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.
March 30, 2012
I have been inspired by Paul Slater’s excellent article this week, Getting Teams Working, to reflect on some work I’ve been doing recently with a team. A good chunk of my training and experience has been in group dynamics and there is direct relevance of this body of knowledge to organisational life. In the workplace, there is some growing awareness of group dynamics as a key influencer of organisational effectiveness. Many people are now familiar with Bruce Tuckman’s group development model: Forming, Storming, Norming, Performing and Adjourning; and it is good that people who manage teams of people are opening their eyes to the processes that go on when humans gather together, for whatever purpose. Despite our best efforts, there is something mystifying that seems to get in the way of team effectiveness and it can be useful to look “underneath” at the dynamics and unexpressed assumptions out of which we operate.
Perhaps less well-known in this sphere is the work of Wilfred Bion. Bion trained in medicine and went on to develop an interest in psychoanalysis, eventually immersing himself in the study of groups and group process. He was commissioned into the British Army during World War II, working in military hospitals. Here he devoted himself to finding ways to treat post-traumatic stress and devised ways of working with these patients in a group context. Out of his work in group dynamics, he went on to write “Experiences in Groups” (1961) which became a seminal work in the field of group psychotherapy, providing a basis for the application of group theory in many other fields.
I think it’s important to remember that there are, indeed, many models of group development, Tuckman’s being perhaps the most well-known, and that these are more descriptive than prescriptive. What I mean by this is that these models are not stages we “take groups through” but they are phenomena that groups experience naturally. The various models are simply different lenses through which to observe these group phenomena and once observed, we can begin to make sense of the undercurrents that affect our teams and groups. From here, we can develop some capabilities within ourselves to respond more ably to what goes on in our teams.
All of those models have some validity in my eyes, but for me, the work of Bion seems to have been the one that has most unlocked some of the mystery of what goes on in groups. Anyone who manages teams, whether that be a project team or an ongoing team within a business, will have found that the work of that team sometimes seem to be sabotaged by things seemingly unrelated to its work. This is sometimes put down to “personality clashes”, politicking or competing professional interests. While this sometimes may be the case, there is another lens through which we can see underperformance or ineffectiveness in teams. I am currently working with a team who are embarking on a transformation process which may eventually entail some reorganising of their workloads, responsibilities and lines of authority and accountability. The manager has undertaken to initiate a process involving every member of this team contributing to shaping its form, so that they end up with a team structure that is fit for its purpose, rather than soldiering on with a structure that they have inherited from the past and which is proving to be ineffective and unwieldy. This process is, unsurprisingly, generating a little uncertainty in the team members.
Transition and change naturally provoke feelings of anxiety and uncertainty. Once again, we are dealing with feelings, whether we like it or not. As Louise Altman writes frequently on her excellent blog The Intentional Workplace, emotions are there; it is nonsense to pretend otherwise. Even if we try to hide our heads in the sand and focus purely on work outputs, what goes on underneath will impact on a team or organisation’s ability to be effective. I recommend having a look at Louise’s article, 5 Reasons Business Can’t Afford to Ignore Psychology for Another 100 Years. In it, she suggests that business can no longer afford to dismiss the impact of emotions on our abilities to work well and to be well. To continue treating people as resources and automatons a la Henry Ford (“Why, when I only want to hire a pair of hands, do I get a whole person?”) is very simply, unsustainable.
So if you are willing to peer underneath the functioning of your team, you will be treated to a fascinating display of raw human-ness. Above the surface, what we can see, is what Bion calls the “work group”. This is the stated and overt reason teams form. Groups and organisations come together to pursue sensible and realistic goals and this “work group” is what keeps people on task. Below the surface is what he calls the “basic assumption” groups. They are the unspoken assumptions about how the group operates. Bion asserts that teams sometimes fall into what he calls madness; this is the skewed functioning that arises in response to anxiety and uncertainty.
