Learning, leadership, being vulnerable and developing shame resilience

Nothing has transformed my life more than realizing that it’s a waste of time to evaluate my worthiness by weighing the reaction of the people in the stands.  The people who love me and will be there regardless of the outcome are within arm’s reach.  They weren’t in the bleachers at all.  They were with me in the arena.  Fighting for me and with me.  This realization changed everything.
Brene Brown, Daring Greatly

Building on my last post about understanding, living and working with shame, I thought it might be helpful to share some more of my personal story.

I’d never actively thought about shame before If I’m honest, it was for a long time a word I’d rather not mention or associate myself with but I was acutely aware that I experienced it often and those feelings and emotions directly affected my actions and responses.

It wasn’t until, supported through work, that I started an intensive learning journey and as a result of that my curiosity directed me to Dr Brene Brown.Through her work (books, audio, video etc) I found a way to build an understanding. An understanding that allowed me to create a new awareness of what was happening to me in my life and my work.

The first and most important part of my understanding was to get clarity on the difference between shame and guilt. In its most simple terms how I now understand the difference is that shame is a focus on self and guilt is a focus on behaviour. For example If i hurt your feelings, guilt would make me feel that my behaviour was wrong whereas shame would make me feel that I was wrong.

That realisation and clarity profoundly helped me process a range of emotions and situations in and outside of work. It particularly helped me develop and grow more compassion for leaders who I had previously believed were bad leaders making bad choices (essentially shaming them), however this new frame allowed me to accept that those leaders are doing the best they can with the knowledge and understanding they have and my role as an interventionist is to help make things visible in ways that cause a sense of guilt or cognitive dissonance which would then drive a behavioural change in that leader.

So what I found was that I used to think that judging leaders was ok, I now know that developing compassion and understanding shame and guilt I fundamentally believe that all leaders (in fact anyone) has the capacity and capability to change their behaviour.  To do otherwise would be to give up on them completely and that didn’t feel very compassionate…

I want to say for anyone who might be reading this, that I am ok. I really am.  I’m happy, in fact very happy and peaceful with the imperfect person I am today and that has taken some time and yes I wobble a lot but I’m more consciously aware of what is happening so am now able to talk to the people I trust to get support and unpack situations around shame in ways that are productive and help me grow as opposed to forcing me to feel trapped, alone, fearful and inferior.

I also want to say that the journey I’m on was not a reaction to a particular situation but a desire and internal commitment to grow, develop and learn more about myself so that I can consistently show and be more compassionate, understand how to hold my integrity and let go so that I may find humility.

I’m privileged to be able to go on this journey and present myself as a whole person. The developmental journey within my role as an interventionist has been an incredible one and it allows me to understand how I can support others too.

To be in a position today where I can openly talk about shame with a supportive group around me has been as a result of a number of factors and practices which you may find helpful to know and understand.

In listening and reading Dr Brene Brown work and her story, she talks about strategies and tactics to help develop and cultivate shame resilience – from what I have learnt so far, my current understanding is that the purpose of developing shame resilience practice is to help people who feel shame, feel empathy and connection instead.  There are four components to shame resilience practice, which I will start to explain below.

  1. Recognise, note and acknowledge the causes/triggers of shame. This is about learning the physiological signs, mental signs – they are often the same as trauma, high stress. For example one of my signs is my body tingles and I feel sweaty…I’d been developing a practice of noting for over a year now since I started a mindfulness practice through the Headspace app. So further expanding that practice to include and recognise the causes and triggers of shame took a little while and is still developing but was not a new practice to me. I’ve found that noting as a practice is incredibly powerful to help me work towards a more still mind and to develop more awareness so I can be more present.
  2. Practicing critical awareness.  This is about reality-checking the story you tell yourself and the expectations that arise as a result. What external factors are influencing this, are they realistic? Is this the version of yourself you want to present as your authentic self?
  3. Reaching out and telling our story. This is about connecting and experiencing empathy. For me this has been the most powerful element and took a while to achieve as I found that you need to find a trusted group of people who have earnt the right to hear your story in order to support you without judgement
  4. Speaking and naming shame. Dr Brene Brown states that shames requires 3 things grow exponentially – secrecy, silence and judgement.  Shame can not survive if spoken and treated with empathy. Therefore if we recognise, note and acknowledge shame, practice critical awareness and reach out and share our story, we can grow our resilience as we practice.

This has been and continues to be an ongoing journey for me, one that helps me and reaffirms to me that I am worthy.

