Leading Through Transitions
A key capability for navigating the complexities of today’s environment
Copyright © Catherine Hayes & Sue Ingham 2016. All rights reserved
Developing leadership Capacity Conference 2016
Working With Organisational Bardos
A Key leadership Competency in a VUCA World
We have found that there is not enough knowledge and understanding about the dynamics of transition processes, how they impact the performance of individuals, teams and organisations and how work with them. As a result, leaders are overwhelmed by the complexity and ambiguity of the transitions, without an understanding of how they are consciously and unconsciously derailing their own change agendas. This paper aims to shed light on this complex leadership aspect that is broadly accepted in principle and at the same time, something that in practice is not a straightforward task.
The paper starts with a literature review of the current thinking about transitions and the Tibetan Buddhist concept of Bardos. We then present our research methodology and summarise our key findings from our inquiry. Putting forward our emerging insights of the complex challenges of transitions and our emerging framework of Organisational Bardos. We look at how leaders can use the concept of Organisational Bardos and some of the implications for leadership practice.
The intended value of this paper is to support leaders and change agents to explore the multifaceted complex nature of organisational transitions. We draw into awareness the implications of the phenomenon of what we have termed as ‘Ambiguity Anxiety’. We will show an increasing necessity in a VUCA world, is for leaders to explore their own relationship with transitions. This requires facilitating reflections into patterns of thinking and behavior and how these may be helping or hindering their effectiveness for leading change and performance of their organisations.
Transitions - The Dynamics of the Space Between
In this paper we have compared and contrasted organisation ‘transitions’ work of Bridges (2004), with Jungian analytic perspectives of ‘liminality’ Schwartz-Salant & Stein (1991) and ‘Rights of Passage’ van Gennep (1960) with Buddhist philosophy and Tibetan Texts of ‘Bardos’ Lama Lodu (2010), Rangdrol T N (1987), Rinpoche S (2002), Sanon S (2008), Trungpa C (1992), Trungpa C and Freemantle F (1975). Our aim is to provide insight into the different perspectives and processes of transitions. Drawing on the work of Watson G (2008) to briefly explore the interconnected impermanent nature of the self, Moore T (2004) and Sills F (2009) to illustrate the complex multifaceted challenges of the embodied and psychological impact of ambiguity. A phenomenon that is present in all processes of change and transition. Concluding, with an adaptation of the artist Edwards B (1999), to provide a framework to support coping strategies for working with ‘Ambiguity Anxiety’ and overwhelm experiences.
The term ‘Transition’ is often used in our everyday language to describe many different aspects of our lived world experiences. Experiences, that we often take for granted. Where we don’t really grasp the different phases, competing tensions, uncertainty and anxiety that can be generated by crossing a threshold, as we step from the known and into the unknown. Bridges (2004) proposes that all transitions start with an ending and finish with a beginning. And that there are three phases in a transition process:
Phase 1 - Ending, losing, letting go
Phase 2 – Neutral zone
Phase 3 – New Beginning
Another useful glimpse into this space is provided by Schwartz-Salant and Stein (1991) along with other Jungian analysts is the concept of “Liminality”. A term derived from the Latin word ‘Limen’ meaning ‘doorway’ or ‘threshold’, referring to a threshold between the conscious and unconscious portions of mind. ‘Liminality’ was first used as a term of discourse in 1909 to describe primitive initiation ceremonies of early adolescence defined by van Gennep (1960). In his text “Rights of Passage” defined three stages:
Stage 1 - Separation
Stage 2 - Liminality
Stage 3 - Incorporation
At first glance the three phase concepts of Bridges (ibid), and ‘liminality’ appear logical. Although when it comes to applying these concepts in practice leaders and change agents in general find that it is not a straightforward task. The primary challenge being, ‘Phase two – Neutral Zone’, which presents an ambiguous context with many unknown aspects. Bridges (ibid) shares some thoughts on the ‘Neutral Zone’ and makes generalised suggestions, on what to do, the primary one being that when we are in the ‘Neutral Zone’ the key task is to “surrender to its impact” (ibid p140). Whilst ‘surrender’ sounds straightforward, the practical implications of the interconnected psychological and emotional dimensions that arise in conditions of the unknown are unpredictable. We will draw on Sills (2009), to show we all defend in varying ways against different elements of the unknown. This depends, on the context and nature of our inner and outer experiences of the ‘Neutral Zone’. We will also show how the ‘Neural Zone’ is more helpfully seen as two phases, which involves loosening of the current reality and being the loss of what was.
