Saturday morning and I’ve walked the couple of miles along the beautiful Sussex coast from my house. Passing the ‘new town’ part of Hastings I wend my way further into the ‘Old Town,’ wandering along the waterline towards the black huts and the fishing boats basking in the sun on the stone beach. My Dad grew up in an island community on the West Coast of Ireland, and I find a sense of comforting familiarity surrounded by the boats, and the fishermen selling their morning catch from the huts. I love the contrast between the old and the new, the way in which they sit respectfully alongside each other, each confident of the role that the other plays in the world.
In the midst of all of this is the Jerwood Gallery, one of my favourite places to sit, think and write. The current exhibition is by a local artist, Gus Cummins. As I wander the fascinating exhibition I’m struck by a quote of his on the wall.
‘I am constantly trying to shift my ground. Alarming myself by stepping off safe and familiar territory.’
Sitting amidst his art in the gallery I can see exactly what he means amongst his work, Hugely varied, drawing on different disciplines and having obviously shifted, changed and developed over his 75 years of age. I find myself reflecting on my recent move to a new organisation. Something I’ve done on a number of other occasions over my working life. Constantly seeking new, challenging, unfamiliar territory, that scares me just enough. But have I always made the most of it? Have I actually used it to ‘shift my ground’ in the way Cummins describes?
Moving place is one thing, but as I reflect on my earliest moves I’m conscious that I moved role and yet perhaps didn’t move my mindset, the ‘ground’ on which I was standing. I took with me my existing views about what worked, the classic ‘canon’ of HR theory and practice: my subconscious ideologies which sat unexplored beneath the surface of all of that. I’m struck that it’s one thing to step away from the safe, familiar territory of an organisation or a sector but what about shifting the ground of what we think we believe?
My own recent experience of joining the Ministry of Defence has introduced me to working with military colleagues for the first time. The ways in which they see the world of work, leadership, people and organisation have felt in some ways quite different to some of my own. This could lead to me feeling threatened and to a desire to hang on to what I know, the ‘safe and familiar territory’ of my own views and beliefs. I’ve been fortunate though to work with great colleagues who have created an environment that I think has enabled me to be open to ‘shifting my ground.’ One example of this is perhaps the way that my manager and I have worked together.
Its starts with an environment of mutual inquiry
My military ‘boss’ is as curious about civilian ways of working as I am about military ways. Genuinely curious to explore each other’s perspectives, and yet knowing that we can never possibly fully understand each other’s worlds. Perhaps it’s helped by our respective fascinations with people, me from a career in HR, him starting much earlier as an anthropologist. We talk about WHAT we’re doing, but also spend time understanding HOW we see the world of people, organisations and work. We take time to explore how the way that each of us has developed in our respective worlds of work has formed our own thinking. And what that might imply or explain about how we see things and what we believe to be true.
We let go of having the right answer
All of this could fall down if either of us believed that we had the perfect ‘right’ answer that would work for all our many tribes. Despite many jokes to the contrary I’m confident neither of us feels that way. We’re both able to have ‘strong views held lightly’ (as Chris Argyris might have said) and this enables us to inquire together into what we’re noticing, bringing our different perspectives to the discussion. Both are open minded to the fact that our ways of working are different for a reason, and that its important that we understand what those reasons might be (or have been) if we are thinking of bringing about change.
We use experience and theory to disturb our certainty (not to restore it)
It would easy to fall back on convenient explanations of why things are as they are. To use theory and history as ‘gospel’ rather than as a potential explanation. A way of restoring our certainty that we know something to be true or right. To do that would simply be to continue to stand on the ‘ground’ that we have each always stood on. To stay safe. Instead we make a real effort to disturb our certainty, to be prepared to ‘shift our ground’, to countenance the fact that something we have always held to be true might in fact not be. This of course is scary, as it moves us from a place of feeling that we ‘know’ to a place of ‘not knowing.’
Which is easier when its ok to say ‘ I don’t know.’
Very early on I noticed that my boss is someone who says ‘ I don’t know,’ in fact he has a regular and deliberate practice of making sure he says it at least once a day. This simple act creates an environment in which its ok for me to do the same. Making our ability to inquire and shift our ground so much easier.
So where does all this leave me? I’m reflective about the fact that we often set expectations that people should move to different types of organisations as they develop their career. Whilst overall I agree this can be helpful, I’d also suggest that its possible to move and never allow ourselves to be changed. Equally its perhaps possible to stay where we are and yet learn how to constantly and continuously ‘shift our ground’ in ways that challenge us. Connected to that I’m conscious of the importance of high quality reflective development as one of the things that helps us to inquire more deeply into our own beliefs and views. It seems to me that providing space for this in organisations going through change is vital to enable us to shift our ground in the ways that might be necessary. I’m also struck that when inquiring into anything that we want to understand more deeply, it’s so helpful to do so with others, who see things in a different way. And finally I’m left wondering, if this is the environment that has been created for me, how do I ensure that I’m creating the same environment for others?
So thank you Gus Cummins for the provocation to continue to think about…
How might I/we create an environment that encourages and enables people to step off safe, familiar territory and to shift their ground?