Standard career advice says that if you want career success, then you need to decide where you want to be in your career in 10 years time and work out what you need to do in order to get there.
Many leaders are feeling ‘in over their heads’. The organisational landscape has become volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous (VUCA) and it can often feel so challenging and overwhelming that we feel out of our depth and swamped.
The skills that led to success in the past, no longer seem to work.
There is so much change happening that we can’t keep up. Everything is interconnected and, as a result, less easy to predict or control. Your outputs are increasingly dependent on other teams. Their mistakes or delays are disastrous for you but no-one seems to think that is a reasonable explanation when, as a result, your deadlines blow out. The future is highly unpredictable, it is unclear what the next right action is.
In their excellent book, Simple Habits for Complex Times, Jennifer Garvey Berger and Keith Johnston explain that many of the problems we are now grappling with are complex rather than complicated and that means they need to be handled differently.
In complicated situations, you create the outcome you want by working through things logically, defining the problem, breaking it down into it’s component parts, perhaps doing a root cause analysis and then making a step by step plan. It is hard, but manageable.
In a complex environment this isn’t the case. In complex situations, causality isn’t linear or predictable. So a root cause analysis quickly becomes messy and unhelpful. In complexity, you can’t predict the future from what happened in the past. You can’t work out logically what actions will create the outcomes you want to achieve, as things are interconnected – a small change in one place has an unpredictable impact in another place. So your attempts to create and act on a plan don’t seem to work. It is easy to feel swamped, powerless and uncertain.
What are better strategies for complex situations? Garvey Berger and Johnston suggest the following:
- Have a broad sense of the direction you want the system to head in but avoid rigid plans and goals that can’t adapt and take advantage of changes in the system. (e.g. ‘Better customer service’ is a broad direction whereas ‘answering customer calls within 2 minutes and resolving all questions within a further 2 minutes’ is a rigid goal).
- Become very curious about the present
- Listen very deeply to what others are saying – recognize that others may be making sense of things differently to you
- Be interested in multiple perspectives on the situation – including the perspectives that people (including you!) may have in a year or 5 years.
- Take a wider, more systemic view. Rather than looking for root causes – look for combinations of factors that interact to push the system in a particular direction.
- Notice what is tending to happen already in the system and then try to amplify any current tendencies that are aligned with the desired direction.
- Take actions designed to nudge the system in a positive direction.
- Instead of making and executing a plan, use ‘safe to fail’ experiments to try to shift the system – learn from the outcome of each experiment and feed that learning into the next safe to fail experiment. NB For this to work, you need a culture where is okay to take risks and fail (with boundaries given for what are acceptable and unacceptable risks).
My hunch is that psychological flexibility is a key skill that leaders will need in order to enact these new and challenging skills.
Psychological flexibility is: “contacting the present moment fully as a conscious human being, and based on what the situation affords, changing or persisting in behavior in the service of chosen values” – Steve Hayes
It is composed of a number of processes that are highly relevant when leading in complexity:
Acceptance helps leaders to cope with ambiguity, uncertainty and the associated anxiety that comes with that.
Present moment awareness (or mindfulness) helps leaders to be better at observing what is really happening.
Values clarity helps leaders to behave more consistently in volatile contexts, so that followers can trust them, even though the direction is unclear and the leader can’t give them any sense of certainty about the future.
Defusion helps leaders to look at the world as it is in this moment, rather than how the mind is saying it is. This is a particularly important skill in an ambiguous environment, in ambiguity, we tend to have thoughts that tell us, ‘This is certain to turn out badly’. We need to be able to hold those thoughts lightly and see the situation as it is in this moment.
Perspective taking skills enable leaders to be mindful of and listen to the needs and views of many different stakeholder and also to see the broader system.
These skills seem to be key for leaders to thrive in the new industrial age.
And, often you wont feel like you are thriving, if you are like me then you will feel overwhelmed and swamped. At those times, please be very, very kind to yourself. This is genuinely hard. Some self-compassion is vital.
If you want to build your psychological flexibility, then these blog posts might be helpful:
Acceptance – here are some posts on handling painful emotions
If you want to read more about leading in VUCA environments, these resources are good:
Complexity Leadership in Health Care (BMJ- 2001) – relevant for non-health care settings
A Framework for Understanding VUCA – Scott Berinato in HBR
And finally…if you are interested in learning more about Leading in Complexity – Queensland University Of Technology (where I teach) is offering a new online course for leaders on this very subject.
I use the ACT matrix a lot in my workshops and with my coaching clients… and on myself! It is a tool that helps to build mindfulness, self-awareness and valued living. It is based on contextual behavioural science and is very easy to use.
