Saturday, December 8, 2012

Why Participative Democracy at Work is Not An Easy Concept

The notion of participative democracy in workplaces probably had its origins in the 1950s with the work of Kurt Levin. Since then a fairly formidable literature has developed along with techniques and methods for practitioners that come under the rubric of open systems processes. Many consultants around the globe have used these methods in either strategic planning, organisational development projects, leadership programs and training. Many tertiary education courses on management include at least a passing reference to participative democracy.

The basic tenets of participative democracy have been robustly demonstrated to improve productivity, engagement, creativity, and innovation in organisations. People work better and are happier in democratic workplaces. The idea of transformational leadership has built on democratic principles that include: participation in decision making; effective communication; jointly creating and transmitting a vision; and control over work. Others, such as Daniel Pink, for example, have shown that autonomy, purpose and mastery increase motivation and creativity. All of this is based on a well-established psychological research about what makes people motivated at work.

Despite all the evidence it is still the case that the idea of participative democracy in workplaces has not caught on. The well-documented processes and methods used for organisational change, strategizing and organisational development are rarely used. Consultants sometimes find it hard to sell the idea of very effective open systems processes to managers wanting to improve their organisation. Even when they are shown to work organisations eventually revert to type and fail to continue to use them.

One case history of a university comes to mind. The CEO of this small regional university used a lot of open systems processes to ensure that it differentiated itself from the rest. In doing so it managed to become a leader in both distance education and, more importantly, partnerships with public and private sector organisations. This was at a time when such notions were new, if not alien (as my PhD showed) to higher education institutions. The democratic, open systems approach was driven by a person who was hired for this task: someone who knew how to apply its processes.

When the CEO and his successor, who carried on the strategy at least in part, and the facilitator eventually left the institution quickly changed. It reverted to being like all the other universities in that country and, in doing so became irrelevant in many ways by being like the rest. Sadly the rest were all much bigger and able to do it better. The university was no longer differentiated in the market.

I was chatting to a colleague recently about this and he assured me that the same thing had happened, albeit on a smaller scale with a number of university programs in various institutions. That is, innovation was stifled by a drive towards a universal model and a closed systems rather than an open systems approach.

Recently I have been wondering about why, despite the evidence, despite the obvious value, that open systems and democratic leadership are valuable that the concept(s) have been largely ignored by the mainstream. Critical theorists would argue that it has to do with power and I have some sympathy with this view. As a Darwinist it makes sense that maintaining one’s power is fundamental to survival of one’s genes and to offspring. But I have often thought that there might be something else.

There may be another contributing factor and it is discussed below.

The idea of open systems and participative democracy is fundamentally liberal. It relies on a trust of people, that they are indeed self-motivating given the right circumstances, not just want to do a good job but to excel as a means to self-fulfilment. Liberalism emphasises freedom of choice and democratic principles on the assumption that people will rise to the occasion and contribute to society.

Organisations, with few notable exceptions, are largely conservative in nature: as are their managers. Conservatives have a different view of human nature. Largely it is that people cannot function effectively without direction and need control. For the conservative the decision makers have risen to the top by way of natural selection and need to rule, preferring autocracy over democracy.

Most importantly, recent research seems to suggest that the brains of conservatives and liberals are hard wired differently. Conservatives may have an innate difficulty with change and uncertainty that cause them anxiety. Thus, there is a need to maintain the status quo, to cover all bases, to be cautious and to make sure there is a tight rein on people.

The idea of open systems and democratic processes would be an anathema to the conservative. In fact, even to the liberally minded some open systems processes can seem anarchic, at least at the beginning. In most of the processes the manager is treated as just a member of the group, whose opinions are given the same status as everyone else. Handing over power to the masses is not an easy thing to do, even when the benefits are understood.

As I’ve mentioned previously, humans are more prone to acting on what they believe and on the basis of their personality characteristics no matter what the facts or evidence might be.

So, it would seem that the attempt towards healthier and more productive workplaces is going to be a bit of a struggle. I guess all we can do is keep on accumulating the evidence and keep on talking about it. Mostly I try to incorporate the principles when I get to work with organisations despite CEOs mostly wanting simple solutions that will probably not produce great outcomes.

