Saturday, August 30, 2014
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
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
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
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
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.