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Understanding and working with Shame

Download image from Brene Brown.comI want to start with saying that the purpose of the team I’m part of is to help develop leadership capability in order to create a Devon where people can live their life well, however for me this has presented some personal challenges.

Some of the challenges for me have been around my own capacity and capability to learn and grow.  Without understanding this I would not be able to support leaders to learn and grow effectively.

This is why alongside learning more about how to achieve purpose within my role, I’ve had to consciously develop and understand myself. This has led me to understand a number of things which have been quite painful but incredibly liberating and transformative.

One of the areas that has been the most transformative for me is understanding and learning about shame.

Yes shame…that feeling you are not enough.

Lets just hold the space here for a minute. I’m conscious that even talking about it can trigger it in other people…so I understand if you need to park this and come back later.

When I talk about shame in this post, I am referring to the understanding shared by Dr Brené Brown (twitter)

I want to acknowledge straight away that I am incredibly privileged to be working within and alongside a team who allow me to show up and be vulnerable every day. So a big Thank you to Roxanne, Sara, Kelly, Louise, Kevin, Martin and Lewis. Without their support I would not be able to even write this post.

I wrestled internally about whether to write this post or not but I feel so passionately about this that I want to share my experience, it is likely to be through a number of posts as I am finding the process of writing about this somewhat healing and therefore I will find value in writing more than one post. I also hope that others may be curious to learn more or want to share their experiences too – I’ve learnt that shining some light on this stuff helps. I hope that people feel able to share this post wider.

In my learning about shame, what hit me the hardest was when I started to look back on my reflections and learning in this blog and what I started to see through a different level of understanding was that shame was and is pretty much in every single post I wrote and the underlying shame trigger behind my posts was “I’m not good enough”, there is a number of variations of this, I’m not tough enough, I don’t fit in, I don’t belong etc.

What I know is that along with reflecting on myself, I started to think about all the people I connected with over the years, all the people I’ve worked with over the last 20 years or so in Local Government/Central Government.  I now understand that many, many, so many people were struggling with and dealing with shame – it is sad and hard to say, but it is endemic.

Some of the areas I started to think about and reflect initially on were around some of the connections with people from outside my organisation.

I’ve learnt that all of my behaviours when involved in Local Gov Digital were driven from and in response to dealing with shame and that created unintended consequences for myself and others around me, such as controlling situation and not letting go, to mentally running away and not engaging and some variations in between.
In some way the network itself was a shame club, a group of people who didn’t feel good enough, in particular around not being valued or good enough within their own organisation. The group has achieved some very positive things but in what we never did was address the reasons why we came together in the first place – “shame”.
The very first meeting had been full of stories of shame and yet we didn’t know how to connect to it or even understand it…I’m looking back at those times with compassion and I know that my actions were not always from a place of integrity and If i ever caused people shame then I apologise as I did not possess the critical awareness to have made different choices.

I also realised that the tension I felt between internal and external was caused by shame. I know that when looking back, the biggest shame I suffered came as a direct result of winning the Guardian Leadership Award and subsequently the accolades in the LGC 100…at the time I was humbled and proud but those feelings were somehow empty and un-fulfilling, on reflection it had triggered a significant shame trigger and shame spiral which I’ve only recently managed to resolve.  The tension I felt was a shame of never been good enough as an internal employee as opposed to the perceived success of validation I received when engaging with other organisations.  I spent so much time and effort trying to prove myself that I often forgot about who I actually was.  I am now asking why is it that cultures do this, why is it that we use shame as a tactic on other people?

This lead me to think about and reflect on the cultures of organisations and why starting a conversation about shame can act as a catalyst for cultural and societal change. So I hope this short post and subsequent posts can or in some way might help.

I know that this is incredibly hard work and that it takes discipline and practice to help understand, work through and develop resilience techniques, but I also know and am learning that it is healing me and helping me grow so that I am capable to continually learn.

I’m only at the beginning of my journey into understanding and being open about understanding and working with shame.

What I know most of all now is;

As I am today, I’m enough

and that, that very simply fact, makes me happy

 

 

 

 

 

 

If you are curious to know and understand more about shame then i would highly recommend watching the following Ted talks

 

 

The transition from old to new

Growing by Marissa Elkind – Flickr – https://flic.kr/p/YmkGcE

A fable about letting go:

Two travelling monks reached a town where there was a young woman waiting to step out of her sedan chair. The rains had made deep puddles and she couldn’t step across without spoiling her silken robes. She stood there, looking very cross and impatient. She was scolding her attendants. They had nowhere to place the packages they held for her,  so they couldn’t help her across the puddle.