Tuesday, November 13, 2012

Coeur de Lion: Courage

We've all seen the classic image of the ostrich with legs splayed apart, it’s bum up I the air and its head in the sand. If you get close to rabbits they will, more often than not, just sit still and hope that if they don’t move then you won’t see them. Now, as supposedly the most intelligent of primates and hence, all species on Earth, we recognise the silliness of this behaviour. We know that the strategy is ineffective and despite what the ostrich and the rabbit are doing there are potentially very negative consequences that neither have anticipated: much better to pretend that the threat will go away. I leave your imagination to construct what those consequences might be.

If you dig into your experience just a little you’ll recognise that the most intelligent of the primates also engages in this sort of behaviour in almost plague proportions. We are experts at ignoring the evidence that is before us, being oblivious to warning signs, act on emotion rather than fact, ignore the science and go with belief, and largely keep on doing what obviously does not work. We are especially brilliant at doing more of what doesn’t work in strange belief that somehow things will change. It’s a bit like how when we are talking to someone in a foreign country who doesn’t understand our language (often English) that shouting our request louder will somehow make them understand.

So, for example: we ignore the signs of a failing relationship and carry on doing the same things that are putting in jeopardy; our addictive behaviour is causing health, financial and relationship problems but we keep on engaging in the behaviour; we are being bullied and keep on going back for more; we know a decision is flawed but don’t speak up; the climate is warming but we fail to take action; and the pressure is rising to dangerous levels in the undersea oil drilling well but nothing is said because the decision to stop drilling would be unpopular. And so on.

The most important thing about the all the examples of head in the sand phenomena above, and all others that I can think of, is that the consequences of not acting end up being more severe than if we had done something earlier: no matter how uncomfortable it may have been. While there are ways in which we keep riding the dead horse even though clearly it is time to dismount (old North Indian American saying apparently), I want to focus here on organisations and leadership, or lack of it but I’m sure you can extrapolate to other areas of life.

Head in the sand phenomena fall into two categories. There are those where we know fully consciously what the problem is and what we are doing. We know that the situation is unhealthy, dangerous, or causing difficulties but we decide not to do anything about it. Mostly this occurs out of fear: that the consequences for us personally are too great. Sometimes it is lack of interest or engagement so that the person just doesn’t care: ‘it’s not my problem’.

My guess is that you’ve seen this happen in your place of work or may have responded this way yourself. Both fear and lack of engagement are common phenomena in organisations and can be avoided by good leadership. There is absolutely no reason why cultures of fear and disengagement need to exist. Sadly their consequences are far reaching. One of the problems with being a CEO, a government minister, or potentate is that they often don’t know what’s really happening in their organisation. Underlings, advisors and others are know to shield the boss from bad news, to not ask the difficult question, to not tell it the way it is, because of the fear of consequences. And it is the boss’ behaviour that is at the heart of this problem. The oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico can be sheeted back to a culture where productivity was valued above safety and where bad news was not received well.

Humans mostly don’t like conflict. Consequently, we avoid those difficult conversations, taking on the bully, telling the manager what she doesn’t want to know, and ignoring the evidence to ensure a peaceful life. We also avoid speaking up because we don’t want to be unpopular. Being part of the tribe is important to survival and being ostracised is a frightening prospect: we like to be liked. I think we need to train children at an early age to manage both these issues better and also to be more open to receiving news that we may not want to hear.

I’ve worked, as a consultant, with quite a number of organisations where people are unhappy, there is a high turnover of staff, things are not going well, there is low engagement of staff and productivity is poor. I get asked to come in and solve the problem. Sometimes this happens because a new manager has arrived and recognises the problem and wants help to fix it-which is the best kind of assignment. On other occasions it becomes clear that the problem is actually the boss and the culture that has developed due to poor leadership. This is the more tricky and sometimes impossible assignment because how do you tell a boss that they are stuffing things up without the obvious repercussions. The conspiracy of silence rules in organisations in the same way it can rule in a family with an abusive parent.

The other category of head in the sand phenomena is what is known as denial. Here we unconsciously put the problem aside because it is just too scary to think about or just too hard to manage. It makes good sense to do this but is every bit as problematic as the conscious variety of burying one’s head in the sand: it’s just a bit harder to confront at times.