One of the main challenges is around how we think about the nature of change itself, and being able to look at transition as a fluid area. As more of a dance between our more literal sense of personal or organisational story and finding a deeper embodied meaning through difficulty and a sense of being lost. As opposed to falling into the change trap of flat lining, to lessen the time spent in the unknown. In order to escape the painful challenges, wanting to rush towards something that is known or to find the answers. Thomas Moore in describing the ‘Care of the Soul’ (2004) suggests that the work of this depth of transformation is “not a path away from shadow or death,” indeed a “soulful personality is complicated, multifaceted, and shaped by both pain and pleasure, success and failure.“ (ibid pxiv).
In our view, working with the inherent nature of change requires us to stay with what is happening. To touch a deeper sense of possibility and embodied meaning, as opposed to rushing into the immediate perceptions and frames of our reactive thinking. For a deeper understanding of the subtleties of transitions, we have turned to the one of the ancient wisdom traditions of Buddhism to support us to understand why the process of change is both inevitable and yet so hard. This led us to explore the Tibetan Buddhist framework of Bardos as a clearer and more comprehensive way of understanding transitional states, as states of being and becoming as opposed to simple step-by-step posts on a journey.
In order to understand the Buddhist notion of change, we find its helpful to look firstly at the three Buddhist hallmarks of existence: ‘Dukkha’ or suffering, ‘Anicca’ or impermanence and ‘Anatta’, which means no self. The self is seen not as fixed object, but as an evolving process organised around the conditions met in life. In essence everything is seen as impermanent, that change is constant. Yet we can be identified with more of a fixed sense of, ‘this is who I am’ and defend against the deeper nature of reality as we identify with our separate forms of self. Without an ontological sense of our interconnection, with everything, we can believe our suffering is ours and can feel alone, isolated and unmet in life.
Within Buddhism the ‘I’ is basically empty of independent existence. Explaining the notion of self and no self, Watson (2008 p121) describes how the self is seen in Buddhism as a process of shaping formation between the inner life and outer reality. Watson proposes that the self is viewed “as a representation which is actually being constructed anew from moment to moment.” The Tibetan Buddhist concept of Bardos, offers a deeper understanding of the potential for transformation that lies in any moment, as we experience different transitional states of being.
The Bardo teachings are ancient Tibetan texts that are found in the Dzogchen Trantras. The term Bardo “Bar” meaning “in between” and “do” meaning “suspended”, was brought into western light by the American scholar W. Y Evans-Wentz in the Tibetan Book of the Dead. In the more traditional sense the Bardo texts are associated with the intermediate states between death and rebirth. Trungpa and Freemantle (1975 pxx) suggest that the Bardo texts have a broader purpose within our lifetime in that they support the recognition of our projections, and the dissolution of the sense-of-self in light of reality. Bardo states of consciousness are the fertile soil, of impermanence and ambiguity that provides the gateway and potential for development and transformation.
According to various authors, Trungpa & Freemantle (ibid), Rinpoche (ibid), Rangdrol (ibid) and Lodu (2010), there are four types of Bardo experiences:
1. Natural bardo of this life
2. Painful bardo of dying
3. Luminous bardo of dharmata
4. Karmic bardo of becoming
Natural Bardo of this Life
Also known as the ‘Bardo of Life’ (Kye Ne Bardo). Lodu (ibid p2). This spans the whole of our lifetime and refers to the space between the time of birth and death. It covers the experience of our waking reality both positive and negative actions, and how we interpret our world through our conditioned and habitual tendencies. In straightforward terms, what we see is what we look for and what we look for is what we see.
Painful Bardo of Dying
Also known as the ‘Bardo of the Process of Death’ (Chikai Bardo). Lodu (ibid p2). This is the process of reaching the end of our natural lifespan and generally consists of two phases of dissolution: the outer dissolution, of our physical body when the senses and elements dissolve, and an inner dissolution of the subtler thought and emotional states of mind. It is called ‘painful’ because we are reminded of the nature of impermanence.
