January 16, 2013
So the world didn’t end on December 21, surprise, surprise. Here we are in 2013, all systems still intact. I have heard some speak of the Mayan December 21 end-of-all-things-prediction not so much an end of the world, but more of an end of one cycle and the beginning of another. An end of things-as-they-were. Let it be so. Endings can be good and healthy.
I don’t do New Years’ resolutions per se, but I have resolved in myself to focus this year on health, from its broadest perspective. I will endeavour to place attention on the health of those around me, the health of the organisations with which I work and the health of those within them. I will place, firstly, attention on my own health, because leadership is an inside job. We must be healthy ourselves. I view health as an holistic phenomenon: physical, mental, emotional, spiritual, social and relational. This is not merely the absence of dis-ease, but a progressive and thoughtful movement towards greater freedom and happiness. This will come about, I believe, through greater consciousness: a journey, therefore, not a destination. Becoming more aware, in moments, of what is going on for me and others and when it feels unhealthy or unnatural, to seek to do something different. Striving to live this moment freshly and not relying on old default responses.
Often, I suspect, this will involve taking a Cynical approach, though not from the modern understanding of cynicism (disbelief in the sincerity or goodness of human motives and actions), but coming from the ancient Greek philosophy of striving to live a life that is in tune with what it means to be naturally human. It seems the time is right to adopt a Cynical approach to life; it emerged in ancient Greece as a way of offering the possibility of happiness and freedom from suffering in an age of uncertainty. Uncertainty. Sound familiar? While I’m in the process of simplifying my life a little, I’m not about to dispose of all my worldly goods as the original Cynics did, sleep in bathtubs and wander the streets with my dogs on a piece of string, but I take inspiration from the attitude of happiness as being linked to living a life in tune with Nature. The healthy life. Challenging false judgements of what is valuable and worthwhile, questioning customs and conventions of how things are done. I cannot do this without extending consciousness. This is why I do the work I do. This is why clients work with us: they are seeking something different, something that challenges their status quo. Same old, same old (or a pretty repackaging of the “same-old”) won’t create the deep, systemic transformation they require.
Like the Cynics, I believe the world belongs equally to everyone, that opportunity for happiness and freedom is for everyone; not just for those in “power”, those they deem as worthy or those who believe that money = power. Genuine democracy, having a voice, having agency in one’s life, actively participating in making decisions which affect us. In life, in work, all over the place. This is a challenge to current convention. In my experience, the best customer service comes from people who are being authentic and human and have the freedom to do so. In my experience, the best leadership comes from those who take an interest in their own learning and encourage others to do the same. In my experience, the best and most humane workplaces happen when everyone is accepting of everyone else in their same-ness and their difference, living and letting live. It is also my experience that none of these things happen by chance or good luck. They come about with consciousness.
Some of what I believe goes against Nature and humanity is the (largely unconscious) acceptance of and acquiescence to systems which are unhealthy. It comes through in an attitude that humans are resources, that corporations are somehow “people”, that the reason for getting up in the morning is to make more profit (even at the expense of a rainforest, a community, an ecosystem or some other inconvenient obstacle). I know some may find this irksome, but there is nothing I’ve found in any of the teachings of any of the great historical sages, seers, or prophets that advocates or emphasises owning things for oneself at the expense of others. As far as I have understood, I’m not aware of anything written by, attributed to or uttered by the Buddha, the Christ, Martin Luther King, Gandhi, Mandela, Rumi or Lao Tse that delineates capital accumulation as the road to enlightenment and a better life. I know what you’re thinking: I’m some sort of dangerous liberal, commie, socialist, atheist, pinko abortion-loving anarchist out to destroy freedom and democracy. Or I’m one of those well-intentioned, but muddle-headed, hybrid-car-driving, tree-hugging vegans who still say, “Peace and love, man.” Nothing of the sort. I do, however, go along with Hilary Wainwright and Richard Goulding who write in “Co-ops help bring economics back to the people,” that “we live in a time when the economics of profit are facing a profound crisis of legitimacy, while retaining a deathly grip on the apparatus of the state.” Something has to give. Zizek has spoken about getting close to a zero-point; what he terms “soft apocalypse”. Our ecological, social and economic systems are near breaking point and if we wish to retain all the benefits of a humane society, something different is called for. A new game.
This new game must be, if it’s for the good of everyone, co-created by everyone. It’s no good getting a room full of good-hearted people in a room, asking them individually to put forward their plan for a better world and then vote for the most popular. This is the point. This is how we got here. We have to do this together. We have to make these decisions together. Furthermore, we have to do this togetherness thing by bringing the best of ourselves to the party. Patriarchal businesses who still operate out of the “Manager-Knows-Best” mindset perpetuate the disengagement and dissatisfaction in those who work there, no matter how benevolent they may attempt to be and no matter what they try to put in place to mitigate for them. Get out of the way and let people bring their whole selves to work. Give people a bit of credit. AND…..if we are to create a real sense of “WE”, it behoves us all to invest ourselves in growing greater consciousness and our ability to be with each other. My “why”, therefore, is to push for greater self-awareness and consciousness in the world. This will come about with self-discipline, continued learning and a genuine commitment to diversity and engaging others.
Here’s another challenge to current convention: I have no faith that a system of capitalism (conscious or otherwise) will lead to an age of enlightenment. A system operates with a set of rules which maintain its equilibrium. In other words, a system will strive to perpetuate itself. I struggle to see how a system of capital accumulation that operates to ensure its continuation can be for the greater good of Nature and humanity. Fraudulent banksters, tax cheats, self-interested lobbyists and an obscene corporate bonus culture all spring out of a system whose rules say, “This is how you play the game. It’s called capital accumulation.” The ones who pay the price are the ones who haven’t learnt how to play the game well enough. Time for us to play a different game, one that allows everyone to play and demands that the play is fair and equitable. We are not here to serve the economy, it should serve us. Becoming more conscious of what we do that colludes with an inhumane system is a first step in creating something new. Furthermore, becoming conscious of what I do that colludes with my own un-health and that of others and their businesses is a first step to creating something more life-giving.
They say you can’t polish a turd, but you can certainly roll it in glitter. Nowadays we don’t just buy a product, but we buy our redemption from being naughty consumerists because they donate $1 to a starving child in Africa or promise only to use FairTrade commodities. We are no longer just consuming, but we are fulfilling a series of ethical and moral duties, right? I’m not saying this is bad in itself; I am as deeply moved as the next person by images of poverty and injustice and want it to end. I can also understand why some might think I’m being cruel because as Oscar Wilde wrote, it is much easier to have sympathy with suffering than to have sympathy with thought. So for me to take a dim view of built-in philanthropy smacks of mean-ness because I really should just appreciate the good that some of these modern businesses do, shouldn’t I? Why not help a starving child? Why not, indeed? I would much prefer a world where starvation was impossible. My point is that the system which dresses itself up as the provider of charity is the same one that necessitates the need. Oscar Wilde recognised this in his day, too. The remedy is part of the disease. My vision is one where the ills of the world (including the modern workplace) are not merely alleviated, but that they are inconceivable. It is possible. Having centuries ago passed through the age of the aristocracy, we could not now conceive of contemporary serfdom. My view, therefore: capitalism will not save the world, conscious or otherwise. Consciousness will, though. Watch and listen to Zizek.
This is the same thinking out of which spring my beliefs that meaning, mastery and autonomy are keys to generating satisfaction and engagement, that Theory Y is much more than a lovely sounding “theory”, that cooperation is far more effective and humane than competition, that learning how to reverse roles with people is good for them and us, that people are not their behaviours and that performance is a systems issue, not an HR one. We know some things that will make work work better for everyone. We need to be conscious of how we perpetuate the old ways and to be conscious of being different.
If December 21 was indeed the end of things-as-they-were, I believe that consciousness will be the foundation of the new thing. Herein lies our work. It is not good enough to rail against unfair or inhumane systems. While, as a systems thinker, I perceive the interconnectedness of us all, I am also cognisant of the fact that the human family is composed of a number of individual elements. These are each of us. We can make a difference in our lives and the lives of others by growing self-awareness and becoming more conscious of our place in the web of life, how we impact it and how it impacts on us. Who are we? What drives us? What gives us joy? How can we nurture mutually satisfying relationships with others? What are my Achilles’ heels and how can I find out? Who will help me uncover that stuff about me that I am blind to? Growing consciousness, extending self-awareness; these are not easy things, these are not necessarily painless things. They are, however, indispensable if we want a better world. We have a part to play. I have a part to play. Hence my focus on health.
Being a great leader, a great colleague, a great customer service representative, a great whatever starts with consciousness. They are all inside jobs. It is not accidental. It requires a conscious choice to develop greater self-knowing, to be honest and gutsy in our conscious self-reflection and taking conscious steps to learning and developing. If, as Zizek says, the most radical horizon of our imagination is global capitalism with a human face, we have a lot of work to do. Putting out fire with gasoline? Or, together, setting the conditions so that the fire couldn’t start in the first place?
November 12, 2012
Sometimes you read something that really strikes a chord. I recently saw this quote from Kurt Vonnegut: ”We have to continually be jumping off cliffs and developing our wings on the way down.” In other times, I would read this and it would simply seem like a poetic truism, but I’m currently experiencing a number of shifts in my personal situation which made me read that quote as if it was written just for me. These shifts are creating a fair amount of uncertainty and bringing up all the associated emotions that go with it. In times like this, it is useful for me to remember that trying to control what is going on in my world will not lead to the best outcomes and in fact, that I need to call on the kind of resources that will best keep me going in times of uncertainty. These resources, in my experience, are more related to responsiveness rather than planning, innovation rather than inertia. While some of my uncertainty is environmental, some of it is by choice: I have jumped off a cliff. It would be rather contrarian of me, therefore, to complain about some of my current uncertainty as I am its author, and for good reason, so the thing for me to remember is a lesson from one of my old teachers: “It’s sometimes not so important what you do; it’s what you do NEXT.”
