Nous-mêmes au travail, avec Gabriella Braun

16 mai 2023 - 32 minutes d'écoute

Dans cet épisode, l'animatrice Hilary Sutcliffe explore . ... nous-mêmes au travail sous un autre angle. Elle s'entretient avec Gabriella Braun au sujet de son livre intrigant Tout ce que nous sommes : Uncovering the Hidden Truths Behind Our Behaviour at Work (Découvrir les vérités cachées derrière notre comportement au travail)qui, à travers une série d'histoires passionnantes sur des problèmes d'entreprise, fait disparaître les signes extérieurs de statut, de pouvoir et même de compétences et d'expérience, et montre que ce qui se passe en dessous, et dans notre passé, est ce qui motive réellement notre comportement. Ils expliquent comment cette connaissance peut nous permettre de mieux comprendre nos collègues et nous-mêmes, et de rendre le lieu de travail plus aimable et plus agréable.

HILARY SUTCLIFFE: Hello and welcome to From Another Angle, a Carnegie Council podcast. I am Hilary Sutcliffe, and I am on the Board of Carnegie Council's Artificial Intelligence & Equality Initiative. In this series I get to talk to some of today's most innovative thinkers, who take familiar concepts like democracy, human nature, regulation, or even the way we think about ourselves, and show them to us from a quite different angle. What really excites me about these conversations is the way they challenge our fundamental assumptions. Their fresh thinking makes me—and I hope you too—see the world in a new way and opens up a whole raft of possibilities and ways of looking at the future.

Today I am delighted to welcome Gabriella Braun. She is an author and the director of Working Well, a specialist consultancy firm which uses psychoanalytic and systemic thinking to help leaders and teams understand the hidden truths of their behavior at work. Gabriella's wonderfully readable book is called All That We Are: Uncovering the Hidden Truths Behind Our Behaviour at Work.

It is not quite showing us human nature at work from another angle; rather, reading it I was reminded of those illustrations you get at the physio in the doctor's surgery where you see people stripped of their skin and see their muscles, sinews, nerves, and blood vessels underneath. What came to mind for me is that the book shows us stripped of all the outward trappings of status, power, and even our skills and experience. Gabriella shows us what is going on beneath and what we are concealing, often even from ourselves, in the way we act and react to what happens to us at work. I see this as ourselves at work not quite from another angle exactly but rather in a different dimension.

Gabriella, welcome, and thank you so much for sparing the time to join us.

GABRIELLA BRAUN: Thank you so much, Hilary. Thank you for inviting me, and thank you for that wonderful introduction.

HILARY SUTCLIFFE: Start by telling us about your book because it is quite a different book. Tell us where it came from and what made you want to write it.

GABRIELLA BRAUN: Where it came from is my work with very different organizations and seeing differing organizations and people—I work with groups and teams and I work with individuals in coaching as well, so the groups and teams is not coaching but workshops, etc.—and what I saw increasingly was distress and damage in the workplace, people very stressed, mental health deteriorating—we know the statistics are very poor—and what I also realized increasingly and got a bee in my bonnet about was that consultants like me who apply psychoanalytic and systemic thinking have been very poor at letting the world at large, mainstream organizations, know that we exist and how we can help, as if we expect them to find us rather than we go and adapt to them and speak in their language. That is how it came about, that is why I wanted to write it. I felt that there were not other books like that aimed at a mainstream audience, so that was my reason for doing it and how I did it.

HILARY SUTCLIFFE: It is a very engaging book. It is a series of stories based on your experience. It was almost like reading a work of fiction in that you are intrigued by the characters and what happens to them, what happens in the end. I am reading it just dying to know what happens to people, what happens in these workplaces and to these individuals. Tell us what made you decide to use this particular format and a little bit more about it.

GABRIELLA BRAUN: That is a great question, and thank you for picking up the storytelling. As humans we tell stories to make sense of ourselves and make sense of our world, and we always have done. Stories have been drawn on caves. It is how we cope as human beings, how we interpret the world and ourselves. It seemed to me that storytelling was a good way of engaging the reader. I did not want an academic book. I did not want a book full of theory. There actually is quite a lot of theory, but it is told as part of the stories, and then there are notes at the back that you can read if you want more theory or if you want to know where to go for more theory.