The way to avoid the head in the sand culture is entirely in the hands of the leaders of the organisation through the well-known application of transformational leadership. That is, creating a culture where people have the coeur de lion (the heart of the lion), the courage to speak up, to say the difficult things. This means developing trusting relationships, fully involving people in decision-making, high participation, enabling autonomy, creating a sense of real purpose, ensuring intrinsic rewards, and developing openness. These are the conditions that create a healthy workplace, a healthy tribe as compared to the neurotic organisation in which fear, distrust, negativity and lack of engagement rule: where avoidance is the result.

We need to have the courage to say it the way it is and the courage to listen to what we don’t want to hear. These are not easy things to do but courageous leadership can enable them.

Thursday, September 27, 2012

Being Depleted

Imagine you are in a US gaol and seeking parole. What would be your plea to your lawyer? What would you want him or her to present to the parole board that would get you out of your prison garb and into some comfy jeans and clean shirt?

Well, the answer to this is not a matter of what but a matter of when. A really neat study showed that you are more likely to get your parole request approved if the hearing is held first thing in the morning or immediately after lunch. Outside of those times you may be out of luck.

This and some other intriguing research suggests that we feel more positively inclined towards the world when we are less stressed, less tired or as Dan Ariely puts it, less depleted. Later in the morning and in the afternoon the research suggests that the learned judges are tired and probably low on sugar: depleted. Depletion also seems to be associated with worse decision-making and generally diminished cognitive performance, general grumpiness and a less than positive affect.

Recent neurophysiological research has confirmed the long held belief by philosophers and other students of human behaviour that emotions play an enormous role in decision-making and other cognitive activities. We are not as rational as we thought, in fact that we are barely rational at all, but are more the victims of our emotional needs, and predilections than we like to think: gut feelings trump facts. This is all due to a small part of the brain called the amygdala that is the seat of our emotions. It is not only close to the part of our cortex responsible for higher cognitive functions, such as judgement and decision-making, but it has a lot of connecting nerve cells with this area too. At a quite unconscious level it influences the information to which we pay attention, how we appraise the information, and what we decide to do in response.

When we are depleted we are even more influenced by raw emotion, as our overloaded or tired nervous system becomes even less able to attend to the facts, the details, the rational. Our biases and preferences and previous emotional experiences, are more likely to hold sway against the facts as our amygdala runs unchecked. The opinion of the person we dislike and those that we admire or respect will hold even less or even more weight depending on to whom we are listening. Politicians know this only too well, that how what one says is received is hugely influenced by how people feel about us, or our party: the truth is largely irrelevant.

Most of us probably at least intuitively knew about how depletion, fatigue and stress affect what we decide and how we act. But I’m not convinced that many of use actually take it into account and self-regulate. Self-regulation is the capacity to be aware of our current state and to take it into account before acting. It has been a key feature of a number of psychological treatments in Cognitive-Behavioural Therapy for many years. Self-regulation is also found in the organisational psychology literature about the reflective practitioner (see Chris Argyris and Donald Schon, for example).

The key to self-regulating is having a more acute awareness of self-a tricky thing at the best of times but we can get better at it even though understanding ourselves is so difficult. When we know we are depleted then perhaps we postpone important decisions, don’t have that challenging conversation at that time, become more participative and ask for other opinions, and do mundane rather than important tasks. In other words, save the important things for early in the morning or early in the afternoon so that we don’t send someone to the firing squad by mistake just because our blood glucose is low!

Thursday, August 30, 2012

An Inconvenient Belief

I have just been listening to a boffin on a science program on the ABC. The scientist was talking about how they could work out long past climate activities in Queensland by looking at salt deposits in layers of ice in the Antarctic. Apparently, an El Nino effect causes increased rain in Queensland and in turn reduces salt in the air in the Antarctic and, hence, less salt being deposited on the surface of the ice. This is yet another example of the mind numbing complexity of phenomena that has long been described in complexity theory.

One of our many human foibles is that we like simple explanations for events. Humans are really good at inventing quite sophisticated mystical reasons for phenomena if an immediate physical cause cannot be identified. Even science has been guilty for rather simplistic linear thinking. And it is in explaining social phenomena that we take this short cuts taking in our data gathering, thinking and analysis to an extreme.

