You began this piece with the issue of burnout. While this can be thought of as a trend in the current organizational landscape, that trend is lived out through individuals and their stories. To understand what’s driving the burnout and, more importantly, how to curb or even transform it, the best and most nuanced data is likely to be found in individual stories. For leaders then the advice is to listen to these with open-mindedness and empathy. It not only improves relationships and communicates that people are valued, it is also a method for surfacing the kind of insight and inspiration that become the seeds of the innovations that are most needed now.
In terms of engaging and retaining people, there is nothing quite so exciting as connecting to a sense of passion and purpose, and then being able to put that into action. If leaders can find ways to help people connect with their deeper intention and then support these in the workplace, they are likely to end up with a highly engaged workforce. While some of this is about interpersonal capacity – recognizing and mirroring passion, mentoring and developing talent – to be done at scale the task is largely structural. The leadership capacity, then, is to be able to create the kind of structures, processes and culture that support people to connect with what is theirs to do and the freedom to make it happen.
Inam: What are the most important practices leaders need to undertake to develop these new capacities?
Pomeroy: The most important capacity is paying attention and doing so in two different directions: inward and outward. Because we hold a wealth of information, or knowing, within our bodies, intuition and our deeper awareness, the self can be used as an instrument for sensing into a current situation and connecting with the seeds of emergence that lie within it.
Paying attention outward is about coming out of the head and opening to what is really unfolding in a situation, rather than what we project onto it. There is a common phrase in change work: ‘the future is already here’. I believe that is true and that the change needed is already underway, it just hasn’t been fully spoken or enacted into existence. What leaders need to do is to connect with what is wanting to emerge and support it along its way. It is the opposite of driving change from a particular agenda. Rather, it can be thought of as working in partnership with life and its urges, as they express in a particular time, place and context. The issue is that often this change – the future we want and need to step into – is whispered rather than shouted, so it does take a certain sensitivity, awareness and acute paying attention to sense into that.
If paying attention is the underlying capacity, what are the specific practices? Well, anything that brings people into the moment, that helps them to turn on their ability to sense into themselves, to others and to the wider context. There are so many of them — mindfulness, journaling, conscious walking, learning journeys. The beauty of practicing paying attention is that it can be done anywhere in an instant, the moment we shift our focus from our thoughts to what is happening inside and around us.
Inam: You speak about how the quality of a social field or culture on a team determines the quality of outcomes the team achieves. Can you define what you mean by a social field? How is a social field different from what we know as culture in an organization?
Pomeroy: The social field can be thought of as the quality of our being together — something that lives between and through us. It is about the quality of relating that underlies our interactions, conversations and decision-making. You can probably think of teams or relationships where you feel safe, creative, and connected, and others where guarded and fearful, as well as a range of experiences in between. The quality of the social field influences our thinking, feeling and acting.
There are some overlaps between the social field and organization culture. I think of culture as the way of being an organization that includes rituals, practices, interactions, dynamics, norms, unspoken rules. The social field is really trying to get at the invisible, nebulous, quality that characterizes culture. While organizational culture can remain quite stable or can shift slowly, the field is created moment-by-moment and is therefore more nuanced. Within a given organizational culture, it will have a particular flavor, but if the quality of the interactions shift in a moment, so will the quality of the field. What each person brings to the space contributes to its quality, so what we bring matters. This gives us a more nuanced perspective on our collective experience and also more agency in co-creating it.
In my experience, people know the social field. When I start to speak about the social field and the quality of our being together, people get it immediately it resonates because we feel it, we know it. We feel it the moment we enter into a new space where people are interacting with one another. What I believe we are less aware of is our capacity to impact the field with the quality of our presence.
Inam: Do you have any concrete examples of how social fields create impact – particularly in complex situations?
Pomeroy: It is precisely because situations are complex that the social field creates impact. In a complex situation, characterized by non-linear relationships between actions and impact, it is extremely challenging to plan and make happen really specific outcomes. Instead, putting energy into the quality of the field and letting go of those specific outcomes is what leads to breakthroughs. For example, a school principal who, when asked to describe how she knows her school is a generative social field, said “All sorts of things are happening that I didn’t initiate”. A degenerative social field is one which causes harm to its members – think toxic organization or bullying in the workplace. By contrast, a generative social field provides the conditions necessary to activate potential – quality relationships, deep listening and attention, connection to purpose and presence to the moment and its emergence. When the quality of the social field is generative, energy and creativity rise and manifest. You see innovation popping up all over the place.
Inam: How can a leader know the quality of the “social field” they are participating in creating? Are there real-time ways to get feedback?
Pomeroy: Feedback about the social field is available every moment. Because it is about the quality of the collective space, by its very nature the social field is embodied and lived out. So really paying attention to what people are saying and enacting is feedback about the social field. A leader then needs to pay attention to where they are paying attention. To get good feedback it’s important to go to places and speak to people where leaders might not usually to get perspective on what is happening in the organization. When they get there, they need to be aware of the quality of their attention. How open are they to hearing, seeing, feeling or understanding something new and unexpected? The quality of the feedback will depend on the leader’s degree of openness to learning something new.
Inam: What are some proven practices to improve the quality of the social field?
Pomeroy: We start with building awareness. One of the simplest practices to bring awareness to the moment is to invite people into a short moment of “arriving” before the start of any meeting or event — to leave where they have just come from, turn their attention to the task and group before them, and get present. I can’t tell you how often I have heard leaders describe how powerful this has been for them. I remember the director of a large non-profit experimenting with stillness at the beginning of an important gathering of his leaders and sharing with surprised delight, “it was one of the best meetings we have ever had”. This practice can be amplified by inviting people to connect to their intention or hope for the meeting. Connecting to intention both helps us to focus on the task at hand and to “put our skin in the game” in terms of our personal investment in it. Sharing those intentions invites all present to begin the conversation not just from a place of shared understanding but also of greater empathy and awareness of the diversity of perspectives in the room. When the conversation begins from a place of connection, awareness and shared intention, the social field deepens.
Inam: From your experiments with over 600 teams that are creating real breakthroughs what are you learning about where leaders should start?
Pomeroy: One of the core issues that comes up again and again for teams, especially at the early stages of an endeavour, is the issue of clarifying intention. In teams that flounder, often people are bringing different intentions to the table – either consciously or unconsciously – and this can be true both for teams that know each other quite well or are newly formed. Raising awareness within ourselves and shared awareness of intent becomes important.
When people are not clear about the intention of the project or their own intentions, or if there is an incompatibility, they are investing their energy in different directions. I think we all know that draining feeling of stuckness in teams that comes primarily from working at cross-purposes. Clarifying and aligning intention, draws on the capacities mentioned earlier — being present and paying attention to one another, to self and to the potential of the project or work. It calls for an interesting stance of showing up fully by bringing one’s own vision and intention into the space while also not holding too tightly to that intention so there is space for what doesn’t yet exist to emerge.
The capacity to hold our agenda lightly and be prepared to let it go so that new ideas and directions can emerge is really the capacity that is needed now. Our times are too disrupted and change is too rapid for us to lay out effective plans for the future based on what is. We also have to be able to touch into what wants to be and learn how to work with it. When teams clarify intention in this way and then revisit and hone their work in response to emerging information and experiences, they lay the foundation for breakthrough. And while this approach doesn’t offer the (false) reassurance of a five-year plan, it is enlivening to live and work in connection with the future that is coming into being.