In the world of modern consultancy there seems to be an increasing need for models and tools. Working with different clients from different sectors, I am regularly asked to recommend a model or a tool to support or guide their learning or thinking. Not unreasonable you might say, and I agree, but it provokes me to wonder if – following the disruption of the pandemic – there is an increased need for security? One of the key principles of the Tavistock Approach is recognition that uncertainty provokes anxiety, and we search for different ways to manage or control the feelings that are mobilised. Having a lens or a frame can – for some people – create the feeling that they are able to make sense of circumstances around them – that there is a right way to look or to understand the world.
Each day, the spectre or presence of our personal or collective history can be a light weight or a heavy burden to carry as we continually assess our place- or position – in society. The perspective we take changes depending on which part of our identity or role is active. The shifting lens of what we see or understand changes all the time as we transition and translate our view from one situation to another.
Even this call for papers came in two languages, translated to broaden the range of perspectives that could be included, the voices that would be heard. We were invited to respond to the voices of our elders, those encouraging us to “go on nevertheless”. My response to this was to ponder “Who is singing?” “What is the song?” and most importantly “Where are we going?” In this paper I will seek to answer these three questions.
Who is singing?
The first voice that I hear is Maya Angelou. The African American memoirist, popular poet, and civil rights activist wrote the poem, “I know why the caged bird sings”. In this poem, Angelou turns her lens onto the issue of freedom and the piece is written as a reflection on the impact of slavery and the state of race relations at that time. She opens the poem describing the movement of the birds as they “leap” freely and catch the wind signalling the joy of being able to go where the wind blows you. An expression of the freedom of choice. The story of the caged bird is a different one, the description is of the emotions it exudes. Its rage creates blindness as it recognises its restrictions, and that the only way to escape – is to sing. It is an expression of core identity, an act of rebellion, it is the sound of freedom.
During the pandemic, we all had an experience of being “caged” with our movements restricted, and for some people the reaction was rage. We saw glimpses of rage in the demonstrations against vaccination and as an impact of the Black Lives Matters movement. We were restricted in our work and in social spaces. The delivery of programmes, consultancy, and group relations conferences all moved online, changing our relationship with work, with time and with space. Everything was condensed and the legacy of these experiences continues to linger as society seems to be hankering for how things were, but somewhat unwilling to let go of some of the benefits of being at home. There was a change in the atmosphere as the world became still, and the evidence of “singing” was seen in nature with the reports of dolphins and fish in the Venetian canals. Due to the high death toll and the levels of anxiety that permeated the news, it has been less easy to identify the positive impact on humans – which was seen only in the translation process of our working lives and rhythms, and the initial access to longed for rest.
At the heart of Maya Angelou’s poem is the question of identity and the freedom to express desires and choices that are held dear. Questions of identity continue to be asked, and even though there is some recognition of the fluid quality of the way we understand and relate to the concept of identity, it is clear that it relates directly to social context and the way individuals choose to “show up”, the relatedness of role and how that affects who we choose to be. Identity shifts within each of us in a different way.
What is the song?
A new voice that I have tuned into, is the voice of Charisse Jones, journalist and national correspondent for USA Today and her colleague Kumea Shorter-Gooden, a psychologist and professor at Alliant University. Drawing on data gathered from the African American’s Voices Project, they explore and reflect on the nature and impact of code shifting amongst black professional women. Shifting is a concept that they introduce to describe the need for an individual to adapt their behaviour to fit to the corporate world. This behaviour is particularly recognisable amongst professionals from an ethnic minority background but may also be recognisable amongst professionals who fall outside the boundaries of privilege and are “othered”.
The internal need or desire to adjust our behaviour or another aspect of our identity, is a process that happens at an unconscious level. This response usually happens in moments of stress or exposure. Amongst “othered” professionals, the ability to be able to identify this reaction in themselves could be a helpful way of releasing affected individuals from being mobilised into behaving differently, or at least to understand at a deeper level the contexts that provoke the reaction. The notion of shifting roles is a familiar one in organisational life, as we regularly move between leading and following. One of the tools we use to explore the fluidity and shifting nature of identity is the Ladder of Intersectionality© 1.
