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.



Monday, May 25, 2015

Do You Have Leadership Genes?



I’ve just got home, exhausted, after being responsible for a 3-day youth camp for 71 excited 14 to 16 year olds.  But it was a wonderful team of 17, mostly young (mid-twenties), team leaders that did the work and carried the camp to great success, despite some rather trying circumstances. In fact, one of the highlights of the experience was the way in which everyone adapted to suddenly changed conditions, without even a hint of panic. Although, no mobile phones, electronic devices and the like, was probably more of a challenge for our teenagers than not being able to have a shower or see in the dark. And their thumbs got a chance to have a rest for 3-days.

As you might expect the camp involved lots of team-based activities. What was wonderful to watch was how leaders popped up like jack-in-the-box and carried their team. Sometimes there was more than one of these leaders in a team and it was interesting to watch them compete or co-operate, depending on their wont. In some teams leaders didn’t emerge straight away and the adult team leaders had their work cut out for them trying to stimulate leadership. Sometimes a reluctant leader would emerge but it wasn’t spontaneous and they would need help. The climate of these two groups, those with spontaneous leaders and those without, was different, in terms of enthusiasm and output.

What was interesting, and important, about this leadership talent that I saw was that it was very raw in terms of skill. It was driven by personality characteristics rather than anything else and some were more skillful than others, presumably having learned from direct and vicarious experience.

The research on human personality is pointing towards the fact that it is based on our genes, initially, and then shaped by experience. We appear to have genes for certain traits and the extent to which they are turned on or off is determined by our environment and our experience. So, for example, a person might have a genetic predisposition for being very compassionate but it will be modified by what happens to the person: probably (but not exclusively) in the first few years of life. So, for example, if the person is raised in a violent, abusive family that trait may well not manifest itself at all. This can result in what I call intrapsychic conflict  and the source of psychological distress but that’s another blog altogether.

The research on leadership is much the same. The recent research on the human brain supports the notion that some of us have better developed areas for judgment, emotional responsiveness, relationship ability, adaptation and so on, than others

Organisations that run leadership programs take great delight in touting that about 30% of leadership ability is genetic while the other 70% is learned. Of course this makes sense: how else would they make a living?

Of course people can learn certain leadership skills. As a psychologist I would often teach people with Asperger’s syndrome (think Sheldon in Big Bang Theory) how to fake empathy, attentive listening and other relationship skills. And they would be able to use the skills, much to the delight of their families.

The point is that the 30%, or whatever it is (I’m sure this number was taken out of a Chinese fortune cookie) is critical. It’s the bit you need on which to build skills. One of the characteristics of personality is that under stress, we tend to revert to type. That is, we forget what we have learnt as our brain becomes more focused on survival.

Does it matter? Well, I think it does. One of the big mistakes organisations make is that they are more inclined to hire or promote people due to their technical skills than they are their leadership skills. In fact, the latter can get very short shrift during the hiring process, which (sadly) may only consist of an interview and some reference checks with the candidate’s best friends and mother. In most leadership roles the technical skills are less important. It is the leadership skills, that are personality based, that are the most critical-as many organisations have found or not found, to their detriment.

It’s the quality of the leadership that accounts for organizational culture, which in turn is responsible for employee engagement. Hopefully, you don’t need me to tell you about how important engagement is in the quantity and quality of widgets produced by your organization.

Select your leaders more carefully is my suggestion and on personality rather than technical skill or even reputation. Get the best fit for your organization, no matter how big or small. And do this by having the person spend  some time with the organization, getting to know them and watching how they respond. The interview is very unreliable and easy to manipulate. Trust me, I’ve successfully done it many times.






Sunday, April 26, 2015

The Psychological Reasons Why Coaching Works



After 47 years spent trying to help people change I have to conclude that it is a lot harder than it looks. It makes me grimace a little when I see claims from smiling, smartly suited consultants that this training course or that formula will make a difference. Getting people to change, particularly if they are not motivated by some powerful need, is a bit like shifting the Olgas with an ice pick. In fact, I found in my years of being a therapist that even when people are in incredible psychological pain getting them to change can be extremely difficult.

Brain research shows that when people are confronted with change the brain releases chemicals that activate the fight and flight response. It creates anxiety. The same regions in the brain that are activated when we are in physical pain are activated when we see change on the horizon. Habits, on the other hand, are much more indelible since they are energy conserving and make us feel comfortable. It is no wonder change is difficult or even impossible, even in people who are in psychological pain and have every reason to change.

One of the amusing illogical things we humans do (and there are lots of them) is to think that if we tell someone to behave and think differently then that is all that is needed. The parents of children over the age of about 11 are good examples of this belief, as are bosses, teachers and people who run training programs. Psychology 101 tells us that people are more likely to become even more resistant when we tell them to change when they don’t want to, when motivation is low. Our brains are capable of making up all sorts of reasons to reject even good stuff that we hear or see, let along things that are of marginal interest. And please don’t think that logical argument will work either. A lot of change involves emotion and it is probably the main force that will move or not move mountains.

There is pretty convincing evidence that coaching is much more effective than training in changing behavior and it is useful to know why. While a case can be made for the use of training for obtaining knowledge and skills (competencies) there is not much evidence that any significant change in behavior or deep learning occurs beyond that. Change is just too difficult as described above. Mostly, people change as a result of their experience in applying their competence in varying circumstances, where there is a motivation to deal with specific situations or where they are confronted with problems. This is how we really learn.

