Thursday, February 27, 2014
It has been a long-standing habit of mine to do some quirky, creative activity at the beginning of workshops. The purpose of this has been to stimulate the creative parts of the brain. The research evidence is that if you can stimulate these creative bits the effect will last for a couple of hours and enhance whatever it is that you are doing.
These quirky activities inevitably take people out of their comfort zones: some more than others depending on personality. Some research hot off the press has shown that change, moving out of one’s comfort zone can, in its own right, stimulate creativity. The reasons for this are not quite clear. But it would appear to me that it has something to do with being forced to respond to ambiguity, the abnormal, something different: a part of how we adapt to our environment. When things are ho-hum, predictable, we have no reason to step outside of our habits, proven ways of doing things. The threat of change makes us think of options.
My intuition and some research about stress would suggest that there is a Goldilocks effect operating here. That is, too much change and overwhelming change would have the opposite effect and paralyse people. So, there is the need to get it ‘Just Right’, as in Goldilocks’ porridge.
This has some fairly obvious implications for leaders in workplaces. Change the approach, context, environment and delivery, and introduce a small degree of unpredictability, if you want creativity. Move people out of their comfort zones by challenging them, change roles, moving teams around, shifting responsibilities. I have often thought that having people stay in the same jobs for a long time is potentially unproductive and likely to be disengaging. Now there is evidence suggesting this is likely to be true.
Research has also shown that some people respond to quite traumatic, or very trying experiences with increased creativity. It seems that adversity provides an opportunity to rethink one’s world, to see it in a different way and then to creative behaviour. Of course, this does not happen to everyone in the same way.
That people behave differently when confronted with change or adversity may be explained by one of the Big 5 personality traits known as ‘Openness to Experience’ People high on this trait tend to like new experiences, a break in the routine, kite flying, manageable change. Those low on this attribute are the opposite. They like predictability, and tend to be conservative. Most people are situated somewhere in between these extremes. As Tony Robbins has pointed out, people like change and problems but only those that that they like. In my view, it is those that can deal with change and problems they don't like that are the most adaptable.
Lastly, if you look at organisations that are highly creative, they tend to do things somewhat differently than those prescribed in the traditional, ancient textbooks on organisational behaviour. They could be described as quirky, and certainly, non-conservative. There is a lot to be learnt from them: if you’re game.
So, some interesting research that can be directly used in the workplace, and elsewhere for that matter, to provide optimum conditions for creativity. The tricky bit will be doing this if you happen to be a leader that tends towards the low end of ‘openness to experience’, the more conservative. Will you be able to do something that is completely out of your comfort zone?
Tuesday, February 11, 2014
The desire for uncertainty is one of several basic human psychological needs. But unlike its sibling, certainty, it is very much dose related. We like variety but only that which we can comfortably control. How we react to uncertainty, to the vicissitudes of life can tell us a lot about ourselves and others.
People respond to chaos in different ways. You may be one of those who uses it as an excuse to clean out all the kitchen cupboards and line them with nice clean, pretty paper. The washing will be even more neatly pegged out on the line. Chaos can trigger a rebuild of the car engine some other autistic activity. You probably will start making lists: long ones with lots of detail. The diary will suddenly fill up. Your tolerance for the slightest deviation from protocol, process or policy will be regarded with a sharp look, even a snarl. This response is an attempt to obtain a feeling of being in control: of something, anything.
There is another group who respond rather differently. You are already chaotic and you become even more so. The kites that you so often fly become even larger and balloon out with vast amounts of air as they navigate the clouds. You’ll suddenly start a new project and expect everyone to down tools and ignore the chaos around them. Whatever project management skills you may have used, or been coerced to use in the past, will go completely out of the window. You are lost with your fellow passengers in a foreign town in a car late at night with nowhere to sleep but asking directions is the last thing you’ll do.