The younger monk noticed the woman, said nothing, and walked by. The older monk quickly picked her up and put her on his back, transported her across the water, and put her down on the other side. She didn’t thank the older monk, she just shoved him out of the way and departed.

As they continued on their way, the young monk was brooding and preoccupied. After several hours, unable to hold his silence, he spoke out. “That woman back there was very selfish and rude, but you picked her up on your back and carried her! Then she didn’t even thank you!

 “I set the woman down hours ago,” the older monk replied. “Why are you still carrying her?”
Unknown Author 

When I was a line manager I used to take a fair amount of comfort from knowing that there were documented processes for everything, which essentially helped keep me safe, my colleagues and my staff safe (that was my assumption).

In having processes for everything, what that meant for me as a manager was that in a strange way, I didn’t have to think about anything – I simply followed the process and trusted that it got me to the right outcome (again that was my assumption).

Perhaps obvious to many people but this essentially means that rulebooks, processes and procedures tell people what to do, insist on discipline and compliance if you expect to be rewarded or stay out of trouble.  It is pretty much the lifeblood of command and control organisations. However, this has an unintended consequence that any form of creativity is pretty much designed out of the flow of work.

I used to think I was being creative and could be creative but I now know that I wasn’t.  Everything I did was wrapped within the parameters of the rules and processes which surrounded me (visibly and invisibly).  So on a personal level, I was only tinkering around the edges which over time end up becoming part of the problem.

Many of the conversations I now have,  make this increasingly visible to me and I can now start seeing the restrictions or parameters played out in what people say and how they act.  It has taken some time (a huge amount of unlearning and practice) to see this and learn how to tune out the noise and pay attention to the things that make them visible.

Most people state that they believe they have incredible freedom to act and they feel empowered to change any aspect of the work they do.  But what plays out on a practical level is actually the opposite.

I used to think I had a huge freedom to act, but I now know that I didn’t and was blind to so much stuff that stopped me creating lasting and sustainable change.

It is true that people can change some processes and some policies so that some improvement can become visible, but inevitably that change is single loop thinking – see my previous post talks about the single loop and double loop learning.

When you help make these things visible, the challenge is to understand why these things happen, what the consequences of these things are on the work and on the people who interact with services.

In simple terms, once you have done this, you can change those things based on knowledge and understanding.  Now, this is where I’ve started to find things incredibly interesting…the transition between old ways of working and new ways of working”.

In this “transition” space – you really learn about letting go and what letting go actually means and that it isn’t straightforward and easy.

Essentially the journey involves an emergent process of learning, where you have to unlearn and let go of all the things that currently get in the way of doing good things and then learn from a base of principle how to think differently, behave differently and act differently.

Underpinning this transition is ideally a shift from model 1 behaviours to model 2 behaviours (Argyris and Schon).

On a personal level this transition is still very much underway and as a team, we are discovering and learning what principles make sense for us and help us achieve our purpose (To help leaders see, think and behave differently).

So when it comes to letting go of old behaviours, habits, thinking, all the things that provide comfort and allowing yourself to become vulnerable and exposed, it is a no wonder that this is a much harder journey than some would acknowledge.

However and this is one of the biggest realisations I have – In my experience so far, moving to a principled way of thinking, behaving and doing is something that truly does liberate oneself.    It does allow oneself to legitimately move away from the constraints of how we currently work and importantly the constraints I placed upon myself that stopped me from starting this journey of learning and growing.

I used to think I was continually learning and growing, but I now know that I wasn’t. What I used to do was build faulty feedback loops that reinforced my current thinking and created further barriers to exposing my true vulnerabilities, restricting my ability to grow.

A final reflection is that through all of this it has reinforced one thing – I am truly privileged to be in a leadership position and how I think, behave and act has profound implications on others. I have a responsibility to understand those things so that I can ensure I create and add value.

 

Uncovering assumptions

Think!
Think : Christian Weidinger via Flickr

I’m continually fascinated by what happens around change and why some things, that on face value appear to sound and look great and are perceived to be exactly what is needed to help things improve. But yet over time they simply fade away and people are left wondering, what happened to that piece of work? or what happened to that project? and importantly why didn’t things actually change?

Over the years in my previous role as Digital Lead, I often supported and created projects on the edges which on face value sounded good and for a period of time generated some positive buzz and some momentum, but as I sit here now I am left wondering why didn’t those things create the change I thought they would, why are things not changing.  I accept there have been some surface changes, but I’m not going to kid myself in thinking that those surface changes were worth it. After all, nothing fundamentally has changed. In fact, one thing has and that is ME, I’ve fundamentally changed.