If we are falling from a cliff, either because we’ve jumped or because circumstances have pushed us, what we need is the ability to be in the moment, thus summoning up all our creativity to learn how not to hit the ground. Our brains are hard-wired to cause us to respond to uncertainty in predictable ways. As Thayer et al write, there is “an evolutionary advantage associated with the assumption of threat” and that our “‘default’ response to uncertainty, novelty, and threat is the sympathoexcitatory preparation for action commonly known as the fight or flight response”. Essentially, because we have inherited a certain vigilance to our environment, when faced with uncertainty, we unconsciously prepare for the worst. While useful for survival if we are about to be attacked by a lion, it’s hardly the most progressive state to be in if we want to thrive. This goes for businesses living in uncertain times as well as individuals.
More people are joining the precariat, a new class of people, not in the traditional Marxian sense of “class”, but a section of the populace bound together by the increasing uncertainty in their lives. If, in the face of uncertainty, more people are living their lives in a state of vigilance, fear and worry, how can this not affect business? When more of what is going on in the business world is unprecedented, how can businesses pretend that we will magically go back to “business as usual” once all this financial mayhem goes away. We won’t; things are irrevocably changing. In the fog of transition, the only certainty is uncertainty.
When the business of a business is pretty predictable, as it was in the Industrial era, there is less need to focus on resilience or responsiveness. In the old days, business could undertake planning exercises and be reasonably safe in the knowledge that the functioning of the business would be able to successfully execute its plans and that the environment would not impinge too greatly on those plans. In the modern era where knowledge is “a core commodity and the rapid production of knowledge and innovation is critical to organisational survival” (Bettis and Hitt, 1995, ‘The new competitive landscape’), business needs to get to grips with the reality of uncertainty and decreasing forecastability. Businesses also need to remember that they are living systems within wider living systems. Global environmental, political, economic and financial challenges all impact on a business’s ability to succeed.
There is much out there which indicates that we are living in a VUCA world. Volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous. While, for some, this may seem like a relatively recent phenomenon, I would contend that the world has been thus for much longer, but that what we have been learning in recent years is allowing us to see what we previously may not have. Systems thinking, for example, is giving us mental constructs with which to make a little sense of a sometimes confusing world. If dealing with uncertainty requires us to embrace it, as some suggest, the question remains, “How do we do that?” It can seem a little glib to simply say, “the world is uncertain, embrace it!”
If, on the way down from that cliff, I succumb to my anxiety, it is impossible for me to be spontaneous. Anxiety and spontaneity sit at opposite ends of a spectrum. Without my spontaneity, I have no spark for my creativity and it is my human creativity which will assist me to come up with new enabling solutions.
Creativity and innovation at work are not just about coming up with new products and services. They are about how we respond to each other, our customers and the business environment. Creativity, however, is strategically linked with spontaneity. As Dr. J.L. Moreno writes in “Who Shall Survive?” (1953), an “individual may have a high degree of creativity but be entirely without spontaneity, a creator ‘without arms’….Spontaneity can enter the creatively endowed individual and evoke a response.” He goes on to say that there have been many more Michelangelos than the one who painted the Sistine Chapel, but “the thing that separates them is the spontaneity which, in the successful cases, enables the carrier to take full command of his (or her) resources, whereas the failures are at a loss with their treasures.” Furthermore, “spontaneity operates in the present, now and here; it propels the individual towards an adequate response to a new situation or a new response to an old situation.”
How do you respond to something novel?
When we encounter something unexpected, do we push ahead with our plans? Do we assist others to embrace uncertainty or do we attempt to keep things as planned so that we don’t unsettle people? For example, in developing people’s abilities to have workplace conversations about performance, we emphasise that there is no “step 1, step 2″ procedure for carrying these out. This unsettles some folks. For one thing, such conversations can be pretty emotionally charged, especially if someone is calling someone else’s under-performing at work. How will they react? What will I do if they get angry/defensive/start crying? For another thing, no conversation can be scripted unless you are an actor on stage. Even in this situation, actors develop the ability to be responsive to what others say to them and how they say it, otherwise we see a bunch of individuals reciting memorised lines, which is not how good drama unfolds on stage. Even though they know what comes next, a good actor will be alive to the present moment and deliver their lines as if they are hearing what the other has said for the first time. Responsiveness.
We can ready ourselves for a challenging conversation, partly by rehearsing what we want to say, but we also need to be ready to respond to what the other person says to us. We encourage people to think bigger about these conversations as one of many elements in their relationship. They are a process within a bigger process, not a stand-alone event. For this reason, we don’t provide tools and techniques, we offer spontaneity development. As I quoted previously, Dr. J.L. Moreno said spontaneity is the capacity to offer a novel response to an old situation or an adequate (i.e. good enough) response to a new situation. Any workplace conversation or relationship would benefit from developing this capacity. Tools, tricks and tips are not sufficient in order to navigate the complex spaces we inhabit at work. They are useful to a point, but the application of these in a mindful and purposeful manner needs to come from the individual. In order to deploy all the knowledge and skills that this individual at their ready disposal, the individual needs to be in a state of readiness; this is the spontaneity state. When we are warmed up to a spontaneity state, we bring out all we have developed and learnt and sythesise them in an appropriate and effective manner to come up with a novel response to a familiar situation or a “good enough” response to something we have never met before. We don’t struggle to remember useful tips, we don’t get anxious about what we are about to say or do, we don’t fail to bring out what we know we know. We flow in response to uncertainty, sometimes producing something that surprises even ourselves. Creativity.
Progressiveness is more than just coping
In many businesses I encounter, the tried and tested no longer seems as effective. Perhaps the conventional marketing wisdom or sales tactics no longer bring in results like they used to. They’ve tried sweeteners, good cop-bad cop, management directives, staff socials and everything else they can think of, but loyalty and engagement seem to be on the wane. As Andrew Zolli describes, we are being called on to develop capabilities that are about “rolling with the waves, instead of trying to stop them“. Accommodating them rather than building bigger storm walls. I have previously described my experience of first arriving in India and realising while looking down on a Mumbai street that it was a river and that in order to get by, I’d have to go with its flow rather than try to swim upstream.
Politicians concerning themselves with the interests of the precariat talk about building a new progressive agenda. I like that word: progressive. It fits with a model of human functioning that I apply in my work, both for individuals and for businesses. Whether we are the authors of our uncertainty or it is the product of our environment (or a little of both, as I’m currently experiencing), our response to it is key. The enabling solutions lie in finding ways to (re)gain a sense of agency in our lives. Agency, mind; not control. The model I apply comes out of the work of the work of Lynette Clayton and has been refined by Max Clayton: we operate out of Roles which are fragmenting, coping or progressive.
In every living moment, we respond to our world by taking up a Role. We learn Roles from the day we are born until the day we die, as we are constantly meeting new situations. The term “fragmenting” corresponds to “dysfunctional”, reflecting the inner experience of acting in this manner. Fragmenting Role responses are backward-looking, fear-based, stuck, regressive. Coping Role responses are those which have served us well in the past and have become almost habitual but which are more oriented to surviving rather than thriving. Progressive Role responses are those which move us forward. Each of us has a motivating force which takes us forward in our lives and the Roles we enact that take us there are progressive. In times of uncertainty, it seems sensible that we would operate out of our coping or fragmenting Roles; this is related to that hard-wiring. The ones that are most life-giving and useful to us, however, are the progressive.
Once again, we will find it easier to enact out of our progressive Role systems if we can warm up to our spontaneity. Our progressive Roles are the ones which will enable us to thrive in the face of uncertainty. Embracing uncertainty, then, is an exercise in consciousness. Zolli talks about soldiers, ER workers and first-responders training in contemplative practices to assist them to remain resilient. If our hard-wiring is constantly on the alert and tells us that the uncertain is a threat, mindfulness can help us to short circuit that hard-wiring.
What is required is consciousness.
So we don’t like uncertainty? Tough. Just because we don’t like it, doesn’t mean we don’t have to deal with it. The question becomes, “How can I manage myself in the midst of uncertainty?”
So what am I doing about my current uncertainty? Well, after a few particularly challenging days, I’m writing about it. This activity is helping me to be mindful: of myself and of my resources. These are plenty. Some are intrapersonal, some are interpersonal and some are supra-personal. I’m remembering that if I languish in anxiety, I’ll find it harder to keep going. I’m remembering the moments in my life when I have felt spontaneous. I’m remembering my mother’s recent email telling me to trust in my strengths and that I’m a very capable person. I’m remembering to take exercise and eat my greens.
To quote an old friend of mine, worry doesn’t get the cat fed.
October 10, 2012
Absolutely, undoubtedly, unequivocally, yes! Such a leader is a vanguard leader. We were recently in conversation with a CEO who wondered aloud if there is a place for someone like him; someone who, in my estimation, expresses how he feels, lets other know how they impact on him, curiously seeks feedback on his own performance (with a view to acting on it) and strives to do what needs to be done in a way that is aligned with a personal value system orientated to fairness, meaningful work and concern for the well-being of others. This man is, in my view, in the vanguard of how a CEO should be. (He’s also a real person!) I can understand why he might occasionally doubt himself because he likely looks around at other people called “CEO” and doesn’t see himself mirrored back. The times, however, they are a-changing.
Lots is written about the kind of leaders we require for the 21st century. I have no desire to replicate what is out there, however what I see in this man who “wears his heart on his sleeve” is an amalgam of responsible leadership, authentic leadership and congruent leadership and I believe it is worth setting these out. I believe the three are essential in order to surmount the challenges with which the current age presents us. The terrain the modern leader needs to navigate is volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous (VUCA). How can we best develop ourselves as leaders to navigate this well, so that we leave our workplaces, the people within them and the world in a better place than when we found it?
