Tuesday, August 5, 2014

Testing the Limits



Like most people I try to be tolerant with the antics of others. I like to think that others do that with me because I’ve done some very silly things in my life. And, I have had a habit of my mouth working before my brain has engaged. I’ve improved with aging, like an old piece of cheese, and I am now much less inclined to react or give my opinion than when I knew everything.

But some people really test your ability to be compassionate. It seems as if they have a ‘kick me, kick me’ button designed to get a reaction, an emotional one. Its as if they really want to be disliked, at a deeply unconscious level as I’m sure most people don’t want to be disliked consciously. Some mechanism is operating that wants a negative reaction from people and mostly I suspect they don’t like themselves very much and want to keep others at bay.

I happened upon two people like this in the last week. One involved a guy in our community who insults me every time he sees me, usually at community events. He did it again on Saturday night at a fundraiser that I was compering. Instead of just ignoring him I asked him this time why he keeps having a go at me. He said that he just doesn’t like pommy @$#^%-. I can’t write what he actually said because it was obscene. It was hard not to laugh at something so childish. I’ve asked around and he is almost universally disliked and few people hire his services that know him-he’s an electrician. But no-one ever confronts him because he is aggressive and they pussy-foot around his behavior.

The second incident involved a fellow in a workshop I was running with a colleague. Same story, Everyone knows this bloke is difficult and we had been warned about him. But no-one does anything about him. He never gets confronted with his very trying behavior. And, true to form, he was difficult in the workshop until I ‘outed’ some of his antics. He then avoided me and tried upsetting others. Weird and very childish stuff.

I take the view that all human behavior is purposeful. People do things for reasons that make sense to them but mostly not evident to others. When I say ‘make sense’ this is mostly not at a conscious level but deeply unconsciously. Insight is usually completely absent: otherwise they wouldn’t do it if they knew the impact they were having. Instead they deceive themselves by using a range of psychological defence mechanisms. We all have them to trick ourselves from experiencing overwhelming anxiety. So they are useful things to have.  It’s a sad fact that psychopaths, for example, who develop insight into what they have been and who they really are either turn to drugs and drink, or kill themselves. Perhaps its better not to know.

So, when I don’t know why people do things, which is often, I play the compassion card to myself. That is I try and understand. I imagine what it must be like in their head and how horrible it must be. And then it seems natural that I should try and help. It stops me getting angry, from pushing back and doing what everyone else does. I don’t feed their need. But I do stand up to the behaviour-I call it for what it is. I point out that I won’t tolerate it and, if there is a chance in the future, I respond positively to more constructive behaviour on their part. At least I keep my heart rate and blood pressure down by not responding aggressively or with fear.

If we let people get away with bad behaviour it simply reinforces it and they keep on doing it. And they get talked about around the water cooler. At the more extreme level it’s how bullies work. But other, sadder people, push people away with their negativity. Their behaviour is infectious in workplaces or other groups too and can create an impoverished environment. We should act rather than just observe.

If you’d like to have some more insight into people who don’t like themselves, watch the film, ‘Good Will Hunting’ starring Matt Damon and Robin Williams. Great movie. I used to get some patients to watch it.





Tuesday, July 1, 2014

The Pietersen Effect: The Flawed Genius in Your Organisation



When I was in my late twenties, I worked in a school of nursing in Sydney as a nurse educator. Nursing, at the time, was still taught in an apprenticeship system and had yet to move into universities. One day, after I had been there about six months, I was summoned to the head of the school’s office. After a few pleasantries she told me, relatively gently as I recall, that the only reason that I had not been sent packing was that this was a large school with a large number of educators and that my effect could be somewhat distilled.

I was rather shocked at this piece of news and went away a bit miffed, feeling a mixture of hurt and narcissistic anger: perhaps there is no difference between the two. It did, however, cause me to rethink some of my behavior, in the school at least. When I came to a higher level of understanding I realized that my head of school may have been very generous in giving me another chance. She acknowledged that I was creative but that there was a cost to this. I am pretty sure I was obnoxious and some say that hasn’t changed much. I was certainly enthusiastic and wanted to try new things, to move forward, to change the world. But my self-preoccupation, my opinionated self, and lack of respect for others meant that I trod on a lot of toes. Hopefully, at a now more advanced age my enthusiasm hasn’t waned but my modus operandi has. Incidentally, before we move on let me make it clear I am not making a claim to being a flawed genius: flawed yes, genius no.

