Make Bradford British – fragmentation, fear and the hope of transformation

Channel 4 tonight shows the second part of a documentary on a social experiment in Bradford, one of the more highly segregated cities in the UK, bringing 8 very different local residents together in a shared house to ask what being British means.The first programme, still available on 4oD, made for uncomfortable viewing as prejudices, stereotypes and issues of privilege played out and the various housemates are confronted either with their own unconscious racism and stereotyping or the impact of being treated as the ‘Other’: “the Paki”, “the Black-bastard”, “the terrorist”.

Leaving aside criticisms of the quasi-reality TV format, the programme raises thought-provoking questions.

The programme highlights the contemporary state of our fragmentation. Barry Oshry has called this Connection Commonality Deficit (CCD), a social disease, characterised by over-individuation emphasising our separateness and independence, and over-differentiation where our difference predominates to the neglect of our commonality and connectedness.

The programme is an experiment in creating more integration. Whilst it was small scale and time-limited, the programme highlights a number of issues which are relevant to organisations as well as communities.

The Dominant group are blind to their own culture. The Dominants are those who have more privilege and who are members of a group that has easier access to the valued resources of the system. Their culture – their ways of seeing the world, their values, their norms – are invisible to them. It’s just the way things are and should be. Diversity usually refers to the difference, usually seen as the odd, often inferior or wrong values and behaviour of the ‘Others’. 

Privilege is like a drug. The more you have of it the less aware you are of how it affects others negatively. Privilege is in itself is not necessarily a problem but the lack of awareness of your privileged position and the impact it has on others causes much conflict. A male, white, middle class, retired detective recalled a time when he joked with a fellow detective whether to go “Paki-bashing”. He was oblivious to the anger this would trigger in the Asian housemates, not just their personal experience, but unconsciously how it triggers the collective inter-generational history of oppression.

Those in the Dominant and Other Group are both vulnerable. The Dominants are socially powerful but they are also psychologically vulnerable; they are frequently blind to their privilege and unable to understand others or see the cause of the anger or the conflict that they have generated.  The Dominants often lack insight into the nature of the conflict. The oppression of the Others is sometimes self-evident. In the programme tonight a young Muslim woman, who ventures to work in a pub in the spirit of integration, encounters harsh stereotypes and racial abuse. Often, the marginalisation of the Others is more subtle and seemingly rational, based on the ‘unacceptable’ behaviour of the Others. This may be no less invidious.  

Group identities – ‘Us and Them’ dynamics – form very quickly. Social psychology research indicates how in-group and out-groups form very rapidly and often out of very scant material. Research indicates we then tend to treat the in-group in more favourable ways: feelings of trust towards members of in-groups and distrust of those in the out-group, seeing members of the in-group as individuals and those in the out-group as homogenous. Tonight, a white working class man visits the mosque for the first time and says honestly to the Muslims he talks to: “I thought you were all terrorists.”  It is easy to condemn him as ignorant and the exception, but many of us also treat those in ‘out-groups’ as a homogenous whole.

So where’s the hope and the possibility of transformation?

Constructive confrontation of stereotypes and discriminatory behaviour can reduce prejudice. There was evidence that challenging the behaviour of the white detective by his housemates led to some examination of his own attitudes and behaviours. More generally, research indicates that creating a climate where we can challenge stereotypes reduces prejudice.

Empathy – stepping into the shoes of the other is possible.  Empathy isn’t a quality we either have or don’t have; it’s a practice we can cultivate. The programme points to the minimum conditions needed to generate more respectful relationships including:

  • Common goals or a shared purpose (in this case creating more integration in Bradford).
  • Conditions which foster a quality of personal contact and relationship. The process of honest conversations, where others are able to listen without feeling annihilated, can dissolve fears, stereotypes and projections.
  • Willingness to cooperate and compromise.
  • Support of institutions and authority (given the controversy raised by the programme it is unclear whether Channel 4 had mobilised community and institutional support for the idea).