Responsible leadership, to my mind, is about being responsive to what is around you; thinking about the wider system. As Christopher Avery sets out, being responsible goes further than being accountable. Being accountable, as Christopher says, is backward-looking, in that we can account for our actions. Being responsible is forward-looking, in that we seek to take account of a wider system. When we read about responsible leadership or corporate responsibility, we think of triple bottom lines or sustainability: how will our actions affect others now and into the future? In other words, we are responding to an assessment of the bigger picture; what ripples will our actions (and non-actions) create. This is vital if we intend to bequeath a planet worth inhabiting for future generations. While I’m a little loathe to throw morals into the mix, I’d say that a responsible leader is one who would align themselves with a “Do no harm” kind of morality into their work. Extending this, a responsible, vanguard leader is a systems steward. A vanguard leader understands that a truly effective business will come about when the organisation (the system) is healthy. Sick cultures enact sick behaviours. The systems steward will be responsible for ensuring that there are healthy policies and procedures, a healthy flow of information, a healthy openness to innovation, healthy relationships, a healthy culture of learning, development and continuous improvement. Being responsible for the hygiene of the wider system will ensure longevity and ‘good growth’.
Being a vanguard leader is absolutely about being responsible. It is absolutely about being a systems thinker; taking action when the wider system is taken into account and stewarding their business towards health.
Authentic leadership, for me, is bringing your whole self to work. As Bill George and others say in Discovering your Authentic Leadership, you need to be who you are, not emulate someone else. Authentic leaders know who they are because they are on a lifetime journey of self-discovery. Discovering our authentic leadership requires a commitment to discovering who we are.
Being a vanguard leader is absolutely about being authentic. It is absolutely about knowing who we are, letting people know who we are and not simply being the angry, unhappy guy or gal who gets s**t done.
Congruent leadership is based on personal values, beliefs and principles. Congruent leaders also place a high value on building and maintaining good relationships with others. Congruent leaders are guided by a higher purpose. They become conscious of the value systems out of which they operate and work to align these with their words and their actions. Such folks are also open to discovering their blind spots, areas where their values, actions and words are not aligned, and to making the appropriate adjustments so that they can operate in a principled manner.
Being a vanguard leader is absolutely about being congruent. It is absolutely being aware of our values and principles, communicating those and behaving in ways which are aligned with them.
Vanguard leadership is the confluence of responsible leadership, authentic leadership and congruent leadership. This is the promised land. We are on the way, but in our wider society we are not there yet. Some leaders, like that CEO I mentioned, are well on the way, however. For folks like this, it can be a little isolating.
When we look around and find ourselves a little alone, how can we sustain ourselves?
If we are in the vanguard, we are at the forefront of a movement. As I said, the times, they are a-changing and I confidently predict that 100 years from now, this kind of leader will be ubiquitous. If, in our current era, however, we are striking out into new territory, this means we may have times when we doubt ourselves, feel isolated or wonder if we are deluding ourselves. If you are a leader who enacts responsibility, authenticity and congruence in your working life, what would be useful in order to sustain yourself if there are relatively few living and breathing models of vanguard leadership? In the world we have inherited from the Industrial Age, we are conditioned to look for gaps, rather than strengths. That conditioning starts early on at school. The workplaces we enter reinforce this deficit mentality through the performance management systems we apply to ourselves and others. Even if we don’t want to focus our energies on what is dysfunctional, we are seemingly compelled to look at what’s not working, rather than what is. If we unconsciously take this approach with ourselves, especially when we look around and find few people like us, it can dent our confidence. We can begin to assume we are less capable and less effective than we actually are. We may distrust or disbelieve positive feedback or fail to see the positive impact we have on others and the wider system. We can also devalue ourselves; finding ourselves attributing less value to the qualities inherent in a vanguard leader than to those qualities in what we might believe a “real CEO” to possess. This seems quite natural to me, given our conditioning. We need to develop a self consciousness in order to remain strong.
As Daniel Goleman writes in “The New Leaders” (2002), emphasis on our gaps often arouses the right prefrontal cortex of our brains. This gives rise to feelings of anxiety and defensiveness which typically demotivate and interrupt self-directed learning and the likelihood of change and development. The effect of this is that the very qualities that identify a vanguard leader get lost in the process.
So it is essential that if we are in the vanguard, we develop a strong self-companion Role. One of my favourite expressions comes from a friend in Scotland. If I was doing something silly, she’d joke, “Have a word with yourself.” Even though she was teasing me, she probably has no idea how useful I have found this advice over the years. From a Role Theory perspective, developing a good self-companion means just that, having an intimate relationship with ourselves; being able to have a conversation with the aspect of ourselves that says, “Keep going, you’re on the right track. Others don’t get it yet, but you are really onto something here.” Now, once again, I’m loathe to bring morals into the conversation, but I think it’s important to place a caveat on this. I’m pretty sure Hitler and Stalin had a similar Role within them. An truly effective self-companion, however, will not urge us to barbarity. Bear in mind, we are a complex system of inter-related and inter-connected Roles. The self-companion will be the one that interacts with the rest of us and spurs us on. By the “rest of us”, I mean the other roles I saw present in that CEO I mentioned at the beginning of this article: strongly orientated to thinking bigger, strongly orientated to the well-being of others, strongly orientated to leaving a legacy of health, roles I can hardly imagine Hitler or Stalin possessing in any great measure. I’m fascinated by those two despots and how they did what they did, but in all the documentaries I’ve watched, I’ve never observed anything remotely like humility, openness to feedback or care for humanity in their Role systems.
We can consciously warm ourselves up to the thinking, feeling and behaving necessary to fully integrate a strong sense of self-worth. If this Role is embryonic in us, we need to be quite conscious of growing it, much the same way we needed to be conscious of learning to drive until it became second nature. We had to actively think, “Clutch, gear, release clutch while depressing accelerator…..” Similarly, we may have to be awake to growing the habit of being a good self-companion. What self-talk or affirmation would be useful to build ourselves up? What emotional state would be most useful to warm up to? Think of a time when you were full of self-confidence; how can you transfer some of that goodness to your current situation?
“The world has the habit of making room for the man whose words and actions show that he knows where he is going.”
It is just as vital to find peers. In your head, heart and gut, you know you are doing right by yourself and others, but sometimes we also need to see ourselves mirrored by our peers. If you are at the forefront, you are, by definition, ahead of the pack. In one sense, you are peerless. Not entirely, though. There are others out there. We need to apply ourselves to finding these folk. When we do something that seems a little different or we feel that we don’t quite measure up to what a “real CEO” is, we need to find others who are similarly “weird”. Seek out others who are supportive, encouraging, caring and interested.
Referencing Goleman again, study after study has demonstrated that positive groups make positive change. Senior executives reported feeling that many people around them had an investment in them staying the same, not growing and developing. Finding a trusted peer group of other vanguard leaders, whether that is through a local Vistage group that is resonant with our desire to cultivate new leadership styles or a virtual peer group of leaders interested in being responsible, authentic and congruent, will keep us on track and reduce the isolation of being a little “weird”. A peer group is a powerful motivator.
Any thoughts on this? Comments, insights and conversation most welcome.
August 15, 2012
I’ve written relatively little over the past few months and am feeling for the lack of it. When I first set out to write this blog, my intention was to use it as an aid to digestion; that is, to assist me to synthesise the thoughts, feelings and experiences that come about in my work in the field of personal and organisational transformation. I’m honoured that my scribbles have been of value to others as well!
While I’ve been missing the thinking and reflecting that goes on as I write, I have made use of another opportunity for reflection. I have been doing some major house renovations of late and have found the meditative work of sanding endless window frames or staining the entire outside of the house, while physically exhausting, extremely fun. A good part of the fun came in having “nothing” to think about. I had hours to just reflect, with few limitations of time or demands of day-to-day busy-ness. It took as long as it took.
I realise that it was a luxury to have so much time to reflect on some of the big questions of life; I’m not independently wealthy and don’t foresee a period when I’ll have so much time away from the busy-ness of work. However, it reinforced in me the importance of building in time to unplug myself and ask the big questions:
- Who am I?
- What am I doing?
- Why am I doing it?
- What do I value?
The parallel for the business world, I suppose, is when senior leaders get away from the office so they can ‘work on the business, not in it’. Get away from the demands of email and phone (though it’s somewhat self-defeating when they spend their retreat constantly checking their smartphones), change focus from the day-to-day operational stuff and think bigger about the business. Similar questions get covered: Who are we? What business are we really in? Why are we doing what we do?
If business is to succeed in the 21st century, the same big questions need to be asked by the people themselves. It is not good enough for people to persist with the same old Theory X mindset. More and more, people are looking for more from work than just a pay cheque. While it is not so unusual these days to read about the relevance of personal growth and growing self-awareness in the context of work, it is more unusual to see a business culture that is actually orientated to providing people the means to derive meaning, mastery and autonomy from what they do every day. I would go as far as to say that increased self-awareness in the modern workplace is not an optional extra; it is fundamental to improving effectiveness, increasing satisfaction and maximising joy at work. It also behoves businesses to place value on people developing self-awareness because self-actualisation and effectiveness go hand in hand.
If this is the age of the self-awareness, why do businesses still pay for training about stuff, but shy away from investing in something where people learn about themselves, who they are, what makes them tick, what they value, which seem to me the things that would be of most benefit in unleashing true potential at work.
