Saturday, 30 May 2009

Seeking cohesion at all costs

In my last posting I wrote about the pitfalls of group cohesion, including the risks of groupthink. This post is looking at what happens in our intimate or personal relationships when we attempt to keep agreement there, at all costs.

The key point I would like to make is about the merits of arguments and disagreements. I can think of plenty of occasions where I have heard the words "we get on so well, we never argue!", usually in fairly new relationships. Of course, when I hear this I begin to wonder whether there will be a gradual erosion of one of the party's identity if that continues or even whether there is an underlying aversion to conflict. For relationships to thrive as well as survive, conflict must be permissible, coupled with the skills to then sort out an acceptable solution of course. The healthiest relationships are those who think "we get on so well, it's ok to disagree".

A reluctance to permit disagreement can stem from a number of problems, some of the ones which perpetuate conflict-avoidance being:

1. One or both parties holding an aversion to arguing, perhaps being guided by the underlying unhelpful belief "it's better to keep quiet and keep the peace". Perhaps this was learned from parents who themselves reacted to every little problem with difficulty, either by avoidance or aggression. Mirroring parents' own problematic behaviour or over-compensating by doing the converse are opposite sides of the same coin.

2. Where disagreement occurs it is coupled with anxiety, anger, shouting, stress, tears, and so on, making it virtually impossible to find acceptable solutions.

3. If disagreement is incurred, one party feels threatened, must be right at all costs, incurring learned helplessness in the other or "tit-for-tat" battling.

4. A lack of self-confidence that one has the skills to find mutually acceptable solutions. I have frequently heard one party say things like "it's no use, he/she talks rings around me and afterwards I just feel worse".

5. A fear of abandonment, typical thoughts being "if I assert my wishes, then he/she will leave me; stop loving me; think less of me; our relationship will be over; we will no longer be soulmates; etc."

6. Disengagement and apathy. The thinking here might be along the lines of "it doesn't matter what I want, nothing ever changes; I don't know what I want anymore; what I want doesn't matter; it is more important that everyone else is happy". The most usual emotional reaction here is depression.

Of course the reality is in fact, if you cannot permit disagreement then your relationship cannot grow and be a mutually fulfilling and happy one. More destructive, "secondary" problems usually emerge.

At the opposite end of the spectrum there are of course major problems where relationships are based upon constant disagreements, usually due to unequal power sharing or continual power-struggles. In these relationships there is often one party who has "final say", creating an unhealthy and extremely volatile equilibrium point. The power might be attributed to whomever is earning the most money, or to the one who shouts the loudest, cries the hardest, etc. One of my guilty pleasures on television has been watching the Katie Price (a.k.a glamour model Jordan) and Peter Andre reality show (from time to time). It makes interesting viewing from a relationship therapist's perspective, because if ever there was a couple who have an impoverished ability to consider the impact of their words and actions on each other's feelings, it appears to be them. The power-sharing battles seemed to peak just prior to their announced split, evidenced by the words calmly uttered by Katie Price, along the lines of "I earn most of the money, why can't I have it how I want it?". At this point, Peter Andre lost control of his composure, resorted to name calling his wife and being hustled away from her by all the people they surround themselves with. The intimacy between them is grossly threatened already with cameras and staff ever-present, the extremely blurred lines between what is surely for entertainment and what is real, and now the seeming very real power-struggle regarding whomever earns the most money gets to have final say. Extremely poor intimacy-building, emotional control and problem-solving skills coupled with sacrificing emotional privacy have all eroded the love that must have been there between them at one time. What is being demonstrated very clearly is negative tit-for-tat interactions, pushing them into a pretty irreversible, downward spiral of negative exchanges. Without the skills to take a deep breath and calm down, to find solutions and press pause upon one's own overwhelming need to take charge, relationships like these do not recover. It helps if one party is able to guide the other, however in this (extreme) example, neither party have particularly good skills nor, it seems, the realisation that there is a different way to behave.

I currently run relationship-building group work, both in France and London (Harley St and Chiswick). Together, as part of a supportive and confidential group, and guided by me, individuals have the opportunity to learn these powerful life skills as well as uncover some of the unconscious patterns that threaten healthy, happy relationships. More intensive weekend workshops in France will continue later on in the year.