Luminous Bardo of Dharmata
Also known as the ‘Bardo of the State After Death’ (Chonyi Bardo). Lodu (ibid p2). According to Rinpoche (ibid p278) the Sanskrit word dharmata means the “intrinsic nature of everything”, the essence of things as they are. It marks the end of the dissolution process and an opening of a new dimension. A process of unfolding of mind from its purest state, what is known as the potential for everything, like a clear sky at dawn before sunrise. The context of this Bardo is experiencing what is, as it is, with unobstructed senses, perception and wisdom.
Also known as the ‘Bardo of the Search for Rebirth in Samsara’ (Sipai Bardo). Lodu (ibid p2). Known as Sipa in Tibetan, translated as ‘becoming, possibility and existence’. The general view is that if liberation is not achieved in any of the previous Bardo states, our habitual tendencies become reawakened. It’s called the ‘Karmic Bardo of Becoming’ because it is an automatic result of our previous actions. No conscious choice or decisions have been made in the form of direction we take. The direction of what is being reborn will depend on the karmic notion of what has previously existed.
The Karmic Bardo of Becoming, puts the whole concept of Bardos and transformation of the self into perspective. We have a number of opportunities to transcend ourselves, which includes our capacity to allow aspects of ourselves to die, and new facets to be reborn. In the process of rebirth, there is the potential for transcendence into liberation or reformation of what has been before. If we can develop an acceptance of death, be with what is and draw our process into awareness, we have choice over what we become. The more we ignore, grasp and refrain from letting go in fear of death and endings the greater the chance of repeating and being stuck in our own historic reality. We can move with what is and accept what we are becoming, or we painstakingly strive to keep things as they are, despite the fact that things are constantly changing. We create aspects of a new sense-of-self or we reincarnate aspects of our existing sense-of-self.
In summary, movement through the ‘Natural Bardo of this Life’, is to accept the whole of ourselves and unveil the ego, and the opportunity in The ‘Painful Bardo of Dying’, is to allow something to disintegrate. Dissolve parts of our mind/body consciousness that create blocks to our pathway of liberation. In the ‘Luminous Bardo of Dharmata’ we have the potential to recognise what truly is, let things follow their own course and untangle our interlinked clouded, self-generating perceptions of our inner and outer worlds. In the ‘Karmic Bardo of Becoming’, is where we have the opportunity to transcend or reinforce different aspects of ourselves.
Research and Methodology
What follows is a summary of our on-going research into processes of transitions, Buddhist philosophy and Tibetan Bardos, using practices and findings of First, Second and Third Person Action Research projects.
Using First-Person Action Research, we have taken an inquiring reflexive approach to our own evolving practice. This has been a living inquiry into the nature of transitions in our own lives and learning from exploring the edges of how to work with complex transitions in our own organisational leadership challenges. This in turn, has informed our ability to support and empathise with our clients whilst working as organisational change agents for over 20 years.
As Second Person Participatory Action researchers, we have used focus groups and coaching conversations to create the space in face-to-face inquiry for senior leaders to step back from the day-to-day change work. To support leaders and change agents to see and more fully experience the impact of the transitions that they are immersed in. We have used a mixture of structured/ unstructured interviews, and focus groups to facilitate conversations gather information and insight.
Engaging in Third Person Action Research, to look at the impact of different leadership mindsets and capabilities on organisational effectiveness. In addition we have explored the wider organisational processes of transition strategies, for working with ambiguity and the impact of anxiety associated with complex transformation projects. Continuing to remain curious about the patterns of language, story, behaviour, activity, emotions and relationships that shape organisational processes of transition.
In addition, we have drawn on our own experiences of working across a range of global business including not for profit and public sector. Validating our findings with over 550 leaders and change agents across different types of leadership roles and business functions.
We see the Bardos as continuous processes of movement. That when put into an organisational context can be seen as four different states of being. Although, we accept that in practice, seeing the Bardos in a sequenced form is simplistic, and not necessarily truly representative of the reality of how they may show up in practice. As we have found that people, leaders and organisations, often find themselves in a position of holding a number of states simultaneously and/or finding themselves leaning backwards into a previous state as the dynamics of the change process emerges.