Needless to say, each approach has a habit of completely unsettling the other. Basically, the two groups are seeing the world in completely different ways. Of course, they were doing this before the uncertainty started but increasing stress tends to cause us to revert more to type. Conservatives become more conservative and liberals more liberal. The religious become more entrenched in their beliefs and the secular become more fascinated with proof. Dogmas become emphasised. This is not a complex idea. Humans make up hypotheses all the time about how the world is operating and then find solutions that best fit their existing values, attitudes and beliefs: what we call schema.
More tellingly, though, uncertainty can reveal some rather more unsettling, on the one hand, and encouraging, on the other, personality characteristics. People with a higher than average degree of narcissism (we are all at least a little bit narcissistic), for example, are more likely to respond to uncertainty and inconvenience with anger. Certain personality types will be overwhelmed by anxiety for a variety of reasons: fear of abandonment; loss of control; previous experience with severe anxiety; fear of loss; and an intense biological reaction to stressors, for example. You’ve no doubt met the micro manager whose need for control becomes extremely neurotic in the face of chaos. And you’ve seen people who turn inwards, into their shell, ostrich with head in the sand as the world around them is exploding. Self-medication with alcohol is another neurotic response.
Then there are those who step up to the plate. Uncertainty reveals their stickability, stoicism, humour, ability to plan and organise, apparent calmness, and concentration. These people are likely to be highly resilient, having learnt to be so from surviving life’s hard knocks in the past. They are confident in their own ability. They may well be anxious and uncertain about the potential outcomes. They may even think that success is unlikely. But they forge ahead in any case and people follow them.
I once worked on an exciting project involving a collaboration between a large health organisation and a university. A fellow was seconded to the project to work with me from the health department and he had previously held a very senior position with a large research staff and a huge budget. Ours was a start up with very modest beginnings, although it became a great success. Fairly early on in our project I asked him once when things were not going well and we were struggling whether or not he missed the power, the influence that he once had. His response was very telling, ‘If I want power I’ll go and get it’.
You can tell a lot about people by the way they handle uncertainty. In fact you can tell a lot about how people meet any of the human needs. We all have the same needs but make different choices about how to achieve them. Some are positive and some are negative. Most of these choices are based on emotion. But that is a story for later on perhaps.
Tuesday, February 4, 2014
Humans are good at gossip. By gossip I mean, taking things that people say at face value and being influenced by them. I suspect we have been gossiping ever since we emerged from the swamp. That, ‘Thaal cannot be trusted during a mammoth hunt’, has been doing the rounds in its various forms for thousands of years. It transpires of course, that Thaal is a popular, and strong figure in the tribe and is a threat to the chief’s power. It is more than likely that the chief in fact is the one not to be trusted during a mammoth hunt: such is the mechanism and power of gossip. In psychological parlance much of gossip has to do with self-interest and projection.
Want to influence a board member before an important meeting? Make sure you are on their Christmas card list first and then sidle up to them over the water cooler and suggest a particular view about an issue. If they like you, respect you or you have some sort of power, then whatever information they have on the matter will be pushed aside, manipulated by your opinion. And this can be quite an unconscious thing on both sides, unless you are awake to this sort of phenomenon.
So, we are more likely to believe what someone whom we admire or has some influence over us says, rather than be swayed by the facts. Conversely, we are less likely to be convinced by someone whom we dislike. Such is the importance of the power to influence. Sadly, humans can be influenced by all sorts of people who have no genuine right to have influence, such as media personalities, movie and TV stars, and sports figures, for example. Their opinion can be very attractive to us and don’t let the mere detail of facts get in the way. The various media formats understand this very well, especially glossy magazines, as do advertising agencies as they manipulate the public taste, public fashion, and ultimately what we buy.
Gossip, these days, has taken on new forms. Its essence is the same but now it can be found on every type of social media that’s out there such as Twitter, Facebook, Linkedin, Pinterest, Google Plus, Timbir, Flickr, MySpace to name but a few.
Over the silly season break I had several instances of gossip at work in social medie and I have no doubt you have seen this happening too. What I saw were allegations about fairly well known figures and events circulated through social media going viral. People would get really hot under the collar and rant about the person or event, poor out their vitriol and pass it on to the next person to do the same.
However, a little bit of research discovered in each case that the allegation was false. Several of them came from online satirical magazines. Someone clearly didn’t get the satire and sent it out on their network with a nasty comment. Because they probably have some influence over their ‘followers’ or ‘friends’ no-one else bothers to check the facts. And away we go, gossip on a grand and global scale. A far greater reach than Mr Brown, the town gossip: an amateur by comparison.
What is worrying is the amount of information, not just gossip, that is circulated via the internet, that has no basis in evidence but we listen to, simply because it came from someone with influence. How many decisions do we make that ignore the science but go with misinformed opinion? But how serious can this be? In my view this can be very serious for all manner of leaders, no matter what enterprise they happen to be in. For example, if I hear one more person say that they don’t believe in climate change or I don’t believe smoking causes cancer I shall throw a very big tantrum.
It’s also true that you can look at some information or an argument that appears on the face of it to be very compelling and based in science but that needs to be treated with caution. This issue came up with a colleague only this week who was interested in a piece of ground breaking research-good research as it turns out. But science is a naturally cautious activity. What I said to him was that without a good grasp of statistics it is possible to think that a piece of research one is reading can be taken as gospel, when in fact its findings need to be taken much more cautiously. In fact, one often finds that a blogger, journalist or other writer takes the findings of research and inflates them beyond what the researcher every intended. Not dishonestly, but just not understanding some research basics.
So, some important lessons here about decision and opinion making. First, always go to the science or at least someone who knows the science well and make decisions based on facts. Second, recognise the power of influence and how to use it wisely. Third, recognise when you are being manipulated and how others are influencing you. Fourth, embrace the principles of participative democracy when making important decision-making. No matter how high your IQ is, more informed people make it higher. Lastly, recognise human frailty, that we are not as smart as we think we are.
Wednesday, January 22, 2014
Well, here we are, heading into a brand new year, a fresh and bright, sparkling clean future all before us. A fresh canvas. Some recent research shows that humans like new starts as an opportunity for change: hence, the New Year’s resolution. But we also do the same at birthdays and other ‘beginnings’. Unfortunately, the success rate of New Year’s resolution is pretty poor, but we’ll ignore that inconvenient truth for now. It’s the spirit of the idea that matters. Humans find it rather difficult to change and it takes extraordinary motivation to take us out of our habits, the familiar. One of the many reasons for this is that we are often really preoccupied with so many things that we find it hard to focus, to concentrate hard enough to do what may be required. Some brains find this easier than others and this is mainly due to the availability of two important chemicals called dopamine and norepinephrine.
One of the joys of our holiday time is that grand children escape their parents for a bit and get spoiled by the grand folk. Little Miss 7 comes out with some beauties: she’s a very bright spark. Yesterday we were doing some rock painting: a great activity that I do in some of my workshops, from time to time. She sat back with a heavy sigh and said, ‘I’ll just have to be patient now because I have to wait for one layer of paint to dry before I paint the next bit. I think I’ll just think more about what I’ll do next. Waiting is a good thing isn’t it?’
Her little piece of wisdom struck a chord. The days of many people I meet, particularly managers, are so frenetic that they seem to have no time to think, let along plan. When they encounter problems, the stress rises further and, inevitably, either the issue is managed badly, the situation is ignored, or there is a drift into helplessness. Either way the outcome is poor in a world where results are everything. As the treadmill speeds up more and more, they are inevitably going to get spun off and look rather ungainly.
If you don’t have time for anything, are constantly rushed, feel out of control, work overlong hours, feel stressed all the time, or people tell you how hard you are to pin down, then you are likely to be frenetic sufferer.