When someone says the word self-awareness, something in my head switches and I hear “self-awakeness”. To me, awareness of myself is being awake to myself. While total awakeness to my thoughts, feelings, values, drivers and motivations may be elusive, I am most likely to get close to it when I my line of sight is less obscured by the minutiae of daily life, requests from others, deadlines, emails, barking dogs and so on. If can take away as many of the filters that cloud my self-vision, I can get close to seeing myself as a camera might, warts and all. Why would I want to do that? Short answer: to be free, to be happy. When those executives at their away-day retreat announce at the beginning of the session that they need to keep their phones switched on because “people in the office will need to be in touch with me”, I have a Walter Mitty moment. An image of the universe flashes into my mind and I think, “It’s been here 13.9 billion years, this solar system for 4.5 billion…. and YOU are insignificant….the people in the office will get along just fine without you.” What I mean by this is: why not unplug yourself from the matrix and find out just a little bit more about who you are and why you do what you do?
When I do what I do in my work, I challenge people. I don’t give answers. This can be frustrating for someone who just wants me to use my external eye and tell them what’s going wrong. Speaking with a client recently, I joked that he is both the cause of and the solution to his frustrations at work. He smiled. I made a similar point in an earlier article about systems (the cause of and solution to a business’ problems). The point I was trying to make was that we are often the most significant authors of our frustrations and misfortunes and I was less likely to know his inner workings than he was. I could, however, act as an auxiliary who would help him probe, wherein he might find solutions.
With a little more self-awakeness, we can begin to uncover the solutions to the things that stump us, and then generate a little more freedom for ourselves. While I believe it is true that we are subject to the systems of which we are part, we cannot completely abdicate ourselves to them. A little self-awakeness can help us reduce some of the blindness we have to ourselves and the systems in which we operate. Over time, we become innured to the effects of our workplace cultures, our family systems and our social groupings. Because it’s just “how things are done”, we become infected with the same virus everyone else in the system is infected with. How refreshing it is to become unentwined from unhealthy systems; it releases us (even if just a little) to make choices about how to think, feel and act.
If we are more awake, however, we feel the pain of inhuman, unfair or violent systems more keenly. Our values and aspirations come into conflict with the day-to-day behaviours and attitudes that exemplify the system. So why bother? I, myself, sometimes say in moments of exhaustion or frustration, “I wish I could just un-know what I know about myself and be content with a job selling shoes.” Not that there is anything wrong with selling shoes; I’ve actually done it myself and learnt a lot about how to shop for my own footwear. What I intend is that developing self-awakeness is like taking the red pill in the film The Matrix. While it expands consciousness so that we are able to see more of “the real world” or our real selves, it can be challenging. Stripped of delusion, devoid of frippery and fancifulness, developing awakeness to ourselves can sometimes leave us feeling raw and vulnerable. We see both the light and the shadow. Once known, it is hard to un-know ourselves and plug back into the matrix in blissful ignorance. The pay-off, however, is worth it. Knowing our values, being familiar with our Achilles’ heels, getting in touch with our prejudices, all give us the power to do something about them. The knowing of ourselves frees our capabilities to know and serve others.
Do you take a daily blue pill, waking up each day believing what you want to believe about yourself?
…..or do you take a daily red pill, staying in wonderland and finding out just how deep the rabbit hole goes?
For anyone who deals with people in any aspect of their work, this is a key benefit. When we know how we relate to power and authority, when we know how we embrace or shy away from closer communion (read collaboration) with others, when we know where we lack confidence, we can actually DO something about it. We can actually learn how to deal with angry people or ineffective staff or dissatisfied customers. Real and significant learning of interpersonal skills is ensured when we find out about ourselves. Our intrapersonal skills are inextricably linked to our interpersonal skills. Self-awakeness is essential if we are to get by in this world. It’s vital if we are to get by and get on in our work.
One essential discipline is reflection. This article comes about as a result of an intense period away from my usual work and immersing myself in the meditation that is house renovations. Once the cacophony of daily life is quietened, we can begin to see ourselves and in the privacy of our minds, we can eventually just observe our thoughts, feelings, values and attitudes.
Another discipline is openness. Oftentimes, self-awakeness comes when someone has the courage, the caring and the wherewithal to tell us something that we do not see about ourselves. We can also develop the ability to invite feedback. This requires a certain level of openness and equanimity. The root of equanimity is “having an even spirit”. Being able to hear things about ourselves and make good use of this information requires us to develop composure. Uncovering our blindspots requires, also, a willingness to admit that we have them. If you say to me that you like getting feedback from others because it helps you improve, I will believe that when you demonstrate this, not simply tell me. So when I say in response, “….but you don’t like getting feedback,” and you reply “That’s not true,” the irony is not lost on me. If you fail in your attempt at equanimity, you fail to make good use of the feedback because you cannot see that first blindspot and you are likely to struggle when people really tell you how you impact on them. Practice and demonstrate openness to information about you by responding with something like (lose the passive-aggressive attitude…..people see it, feel it and smell it….do it genuinely or not at all)
- “Wow, what gives you that impression?”
- “Really, I had no idea, tell me what you see me do (when I get feedback).”
- “Hmmm, what is it I say or do that makes it seem I (don’t like feedback)?”
….O wad some Power the giftie gie us
To see oursels as ithers see us!
It wad frae monie a blunder free us….
If you are not familiar with traditional Scots, it goes: “…Oh, would some power the gift give us, to see ourselves as others see us! It would from many a blunder free us…” That clever Rab Burns was onto something. Feedback from others, when given and received with love and compassion, can go a long way to uncovering hidden gems.
Another useful habit is to get regular supervision. Anyone who has worked in the fields of counselling, therapy or social work will be familiar with this. A supervisor is not someone who tells you what you should do; they are a person with super vision. That is, they hold a bigger picture for you to see. Ideally, they are external to your business and they listen to you, tune in to you and point the way to things it could be useful to look at: either about yourself or the system in which you work. They are someone who is “on your side”, but doesn’t collude with your prejudices. They are a “trusted other” who challenges you, supports you and reveals you to you. A supervisor is not a coach. A supervisor will be someone who saves you from the perils of asymmetric insight. Anyone who works with people would do well to access good supervision and in these days of the social economy, who doesn’t work with people?
The thing about learning about ourselves is that we can’t get it from a book. We are the content, not a bunch of information about stuff. We get it from reflection and synthesis: making meaning of our experiences, relationships and interactions. We get it from others who care about us enough to tell us what impact we make on them. We get it from disinterested supervisors who have our growth and best interests at heart.
As always, I welcome and look forward to comments that add to and build on.
June 17, 2012
I speak with managers who describe their frustrations at dealing with people they call “stupid”. They get angry at people who are clumsy and fail to learn from mistakes, who don’t share their passion for the work, who are slow and indifferent, who try to get away with the barest minimum of effort, who exhibit little curiosity or desire to learn. I’m no apologist for willful sabotage, maliciousness or indolence at work, but there is another way of looking at these behaviours and attributes. When I similarly find myself getting impatient with people who don’t live up to my standards of work, I have to remind myself that perhaps they are not deliberately performing poorly. If we hold on to the idea that workplaces are machines and the people within them just parts of the machine, then I suppose it makes sense to label “inefficient” ones as stupid. Also, if we still hold on to the idea that we can use words like “efficient” to describe humans at work, we will continue to get angry at their individual performance. My suggestion is not to get angry at “stupid” people, but to think bigger. Think bigger by eliminating blindness to the system; see how the system will affect people’s performance at work. Think bigger, also, by viewing people you lead as humans, not resources.
People such as Maslow and Glasser posited that we are driven by some basic needs. Without getting into a critique of the details of Maslow’s or Glasser’s work, the essence is similar. We behave in ways that attempt to meet our needs for:
- survival (food, shelter, clothing)
- belonging (love, affection, relationships)
- significance (power, self-esteem, competence)
- personal development (fun, learning and fulfillment)
- freedom (autonomy, independence, self-mastery)
It beggars belief that, if a manager is willing to acknowledge that they, themselves, are driven by these needs, they would hold an entirely different view of those they purport to manage. The work of Harvard Professor Douglas McGregor has something to add here. His XY Theory describes what motivates humans at work. In “The Human Side of Enterprise”, he proposed that a manager will view workers in one of two ways: that they are inherently averse to work and that rigid systems of control are required in order to get them to do what you want them to do (Theory X) or that they are naturally ambitious and, given the right conditions, they will be self-motivated and contribute willingly to the success and effectiveness of their workplaces (Theory Y). Whether a manager ascribes to Theory X or Theory Y will influence their style of management; authoritarian and controlling or enabling and facilitative. McGregor set out Theory XY over 50 years ago, however some managers are still possessed with the idea that people are inherently lazy and are solely motivated by threats, intimidation and reward schemes. Time to update. Even in the realm of dog training, many of us long ago disposed of Barbara Woodhouse’s old ‘choke chain’ as inhumane and unnecessary. As Deming observed, you can beat a horse to make it go faster, but only for a short while. Threats and micro-managing might work on some level, but eventually the business will hit the laws of physics and diseconomies of scale will kick in. Time to dispose of the view that managing is simply about getting people to do what you want them to do.
I find Theory X and Theory Y of great relevance to the challenges of the 21st century. Continuing to see the world through Theory X leads to a tayloristic style of management, which has become increasingly redundant. It is a theory which says that humans are only as creative as they need to be to find a work-avoidance scheme. It says that a prime motivator is money or fear of loss of money. To my thinking, it breeds cultures of cynicism, selfishness and short-termism. If we now believe that slavery is an abomination, why would we continue to believe that paid-for slavery is acceptable? Furthermore, why would any leader who wants their business to succeed in the modern world want to believe the worst about people?
Even Frederick Taylor knew that workers have a vested interest in their own well-being, but if we view motivation according to Theory X, we will naturally translate some ‘well-being-maximising’ behaviours as “malingering”, “loafing” or “getting through the day”. If the system is screwy, why blame people for playing by its rules? If you emphasise measurements on an individual’s performance, as opposed to their wider contribution to something bigger, why be surprised when people just do the “bare minimum”? If you fail to steward a culture which values diversity, creativity and contribution to the whole, why scorn people for being disengaged from the purpose of the business?