A Summary of Key Themes Emerging from Our Findings
The Natural Bardo of this Life and the Karmic Bardo of Becoming
Whilst delivering on tangible business outputs is essential, leaders were beginning to see that many of their change programmes were failing to realise their full potential, wasting valuable financial and human resources. We found that the change was seen through a habitual and limiting pattern of behaviour that repeatedly produced more of the same. Perceiving the world in a habitual way and then acting in a way that supports the belief system, ignoring data that did not support the known world-view. One clear karmic pattern is the tendency to focus on the more tangible technical and structural aspects of change. For example, structures, systems and processes, ignoring or dismissing, what they call the “soft stuff”. The ambiguity and complexity of the human dimensions were, either overlooked, under funded or not even seen, as they framed the concept of change.
Leaders also spoke to us about how their habitual tendencies were formed. Being raised in their families, at school and at work in a historical paradigm of hierarchy, power and control which shaped their thinking about organisational life. They brought a world-view based on success, often focused in a more technical operational paradigm of working successfully in the known, believing in the need to control and the necessity for having the right answers. This in turn, led towards tendencies towards blaming the thing or person that was responsible, when things didn’t go to plan. The end result, of unintentionally creating fear and reinforcing control based cultures. Through working with us, they were beginning to see the need to be able to hold their environments and create space for shared conversations and joint exploration. Rather than singlehandedly taking up the leadership space and try to lead from the front. They also recognised the compelling pull of familiar patterns and the difficulty of dissolving patterns that no longer worked. It was so much easier to want to jump from this ‘Bardo of this Life to the Bardo of Becoming’ skipping over what they called the “messy bit”. Rather than move into the unknown, to work with questions, as opposed to answers and to shift both the inner and the outer world as a process of change.
The Painful Bardo of Dying and Luminous Bardo of Dharmata
Leaders were reporting that their reluctance to change at a personal level, was in part because it involved psychological and emotional pain to step out of the known and into the unknown, with all its levels of uncertainty and ambiguity. We have found that working in the unknown is possible if there is sufficient trust and that there are good enough holding containers for the change process to evolve. And yet, this seems to be frequently overlooked, undervalued or just not understood. Some steps were taken in their organisations, such as road shows to communicate the change in a top down way. And yet in hindsight, they reported that this was often too simplistic without space for doubt, emotional processing or even creativity obtained through dialogue with diverse views. The emphasis on the new was rushing over the ‘Painful Bardo of Dying’, that whilst it was experienced, was not always acknowledged. The emphasis on the change process tended to be framed in a more technical linear way, without acknowledging the complex human dimensions.
Our leaders recognised that they had typically been promoted and rewarded for reducing complexity and multiple possibilities to dualistic, "either-or" choices so that people aligned with a polarity rather than attune around a common intent. They felt they were great at knowing the answer and moving to action. Letting go of ‘knowing’ and the need to know was seen as a painful process of dying and letting go of what had been. They spoke to us of both the rewards and difficulties of co-creating a vision for how the new way could work, would get done and of interweaving transition plans. Activities, that went beyond linear project planning, to work with ambiguity, build depth in relationships, shared understanding and develop new capabilities. Harder still was trying not to cut corners because of commercial pressures. It was easier to drive more pressure into the system than it was to interrupt existing habits, and hold the tension of disruption without collapsing into more of the same.
Leaders recognised that they had adapted well to the hierarchical aloneness of their leadership. This produced the unintended consequence of not including themselves in the field that they were trying to explore. Locating the problem outside of themselves, and unknowingly becoming part of the problem. Everyone (leaders, change agents and us), needed to support each other at times. To be able to see how we could unintentionally get in the way of change, make time and be personally resourced to make sense of the personal, team and functional impact of the change process as it was emerging.
In the ‘Bardo of dying’ we saw fear of the unknown and fear of loss of what had been. Numerous attempts to try to control the uncontrollable, attachment to previous ways of working and also entitlement that things should remain the same. We discussed these as being natural reactions, driven by stress related responses. What can be seen as a source of shame for some leaders, particularly those who have been historically rewarded and motivated by singlehanded achievement. It was a relief when we brought in a language for discussing these defensive patterns. To see them simply as natural survival strategies that can be acknowledged as patterns, rather than constituting an unconscious modus operandi.