Thursday, 14 May 2009

Accepting Differences

Being different is all part of being human and makes life the rich tapestry that it is rather than a pretty dull monochromatic print. In our relationships, be they at work or at home, it is fundamentally important that we learn how to accept differences, as just that. Different is how it is, not good, not bad, just different. From here we can find better solutions, rather than shoe-horning each other or events into any one agenda. This week's blog is looking more at the organisational effects of not accepting differences however.

So what if you work with someone who finds it hard to accept differences or even in an organisation where conformity is a strongly held value? This is a fairly typical symptom of teams which are stuck and in organisations not performing particularly well. One important dimension of a healthy team and organisation is its ability to invite and incorporate differences of opinion, different perspectives and disagreement even, in order to achieve balanced decision-making. Not any one person can possibly anticipate all eventualities, however where challenge or objection is not permitted, then the decision-making becomes stunted and the group extremely vulnerable to being left behind in the marketplace, to losing good staff members or even to catastrophic events. There are many good examples of how this lack of open challenge has contributed to some unfortunate events, including disasters. The Space Shuttle Challenger disaster, for example, occurred on January 28, 1986, when the US Space Shuttle Challenger broke apart 73 seconds into its flight, leading to the deaths of its seven crew members, including the civilian female teacher, Christa McAuliffe. The disaster resulted in a 32-month hiatus in the shuttle program and the formation of the Rogers Commission, a special commission appointed by US President Ronald Reagan to investigate the accident. The Rogers Commission found that NASA's organisational culture and decision-making processes had been a key contributing factor to the accident.

To cut a long story short, NASA managers had known since 1977 that engineering contractor Morton Thiokol's design of the SRBs contained a potentially catastrophic flaw in the O-rings, but failed to address it adequately. They also disregarded warnings from engineers about the dangers of launching on such a cold day and had failed to adequately report these technical concerns to their superiors. This could be explained as a certain arrogance attached to holding more influential positions in the hierarchy and eliminating voices from down below (and external to NASA) or it could even be attributed to flawed decision-making processes. The report mentioned here made a much more general observation, that it was the culture of the organisation to make these "top-down" and closed decisions, irrespective of plenty of evidence being supplied to the contrary.

An entire area of psychology has been devoted to studying this phenomena of "filtering out" by the group the inconvenient truths or differences of opinion and has been called "Groupthink". Groupthink is a type of thought exhibited by group members who try to minimise conflict and reach consensus by shutting down or simply not inviting critical testing, analysing, and evaluating of all ideas. Individual creativity, uniqueness, and independent thinking are lost in the pursuit of group cohesiveness, as are the advantages of reasonable balance in choice and thought that might normally be obtained by making decisions as a group. Irving Janis, the researcher who coined the term, provides seven pointers on how organisations can overcome the natural but potentially limiting or fatal tendencies for groups to seek agreement:

1. Leaders should assign each member the role of “critical evaluator”. This allows each member to freely air objections and doubts.

2. Higher-ups should not express an opinion when assigning a task to a group.

3. The organisation should set up several independent groups, working on the same problem.

4. All effective alternatives should be examined.

5. Each member should discuss the group's ideas with trusted people outside of the group.

6. The group should invite outside experts into meetings. Group members should be allowed to discuss with and question the outside experts.

7. At least one group member should be assigned the role of Devil's advocate. This should be a different person for each meeting.

By following these guidelines, the risk of groupthink can be minimised. After the Bay of Pigs invasion fiasco, John F. Kennedy sought to avoid groupthink during the Cuban Missile Crisis. During meetings, he invited outside experts to share their viewpoints, and allowed group members to question them carefully. He also encouraged group members to discuss possible solutions with trusted members within their separate departments, and he even divided the group up into various sub-groups, to partially break the group cohesion. JFK was deliberately absent from the meetings, so as to avoid pressing his own opinion. Ultimately, the Cuban missile crisis was resolved peacefully, thanks in part to these measures. (this example has been extracted from Wikipedia).

Clearly in organisational settings, we are all vulnerable to groupthink, a point that continues to be demonstrated to this day in groups and organisations across the world, including some of those I have worked with.

I haven't discussed how seeking cohesion at all costs affects intimate relationships but clearly there is a downside here, where cohesion is more important than solving real problems. I will try to write more about this in next week's blog.

