Beyond codes of ethics to ethical maturity

A recent article by Kara Swisher in the New York Times appeared under the headline Who Will Teach Silicon Valley to Be Ethical? Tech companies have been attracting a fair amount of criticism this year over their grasp of ethics. But they’re not alone in finding this area a minefield. The shareholder value view of firms, which has it that their sole purpose is to make a profit, still shapes leadership thinking in most organisations. This infects even those – like the BBC or NHS – that aren’t ostensibly profit focussed but where stripping out cost often crowds out other considerations. Where a reductionist view of purpose prevails, it’s not surprising that questions of ethics may receive scant consideration.

Kara Swisher considers various solutions including companies appointing chief ethics officers, putting in place official systems of ethics or (radical idea) chief executives stepping up to the plate to provide more leadership. She quotes an unnamed ethical consultant who complains that appointing custodians of ethics would be no more than window dressing because “we haven’t even defined ethics yet”.

Running through all of this is an assumption that ethics can be defined to delineate universal principles that clearly determine ethical or unethical behaviour in all eventualities. Coaching has been pursuing this track for some years. Every professional association of coaches has a code of ethics that its members commit to follow. And yet coaches, who are privy to ethical dilemmas more than most in business, must know that ethical choices are highly contingent on the contexts in which they arise. This is the essence of the well-known trolley problem: it’s obviously wrong to kill someone; but what if doing so saves the lives of five others?

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England’s shame

If you do one thing today, find a way to read Daniel Finkelstein’s column in The Times (alas behind a paywall) explaining why Britain seems to be heading inexorably to a no-deal exit from the EU:

“There is a widespread view that the chance of having no deal is pretty low because such an outcome would be calamitous and, anyway, there is no majority for it. It’s surely too stupid a thing to allow actually to happen? That view is wrong. It is incredibly complacent. Mrs May has returned with the only deal we are going to be offered and parliament won’t pass it. This by itself means that the chances of no deal are very high indeed. Looked at another way, the things we have to do now to secure a deal are looking forbiddingly difficult.”

Incredibly, there are MPs who – even now – do not grasp that no deal means no transition agreement. Britain would crash out of the EU wholly unprepared. And, as The Times revealed last month, the Government’s contingency plans for this – such as they are – include troops on the streets (£) to keep public order.

We have a Government and Parliament that for nearly three years has been leading the UK to a destiny they find contrary to the national interest. Conflicted between the mandate of the referendum and the mandate of representative democracy, they have left it much too late to find a responsible strategy. If Daniel Finkelstein proves right, they will have capitulated to chaos.

No wonder he concludes his piece, “What a disaster. What a disgrace.”

Image courtesy Duncan Hull.

Why write?

What’s the point of writing? Amid the torrent of tweets, snaps and status updates, the verbiage of fake news and the dreck of junk mail, why would we need more words in the world?

And yet we do. We constantly need to write the world afresh. For all that some authors, such as Jane Austin, endure, mostly the great writing names of an age fade away. Who now reads Graham Greene or Kingsley Amis? Even Martin Amis? The Neapolitan Novels are today’s Dance to the Music of Time.

Writing is an act of engagement with our world in the here and now. Note, this is so even of historical fiction or sci fi: it normally reflects contemporary concerns. How could it not do since it is shaped much more by the filters and perceptions of the age and culture in which it is formed not that which it is about?

But writing need not necessarily be a public act. Writing as engagement with the world is an act we can all get in on.

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Taking the pulse of an organisation

If there’s one signature intervention that characterises how we work at Vogel Wakefield, it is the diagnostic enquiry into what’s going on in an organisation. This draws on skills developed over the course of our careers in journalism, strategy and coaching – and, in my case, my epistemological formation as a sociologist.

Put simply, it entails getting lots of people to talk to us about their working lives. And trying to understand what it is they need to talk about together that they’re not discussing. Many of our engagements begin this way – particularly when a team or organisation is stuck in some way, which is usually when they turn to consultants.

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Shaping disaffection is the way to mend broken politics

Kenan Malik has an insightful critique of the failure of moderate politicians to provide an answer to populism:

“It’s not populist disaffection that is unreasonable, but the policies and institutions that have created that disaffection. Policies that have driven up inequality and driven down living standards. Institutions that have excluded people from the process of decision-making. There has been much talk of ‘out of touch’ politicians. Little expresses that out-of-touchness more than the fact that for almost a decade politicians have spent more energy worrying about populism than about the policies that have nurtured disaffection.”