The shift for me in understanding this systemically and conceptually has been the learning and practice within my new role. In this role, I am learning about Systems Thinking and Intervention Theory which is helping me to support leaders to see and think differently.

Over the last few months, I’ve been reflecting on some of the things I was involved in and whether I can, could or should re-engage but have struggled with this as I’ve not really understood how to do that in a practical way which helps. One of those things is LocalGov Digital – something which I dedicated a huge amount of personal time and energy into over 5 years.

When the network started in 2012 I was in a different head space. When I look back at that now and the decisions and motivations I had then, I can now understand why I did what I did and why I think LocalGov Digital managed to get the traction it did at the time and continues to do so.  We had a good narrative, we had a groundswell of support and recognition and were able to harness that to grow our collective visibility – things were looking good.

I thought it was a great way to connect to people but one assumption underpinning this was that collectively we (LocalGov Digital) were already thinking differently (more on this later) and therefore took an unconscious stance of “we were right and others were wrong”.  I now know this is not a constructive position to take and inevitably leads to conflict and tribalism.

I didn’t know any different and for me personally, the value the network created was one of support and connection with people which previously didn’t exist…I felt like I belonged and found a safe space. Finally, I was able to connect with others who thought the same as I did….but over time I was blind to the unintended consequences of the actions the network took, including actions by myself.  I’m not suggesting everything or everyone was wrong, in fact, what I’m saying is that I’m learning that actions I took then internally and through the network are having consequences over time that from my new point of view were not constructive or helpful.   I know the network did the same as a whole, but the network was simply behaving within the parameters of a public sector system which triggered those actions.

In terms of seeing this as a pattern of behaviour, I am now seeing this across many networks and can see this is essentially how networks come together – I can even see elements of the same spirit and determination of early LocalGov Digital being replayed albeit slightly differently through the One Team Gov‘s activity / messaging.

My observations are that both endeavours are coming from a place of good intent, (change public services for the better) however, there are some BIG assumptions sitting behind that good intent, those assumptions are currently invisible and therefore have been unchallenged.

For me, one of the biggest assumptions sitting behind both LocalGov Digital and One Team Gov is that everyone who engages or contributes with any of this work is already and actively thinking differently?

When I say “thinking differently” how I now understand that is that people are learning in a double loop way, resulting in thinking differently.  What I’ve learnt about myself is that I was not thinking differently, I was, in fact, thinking very much like everyone else, including the people I had assumed I thought differently from…that realisation was a pretty illuminating and painful one, but I am now able to learn from that and can see the journey and the power of that journey.

There is an excellent article on double loop learning here, it is quite a heavy subject but this post articulates it clearly in my opinion. I’d very much recommend reading it before continuing but just in case you don’t have time I’ll be quoting from it anyway throughout this post.

“For double-loop learning to occur and persist at any level in the organisation, the self-fuelling processes must be interrupted. In order to interrupt these processes, individual theories-in-use [how we think] must be altered.” (Argyris & Schon)

“An organisation with a [defensive] learning system is highly unlikely to learn to alter its governing variables, norms and assumptions [i.e. thinking] because this would require organisational inquiry into double-loop issues, and [defensive] systems militate against this…we will have to create a new learning system as a rare event.” 

When one applies to this oneself it has transformational impact, this is the journey I’ve been supported to go on in my new role here…

This next snippet sums up for me the nature of the journey i’ve been on…please note the wall they refer to in the snippet below is a barrier to double loop learning.

“The first task is for you to see yourself – you have to become aware of the wall…and Argyris & Schon are suggesting that you may (likely) require an intervention (a shake) to do this. Your current defensive learning system is getting in the way.

Let’s be clear on what would make a successful intervention possible, and what would not.

An interventionist would locate themselves in your system and help you (properly) see yourselves…and coach you through contemplating what you see and the new questions that you are now asking…and facilitate you through experimenting with your new thinking and making this the ‘new normal’. This is ‘action learning’.

This ‘new normal’ isn’t version 2 of your current system. It would be a different type of system – one that thinks differently.”

So when I say think differently, this is how I now see and understand that.

So coming back to the “assumption” of everyone already and actively thinking differently presents a number of questions for me;

  • How do we know people are actively thinking differently?
  • How do we know that the people who are looking at their work are able to legitimately change that work?
  • How do we know they are doing purposeful work and do they know what purposeful work is?
  • Do people know and understand the purpose of their work from an outside in perspective?
  • Are people able to have the current conditions that apply to their everyday work suspended?
  • Are the leaders who have the legitimate power to suspend those conditions engaged and connected?
  • How are we learning what good looks like through a new lens of thinking?

