Wednesday, September 23, 2015

The Art of Self-Deception

I think I’ve mentioned in a previous blog that I took up painting about 12 months ago. Not glossing the dunny door or the ceiling but art type painting. The word ‘type’ is deliberate as what I do is not yet what I would call art. It has been 50 years since I last picked up a paint brush or pencil with any real purpose. The last time was when I was 14 and my art teacher suggested I study science and gave me 5% for my art exam, which was given for just turning up.

Well, last Sunday, I had an interesting and somewhat unnerving experience. My better half had given me, for my birthday, a place in an art workshop with a very well-accomplished artist. Let me say that his is also a really nice person, enthusiastic, relaxed, fun and very helpful. There were about 12 of us there to learn how to paint pandanus trees. As we started our first exercise it became clear that my colleagues were mostly quite experienced at drawing and painting and that I was not.

 At the same time, I got off to a bad start, probably because I was anxious but not aware of it and made some rather hurried decisions on the canvas. The situation worsened and I found myself fighting off feelings of panic and succumbing to a sense of misery and doom. I bumbled along until lunch and then packed up my things with the intention of escaping. However, something made me just go and sit in my car and eat my lunch, as I reflected on what was happening. I wanted to leave but the fact that the workshop was a present and that explaining myself would be be complicated forced me to resist the temptation for flight.

After a lot of muddled thinking and a rather weak sense of determination I went back and finished the workshop. I’m still working on what I produced that day and it is coming along well. I certainly learned a lot about painting technique: when I let myself.

It occurred to me that I was having a flash back, a regression, to that bad old day when I felt similarly overwhelmed and out of my depth, helpless and completely at a loss of what to do as a student. It’s interesting to remember how it feels to be totally lacking in the resources necessary to recover from a situation. In this case it was a complete lack of technique or skill that would enable me to make any sense of the concepts being presented. This was an uncommon feeling for someone who is used to being on top of his game, master of what he does.

This experience was a poignant reminder of how our experience can shape us and define what we do, quite unconsciously. It demonstrates how we can limit ourselves without knowing it and end up feeling quite helpless, devoid of any idea about how to get out of our situation.

There are many people, mostly with conservative minds, who believe that people deserve what they get. They think that people who are poor, disadvantaged, chronically unemployed or otherwise not functioning well in our society should take control of their situation, to pull up their socks. The hard right think that our place in society is pre-determined. There are those born to lead and those born to be subservient.

My experience reminded me that our past our circumstances, our situation, can shape us in important ways. It can either enable us to believe anything is possible or that nothing is possible. It is not that easy to develop an awareness of the former if we have never had the role models, the learning that gives us the confidence to achieve, to raise ourselves up from the situation we are in.

For example, is well researched that kids who are raised in houses where reading is valued and encouraged do better at schools than kids in impoverished environments. We know that education is the biggest determinant of the level of social advantage or disadvantage, on any social dimension that one wants to choose. It is impossible to make choices when the options are out of awareness.

I guess this is a call for compassion: to understand that people are not necessarily behaving as they do completely out of choice. My experience tells me that all human behaviour serves a purpose. We may not understand why someone does something that appears to be a poor choice but you can rest assured that, at the time, it made sense to them. Knowing this means that we are more in a position to help them than if we just sit back in confusion or, more commonly, anger and rationalise why we should not help.

I think compassion has become a casualty of our obsession with self.

Monday, August 10, 2015

Change or Cosmetics?

Meet Gordon Comstock, an erstwhile poet in George Orwell’s brilliant book, ‘Keep the Aspidistra Flying’. Gordon comes from a wealthy background but the family wealth has been dissipated. In an odd twist Gordon starts to believe that wealth interferes with creative talent. He has a job as a promising copywriter with the chance of success. Gordon gives this up and gets a job in a bookstore. This begins a gradual decline into poverty, eschewing friends, including his long-suffering girlfriend who he thinks only feel sorry for him. After hitting rock bottom and his girl friend getting pregnant he has to make a decision between his ideals, a rejection of wealth, and his responsibilities. Ditching his new book of poems down a drain he ends up writing advertising.

Orwell’s book is a social commentary. But, it is the psychological that is of interest here. Humans are full of contradictions, of Yin and Yang: opposites as Jung cogently pointed out. Each individual is capable of great good and great evil, love and hate, trust and betrayal, compassion and inhumanity, so many others. Most people don’t like to think this is true of themselves and only others. Each of us believes we are incapable of the negative, except for the odd minor infraction.

