React – Respond

Why reflection is a crucial part of Action Learning

I am of the generation that experienced the introduction of the computer, mobile phone, email and social media. My Master’s thesis on Ahold as a Learning Organization was written on my first computer, a large grey-green machine. Before I had that computer I was writing my papers on a typewriter, using white ink to correct spelling. Sometimes I had to rewrite whole pages because I’d changed the structure of a chapter or paragraph. Having a computer saved me much time and effort; time I could use for other things. The computer has made my life easier in that perspective.

Working at Twynstra Gudde, the largest Dutch independent consultancy company, I build a reputation with Competency based Human Resource Management (HRM). Together with colleagues I wrote a book on Competency based HRM that became a standard work in the Netherlands and we wrote the chapter on Competency based HRM in a standard HR toolkit book used on most Dutch universities. The computer and email made some aspects in the process of writing much easier and faster.

Everybody in the company knew me as “Mr Competency Management”. I introduced the theme when not too many had yet heard of it and it became popular because of collaboration with my colleagues and clients. For 10 years I was able to deepen my knowledge, skills and competence as expert and to share it with colleagues/clients in assignments and with a broader audience in articles, training and as speaker on stage.

Human Resource Management is a profession and Competency Based Human Resource Management is a specific expertise. However both, in general, are considered as something one could also do without having the specific training or experience. When Competency based HRM became popular and became a ‘cash cow’ colleagues of mine who were trained in complete different areas took up assignments in this field of practice. One consequence of this was that I, more often than I liked, became involved in assignments at a stage that already a lot of ‘damage’ had been done. A part of my work became to repair mistakes of others. I was doing that on the side of my own assignments.

Competency and competence

At that time I was working about 60-70hrs a week; also in writing the articles and in further development of the expertise. The topic of ‘clearing other peoples mess’ was addressed in my performance appraisal and it was heard by my management. I did not have a mobile phone yet and my managers suggested I should have one. At that time a mobile phone was only for partners in the company and I was a medior/senior consultant. It would be useful because colleagues could reach me by phone for consultation. I was already spending an hour an evening replying emails other than those that were functional for my own projects and rejected the idea to be available in daytime as well. In hindsight this looks rather strange, because nowadays I use my mobile phone quite a lot and not only for calling.

In the early days of email and mobiles I did not only see the advantages of it. I also felt and addressed a few peculiarities of these new technologies; peculiarities that I did not experience as positive. My workload increased because of them and I noticed that people started to spend less time for conversation. Email is a one way medium and I noticed that most people expected to receive an answer on their mail within very short notice after them pressing the send button. I also saw email correspondence getting out of hand and turning into disputes, simply because there was no time taken to ask “what do you mean?” Email introduced a lot of space for interpretation and diminished the time taken to check those interpretations with purpose to de-escalate exchanges that seemed to get out of hand because of misinterpretation.

Internet Bully

Both technologies have brought elements that make professional life easier; they are contributing largely to a significant improvement of efficiency. At the same time, with the pressure on efficiency and the convenience of texting, the level of communication went downwards. Instead of looking up from their desk and speak with each other, people sharing a desk were emailing each other. Emails were not only about work, but also about something as lunch. A colleague of mine and I always made fun of these “are you joining for lunch?” emails by saying “In the old days we used to speak with each other at the office, now we do not want to be disturbed by those talking.” I was in my early 30s at that time.

Another time consuming e-HRM tool was the introduction of intranet. Where we used to have support staff for certain tasks. I now had to complete these tasks myself using the intranet tool. It took me an average of 4 extra hours a week in my already packed agenda. And it confused me.

This long introduction on how technology entered my professional life brings me to current times. I do not know if what I write above is recognizable for others my age. I do see that with introduction of social media and e-HRM tools these patterns have increased intensely. The pressure on speed, efficiency and quick reply has grown and now it is not only email or voicemail that need attention.

When I travel I see a lot of people staring at their cellphones, checking their Facebook messages, Instagram accounts, scrolling through Twitter, LinkedIn etc. What I also see is that there is a strong decrease of genuine contact between people. The algorithms of Facebook and LinkedIn are set to confirm what people believe and create virtual flocks of like minded and increasing gaps between different opinions.

Social Media tree

Texting is not the same as talking. It is interesting to see how fewer of my friends call me to ask me how I am doing, partly because they think they know because they follow my Facebook or other social media accounts. But Facebook is not my life; it is just a small part of it.

I also notice that the quality of conversation is decreasing; the span of attention is low, there is little listening and instead of responding many conversations are a rapid flow of reactions. Don’t get me wrong, internet, email and social media do have enriched our lives and I could not do my work without it. But the ‘dark sides’ of it in terms of decreasing social cohesion, lack of time for reflection and the addictive element of them is hardly discussed and young people are not educated how to use the tools without losing, well basically, without losing themselves. It has a deep impact on human to human relationships with negative consequences for society.

This time of rapid change, fast business and global connectedness asks for specific skills that are not part of traditional learning programs. According to the World Economic Forum (WEF) social emotional skills are critical components of 21st century skill framework but not a core focus in today’s curriculum. WEF has identifies 16 skills most needed for students to learn (see figure). Besides 6 foundation literacies, competencies as communication and collaboration have become increasingly important. Among the 6 most significant character qualities are curiosity, adaptability and social/cultural awareness.

WEF 21st century skills

Looking at the top 10 skills defined in the WEF “Future of jobs” report one can see a shift towards inter-relational skills. I notice a huge paradox here; in my opinion social media is actually creating a decrease of the skills mentioned and technology will not teach people these skills. Yes, one can design a computer simulation program, but human beings are irrational and unpredictable. A machine can come close to reality, but it can’t replace real time human to human communication.

The Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) is an intergovernmental economic organization with 35 member countries. Its mission is to promote policies that will improve the economic and social well-being of people around the world (source; OECD website). This organization also refers to oral communications, written communications, teamwork/diversity and diversity as 4 of the 11 most crucial skills for 21st century employers and leaders. Two other interesting skills mentioned there are ethics/social responsibility and creativity/innovation. I could mention a few other reports from acknowledged institutes, but most mention the same or similar skills.

Those skills are not learned when the people we communicate/collaborate with are people who have the same view, opinions or background. As an expert in group dynamics I know that even without social media confirming what I already know and believe it is difficult to teach and learn those skills. Most people have the tendency to mix with like minded and selection processes by companies do not filter these biases.

WEF future of jobs skills

One can read a book or go to a course, but these skills can best be learned in real life situations. And even then it is quite difficult to change the tendency to mingle beyond ‘people like us’. It needs practice, practice, and practice. And even then the experience of this practice will only be integrated when time is taken for reflection. And it requires honesty towards one self and one’s own biases.

My point is that pressure on efficiency and speed in jobs and society, in combination with the pressure of the bleeps and notifications from social media push people deeper into reactive behavior where capacities to respond are required. But what is the difference between reaction and response?

A reaction is unconscious behavior in which we focus our energy towards the world around us in an attempt to protect ourselves or to attack someone else. A reaction actually is an act with the purpose to control or eliminate the cause of unpleasant experiences.

The process of reacting is actually a very subtle one; most people don’t even notice that they are reacting. And it is a violent act that comes from feelings as blame, accusation and revenge. Something is done to us, at least that is what we believe. In reality this is not the case.

Buddhism knows a principle called “Second arrow”. In my understanding this is a synonym for reaction. But the teaching of Buddhism is that there is no first arrow. The irony is one is reacting to something that is not actually there, but perceived a real. You are literally chasing a ghost of your own mind, a fantasy.

React and Respond

A response is a conscious choice to experience the unpleasant feeling we are sensing and to transform the information it brings into constructive action. Instead of pushing that unpleasant feeling away, one takes responsibility for it and literally feels the emotion. The hard part of responding is not only the feeling part, but also to be able to recognize the negative label we unconsciously give to the sensation and the ‘story’ we have built around it blaming the other as the cause of that negative sensation.

To respond instead to react is not easy, not something one can learn as a trick. It is a practice that, for most people, takes years to comprehend, let alone to become competent. We have the strong tendency to embrace emotions we label as pleasant (joy, happiness, love) and to reject emotions we label as unpleasant (anger, fear, pain). And we have the tendency to take ownership of the feelings we like and to judge others for things we feel and dislike. Those are subtle processes most people go through unconsciously on a daily base.

A practice in Shambhala Buddhism is one called “Basic Goodness”. The teaching is that Basic Goodness does not push and does not pull. I will be honest with you; I have been trying to integrate this practice in my daily life and I am more often than I’d like not very good at it. But at least I see myself fail. And that is just as important to me as I want to master this this practice. Because if I see myself fail, I can always try again. If I am not aware, I will make the same mistake over and over without even knowing it.

Now I am not saying that everyone should become a Buddhist or practice Basic Goodness. But what is important is that we – looking at the qualities needed for success in business and school – learn to acknowledge our own reactive patterns and practice to change those into responsive behavior. Another point that I am trying to make here is that, though these skills are acknowledged as crucial, business and society are taking us away from practicing them. That is where a big gap is between what is needed and what is stimulated. It is this gap that creates more tensions; within people, between people and in groups (teams) and society.

White Tara Alain

An alternative for a spiritual practice like Basic Goodness is Action Learning; at least when it is framed and facilitated in a proper way. Unfortunately most meditation practitioners are ‘enlightened’ on their meditation cushion and end up in (their car towards) work full of tensions because of traffic or what others ‘do to them’. And unfortunately most of these skills needed to respond instead of to react are taught in classrooms and not on the job. Most Action Learning programs on the job focus on more technical skills, not the social skills. I do not believe this is effective and can be done differently.

To conclude I will give a small practice one can easily apply in any situation without other people noticing it and without too much knowledge of social psychology. You can do this at work in a meeting, in your car or in public transport or in basically any common situation on ordinary life when tensions arise.

When you feel tension rising, do not look outwards to find the cause of that tension. Just be with it and notice it. Then ask yourself “when did I feel this tension before?” to see if you can discover a pattern. If you have not yet pushed the sensation outwards you can look at the ‘story’ your mind has made of what is causing this sensation. You will notice that the sensation might first grow stronger, but if you can hold it, it will relax. Once you get more advanced in this practice you can look at patterns from your early childhood that have imprinted these stories in your mind. The latter is transformative, it is much cheaper than going to the psychologist and very effective.

If you want to learn more about these forms of Action Learning you can go on the internet or buy a book in the shop. If you want to work with it in your professional life or with your team I am happy to support you as individual coach or a team facilitator. By no means I am an enlightened teacher that has surpassed all these patterns, but as an experienced practitioner/student I can relate and facilitate.


About Alain B. Volz

Alain Volz M.Sc. (1969) - Social Economy Entrepreneur, founder and director of ATMA - has studied Business Administration and Organizational Psychology. He started his career with Royal Dutch Ahold and has worked with IPMMC and TC&O. For 10 years Alain has been working with Twynstra Gudde Consultants and Managers as senior consultant Human Talent & Change Management. He was responsible for Competency Based Human Talent Management. He is co-founder of the Center for Human Emergence in the Netherlands (CHE), a former member of the CHE alignment circle and founding director of CHE School of Synnervation (currently Synnervate). In 2011 he held the position of partner with the RnR Group in Maarn. Alain is Strategy & Alignment Officer at Dipaliya Women's Association in Tamale, Ghana. In the Netherlands he is board member of the committee for the position of women and minorities in the Dutch Democratic Party (D66 Thema Afdeling V/M Sociale Innovatie). As such he represented D66 in the PVO; a cross party National committee consisting of represents from 6 different political parties (CDA, CU, D66, Groen Links, PvdA, VVD). The office of ATMA is located at the ImpactHub Amsterdam & the ImpactHub Accra.
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1 Response to React – Respond

  1. isaac Ampomah-Ghana. says:

    great pieces of writing . i remember you .

    Ghanaian friend

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