We are ushered into the boardroom, it is large – filled by an imposing oval boardroom table, and this executive team takes most of the seats dressed in dark suits, white shirts and bright ties. They are in twos and threes deep in conversation about the last topic I assume, some of them look up as we enter the room give us a moment of their attention and return to their conversations.
The CEO has been called away to an important call, we wait for his return. When it comes he is still barking into his phone, catches sight of us and flashes us one of the loveliest smiles I can recall being on the receiving end of. My body is confused though as it doesn’t leave me feeling warm on the inside. He continues his phone conversation and we take in the rest of the room again, there is no attempt to step forward by anyone else in the team. No offer to help us settle ourselves or check if we need anything for our presentation.
Since the CEO’s re-entry the noise in the room has abated and there are wary looks on most of the faces that occasionally look up and catch our eye. I check inside my body again and now feel the way I do when I feel unsafe.
Finally we begin our agenda item, we are there in response to a request to support the cultural development of this business and had come to them on referral. Despite many attempts to make contact beforehand we had been politely but repeatedly refused any conversation with the CEO about what he wanted from this work. No sooner had our conversation begun however he was full of opinion. It was almost always in opposition to the statement that immediately preceded it either from us, or one of his team. The ground was decidedly unstable, would you risk a view knowing that it was almost immediately going to dismissed? One person in particular, however, seems to do well in among this uncertainty. The COO has an air of confidence about her; she seems to have an uncanny ability to know what the ‘right’ thing is to say, when to say it and who to say it to. In the general air of persecution she picks her victims accurately, identifying with the disguised aggression from the CEO, sometimes targeting an idea, sometimes-another part of the business and most devastatingly and regularly one of her colleagues.
We stutter our way through the agenda item, scared and far from our best. My stomach feels like it is cramped and it is hard to get the air I want to into my lungs. We hesitate before many of our contributions, it is difficult to raise our eyes and connect with the other people in the room and there is no response to any lighter, less serious moments that poke their heads up. After a little while we gently offer the first of a couple of honest observations about the effect of this Executive team on the rest of the business. Unsurprisingly it is met with dismissal but we hold firm and now the whole team has a point at which they can focus their persecution. There is palpable relief in the room as almost everyone joins in, able to unite as a team in the face of this external intrusion. And yet as we are escorted out of the building and in the e mails and calls that follow later we are repeatedly told in private that the opinions we offered had a lot of validity and were the root cause of what was holding the business back.
I have ongoing and continued understanding, care and compassion for those we meet in these situations. It isn’t easy to challenge the status quo in organisational life; mainly because whatever people might say about their desire for it, the systems we work in have over many decades established their own stable patterns. There has often been a convergence of views to a place that is perceived to be the least risky; even choices that are about doing something different are usually about a narrow choice between broadly similar options and protests are perceived as subversion. The pressure to survive causes a rejection of any views that don’t conform to the dominant view.
I have ongoing and continued understanding, care and compassion for those we meet in these situations. It is quite a double bind we find ourselves in. How will be creative and at the same time take no risk? How will we step out and at the same time protect ourselves from shame, injury or embarrassment?