In the ‘Bardo of Dharmata and Becoming’, we saw, increasingly high levels of complexity with symptoms of “Ambiguity Anxiety”. A phenomenon that we find is inherent within all processes of transition, which is often overlooked and/or ignored by leaders, in organisations. We found that leaders working without awareness of these underlying systemic dynamics of change can create unnecessary ambiguity, because of their reactions to ambiguity overwhelm. In one project, we were able to shed light on how both leader’s mindsets and the context within which they are working influence, shape and are shaped by different attitudes and responses to ambiguity. We saw four contrasting leadership capabilities that we refer to as relationship, project, production, and expert mindsets that were connected to the type of work people do. We found different aspects of the transition generate ambiguity differently for these mindsets, which made it more difficult to offer any simplistic one size fits all solutions. We saw that ambiguity has the potential to evoke anxiety, and that responses to anxiety can create suffering. Unfortunately, the self-generating suffering of leaders can also cause suffering for others, that ultimately has impacts on the functioning of organisations. For example, low revenue, project failures, ineffective decision-making and cultures that were perceived to be political with low motivation and employee morale.
Using Bardos in Organisational Transformation
Implications for Leadership Practice
Our proposition is that change when seen through the lens of the Bardos is not a linear step-by-step journey, that it is a deeper more subtle process as we inevitably face fears and responses to the ambiguity of the unknown. Our intention is to show that these processes are natural and that they are demanding of leaders as they attempt to navigate their own way through the Bardos whilst trying to lead others at the same time.
Translating the Bardos into the context and language of organisational change, what for the time being we have named as Organisational Bardos, we see as four transitional phases. Characterised by four gateways of psychological, physical and emotional thresholds that once crossed create conditions for transformation. What follows is a brief description of the characteristics of each Phase, Gateway and some insights into the types of leadership practices that we have uncovered and developed that support successful movement through the Bardos.
Phase 1 – Framing
Phase 1 is about articulating, clarifying and drawing into awareness the context and nature of the change process. This includes what is known and unknown about the intentions and implications for the future. For example, investing time in clearly articulating the purpose and intent of the change. Exploring the similarities and/or differences of the intended future with what is currently accepted as the norm. The impacts this may/may not have on processes, people, systems, operating model, culture and environment. Sharing and understanding the different perceptions and world-views that people have about the present and the intended future. Articulating and exploring the shifts in thinking and behaviour that the intended change will evoke and, the potential implications for the emerging change process itself as it evolves.
Interrupting Norms– drawing awareness to familiar ways of working
The leadership activities of ‘Framing ’, clarifying purposeful intent and drawing awareness to what is known/unknown, the focus is to shift understanding of ways of working, thinking and behaving, lead towards the gateway of ‘Interrupting Norms’. Space for new and different can’t be found if familiar ways of thinking and behaving continue to be the driving force of conscious/unconscious functioning. The leadership challenge with this gateway is that it is not just a cognitive shift in people having to face the limitations of the known and familiar. It is a human psychological and emotional threshold whereby people are typically questioning their felt sense of security and safety. And, trust in their leaders and whether they will follow their leader into the unknown. This requires leaders to create an environment that is supportive to be able to hold discomfort and concerns, whilst exploring different views. Laying the foundations for building depth in mutuality and trust.
Phase 2 – Ending
Moving through the gateway of ‘Interrupting Norms’ the next phase of the journey unfolds. This requires catching, disintegrating and dissolving familiar patterns in ways of working and thinking that may be out of alignment with the intended change purpose strategy and outcomes. Bringing into awareness patterns that may be incongruent and/or detrimental to the intended change purpose and strategy. Patterns, in thinking and behaviour that may also have the potential to halt and derail successful implementation of the change process itself. From a leadership perspective, this requires working with the technical content of the change process and at the same time, being able to hold emotional responses. For example, to provide space for people to sense into the endings of the old ways of working, and to be with the inherent ambiguity, without judgement or reactivity. To be able to face and engage with some of the fear and emotional responses, that go with the territory. For example, morale can drop and people report feeling lost and anxious when they can’t immediately see what will replace what they have known and are familiar with.
