to start, it's going to be about ensuring that those of us still with strength, survive ourselves. We have to regroup and stop ourselves just describing the water and wringing our hands...if only because it infuriates. We have to rethink too - we can't keep doing what we did before. We have to set about rescuing and sustaining our strongest, closest, change-agents, those who are still waving. Yes, it will be about throwing in life-lines, life-belts - anything that floats - especially good ideas.
“I’m doing shifts on the wards to ease the pressure - because that’s what they need” (NHS Trust Improvement Director)
“I run several 4 hymn assemblies - to give staff some extra prep time” (Headteacher)
In metaphor mode it’s about pulling them out of the water, drying them off, making them warm, helping them thrive. Only when they have the strength to help others, will they be able to get on with their day job and maybe be ready to properly prepare for transformational change activities.
Extending another water metaphor, it’s not either eating a fish or learning to fish - it’s more sensible to cook them a fish meal, so they are sustained, and only then, judging when they are in a state of readiness to learn how to fish.
This reminded me of, “reading readiness” that state young children move into when the groundwork of storytelling and letter shapes has been grasped and a real desire to read drives them to read. It is impossible for them to become readers until they are in readiness. It’s even more difficult to teach reading to 14 and 15 yr olds, who missed their readiness the first time around, but it can be done, we did it. Maybe “change readiness” is the similar state we need to achieve and yes, it is likely to be most difficult with those who have been around the block a few times and are especially tired. But we have to believe it is never impossible. A colleague told me that flogging dead horses is not cruel, but that flogging dying horses is, so he said, "Tell them to lay off and give me some recovery space".
As we approach that point of change readiness, not a minute before, it will be about digging out, discovering and sharing practical, universal, proven approaches that will really help, and tailoring these for our local rescuers to use, in their specific settings. We all know that the basic skills of helping: facilitation, empowering, coaching, respecting and listening - all sharpened and honed, with emotional intelligence - help us uncover and meet individual need. But in a crisis there is a magnetic and urgent pull to quick action - resisting quick fixes is hard but often necessary. We have to take it slow.
In times of great pressure, even crisis, it’s crucial we look after our people first. So, a respect for and consideration of their wants and needs “For me” is first: (keep fit; eat well; get relationships right). Then, only when we/they are ready for change, can we move on to considering wants and needs “for us”: (supporting and caring for those closest; at home and in work teams and identifying our ideas about better future conditions). Only then, if enough energy remains, can we move on to consider the expectations, hopes and requirements, “for everyone”: (in the organisation; community; society and world.) It’s here we must feed in a realistic view of organisational and government expectations and demands. They have to be faced. They might be finessed. They can't be ignored. But beware of raising them too soon!
So, part of this is about asking ourselves and each other, “What is the point of getting the hospital, school, our business, neighbourhood, community and charity functioning better, only for it to be swept away in a hurricane, fire, or flood? What can we do, whilst we are thinking about our immediate future?
For too many, in 2021, the rising waters are literal and no longer metaphorical.