We are hard wired to make quick assumptions based on limited data. And this makes sense from a biological and survival point of view. It saves on processing power and avoids the risk of overloading busy and somewhat limited iconic and short-term memory systems. We increase our chances of survival by not spending too much time focussed on one object and missing critical elements in the environment. You can see this working in a cocktail party where we will pick up a mention of our name on the other side of the room in a hubbub of noise while we are engaged in conversation with another group. Our perception systems are based on the ability to make wholes out of small amounts of data. When we look around a room we only take in a limited amount of information visually: our brain makes up the rest.

There is growing neurological evidence demonstrating that the way in which we make judgements and decisions is less rational than we like to think and is enormously complex. Decision-making is fraught precisely because of the way in which we draw on emotion and previous experience that generate preference, rather than examining the facts with any conviction. Stereotyping, racial bias, and misogyny are classic negative examples of this phenomenon. A convenient belief will trump facts any time.

Leaders are no less prone to these basic human traits. The different might be that the impact of poor judgements and decision-making might be greater than for others. Let me give a couple of examples. Our previous experience and preferences can affect our choice of leadership style that might be quite ineffective but we ignore what research might tell us about leadership effectiveness and carry on regardless. The same can be said for the way in which participative process is often ignored in organisations despite the fact that it leads to better outcomes. Leaders are great at locking onto a fad or a sharp talking consultant with a cookie-cutter solution to all problems. They eschew the evidence that demonstrates that all solutions need to be custom made to acknowledge the hopeless complexity of nearly everything.

Leaders inevitably make judgements about people. Our personal preferences can make or ruin a career, and diminish or enhance team or organisational effectiveness. We can surround ourselves with people who make us feel comfortable or we can hire people who are innovative, challenge our beliefs and judgements, and who bring diversity to decision-making.

Effective leaders recognise the hopeless complexity of the social (and physical) world and the limitations of their brain that seeks simple explanations and quick solutions based on immediate perception. What they do is to use processes to try to counter this propensity. They do research, use participative process, and seek out naysayers and people who naturally challenge. They seek to recognise the emotional reasons for their decisions and judgements.

No easy task but better leadership.

Sunday, July 8, 2012

Is that an elephant that I see?

Elephants are big people. In fact, you would not want one to sit on your sandwich.  You would think an elephant is too big to ignore. But there are zillions of elephants, everywhere you look, but we pretend they’re not there: it’s the elephant in the room phenomenon.

In families, elephants in the room range from the worst kind, such as family incest, to the more harmless (except to her) cupboard drinking of Aunt Mildred.  Everyone knows what is happening, in the case of incest it may even be the mother, but often no-one speaks up or takes action. Humans are even reluctant to say anything about relatively small matters such as offensive or antisocial behaviour, being let down by a friend or that what someone is doing might in fact be a poor choice: what I call the ‘zit on the nose’ phenomenon. We just don’t like to tell people bad things.

It takes courage to act. Largely, humans dislike conflict mainly because it creates a huge amount of anxiety, which is extremely uncomfortable and to be avoided at all costs. There is also the fall out that might involve fractured relationships, being disliked and rejection. We like to be liked or as Albert Ellis says, we are love slobs. Better to remain in the inner circle with a nasty secret that being a pariah and morally or ethically intact. After all, it is family.

Elephants love living in organisations too where they are ignored with an even greater intensity than in families. You’d think it was the other way around given the emotional factor in a family setting but it is likely that there are huge emotional investments in the organisations in which we work and play.

Again, there is a huge range when it comes to severity and impact. There are organisations in which there is institutionalised corruption and bullying, for example, that goes on unchecked. In some cases the organisations acknowledge that there is a problem, such as paedophilia in the Catholic Church and bullying in the Australian defence forces, but still nothing is done. Its as if the elephant has been let out in the garden for feeding time.

Poor behaviour is one of the more common elephants in the room. Here I am not referring to poor performance, which often gets picked up at performance review time but to what amounts to anti-social behaviour. Every organisation or organisational unit has at least one person who behaves in ways that causes reactions from mild irritation to motional catharsis.

This is an even bigger problem when the person is a manager. You might find, for example, a very senior person is a dreadful bully but he is allowed to get away with it. The result is a culture of bullying that runs right through the organisation. People are, understandably, reluctant to speak up and people who do in fact blow the whistle on high level abuse or corruption do not have a good time if it, as the research on whistle-blowers shows.