Everyone has unconscious biases and stereotypes but we don’t have to keep them or act on them. As human beings we are quick to categorise others and make inferences based on whatever data is available. But our stories about the Others are often inaccurate. The programme provided first-hand, positive experiences of the Others; experience which contradicted popular stereotypes. Participants edged towards, as the days unfolded and conflicts were worked through, a commonality of human experience, needs and aspirations that provided some common ground.

The programme demonstrated in embryonic form some of the key capacities that sustain an abundant and integrated community:  sharing food, offering and giving hospitality, compassion and challenge, generosity, cooperation, human fallibility and forgiveness.

Peter Block, in an interview  I conducted with him last year, said our central challenge is to transform the isolation and self-interest within our communities into connectedness and caring for the whole – creating an experience of belonging. This is the challenge everywhere, not just Bradford.

Spirituality and Community on the Leadership Agenda: Authentic or Cynical?

I’ve spoken with internal development people in two global firms, household names, in the last fortnight and noticed, with some surprise, how spirituality is now overtly at the heart of the development agenda for senior leaders. 

Last month, Professor Michael Porter challenged business schools to rethink their curricula and respond to graduates’ hunger for a greater sense of purpose.

Dee Hock, founder of VISA and one of the most radical business entrepreneurs of the last century, describes the journey of his career and life in distinctly spiritual terms as “a story of harbouring four beasts that inevitably devour their keeper: ego, envy, avarice, and ambition; and of a great bargain, trading ego for humility, envy for equanimity, avarice for time, and ambition for liberty”.

Exercising wise leadership requires the kind of growing self-knowledge and self-discipline that Dee Hock refers to, knowing our needs, drives and vulnerabilities, and reaching over time for a purpose beyond and bigger than our small self and our easily threatened ego – all of these are necessary, valuable spiritual leadership disciplines.

Have you also noticed that community is now emerging on the agenda in a new way? Internally, the community question for organisations is framed as how do we create horizontal integration – belonging, commitment and collaboration – to a larger purpose than just my department/business unit or my career. Externally, the question of the moment is can we develop a new kind of capitalism “imbued with a social purpose” and if so, how do we do it?

In terms of the UK and the ‘Big Society’ agenda championed by David Cameron, the government has awarded a contract to train 5,000 Community Organisers to Locality. Jess Steele, Director at Locality, commented that the tender brief required that the successful provider had to draw on the work of Saul Alinsky (Obama was trained in this tradition of community organising) and Paulo Freire (Brazilian radical and author of Pedagogy of the Oppressed). Is this a cynical appropriation of community activist traditions – a smokescreen to give sham integrity to the Big Society? Or is it an authentic pursuit of an agenda to which Cameron is genuinely committed, and for which he is getting no political brownie points, from any side?

Authenticity in my mind is associated with transparency, integrity, congruence, openness. Cynicism is a self-protective attitude: people often say the cynic is the disappointed idealist who’s seen too much duplicity and disingenuousness – those times when people (and themselves) have said one thing and done another. Maybe each of us is more a mixture of the authentic and the inauthentic than we care to admit. I know that on occasions I fit in, go along with things, often with good intentions – in that sense, I’m inauthentic.  At other times, I choose not to challenge the power structures and the dominant narrative. Sometimes we don’t have the energy, will or self-awareness to acknowledge the growing gap between our declared intentions and how we are and what we do. That’s where good colleagues and friends, who will point that gap out to us, are invaluable.

So what’s your response to this emerging agenda on community and spirituality? Cynicism? Or do you think it’s authentic?

I recall a conversation with a senior partner in one of the big four consultancies, a number of years ago, when I discussed the topic of spirituality and leadership development. “John”, he said, “that’s a topic that would have been a good bet a year ago, but it’s just not the right time on the FTSE at the moment”.   I was gobsmacked, but shouldn’t have been, as he continued to describe how at a future point, when the market had improved, a spirituality offering could be developed, as if it was just another management tool. The temptation to use people’s deepest motivations, and cynically appropriate or manipulate them, is the quickest way to discredit spirituality and the organisation’s reputation. On reflection, this partner’s comments reflect a systemic problem: the tyranny of measurement, the belief that everything valuable and significant can be measured. Not everything can be or should be monetized and measured. Measurement is a useful tool but only fools worship their tools, and in the domain of community and spirituality, those things that sustain us and give our organisational and wider lives significance and purpose cannot easily be measured.