Theory Y holds that people look for meaning in their lives and in their work. It maintains that under the right conditions, people will find joy in their work. Under the right conditions, people will also use their work as a vehicle to express their creativity and realise their potential. I will borrow this quote (thanks to Louise Altman) from Tony Hsieh, CEO of Zappos, “For me, my role is about unleashing what people already have inside them that are maybe suppressed in most work environments.” Makes good sense to me. He seems to know what goes on in most work environments and is interested in updating what goes on at work.
I note how Theory Y says that people will be autonomous and responsible given the right conditions. Here is where a leader’s responsibility lies: in stewarding the right conditions. How can a leader contribute to putting the right conditions in place? One of these managers I regularly talk with (I’ll call him Manager Y) has cottoned on to the idea that humans and human systems are complex beings that cannot be analysed or managed from an outdated, mechanistic paradigm. He has become more interested in creating the right conditions so that frustration decreases while effectiveness increases. He has been updating his view of himself and his job, so he is more orientated to leading people than managing ‘stuff‘. He has acknowledged that he is succeeding in creating the right conditions because he has changed who he is and how he is. He has courageously decided to look at himself and how his role responses to people used to create the ‘wrong conditions’ for people to work effectively. In this, he has undertaken to develop new roles for himself.
One of the roles he has refined is that of Boundary-Setter. Like most of us, he has always been aware that systems and processes are necessary at work, but his attitude towards them was a little skewed. To his mind, systems and processes equated to an authoritarian style of management. He was uncomfortable with the idea that he might be one of those types of managers, so he compensated by managing people on an ad hoc basis. He has realised, however, that systems and processes are not a bad thing. The modern manager enacts their Boundary-Setter role and applies systems and processes with a lighter touch than in the old days. Effective systems and processes are not arbitrary nor exhaustive. Done effectively, they are the boundaries within which people can operate comfortably and safely. Useful systems and processes will be robust, simply communicated, easily understood and not so restrictive that they inhibit autonomy or individual creativity. Manager Y was labouring under an idea that systems and processes might be too confining, however, in an attempt to become less of a hard-nosed, taylorian manager, threw the baby out with the bath water, dispensed with a consistent set of guidelines and ended up being seen as a push-over. Now, he is growing consistency balanced with personal responsibility. Just like Goldilocks’ porridge, businesses need systems and processes that are “just right”.
Another role Manager Y has been developing is Appreciator-of-People. This role thinks, feels and behaves in ways which promote self-esteem and confidence in others. He knows for a fact that people know exactly how to do their jobs. He knows for a fact that they are capable (for he has seen it in the past with his own eyes, so neither he nor they can pretend they don’t know what they’re doing). His starting point has now shifted from “they’re lazy and they need me to stay on their backs” to “they know what they’re doing, how can I get out of their way?” This significant shift in his attitude means that he now demonstrates trust and respect.
In the role of Trusting Auxiliary, Manager Y is honing his capabilities around supporting and coaching. He is letting people have more space to do their jobs and after a short, initial period of adjustment, people are filling this space with responsibility-taking and team-based problem-solving. He continues to have regular catch-ups with his team, but has changed the tone of those. No longer is he one of the Spanish Inquisition endlessly asking why something didn’t get done. Instead, he asks what gets in the way of people working well or how he can assist. This is no mere lip-service exercise. Herein is how he has changed who he is because he has adopted a genuine curiosity and naiveté to his questioning. People know if you are questioning them to catch them out or if you are questioning them to find the answer to a question. People know if you ask them a question which you have already answered in your head. He also starts with what they are doing well, rather than what they’re not doing well enough. This means that people are becoming less fearful about discussing mistakes because his approach is orientated to learning, not punishment.
Just as I will keep banging on about coaching people from a strengths-based mindset, I will keep banging on about how important it is for leaders to re-cast themselves as Systems Stewards. In this role, Manager Y has found his job less burdensome because he is concerning himself less with micro-managing and making sure things “get done” than he is with creating boundaries of effective work behaviour, doing that big picture “vision stuff” (daydreaming, looking into the future, wish-listing, strategising, networking and influencing) and making sure that communication channels are open and transparent.
Let’s please stop seeing people as inherently lazy, irresponsible and inefficient and, instead, take Tony Hsieh’s or Manager Y’s approach and see them as complex humans with a natural drive to learn, self-actualise and thrive. If we must continue using things like Key Performance Indicators, let’s keep them in perspective. They are just that: merely an indicator and a limited one at best. It indicates, it points to: it doesn’t give the full picture of what is going on. It indicates that something you are narrowly measuring is either doing OK or it is not. An indicator such as this does not, however, indicate whether a person’s performance is related to a badly-led culture. It does not indicate whether someone is fully supported and resourced to do their job effectively. It does not indicate whether someone’s intrinsic human needs are being realised. Time for an update.
March 21, 2012
Developing ourselves is not about filling in “gaps”. If we are systems thinkers, we don’t see gaps. A gap is an empty space; where nothing is. We are not empty vessels to be filled; we are whole beings, not “hole-y” beings. We do, however, have things about us that need strengthening and enhancing. We have got this far in our lives with the capabilities that we have had at our disposal through a life of learning, but this is not to say that there isn’t more to learn and develop.
Dr. Russell Ackoff said, “Optimising one part of a system always leads to sub-optimisation of the system as a whole.” This is important to remember, not only with reference to an organisation’s development, but also for an individual. Our workplaces are complex social systems, the many people being interconnected and interrelated. Each person has an impact on the wider system and the other people in the system impact on them. Out of the dynamics of these social systems emerges culture and organisational performance. To take Ackoff’s statement, if we take one person out of a system and, for example, provide some coaching without awareness of that person’s place in the system, impact on the system and impact of the system on them, the coaching will be less than effective. Optimising one person in isolation and without attending to the whole system will lead to a skew.
Similarly, when developing capability within individuals, we need to remember that we, too, are systems. We play a myriad of roles in our daily lives, whether you are a customer service representative, a CEO or a project manager. The whole of ourselves is truly greater than the sum of our knowledge, skills, experience and character traits. This matrix of roles that we play is complex and interrelated; each role we enact impacts on other roles we play. Our character and personality arises from the interconnectedness of all these roles and each time we add a new capability, it affects the whole of our being. Sometimes we can easily discern this, sometimes learning something new affects us in more subtle ways. For example, developing greater self-reflective skills will impact positively on our abilities to put ourselves in the shoes of others.
In the realm of leader (or rather, people) development, it sometimes seems that there is always the next big thing: The Key Skill Every Leader Should Grow. It can be a bit like plate spinning, though; that old trick where someone would rush around trying to keep plates spinning on long thin poles. One week you have to develop your ability to manage diversity, the next week it’s about learning how to deal with the unexpected, the next week you are learning how to listen to your inner voice telling you not to listen to what they tell you the week after that. Madly rushing about from one “part” to another “part” of ourselves is a misguided approach to people development. We need to see leader ability as a matrix of interactive roles; the question is then not “What capability do I need to develop?” but “What is the matrix of capabilities I need to develop, and what capabilities am I over-emphasising at the expense of others?” Leader development should be focussed on the behaviour of the inseparable whole and even if there are specific capabilities that a person needs to strengthen, this should be done with a view to optimising the whole person.
Developing ourselves in a piecemeal, mechanistic way can be as exhausting as plate spinning. Taking a reductionist perspective is also counter-productive; it’s utter nonsense to view ourselves as clocks, with bits that you can take out in isolation and fine tune or replace. We need to remain mindful that our abilities to do something may be linked to a collection of other related abilities. In the same vein, our ability to do something may be hampered by over-use of other abilities. Take the story of the recruitment consultant who struggled to achieve his list of daily tasks. It wasn’t related to poor time management skills, which he had said it was. It was a direct result of being so driven and single-minded about achieving his tasks such that his way of interacting with his colleagues rubbed them up the wrong way and caused them to avoid dealing with him. Because he required the collaboration of his co-workers, he was not able to get through his tasks effectively. When we did some work with this person some years ago, we witnessed his manner with others that betrayed some underdeveloped relationship skills. If we had taken him at his word and gone down the “time management skills” track without looking at his whole being, he wouldn’t have come through with the enhanced people skills he actually needed. His improved people skills ended up enhancing his ability to “manage” his time.
When Peter Senge says that real learning gets to the heart of what it is to be human, I believe he is talking about whole person development, not simply “training” in isolated sets of skills that enable someone to do a job more efficiently. When I’m developing people capability, I apply a matrix that we at Quantum Shift developed some years ago. We use it as an illustrative reminder, not a definitive prescription. This image is limited, in that it cannot truly illustrate the deep and complex interconnectedness of all the roles and how they affect each other, however, it gives some indication. Anyone who is in the business of developing people needs to remain cognisant of the interactive nature of these roles and discover how they impact on each other, for each individual that they work with.
Each of these roles is comprised of a number of sub-roles or abilities. For example, the Decisive Achiever is the one that we enact when we want to get things gone. It is the one that manages time, makes decisions, is organised and is the one that is usually most recognised and rewarded in the workplace. This is the role that our recruitment consultant was over-utilising to his detriment, and at the expense of the other roles in his matrix. He operated out of a belief that if he just came into work and achieved, that would be best. He was blind to the fact that an optimal achiever is actually one that deploys the whole of his role matrix in appropriate measure and in response to the appropriate context. When he realised that his Relationship Manager role was the one that was needed in order to go further, and extended this and applied it in tandem with the Decisive Achiever, he actually got more done and with greater satisfaction for himself and his colleagues. In fact, we heard some months later that the atmosphere in the whole office had improved significantly as a result.
Below is a summary of the roles in this matrix and their traits. The list is by no means exhaustive, however it gives a flavour of the roles.