I have made a video explaining how I use it:
You can download a pdf handout of the ACT Matrix here.
Kevin Polk (who is one of the people who developed the ACT matrix) has lots of free resources relating to the ACT matrix at his website.
In his wonderful book, The Nurture Effect, Tony Biglan, states that ’the most important stressor we humans typically face comes in the form of coercive interactions with other humans.’
Coercion is where people use unpleasant behaviour to influence you. If you do what they want, then the aversive behaviour will stop…at least for a while. Coercive behaviour in the workplace includes overt bullying and intimidation but it also can be more subtle – put downs, teasing, social exclusion etc. It can even involve using expressions of disappointment as a form of control.
Pause for a moment. What workplace situations have you found most stressful?
How much of your stress was because other humans were being coercive towards you?
My hunch is that coercion is an almost universal quality of deeply unhappy workplaces.
Sadly, some organisations have a culture which encourages coercive behaviour. These organisations are unpleasant places to work.
‘We need to replace all of this coercive behaviour with behaviour that calms, supports and teaches – the kind of behaviour that helps others thrive.’
What would that be like? Imagine a workplace where people ask directly for what they want in a calm way. Where they support each other to do well, to learn and to thrive.
Biglan suggests many empirically supported strategies for creating these nurturing environments. The one that has resonated most strongly with me is to make a personal commitment to this sort of calm, supportive and nurturing behaviour.
This is, of course, easier said than done. It is particularly hard to be calm, supportive and nurturing when others are being harsh and coercive towards you. Our impulse in these situations is to either respond with our own harsh, coercive behaviour or to just give in. The nature of coercion is that we want it to stop and we want it to stop quickly, so we tend to react to it in unhelpful ways.
If we want to create change, Biglan suggests that we need to learn forbearance. We need to step over our initial impulse to punish and coerce others and instead focus on responding with firm kindness. We need to be able to shift gear and respond in ways that build connection and foster growth.
Biglan quotes reams of research to support his suggestion that what the world needs now is for millions of us to just decide – ‘I want to step away from harsh and coercive treatment towards others, Instead I will nurture connection and growth. I will focus on creating environments where humans flourish.’
He also suggests empirically supported strategies for how to put this into practice.
These strategies include the behavioural analysis that Rob described in the previous post. Looking with openness and curiosity at what antecedents and consequences may be encouraging the damaging behaviour and also at what antecedents and consequences would encourage the desired behaviour.
Biglan also explores how ACT skills can be important in achieving this change to a more nurturing culture. As people become more mindful, practice acceptance of their emotions and are more connected to their values, they find it easier to change their behaviour.
I highly recommend The Nurture Effect to you. It is an important book. A book that explores how the science of human behaviour can improve human lives.
I want to live in a world where the majority of people are behaving in ways that nurture learning and growth. How about you? Shall we get started?
What if your greatest successes are more a reflection of your small, everyday choices than of the big decisions you make?
In his book, ‘How to Choose’, David Freemantle suggests that it is our micro-behaviours that make the difference between success and disappointment. By micro-behaviours, he means the ‘nuances and minutiae of our observed behaviours’. We tend to remember big choices we have made and think they have determined the course of our life. Whilst it is true that these larger choices are important. Freemantle suggests that it is actually our micro-behaviours that ultimately determine our success in these larger events.
For example, a ‘macro-behaviour’ might be to apply for a secondment to a project that interests you. Making this choice and taking this action certainly matters, but all sorts of micro-behaviours impact on how successful your application will be. When you apply for the secondment, do you go and see the person in charge of the project and engage with them in a way that makes them feel confident that you would be a pleasant and conscientious team member? Do you take the time to write a well thought out application? Have your tiny, repeated behaviours over the last 2 years, built you a reputation as someone who is helpful and effective? All of these frequent, small choices will impact on the outcome of your application.
Our natural tendency is to consciously choose the big things but to let our habitual style determine our micro-behaviours. For example, if my family and cultural background encouraged a blunt and straightforward style of communication, I will tend to do that. If my background has trained me to be compliant and avoid conflict. I will tend to do that.
In order to succeed in ways that are meaningful, we need to do something different. Instead of letting our history determine our micro-behaviours, we need to choose these behaviours consciously based on three key factors:
- What is happening in this moment?
- Which of my values are most important to express in this situation?
- What do I want to achieve both in the short and in the long term?
This assessment of what each moment calls for involves the capacity to be really present. To really see what is going on.
And, finally, it requires the capacity to unhook from impulses to act in reactive or unskilful ways.
These are the skills of psychological flexibility.