Bion observed three kinds of “basic assumption” groups: fight-flight, dependency and pairing. The “madness” of which Bion spoke and which he describes with these three “basic assumption” groups, is the anxiety that arises from change, unpredictability and volatility. In response to a VUCA environment, team members will adopt one of these basic assumptions, and the ensuing behaviours will interfere with the team’s ability to achieve its work goals effectively.
If a group is operating from a fight-flight assumption, people behave as if the primary need is self-preservation. Threatened by change, people resort to either fighting something (or someone) or running away from something (or someone). A team leader will observe scapegoating, aggressiveness or unreasonable defensiveness amongst the group or alternatively, avoidance behaviours such as tangential conversations, overuse of humour as a distraction from serious issues, lateness to meetings or anything else that circumvents the work at hand.
If the group is operating out of dependency mode, the primary aim is to achieve certainty or safety. In other words, when things are unclear and changeable, the group strives to regain some sense of security. A dependency basic assumption says that protection will come in the form of one person and they become overly dependent on that one person to “fix” it or make it better. They abdicate responsibility and look to the identified leader, who is of course omniscient and omnipotent, to sort things out. A team leader who observes dependency behaviour will be greeted with acquiescent silence in response to a work-related question, a “just tell me what to do and how to do it” attitude or excessive flattery and “people-pleasing” behaviours. Conversely, the group may “rebel” against the leader; counter-dependency is the flip side of the same coin and the leader may feel like he or she is subject to mass mutiny, with their every decision, suggestion or initiative being rejected.
Pairing derives from the underlying assumption that the group will be saved by the pairing of two of its members, who together will metaphorically create a new messiah. Effective team functioning is frozen in the hope that two people will create the kind of leadership to take them to the promised land of “everything is OK”. This may take the form of a number of pairs emerging within a team or the whole team sitting back while one pair comes to their rescue. Team leaders will observe a pair of allies spending lots of time having private conversations which, unbeknownst to him or her, will be characterised by “S/he doesn’t know what s/he’s doing; if only s/he’d do it our way, things would be ticking along nicely.” During team meetings, the team leader will notice these two folks sharing knowing glances with each other, the unspoken message being, “See? S/he’s doing it again.” ”There you go, that’s what we were talking about earlier.” ”Told you s/he would say that.” It may be that these two do things at work that are outside the remit of the “work group” but they believe they are justified because they actually know best. Something in your gut tells you that these two are undermining you in some way, but it’s hard to put your finger on it.
When a group operates out of one of these basic assumption, it is important to remember that it is doing so unconsciously and is not aware of what is happening. The team becomes subject to the forces of its own dynamics and is immune to the logic and reason of external realities and work expectations.
When we first begin to observe these “basic assumption” behaviours, it can be tempting to resort to labels and become rigid or formulaic in our responses. There is nothing more frustrating than someone armed with a little psychological knowledge and adopting the mantle of Team Psychologist. Unfortunately there is no stock response to a team behaving out of one of these basic assumptions. There are no top tips or easy-to-apply strategies. Apply a lens so that you can make more sense of what is happening, but then go on to reflect. Each team has the right to its own character and its own story. When these underlying, unconscious processes take hold and begin to rope the leader in, and I believe they do inevitably, the trick is to learn how to respond with grace and humanity. Learning to keep going while “under fire” takes practice, resilience and lots of personal reflection on the part of whoever is in a position of leadership. Humans, when gathered together, are subject to deep psychological forces. If we are to keep our heads, we need to become aware of “what is ours” and what is a group phenomenon. Reflection is one of the best practices to help overcome the sense of frustration or overwhelm when we become affected by what goes on in our teams.
Becoming the kind of leader who courageously grapples with the dynamics of groups and teams requires ongoing interest and curiosity, magnanimity and humour. Attending to your team’s dynamics requires you to foster good relationships and open communication, tolerance for difference and collaboration. Therein lies the work of the 21st century leader.