I often wish I could take the batteries out of these little bunnies and give them a moment for some reflection. I’d like them to review the evidence that: working more frenetically does not lead to better results; longer hours are counterproductive and result in poor decisions; stress is actually bad for you; being frenetic and having no time does not lead to better employee engagement-it leads to less; and being constantly busy is not being a good role model to employees. Moreover, the key to good results is strategy.
And for good strategy you need to be thinking like little Miss 7 when she is painting. That is, there are layers and you need to work on each layer, sit back and think a bit before applying the next. A carefully thought out plan for all the layers is not that useful in this rapid changing world. Rather a general idea of what the picture will look like and the capacity to change the layers as they are applied and as you see the outcome of the previous one.
Successful people, those who get results, do strategy really well.
So, happy rock painting this year folks. I’ll leave you with Einstein’s famous quip, which I think applies well to frenetic people:
Insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.
Thursday, December 12, 2013
It’s that time of the year again when the jolly fat fella dons his red suit and improbably squeezes himself down the chimney to leave his prezzies. It’s not surprising he gets overweight given the number of cans of beer and bits of cake we’ve left for him over the years. Probably explains why Santa has gone a lot more virtual in recent times. Dancer and Prancer et al get fed but much more in line with the caveman diet with carrots and water left for them. The cat used to drink the milk so we gave up on that. Needless to say, with their exercise and diet they are nice and slim. There’s a Christmas message in there somewhere I guess but one that will quite rightly be ignored.
Christmas and the end of the year is a sort of psychological ending to a chapter: the promise of a new start and a fresh look at things. It’s the opportunity for a career change and a bonus perhaps. This can be vastly accelerated by getting really sloshed at the staff Christmas party and telling the boss what you really think about her performance in 2013. Dead set guaranteed to get you a nice pay out as you look for the nearest Centrelink office. A quick grope of the new admin assistant’s bum works a treat too, as does making suggestive comments about what can be achieved on a photocopier. An imitation pole dance to the sound of Justin Beaver (pun intended) might not get you a golden handshake but it may take a rung or two out of that career ladder. Incidentally, psychological groping of the boss by gratuitous flattery as you sway from side to side with a stupid smile on your face is not likely to be taken well, either. Do not on any circumstances tell dreadful jokes. If you find yourself doing any of these things you are best advised to simply immediately faint on the spot and blame your impending diabetes and the Christmas cake.
Great thing alcohol. I’ve often thought that they should issue warnings on the TV similar to the RBT ads around this time of the year. It would be a valuable community service and save many a career. Personally, when I was in management roles, I would have one light beer and bolt. One reason was to avoid people saying things they shouldn’t and the other was to avoid doing the same thing. A nice dose of ethanol to the brain can completely block out that nice man in my frontal lobe that controls emotions and judgement. As a boss there are a trillion things you don’t say and do to people through the year and there is a real risk of a NLTMYLD moment. For those not familiar with this acronym it is, ‘Now listen to me you little dipstick’ (substitute little and dipstick for any adjective or adverb you wish-those starting with the sixth letter of the alphabet are best). Those with what is known in psychology as Dipstick (or other substitute) Build Up (DBU) can be particularly prone to outbursts of NLTMYLD.
It is also the time when we show our gratitude to others for being…..well, just for being a great colleague, employee, employer, friend, support person. There is some lovely research showing that couples who consistently demonstrate gratitude for the small things that are done for them by their partner have much more satisfying relationships than those who don’t. Rolling of the eyes and other dismissive expressions are more likely to mean a relationship is off in the direction of the Titanic.
The gratitude thing also works in workplaces for similar emotional reasons. We like to be acknowledged and we like to feel that we are a valuable member of the team. If people feel valued they are more likely to be engaged in their work and, hence, more productive and, very important in this world, innovative.
So, let’s all show our gratitude this Christmas to those we work with. Better still, make it a New Year’s resolution to show gratitude more often.
