Tuesday, March 25, 2014

Dealing with Ambiguity: A Critical Leadership Capability

There is a revolution in the air that seems to be escaping our nations leaders and managers in politics and all manner of organisations alike. The more conservative among them are even more myopic to what is happening, given their tendency to view change as akin to the black plague. As David Price in his new book, ‘Open’, points out there has been a radical shift in the way people obtain information, learn, collaborate and organise themselves. This has all been brought about by the internet and its progeny such as social media.

People now can use their inherent capacity to learn (an ability they had in spades until they went to school) to develop their knowledge and skills in pretty well any area of endeavour. And they do. They find out how to manage their disease, how to use a lathe, growing great orchids, build some shelves in the shed, cook a fabulous vindaloo lamb, the list is endless. All done without necessarily enrolling in a course, without going to a guru. Instead they bring the gurus to them. It’s all there with a few strokes of the keyboard and a search engine. Recently, I learned how to turn a bowl on a lathe from watching YouTube clips made my experts around the globe.

Groups form at will through media such as Twitter to talk about issues of interest. My own Twitter ‘tribe’ consists of a coterie of educational practitioners from all around the world. We share information and talk about what interests us through our blogs, Slideshare, YouTube, Vimeo and other amazing communication tools. Louis Suarez (not the footballer) talks about how to run highly effective and engaged teams through the power of internal social media. There are now numerous examples of how vast crowds of volunteers to deal with disaster situations and protesters to effect political change through community action can be recruited in only a few hours if not minutes using social media.

What this demonstrates to me is that people are intrinsically motivated given the right conditions and that they can self-organise. The internet has managed to create the conditions that enable people to achieve their best.

We have known this for a long time but it is largely ignored for a number of reasons that I won’t go into here. People function best at work or any endeavour for that matter when they have autonomy, clear goals, the freedom to be creative, the capacity to obtain requisite skills and capability, information, participation in decision-making and strategy, variety, meaningfulness or purpose, support and respect, and a desirable future. People can self-organise in groups and effectively project manage them. All of these factors contribute to engagement, which is know to increase productivity, effectiveness, innovation and quality.

Our current management systems in many organisations do not cater well for the sort of ambiguity that is needed for these factors to be realised. Rather, they are controlling, rigid, and designed to repress rather than unleash potential. The research has shown that employees in these sorts of organisations are disengaged and productivity and effectiveness suffers dramatically.

It takes leaders/managers with specific abilities to be able to develop and function with an organisational culture that is ambiguous. They need to be low on the need for control, high on openness to experience, have a mature tolerance to mistakes, not be overly perfectionistic, have high emotional stability, be able to learn, be collaborative and have excellent interpersonal skills, among other things.

If I were designing a job application for a new manager or leader (or maybe any employee for that matter) it would have, ‘The capacity to manage ambiguity’, as the number one required attribute.

Tuesday, March 11, 2014

No, no, no, no………oooooh, yes: Self-control in Action

You may well have had the following conversation, or similar since it is only a metaphor, in your head at some stage in your life, maybe even daily.

Hmmm, yummy chocolate! No I’ll be good! Just ignore it. No! Find something else to look at. Take the damn things away would you. Gee, that chocolate looks good. I haven’t had any for at least two days. I’ve worked hard. One bit won’t matter. Mmmmmmmmmm! Lovely.

It may not have been chocolate. Maybe it was exercising. You hadn’t got out of bed early enough that morning and told yourself that you would catch up on it that evening. As the day wears on the resolve starts to flicker and then gets dimmer towards knocking off time or on the bus home. Nah, I’ll do it tomorrow.
It could be trying to contain frustration, not scream at the traffic, being nice to someone who is hard to be nice to, not arguing with your teenager, or making those awkward phone calls rather than avoiding them. And of course it could be managing any one of several addictions.

Self-control is a very topical issue from the glossy pages of gossip magazines discussing how to change habits to the more austere thoughts of gurus talking about the attributes of successful leaders. With respect to the latter, self-control has indeed been suggested as an essential element of being a good leader. If you buy into the claims of emotional intelligence, which I personally don’t, self-control is one of the key factors found within this rather paper thin theory. Nonetheless, there is a lot of evidence to show that self-control is a good life skill to have for a whole lot of reasons that are relatively obvious.

There is some recent, neat research, however, suggesting that being able to master self-control may be more complicated than it sounds. It seems that there are two interesting factors that may impede that ability to resist that addiction or that habitual response.

The first of these is what can best be called resistance fatigue. It seems that if we have had to be strong and resist a number of times early in the day then our ability to resist perhaps another temptation later on might falter. So, saying no to too many things might mean you are more likely to fail on at least one of them and then be disappointed. A part of us might think that because we have been so good, and resisted for so long that we deserve a treat, a reward for good behaviour. Then afterwards we beat ourselves up with guilt. After all that was what guilt was invented for. This effect sits well with a fairly well accepted idea that we should try to focus on one change at a time rather than lots. Psychologists also break these changes down into steps, to make it even easier.

The other is that it is often harder to resist temptation later in the day. Presumably that is due to tiredness. Self-control takes a lot of effort and energy. We have to be self-aware all the time, alert to danger as it were, then make the effort to actually resist, to self-regulate. This takes some serious self-talk and is stressful given we are often fighting against a powerful impulse.

So, we need to be alert at the times of the day when we are least likely to want to be alert given we are tired. It’s a bit like sports teams or athletes that manage to lose games in the last few minutes because they relax. Good coaching tries to avoid this natural response to tiredness and stress. And we need to only change a few habits at a time or link them in a way that makes follow the other. Just learning to control one’s emotions is likely to have positive effects in all sorts of other ways, for example. Don’t try and give up two addictions at the same time.

If you are a leader then you need to be on guard when you are stressed or tired, or when you have lots of things happening in your head, your life. This is the time you are most vulnerable to doing lots of damage. This is the time when you need to be very careful to pay more attention to what others are saying, staying even and calm, maintaining relationships, putting others first and so on. When stressed do the mundane things, practical things that don’t involve people. Don’t schedule meetings at the end of the day if you want a good outcome.

And this is even more true in our loving relationships. So many times in my clinical work I see people knock their best friend out of the ring when they need them the most. It seems that we are prone to taking out our stress, losing our control around people who love us. Presumably we relax enough to do that because we feel it is safe. Wrong! Again, this is the time when we need to be most aware and draw our loved ones to us rather than push them away.

Thursday, February 27, 2014

Out of the Comfort Zone and Into Creativity

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

I used to be uncertain but now I’m not so sure

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

On Gossip and Manipulation in a Socially Networked World

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

Let the paint dry layer by layer

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.