December 15, 2011
…is love sweet love. As Burt Bacharach and Hal David said, that’s the only thing that there’s just too little of. At the risk of sounding a bit ‘soft’ as the holiday season approaches, I have been reflecting on some recent conversations along with some experiences I’ve had through 2011 and wish to emphasise the importance of developing what are often called ‘people skills’ in our businesses and organisations. As Dr. John McGurk states in this rather excellent November 2010 study, “Using the Head and Heart at Work,” people skills are rarely neutral, that is, they have the power to influence in positive, as well as negative, ways. I don’t believe I need to make the case for superlative ‘head’ or ‘hand’ skills at work; those cases have long been won. Instead, I will bang on yet again about the need to hone our ‘heart’ skills. It is by deployment of our ‘heart’ skills that we facilitate more effective application of our ‘head’ and ‘hand’ skills at work. Now that our workplaces are becoming more and more relationship- and collaboration-based, the urgent need to develop greater ‘heart’ at work is before us.
I know most of you will probably feel that you have plenty of love and caring in your personal lives. However, we spend a huge chunk of our waking hours at work, usually with people that we haven’t chosen. We also have opened our eyes to the fact that we actually want our businesses and organisations to be places where we feel valued and appreciated, where we feel we are making a difference to others, where we can be human. It is a nonsense to hold on to an Industrial Age notion that we should leave our whole selves at the door when we enter our workplaces and simply offer up our brains or hands to be deployed as some manager’s resource. We want to care and we want people to care about us.
There is growing evidence that doing good for others and showing caring for others is also good for us. Two large studies have shown that older adults who volunteer live longer than non-volunteers. Indeed, altruistic emotions seem to override the effects of cortisol, our stress hormone. A recent study has also shown that helping and caring for others increases levels of oxytocin, the bonding hormone that helps us develop trusting relationships. If we have reduced cortisol and increased oxytocin when we are compassionate and caring towards others, if we feel good because of the unselfish good we do, it boggles the mind why we still endure workplaces that cause us to feel bad or where our good deeds go unnoticed. However, as William Glasser is noted as saying, we cannot change others; we can only change ourselves; if we change ourselves, others cannot help but respond to us differently.
If you believe that we get back what we give out, why not be mindful of opportunities to care for others with whom we work? One note about this do-good effect, though. Those studies which show improved well-being when we are compassionate towards others also indicate that this comes out of unselfish good deeds, not ‘dry’ acts of duty for others. Just as your boss won’t guarantee higher levels of engagement by faking care, consultation or listening, we can’t fake generosity. It requires genuineness and authenticity on our part; not simply clicking “Like” on Facebook.
For those of you who watched the video clip on empathy by Professor Simon Baron Cohen in my previous blog article, you will have heard about the monkeys who help other monkeys in distress. A bunch of rhesus monkeys were taught to obtain food by pulling on a chain. When a monkey was shown another monkey receiving an electric shock every time the chain was pulled, they stopped pulling the chain. One monkey in this experiment went without food for 12 days. That monkey in particular would put some bosses I know to shame. Empathy at work is not discretionary, as it may have been for Victorian mill owners. If leaders want engagement, it requires something more than an annual Christmas bonus or staff party. It’s not just down to the bosses though. We all have a part to play in making our workplaces more human, too. We get back what we give.
So with this mounting evidence of how good it is for us to do good, let’s not play the “you go first” game. I suspect that care, concern and compassion for others at work is a self-reinforcing cycle. We do good, we feel good, we are motivated to continue doing good; and others feel good when we care for them, they begin to care for us more. I know that the opposite can certainly become a negative spiral as well. Make the first move.