We might think that, well, if its not a big thing then let it go. So what if the boss or someone else in the team tells lies, doesn’t keep promises, doesn’t listen, fails to communicate information, gets a little irritated, ignores people, is not a team player or is just plain rude. It doesn’t matter.

Well, it does, Employee engagement is a critical factor in job satisfaction and, we know that both these effect performance. Employees can easily become disengaged by elephants in the room. They sap motivation, destroy loyalty, disintegrate faith and hope, distinguish innovation and create a culture of mistrust. Elephants in teams can completely undermine effectiveness.

When we let someone get away with poor behaviour we being a co-dependent. We are implicitly saying that all is fine, that we approve and the behaviour will continue. And we’ll complain: a co-dependent victim.

All it takes is courage.

Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Whisky Priests and Priestesses

Key Points   

1. Humans are essentially pragmatic-like most animals
2. Behaviour says more about people than what they say
3. Are our organisational values just weasel words?
4. Do we as leaders reinforce our organisational values or just reach for the whiskey bottle?

In an episode of Yes Minister, Sir Humphrey quips to the Minister, Jim Hacker, ‘Well, all government policy is wrong but frightfully well carried out’. Humphrey, as a career public servant is making the point that he would be a raving lunatic if he actually believed in government policy given that governments have such competing philosophies and interests. He agrees with Hacker that he is indeed a moral vacuum but insists he has to be in order to survive. Jim Hacker ends up compromising his values in the episode and manages his dissonance with a bottle of whisky: he too a moral vacuum.

Of course this is not entirely a true self-assessment because they are both pragmatists, which is a legitimate world-view. Their moral positions are able to shift with the wind and the tide where the end trumps the means as a matter of course. Whether moral pragmatism is good for the soul is another issue not for these pages.

Most people would probably get agitated if you suggested that they are probably pragmatic and that we do not always do what we think we believe or at least what we say we believe. Humans like to be thought well of. As the famous psychologist Albert Ellis said, we are basically love slobs. Appearing to have acceptable values helps to be liked or even admired and is essential to living in groups. It is part of the human experience to present a good picture of ourselves and it is a picture that we mostly believe in, even when evidence is brought to the contrary. But, sadly, I think homo sapiens is a pretty pragmatic species, as are most animals I suspect, even if they appear to have quite strong value positions. What we say is not necessarily what we do.

The indicator for this belief is found in watching people’s behaviour. Humans find it difficult to live with cognitive dissonance, where values and behaviours are not aligned. Our behaviour gives it all away because we act out our values. You are what you do. And sometimes what you don’t do, such as turning a blind eye or ignoring the evidence. It is rare for me to really believe what people say-I’d much rather watch what they do before making a judgement. People will tell me, for example, that they value their health but then drink excessively or not slip, slop, slap. They say they value their children above everything else but spend little time with them or behave negatively. We find people who say they value safety highly and may even be safety managers but they speed excessively in their cars, mow the lawn without shoes or shirt, and climb on the damp roof at home without a harness. This disparity between what we say we believe and what we do accounts for the general scepticism regarding attitude surveys about just about anything. It is much more important to watch people’s behaviours, if you want to know what they really believe.

It is organisations, though, that take the cake for not enacting what they espouse to be. I’m sure most of you can rattle off the weasel words that are found in many organisational strategic plans or on the back of the tea room door, nicely laminated. Integrity, honesty, valued employees, communication, respect, positive relationships, and so on-you can probably add many more to the list. But so often we find that the behaviours enacted, particularly by the so-called leaders in an organisation, bear no resemblance to the espoused values. I apologise to those organisations where this is not the case and where the values are appropriately lived. I love just spending time in organisations watching what happens, chatting to people about what they do and how things are. You have to spend time in an organisation to find out what it really believes. To this end the ethnographers are on the right track, I think, when it comes to understanding culture.