So, Gordon is a part of our psychological selves. He epitomizes what Jonas Salk in ‘The anatomy of reality’, says are the illusions that prevent us acting in our own best interests. These illusions are the ways in which we protect ourselves from the truth in order to prevent potentially overwhelming emotions as our sense of self, our ego, who we think we are, is threatened.

We have no evidence that Gordon is talented other than his claims. His first book, mice sits on the remainder shelf. He doesn’t believe it either, at a deeply unconscious level and his ideals serve a purpose. At a conscious level it is society, the system, his status in life, and finally, the act of living that denies him. It’s impossible to know what it is that has created his fear of success, of self-realisation. Like most of us our real motivations are a mystery.

One of the interesting problems that we see in organisations is applying simple solutions to complex problems. As Dave Snowden demonstrates with his Cynefin model, this doesn’t work, and we have many examples of all manner of disasters to show that this is true. We live in a world of rapid change and complex systems, and we can expect to be confronted with many more complex problems.

As my little anecdote about Gordon demonstrates, human behavior is similarly complex. Unfortunately many attempts at changing peoples’ behavior at work fail. One of the main controllable reasons for this is that the solutions we choose are simplistic. Performance management systems, most training programs, carrots and sticks, and telling people they need to change, frequently fall into this category. Trainers and consultants engage with employers in what I call the ‘change foxtrot’ in delivering these simple solutions.

Human behavior change is difficult at the best of times. Even in therapeutic situations, where people are in great psychological pain, it is not uncommon to find that they still cannot change, learn new habits, so ingrained are their behaviours and, like Gordon, they are so lacking in insight.

So, solutions need to be very targeted at specific behaviours, experiential with a significant emotional component, commitment-based, conversational rather than didactic, person and problem centred, longitudinal rather than one-shot, and involve organizational systems and commitment.

This latter point means making sure there is follow-up in the organization, and involvement of the line manager(s) using a system of continuous improvement. It takes around 3 months to change a habit. It isn’t going to happen overnight unless something really dramatic happens and that is not very often in my experience. What we call the ‘Halo Effect’ lasts for a few days but old habits die-hard and quickly take over.

It is not so hard to understand why the ‘change foxtrot’ is played out. It takes little effort and the boxes for responsible action can be ticked. I was once asked to run some stress management workshops for an organization that was having problems with stress related sick leave. The CEO and the Training Manager wanted 5 one-day stress workshops for their 100 or so staff. I asked to have a look around and the opportunity to talk to staff before committing and was granted the request. I told the managers that there was little chance of getting any real behavior change with one-off workshops. It was explained to them that the stress was a systems problem and that for the same cost I would be happy to work with staff as a group to create some work changes and reduce stress. Stress interventions were also included. The result: much too-hard. All the CEO wanted to do was tick the boxes for WorkCover and then it was up to staff to do the changing. Strangely enough, this was a human services organization running programs for the disabled. Go figure!

Needless to say this is one of the worst forms of Catch-22: offering amelioration when there is no chance of it occurring and then blame the victim. And not uncommonly used when things are not going well and we don’t want the finger pointed at ourselves.

So, interventions need to be sophisticated rather than simplistic with the aim of creating real change, rather than the cosmetic: a hallmark of a complex adaptive system, compared to maladaptive.

Thursday, July 23, 2015

Choppergate and Power

Choppergate, featuring our arguably most partisan Speaker of the House of Reps in history, Bronwyn Bishop, has whipped up a frenzy, nay a a veritable typhoon of indignation, on social media. This, despite the fact that we have become highly desensitized in recent years to the disingenuous behavior of our politicians: their behaviour has certainly crossed the invisible integrity-lack of integrity line.