Thanks to everyone that has read my blogs through the year and those that have engaged me in vigorous conversation. It has been great and I’m already looking to a fun and productive 2014-have lots of new ideas in the pipeline.
Thursday, November 28, 2013
I’ve been working with a number of organisations and individuals undergoing change recently. Not that that is anything new given that change is really the new normal for not only workplaces but our personal lives too. In fact, I don’t refer to change as something out of the ordinary anymore but as the standard: it’s what happens.
Despite it being a constant, humans can find change very difficult to handle, particularly if they are not prepared and have a personality type that is not very open to new experiences (known as Openness to Experience in the Big 5 personality traits). One of our basic human psychological needs is the need for certainty. Some need it less than others but most of us like to be able to predict the near future at least. We also like variety but only in doses that we can manage and control: risk with a twist as I call it.
Another factor that is not talked about much is the psychological contract. We all know what a formal contract involves. It is a written agreement. At work, it is the job description and in a marriage it is probably the vows although you could debate whether they are legal or psychological. The psychological contract is unwritten and is based on perception. When we join a new workplace or new team we watch what happens and form a view about how people are treated and how they treat one another. We can also arrive with expectations about how we should be treated and these two perceptions are thrown into the mix and we end up with a psychological contract. The same can be said for relationships.
Not all psychological contracts are positive. I’ve worked in industries where there is a lot of bullying behaviour but because this is the established norm not many people complain. Instead they learn to put up with it and are more concerned with job security than they are with the negative behaviour of others.
A breach of the psychological contract can have devastating consequences that are, for many managers and colleagues/friends/partners hard to understand. Our brains, having formed impressions and expectations about how we are to be treated by others, reacts very badly when these pathways are disturbed. In effect, we have a stress response to change. The emotional parts of our brain are brought into play and we feel any one of a number of feelings such as anger, sadness, disappointment, fear or helplessness, for example.
Trust is a great example. Most of us know that we find it hard to trust someone again when they have let us down. It is mostly the emotional part of us that is the barrier to trusting again because the stress related to being let down feels so bad: we don’t want to risk again. Breaches of psychological contact extend much further than trust of course.
The most obvious and very damaging breaches of psychological contract involve bullying, favouritism, people being singled out, sudden change in employment status, unsubstantiated claims being made against people, blame and so on. I’ve been involved in many very problematic and expensive cases involving worker’s compensation and worse where people have been severely damaged by breaches of psychological contract.
Any change, such as in a relationship or in an organisation, where suddenly (or maybe even slowly) expectations are shifting from a previously established pattern can result in a breach of psychological contract.
Things are not happening as the way they have in the past and I don’t like the feelings that this is evoking. So, I’ll either ignore it (denial), get mad and throw the toys out the cot, be passive-aggressive, be helpless, white ant the change if I can, or become anxious. None of these are particularly useful and are very uncomfortable for other people.
The important thing is to remember that psychological contracts are very powerful, as the psychological research on expectations shows us. The brain does not take kindly to its established pathways being overridden. It doesn’t know what to do and reacts with stress.
So, one of the things I have found helpful, although still potentially tricky, is to have early and focused conversations with people about potential or even ongoing change. The conversation involves describing the new world and the changed expectations. Then I ask the person how they feel about it and let them talk about it before asking them how it will change what they do. I have him or her describe the change in their behaviour in detail. Then it is important to talk about whether this will be easy or hard for them and what can be done to make it easier. Follow-up is critical for those who see that this is not going to be easy and who are resistant. For those who react badly I ask them what is making them react in this way and what barriers there might be that we can overcome.
Essentially, this is a process of rewriting the contract, rewiring expectations. No easy task but better than simply expecting people to sink or swim. It also acknowledges that people’s feelings are important.
Having said this, there are other reasons why people don’t change and choose to swim against the tide. If all measures have honestly been taken to help the person deal with the change and its sequelae, then more confronting measures might need to be implemented.