Letting Go – known practices familiarity and sameness
At the ‘Letting Go’ gateway, we have found, that this is the threshold, where a lot of change processes and projects fail. Because of attachment to what has been familiar in the past, and the anxiety about not-knowing what that will be replaced with in the future. In supporting others to engage with their emotional responses and face their fears, leaders are drawing into awareness conscious and unconscious aspects that have the potential to hold existing patterns in place. The challenge for leaders is that they are holding both an inner personal experience and at the same time, holding the disintegrating and dissolving of the known and familiar in the processes in others. They are having to face the potential of letting go of some of their own world-views, familiar or habitual ways of working, patterns in thinking, plus how they perceive the nature of their leadership role in the context of others.
This requires compassion and to be able to hold themselves and others in a safe enough way. To create a container for holding the temporary disintegration of different aspects, including personal and professional identities, and the dissolving of familiar ways of working and relationships to past experiences. The tension at the ‘letting go gateway’ is for leaders and their teams to be able to feel safe enough to lean into the unknown of the future without being overwhelmed by the magnetic pull of what is known that makes them feel comfortable about the present/past. Even if people agree wholeheartedly with the need and logic of the change process, it’s often the case that its easier and more comfortable to lean back into what is known than face the anxieties of what is unknown. The ‘better the devil you know’, story.
Phase 3 – Emerging
The process of ‘Letting go’ of what is known and familiar, opens up a space for new and different possibilities. This is the point at which people get a sense of the reality of the change process. The old ways have gone, and at the same time, the new has not yet fully emerged. For some people in aspirational changes, Phase 3 can appear exciting and fun, whilst for others it can range from being unsettling to completely overwhelming. Leaders working within the territory of the ‘Emerging Phase’, are required to flex between framing the purposeful intent, holding fear and anxiety, whilst deepening into the unknown and holding a creative space for new and different possibilities to emerge. This involves the processes of creating high level design principles and mapping the new ways of working and relationship forms. For example, new business functions, client relationship management processes, organisational structures and operating models.
Creating New – mindsets, behaviours and operational practices
Crossing the ‘Creating New Gateway’ requires deepening creative intent. The leadership focus is to shift from concept and strategy into design and development of concrete action and application. This requires leaders and their teams to design, pilot and test new ways of working, thinking and systemic functioning. For example, redefining team purposes and structures, including individual accountabilities roles and responsibilities. The key challenge for leaders is that this is a delicate and fertile space for the new to emerge. And paradoxically, it is also a critical place where the transformation process could collapse. There is additional multifaceted complexity at this phase, as different aspects of the system are working in the old ways and some aspects have started to evolve and form into the new. There are also added pressures, to maintain performance and hit targets in a new emerging paradigm as performance standards and rewards may still be located in the old ways of working. This requires leaders and their teams to adopt perspectives of curiosity, to be able to work with what emerges out of pilot and testing processes. A key capacity for leaders is to resist the urges of impatience to jump straight into implementation with aspects that have not been fully formed.
Phase 4 - Forming
This phase is focused on implementation, and paying attention to what has emerged from pilots and proof of concepts into what is being formed in day-to-day practice. The change and transformation is only successful if a new pattern is forming as old ways are transcended and/or new ways developed. The challenge for leaders in ‘Phase 4’ is that there may still be some underlying anxiety. Fear, that may have not been fully expressed, particularly if people have concerns about the future of their roles, as the practical reality of the transformation process unfolds. This requires leaders to clearly articulate the context that people are working within. For example, defining the purpose of meetings and actions so that people can distinguish between problem solving and measuring performance of what is coming into form. This enables leaders and their teams to enhance what is beginning to work well, redesign and adjust what isn’t meeting the desired results in practice.
Business as Usual – embedding and consolidating
Stepping over the ‘Business as Usual Gateway’ requires practices of testing, redesigning and enhancing support leaders, their teams to ground and embed new/different practices. A further hurdle for leaders to be able to build sustainable environments is to support and challenge thinking. This means continuously tending to ways of working, relationships, processes and systems to ensure that they are fit for purpose and in line with intended transformational strategies. The critical threshold to be crossed here is that a new ‘Business As Usual’ operating model emerges and the strategic potential is released.