Desensitisation is a psychological technique used to treat people with anxiety and, notably, phobias. The idea is that graded exposure to the fear coupled with relaxation reduces the anxiety. It is, indeed, a very effective treatment. But we can become unwittingly desensitized to all sorts of other things too, such as the behavior of our politicians, our leaders. So, when the new LNP Government made a national sport of breaking election promises, the reaction was no more emphatic than a leaf crashing to the earth. Another example is the way the daily nonsense dished out by the media is taken for granted and we keep sucking it in without question, even though we know it is flawed. Makes you wonder what it will take for the majority, rather than excited minorities, to become sensitized again and say that ‘enough is enough’

Anyhow, that’s not the point I want to make in this little blog. It’s more about what it is about humans that has shown Lord Acton’s statement that, ‘Power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely’, to be something of a truism. Dan Ariely, a psychologist (see TED Talks) has done some really interesting work on dishonesty. It seems that most of us will be dishonest to a point. We’ll fudge a bit here and there, keep that extra little bit of change, tell the odd lie, exaggerate. Most of us break the law daily by speeding and then guiltily slow down when we see a police car or a speed gun.

But, for most of us, there is a line that we won’t cross. We’ll fudge so far but not too far. There is a part of our brain that kicks in and gives us a quick slap around the head when we are confronted with that line and seem about to move to the dark side. Psychopaths are an exception, however. It seems true too that when people move into positions of power, even minimal power, they will exploit their situation-adopting what is known as a sense of entitlement. And, yes, its most of us, not just psychopaths that do this. Ariely’s research uses good cross sections of normal people, not those with personality disorders. So, her’s talking about you and me.

Being an unreconstructed Darwinist, I have an easy explanation for all this. Its all about obtaining an advantage in terms of finding a mate and being able to ensure our offspring are ours and will survive. Dear Hortense, it is written in the genes.

So, Bronwyn couldn’t help herself? Well, yes and no. Yes, she is hard wired to seek advantage and stuff her snout in the trough. But, being civilized, being a leader, being a good citizen means having the capacity to overcome this urge, to recognize where the line is. Claiming the odd car hire or meal when on an overseas trip is one thing, within normal limits according to Ariely. Spending $88,000 in a fortnight and $1000 a day limo hires while in Europe is another.

But, this sense of entitlement is not restricted to political leaders. Any kind of power, and management is a common power source, will cause this breach of integrity at all sorts of levels not just the snout in the trough. And it can only lead to cynicism and disengagement on the part of employees.

We should expect more of our leaders-all of them. And we need to make more noise about our value expectations, if we have not become too desensitized.

Saturday, June 13, 2015

Focus Pocus

A habit that we humans seem to have developed over the past 10 years or so concerns an obsession with what is erroneously called multitasking.  According to folklore women can mutitask and men can’t and if you’re not multitasking then you’re not productive. It seems that an essential life skill is being able to text, tweet or share on Google +, while romancing the love of your life across the dinner table. We seem more intent on recording an event rather than actually living it. It may well be that this is what sees the end of our species: we’ll just fail to reproduce.

The research on this phenomenon, multitasking not love making, is not as supportive of our beliefs as we might like to think. We don’t actually multitask. What we do is engage in several tasks serially, spending perhaps only nanoseconds on one before switching to the next, and then back again. This toing and froing, as you might guess, is hard work on the brain and releases chemicals responsible for the fight and flight response, and that creates what we all know as stress.  Even a mild level of stress over a prolonged period of time is bad for our health. The adrenaline released increases our heart rate and blood pressure, puts stress on many of our other organs and makes us tense, as if we were expecting something bad to happen. Sapping our energy makes our brain less able to work at an optimum level causing us to make mistakes and problem solve poorly. A substance called cortisol is released when we experience stress and this suppresses our immune system and makes us more susceptible to all manner of illnesses, including cancer. From a work and life perspective attempting to multitask is not very productive.

One of the things that has come out of brain research recently is that prolonged focus on one task is much less stressful and is more likely to lead to greater productivity and quality in all that we do. And I’m talking about not just quality at work but quality in our relationships. I’ve spoken with many people over the years and have not met many that, should they die prematurely, would miss work. Nearly everyone I meet values their relationships above all else and family comes top of the list pretty well all of the time.

This is difficult to reconcile with the way we are treating ourselves with this fast-paced, highly distractible, instantly connected, Facebook selfie-posting world in which we find ourselves. Driven as this phenomenon is by narcissism and the inability to delay gratification, I get the feeling that we are oblivious to the damage we are doing to ourselves and our species.

From a leadership perspective, the question is how we construct work to change this multitasking habit. It could have a threefold effect. It would increase the quality and productivity in the workplace in the first instance. Secondly, it would reduce stress in employees: a worthy achievement in itself. And thirdly, perhaps it would contribute to changing the more general tendency.