Tuesday, March 25, 2014

Dealing with Ambiguity: A Critical Leadership Capability

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, March 11, 2014

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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