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.



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.