My watching has revealed all sorts of ways in which leaders and people in organisations will tolerate behaviour that is inconsistent with the espoused values. But of course! What leader is going to say that, ‘we value bullies’, ‘we do not value our people at all, they are nothing but canon fodder’, ‘don’t communicate an information of value’, ‘don’t allow people to participate in decision making’? Rather, we say the positive but then enact the negative, or at least turn a blind eye. Appropriate values, of course are important.. One of the best ways to open this issue in an organisation is to ask people to translate a value into behaviours. For example, the question might become, ‘How do you know respect when you see it?’ Tell me what people are doing in a safe workplace, is another favourite. It’s fun to ask managers/leaders this sort of question and see how it gets translated. It is this translation of values into behaviour that is essential because interpretation is no longer an issue. And, as we know, if you want to change people’s values then change their behaviours. This becomes more likely if we know what is expected of us. It also provides a focus for reflection and, hopefully reflexivity, as we seek to understand our true inner selves: as per Carl Jung.

The real proof of the pudding, of course, is the extent to which leaders in an organisation will act when their people are not behaving appropriately. Do they do something, perhaps make themselves unpopular with an individual or a group? Do they speak up? Or do they reach for the whisky bottle and bemoan their moral vacuum: their pragmatism?

Thursday, April 19, 2012

In Search of the Bricoleur

Key Points

1. Another personality difference that creates conflict.
2. Bricoleurs see the word differently to non-bricoleurs
3. Bricoleurs are often side-lined.
4. Bricoleurs need to be invited into decision making situations not excluded.

I recently discovered that I am a bricoleur and it is a blessed relief to have outed at last. What this insight has done has explained how it is that I have managed to upset so many people in organisations, and perhaps other situations, over the years. It is a personality thing and, as I’ve mentioned before, it is personality differences where most conflicts begin, if not end.

Bricolage is a French word, as you’d probably guess, and originally referred to a worker who would make the best with what they had to complete a task. Thus they were people who tinkered with things, even playfully in an effort to solve a problem and used whatever resources they might have at hand. The term then became associated with art and craft. Later the usage has been broadened to include people who use their experience, their instinct, trial and error, and again, tinkering, to solve any sort of problem.

Thus, a manager or a researcher, for example, would bring whatever models are appropriate to a problem and would not be tied to a particular way of doing or thinking. They’d try something, perhaps even an amalgam of competing techniques or ideas, and see what worked rather than using a recipe driven approach. For the bricoleur, dogma and gurus who think they know the best way to approach a problem or issue are viewed with suspicion.

It is easy to see that to some people the bricoleur is nothing but a terrorist. They don’t work by the book, fiddle with process, flaunt policies and procedures, play with ideas, tinker and dislike high levels of control. This is the stuff of a nervous breakdown for the manager who is high on order, with crockery ducks flying along the wall in precise formation. The ISTJ will probably end up on high levels of psychotropic medication if a bricoleur is a member of their team. The archetypal Humphrey Applebee would be looking at Guantanamo Bay as a solution to the situation.

The truth is, of course, that we need both types in any organisation but it is easy to see where the conflict occurs. The bricoleur and the non-bricoleur are seeing the world through quite different lenses and will find it hard to understand each other’s language. Bricoleurs, in the original definition, were seen as being well-meaning amateurs by more traditional craft-persons or tradespersons who did things the ‘correct’ way. A bricoleur would see herself or himself as bringing expertise from many disciplines and experiences that enable them to see a task or problem in a different light. They’d see the other as narrow minded, limited in imagination and simply in the way.

My guess, and I don’t have any hard data to support this, is that bricoleurs would tend not to rise to the top of the corporate tree and f they did it would be an accident of sorts. Whether or not that is a good thing is open to debate and it may not matter because nature has probably spoken on the topic by making them unacceptable as leaders/managers and excluding them already.

I think organisations need bricoleurs, particularly in their decision-making and strategic processes. And it may be the case that they tend to be side-lined and ignored, infrequently being asked into the board room or places where the important decisions are made. We need people who are prepared to see things differently, ask difficult questions, be a bit different and tinker with ideas. They need to be heard and not just seen. My experience is that they tend to be seen as a bit too different, not a team player and just a bit too out there-a well meaning amateur perhaps.

Some years ago I was doing a consulting job with a great friend, Alan Davies. We were arranging a search conference to undertake a strategic planning exercise. The CEO was objecting to Alan wanting to invite union leaders and some other rebels who did not tend to toe the organisational party line. This list included customers who had not had a good experience with the organisation. Alan insisted they attend because you need to have your ‘enemies’ (not that they were really enemies but were perceived as such) in the room and not banging on the portcullis creating a stir. Best piece of management learning I every received and so too for the many CEOs who did eventually engage with the ‘enemy’, who is anyone unlike themselves.