Community – is it relevant to your work? Peter Block’s latest thinking

Peter Block’s recent book, Community: The Structure of Belonging, will interest anyone who is concerned about strengthening the vitality and connectedness of communities.

Block highlights a toxic cocktail of forces: widening inequality, imbalance of power and resources, self-interest, isolationism and a fragmentation of community, all resulting in what he calls ‘avoidable political suffering’ in our communities. He contrasts human suffering, such as illness, sadness, loss, which are painful but unavoidable aspects of life, with political suffering which is avoidable and unnecessary:  poverty, violence, homelessness, neighbourhoods in distress; and the more subtle suffering of people’s learned dependency, absence of possibility, the powerlessness that breeds violence, and disregard for the worth of a human being.

The book is a passionate call to action and a practical reference guide in how to build community.  He points out that the current disconnection in our communities results in too many people left at the margins with their gifts and contributions to society unrealised, with detriment to them and to the wider community.

Lest you think Peter Block is alone in his focus on communities, influential business thinker, and father of Corporate Strategy, Professor Michael Porter last month (in the Harvard Business Review) reminded business leaders of their interdependence with the communities that they operate in and “that at a basic level the competitiveness of a company and the health of the communities around it are closely intertwined”.  Porter argues for a new notion of shared value: creating economic value for the business in ways that also creates value for society by addressing its needs and challenges.

In Porter’s view many companies remain trapped in an outdated notion of value creation, a narrowly optimisation of short-term financial performance, while missing the most important customer needs and ignoring the broader influences that determine their long-term success. Business must reconnect company success with social progress.  In terms of the development implications for leaders and managers Porter notes they will need a “far deeper appreciation of societal needs, a greater understanding of the true bases of company productivity, and the ability to collaborate across profit/non-profit boundaries.”

Block’s observes that the silo mentality of public and private institutions, each operating in their own parallel worlds, maximising their own purposes, does not create a connected community. His call is for each of us to claim our latent power as co-creators of our world, our role as citizens as well as consumers, and to recognise how we unwittingly contribute to the fragmentation. Blocks challenges us with our freedom and accountability to make different choices.

So what are some of Block’s key ideas that apply to organisational as well as community settings?

Social fabric – community and relatedness are built one conversation/one room at a time. For those of us involved in organizational change (the latest research indicates that 70% of change projects still fail to achieve their expected benefits) we would do well to remember Block’s poetic advice that: “community building is so complex it occurs in an infinite number of small steps, sometimes in quiet moments that we notice out of the corner of our eye.”  Block talks eloquently about a quality of aliveness that is needed in each step. The shift we seek needs to be embodied in each invitation we make, each relationship we encounter, each meeting we attend. This is subtle and easily overlooked in contrast to the ‘big ticket’ items we are usually encouraged to focus on in change management; I don’t recall any advice like this on how to manage change in my ‘Prince II’ programme and project management training!

Conversations are central. This includes the stories inside our heads as well as how we listen, speak and communicate meaning to others.  Block asserts that all transformation is linguistic. Nothing in our doing will shift until we can question and then choose again, the basic set of beliefs – the mindsets that lie behind our action. Clearly there is much more to say about how this happens in practice. Mindset always trumps technique and tips, which is why focusing on the latter without the former is often fruitless.

Too little is understood about collective change. And too much attention has been placed on the individual with a naïve view that if enough individuals awaken, the shift in the organisation or community will follow.  Block’s work, like Barry Oshry’s, includes a focus on how to work with context and power in bringing about collective change.  Block’s approach to conversations is aimed at building community: where people show up by invitation rather than mandate and experience an authentic relatedness; where the focus is on the communal possibility and the creation of a feeling of  ownership and accountability even though others may be in charge; where diversity and dissent are given space; commitments are made without barter or coercion (this one item merits a posting in its own right); and where the gifts and contributions of each member are acknowledged and valued.

