Wednesday, November 19, 2014

The diminishing age of consequence



It may just be that I am becoming a grumpy old man but the idea of accountability seems to have disappeared from modern life. Perhaps told age has eroded my tolerance to the thinness of a battery egg shell,  like Clint Eastwood in that wonderful movie Gran Torino.

The recent incident involving Kurtly Beale has brought this into sharp focus for me and I’ve been grappling with notions of values and personal responsibility for a week or so now. Like others, I am just gobsmacked that Australian Rugby would allow Beale back into the Australian side at all, let alone so quickly, after his atrocious behavior. Sending a disgusting and denigrating text to a work colleague would result in instant dismissal in any workplace with no parole. Not only did Beale get parole, it was cynically foreshortened. So, off goes Beale for a European holiday.

It hardly needs me to point out the message that this sends, especially young people, about values, about the way we can treat other people. It appears that it’s is OK to abuse someone in a way that is likely to damage them irreparably. That he is a man abusing a woman is an even more terrible reflection of our societal values, given he has been reprieved from all responsibility. The fact he copped a fine misses the point completely. In any case, $45,000 is nothing for a man of his financial status.

One of the topics covered in psychology 101 is the shaping of human behavior, how we learn. It is a terribly complex process but one of the simplest ways we learn is by understanding consequences. If your behavior is rewarded, or you see others rewarded for their behavior, then you are more likely to repeat that behaviour If reward is removed then a behaviour will be avoided of can be extinguished. We learn that there are consequences for what we do. One of the most powerful ways we learn is through the approval or disapproval of those people who are significant to us.

In this way we find out about what’s right and what’s wrong. If it all works out well we learn what it takes to live in harmony with other people, we find that empathy for others is a valuable tool in relationships, that caring is nice. Of course there is that 2 or 3 percent of people that never get it and turn out to be psychopaths. The rest of us are shaped by the ways others respond to us and how we feel about what we are doing.

Vicarious learning is responsible for shaping a lot of our behavior. We learn by watching others and how they get along when they do something. Again, it is usually most powerful when it involves people we are close to or admire. Parents are obviously big determinants of behavior in their children. But, other relatives, work colleagues, bosses, friends and, yes, celebrities can model our behavior too.

Before the next bit let me be clear that physical or other abusive forms of punishment are very poor at shaping behavior, at least in the long term. You’ll get compliance but not a change in behavior or attitude. All we do when we do this is teach someone to be similarly violent or abusive. If you don’t want to believe me then please look at the evidence. It is overwhelming that physical punishment is not a deterrent or a game changer.

But, consequences are critical. I have seen many parents shake their heads at the selfish antics of their children, people look totally confused when their partner leaves them, be angry at their inability to get a promotion, or depressed that no-one seems to like them. Many of them failed to understand the consequences of not understanding consequences.

It’s the same in workplaces. Even in this age of apparent enlightenment we see bullying behavior such as that exhibited by Beale. In many cases the consequences are minimal, if there any at all. Bullying remains a critical issue in many organisations. But also endemic are failures of leadership, a failure to live up to common values such as honesty and integrity, and lack of engagement. Similarly, we endorse the vapid behavior of our politicians, their dishonesty, their self-interest, their disingenuousness. Our news media has become morally bankrupt, controlled as they are by self-interest. The truth is a leaf on the wind.


Our silences, our lack of outrage, is deafening and it provides the endorsement, the consequences of bad behavior.

Tuesday, November 4, 2014

Bullies: I know who You Are


You don’t like yourself, even though this is not obvious to you. You think that it’s others who don’t come up to the mark, who are inadequate. This is called projection and is a common psychological phenomenon used by humans to protect their sense of self. We ‘project’ what we don’t like about ourselves onto others, like a movie projector. Your sense of self (what we call ego strength) is very fragile and you are easily offended because your anxiety about being found out is very close to the surface.

You’re not aware of your deep-seated anger, your resentment. It drives much of what you do and has shaped your personality. You may overtly display your anger towards others although this is more common in young people. As an adult you have learned that this meets with disapproval from others and can get you in hot water. However, you may still try and run cyclists off the road or display your aggression inappropriately on the sports field. Hurting others helps release your anger and makes you feel better.