Tuesday, March 13, 2012

Changing Behaviour is Trickier Than it Looks

Key points

1. Leaders often underestimate the difficulty of changing behaviour.
2. People are naturally resistant to change for sound biological reasons.
3. Teachers, trainers, coaches and managers are mistaken in thinking that well presented logic will win hearts and minds.
4. Most change efforts fail miserably.
5. Leadership behaviour can make the difference by changing habits over time.
6. Changing behaviour takes careful planning and good techniques.

Recently, I have been surprised (again) that leaders don’t understand the complexity of behaviour change. As a consequence they become frustrated when people don’t do what they have told or do what is expected.

While it is true that humans have a history of adaptation to their environment, the process is relatively slow: generational rather than situational. We are hard wired to resist rapid change.

The reason for this is simple and based on biological imperatives that are several thousand years old and belong to a world where primitive drives such as hunting, gathering, procreation and survival involved high risk activities. These activities require a lot of energy and, hence, we find ways to be energy conserving. In addition, we have a finite capacity in short and working memory that limits our attention and a significant task like change is not likely to be a natural priority.

It may be unpalatable to many but the same primitive and self-interested drives still preoccupy our species: it’s just that the behaviours associated with meeting these drives are more complex compared to pre-agrarian times. Despite having modified our environment and our control over our circumstances, we have yet to throw off this tendency to preserve energy.

Energy preserving behaviour is easily seen through the phenomenon of habits. These automatic behavioural scripts mean that we do not have expend effort to rewrite behavioural scripts for similar, and even not so similar, circumstances. Humans mostly like routine. We also tend to have quite durable values, attitudes and beliefs. I am sure you can think of many ways you demonstrate this capacity daily.

Nothing wrong with doing this, we are all just practicing an ingrained drive to survive. Recognising that this is the normal human condition is important and helps explain why we are so resistant to change. Recent research shows that changing a habit takes about three months before the new habit becomes, well…..a habit!

Changing attitudes, values and beliefs (collectively known as schema) is even more tricky and beyond the scope of this blog. In short, though, the best and quickest way to change schema is to change the person’s behaviour. The easiest way to increase resistance is to challenge someone’s schema because they will automatically find arguments to support these holy cows. We often talk about winning hearts and minds. We should, in my view, think about winning hearts by changing behaviour. But more about this in another article, even though the answer is still found in effective leadership.

I have been involved in clinical psychology work for around 30 years in one way or another. Countless people I have met have been in dreadful pain with depression, anxiety, addictions and other good reasons to change their behaviour to improve their lot. Nonetheless many have resisted change and, for various and often complex reasons, decided that they would rather stay in pain rather than ‘risk’ doing things differently. As might be expected others are very motivated to try something new even though it is hard work. Pretty well everyone needed intensive help to do this.

Sometimes people do change spontaneously but often in response to a traumatic or extremely enlightening experience that accelerates learning. Mostly motivation to change is enhanced and the required skills are obtained through the resulting expenditure of effort.

So, in the face of a natural human propensity to resist change why would anyone be motivated to change when: they are relatively healthy; their habits seem to be quite functional in the absence of any personally relevant evidence to the contrary; they are not experiencing any incongruence between their attitudes and their behaviour-in other words their behaviour makes sense to them and they feel comfortable about it; and they are being sufficiently rewarded in a variety of ways to keep on doing what they do?

I think most change agents, teachers, trainers, coaches, and managers overvalue the impact of what they do and attempt largely ineffective approaches in their attempts to change other people’s behaviour. Mostly we think that logical argument, well presented reasons attached to emotional messages, policies, procedures and simply telling people will win people over. We are often surprised and then frustrated to find that what we are doing does not work.

So, changing behaviour, whether it is our own or someone else’s, needs to be planned carefully. It requires good techniques and, we need to be motivated which is often emotionally mediated. If it is another person we need to get their attention.

