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Building A Culture of Trust Through Vulnerability with Ronan Harrington

Building trust is at the heart of a high-performing team and a great culture. Sometimes, that trust comes from allowing vulnerability and honesty into the room and acknowledging our flaws, as well as our geniuses. Our guest this week is a huge advocate of using that vulnerability to strengthen the relationships in leadership teams. 

On this week’s episode of The Melting Pot, we learned from Ronan Harrington, an expert in the neuroscience of resilience. After receiving a Master in Public Policy from Balliol College, Oxford University, Ronan then became one of the youngest executives in the City of London, as Director of Futures and Strategy at RPC. At the age of 24, he authored a report on the world of 2030 and how the British Government should respond. 

In this fascinating episode, Ronan shared his views on what it takes to develop a great business culture, how allowing vulnerability can help build trust in teams, and how power can impact cultural change in an organisation. He also talked about his experience working with Extinction Rebellion and how ethical power plays work in politics and business.

Download and listen to learn more.

On today’s podcast: 

  • Developing a conscious culture
  • How competing commitments affect culture
  • Building trust through vulnerability
  • Working for Extinction Rebellion
  • Defining resilience and dealing with burnout

Follow Ronan Harrington:

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Building A Culture of Trust Through Vulnerability with Ronan Harrington

Ronan Harrington is an expert on the neuroscience of resilience with a BA in Psychology. He teaches resilience on the KPMG Executive Leadership Programme. Over a decade ago, Ronan became one of the youngest Fellows of the Royal Society of the Arts. As a lead Futurist to the British Foreign Office (at the age of 24), he authored a report on the world of 2030 and how the British Government should respond.

He received a Masters in Public Policy from Balliol College, Oxford University, and then became one of youngest executives in the City of London, as Director of Futures and Strategy at RPC. As a guest contributor to the KPMG Executive Leadership Programme and resilience specialist Ronan advises world-leading companies on how to create healthy, high-performance cultures. 

Developing a conscious culture

Ronan’s approach to leadership and culture is based on a body of work called conscious leadership. For him, this is about changing our behaviour after becoming aware of those things that we were previously unconscious about.

Using the example of a romantic relationship, people can be in a conflict dynamic, or there could be rising tension in their relationship with their partner. They can instinctively withdraw from the person, and then fill their mind with doubts and judgments about them. Someone who is unconscious believes the stories they tell themselves, with the worst image of that person that they have internally. 

“However, if you were to do a workshop on how to be in a good relationship, or if you do couples therapy, you can be like, okay, I can see that. That really bruised me. I’m withdrawing. I noticed that I have this really strong story about who my partner is, and I’m going to allow that to be there but also choose a different course of action. So in couples therapy, they call withdrawal a losing strategy. Even though instinctively we want to do it, and even though it feels good in the moment, it actually undermines the fabric of the relationship.”

In a business context, you’re in high-pressure, high-stress environments. It’s very easy for that to get the better of you. And often, we can respond unconsciously in ways that erode our relationships and disrupt the carefully woven cultural fabric of an organisation. 

How competing commitments affect culture

Ronan has a unique approach to building a culture of trust. Using the context of the Culture Canva tool, he asks his clients what it would look like to embody their values and behaviours. On paper, you could have gossiping as a behaviour that you don’t want to tolerate. Yet, everyone does it all the time. And when they become conscious of it, they realise this is an incredible way for them to forge interpersonal bonds with someone on a Friday evening after work, or this is a great way to blow off steam. Robert Keegan, professor of Psychology at Harvard Developmental Psychology, calls it competing commitments.

“The idea that we do have a commitment to uphold cultural values like no gossiping. And at the same time, we have a commitment to blow off steam and a commitment to bond with our colleagues. And for every single behaviour that you want to discourage, and for every single behaviour you want to encourage, I guarantee you there is a shadow opposite of it that people are engaging in subtly undermining the culture that they need to become conscious of and shift over time.” 