Because I was trying to talk about emotion and feelings a lot I realized that the book needed to speak to people emotionally. I did not want it just to touch their brains. I wanted it to reach other parts, and I think stories are the way that we do that, like with fiction. Like you have just said, which is wonderful, you get engaged with the characters and want to know what happens. It is that emotional journey that you go on as a reader that for me will give more voice to the lessons or the voice I am trying to bring to this book. I have to say at the beginning of writing it I simply did not have the skills, and I had to put a lot of time and effort into learning how to write stories.

HILARY SUTCLIFFE: You have made it look absolutely effortless. I was reading it, thinking, Gosh, I'll never be one of those.

Tell us some of the stories. So many people you talk about are in very stressful situations and also some very ordinary situations—somebody's boss is a bit of an idiot, somebody is having a breakdown—the things that we find in everyday life and in everyday workplace life. Talk to us about the stories and some of the lessons that you have learned from this experience you have had over the years.

GABRIELLA BRAUN: I think some of them are a bit extreme. In one story called "Losing the Plot," the board of the company literally loses the plot and nearly pulls the company down. It is not at all extreme that teams lose the plot—that happens a lot—but for them to get to the point of nearly pulling the company down, that is more extreme.

Other stories, exactly as you say, are ordinary, like the man who is constantly put upon by his organization and cannot say to them: "I can't do any more. I actually am not really coping with what you are asking me to do." We all recognize that, don't we, someone who appears to say yes or does say yes because they dare not say no, and the organization just loads and loads and loads them up until they are at a breaking point.

That is quite ordinary, an ordinary tale of someone who—we do not call it this, but people will recognize it, it is actually sibling rivalry, which we think about in the family, but there is one story where somebody gets very heated about her colleague, who appears to get more attention from the boss, who appears to get the better projects given from the boss, and actually what we realize is that the heat is because unconsciously the colleague reminds her of her sister, and when they were growing up she always felt that her sister was her parents' favorite.

That may not be the listener's experience at work, but they probably will recognize those things where they get particularly hot under the collar, and it is actually quite ordinary that a colleague is really pressing our buttons or a boss is driving us nuts. Some of the stories are just those ordinary things, but what they do that is not ordinary is dig down to show why it is happening, what is being triggered, what is going on, and how we all have buttons that get pushed, and if we could understand those better we can be a bit more in charge of what happens to us rather than at the mercy of whichever button somebody happens to push.

HILARY SUTCLIFFE: When we talked beforehand I was slightly resistant to this notion that our past defines us, and this word "defines us:" "I am not defined by my past. I am not. I am free." Actually I have been thinking about it since, and on reading your book again how we are defined by our past is very profound and very, very surprising.

Now, looking into that myself, in fact from people around me and people I am working with, it does help you be more empathetic about the way you behave yourself and you react yourself and to others. Tell us a little bit more about that, how you found this self-knowledge and the knowledge of the team, this sort of understanding that they get about how our past really does drive us. Tell us a bit more.

GABRIELLA BRAUN: I am glad you said that it did start to resonate. I think often people do react exactly as you do. It seems such a difficult concept, doesn't it, "We're defined by the past," and I have had people who I realized what they were thinking was: If I am defined by my past, I am completely stuck. Somebody actually said to me, "Well, if I have an alcoholic father, I'm going to be an alcoholic then."

I was saying: "No. Being defined by your past means you are defined by an experience of an alcoholic father. It does not meant that you will become an alcoholic. In fact, the more you understand the impact of the alcoholic father on you the less likely you are to become an alcoholic."

Teams and individuals in coaching also realize that it is the understanding that actually gives us more agency over our own futures rather than just repeating something because it is very unconscious and we are not aware of it, but we are all inevitably imprinted by our past.