Here are a few references on the effects of groupthink on organisational decision-making, including what sorts of environments make groups particularly vulnerable:

McCauley, Clark. "The Nature of Social Influence in Groupthink: Compliance and Internalization." Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. Vol. 57-2 (1989). 250-260.

Schafer, M. and Crichlow, S. (1996). Antecedents of groupthink: a quantitative study. The Journal of Conflict Resolution, Vol. 40, No. 3 (Sep., 1996), pp. 415-435.

Vaughan, Diane. The Challenger Launch Decision: Risky Technology, Culture, and Deviance at NASA. Chicago. University of and Chicago Press, 1996.

Monday, 11 May 2009

Living the Good Life

I am reading the Martin Seligman (PhD) book, "Authentic Happiness" and as I am struggling to find time for blogging right now, I'll pick up on his point for this week's blog, on how we can all live the good life, where we know what that means to us.

Seligman observes that living the "good life" is not necessarily drinking Champagne and driving a Porsche .. (although I might like to discover that for myself!). However, living the good life, according to Seligman, involves finding out what your strengths are in the key areas of your life, those areas that matter most, such as raising children, holding on to love and enjoying work for example, and living a life that draws much more upon these strengths in those areas. He says "the good life is using your signature strengths every day to produce authentic happiness and abundant gratification. This is something you can learn to do in each of the main realms of your life.." (p.13)

Seligman points out that his strength is in teaching and so he gets immense satisfaction from teaching a complex subject to his students or even his eight year old on the rules of playing Bridge. He notices how he feels invigorated when doing this. He also notices how he feels when doing things that are not particular strengths of his, when organising people for example. This is something that he has been mentored in and now considers himself to be adequate at however afterwards he will usually feel drained, not invigorated. I must agree that when I write something well or design and deliver a training workshop that I feel energised, happy, and I literally glow when I see or hear of others enjoying it or benefitting from it. This act of creativity is one of my signature strengths and is important both in how I spend my leisure time as well as in my working life. However, if I were asked to design spreadsheets, work with numbers and not with people, simply disseminating information and reports for example, then I know that I would feel drained and disenchanted extremely quickly! I am much more of a people person and I like interacting with others much more than when dealing with numbers or simple facts and so it's interesting to notice how differently I feel when working in either domain. It's also useful knowledge if I wish to create more opportunities for me to live my own "good life".

Here is a practical exercise to uncover what some of your "signature strengths" are:

- think of a time at both work and at home where you felt particularly energised or just didn't want to stop what you were doing until you'd finished it to your satisfaction. If it makes it simpler write them down as two separate examples, one for work and one for home. Now write down under this how you felt at the time - fulfilled, energised, excited, happy, satisfied, etc. In doing this for both examples, what do you notice are similar to both examples? The feelings? The level of interaction, or lack thereof, with others? The impact this had on you or others? Achieving a goal or getting recognition? For Seligman, it is his love of lifelong learning and sharing this with others. For me too it is in sharing this learning, especially in passing on positive feelings and experiences to others (spreading a good virus if you like!).

Knowing how you feel can help you channel your efforts into more activities that are likely to give you more of these desirable feelings and this becomes a positively self-reinforcing activity. As a secondary exercise, you can also consider times when you felt exhausted, drained, unhappy, bitter or cynical and consider what it was that contributed to that. There will be common themes there too, useful in noticing what they are in order to direct you from aiming for jobs and environments that do not play to your strengths. This helps you to recognise and so avoid where you are creating negatively self-reinforcing activities. For those who find themselves repeating undesirable patterns, try to think about what is the "secondary gain" to you within these undesirable experiences. What is the positively reinforcing element within the negative cycle e.g. people pleasing at your own expense, an unwillingness to say no, a need to be needed, a reluctance to break out of old perceptions about what it is to be a man or woman, etc.?

As Seligman rightly puts it "Authentic happiness derives from raising the bar for yourself, not rating yourself against others". As any professional athlete or sportsman knows, measuring performance for raising the bar of one's own performance is only useful where one's own personal best is used as the measure or bar. If your son is an amateur-level football player, it is far more useful to measure his progress against his own personal best rather than David Beckham's!

If you wish to see how you rate against others in relation to happniness however you can take the Fordyce Emotion's Questionnaire, at Seligman's site: