Tuesday, 5 June 2012

Counterwill in the Workplace

I have just finished taking Gordon Neufeld’s online course “Counterwill” facilitated by Colleen Drobot. According to Neufeld, the instinct of counterwill serves to keep children safe, as they instinctively react to being bossed around by anyone to whom they are not attached. When we think of situations in which a stranger could harm a child, this is a very important instinct indeed. However, many children are not well attached to their parents, and, more often than not, are not inclined to do their bidding. The answer to this dilemma is not to impose consequences on the child, but for the parent to spend the time and effort to build a stronger relationship.

Another reason that a child may balk at doing the adult’s bidding is if the child has just enjoyed a time of closeness with the parent, and is full of what Neufeld calls emergent energy. This energy inspires the child toward independence, resulting in a move away from the adult in charge. The key difference is that the emergent child regularly returns to home base in order to enjoy contact and closeness with the adult, and finds comfort and rest in the relationship while the poorly attached child does not.

An earmark of teens in our culture is open rebellion, which is commonly mistaken for a sign of growing independence. Contrary to this belief, Neufeld believes that adolescent counterwill is reactive rather than a growing sense of self.

When the counterwill instinct runs unchecked in the adult years, it can create difficulty in personal, work and friendship relationships. Neufeld cautions those of us who are responsible for children to be aware of this tendency, as a common reaction to a child’s counterwill is that it provokes adult counterwill. This can result in an escalating battle of the wills, most commonly known as a power struggle.

I have found that my own counterwill has gotten me into trouble in my work life, as the adults with whom I work often do not agree with the way that I see things. This was a shock to me when I first became a school principal, as I was used to working with colleagues who embraced my enthusiasm and joined me in various exciting learning ventures. As a principal, I was unaware of the natural response of counterwill that teachers would have to my ideas, simply by the unintended but felt top down pressure. Although early on in my career, I had a teacher suggest that it might be a good idea to tone down my enthusiasm, I just did not understand what he was talking about. I strongly believed that I needed to be true to my natural zeal without thought to how this might be perceived by others. 

Now that I understand that counterwill is a perfectly normal reaction to perceived coercion or pressure, I have a much better understanding of why people do not just naturally jump on board with what I consider to be wonderful ideas. I have learned through Neufeld’s work that several things need to be in place in order to be in a position of influence over others:

      1. We need to build strong relationships with those we are trying to lead. Neufeld’s work on attachment states that these relationships begin with the senses, where we attach through smell, taste, touch, hearing, and sight. With babies and young children, we provide sensory attachment in the many everyday activities including cuddling, feeding, talking and singing. With older children and with adults, attachment is built through small everyday greetings such as a smile and a friendly “hello”, a handshake; touch on the shoulder, or the sharing of food. 

      2. The next level of attachment is sameness, in which the child decides that he likes the same colour as daddy, wants to do the same job as mommy when he grows up, or copies daddy shaving. This is a powerful concept, as the child learns a great deal through copying her parents. The child also forms many of her ideas in this way as she assimilates the beliefs and values of her elders. In the work world, there are many opportunities to develop sameness, through the commonality of a shared career choice and interest in the many facets of work duties. Ideally,  there is a meeting of the minds, and the synergy of supporting each other in the process is mutually energizing.

3    3. Belonging and loyalty is the next level, in which the child is clearly allied with  her parents, defending the family to those on the outside. This is the principle behind the young child’s assertion that “My daddy’s bigger than your daddy!” In the work world, there would be a strong sense of loyalty to the organization as well as the ideas and philosophy behind it. The individual who attempts to lead the rest of the team will be successful if the team members feel that they are a part of the company and are valued, thereby engendering a sense of loyalty.

While there are deeper levels of attachment as described by Neufeld, including love and being known, the three described above are a powerful measuring stick by which to assess the level of attachment for people in the workplace. If people are attached, and feel cared about and loyal to the organization, they will be more willing to cooperate with a variety of initiatives, and to give their own voice and energy to them. When there is strife in the organization, the battle of counterwills often takes over, eroding trust, and creating a logjam of frustration, disappointment and hurt. The role of the leader is to build strong relationships with those with whom she works in order to create a climate of confidence and appreciation. This dynamic cannot be ignored if we want our organizations and our families to be healthy, cohesive and willing to pull in the same direction.