Keep going on your path of self-awareness. Our interpersonal abilities spring out of and are inextricably linked with our intrapersonal abilities. In other words, the greater our self-knowledge and ability to identify, name and process our own emotional life, the greater our capability to recognise and respond to the emotional life of others. We can go on and on learning about ourselves. A massage therapist will learn the technique of palpation: feeling the body’s tissues for areas of tightness. With greater practice and experience, the therapist will develop greater acuity to feel smaller and smaller areas of tension that a beginner will not notice. We can similarly grow greater acuity to notice our own feelings, many of which we are unconscious to in our daily lives. As we acquaint ourselves with ourselves, our eyes also open to the smallest facial expressions, the subtlest body language and most obscure meanings in the words and acts of others. Tuning into ourselves helps us tune into others, thereby increasing our ability to care. Focus on your body right now: what is it telling you?
Notice others. Finely tune your awareness of what is going on for other people. Many of us like to pride ourselves on our abilities to work hard and get things done and we overlook the impact of our stresses and challenges. Too many people ‘suffer in silence’ at work and in some cases, people even leave organisations because they get burnt out. Some take the approach that if they couldn’t stand the heat, it was best they went, but most of the cases I know of are where highly competent, engaged and dedicated people left because they felt isolated and couldn’t sustain themselves any longer. It is these folks we need to watch out for. If we fine tune our awareness of others and do simple things to let them know they are appreciated, it will make an enormous difference to them. When people talk about how overworked they feel or how stressed they are by a deadline or a heavy workload, we don’t have to step it to try to fix it for them, but listening to them and letting them know they have a trusted person to offload can let them know they are not alone and they have support. Think about your co-workers: who needs some support right now?
Listen to others. We are busy, this is true. We often hear others, but much of what they say goes in one ear and out the other and in many cases, we don’t even look at the person talking to us. If we take the time to really listen to others, we have the power to make a difference to them. Ask anyone who volunteers on a telephone helpline. Listen to their words and listen ‘between the words’. Good listening comes from being present to what the person says as well as how they say it. It involves noticing what they don’t say and how they do this as well. It primarily involves turning off our inner monologue so that we do more than simply wait our turn to open our mouths. Think about a recent conversation you had: how much did you really listen? What might you have missed?
Develop the habit of gratitude. I was reminded of the power of gratitude by a close friend of mine recently. It caused me to bring to mind the people for whom I am grateful in my life; both for being a part of my life, as well as for the kind acts they show me. Imagine what that did to my physiology, my heart and my mind. I can tell you that his suggestion to focus on gratitude certainly intruded on the grumpiness I was sitting with at the time. As with altruism, developing an attitude of gratitude has been shown to increase our own well-being, reduce our stress and anxiety levels and encourage kinder behaviour towards others. I have heard of one business which has recently started the practice at their team meetings of each person thanking one other person in the team for something they did through the week. It has made it an even nicer place to work; everything we know about engagement points to a friendly culture being an essential ingredient. If there is a boss who wants to argue that caring for others at work is pointless, I will give them this Manager’s contact details. Think about your workplace: who or what are you grateful for?
All this stuff may sound a little ‘touchy-feely’, however, more of us are coming to acknowledge the power of these small differences that make big differences in people’s working lives. From a bottom line perspective, more is also known about the power of engagement. Engagement comes about because managers, leaders and others within organisations develop our capabilities to be human with other humans. People engage when they know that who they are as a person is noticed, supported and encouraged; when they know they are not a cog in a machine.
Two final thoughts about this subject; to paraphrase a famous advertisement for the RSPCA, real compassion, authentic caring and genuine altruism at work are not just for Christmas, they’re for life. What attitude can you change or habit can you inculcate in 2012 that will improve your working life and the working lives of others? And the last words go to Bacharach and David, expressed beautifully by Dionne Warwick. He goes on to say that love is “not just for some, but for everyone”. Who can you show more care for at work?
This article is dedicated to my father, Jack Wenger, who died on December 18, 2009. What I know from the people who worked with him as their Manager, he was a much loved boss who cared very much about the welfare of his people.
July 27, 2011
Why do we still sometimes try to pretend that we don’t bring all of ourselves to work? We have emotions because we are human. Indeed, evolution has left us with a brain that is driven by our emotional responses to our environment. As much as we pride ourselves on our intelligence and logic, they sit in the passenger seat when we we live through situations with high emotional content. I once saw a quote that read, “Heaven preserve me from people who pretend they are not vulgar.” I would adapt that to say, “Heaven preserve me from people who pretend they are not emotional.”
For leaders, one of the emotions that there seems to be most sanction over is workplace anger. It strikes me that this could be one of the most useful emotions for a leader. While we don’t want leaders having tantrums all over the place, anger can be a useful indication of something that is not quite right. Self-actualised leaders will be aware of their anger and be able to give it appropriate expression without damaging reputation or relationships. After all, it is not the emotion of anger, but the expression of it, which should be moderated at work.
So what use can you make of your anger at work? At Quantum Shift, when we work with clients, we are most often assisting them to deal with emotionally charged situations and relationships. Anger is often present. Working experientially, we ask people to recall a real-life working moment and we explore it in depth with them. You can try this yourself. First, recall a recent work situation in which you felt angry. Now ask yourself these questions:
What needs changing in my system? Anger can be an sign that all is not right in the world. It seems completely justified to feel angry about your Senior Management Team demanding better communication from you and your team while keeping you in the dark around matters that directly affect you. Your anger can mean that the situation needs changing. Anger can be a catalyst to get us off our behinds and do something about it. It can indicate something about the relationship with the person needs brought out into the open and rectifying, rather than simmering below the surface.
What does that situation remind me of from my past? Anger can be telling us that there is something about ourselves that needs healing. If you have been stirred to anger, ask: “Who was I angry with?”…..then “Who was I REALLY angry with?” or “What was I angry about?”….then “What was I REALLY angry about?” As we grow in self-awareness, we learn that there are some things from our past that have been left undone. These may be painful, scary or toxic but as Socrates is quoted as saying, “The unexamined life is not worth living.” Looking at some of these past hurts is the first step to clearing them out so they no longer infect us with the same amount of toxicity. It is vital that we turn these events and relationships from things which still push our buttons to things that are just stories we tell. Having a good old clear out will assist us to release our spontaneity, creativity and vitality.
What was the danger or threat? Anger is part of our evolutionary hard-wiring which fires off when we are under threat. Were you being undermined in some way? Was your team or wider organisation being compromised somehow? Was the CEO blaming members of your team for his or her own failings? Just as excellent leaders are ambitious for their organisations, excellent leaders also feel on behalf of their organisations or teams.
Left unattended, anger can simmer and become destructive–to ourselves, to our relationships with others or to our wider system. Whether we like it or not, it will find a way out. Do we keep such a tight lid on it that it oozes out via a passive-aggressive communication style? Do we expend so much energy on it to the point that we poison ourselves with chronic stress?
So let’s not misconstrue the notion of ‘controlling our emotions at work’ to mean that we can’t show them at all or that we must behave like emotion-less automotons at work. With greater self-awareness, we develop emotional regulation, which means we are able to express them in a mature and appropriate fashion. Authenticity at work is all about being who you are–ALL of you. We need to embrace all of our emotions, including anger, and become aware of what messages they are trying to send us. Left ignored, the triggers to those emotions may very well lead to our undoing.
May 19, 2011
I’ve been noticing just lately that this word ‘feedback’ keeps coming up. Specifically, it’s being used in the context of letting someone know something about their behaviour or attitude. This isn’t an uncommon word and in workplaces everywhere, people are being encouraged to give ‘feedback’ to each other…..Managers to staff….co-workers to co-workers….in fact, people all over the place to other people all over the place.
Years ago, a wise and much-loved teacher of mine remarked that he never used the word ‘feedback’ when sharing information with someone about their performance. He likened it to the kind of feedback that you get from the speaker on your sound system—grating, dissonant noise. Since that time, I have found myself bristling every time I hear someone say something like, “Can I give you some feedback about what you just did?” or “I think I need to give my staff some feedback about that last project.”
I have to say I tend to agree with his take on the word. I have worked with a fair number of Managers who have to conduct performance reviews with their staff and they talk about giving feedback. And I suspect that is more or less what it sounds like to their staff—grating, dissonant noise. Consider the person about to enter the Manager’s office for a performance review. Consider the thoughts and feelings that will be going through them. Consider the slightly sweaty palms, the slightly shallower-than-normal breathing, the increased heart rate….all signs of nervousness or anxiety. All limbic responses to potential threat or danger; the Manager is not about to leap out from behind a chair and maul them to death, however the limbic system does not operate on a level or reason or logic. However, when the limbic system starts to kick into action, it does cause our more evolved ‘thinking brain’ to operate at less than optimal levels and we don’t take information in clearly. The staff member sits down and the Manager begins a friendly conversation, however the hormones rushing through the staff member’s body have not entirely dissipated. All they hear is grating, dissonant noise—feedback.
So, I hear you ask, am I suggesting that staff shouldn’t have performance conversations with their Managers?
After all, don’t people want to know how they’re doing? And don’t organisations have a responsibility to ensure that people are working to an agreed standard? Of course, emphatically yes to both questions.
I would suggest, however, that it is not the giving of this information that is sometimes flawed; it is HOW it is delivered. I suspect that there are many people who experience any kind of conversation about their performance as a little challenging. Indeed, a comment on how we’re doing will naturally elicit some kind of emotional response inside; we are not automatons. So it behoves the giver of the information to place themselves in the shoes of the receiver and consider how to pass on this really useful information. It is important to consider time and place. Most importantly, it is important to consider the relationship.
I like to think of traffic lights when I share information with someone about themselves. If the light is red, I hold back. In other words, if I don’t feel I’ve done enough work on building a good, trusting relationship, I will be very careful what I say: not because I’m shy of telling people what I think, but because I want the words to actually be heard clearly and not come across as grating, dissonant noise. If the light is amber, I’m getting there, but I can’t be as forthright as I would if the light was green. With a green light, we can let someone know how they are doing in a manner that is honest and open, knowing that they are not feeling threatened or defensive, because we have spent a sufficient amount of time, energy and consideration in building a positive working relationship with them.
August 17, 2010
>The Centre for Creative Leadership are renowned experts in the research around leaders and how they get ‘derailed’. According to their research, a key factor behind executive derailment is deficit in the area of emotional intelligence. This presents a unique challenge because quite a lot of what we bring to the workplace in the way of our emotional intelligence is pretty much ‘hard-wired’ into our brain by the time we enter the workforce. This hard-wiring dictates how we respond to others in our world: are they friend or foe?
Our limbic system, where our emotional fuse box sits, acts irrationally, much like a house alarm. If you forget to disarm your house alarm when you get home, it will go off; it doesn’t recognise you, it has only received a signal that there is danger. Similarly, when we get to a position of managing or leading people, we often have hard-wired responses to them that are beyond our intellectual control. That’s the evolutionary point of the limbic system though. We have been hard-wired to react to potentially dangerous people or situations through our early life experiences. So if you grew up in a household where arguments led to someone getting hurt, you are likely to experience a little anxiety or tension as an adult when conflicts arise at work. You want it to stop, you know intellectually that you won’t actually get hurt, but you can’t help your palms getting sweaty or your heart beating more quickly…..yes, that’s why we often find ourselves taking up roles in our workplaces that mirror the roles we took up in our families of origin.
In order for us to ‘re-wire’ our emotional responses, it can be incredibly beneficial to participate in ‘state-dependent’ learning processes: those which, in a titrated and contained manner, recreate the situations to which we wish to have new emotional reponses, so that new neural connections can be made. We also require the opportunity to integrate these new experiences into our consciousness, so that we can have greater freedom to respond, and not simply react from a default setting.