Mostly, though, you are much more subtle at putting people down with the well-placed cutting phrase, dismissive guesture, reputation eroding gossip, passive-aggressive behaviour, and manipulation. Many of you like to control others, which may be quite overt or very subtle. You may even quietly suggest that others like what you like, insist that your partner wears what you want, and for them to behave in particular ways. You force them into an image of yourself: it makes you feel better about yourself.

As well as often being a good manipulator one of your other skills is working out who are vulnerable people and singling them out. Even more astounding is your ability to work out what sorts of things will hurt each person you find to pick on. You’ve learned these skills over a long period of time, maybe from childhood.

You have very little empathy towards others. You don’t feel what others feel and therefore don’t really care if someone is sad, intimidated, hurting. You think you do but this is an act to yourself and the outside world-its what you think should be felt but you don’t really know the emotion at all. You think that people get what they deserve and that’s your rationale for bullying, intimidating and controlling others. If they can’t fight back then why should you worry? Survival of the fittest is your mantra.

One way of catching you out is to criticize you in some small way and watch your reaction. You often have more than your fair share of narcissism. Criticism strikes at the heart of how you feel about yourself. Your ego is so fragile that any criticism reminds you of how much you despise yourself.

You may eventually obtain insight into your behaviour and then change. This may be brought about as you come to understand that you behaviour is hurting yourself as much as others. You may work out that it is more rewarding to be nice to people, although it can be a hard road learning these skills. It can take years for you to heal yourself. Along the way it has probably taken a lot of brave people to stand up to you, to expose you and refuse to allow you to undermine them. People who have a stronger sense of self, an ability to like themselves, to be satisfied with who they are. You yearn to be like them but don’t consciously know this. Instead you avoid them until you can ignore them no longer.


There are not many aging bullies, which gives some support for the capacity of humans to learn.

Sunday, September 28, 2014

Motivating Others 101



One of the most frequent questions I get asked by managers is how to motivate their team or, more tricky, how to motivate disengaged team members. Despite being a common problem the question still makes me ‘um’ and ‘ah’ a lot is not a great opportunity to show off. You’d think by now that I’d have a nicely scripted answer.

The truth is that there is no simple solution. I was listening to a radio program yesterday where a psychologist in the area of coaching was offering some interesting motivational tips. They were certainly very useful and the research shows they work but they all involved the cognitive side of things. I think there is a step that needs to occur before cognitive strategies, which are largely skills, work. The important factor is emotion, which is the core driver for motivation and action, and operates in a number of ways. At the most basic level people need to have a desire to act. And for them to change takes a stronger desire.

For the economically minded this can be thought of as a cost-benefit analysis. The desire or perceived benefit to do something must outweigh the desire or perceived benefit not to do it: that is to do something else.  And remember, choosing not to do something is a behavior. When we see apparently irrational and self-sabotaging behavior by others we are prone to shake our heads. What motivates them to do this we wonder in disbelief? Well, all human behavior is purposeful, even if we are not aware of the reasons for it: even our own. There is a reason, a drive for it and the reason is usually emotionally charged.

Motivation can be obtained externally. It appears to be true that charismatic leaders are able to engage followers and get them to engage, to desire a goal or outcome and to act. History is replete with them and some with the charismatic gift can be found in organisations. But charisma is a trait and relatively rare. It is not something that is going to be picked up in a leadership course. You either have it, or you don’t.

It may surprise many that fear is a poor motivator. It might work in the short term but disengagement is the only sure outcome over a longer period. The person may seem to be motivated but output will be low along with creativity and innovation.

So, if you’re charismatic you can get up and give an emotionally charged speech, Billy Graham or Hitler style, or can just lead by the fact that people are drawn to you. But for most of us trying to motivate others is going to be a much more difficult task and take some skill. The skills required are largely interpersonal and psychological, and requires a coaching style.

The trick is to find out from the individual what it is that drives the person, gets them excited, their passion and what makes them want to get out of bed in the morning. The next is to find out what they really feel about the work they do, the team they are in, their goals (if they have any) and, most importantly, why they come to work. Now, this is no easy task and requires a lot of relationship building. It also requires asking some difficult questions about whether or not this is a good job fit, whether leadership is an issue (what am I doing?) and alternatives. For example, we tend to fit people around jobs so getting jobs to fit around people is not easy in any organization-its not how we do things except for the more gifted person who we want to keep no matter what. For those employees it is worth the effort.

