Transformation requires ‘Holding Space’
More than ever, the statement ‘What brought us here, won’t bring us there’ applies to organisations and their leaders. A fast changing and increasingly complex world requires organisations to search for new organisational models. Classic organisations – built up like pyramids – are often not flexible or fluid enough to respond quickly to unexpected and unpredictable events. Why? One reason is that employees have too little space to get organised and often don’t have the information they need to adjust course by themselves when necessary. The result is that the management has to interfere too often, which slows things down and doesn’t stimulate the involvement of employees.
Philippe Bailleur e.a. wrote about this in ‘20 things you’ll want to read before transforming your organisation into a living system’. In this article we’ll take a look at the kind of leadership that is required to enable such transformations. Because transformation won’t succeed by managing change in the old, trusted way (for example, with a detailed step by step plan with strict deadlines) and that’s where it tends to go wrong, as we notice in our work. Unfortunately, you can’t get from ‘A’ to ‘B’ by continuing to do ‘A’. Therefore we’ll introduce several important concepts here that are crucial for organisations that want to change sustainably.
Transforming means that you have to cross a sort of intermediate zone. Elisabeth Sahtouris and Jan Bommerez use the metaphor of the cocoon, which allows a caterpillar to change into a butterfly, for this. William Bridges refers to the Exodus from the Old Testament and uses the desert between Egypt and the Promised Land as a metaphor for this zone. The intermediate zone in which transformation can take place is also known as ‘Liminal Space’.
A transitional zone where people let go of old habits, beliefs, and values, without having a feel of what will replace these things. This zone is characterised by confusion, insecurity, unrest, fear, discomfort, anger, grief, etcetera. Most people would prefer to find a shortcut for this transitional zone, but ‘unfortunately’ there isn’t one.
We often see managers who want to lead their organisation and employees through such a transformation without going through it themselves, without letting go of their familiar role. This is the best recipe to stall the transformational process. We suspect that for many managers – who are supposed to be the solid rocks in such a process – it is tricky to show their own insecurities and confusion to their employees.
However (or unfortunately), guiding an organisation through this ‘liminal space’ is a co-creative process. This simply means that everybody has to go through it. Nobody knows the way. Nobody knows what the proverbial butterfly will look like or how long the ‘cocoon stage’ will last.
If there is one thing that a manager could do, it is providing space for transformation by offering to ‘hold space’. This is the space that a child experiences when he’s playing and knows that his mother is nearby watching him with kind, loving eyes. This provides space for the child to discover the world whilst knowing there is a lifeline close by. It works the same way in organisations.
Heather Plett – a world authority in this area – states the following characteristics when discussing ‘holding space’:
- Give people permission to trust their own intuition and wisdom.
- Give people only as much information as they can handle.
- Don’t take their power away (= empower people).
- As a coach, keep your own ego out of it. Too often it is the ego that provides advice and responds frenetically when things threaten to go wrong.
- Make people feel safe enough to fail.
- Give guidance and help with humility and thoughtfulness.
- Create a container for complex emotions, fear, and even trauma. Indeed, staying in this ‘liminal space’ is guaranteed to bring up old pain.
- Allow people to make different decisions and to have different experiences than you would. Everyone has their own way of dealing with these transitions.
Being able to ‘hold space’ within which employees can explore, practice, learn through trial and error, and flourish is a must for every leader who is going through a transformation with his team, department or organisation. Unfortunately this is a heavily underestimated, even underexposed, competence, even though this might make all the difference during transformations.
Personal Leadership An important condition for offering ‘holding space’ to others is that you, as a leader, are in the first place capable of ‘containing’ yourself. Or, in the words of Heather Plett, ‘hold space’ for yourself. The rules apply to you as well:
- Can you trust your own intuition and wisdom, or do you too often look for support in numbers, estimates and other external securities when making decisions?
- Can you keep your own footing without those securities?
- Are you ready to make mistakes and openly take responsibility for them? After all, that is the only way to show it’s okay to fail.
- Do you know what you need to be vulnerable? Do you dare to ask for help and support when necessary?
- Can you contain your own complex emotions, fear, insecurity, anger, trauma, … ? Are you aware of your own ‘triggers’ that make you lose your footing?
We see personal leadership as the first step to systemic leadership – a form of leadership we discussed in earlier blogs as well. In our vision, the development towards systemic leadership starts with the personal transformation process in which you investigate which patterns and survival strategies you’ve developed from the very first system you know: your family of origin. Because you bring these (sometimes persistent) patterns with you to work every single day (often subconsciously). ‘What brought you here, won’t bring you there’ just might apply to these patterns too.
Discovering patterns, investigating and learning how to outgrow them requires you to slow down, look back and reflect. That is also what the focus was during the first semester of the ‘Course Systemic Leadership’, which I taught with Philipp Bailleur in Belgium. It was a privilege to ‘hold space’ together for twelve participants, each with their own systems – including their system of origin. We’re looking forward to finding out what further revelations this learning process holds. We’ll keep you posted!