For those who don’t know him Kevin Pietersen is an English cricketer who played for his country until this year. When he was sacked from the team he was their best batsman by a country mile, was responsible for beating India in India almost single handedly and played a huge role in winning and retaining the Ashes against Australia a couple of years ago. The reasons for his sacking have not been spelled out in detail but it obviously had a lot to do with his attitude, his very difficult personality and that he did not toe the line like the rest of the team. He almost certainly was in conflict with the captain and team management.

There are many other examples of the flawed genius in sport-Zidane, Schumacher, Best, Gascoisgne, Piggott, Higgins, Woods: the list is long. There are lots of non-sporting ones too: Van Goh, Churchill,  McArthur, Elgar. In fact there are lots of highly talented people who are a problem to those around them. There may be one in your organization.

One of the issues for leaders in organisations is how to manage these talented people who can give so much but who can cause so much trouble. According to Dan Gilbert (TED talks psychologist) and the work of 18th century polymath Daniel Bernoulli it may well end up being a decision based on value. That is, what is the value of potential future benefit given the potential risk. The point of Gilbert’s talk is that humans are notoriously bad at assessing probability and our decisions are affected by all sorts of psychological variables.

My experience is that talented people are often lost to organisations because their leaders give up on them a little too easily, they are dismissed as fools, ignored, sidelined or even sent packing. People who are different are easy to ignore especially of they are telling you things that you don’t want to hear, belling the cat perhaps, innovative, creative and seeing the world differently.

Presumably, if the person is a raging psychopath, highly narcissistic or in possession of another severe personality disorder that you have managed to recognize (if you are lucky) then the decision is relatively easy. If the risk is too high, the damage too massive, and future potential for more disaster is high it is a bit of a no-brainer. That is, as long as we don’t make this decision too precipitously.

But what is the best course of action when the person is a bit difficult, doesn’t always toe the line, behaves differently to the rest of the group, doesn’t follow group norms all the time? Maybe there is a bit of a personality clash with you, the leader, who likes a more orderly world.

In my case, the boss was able to have a relatively blunt conversation with me in which she praised my attributes but let me know I had breached boundaries. For some reason the advice took root. Change, though, is not always that easy. Our cognitive schema or mental models get in the way of modifying well-worn habits, ways of viewing the world and our thinking. It might take: a bit of persistence; a think skin; perhaps some outside help; good use of the performance management system but not in a draconian way; and perhaps a rearranging of circumstances or environment. Certainly, careful thought needs to be given to a plan of action.


And, for you flawed geniuses out there, when you are given the message that you need to modify your behavior, perhaps you should listen and rethink, not what you are doing but how you are going about it. Feedback is the best medicine.

Tuesday, June 17, 2014

The Elephant in the Board Room



I can’t think of single textbook on leadership that says it. MBA programs certainly don’t: it would be against their interests. And it would be the kiss of death for consultants to provide advice to the effect. An article in Forbes said so in 2013 but it wasn’t quite what needed to be said. It’s an elephant that sits there, in the room at performance review time, at the interview and when promotions are dished out. So I will, say it, at the risk of becoming really unpopular.

There are people, probably quite a few of them, who should not be allowed to be in leadership/management positions.

Personality traits and cognitive schemas are two aspects of the human condition that underpin a good chunk of our behaviour, if not most of it. They are both very resilient and are unlikely to change very much except in the face of a relatively powerful experience with a strong emotional component. This is especially true if the trait is strong and the cognitive schema well established. Weaker traits and schema may change with experience.

Most people are aware of personality traits and have probably completed a DISC profile or an MBTI at some stage of their working life. These are great tests and useful. However, the Big 5 personality traits are the only ones recognised by psychologists to consistently predict behaviour, based on an enormous body of research. It is not surprising, but disappointing to see some very strange personality tests used by some consultants and described in books, that would be about as useful as a horoscope. But, like a horoscope they give people something to talk about even if they not very relevant to real life.

Cognitive schemas are values, attitudes and beliefs: our dogmas and holy cows. These are learned but are powerful predictors of behaviour. There is a barrow load of research to show that people are more likely to act on their schemas than on facts if the latter contradict the former. Our schemas are at the heart of our decision-making.

It goes without saying that people who like to use bullying tactics should be out of the leadership frame. However, bullying still seems to be a popular pastime in many workplaces, particularly the public sector, education and health. But none are immune from the problem. Of course bullying is illegal in most western economies. Strangely, though, bullies still seem to survive despite it having serious consequences to employee engagement and subsequent poor performance and quality. That other flaw in personality, the psychopath, also manages to thrive in organisations largely due to guile and the inability of people to spot them until it’s too late. But these are extremes and there is a much more common problem with personality and management/leadership.

