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.
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.
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.