Like psychotherapy, and I don’t make this comparison lightly, coaching accelerates the likelihood of deep learning and change. It seems to work for three main reasons. The coaching technique or approach appears to have little effectiveness on coaching outcomes. However, there is some good support for cognitive-behavioural techniques that are evidence-based and are used in mainstream psychology. What do seem to create exchange are: the relationship between coach and client; empathic understanding by the coach; and positive expectations.  Like psychotherapy these three factors make up about 80% of the reasons coaching works and about 20% is technique or skilled application.There are several dimensions to these main factors.

The coaching enterprise, if undertaken correctly, involves identifying very specific personal needs, the elaboration of the context and scope of these needs, exploration of problems encountered, discussion about the emotional impact of the issues raised, a sharing of understanding, identification of personal resources, development of an agreed course of action, and follow-up later to refine the action plan.

This process, if done well involves: engagement through effective listening and responding skills, acknowledgement of problems and issues, sharing of experiences, story telling, shared problem solving, a shared journey, acceptance of the other, being supportive, positive reinforcement, optimism, focus, and a relationship where failure is allowed.

Brain research tells us that a positive relationship causes the release of chemicals in the brain such as oxytocin, vasopressin and dopamine that make us feel good. Dopamine increases motivation.

Coupled with a focused program that makes change seem safe, a positive relationship overcomes those nasty chemicals that frighten us from changing and make us revert to habitual behavior. The fact that the client can try out new behaviours in a graded way means that change is much more manageable. Follow-up provides support over a prolonged period of time and difficulties can be overcome as they arise in a safe environment. One of the great strengths of coaching is that the coach can explore with the client why certain tactics or behavior is not working.

Monday, March 30, 2015

Blog: Neuroscience of leadership: evidence based practice



I’m fairly confident that were you to need surgery of some sort, and I hope you never have, you would want your surgeon was competent. In fact, you would be pretty confident that the shingle above the door and the very fact that she could get you onto the operating table before slicing and dicing, attested to her abilities. You would be expecting that the techniques she used would be up to date and based on the latest research: good research at that.  This would not be a time for experimenting with some fad, you would think.

Despite the importance of management/leadership to the well-being of millions of people and to organizational survival its practices have been defined by fads, fancies, anecdotes  and half-tested theories. But now, management/leadership practice can now move into the world of evidence-based practice. In fact, you can see the change in the titles in airport bookshops, the weathervane of what’s fashionable in management/leadership circles. I’ve often quipped that management is akin to prostitution in that they are two of the very few ‘professions’ that you can enter with little or no training other than on the job experience, and for which you don’t need any registration or ongoing education.

Research methods in how the brain is studied have become increasingly sophisticated in recent years to the point where the brain can be studies while people are performing behaviours. Researchers are now able to see which parts of the brain are firing in different circumstances, even when we are making decisions or reacting towards others.

Some canny researchers have started to make the links between what happens in the brain and what works for effective management/leadership practice. This exciting new field has been called the ‘neuroscience of leadership’. It is a significant leap forward in being able to apply science to a field of endeavor plagued by the difficulties of really understanding what works and doesn’t work outside of personal experiences.

Interestingly, a lot of the neuroscience seems to support many of the principles of transformational leadership, which is concerned with building human capacity and engagement in an organization. For example, the research shows that the carrot and stick approach that is a feature of transactional leadership is a poor motivator over even the medium term. People, assuming basic working conditions are reasonable, are more intrinsically rather than extrinsically motivated. Being part of a team, having meaningful work, being able to apply one’s talents and imagination, and relationships are much more motivational than concrete rewards and punishments. And they increase effectiveness in a number of important areas described below.

Another great example from the brain research is the role of relationships in motivation, creativity, problem-solving and decision-making. It seems that people are much more productive in these areas if they have a positive relationship with their boss. This is based on research that shows that people experience, unconsciously of course, a rush of chemicals in the body that create a feeling of well-being when they have a positive interaction with another person. That is the other was engaged with them, listened, responded positively, was pleasant, and displayed empathy. Yes, all those ‘soft’ skills that are so easy to dismiss, work in motivating your team and enabling them to do their job better at the same time. Sounds like a win-win to me.

Two more examples before I close are people’s reactions to change and the folly of multi-tasking. The brain research shows that when confronted with change, any change, people release chemicals in their body that are the same as those that are released during a flight and fight situation. As a result they feel bad, but are not quite sure why, but the unconscious brain reacts by trying to establish stability. As a result the person resists the likely cause, any change in circumstances. This explains why humans are more likely to be conservative and are largely risk averse. We like the tried and true.

Finally, the mantra now in terms of high productivity and effectiveness is focus. It seems that the human brain is not that good at adapting to doing multiple tasks in a short period of time, despite what we might like to think. Rather, people are much more effective when they can focus, uninterrupted on a task rather than having to juggle many balls. This has huge implications for how we organize our day and our work. Not lease of these is the management of email and other social media. The choice seems to be: multi-task and be ineffective; or focus and be more effective in myriad ways.

What this brain research allows us to do is to base management/leadership practice on sound research, on evidence. The problem is that the research is shooting down a lot of ‘holy cows’ and beliefs that are held by managers/leaders.

What will be interesting is whether we can take notice of the evidence or continue to be comfortable with ineffective practices. Will we in fact take more notice of how we implement change, take more time to create good working relationships with our people, develop our teams, design our workplaces to be less ‘busy’ and more focused, and give people the time to be creative?

Clever managers/leaders are already doing it.



(Stewart is conducting half-day and full day workshops on how to apply neuroscience to leadership. He is also conducts webinars on the same topic for groups of up to 8)