That there is widespread demand for politics that addresses the disaffection is underlined by a YouGov opinion poll in The Sunday Times which suggests that nearly half of people think politics is broken. Only one in seven think the Conservatives and Labour represent the views of the public.

Two thoughtful pieces during the year gave shape to the kind of thinking that could rejuvenate the two main parties.

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Messages from history for Brexit Britain

What are we to make of the chaos and uncertainty facing Britain this weekend as Parliament prepares to approve or vote down Theresa May’s deal on Brexit? Two contrasting views are on offer from writers who, curiously, both reference the Sex Pistols’ song God Save the Queen. Johnny Rotten’s punk anthem from the 1970s is a message from an era of division and chaos that ultimately led to the Winter of Discontent. Are we on the brink of returning to the abyss?

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Embrace boredom

I’ve been re-engaging with deep work by listening to an old podcast by Cal Newport introducing his ideas on the subject.

In order to create more focus in one’s work, it’s not necessary to transform one’s life to achieve black belt status in the art of concentration. Adopting three simple maxims can shift the dial:

  • Plan each week to do just five hours of deep work
  • Embrace boredom
  • Eliminate unnecessary social media and news browsing

Actually, maxims two and three are variants of each other. Many of us convince ourselves that there is a productive justification for engaging in social media. But social media usage soon becomes a habit for filling ones idle moments with cognitive stimulation – that is to say, staving off boredom. Just look around you on any rush-hour train. Most people who are travelling alone will occupy the time staring at their phones. And a good many of those travelling with someone else will do so too.

I’m increasingly convinced that there isn’t enough boredom in life. Absence of stimulation has become an anxiety-provoking state: almost as if we have assume we have an existential right not to be bored.

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Nick Cave as coach

Nick Cave has initiated an interesting project answering questions sent in from his fans. The questions are searching. The meditations Nick Cave composes in reply are works of artistry in their own right.

Last year, I wrote about the transcendent experience of the Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds concerts that followed the death of his son. The first of his epistles addresses this very theme. He describes how immersion in work and – in so doing – recovering a sense of wonder helped him find community and accept his grief:

“I kind of realised that work was the key to get back to my life, but I also realised that I was not alone in my grief and that many of you were, in one way or another, suffering your own sorrows, your own griefs. I felt this in our live performances. I felt very acutely that a sense of suffering was the connective tissue that held us all together.”

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Feedback without tears

How to give feedback is an issue that comes up with increasing frequency in my coaching work. It reflects, I suspect, a normative advocacy of feedback cultures in organisations. This arouses considerable anxiety among people who feel themselves under pressure to provide feedback left, right and centre. They often hold a belief that, if only they could get the recipe right, they could learn how to transmit feedback and move on.

There are some well-meaning intentions behind feedback culture. In particular, it draws on Carol Dweck’s idea of a growth mindset – whereby people welcome corrective feedback as a platform for their development. But the espousal of feedback can also be oppressive because the linear and mechanistic assumptions around “delivering feedback” ignore the complex feelings it can arouse.

While models of providing feedback have their place, the problem with the “recipe” view of feedback is that it ignores how the “delivery” of feedback will be received by the other party. People are not automatons and the difficulty for people providing feedback is that they can really have no idea in advance how it will land. Simply understanding this can relieve some of the stress for those anticipating getting the feedback process wrong.

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From toolkits to relationships: getting real about what happens in coaching

The practice of coaching has many antecedents. But one that most eased its way into the corporate world was the analogy between sports coaching and leadership development. Corporations are susceptible to narratives of being world class and winning. So learning from methodologies fine-tuned to get the best out of athletes can be appealing to the corporate leader’s world view. This, for a long while, created an emphasis in the development of coaches on the acquisition of skills and techniques. Coaches would turn up with their “toolkits” and fine tune their clients’ performance in the pursuit of specified goals.

The Theory and Practice of Relational Coaching by Simon Cavicchia and Maria Gilbert proposes a different perspective. It views coaching as a dialogue of discovery between coach and client, one which calls on the practitioner to cultivate awareness and empathic attunement more than it demands technical accomplishment. It’s an approach which is grounded in the insight that all of our experience is socially constructed. There is no fixed thing called an organisation which provides a predictable environment for our working lives. It is enacted every day by its participants and shaped by the different world views that each of them brings by virtue of their biography.

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