“Be authentic!” “No, not like THAT!”

How often do leadership, management, and development courses actually squash innovation — and even put people into a double bind?

So often, organisations claim that they want ‘sparky’, ‘authentic’, ‘challenging’ people to ‘be empowered’ and ‘move up the hierarchy’. And, so often, when they send them on the training courses designed to empower that, they get ‘surprising’ results. People drop out. Have small breakdowns. Clam up completely. Inexplicably underperform.

So often, indeed, that organisations should stop claiming it’s a surprise!

How often have you seen:

  • good people with different perspectives, who reliably operate at advanced levels of development — people the organisation knows it desperately needs — leave because their specialness cannot be accommodated within the system within the bounds of acceptability?
  • or they shut down, realising that the game is a Kobayashi Maru scenario — it’s the game in War Games that makes the super-intelligent AI realise ‘the only winning move is not to play’?
  • or they become completely identified with being a ‘rebel’ or a cynic, perhaps forming alternative communities and power bases (‘the improvement team’), which puts them constantly in a locked, confrontational relationship to the organisation.

There’s some value in this learning, in a way — but ultimately all the options allowed are sterile and destructive of value and potential.

It’s an ‘if voting could change things, it would be illegal’ situation.

And it applies to every kind of #diversity, but is many many times harder to deal with if you’re from a marginalised group.


I left large organisations when this dynamic became clear to me, and set up my own thing

(many problems and difficulties!)

I committed an entire working life to being outside this dynamic. And, even so, I can’t always say the (to me) important and true things to the senior clients I’m in the room with.

It’s not that the organisations don’t want diversity, change, challenge.

They just want those things without actually having to change or confront anything themselves.

And the people running the course are usually trying their best. They just had to accept an (implicit) boundary before they started: ‘nothing will really change and authenticity is going to be a problem. But, with that said, let’s see what we can do to encourage change and authenticity!’

There are those who can deal with this double bind — they’re radical, but they jump through every hoop put in front of them. They’re different, but can fit in to the sameness.

But most walk into the trap. After all, they’ve been promised an opportunity.

Have you seen this pattern?

Do you think there’s any hope?

8 thoughts on ““Be authentic!” “No, not like THAT!”

  1. Fascinating as always Benjamin.
    The answer, for me, to the “be authentic/system inertia” problem you pose lies in the construction of the idea of self in a system context. Simply put, the notion of an authentic self, something immutable and constant, is a misconception. The projection of oneself, especially in a work context, is a construct and is socially and individually negotiated. The self doesnt sit outside of the system it inhabits but it can be tweaked and changed.

    The trick from a trainer/developer/systems engineer perspective is to enable people to understand and develop a projected self that provides the challenge and change within the system or organisational context that they are in. In your game analogies its shifting the avatar to ensure that projected self is effective and also sustainable (when the equilibrium is disturbed to be less likely to be crushed by the inevitable big stone ball rolling down the tunnel).

    Liked by 1 person

    1. The trick is… Stop thinking there are tricks.

      (Sorry to be picky, yes I do know what you were getting at, friend)

      Serious answer…

      For me the approach is this.

      1. What do they need?
      2. What can i help them with?

      But you know that.

      Or more bluntly

      Is this for real, can I actually do some good work here? And if so, what?

      And if i can’t do some good work here today, maybe I can…

      just give them all the handouts that we don’t give you until 4pm normally,

      and sign off all their cpd attendance forms,

      and maybe tell a few self-deprecatory jokes

      and probably suggest that we repair to the bar

      and if you don’t want me to buy you a drink, feel free to go home to catch up on some paperwork.

      Thank you all for being here in this nice hotel just off the M4. (Other motorways are available)

      Liked by 1 person

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