I talk in the book—and it took me a long time to get to this; I had no idea when I started writing that I would end up telling a lot of my own story, but actually in the end I thought: Well, I have to show some of my own story. Otherwise, I am saying, "You people reading my book are imprinted by your past, but of course I am not," and I did not want to be doing that.

I tell as you know quite a lot of my own story including that my parents had traumatized past histories with the Holocaust in the background. My mother was formally diagnosed as bipolar late in life. All of that is part of what imprints on me. Having a mother with serious mental health difficulties is not straightforward, and it definitely had an effect on me. I think partly the effect made me very curious about the mind and what happens in the mind. That was the positive effect, but there were certainly negative effects as well.

Understanding them means I am more able to deal with them, so I know much more what my triggers are, and I do not have to go there all the time. They are part of me, but they are not ruling me. That is the difference. They define who I am, but they do not define how I react to everything.

HILARY SUTCLIFFE: Yes. That is fantastic learning.

Can we look at it from the point of leadership? You move in the book from talking about leaders to talking about those in teams. One thing I quite liked was the thought of looking at the super-boss actually as a little child whose father never thought he was good enough. That slightly humanizes a leader, but also from a leader point of view seeing people in all their complexity is challenging too. We talk about how we want people to be more controllable and we want things to be more controllable because that makes life so much easier. What you are showing is more complexity, and that is quite challenging.

GABRIELLA BRAUN: It is very challenging. I think it is something that we have always avoided. We avoid really understanding human nature in a sophisticated way in the workplace. We do Myers-Briggs and various things—and there is nothing wrong with them; they have their place—but they are limited. They do not tell us the details, the nuances, and the complexities of human nature.

We have never wanted to know I think partly because it is challenging, and in the workplace leaders feel they have enough to deal with without all of that, thank you very much, but partly I think because we have been frightened of it. We think: I don't really want to know that I have an unconscious that might do its own thing, whatever I think. I don't really want to know about that, and I don't really want to know how complex my staff are and that they are bringing all of that to work. What am I meant to do with it?

For instance, if I work in a university, I want something that my students are going to learn and come out and be qualified and get great jobs. I do not want to think somebody may go on to become a criminal or a murderer. In a hospital I do not want to think that my patients are going to die. Of course some of them do, but it is the lack of control that we are fearful of, so we keep trying to control.

Actually if the bosses would take more account of human nature, understand it better, and bring to bear how we thrive and what we need to thrive in the workplace I think they would spend less time doing some of the other stuff, so they would probably keep staff longer and would not have to spend as much time on recruitment. Retention would be better. They would probably have to spend less time on disciplinary actions because they would have staff more engaged, more of themselves, they would be happier at work, and they would be thriving more. Some of the things that bosses spend a lot of time on would lessen. It is reprioritizing what we spend time on I think.

HILARY SUTCLIFFE: It makes sense. When we think about our personal interactions with people it is so obvious that it is almost not worth saying. It is when it becomes organizational theory and when it becomes something in management books all the humanity goes away and we have to make it almost machine-like.

One of my big hobbyhorses actually is this bizarre thing we have at the moment where we are trying to make humans more like machines, our systems to contain us more like machines, at the same time as making machines more like humans. Why don't we make machines like machines, and let the humans do the humans?

We talk about surveillance in the workplace. This is taking the humanity out, taking the understanding of people as individuals and trying to make us into widgets that can be controlled and can be dealt with in that sort of way.

GABRIELLA BRAUN: I totally agree with you about machines. I think we do it because we want to control ourselves and other people. If everyone was a line of machines, we could say, "In one hour you will produce X
number of these" or "You will see X number of patients"—we try to do that anyway, but we could do it with much greater certainty if people were machines. Nobody would be answering us back. That is the temptation, that everything would be in our control.

We would lose innovation, creativity, all of those things. I totally agree it is bonkers the way we try to make people more machine-like and machines more people-like.

HILARY SUTCLIFFE: It is tricky too. I say this not really working in a large company where you have so much pressure to deliver and need productivity and efficiency. Even in my little land with teams that I have worked with, it would just be so nice if people were like machines, just did as they were told, and everything worked out neatly. Understanding that people are messy, complex, and difficult does not help you deliver on the things that you need to deliver.