The Ladder of Intersectionality draws on the work of Kimberley Crenshaw, an American civil rights advocate and a leading scholar of critical race theory. Crenshaw is also a professor at the UCLA School of Law and Columbia Law School, where she specializes in race and gender issues. The formulation of the concept of intersectionality is based on the identification of a collision between gender and race in a case of law. It is the understanding that the intersectional experience is greater than the sum of its parts – racism and sexism – rather it is the multiple impact of the overlapping of the experience in both policy and law.
The theory is based on three lawsuits brought by black women to challenge the way that they are seen and understood in society. The first lawsuit is based on several claims brought against General Motors who were separately challenged on their employment of black women first on the factory floor and then in the office. General Motors were able to defend the case by citing firstly their employment of black men on the factory floor as evidence that there was no race discrimination, and their employment of white women as evidence that there was no gender discrimination. Therefore, the experience of one group (the black women) was defined by the experience of two other groups experience.
The purpose of the Ladder of Intersectionality is to help those who use it to consider how the different aspects of their identity also intersect and are overlapping. It is based on the idea that everyone has an internal hierarchy which alters depending on the context we are in, our comfort level and whether any defence mechanisms are active, altering our behaviours and responses in professional contexts.
Melanie Klein reminds us that infants are so intrinsically linked with their mother that the ability to distinguish “Me and Not Me” – and it could be suggested that the search for clarity, separation and wholeness – continues throughout our lives, and is a core element in the development and formation of identity.
In her paper ‘Leadership; A Song of Mentoring and Power’, Beverly Malone (2012) reminds us of two core elements required to demonstrate aspects of leadership that also align with our sense of identity. Malone suggests that leaders are dreamers and states “they are always looking down the road past their own personal obstacles sometimes determined by the present exclusive culture of their world… especially those balancing a number of responsibilities including children, school and work, for example, dreaming is a luxury or an underdeveloped talent. It takes permission and time to dream.”
There is a strong alignment between the dreamer and the caged bird as both are thinking about a new future and how to be in it. The concept of the dreamer is not a new one in the Tavistock Approach and is embedded in psychoanalytic thinking and methodologies, particularly in the concept of social dreaming that expands the idea of a dream and what it tells us about the context. The idea of the singer is newer, and creates an interesting link to the concept of voice – who speaks, who is heard and what is listened to.
The second core element is mastery, which could also be described as professionalism. Malone states “Mastery holds the concept of overcoming or of coming into one’s own abilities, talents and skills. The acknowledgment of this accomplishment may be a position, an award or an academic credential that tends to be as universally transferable as the US currency once was. Leaders need to acknowledge their need for mastery. This ability to humble oneself into the learner role is important. The pursuit of mastery indicates that there is a gap and work yet to be done”
Malone highlights the development opportunity that comes within the learning space, but also there comes a point when the learner has acquired the knowledge and at that point can stand alone to go on and develop new thoughts and ideas, a step that also requires a leap of faith.
Where are we going?
When listening to the voices of our elders, there is an art to hearing what is said and what is not said. The guidance that helps the navigation of difficult terrains, complex organisational systems, dynamics and rules. There are so many voices to listen to, those that encourage us to keep going, and those who like the parents of toddlers, are fearful of the risk taking required for the child to flourish because of the embedded challenge or danger in the process.
For most systems, there is the challenge of the many voices that speak. Some voices make valid points, others are less effective. Ultimately, there can be only one, the internal voice that we choose to hear or ignore, the external voices can encourage, or guide, or dissuade us from taking the next step, speaking up or out. Whether that voice organisationally is a leader/CEO or Chairperson, or personally a partner, parent or elder, we choose. McRae and Short remind us that there is a paradox to involvement and withdrawal, which they state is characterised by “detachment, observation and experience” and is part of any individual’s ability to be part of a group, seeking belonging and equally afraid of being overtaken or engulfed. Once again, we are faced with anxiety.
What then do we do when faced with the voices of our elders and the circularity of the never-ending road? The cultural theorist Stuart Hall (2017) suggests “the task… is not to think as we always did, keeping the faith by trying to hold the terrain together through an act of compulsive will, but to learn to think differently”.
1 The ladder of Intersectionality© was developed by Coreene Archer at the TIHR in 2018.