Because our personal role systems are organic and ever-emergent, developing them is not time-bound. There is no end point. We will develop one thing and this will shine a light on other areas to enhance and extend. To quote Senge, “Personal mastery goes beyond competence and skills…it means approaching one’s life as a creative work, living life from a creative as opposed to a reactive viewpoint.” This means we embark on a lifelong journey of learning and development, taking a continual interest in ourselves and holding a perpetual curiosity about the world. One might say that there is a reasonably finite amount one can learn about, say, time management, but if we engage ourselves in role development, we will keep refining our whole selves to applying our time management skills or our performance management skills or our listening skills well and in an integrated fashion. Doing this over our life times will be an adventure, it will be messy and divergent, it will not be without challenges.
Some key points to remember about working with people in a systemic way:
- Our roles are an interactive system, or matrix, of sub-roles. Developing one in isolation will come at the expense of another or others.
- Development is never-ending. You never “arrive”. There is no end point. As we learn one thing and it becomes part of us, we become aware of the next thing to be learnt. Because we are systems, developing one part of the system will impact on the rest of it and will give rise to the next thing to develop.
- Roles are learnt and enacted in response to real life, not hypotheticals. They are not in isolation, making workplace learning is more purposeful. It is ideal to learn in real time, in response to real needs.
- Developing leadership mastery is a messy business, just like life. It is not linear. It requires some experimentation, some reflection and meaning-making, some knowledge, some rehearsal and trial and error.
February 8, 2012
Carbon is intensely heated and pressurised beneath the surface of the Earth to create a diamond; essentially it’s a lump of coal that has been pressure cooked for thousands of years. Dust, smoke and ash scatter evening sunlight and we see a stunning red sunset; so it’s basically air pollution. An oyster takes a piece of microscopic grit and forms a pearl; it’s really an irritant that the oyster is trying to protect itself from.
Far be it from me to shatter the romantic associations we place on sunsets, pearls and diamonds, but they do, in fact, originate from stuff which we would not normally consider to be lovely or desirable. Every magnificent and serene wonder in the universe arose out of the chaos and turbulence of the Big Bang, hardly a peaceful nor benign process. In the realm of human learning, our most prized gems often arise out of the midst of our most difficult or challenging circumstances. It’s not a cliche for nothing: “What doesn’t kill me will make me grow stronger.” At the same time, if we are bereft of personal resources, whether that be internal strengths, strong relational connections with others or a satisfying connection to something ‘higher’, we will find learning and change more threatening than life-giving. It is worth bearing these two points in mind if you manage staff performance: 1) the seed of excellence lies in the heart of inadequate performance; and 2) we cannot drive people to higher performance if they are not aware of what they are already doing well. We do not learn something new out of nothing.
An old supervisor of mine used to use the phrase ‘grist for the mill’ when I would talk about some undesirable behaviour in a client. His reframe of a behaviour or attitude has stood me in good stead for many years. Not only am I trained in a strengths-based methodology, but my outlook on human beings is one that says we are inherently good and that our behaviours are aimed at generating positive outcomes. That said, best intentions do not always result in the best outcomes for everyone concerned, but this is more likely down to human clumsiness, shortsightedness and fallibility than willful nastiness, laziness or under-handedness. The less-than-functional is merely grist for the developmental mill; raw material out of which the treasure can emerge.
Thankfully, for more and more people, it seems entirely sensible that we look at workplace performance through a strengths-based lens. Why performance manage someone purely from a deficit paradigm, i.e. what is not going well? While we do have to address poor performance, there is a paradigm out of which we can learn to operate which is progressive, esteem-enhancing and effective.
Just as counter-productive as the deficit paradigm is the head-in-the-sand paradigm. Many who operate out of this world-view would say that they are optimistic and positive. What this mindset propounds is that you don’t look at the dysfunctional; accentuate the positive and eliminate the negative. While I’m all for emphasising the positive, if we behave like Pollyanna, we miss the whole picture. Taken to an extreme, there are managers who are overly optimistic, believing that, in the end, it’ll all be alright. Being overly positive can lead you to ignore evidence of some ‘grit’ in your system. The head-in-the-sand paradigm says that if you just accentuate the positive, the problems and difficulties will work themselves out. Wrong. ”Things” do not “work themselves out“. I know there are CEOs and other leaders out there who hold a version of this viewpoint. They believe themselves to be positive and optimistic and I’ve no doubt whatsoever that they lead blessed and joyful lives. However, I’ve heard a self-professed optimist say ”Why would I want to put any of my energy into the staff who are causing the most problems? I prefer to spend my time on staff who are really performing.” From here, you are one step away from: ”Why would I want to spend any time or effort on developing the poor performers?” ”Why wouldn’t I get rid of the difficult ones and hire people who are willing to just fit in; there are plenty of people who would be so grateful to work here.” This, to my mind, is not being positive. It is an over-developed desire to see the positives to the extent that you fail to see the whole picture. If you put your head in the sand, you are not only blind to weaknesses, but you are blind to the developmental opportunities and the potential pearls amongst your staff.
So both the deficit paradigm and the head-in-the-sand paradigm are limited: they only look at part of someone’s performance. To view the world from a strengths-based perspective, we look at the whole: what is working well and what is not working well. A strengths-based paradigm is also a systems thinking paradigm. It is one that sees the wholeness and connectedness of people. We are not machines with a bunch of moving parts that can be taken out and replaced when they fail; we are complex systems in which the whole is far greater than the sum of our individual cells. So in a performance conversation with staff, we need to view their failings in light of their whole being. There are some things they do well, there are other things that they don’t excel at, but they are inseparable. Like finding the diamond in the rough, the potential lies hidden.
Even though we know how good it feels to focus on what we do well, drawing attention to others’ weaknesses in workplace performance is not a habit easily unlearnt. Through our early years, many of us have learnt to place too much value judgement on ourselves and to classify many things about us as inherently good and worthwhile or inherently bad and undesirable. However, learning to see the world through a strengths-based lens has some bottom line benefits. A 2002 survey by the Corporate Leadership Council questioned nearly 20,000 employees in 29 countries and found that when their managers emphasised strengths, this resulted in a 36% improvement in performance as opposed to a 27% decline in performance when the emphasis was on weaknesses.
Taking a strengths-based systems view to human performance includes developing a person’s ability to self-reflect so they aware of themselves, what they do well and what needs improvement. Asking a person to reflect on themselves is the starting point for any conversation about performance. Making a performance analysis by using a simple, yet powerful three-fold progression of questions means that the person expands their view of themselves and is more capable of being autonomous, confident and engaged at work. Firstly, ask someone to recall what they do well. Once they have done this, let them know what you observe in them that is excellent. Secondly, ask them to reflect on what they do too much of. Remember I said earlier that I believe all human behaviour is aimed at creating a positive outcome. Sometimes, there is something that we are good at that we apply too much, and this can get in the way of ideal performance. It is not intrinsically bad, yet in great quantity is counter-productive. Salt is a good thing to add to soup but too much will ruin the flavour. Again, let the other person know what you see them do too much or too often. Finally, turn the focus to what the person does too little of. Once they have done this, add more information from your perspective. Keeping this simple and structured will provide the person with a full and manageable picture of themselves. Out of this analysis you will have a distillation of information that shows the way to a development path.
To my mind, in a strengths-based worldview, a performance conversation is not one-sided. Unless a staff member is going through some sort of formal disciplinary process, it seems to me that conversations about performance are just that: conversations. Both parties contribute. Both parties have rights and responsibilities. Both parties have the right to be heard, to be respected and to be believed. Staff are responsible for being fully present in these conversations and participating. Staff are also responsible for developing an open attitude to learning and change. It is no good becoming defensive in the face of uncomfortable feedback or leaving the manager to make all the analysis. A staff member who is not able to reflect on their performance is the staff member begging to be micro-managed and I know of no employee nor manager who truly desires that. A manager is responsible for developing the habit of noticing performance, both good and bad-all the time. It is most useful when both staff and manager are clear about performance standards and achievement throughout the year, not simply at annual performance review time. Keep good performance on track by giving real-time feedback. I have spoken to too many people who are in the dark about their performance because their manager just saves everything for that once a year appointment, if at all. Furthermore, performance conversations should not be scripted or determined solely by the performance review document. It should be a human to human encounter in which both parties are able to contribute.
Finally, do something after performance conversations. If you are a manager who has regular conversations with staff, you are likely to follow up anyway, but particularly after one about work performance, make sure something happens, whether that is a coaching session, a decision to undertake training, another review or whatever seems appropriate. This bit is really important. What arises from performance conversations is that grist for the developmental mill; within the heart of poor performance lie the seeds of excellence. Knowing that you have a culture of performance, where it’s just something that gets talked about regularly, means that people can reasonably expect there to be a professional development path that continues to unfold. Ideally, this will be specific to each person, since each person’s needs will vary. Whatever you do, though, make sure that you do discuss what is not going well and that you do something to ameliorate it. It’s a paradox of strengths-based performance management: you want to change the poor performance but you must start by looking at the good, and when you eventually identify the inadequate, you have the raw material for greater excellence. If we don’t acknowledge what is outstanding, we don’t have the stable platform from which to grow and develop; and if we don’t examine what is poor, we just end up with a touchy feely nicey nice culture where we stagnate. We need to find the grit in order to learn something new. What is the irritant? What is the source of dissatisfaction? What is getting in the way of excellence?