Leaders can get attention by: having a good relationship with the person in the first place; being prepared to have difficult conversations; providing clear description of the desired behaviour; coaching where necessary; establishing an action plan with timelines; providing support; intervening when there are difficulties; providing resources; ensuring the desired behaviour becomes part of the KPIs (or whatever performance system is used) for that person or persons); and follow-up.

Remember too that people will find change easy and others will have reasons to be resistant. Whatever the case, we need to have a clear process that creates a reason for the person to spend energy on change.

Sunday, February 26, 2012

You Are What You Are…Or are you?

Key points.

1. We often don’t understand the impact our personality has on others.
2. Personality drives much of our behaviour.
2. Personality is partly genetic but is modified by our experience.
3. What can be an attribute can also be irritating.
4. We can modify our personality, to a point.
5. A simple change technique.

My Uncle Jack was a man of few words and had a very down to earth view of life. I guess being raised in a single parent family with two other hungry brothers during the great depression determines how you see the world. Which bring us nicely to the topic of this blog, the shaping of personality.

On discovering that I had become a psychologist and being a bit bemused by it all, Uncle Jack, who was visiting us in Australia at the time, said, ‘Well, it seems to me that you are what you are and you can’t get any arer’.

Sage advice especially given the antipathy with which humans confront change and our lack of insight of self and others. It is probably true that personality traits are hard-wired, genetic and biological. However, more recent research has shown that it is not that cut and dried. It appears that personality is modified by life experience. Moreover, we can change our personality traits by consciously working on them.

Well, that’s all well and good but why would anyone want to change what appears to the owner to be a perfectly good personality? My personality traits enable me to have a unique perspective on the world that then drives what I think and how I behave in given circumstances. I can’t help it if the idiot over there doesn’t see the same world as me!

Certainly diversity makes the world go around and it would be boring if it didn’t. Families, tribes, and organisations thrive on the fact that people see the world differently. However, as someone once said, one person’s freedom fighter is another person’s terrorist. In other words, it is all a matter of perspective.

What is a great strength such as attention to detail can easily morph into nit picking and obsessiveness in the eyes of another person who, most likely, does not share these traits.

Similarly we have:

Big picture thinker becomes Vague and unfocussed
Likes facts and information becomes Autistic
Sticks to their guns becomes Autocratic
Sociable and good networker becomesTalks too much-over the top
Stoic, solid, decisive becomes Autocratic
Gets things done becomes Inflexible
Busy becomes Stressed
In touch with feelings becomes Emotional
Adventurous becomes Undisciplined
Focussed becomes Autistic
Fun loving becomes Irresponsible

An attribute that attracts us to another person can eventually become irritating. In clinical work I often used to see evidence of this phenomenon in couples. It especially seemed to have an impact when circumstances changed and there was additional stress in the household such as the arrival of children, extra work responsibilities, and a change in financial circumstances. Sometimes people’s needs shift as they mature and their perception on life changes.

Having a fun loving, carefree, adventurous spouse might be very exciting for the first couple of years of marriage. It might not work so well when children come along and routine, sharing of tasks and focus are required.

The same problem can apply in our other relationships and workplaces too. We might be attracted by the decisive nature of our entrepreneurial boss and an organisation that has a reputation for getting things done. Eventually, however, this same decisiveness can become ‘poor consultative process’ and ‘aggressiveness’.

Working with someone who is extraverted and thinks out loud, likes ideas and acts on intuition can be exciting and powerful. It becomes a challenge to someone who likes order and certainty, especially when they are under stress. That person when ‘under the gun’ becomes more controlled, serious and focussed, which then confuses the extraverted intuitive type. Failing to understand what is going on can lead to an increase in tension and sometimes the fracturing of relationships.

There might be good reason, then, to think about changing our behaviour, at least in certain circumstances. This is achieved by firstly being aware of self, which is no easy task, and then being concerned enough to change. If this is achieved a simple technique for change involves:

-catch yourself thinking about behaving in a particular way.
-saying STOP before doing it.
-talk to yourself about the change and the value of doing it.
-do the desired behaviour
-congratulate yourself afterwards
-monitor reactions and reflect on the experience

Repeat as necessary.

The interesting thing is that if we keep practicing this technique, the behaviour becomes more automatic (allow at least 3 months) and personality might change as a result. The change in our values, attitudes and beliefs happens as a result of changing behaviour: much too hard the other way around.