Working with Ambiguity
The Key Leadership Capability for Facilitating Transitions
We have provided some insights and examples into the types of leadership practices and activities for working with others that are helpful to facilitate movement through the Bardos. And, we are also aware that there is one aspect that is present within each Phase that continuously challenges the crossing of the thresholds at each Gateway and that is ‘ambiguity’. Ambiguity and associated anxieties about the future are continuous processes of experience, and particularly prominent whilst working with the challenges of organisational change programmes. Linking a psychodynamic with Buddhist philosophy, Sills (2009 p 61) describes that we split the inherent wholeness of our inner experience as a coping strategy to reduce the inherent ambiguity of our lived experience:
“all self-systems are inherently split and defensive in nature. The more intense the ambiguity experienced, the more intensely split and defended the self-system becomes”.
In other words what Sills (ibid) describes is that we all have natural defences towards ambiguity. Therefore, we are never done with ambiguity. Ambiguity is part of our experience in the world, which requires us to continuously understand our relationship with it, how it impacts us, how we respond to it and the potential impact that our actions can have on those around us. In one of our Second Person Action Research projects, we explored the impact of different leadership mindsets, and found that people process ambiguity differently. They reported different physical sensations, emotional responses and cognitive thinking reactions to ambiguity. We found that tolerance rates differed depending on the nature of the ambiguity and how this relates to their different needs, motivations and drives.
The continuous presence of what we term as ‘Ambiguity Anxiety’ in transition processes, requires leaders to develop depth in awareness of their learning edges and vulnerabilities associated with ambiguity. To be able to acknowledge, interrupt, adjust and often completely redefine their relationships with ambiguity and patterns of thinking and behaviour. Prolonged failure to do this can result in unintentionally creating unnecessary additional ambiguity. Psychological and emotional conditions that can have the impact of ‘pouring petrol on the fire’ of fear and anxiety. This in turn can create a smoke screen where individuals and teams are so overwhelmed by the complexities of not knowing that at best they carry on doing what they feel safe and familiar with, which is normally termed resistance. Or, at worst, the anxiety is amplified in a negative feedback loop, making what they currently have in place more dysfunctional. The impact being that not only have they derailed their own change process they have put the functioning of their current operating model, culture and organisational environment at risk.
These energetic and emotionally charged challenges require leaders to know themselves as well as others. In other words, leaders are significantly challenged to know and support others if they are unable to know and support themselves in working through the Bardos.
We have found that leaders who are able to work with ‘Ambiguity Anxiety’ have insight into:
1. How they process ambiguity and an understanding of the types of situations that trigger anxiety
2. Awareness and insight into the deeper patterns of their personality preferences and drives
3. Strategies for supporting them in cases of anxiety overwhelm
Seeing and Interrupting Ambiguity Patterns
The first step in the process is to be able to recognise and interrupt patterns in how ambiguity is being processed within our mind/body system. For example, just being aware that something does not physically feel right about a situation, even if its not immediately clear why, is a useful lead into a process of exploration. Knowing where ambiguity is being processed and the patterns in thinking and behaviour that follow it, can provide insight into something that may be happening outside of conscious awareness. Developing awareness and getting to know their ambiguity processing patterns can support leaders to pause and interrupt automatic and often unconscious responses in thinking and behaviour. In supporting leaders with this process we have found the following questions helpful:
- Where does ambiguity show up? (physical symptoms, emotional reactions, disruptions in thinking processes)
- What response patterns (thinking, behaviour) tend to follow the symptoms?
- What impact does this have on physical, emotional and cognitive wellbeing?
- How do you tend to respond when you notice ambiguity is present?
- What is the impact of this on your leadership effectiveness?
Understanding Anxiety Triggers and Responses
What we have been exploring is that ambiguity has the potential to trigger anxiety. In turn our responses to Ambiguity Anxiety can lead us down pathways of projected fear of the future and what might happen. Attachment to what is known and familiar. The desire to want to control others and the environment. A sense of entitlement, to be provided with clarity, certainty and/or, to have our needs met by others and the organisational environment. In simple terms, our FACE (fear, attachment, control, entitlement) with the world can become distorted. As a consequence challenges can be seen and created that are not there. Responses that may lead to stress, unnecessary ambiguity, and/or derailment of change agendas or even careers in some cases.