January 27, 2012
W. Edwards Deming is quoted as saying, “Experience by itself teaches nothing.” In a fast-paced world where we are bombarded with more and more stimuli and we are called upon to carry out multiple tasks, this is truer now than ever before. Our lives are filled with more and varied experiences which, by themselves, leave us with nothing more than information. Sometimes we get to the end of our very busy days and the most we have made of it was, “I was run off my feet all day,” and we let go the opportunity to reflect on what it all meant to us and our lives. Are we doing what makes us happy? Are we spending our lives doing something meaningful to us? Are our lives enriched by the myriad of interactions and relationships we hold? Are we making a difference? If we were asked, we could probably recall the things that happen to us daily, but it is not sufficient to merely recollect if these experiences are to have enormous value to us. In our working lives, which are becoming more unpredictable and and revolve less around the carrying out of rote routine tasks, we are exposed to a veritable banquet of new experiences and interactions. Within these experiences lie the building blocks of our transformation.
To build on a previous article, while we certainly need to be open to new information and experiences, we need to do something purposeful with them. Often in my work, I have cause to reflect on the value of reflection. Just as every story has a beginning, a middle and an end, so do life’s little episodes. There is a beginning phase, called the ‘warm up’, the middle phase, where the action occurs, and then there is the last phase, in which meaning is made of the experiences in the action phase. This last phase is where the reflection happens. Reflection is essential in order for the significance of the action to be realised. All too often, we get to the end of the action phase and we hurriedly move on to the next thing. It’s all do, do, do.
I often liken it to digesting. If it weren’t for our digestive system, we would find ourselves either unable to take in any more food or passing food straight through our bodies without the benefit of extracting the nutrients that we need to build and grow. A banquet table filled with food has no significance to us until we take the food into our bodies and let our enzymes go to work. Only when this has occurred and our cells are making use of the nutrients is the food of any real use to us. Experience is much the same; only when we have digested it and made conscious meaning of it does it provide us with sustenance and the building blocks for growth.
One of the most skilled experiential trainers I have ever had the privilege to work with, John Bergman, once said, “I provide people with experiences. I know they’ve had one because I can watch them having it. What I don’t know is what they’ve learnt from it. The reflection afterwards is the most important bit.” Thankfully, I read more people writing about the importance of transfer of learning in the workplace. Whether you are running a training course, carrying out some one-to-one coaching, facilitating a business simulation with a bunch of senior execs or teaching people to apply social media in their work, it behoves you to facilitate and guide some reflection on what you have been asking people to learn. Real learning is integrated into who we are as people. Otherwise, it’s not learnt. Unless we digest and make meaning of something new, it will pass right through us. It’s not an added extra; it’s an integral part of the learning process.
In setting up a learning programme with a new client, I have sometimes been asked, “What will the ‘take home’ be?” If I’m honest, I would say, “I don’t know.” I could tell you what my agenda will be. I could tell you what exercises I will get people to do. I could tell you what I’d like people to learn. I could tell you that I have a great experiential process that will show sales staff the way to providing better customer experiences. However, I think we are well past the time when we can assume that just because someone has sat in a training room that they will have learnt what the trainer or their boss or the HR Manager wants them to learn. Certainly, businesses require people to learn things that will assist them to excel at their jobs and, certainly, businesses want this elusive thing called ROI and certainly, businesses want to spend their L&D budgets on something purposeful that will provide benefits to the people and the business. That said, spending L&D money is no guarantee of learning or development unless the learning programme (whether that’s a series of coaching sessions or an e-learning programme or leadership development programme) has reflection and integration built in to the programme. So what’s the take home? That can depend entirely on how much reflection and integration I ask of people in the session. If there is none, I’m leaving the ‘take home’ to chance; perhaps some of the people are already good at reflecting and meaning-making, perhaps some of them are not.
Developing the role of Astute Reflector, however, is not only applicable in the context of formal learning; far from it. More of what we need to absorb and integrate comes from our daily experiences and interactions at work than from ‘formal’ learning situations. Bringing the learning into work is more than a zeitgeist catch-phrase; it’s about how you view everything that you do, everything that happens to you, every conversation you have. Is your working day just a series of things to ‘get through’ or are you making the most of your daily experiences, pleasant and not so pleasant, as learning fodder? Do you get to the end of a busy week with a sense of indigestion because you haven’t processed and made meaning of the week’s events? We need to shift our thinking so we see that everything that goes on at work is about learning. There are some compelling benefits that can come to us from developing the role of Astute Reflector in our lives.
We become better at learning from mistakes. When our Astute Reflector role is well-developed, we regularly stop and debrief, either by ourselves or with others, to examine what went well and what didn’t go so well. Once we have made this conscious, the chances of us repeating our mistakes begin to fall dramatically.
We distill the ingredients for success. Rather than leaving good performance to chance, becoming conscious of what works well also shows us the way to consistent excellence. This isn’t about finding the one or two things that work well and sticking to them, for ongoing reflection is the thing. However, we can improve our chances of future success if we have actually stopped to reflect.
We see patterns that were previously hidden. When we reflect, we connect the dots with other experiences in our lives. This begins to show up patterns. If you are a systems thinker, you will hold that everything is connected to everything else. Reflection illuminates those connections, from where we become more conscious of values, habits and attitudes which serve us well and those which don’t.
In his excellent article on mastering the art of self-reflection, Adam Chalker lists three kinds of reflection: reflection-on-action, reflection-in-action and critical self-reflection. I believe that all three of these are indispensable abilities of the role of Astute Reflector.
If we inculcate the practice of reflection-on-action, we habituate ourselves to asking questions such as:
- What was I trying to achieve?
- What did my actions and responses create: in myself, in others, in the wider system?
- What did I do well? What did I do too much of (that got in the way of excellence)? What did I do too little of?
- What does that remind me of (from the past)?
Growing the ability to reflect-in-action means that we become more able to notice ourselves while we are doing something and, if necessary, shift our attitudes or actions. It’s a bit like reading a map while we are on a journey, checking to see if we are heading where we want to go. If we wish to develop this habit, we can ask ourselves:
- What am I actually doing right now?
- How are people responding to me?
- How am I feeling right now?
- Am I heading in the right direction? If not, what change of course is required?
I’ve written before on the need to develop more critical self-reflection and self-awareness. This is taking a cold, hard look at ourselves and asking the challenging questions:
- What lies do I tell myself?
- What am I pretending not to see about myself?
- Am I doing something which truly brings meaning and joy to my life?
- How do I enact power? Is it personal potency or power over others?
- Do I like who I am?
Once again, these are not discretionary matters to consider only if we have the luxury of time; the role of Astute Reflector is core to the world of work today. Charles Darwin knew about the value of learning when he said, “It’s not the biggest, the brightest, or the best that will survive, but those who adapt the quickest.” Making it a habit to ask, “So what?” expands our awareness, helps us to fine tune our abilities and increases our sense of potency in the world. Best of all, it costs nothing to grow the role of Astute Reflector and maximise your day-to-day experiences. Cost of training programme that teaches you nothing new: $2000. Becoming more reflective and conscious: priceless.
January 18, 2012
I admire people who are good with words. A wordsmith such as Neil Hannon, one of my favourite song writers, deploys words to great effect whether he is making a biting commentary on the financial game-players who were instrumental in causing the 2008 Great Recession, telling a story of a lonely woman of advancing years or sharing his optimism about life with his baby daughter. In their younger years, highly articulate and eloquent people such as Hannon learnt exactly the same letters of the alphabet that I learnt, and over their lifetimes have learnt how to do something quite special with them. There are only 26 letters in the alphabet. Once you’ve learnt those 26 letters, you can’t learn any more. People who are good at expressing themselves through language have developed their capabilities to use it in highly creative, skillful ways. In order to become one of these folks, you don’t need to learn more letters of the alphabet; you learn other things to do this. You don’t see aspiring writers attending courses in order to learn more letters; you see them attending creative writing courses that put them in touch with their human creativity, associating with other writers and applying their innate creativity to the use of a finite set of grammatical and syntactical rules and conventions (while also sometimes challenging or bending these rules in spontaneous ways).
Developing people in the workplace is a little similar. Entry level managers, for example, will need to learn the basic tools of management in order to provide competent supervision of their teams and tasks, however good leadership comes about when this manager applies themselves to growing their personal capabilities so that they can apply management knowledge in inspiring and motivating ways with greater vision, impact and influence.
For many of you in a leadership position, you probably don’t need more top tips or knowledge about your job. You probably don’t need much more information about ‘stuff’; you would probably enjoy developing something else, something deeper that frees you up to apply the knowledge and information you have already acquired with greater ease and finesse. It’s one thing to know about emotional intelligence, for example. It’s quite another thing for you to apply this elegantly in a living, breathing workplace with real life people in real life situations.
I say all this by way of stating one of my wishes for 2012: that more organisations wake up to the idea that, rather than sending people on more training courses that treat them like receptacles for yet more tools, tricks and tips, they should be investing in developing the users of these tools. Rather than trying to fill people up with more information and knowledge, they could look for opportunities for them to learn how to apply what they already know in spades, with greater fluency, creativity and responsiveness to the real needs of their organisations and its stakeholders. I wish that rather than send someone to another seminar about emotional intelligence, that they invest in some kind of learning that allows them to become more aware of themselves, to reflect and to actually rehearse better emotional and people skills. I wish that rather than sending a salesperson on another sales training that tells them yet again how important it is to listen to clients and customers, that they invest in something where these salespeople can develop the “role” of Effective Listener by practicing and reflecting on their abilities to listen well to people. I wish that rather than send customer service staff away to learn lists of things to do when dealing with customers, that they are provided with flexible learning processes that allow them to grow the whole range of human attitudes and behaviours required in order to provide the ultimate customer experience. I wish that rather than send that shy or reticent manager on another course to learn about “difficult conversations” with their staff, that they seek out the opportunities for this manager to develop the “role” of Robust Guide and actually get to the bottom of why he doesn’t do it (even though he knows what he is supposed to be doing) and to break through those inhibitors by rehearsing and refining some new behaviours and attitudes.
