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  • Writer's pictureMark Raymond

The Ontological Approach and Culture Change at MercyCare

MercyCare is a health and community organisation that provides a range of services to the community in Western Australia. Services include health care, aged care, employment, training, and family and community services. The organisation has more than 1200 staff, including a number of people in positions with people management responsibility.

In recent years, the executive team has recognised the critical role of its managers and leaders in shaping the future of the organisation, both in terms of delivering the highest quality services to its customers as effectively and efficiently as possible, and also for building a culture in the organisation where people feel connected to each other and united by a common purpose. Consequently, the executive team has been exploring ways of supporting managers within the organisation to achieve this.

The organisation’s Group General Manager, Organisational Development, Dr Nicky Howe, and Anne Courtney, an external coach from Coaching Company Winding Staircase, developed a leadership program to achieve the objectives mentioned above. Nicky and Anne decided to utilise a number of elements of ontological coaching to provide the foundation for their program. Nicky is a recent graduate of Newfield’s Graduate Diploma of Ontological Coaching and Anne is a current student, and they felt that the ontological approach would provide a robust framework for management development and organisational change, while empowering managers in the organisation to own the change.

A key element of the ontological framework is its focus on interactions between people as an approach to getting work done in organisations. It is well documented that higher quality interactions result in better work. For example, the quality of work that a staff member provides will be significantly impacted on by the quality of the request made by a manager or other staff member, the feedback provided and the quality of relationship between the two people. This might sound like common sense, but as we all know, the development of high quality interactions and high trust relationships between people in organisations is sometimes out of people’s comfort zone and difficult to achieve in practice.

In order to allow people the space to make sustainable changes at Mercycare, the program was spread out over a number of months. It was comprised of three two-day workshops which provided the opportunity for people to become fully immersed in the workshops, to learn new distinctions and critically self-reflect, and then apply learnings in the workplace over a period of time.

The content of the program included discussions on building self-awareness and developing high quality interactions with each other and staff. Modules included: learning to learn as a leader and as an organisation; understanding the critical role of communication and listening in leadership; the language of a leader in generating new possibilities; understanding the distinction between facts and opinions and what that means for decision making; leading with a coaching approach as a way of empowering staff; making and managing commitments (including making requests and giving feedback on work produced or not produced); and choosing moods and emotions that best serve the leader and the organisation.

An important part of the ontological approach is helping leaders develop the capability to observe situations in different ways, which in turn generates different choices and behaviours. This is based on the premise that we all observe situations differently. Participants were asked to keep a learning journal and record important moments in their work, noting what happened (i.e. the undisputable facts of the situation), what they noticed about themselves (in their thoughts, their moods and emotions, and their posture), what their interpretation was, and how they responded. Many participants realised that often it was not the events per se that caused them to act in certain ways, but rather how they observed and interpreted events. Through the learning journal people noticed that sometimes they were trapped into habitual ways of responding to events without noticing it, which was not helping them get the outcomes they would have liked. Rather than blaming external circumstances, this allowed participants to begin to question the ways they respond to events or situations, which opened up possibilities for different action. This approach gets to the heart of really experiencing the old adage, ‘it’s not what happens to you that matters, but how you respond’.

Feedback from the program was excellent, with 86 percent of participants evaluating the program to have provided significant or outstanding value. There were three key themes: (i) pride at being part of MercyCare, (ii) the importance of communication, and (iii) the importance of taking personal responsibility, reflected in the following comments.

I learnt “the magnitude of Mercy and my pride at being a part of this organisation”, “ Good communication is 90-95% of my role.” and “to recognise my own skills and resources and ability to learn”.

In running a program like this, it is one thing to get great feedback, but it is quite another for it to be applied on an ongoing basis in the organisation. It was fabulous to find that many participants in the program continue to apply key elements of the program into their work. As Mercycare CEO Jeff Simper remarked, “this really has changed the culture in our organisation”.

Since the program Nicky Howe has noticed a number of changes to the way the leaders in the organisation are working. Managers are speaking with more confidence, are delegating and empowering staff more effectively, and are making better decisions. In meetings, people are making more effective requests, and holding each other accountable for work previously committed to. Leaders are also listening more. Above all, Nicky has noticed that when things in the workplace are not working, leaders are recognising that in order for things to change, it is they who have to change first.

So far forty-two leaders have participated in the program, and many others will do so in the future.

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