Using the Big 5, it is my view that people will have trouble being a leader/manager if they are low on Openness to Experience (willingness to try something new), very high on Conscientiousness (need to plan, organise and control-inflexible), and low on Stability (highly anxious). Similarly people will have difficulty if they are low on empathy, low on optimism, have high control needs, have trouble self-reflecting and are low on trust.

Any one of these predilections is likely to lead to problems being a leader or manager. A combination of them is likely to be lethal.

Most people in an organisation know who the capable managers/leaders are and who are the misfits. But apart from whispers in the tea-room and at the annual Christmas party many organisations (leaders of) do not act. Many organisations don't consider these characteristics when they recruit or promote. And spare me the nonsense about being able to weed out misfits at interview. It is all too easy to pull the wool over the eyes of an interview panel. Ask any psychopath!

Of course there’s not a profile of a perfect manager/leader and neither should there be. Different people make the world go round and certainly make it a more interesting place. But I wouldn’t allow a surgeon with low attention to detail operate on me, or a lawyer who annoys the hell out of judges with her abrasiveness to represent me in court. You wouldn't be keen on having an accountant who is low on Conscientiousness. Well you shouldn’t. My psychologist needs to be high on empathy.

We need to apply the same standards to management and leadership. Until we do management can hardly call itself a profession given anyone seems to be able to be lifted to the position with minimal scrutiny. Mostly people are recruited to be managers/leaders because they are good at their profession.

Sorry, but the abilities needed to fly an aircraft, build a bridge or teach a classroom of children are not the same that we need to manage/lead people.





Tuesday, May 27, 2014

The Mental Model Trap in ‘Experts’

One of the workshops I conduct has to do with learning. In fact it is about a particular theory of learning that Chris Kenyon and I developed in 2000, and that has gained some traction, particularly in Europe and the USA. If you are interested in following it up on Dr Google, it’s called heutagogy or self-determined learning. What the theory does is to challenge some education orthodoxies. It does this by virtue of some very convincing research and neuroscience evidence that sheds new light on how the human brain learns. http://heutagogycop.wordpress.com.

One of the tenets of self-determined learning is that the focus should be on the needs, motivations, interests of the learner, and contextually relevant. Thus, it is learner-centric and the focus is very much off the teacher as a guru regarding the delivery of content. This is aided and abetted by the fact that you can get most of what you want to know via the internet and social networking (phone a friend or guru if you need to) as long as you know how to filter the wheat from the chaff. And, indeed, that is a central skill that people in this day and age need to learn. 

So, in my workshops, which are based on self-determined learning principles (it is good to avoid the label of hypocrite if possible), participants are invited to access specific content themselves in groups rather than listen (or not listen) to me talk.  Then we discuss about what they have found and apply what has been learned. I won’t go into details but the idea is to make the process learner centred, enable them to learn from each other by sharing experiences, and to provide an opportunity to pursue a particular area of interest.

What I have found is that ‘expert’ groups, that is people who are experienced trainers and educators, are more likely to be non-compliant compared to the less experienced. On reflection, this is also true when I conduct leadership or organisational development programs that involves people who see themselves as already ‘expert’. Instead of opening themselves up to something new they use their existing mental models and just do what they have always done.

Peter Senge talked about the restrictive nature of mental models in his book ‘The Fifth Discipline’ and psychologists call the same phenomenon ‘Schema’. They are the result of our values, attitudes, beliefs and experiences. The result is a pretty formidable driver of behaviour that is quite difficult to change. Hence, the tendency to revert to the default position when one sees oneself as an expert.

Those who do not see themselves as expert are much more likely to open themselves up to possibilities. Vulnerability may indeed be a key to learning.

So, is it possible to engage in some personal reflection when confronted with the possibility of learning something new? Can we put our previous experience, what we know, aside for a while and explore? Afterwards we can then integrate the old and the new into something that we can understand and use. It seems to me that this is a very mature and powerful thing to be able to do for anyone who sees themselves as ‘expert’, whatever that is.

Saturday, May 17, 2014

Influence 101



I’ve just spent a wonderful week talking about learning, leadership and organisational behaviour in Brussels. It’s a tough gig but someone has to do it. A very full week and now it is time to head to the Netherlands for a couple of days of much needed R and R.

After my very last session, which involved mainly managers from a variety of departments I was asked a very challenging question. In fact I was asked many challenging questions during the week, which is no bad thing.  This one involved why I spent time at the beginning of the session showing slides of Australia, such as a beach near our house that is empty, snaps of me with a big fish, kangaroos on a golf course, snakes and crocodiles, that sort of thing. Then I had an activity that involved a lot of participation by the group, although there is a specific learning point at the end. He said that people come along to get to the point not look at pictures of Australia. After all they are busy people.