All of this is possible, it is not pie in the sky. I see such things happen before my eyes. This is my call for greater emphasis on “role development” and less emphasis on “training” in workplace learning and development. The word “role” is already known to you. However, in my work, I apply a very particular meaning of it with reference to capability development. In the work I do, a role is defined as the living expression of a person in any moment they are alive. A role is a holistic concept and consists of three components: thinking, feeling and behaving. Far too much in the way of workplace training with behaviour change as its end result does not address the whole person. We are whole people and to leave out any of these three components will not necessarily make for genuine and long-lasting shifts in behaviour.
We all amass a vast repertoire of roles in our lifetimes and they arise in response to another person or situation. Many of the roles we enact in our daily lives are ones which we have become quite habituated to enacting. In many cases, these habituated role responses are pretty adequate, but in a number of cases, particularly when the environment is more unpredictable and changeable, we go into a role which does not quite fit the bill. In many of these cases, more information or knowledge will not make a difference to our abilities to respond more adequately; developing our role repertoire, however, will.
To illustrate, complete this sentence: think of X (a person in your workplace, or maybe even yourself) who sometimes struggles with Y (a task or duty at work). X has all the information and knowledge they require in order to Y, but something still gets in the way. When thinking of what X needs to learn, it is helpful to not reduce this simply to “They need to learn how to Y better.” That assessment is too mechanistic and stops well short of the real learning need. Such a simplistic assessment can lead to the wrong prescription.
There will be “roles”, or personal capabilities, that unlock their ability to Y. I have spoken to too many salespeople who keep getting sent on the same old, same old sales courses year after year in order to help them boost their sales figures, and year after year, there is no significant shift in their performance. In many cases, what gets in the way of optimum performance is not the lack of sales knowledge; it is under-developed listening abilities or an under-developed ability to put themselves in the shoes of their clients or under-developed confidence or under-developed something-else. I have spoken with too many managers who get sent on courses to learn about having “difficult” conversations with their staff, but, again, in most of these cases, these courses do not create a shift in behaviour because they already know what they should be doing; what they could do more of is confidence or the ability to set boundaries or even the ability to be calm and centred. Telling someone to be calm and centred will not necessarily make it happen.
A lot of this waste in the L&D budget comes about because what is seen is the failure to perform the task at hand effectively. This, however, is merely the symptom of something deeper that needs addressed. We can only really see behaviours and we really only measure performance that is measurable. What do you do when the thing that needs developing is not so easy to see or measure? The important thing is to make a really thorough assessment of the learning need. It is also important to engage with a process that will allow people to learn holistically, so that the shifts in visible behaviour are real, deep and long-lasting and are related to shifts in the person as a person.
Making better decisions about the L&D budget has other ripple effects. Even in the midst of economic turmoil, I still read about skills shortages in some industries and organisations. Despite high unemployment, some businesses still say they can’t get the right people. If we look at who is already in the business and make better assessments of what they really need to learn in order to boost their performance, we can go some way to improving staff engagement as well as the bottom line. Taking a “role development” perspective on L&D can assist businesses to attract and retain the people they need. Investing in developing people as people, not as resources that do things, shifts the culture and unlocks opportunity, creativity and innovation.
What’s your wish for 2012?
November 16, 2011
In an increasingly connected and interactive world, where your customers can directly engage with you via social media, where you can measure and survey in order to take your organisation’s pulse, one essential role for us all to develop is The Open Receptive Learner. This role encapsulates those capabilities related to receiving, processing and making meaning of feedback. I’ll break my own rule about the use of the word ‘feedback’ because it is a useful shorthand, however, I still maintain my aversion to it and I still cannot seem to shake my old teacher’s suggestion that feedback is that dissonant racket that comes out of a speaker system.
It is valuable to consider this aspect of leader development and customer service because, in the Knowledge Age, the more responsive we are to all kinds of information, the better we will be at dealing with change, uncertainty, emergence and complexity. I will add that The Open Receptive Learner is but one in an interconnected and complex matrix of ‘responsiveness’ and ‘self awareness’ roles, but those other roles can be the subject of another article.
If you have a well-developed role of Open Receptive Learner, you will be comfortable hearing things about yourself that have been hitherto unknown, you will be open to the notion that there may be some truth in what others tell you about yourself and you will give their comments due consideration, you will receive feedback with curiosity rather than defensiveness and you will endeavour to synthesise feedback in a way that causes you to expand your view of yourself. What this looks and feels like: when you are enacting this role, you may respond to others’ feedback by asking further naive questions in an interested tone of voice, in order to gain greater insight into yourself; when you are enacting this role, you may notice that can ably quieten your internal voices that want to react to feedback with justification or argument; when you are in this role, you may notice your body language conveys a relaxed, yet alert, demeanour as you demonstrate genuine curiosity and interest in what the other person is saying.
We solicit feedback when we ask for it directly, when we conduct some sort of culture survey or a leadership 360 or when we invite customers to interact with us on social media. Even solicited feedback can cause us to respond out of denial, narcissism, arrogance or fear, notably when we hear something unexpected or that is less than complimentary. While it’s not ideal, it’s understandable, as we are all human and we all have an amygdala which goes off like a car alarm, unable to distinguish between real and perceived danger. Some of us have just been wired over our lives to be more vigilant than others. If this is the case, we have human technologies at our disposal to rewire this default response. What we have been learning in the last decade or so from neuroscience also tells us that we are far more ‘plastic’ than we used to believe.
What about when we receive unsolicited feedback? We use expressions like, “I felt like I was being blindsided”, “I would never have seen that coming” or “That came out of nowhere”. This is similar to when we attempt to change lanes on the motorway and suddenly, seemingly out of nowhere, we hear this loud honk and at the last minute, seeing where the desperate honking is coming from, swerve back into our lane to avoid a crash with the other car that did not, in fact, appear out of nowhere; we simply did not see it. This can be related to a phenomenon called inattention blindness. If you have ever seen a magician or illusionist, you will be familiar with how they use this natural tendency in order to entertain, and it is now becoming the stuff of documentary TV channels as we become increasingly interested in how our brains function and how to develop greater self awareness. The most well-known example of inattention blindness was used as a public service advertisement in the UK, trying to get drivers to become more aware of cyclists.
In essence, inattention blindness is when we are unable to see something even if it is plain sight. When combined with another human phenomenon, asymmetric insight, we will go through our lives with skewed pictures of ourselves. If we embark on a journey of self-knowledge, we will make some headway in mitigating for these cognitive distortions. However, we cannot know all there is to know about ourselves simply by developing the role of Self-Reflector. We require input from others and it is the height of arrogance to believe that information and feedback from others is to be dismissed blithely.
However, herein lies a major conundrum. If inattention blindness is the inability to see something that is in plain sight and if we all suffer from it, we can accept that it is important to be open to feedback from others. Intellectually, we can accept that there will be things about ourselves that are in plain sight, but to which we will be blind. What if, however, the thing that is in plain view of everyone except ourselves, is that we are bad at taking feedback; that our limbic fight/flight/freeze mechanism is so overpowering that we are simply not able to take in any feedback that has just the merest whiff of unpleasantness. It’s a negative loop. What if the feedback is that we are bad at taking feedback? Your emotions go from zero to 60 in an uncontrollable nano-second because your amygdala has somehow got the wrong end of the stick. It’s just information, but it’s received as a danger and you over-react. In the words of Radiohead, “Just ’cause you feel it, doesn’t mean it’s there. We are accidents waiting to happen.” Damn limbic system.
With this in mind, how do we go about developing the (under-developed) role of Open Receptive Learner if we have already come to the firm conclusion that we are open to feedback but our defensive shields are permanently on red alert? If you believe that you are good at receiving feedback, how would you know? If your amygdala is wired such that it detects danger at the slightest hint of criticism, you will be its slave when someone attempts to say, “You are not terribly good at hearing feedback about yourself,” and it floods your body with hormones, inhibiting and distorting the ability of your neocortex to take in and process information. This essential piece of information is unlikely to get through, thereby scuppering your efforts. It’s unconscious self-sabotage.
My intention in this article is not to create despondency, rather I wish to pose a pertinent question that all of us interested in self-development must come to grips with. I believe that pondering questions such as this is not simply an intellectual exercise, rather it is exercising our self-awareness muscles. In an age when the depth and quality of our self-knowledge is so core to how we are at work, with our peers, our staff, our customers and with our communities; this is no whimsical self-indulgence. It is part of preparing ourselves for the greater uncertainty and ambiguity that characterises the Knowledge Age.
Warm up to the role of Open Receptive Learner
Here is a process that may assist you to become better at receiving feedback. If you are in a leadership position, it is probably true that the higher up the ‘food chain’ you are, the less you will know about your business and what its staff really think of you. If you are genuinely interested in knowing more about yourself and your organisation and encouraging more frank feedback to come your way, bring to mind someone you know who has this role well-developed. We’ll call this person X. You have seen them do it or they have a reputation for doing it. You hear people say things like, “I feel so comfortable telling her what I think, she is such a good listener, even when I’m saying difficult things,” or “I get a really good sense that he listens to what people tell him about his performance. He seems really interested in knowing what people think about him.”
When you are about to engage in a feedback-type conversation with someone, think to yourself, “What would X do?” and be in the role of that person. What emotional state would they likely be in, what kind of words or phrases would they use in the conversation, how would they be physically? As you develop your Open Receptive Learner, you will need to stay conscious of warming up to this role, just as you had to stay fully conscious of ‘clutch, engage gear, depress accelerator, slowly release clutch’ until driving was second nature to you.
Alternatively, if you find yourself blindsided by someone’s feedback, STOP. If you find it difficult to stop the inner voices, to keep breathing, to bring your heartbeat back to a normal rate, it could be useful to investigate mindfulness training. Practicing the discipline of mindfulness will go a long way to assisting you to gain greater self-control in your life.
As usual, I look forward to comments on this article. Go well.