An example of a shadow would be a cultural commitment to empowering people and to decentralising autonomy. The organisation might have a cultural commitment to that, but the individual might have serious issues with letting go of control. And that control mechanism is what’s called a compensating strategy. It’s something that the individual has done all their life because it’s a way of feeling safe. 

“So, you can talk about empowering people and having a decentralised culture, but the leaders haven’t done a degree of self-inquiry into ‘I’m aware that I struggle with this thing of letting go of control.’ So when I say shadow, it doesn’t necessarily mean it’s a malicious thing. It’s something that we actually can’t see. It’s something that is outside of our awareness to date.”

Using vulnerability to build trust with leadership teams

When Ronan talks about a conscious culture, it’s about high-performing teams dropping into a more courageous and honest form of relating with each other. To help his clients achieve that, he does an exercise called Cyclonic Inquiry, where they’ll share aspects of themselves that they wouldn’t normally share, but feel relatively unburdened when they do. 

In the first round of the exercise, in a sharing circle, they’ll make a statement: ‘If you really knew me…”; in the second: “if you were to collaborate closely with me a negative quality you would notice is…”.

“And for me, if I was in the room with you, Dominic, and we were in the same sharing circle, I might say, if you were to collaborate closely with me, you would know that I’m an attention seeker. I love and crave the limelight. And if there’s a moment where I might get a little bit of limelight and you don’t, I might just pam you off to get it. And at the end of that, I get them to say, and it’s mine. And that’s really important because the statement, and it’s mine is a signifier, and it says, I’m becoming aware of it, I’m working on it, and I also want you to know it, so you can hold me to account.” 

Finally, the third round is the healing bomb, where they say, “if you were to collaborate closely with me, a positive quality, you’d notice…”. For Ronan, this is an important round because we rarely make time as teams, and as individuals to acknowledge our geniuses and gifts. 

“And so what I find when I do an exercise like that is there’s more humanity in the room. There’s relief that we can finally end the charade of not acknowledging that we all don’t have flaws and that we’re trying to work with them all the time. And also that we’ve got incredible gifts in the room. So that’s a team becoming and allowing in more of what they are, which will improve their performance.”

Anchoring the feedback conversation

With these exercises, says Ronan, you can get people into the practice of having feedback conversations. It’s a muscle that you grow, and you can do it more skillfully. The model of feedback that Ronan teaches comes from Jim Dethmer and Diana Chapman’s book 15 Commitments of Conscious Leadership. And the first thing they recommend is that you actually anchor the feedback conversation.

“In affirming the relationship, there’s some degree of getting to know each other. I like your vibe. I don’t really know you, but this is something that I see. You did this thing, and it impacted me, and I’m sharing it because I have really good instincts about our connection. I would love there to be transparency and trust between us. And also, if I’m doing something, I want to know it.”

The impact of power on culture

Ronan has a background in politics and activism, so he admits the machiavellian lens is very close to him. He sees the world through the lens of real politics and power, which he finds interesting when the work he does, especially in culture, is on the softer dimension of being a human. 

Ronan says that the first place that he noticed the impact of power in culture show up is in efforts to change the culture. Often, he’s brought in by a Chief People Officer, or Head of Learning and Development. They’ll see toxic dynamics in the workplace, or that the culture doesn’t have good coherence. And often, the assumption is that it’ll just take prioritising time and money, a two-day offsite, and bringing everyone together. However, before that, there’s a whole body of work, which Ronan calls constituency building.

Using an example from politics, if you want to win an election, you’ve got your early adopters, your open-minded persuadable middle and your blockers. Then, you’ve got the people who aren’t on board and never will. The question is, says Ronan, how can you bring in your early adopters? How can you give more ownership to the persuadable middle? 

“But then there’s a political strategy question around. There might be some very senior people, the senior leadership team, who will block and undermine this work. How do you deal with them, and what might ethical power plays look like where you isolate or remove them from the process in order for the majority of people to adopt a new culture?”

