Human beings are rarely rational. Beneath the surface of consciousness, our feelings and anxieties can form powerful and hidden undercurrents, which can shape and disrupt our lives in unpredictable ways. Under the pressure of personal or organisational change, these undercurrents become stronger and more powerful, and may even become damaging to the groups and organisations of which we are part.
In his paper ‘the Art of Listening’, Erik Van De Loo suggests that for a leader to be effective, they must develop a ‘reflective practice’ where they learn to pay attention to the unconscious lives of their organisations. They must have the patience and courage to work with the complexity of human relationships, with all their uncomfortable emotions and ambiguity. They must be able to notice the detail and nuances of what may be happening ‘below the surface’, and begin to make meaning from these observations; a process termed ‘mentalisation’. Only in developing this understanding can they really begin to fully engage others and influence their environments.
Some leaders have a natural capacity for this sort of approach, but for most it requires practice and this can be challenging, especially in the fast paced and performance driven world in which we now live and work. We usually have no time to stop and think.
One of the most effective methods for developing this sensitivity is a simple idea called ‘Work Discussion’. ‘Work Discussion’ first emerged at the Tavistock Clinic nearly a century ago, and has since evolved into many different forms. It is widely used in clinical training, including psychoanalytic infant observation and clinical supervision and in recent years, has begun to find its way into some mainstream corporate contexts. Here it may be found in peer supervision groups for coaches or consultants, and some more progressive leadership development programmes, such as the Executive Masters in Change at INSEAD.
In a typical ‘work discussion’ group, participants will take turns to bring a detailed description of a situation that they are facing, which may feel confusing or complex. They will present their case, and then other participants may ask questions, bringing the case to life and opening up new perspectives. A group leader or supervisor, with relevant experience and appropriate theoretical knowledge, will then facilitate a discussion where the case is explored in more detail and the group reflects on what may be happening at an unconscious level and the possible implications of that.
No particular technique or methodology is ‘taught’ in these groups. Instead participants are encouraged to explore different possible meanings and implications with different possible lenses, in a blend of experience, intuition and theory. There is no expectation that the group will ‘find an answer’ but instead the sense that participants will help facilitate each others’ thinking.
The group will also reflect on their own process throughout its life, bringing another immediate source of learning.
The process brings several benefits:
Enhanced Awareness. Most importantly, work discussion develops participants sensitivity to the dynamics of groups and the way in which people interact to shape the tone and outcomes of their work. Participants become more attuned to the signs and symbols which may reveal the unconscious life of the groups of which they are part. They become more aware of their own motivations and the impact these may have on others.
New Perspectives and Development Opportunities. These deeper and more nuanced perspectives may then suggest new ways of working, some of which may be profoundly developmental to participants. We may discover that the people sitting ‘across the table’ may be behaving how they are, because of the way in which we ourselves behave. These insights may create new ways to work with people and groups, shaping our own leadership, group dynamics and perhaps even our organisational cultures.
Emotional Support. The value of peer support is also a key feature, as developmental work can be a stressful and lonely experience, and the knowledge that we have been ‘seen’ can be crucial to our own well being. Simply participating in a work discussion group can provide the emotional support and resilience needed to persevere in a changing world.
Theory in Practice. While theory is not ‘taught’ in the conventional sense, Work Discussion is still an excellent teaching technique, as the group leader (or the participants themselves) can introduce immediately relevant theory which can be taken back and used in the workplace. This makes work discussion very flexible and impactful, although does of course require considerable knowledge and expertise from the group leader who will usually not be able to work with any preprepared materials.
Research and Organisational Understanding. Work Discussion groups within a single context or organisation can also be used effectively for research or building a deeper understanding of organisational culture. By reflecting on the cases that participants have brought, the group can consider themes and identify ideas that be common to an organisation, understanding the cultural norms that shape collective behaviour.
Network Development. The combination of these benefits, often then allows the group to develop into a trusted community of practice, which can extend beyond the formal life of the group itself. It is common for participants in these groups to stay informally connected for years afterwards, drawing on each other for support and advice as a peer network.
Heresy Consulting have been successfully using Work Discussion as a core part of its leadership development and culture change programmes for over 5 years and have now begun to extend this offer as part of a series of open peer supervision groups for senior change leaders and coaches.
Each group will be composed of 4-6 participants, and meets on for 2-3 hours every two months, allowing each member to bring a case study for discussion. Each ‘term’ will consist of 4 meetings. At the end of each ‘term’ members may continue to work as a group for another ‘term’ and new members may join to replace leavers.
Groups will be held at a venue in Central London, and dates will be confirmed in consultation with participants. Membership of a group costs £1000 per ‘term’ (excluding VAT), to cover venue and group facilitation.
For more details contact email@example.com
Rustin, M. and Bradley, J. (2008) Work Discussion. London: Karnac
Van De Loo, E. (2007) The Art of Listening. In Coach and Couch: The Psychology of Making Better Leaders. Kets De. Vries, M., Korotov, K., and Florent-Treacy, F. (Eds). Basingstoke, Hampshire: Palgrave Macmillan