We live in a world where life and love is subject to change and part of living in it is learning how to deal with this harsh reality.
Wednesday, November 6, 2013
In a previous life I refereed football (the round ball type that some anarchists call soccer) after a very undistinguished playing career. Some would say that this lack of ability extended to refereeing but this is beyond the scope of this little piece. A friend of mine, who umpired baseball, would sometimes appear at games to watch. I suspect he has a very high tolerance for boredom. After one very uneventful, tame premier division football game in Lismore Bill and I were having a beer. Having a rather quirky sense of humour he asked me why I didn't liven the game up a bit and make it more exciting for spectators and players alike.
I was a bit dumbfounded. My role, so I rather naively thought, was to adjudicate in an unbiased way and to stop a bunch of people high on testosterone from hurting each other. Well, silly me! He told me that in baseball the umpires would commonly make a controversial call when a game was stagnating, becoming a bit of a yawn. This, naturally, would get spectators and players a bit excited-naturally. So, if nothing was happening in a game, as Bill explained it, umpires would make something happen. Maybe it wasn’t all umpires and maybe it was just Bill being mischievous.
Apart from the obvious humour in this conversation, I have found it immensely useful in the work that I do/did as a psychologist, therapist and organisational consultant/change agent. Humans have an interesting habit of getting into what I call merry dances. They are merry because everyone is happy. It is a dance because the parties, and there can be anything from two to several people involved (as in line dancing, for example) who fall into a predictable pattern of movement together. A shift from the pattern, as in false step, creates havoc, chaos and embarrassment as the participants cope with confusion. Some effort has to be made in getting back into the rhythm of the dance, to recreate the sublime sense of order.
This, of course, can be very functional. Routines are helpful and we are creatures of habit. We like certainty and habits mean that we can conserve energy by doing things without much thought. If you think of stressful days where you’ve had to do things that are new or different, where routines no longer work, you’ll recall how tiring they can be.
But dances can also be dysfunctional. Conspiracies of silence are the archetype of this sort of dance. Instead of dealing with a problem, negative behaviours, poor performance or, perhaps, the inaction and frustration that occurs when we can’t find a solution, we ignore, avoid and dance. Another example is the ‘elephant in the room’, a variation on the conspiracy of silence. Everyone dances around the fact that someone is a bully, ineffective or behaving badly: an unhappy, but convenient waltz. Inaction and boredom are their own dances that serve some sort of purpose but are inherently dysfunctional.
These dances can occur in all sorts of settings. In classrooms where there are minimal expectations of performance and in return the teacher is not bothered or in training settings where incompetence is ignored for a similarly quiet life and the required fee. In workplaces in which consultants sanitise reports and research so that it doesn’t create too much angst and, therefore, continued work: experienced consultants know exactly how to do this. In coaching and counselling where there is no progress but the client is seen to be making the effort and the coach/counsellor is the support act. In all sorts of situations where the brief is some sort of change needed but the dance is substituted rather than deal with unpleasant truths or hard work.
So, when nothing is happening or the merry dance is being played out, why not make something happen? The reason why we mostly don’t do this is that it is going to be uncomfortable for both the dance breaker and the dancers. Humans are not big on being uncomfortable. Even more importantly, what will others think of me. After all I want to be liked. And, of course, as mum always told us: be nice.
Sometimes, when we need or want to create change we need to do something to interrupt the dance. Psychotherapists understand this very well and are prepared to use very innovative and seemingly outrageous, at times, methods to make change happen. Hypnotherapy works a lot like this: it catches people unawares and changes the dance steps.
As managers, educators and even family members, do something out of the ordinary. It doesn’t have to be outrageous but when you get brave enough and imaginative enough it might be. Maybe just pointing out the elephant is enough. Perhaps it is a funny story. An activity, maybe. Changing the environment. Moving the chess pieces around the board. Alter the rules. Create a little, not too much, uncertainty.
Change the routine, the habit, the dance and watch what happens. Magic.