Landing on Extinction Rebellion

Ronan wasn’t always a promoter of the Extinction Rebellion movement. In fact, he started off as a critic. In one of his YouTube videos, he criticised their first rebellion asking ‘Does Extinction Rebellion have a hippie problem?’.

“The images that were in many of the newspapers were of people doing yoga on Waterloo Bridge. And I was like, the optics of this are terrible. This feeds into the trope and the stereotype of the entitled, indulgent, middle-class hippie activist who doesn’t have a job.” 

A climate crisis is serious, and if you want to build a movement for change, he thought, there have to be people that others can relate to on the ground. And so people should be seeing vicars, nurses, doctors and business people who are demanding a serious response to the climate. And if they see that, they will start to identify themselves with the issue and with the movement. 

The second video he made was called ‘What can Extinction Rebellion learn from Nigel Farage?’ His emphasis was on the idea of building complicated majorities. After that, the founders of Extinction Rebellion ask them to stop criticising them from the outside and to join them to make a difference from inside the group. Which he did, taking a sabbatical year to take on a senior leadership position. 

Extinction Rebellion and ethical power plays 

In October of 2019, when Extinction Rebellion is at the height of its cultural and political power, Ronan was coordinating its political strategy. In the UK, a general election is about to break. Boris Johnson had just prorogued Parliament – an illegal move to temporarily suspend Parliament. So, a general election is on the cards, and it’s a time of real political volatility. Extinction Rebellion was planning a major non-violent civil disobedience campaign, that targeted Westminster. 

“We wanted to basically shut down governments so that they would meet our demands of bringing the climate target from 2050 down to 2025, which, obviously, is a crazy move in terms of crashing the economy. What it does is pull the Overton window towards a closer date. So off the back of our efforts, I think the Lib Dems and Labour at the time moved their climate target of net zero to 2030. So that’s just kind of part of our wider political strategy.”

So, what they did was pull the conversation over. But, Ronan says, the ethical power play is that if a general election were called, targeting Westminster and Government would have been a joke, because all of the politicians would have been out in their constituencies, campaigning. 

Often you’ll find the hardest thing to do in organisations is to pull back from a commitment to a losing strategy. Many companies will follow through on something that is guaranteed to fail rather than cutting their losses and failing fast. Ronan’s job was to steer them through a process where they could agree on either switching the strategy or not. In that process, there are many pockets of power that would want to do something different. 

“And you have to assess whether they might be disrupting and, how do you remove them from the conversation, how do you sow seeds of doubt in their plan. And so all of a sudden, you’re in this careful balancing act between trying to cultivate a culture of trust and honesty, and at the same time, working with the realities of power.”

Defining resilience and dealing with burnout

As a speaker, Ronan usually talks about the science of resilience and high-performing teams. He defines it as the ability to adapt well to change and disruption, to cope with setbacks and keep going in the face of adversity. Ronan tells the story of how he dealt with the loss of his brother at an early age. He developed his own compensating strategy, and was determined to become a success.

“That huge drive for ambition took me places. And yet that very same drive put me on a collision course with burnout and very debilitating health issues that I’m still reckoning with years later. I didn’t know how to stop. I didn’t know how to put healthy boundaries on what I was doing.” 

Ronan says that 80% of people in organisations are showing signs of burnout, and 30% have symptoms of burnout. We’re experiencing a mass burnout moment, which decimates productivity and erodes team culture. According to the last McKinsey report, 40% of people are thinking of leaving their jobs, and burnout was a huge driver of that. 

“Not everyone is working 70 hours a week and numbing it until they crash. There’s a more subtle form of burnout that still erodes our energetic foundations. And, people aren’t just getting burnt out from their work life. And the way we’re structured at the moment creates the conditions for burnout. Whether it’s your teenage children going through a mental health crisis, or they’re being bullied online, or you’ve got elderly parents, there are a lot of squeezing factors that actually are depleting us.”

Book recommendations 

15 Commitments of Conscious Leadership by Jim Dethmer and Diana Chapman

Fortitude by Bruce Daisley

Smalls things like these by Claire Keegan

Foster by Claire Keegan


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