Look for what’s already there and working and amplify it! Block underlines the importance of focusing on gifts, assets, resources and possibilities rather than problems and deficiencies. For a number of years I worked with what were some of the most embattled public authorities in the UK. At the time each Council was under threat of government intervention. I soon discovered that a problem-solving mentality invariably makes things worse and invoked defensiveness. Focusing on what is beginning to work, where strengths lie, what possibilities people are prepared to experiment with, what conditions create success in this place is a much more fruitful and effective approach, and this applies not just to organisations or communities in crisis. When you look for deficiencies and shortcomings, you find them, and the same is true for strengths, capability and possibility.

Every gathering has to be an example of the future we want to create. Block challenges us to pay more attention to how we gather: be aware that how you act as the leader/convener in setting-up the conversation, including the nature of the invitation, affects whether you fall into the same-old conversation patterns or not; experiment with how you ask powerful questions that engage people in an intimate way, confront people with their freedom, and invite them to co-create a future possibility. He maintains these insights and disciplines about convening conversations are ones that can be learnt by anyone with a little teaching, practice and reflection.

Understand the importance of leading across boundaries and working productively with difference. If we want to meet the complex, fast changing needs of our customers and beneficiaries, we have to understand and work with the law of requisite variety: the degree of internal complexity within the organisation has to match the degree of external complexity. You can see this law in operation in commercial settings. For example the question of which of Apple, Google or Microsoft will successfully surf the competitive crest of the technology wave will in major part be due to their ability to sense and respond to emerging customer needs and also how far they can create high levels of internal integration and collaboration within their companies to anticipate and respond to those needs faster than their competitors. The same principle of requisite variety applies in public settings where the offerings of social services agencies have to be as complex and varied as the lives of the families and individuals they serve. When these agencies make their services too simplistic they create enormous havoc: bringing the hammer of heavy intervention and supervision to bear where encouragement and support would  work better is counterproductive; and in other circumstances not having the capacity to be directive or fast enough to intervene can cost lives.

Projection sustains itself in the absence of relationship. To bridge different worlds and work effectively with difference we need to practically understand inter-group dynamics:  how projection and steroptyping work, how we rapidly form ‘us and them’ group identities that polarise and separate us, and how we problematise the ‘other’. We are all subject to this reflex reaction of projection. Learning  how to take back the projections and build relationship with the stranger or the ‘other’, be that our neighbour down the road, or colleagues in the technology or marketing department, is a key skill in building community. Collective or communal transformation happens when we get connected to those who we previously saw as the ‘other’.

Build your confidence in how to work fluidly between the small and the large group. It is the small group, 3 to 12 people, that Block sees as the unit of transformation, the place where a feeling of belonging is created.  Small groups are at their most powerful when they meet as part of larger gatherings for example to create connection, to move the action forward, and for members of the small group to see and feel their relationship to the larger whole.  Block gives an overview of the field of large group methodology – bringing large groups of people together – from 20 to several thousand – to work on visions, build strategy, define work processes and create direction for institutions and communities.  Large group methods create ownership, engage larger numbers of people, help the culture evolve, and in community settings put democracy into practice. Block’s comment is that this competence in convening large groups well, needs to be more widespread and not treated as the sterling silver for use on special occasions.

Lastly remember simple, ordinary things are important: offering hospitality and paying attention to the physical space. How do we set up the room? How do we choose a meeting space that fits what we want to create? These are things we often neglect, or outsource to others without much thought.westminster boating base  

In London for many of our public programmes we choose a venue overlooking the Thames with wonderful natural light, the drama of the river with its changing moods, lots of space for conversation, and the hire fee supports the charity which owns the venue.

How do we bring artistic disciplines into our gatherings so that more of the whole person is engaged?  We have at least six other intelligences besides our IQ .

Answering these questions can be fun – remember Peter Block’s encouragement to create a quality of aliveness in each step!

%d bloggers like this: