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Covert Processes at Work

Covert Processes at Work : Managing the Five Hidden Dimensions of Organizational Change by Robert J Marshak

Here are a few of my notes…

Enlisting positive values and aspirations is the province of the inspirational leader, not the analytical manager. Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech inspired people to change by evoking powerful shared values and aspirations, not by a rational analysis of prevailing conditions. Imagine the same speech if Dr. King had presented an analysis of the number or percentage of discriminatory events in the past year and the market forces that positively or negatively impacted a more just society! The power of inspiration to bring about change is that it does not appeal to reason and logic. Inspiration speaks to the aspects of people that want to do good things, want to be part of something bigger than themselves, and want to see their values, hopes, and dreams fulfilled.

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At this point I wondered if there were unexpressed emotions about the impending loss of their long-established names and identities. In both cases I suggested that, having shared their thoughts about the name change, maybe they should also look at their feelings about the proposed change. After initial hesitation, people began to share how sad and depressed, and maybe even a little afraid, they were to do away with the old name. They went on to talk about how much they were attached to the old name and how things would not be the same using the new one. These discussions went on for some time and allowed people to release a range of emotions that had previously been covert. Following a break, they came back and took the vote again. In both cases they voted to make the change. In both instances it is likely that unexpressed sadness, loss, and fear were covertly preventing the executives from acting on their reasoned analysis.

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The five principal manifestations, or places to look for, covert processes are: 1. things that are out-of-awareness and located in the prism, such as mindsets; 2. things that are denied and located under-the-table, such as negative emotions or politics; 3. things that are unexpressed and above-the-clouds, such as inspirations; 4. things that are repressed and buried in the subconscious, such as deep fears and anxieties; and 5. things that are untapped and in the superconscious, such as “the farthest reaches of human nature” or our “higher selves.”

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Individuals and groups may also project onto others their own unacceptable-to-acknowledge attributes. For example, the undesirable characteristics attributed to another work group (They are selfish, ruthless, and only out for themselves) may be nothing more than an unconscious defense mechanism wherein an unacceptable aspect of your own work group is projected onto someone else. In reality it may be your work group, not the other, that has needs for power and competitive victory at all costs.

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In the language of Gestalt psychology, we pay attention to what is figure more than what is ground. What stands out from the background draws our attention. To develop hunches about covert dynamics, we need to reverse this tendency. Instead of focusing on what stands out, we need to notice the background, or what is missing. Instead of seeing the leaves on the tree, we need to be able to see the spaces between the leaves.

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Expressed simply, the formula is this: The cues and clues that something is missing is a function of considering the expected patterns of behavior given the specific context of a situation, and then noting any emphases or omissions in those patterns.

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In diagnosing covert processes it’s not about being right (correctly guessing what is hidden) but about developing guided judgments on the best possible actions to pursue to get overt engagement of important topics. The essence of the approach is to try something based on a good hunch and then see how the focal system responds. In short, do not act blindly, nor be blind to acting, when dealing with covert dynamics.

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Keep in mind, however, that the purpose of identifying unconscious dynamics is not to work them therapeutically. Instead, we seek to understand them in order to make better choices about our actions. Usually the simplest and most appropriate actions are to (1) recognize that you may be dealing with issues not amenable to rational problem-solving, and then (2) see if you can help make the group or focal system more aware of what might be going on.

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Another way to recognize hidden dynamics—especially unconscious or out-of-awareness dynamics—is to pay attention to symbolic expressions such as word images (Marshak and Katz, 1992). Someone says to you, “We’re dead in the water and going down. Soon it will be everyone for himself.” You may hear this as a colorful statement that things are getting difficult, but you can also hear it as a symbolic expression that the ship is sinking! If this person is looking at things through a sinking ship image in their prism, they may display the emotions and actions of someone on a sinking ship. The sinking ship imagery could be a symbolic message from the person’s unconscious that is trying to communicate the seriousness of a situation otherwise being consciously denied: Oh, things aren’t that bad. No need to rush.

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There are four dominant ways symbolic information is expressed. For purposes of alliteration they are defined here as the “4 M’s” of metaphor, music, movement and media (see table).

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When you allow yourself to pay attention to symbolic modes of expression you will find a wealth of previously ignored information. Hearing someone humming a tune, as in the Gone with the Wind example, can provide as much information for exploring issues and concerns as the overt statement “I’m afraid we could lose everything in this change.” Because symbolic expressions provide a link between our unconscious and conscious minds, they provide a bridge between what is censored and what is openly discussed. Finally, it is crucial to remember that your role is not that of a mind reader probing for conclusions about the covert issues in a focal system. Nor is it one of confronting focal system members with hidden truths and then walking away. The purpose of symbolic diagnosis is to facilitate a process of discovery within the focal system. Never play “gotcha!”

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To prepare for dealing with hidden dynamics, this chapter presents five keys for engaging covert processes. I have found these basic building blocks to be essential. If I neglect to follow them carefully, I am much less effective. The five basic keys are: 1. Create a safe environment. 2. Be selective and seek movement, not exposure. 3. Assume people are trying their best. 4. Look in the mirror. 5. Act consistent with expectations of you and your role.

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It’s not that you can’t address these topics, but you must address them in ways that are perceived as safe enough for open exploration. Remember that safety is always in the eye (prism) of the beholder. In short, all types of emotions, thoughts, needs, motives—and even hopes, dreams, and wishes—will remain hidden until people feel safe enough to reveal them. Therefore, the primary intervention in all work with covert processes is to create a safe enough environment for further inquiry. To create a psychologically safe environment requires at a minimum that you establish trust, boundaries, and a sense of control in the focal system.

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Always avoid raising issues that cannot be addressed or that are not ready to be addressed. Exposing someone or something may temporarily put something on-the-table, but may violate the necessary conditions for dealing with the hidden issues effectively.

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To deal with covert processes effectively you must be clear about the outcomes you and the focal system seek to achieve. Do you want to break a log jam so that a decision can be made? Are you trying to get some important information onto the table to increase the quality of a decision?

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In short, you ask yourself the diagnostic question: What beliefs, assumptions, values, or theories would have to exist in their prism to lead them to behave in this way, assuming they are trying their best?

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Whenever I am pretty sure there are covert issues not being expressed, I ask myself: What is risky about this through their prism; and what can I do to make conditions safer? Sometimes I have to accept that not all situations can be made safe enough to explore all covert processes.

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You won’t be able to put something on-the-table if the focal system challenges the legitimacy or appropriateness of doing so in any of the following ways: • Who? You have no right to raise that. • What? That is not an appropriate topic to discuss. • Why? That is not an acceptable reason. • When? This is not the appropriate time. • Where? This is not the appropriate place. • How? That is not the right way to do it.

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Do you address a covert issue indirectly? The following are some ways to consider: • Give a presentation or tell a story.

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  • Model behavior.

  • Communicate using the 4 M’s.

  • Use rituals and symbols.

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The first step is to clarify the purpose of the exercise and set appropriate ground rules designed to establish legitimacy and safety. Then members of the focal system, individually or in subgroups, complete several diagnostic statements. A slightly modified version of the Covert Processes Group Diagnostic Worksheet introduced in Chapter 3 could also be used for this purpose: • What’s on-the-table? The acceptable, legitimate, or proper behaviors, feelings, and issues that we openly talk about and address in this organization are … • What’s under-the-table? The unacceptable, illegitimate, or questionable behaviors, feelings, and issues that we avoid and deny in this organization are … • What’s above-the-clouds? The secret hopes, wishes, or aspirations that we don’t speak about in this organization are … • What’s in the prism? The core beliefs, values, or assumptions that help create and maintain the way things are in this organization are … • What’s in the subconscious? (optional, depending on willingness and skills to consider unconscious dynamics) The buried or repressed behaviors, feelings, and issues we ignore in this organization are … • What’s in the superconscious? (optional, depending on willingness and skills to consider unconscious dynamics) The untapped creativity, potential, or capabilities of this organization and its people are … Responses, recorded on flip charts displayed on the walls, show what people currently believe is on-the-table, under-the-table, above-the-clouds, in the prism, and, possibly, in the unconscious of the focal organization.

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Before negotiations broke down completely, a break was called by the consultant working with the union-management team. During the break, the consultant asked each side to list the four to six major assumptions that were guiding how they approached negotiating, especially regarding trust, and to then share their lists.

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Worksheet for Rethinking Prism Patterns Select a situation you want to explore, then complete the following cues. 1. When: (Describe the trigger situation or event) 2. I/we assume (tell ourselves): (automatic thoughts, beliefs, assumptions, “tapes” evoked by the trigger event) 3. And I/we feel: (emotional reactions like happy, sad, angry, frightened, anxious) 4. So what I/we do is: (behavioral actions and responses to the trigger event) 5. And the result is: (outcomes for you, others, the situation) Key Questions • Where and when did these thoughts or assumptions originate? • Do they realistically apply in this situation, or are they an old, “habitual” reaction? • Are you getting the results you want? If not, what results would you prefer? • What are some alternative, more realistic assumptions?

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Another simple but powerful example of reframing is provided by my colleague Edie Seashore, who when confronted by limiting doubts is quick to add: Up until now. So when someone says, on behalf of the organization, “That’s not possible. There’s no way that can be done …” Edie finishes their sentence with “… up until now!” Without directly challenging the speaker, Edie reframes the situation to make explicit that the past does not have to dictate the future.

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These kinds of considerations about the political environment of public agencies were also part of my lens for thinking about internal management and organizational changes. What were the interests of the key offices and officials in my agency? What were their sources of power and influence, including connections to outside groups? How were decisions about the topic in question made—including when, where, how, and who.

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Politics is the process of people using power to achieve their preferred outcomes.

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Which people make the decisions? (top management, those impacted, a representative task force, the board of directors) • What types of power can be used to influence outcomes? (expert information, rewards and inducements, someone’s official position, threats, coercive pressure) • What processes are used to make decisions? (top-down, participatory, consensus, dialogue meetings) • Whose and what preferred outcomes are considered legitimate, or are most valued? (shareholders, top management, the union, rank-and-file employees, sales, manufacturing, human resources, finance, global,

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Might the decision be made in one location but need to be sanctioned in several others (e.g., first developed in the compensation committee, then approved by the executive committee, and finally endorsed by the board of directors)?

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