What I love from reading your stories is that actually it does, it really, really does. Giving people agency, giving people empowerment helps them, not surveilling them and turning them into cogs and widgets.

GABRIELLA BRAUN: It does help them. Also, the thing about surveillance, there may be good reasons for this, but I have not found them. I do not understand it. It seems to me that the message then that you are giving your employees is: (1) We absolutely do not trust you; and (2) we believe that you will always try to get away with things. Whereas actually most people want to do a good job, and if they are given trust and are given some autonomy they will work better.

Of course, there are plenty of jobs where that is not possible, but in the jobs where it is possible, if you give people scope, they will be more creative, and if you engage them with trust and make it psychologically safe enough for them, they will work extremely well. If I felt I had surveillance on me all the time I do not know what I would do. I would not work well.

HILARY SUTCLIFFE: I actually came to this work through the work I do on trust. One of the things about trust is that if you trust people first they are more likely to be more trustworthy and to trust you back. This is the absolute opposite.

There is a great project someone suggested that we do, which is how to cause maximum distrust, and there it is; let's do that. Let's not trust you all, let's not treat you like a human being, let's not give you any agency or empowerment, and then wonder why, hey, it's not working?

Let's come back to your thoughts and views on what help your book gives to us, and what we can do if we have quite a large team, it is quite complicated, and feeling and seeing ourselves as the messy, wonderful human beings that we are. Give us a hand about what to do if we are a leader, perhaps what we are to do as a team member, what to do as a manager. Any thoughts on that for us?

GABRIELLA BRAUN: Let's start with a leader or a manager. I think one of the things, and it sounds trite and simplistic, but it often is not done, having a few spaces that do not have agendas, so a space where you just check in with your team. I am not talking about all the time, but sometimes you just have a little space where you can ask, how is everyone, and it is not, "Okay, we have five minutes, this is number ten on the agenda, quick, how is everyone, quick, quick, quick."

It is not that. It is not an agenda, we have time, people can say as much or as little as they want, but somebody might be able to say something great, like actually," I'm having a great week, I have finally solved this problem that has been annoying me for ages and I am feeling really good about it," and somebody else might say, "I'm worried about my son" or "I'm worried about my ill parent" or "I am not having such a great week because of that." Those are things that are just a chance to say who we are and what is going on. "I am a bit preoccupied by" whatever, a chance without an agenda to be more human.

I think making a few of those spaces available makes a difference, and really it is for managers and leaders to create those spaces. We can try as team members to also do it with each other. We can do it with colleagues but we cannot particularly necessarily create organizational spaces for it. That is one thing.

I always suggest to people that you start with yourself, so the awareness has got to start with you. One of the psychoanalytic concepts that I use is what is called the "third position," and the idea of the third position—and I find it helpful—is if you are in an interaction with someone, you are just in it, there is you and the other person, and let's say it is a difficult interaction and a difficult dynamic, you are just having what might be quite a difficult exchange, if you are able in your mind to take a third position so that it is not just the two of you, you in your mind step back and you now look at the two of you, so you are observing it almost like watching a film, you can look at yourself and think: Oh, god, no wonder they are reacting like that. I can just see my body language. It is so hostile. My words might be all right, but looking at me I am all stompy, I am giving off every message that says I am furious and hostile. No wonder I am not getting the reaction that I want.

Also, the minute you take a step back in your mind the heat reduces, so you are more able to respond will less aggro yourself because you are observing rather than just being in it. So the idea about observing yourself and not just being yourself, then you can get more understanding of your own reactions, you can see the other person's point of view so that improves your likelihood of empathy, but also you can see your behavior through their eyes. It can be difficult but incredibly helpful. I think that is a really helpful tip and starting place.

