Managing the upside-down: lessons from Stranger Things

As a leadership coach and practitioner, it is my privilege to work with leaders and leadership teams of all shapes and sizes. Many are looking for ways to achieve greater performance.

Some are looking to make small adjustments to an already well-oiled machine. Others are simply stuck in a loop of challenging and seemingly inescapable cultural norms.

Regardless of what has brought the leader to the space, time and again we find ourselves exploring what is really going on. What is happening that is either contributing to the results we are seeing, be that the progress we are making, the conflict we are experiencing or ‘stuckness’ we are feeling.

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One of the things we regularly help leaders to grapple with is the power of the implicit. And it was recently, while I was watching series four of the excellent Stranger Things, that I had a small epiphany about implicit/explicit realms.

For the uninitiated, Stranger Things is about a small US town that happens to be built on top of a nether world.

This world looks like the real world but in its most derelict and toxic state. It’s a secondary realm inhabited by monsters and all sorts of evil. This alternative reality is called The Upside Down.

Now, let’s be clear, I am not for one moment suggesting that every organisation, team or individual leader’s version of the Upside Down is as bleak or hellish as that depicted in the series. Rather, it is the existence of the realm in the first place that is of significance.

We all exist in two places. We are in our explicit world, and we are in our hidden or implicit world. And for leaders, this knowledge can be hugely powerful when it comes to having the impact they want and seeing the results they really want to see.

Let’s take an example. Marion is a leader in a large tech start-up. The organisation is growing at pace, they have received funding from investors and there is a huge expectation to deliver punchy results, over and over again.

Irfan works for Marion as part of her management team. Day-to-day, Marion and Irfan have a great working relationship. Irfan is clear on the expectations of him and his reports and everyone is working really hard to that end.

Until one day, the Upside Down makes itself known. Marion raises questions about some of Irfan’s team. What hours are they meant to be working? How is Irfan keeping track? What is he doing about extensive lunch breaks? How do we know that those who are home-based are not sleeping on the job?

Irfan is surprised. He had been working on an implicit social contract between him and Marion. In this contract, it states that as long as his team were making their numbers (the output), the way in which they achieved that (this input) wouldn’t be scrutinised. Sadly though, this contract only exists in Irfan’s Upside Down.

Marion is working on a different implicit contract. Her expectation is that Irfan’s team make their numbers, are available to cover for other teams when needed and add value to areas outside of their specialism.

Over time, the Upside Down (what is implicit) makes itself known (becomes explicit) and in the course of that happening, it can cause all sorts of mischief.

Indications that the Upside Down is at play

At a local level, indications that the Upside Down is present include:

· An unusual ask from the business

· Confusion over unpredictable behaviour

· Demotivation and psychological opting out (yourself and others)

· An increase in emotionality

· Seemingly irrational thinking

And at a macro level:

· A rise in formal complaints and grievances

· An increase in Performance Improvement Plans and managed exits

· High levels of regretted attrition

· Difficulties in recruiting new talent

· A drop in employee engagement and overall performance

How to work through it

Name it

Whether we are working with individual leaders or whole organisational systems where the Upside Down is at play, the first and most curative step we can help people take is to name it and acknowledge it.

UsualBringing awareness to the hidden implicit field – the Upside Down – is crucial.

At this stage, we don’t need to make meaning of what is going on. The first step is to notice that something is going on. Something is sitting underneath or hidden from view, and that something is having an impact on our real-world experience.

Explore it

Once you know that the Upside Down is having a bearing on the real world, it’s time to go exploring.

Our suggestion to leaders is that you stand shoulder to shoulder with your colleagues and take a torch with you. Working from a place of respect and curiosity and a shared desire to make things right really helps here.

Questions like, ‘What are your expectations of me that aren’t written down anywhere’ and ‘What are you thinking or feeling that is here but isn’t being said yet’ can help you as intrepid adventurers in this new and sometimes unnerving space. It might be appropriate to work with a coach, facilitator or mediator at this stage.

Make a plan to get back to the real world

Now that all the elements of the Upside Down have been explored, it is time to think about what needs to be made real. This means having an explicit contract and a shared and articulated understanding of how you will work together going forward.

Sometimes, bringing the explicit to light means that it’s simply not feasible to continue on the journey together.

In the case of Irfan and Marion, it started with an open and honest conversation. Irfan approached Marion and told her that he felt the presence of the Upside Down.

He described the situation as he understood it and queried whether there was anything that was implicit that he had yet to understand.

Together they explored their own internal, less-conscious voices, narratives and assumptions. At this point, both were able to make sense of their own implicit social contracts, which neither of the other had ever seen, let alone signed (metaphorically speaking).

Shining a light on the ghoulish shapes of the Upside Down, meant that they were a whole lot less scary and could ultimately be worked through constructively.

Irfan asked questions of Marion that had been sitting in his Upside Down (don’t you trust my team?) and Marion was able to offer context to her seemingly unfair interrogation.

This way of working may feel uncomfortable initially and – just as for the teenagers in Stranger Things – requires courage. But once the Upside Down is confronted, it is easier to manage and can be the catalyst to some incredibly powerful and profound steps forward.


Beth Hood is founder and director of Verosa