This was a good point. It also strikes at the heart of two issues. One is the power of influence, as opposed to compliance. The other is process in relation to task.

One of the major factors in influencing other people is the quality of the relationship. In a group setting, and this was my answer, it is important to invest some time in creating a relationship, a bond, between myself and the audience (that I often don’t know) and that doesn’t know me. Sharing stuff about me with which people identify, smiling, eye contact, moving around, using humour and getting people laughing, being relaxed and being open, creates a more positive atmosphere in which people feel more comfortable in opening up. In this particular case, the result was a very lively session where the process ended being taken over by the group. Wonderful! And it seems to work consistently when I take the time to do it.

The same applies to influence with smaller groups, such as meetings for example, and with individuals. Taking a few moments to chat about the weekend, the family (theirs and yours) and so on is an important investment. As is creating a positive relationship with one’s employees in general. Do it and watch the results.

When I run activities with leadership groups or teams in workplace training programs there is a constant. Groups and individuals when given a task will universally forget process and try to solve the probelm without planning, without establishing communication and so on. You know the leadership theory as well as I do. It seems there is a human predilection to want to go straight to solving problems rather than using all the so called ‘soft stuff’. And some people are very tasked focussed and get frustrated if there is not immediate application.

And so that is the second reason I spend time to create this relationship. It is a lesson in process that needs to come before task for the participants. It fosters engagement.


Finally, it is also vital to close with the ‘soft stuff’ too With reward and recognition. With warmth and gratitude. It doesn’t cost much and may prove to be a powerful investment.

Thursday, May 8, 2014

The Big Picture







I spent the best part of today wandering the expansive corridors of the Musee D’Orsay in Paris. In fact, it would probably take at least another day to absorb all that it has to offer but off to the Louvre tomorrow. Hopefully, tomorrow will be as inspirational as today which provided me with a great psychological metaphor.

The Musee D’Orsay has a great collection of impressionist artists such as Monet, Manet, Degas, Cezanne, Pissarro and, of course, Renoir. Apart from the pure genius of how these guys used a paintbrush and their paints, there were a few other takeaways about human behaviour as I peered closely at each brush stroke on the canvas and then slowly backed away to look from a distance.

The first thing to notice, particularly with the work of Monet, who was a master of this style, is that the devil is not in the detail. There is no detail at all when you look closely. The picture is a bit of a blur and, in some cases, you no idea what you are looking at: just daubs of paint going this way and that with apparent randomness. It is only when you retreat that the picture makes sense and your mind gasps. Another thing is that these blokes were not afraid to use colour. Again, close up the shades of purple, green, blues and reds don’t seem right. But it all changes when you step back, sometimes onto the toes of some poor soul who is behind you. There is no such thing as white in these impressionist paintings. White for them is a mixture of all sorts of colours but it looks perfect from a distance.

You’ve probably guessed at the metaphor in all this for human behaviour, leadership and for organisational life. That it is the big picture that matters not so much the detail. We can get so caught up in just getting everything just so, the ducks lined up that we miss the real purpose and the important outcome of what we are doing. This is particularly true in a climate of change, which we seem to be in constantly these days. Great painters are able to translate what they see for others in magical ways. Good leaders know how to do this too and make sure everyone is on the same canvas. Knowing where you are going, being a part of something bigger, purpose is a basic human need and motivator

As the old aphorism states, ‘The whole is more than the sum of its parts’. A friend of mine in the UK used to point out that you can have all the right ingredients for a pudding but there is tremendous variability in how the pudding turns out. No-one could make apple crumble like my grandma using exactly the same ingredients. I’ve tried.

Another interesting thing about the impressionists is that when they started showing their work the public was not at all impressed. One critic even when so far as to suggest that wallpaper had more to offer than their paintings. The work of Monet and company was such a departure from previous art, from what the people were used to, that they were unable to appreciate it. Instead it was dismissed as not being real art. Not only did they paint outside in real light so that their work was vibrant with bright colour but the subject matter was different. They portrayed Parisian daily life and were not frightened to make bold statements with their choice of subject.

And now their works are worth zillions of dollars. Who wouldn’t mind Springtime at Giverny or Wild Poppies instead of wall paper in their lounge room?

It sometimes takes huge persistence and resilience to get a great idea accepted, to get enough adopters to get to that magic tipping point: to manage the naysayers and survive the criticism. And it takes passion and the ability to see an even bigger canvas than what currently exists. It is a future canvas.

Think of the excitement of painting something that is invisible to everyone else but you. And the challenge of getting others to see it.


Now that’s leadership.