In teams and between individuals it is about learning to have slightly more difficult conversations and realizing that they are survivable, that there might be something that you are desperate to say to somebody and you can think about, How can I say this in a way that they might be able to hear it? Saying to somebody or saying in a team, "Actually I loathe this team, I hate everything about this team," that is not going to go that great, but you might find a way of realizing yourself that what you find most difficult is the way you never get a chance to speak in the team or you are always the last to get your voice heard. You might be able to say—it would take a lot of courage, but if you could find it possible—"I am finding it hard to get my voice in this team, you all talk so much, I cannot get a word in edgewise, and I feel invisible," how great would that be? It would change your position. Suddenly you would be visible, it would make other people aware, and it would also open the door to other people saying some of what is difficult for them. That is the main battle.

HILARY SUTCLIFFE: Also I liked the fact that you were talking about how leaders are doing this because it is all very well us doing this, but actually this has to start from the top. Leaders do not have to be this invincible leader who is entirely invulnerable. Leaders are just like us, and I think the more we reward that sort of leadership the better.

GABRIELLA BRAUN: When I was just talking about making your voice visible I was not necessarily talking about a leader, but you are absolutely right; that is where I started, and it has got to start there. Actually leaders showing a bit more vulnerability is so helpful.

There is one chapter in the book where a wonderful service has been closed down, and I ran a regular session with the team, so that was not a workshop or anything, it was just helping to talk about what was going on. Some of the team say to the boss, "Why didn't you tell us sooner?"

One of the three leaders said: "We were trying to protect you. We thought we could fight this. We were trying to protect you. I do not know if that was right now," and turns to the head guy and says, "Do you think that was right now?

He says: "I thought so at the time. I really do not know now."

I thought that was great leadership. They actually showed their own vulnerability, it showed that they care, and it showed that they were not certain.

HILARY SUTCLIFFE: Yes. What I thought was interesting about that story when I read that, the leaders did not think the people could handle the truth, and I feel that happens quite a lot, that we underestimate individuals, we underestimate people and their ability to handle the truth and to be treated like adults in a difficult situation.

GABRIELLA BRAUN: I think that is true. I do think being a leader, as you say, is incredibly difficult. It is really difficult, and there are so many fine judgments leaders need to make.

It is a fine judgment when you tell, who you tell, and what you tell, and I agree people are adults and can handle things, but in this instance everyone was going to lose their job, and I think the leaders were right—and this is about psychological safety, you do not want to completely discombobulate your workforce when you might not have to. They were hoping: We might be able to stop this happening, in which case they do not need to know, we don't need to distress them like this, and we also don't need to upset the whole organization if this is not going to come about.

They may have waited a tad long, but I think they were right in the first place to protect staff because they might not have ever needed to tell them. That very fine-tuning judgment of when are you protecting staff by keeping things stable and when are you just treating them like children because you think they cannot handle something or you don't want to tell them, and that is really unhelpful, but they are not easy judgment calls.

Also, as in those leaders where they said, "Maybe we got it wrong," I don't know that they did get it wrong, but they were absolutely right to then acknowledge to the team, "We might have got it wrong." What the team saw was that the leaders cared and did it with the best intent. Maybe the team would have preferred them to tell them sooner, but they realized this was not malign but was very benign.

HILARY SUTCLIFFE: I think that is a great place to end with you talking about being kind, being honest, and being open. These are not tricky things. We know that this is important, and yet somehow we let all of these things going on in our heads and all of these systems we have created get in the way of that.

GABRIELLA BRAUN: We do let them get in the way of that because we have dehumanized the workplace by having ever-increasing systems for productivity and making more profit, et cetera, and we forget who we are and what we need to thrive.

HILARY SUTCLIFFE: On that note, do read Gabriella's fabulous book. If you are a leader, if you are part of a team, even if you are just working alone with associates in collaborations like myself, there is so much richness in there about remembering that we really are just people and doing our best.

Thank you very much, Gabriella. I enjoyed talking with you, and it was fabulous to read your book. Much appreciated.

GABRIELLA BRAUN: Thank you so much, Hilary. It was a really enjoyable conversation as well. Thank you.

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Carnegie Council for Ethics in International Affairs est un organisme indépendant et non partisan à but non lucratif. Les opinions exprimées dans ce podcast sont celles des intervenants et ne reflètent pas nécessairement la position de Carnegie Council.

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