So with these questions and more in my head, I’m starting to wonder now whether we are simply advocating people do different things over actually thinking differently?  And what are the consequences of that approach?

If the purpose was to help people to think differently as defined through double loop learning, what would Local Gov Digital and One Team Gov do differently as a result of that shift in purpose?

I don’t have an answer to this but welcome peoples thoughts and opinions no matter how diverse they are.

 

 

 

 

 

 

A letter to myself of 12 months ago

06-03-10 You Wrote Me Oh So Many Letters
Dear colleague,

You don’t really who I am although I will look familiar, I know you, actually better than you know yourself. I’ve wanted to write this for a while now as I’ve been meaning to connect with you and offer some words of support, some words about pain and suffering and some of what you read might challenge you to your core.

Writing this isn’t as easy as I had imagined it would be as I’m considering how you might interpret this, react to this and respond to everything I write in this letter.

What I have learnt over the last 12 months is that it is nearly impossible teaching anyone who thinks they already know what they need to learn. You helped me learn that. You showed me the impossible is possible.

I know and understand that your desire and passion for wanting to see change happen can seem unrivalled compared to some of our colleagues and I applaud you for that. You are well respected and liked by your peers and you are always up to date with the latest and newest things and always appear knowledgeable about change and changes elsewhere. It has taken time and effort but you have justifiably earnt the position you have. That space inside you though that feels empty won’t go away on your current path. It is a calling for something profoundly different.

Making change happen in organisations is a complex affair and can be incredibly frustrating especially when other people don’t get or understand what you are doing or trying to achieve.  I know you wished people would simply think the way you do! But I’m here to say you are one who needs to change the way you think!

I’m not suggesting that what you do is wrong or that change in some form doesn’t happen as a result of what you do. However, how do you understand the consequences of the approaches you have taken and continue to take? Are you aware of your blind spots? Are you even capable of seeing them? Are you aware, particularly around whether you can actually see the change you envisaged or are you blinded or suppressing the truth – my truth was – I was contributing to the problem I was trying to fix?  I know that you are part of the problem you are trying to solve!

I found it personally difficult as I thought I knew what I needed to know – BUT I have spent the last 12 months unlearning nearly 100% of what I knew and understood. That nearly broke me, it pushed me to the edge of my emotional resilience, I cried (often), I felt lost, insecure and often thought my time was up and I should leave my job, but deep down there was a spark that refused to die. In those moments I found myself amongst the best people I could have ever hoped to have around me to support me, challenge me, help me to understand a new perspective. A new team, friends, colleagues and fellow companions on a journey of discovery.  You will meet these people soon – cherish them.

I used to think and believe that ‘starting many fires’ and constructively disrupting the status quo from the edges as a ‘rebel’ was the only way change would and could happen. In fact I would go as far as to say it is how I positioned myself and my role for a number of years, I even went on training courses advocating this was the only way change could happen – I know you deeply believe this to be true too, but you will unlearn this and find the truth. I can’t tell you what that is as you need to learn this for yourself and when you do I will be here for you.

After some reflection and searching I can draw upon the experience I have through a different lens and that tells me (if I truly listen) I was misguided, misinformed and lacking the self-awareness to truly understand how change happens, real sustainable change and my realistic chances of affecting change. Don’t let the hype that surrounds you blind you to the truth and your inner truth.

Why do you do want you do? Are you really clear on your purpose? Are you sighted on your defacto purpose playing out for others to see and feel as the consequences of the actions you take ripple outwards working against the very thing you hope to achieve?

How aware are you of the influence and power you have to make a sustainable change?  You should revisit this dynamic once you have understood the answer to why there is a disconnect between your external influence and internal influence!

I’m not for one moment suggesting you give up, throw in the towel or walk away.   Just trust when I say to you that you will need to pause, take stock, reassess and reframe everything.

It gets better, in fact, I can tell you I’ve never been happier in my role, in my life and it starts when you let go. The clarity emerges but allows yourself to lean into the uncertainty, the darkness and the space between who you are now and who you can be.

We may not agree on what is written on this page, but understanding how you feel, how you think and why you do what you do is important to me.

When you are ready, I will be here, waiting – I will be ready to hold your hand, stand beside you and walk with you into your future.

Regards,

A friend