Emotions are useful signals to support us to pay attention to our experiences. Again the knowing challenge for leaders is to be able to catch these responses as and when they arise. To notice the impact that these are having on thinking patterns and behaviour. For leaders to have choice in how they are acting with the intent of avoiding distorting processes of thinking and behaviour in themselves and others. With insight into these key factors, leaders are able to develop strategies to interrupt fearful projections about the future, that if overlooked can become self-fulfilling prophecies. The leaders we have worked with have found it helpful to dive into this territory and explore each of these aspects in turn. Questions that can support leaders to explore these aspects are:
Fear - what situations and conditions make you feel fearful?
Attachment - what do you feel comfortable with? (people, process, systems, structures, practices)
Control – what aspects do you feel a compelling need to control?
Entitlement – what do you feel you are entitled to?
- How do you tend to act/react when you are aware that these aspects are present?
- Are there any repeating patterns in these actions/reactions?
- How do you react when your motivations and needs are not being met?
- What impact do your responses have on the people around you?
Developing Ambiguity Overwhelm Strategies
As we have mentioned earlier, ambiguity is inevitable, and it is not a problem that can be solved. It is about developing a capacity for continuously working with it. It is about recognising the contexts, where it is likely to get triggered and the patterns in reactions and responses. One pattern we notice in ambiguity overwhelm situations is the tendency to think and respond as though everything is ambiguous. In a number of instances leaders and change agents reported feeling completely consumed by the intensity of their experience. Unable to see, think or take action, because of the not/knowing symptoms.
While we can’t always stop these situations happening, we have found that we can develop strategies for coping and working with overwhelm experiences, by putting the ambiguity into perspective. For example, simple actions like sitting in a chair and keeping their feet flat on the floor can have the impact of grounding and taking the edge off the physical feelings of anxiety. Adapting the ‘seeing skills’ that the artist Betty Edwards, (1999 p18-20), uses for teaching people how to draw, we have found can be a useful framework of inquiry, for example:
Edges – Where does the ambiguity/not-knowing begin and end?
Spaces – What specifically is known and what specifically is unknown?
Relationships – What is the ambiguity/not-knowing related and/or connected to?
Light – Where is there light and clarity?
Shadow – Where is there shadow or grey areas?
Whole – How does the ambiguity/not-knowing relate to the broader change programme and environment?
What we are saying is that transitions are challenging and not impossible if the ambiguity and associated anxiety can be contextualised and put into perspective. It also requires being willing to invest time, energy and effort to engage with the challenges of not-knowing, taking others on the journey. As opposed to feeling like we have to have all the answers and make the journey alone. The key is to know how we process ambiguity, what triggers ‘Ambiguity Anxiety’ and how we respond to it. This means being willing to be open to challenge and support ourselves as well as others.
What this means for leadership practice in a VUCA world?
Our starting point for our work with leaders trying to change their organisations is recognizing that we are working with multiple layers of transitions in a complex interconnected web of relationships. Leaders are looking at transitioning how both they and others are thinking, feeling, sensing, perceiving and relating as individuals, teams, and as a whole. The transitions are occurring both in the outer layers of structures, systems and processes, but also at the deeper level of identity, meaning and relationships which is the glue of the culture that forms the organisation.
In a VUCA world, there is a requirement to be continuously adapting to the ecosystem that is also in transition. The challenge for leaders is working with the evolving internal Bardos whilst responding and innovating to the volatile Bardos of the external environment. Awareness and acceptance are key change capacities for recognising that it is very hard to change what you are part of and cannot yet see. Or putting this in another way we don’t know what we don’t know. To reduce the inherent ambiguity of not-knowing we apply filters or habitual veils of perception to reinforce our world-view and from this basis predict the future accordingly. Our future predictions in turn shape what we see. Resulting in seeing what we look for.
In short, what we have been saying in this paper is that not everything all of the time is ambiguous and there are many different aspects that can be worked with and potentially contained. It is about leaders and teams knowing when they are operating within known contexts, so that they can create conditions of good enough holding to enhance performance. And, being able to know the difference between when they are innovating and stepping into the unknown, where the key requirement is to be able to see and experience complex ambiguous situations for what they are to gain fresh insight.
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