These conversations attempt to talk to the emotional person-desires, needs, wants, drivers, turn-offs. If you have any empathic skills you should be able to see whether or not the person is reacting in an emotional way: positive or negative. This is the key, you need an emotional reaction. If you’re not getting any in the way of tangible excitement or disappointment, for example, then its not working or at least there won’t be change. If you are getting an emotional reaction then you are onto something and then need to pursue whatever it is that has caused the reaction.

The end result is a commitment from the person, and you, to take some sort of action. This needs to be monitored in the short term, then medium term for success and to follow-up on barriers, things that might be getting in the way. This latter issue is a key change technique. If the person is not taking action then lets find out what is happening to prevent success.

If you’re a manager that doesn’t find it easy to have these sorts of conversations, take heart because the skills can be learned.






Saturday, August 30, 2014

Is it that time already?



Apparently the title to this blog is what Billy Connolly is going to have written on his tombstone once he has shrugged off his mortal coil. Wish I’d thought of it first, but isn’t that always the way? Some other genius publishes your good idea first.

In my therapy and coaching work I have often come across people who either never asked themselves that question or are immensely surprised when they are forced to recognize it. It has to do with letting go, moving on and knowing when the time has come. When I was a nurse I saw many people fight to the bitter end even when the grim reaper was in the room already, when the moment is inevitable. No less dramatic but much less final, is seeing people who have come to the end of a relationship, a job, a friendship, being a parent, or living in a town or a house. Mostly, they have been blind to the fact that whatever has ended has ended, and have hung in there to the last, to the detriment of themselves and others around them.

Most humans aren’t particularly good at endings. We have a host of really interesting psychological defense mechanisms to help us prevent anxiety and they come into play when we get a whiff that change is on the horizon. You’ve probably noticed how poorly we take endings when we’ve had to break off a romantic relationship, get made redundant or when the kids leave home to make their own way. It’s easy to see why we avoid having to confront an ending, even when it is really obvious, or when others are sending really strong messages that it’s over. We’re not good at change and prefer to live the illusion that everything lasts forever.

Guilty your honor! I stayed around 5 years too long in my last full time job that I had before I retired. It took a friend to confront me after my long whine about my work and how depressing it had all become. Thankfully I heard what she said and eventually extracted myself and took the risk. A part of managing risk, of course, is being prepared. A part of the reluctance that people have about making change is that they in fact cannot make a choice because they have limited options. And, of course, not making a choice is a choice in itself.

So, one of the first things to learn about endings is to be prepared in case it happens. What options do I have to choose from if I am made redundant? What will I do when the kids leave home, I retire, my parents die? The task then is to increase the possible options so that one can truly have choice.

The second lesson has to do with actually being aware of the signs. That is, listening to what people are telling us, listening to self and being aware of how we are feeling and behaving. It’s possible, in fact human, to know that an ending is in sight but to ignore all the warning signs. So awareness or insight is a tricky thing to do. It’s part of self-awareness and self-management that a lot of psychologists talk about these days in relation to controlling behavior and emotions. You can train yourself to become more self-aware, although it can be a little confronting, knowing who you are.

For some, it feels easier to stay in an awful relationship, a job that is no longer rewarding, or a community that is no longer fulfilling, than to move on. I’ve met many depressed people taking medication for something that is situational rather than constitutional, something that could be changed with the will to risk. Also, I’m not so sure that giving up is the bad thing that we sometimes make it out to be.

I’m reminded of the Geek legend of Sisyphus who, for all time, has to push a boulder up a very steep mountain, let it roll down and then push it back up again. Zeus, like many gods, was not altogether a compassionate entity!

Some people choose mentors, coaches or even psychologists with whom they can discuss their career options, what might be the next move and even more emotionally charged changes in their life. Others have friends who can tell them things that they may not want to hear.

And, of course, endings usually end up with grief. This is a mixed amalgam of emotions that can include anger, sadness, anxiety, helplessness or resignation, and confusion. Sudden, unexpected endings are often, but not always the worst, in terms of the intensity of grief. It seems that grief is a lot easier to handle when we are prepared or, indeed, if we have options available. It is when there is the sense of being completely at a loss as to what to do that grief seems worst.

Is it that time yet?







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.