My father was a doctor. When he finished medical school, he planned to pursue a career with some prestige attached to it. He was going to become a surgeon or physician in some teaching hospital. He would work his way up the hierarchy until he was like Sir Lancelot Spratt, with a host of nurses, doctors, medical students and sundry allied health professionals traipsing after him, writing down his pronouncements and doing his bidding.
My mother had a different view of what sort of life would suit them and she persuaded my dad to instead become a country GP in a relatively poor part of Derbyshire. He spent much of his working life visiting patients in their cramped terraced houses or sitting in his surgery looking into the ears of snotty nosed children. He was not followed around by an entourage. His work was not with the rich or the famous and he didn’t become rich or famous himself. On the surface, he might seem like a relatively insignificant figure.
But if you walk into the local newsagent with my father, who has been retired for 14 years now, it is very likely that someone will rush up to him and say something like, ‘Oh Dr Collis, It is my lovely, lovely Dr Collis’.
In his small way, in this small village in the middle of England, my dad is famous. He is famous to these people because he was very, very kind and caring to them at a point in their life when they needed this more than anything. Because he listened to his patients with great interest, even if they were telling him about problems with endless green snotty noses. He started with the assumption that his patients mattered and their worries were important and that meant everything to them.
My mother is also ‘famous’ in this small village in Derbyshire. She is famous for her stalwart support of people through the tough times of life, for her capacity to be with people through the periods of grief, loneliness and overwhelmingly bad odds that visit us all. People often say to me, ‘I don’t know what we would have done without your Mum when…happened.’
My parents remind me of the wonderful poem, ‘Famous’ by Naomi Shihab Nye, here is an excerpt:
The river is famous to the fish
I want to be famous in the way a pulley is famous,
or a buttonhole, not because it did anything spectacular,
but because it never forgot what it could do.
There is so much written about how to become successful. But the success these articles describe is about fame and fortune rather than the gratitude of a middle aged lady in the local newsagent. And that is a problem.
It is a problem because chasing money and status sucks vitality out of life.
It is a problem because chasing prestige leads you to focus energy on things that aren’t really important to you:
“What you should not do, I think, is worry about the opinion of anyone beyond your friends. You shouldn’t worry about prestige. Prestige is the opinion of the rest of the world…..Prestige is like a powerful magnet that warps even your beliefs about what you enjoy. It causes you to work not on what you like but what you’d like to like…Prestige is just fossilised inspiration. If you do anything well enough, you’ll make it prestigious…
Prestige is especially dangerous to the ambitious. If you want to make ambitious people waste their time on errands, the way to do it is to bait the hook with prestige. That’s the recipe for getting people to give talks, write forewords, serve on committees, be department heads, and so on. It might be a good rule to simply avoid any prestigious task. If it didn’t suck, they wouldn’t have had to make it prestigious.’ Paul Graham
When you are in your late 70’s, as my father is. What will touch you most:
- That you rose through the corporate ranks?
- That you earned lots of money and drove a fancy car?
- That you were, in your own world, a Lancelot Spratt?
- That somewhere there is a person; someone who, like you, is insignificant in the scheme of things; and they remember how you treated them?
- That somewhere there is a piece of work, something that was done really well…by you.
If you were famous in these small ways – what would you choose to be famous for?
I want to highly recommend this podcast to you.
Trent Codd talking with Anthony Biglan about creating nurturing environments.
Key points for me:
There are now many randomised controlled trials of family and community interventions that have been shown to make a significant difference to the development of children and adolescents. We now have the science to impact on problems that we used to think were intractable.
Helping parents let go of harsh, critical or coercive approaches and become more nurturing, supportive, loving and caring is important.
If we want to build well being then we need to create environments that:
– are richly reinforcing of pro-social behaviour
– limit opportunities and cues for damaging behaviour
– encourage psychological flexibility
Dr Biglan goes on to talk about a range of approaches that have been shown to help to create these environments.
His suggestions are highly relevant for organisations.
What would it be like if leaders decided they were going to create nurturing environments at work?
I suspect that problems with employee retention, absenteeism and engagement would significantly improve.
You can read more about Dr Biglan’s new book The Nurture Effect here.
The end of one year and the beginning of another is often an opportunity to torment ourselves with difficult questions:
Did I give enough energy to the things that really matter to me?
Did I give too much energy to things that aren’t important in the long term?
Did I live my values? (To get a visual picture of this, you might fill out Tobias Lundgren’s Values Bulls Eye.)
When you review the previous year, it is likely that you have done well in some areas of your life and have some regrets about others. We often don’t devote as much time and energy as we would like, to what really matters . We often don’t live our values as consistently as we want. We frequently waste time and energy on things that, it turns out, don’t really matter in the long run.
When you consider the aspects of life you neglected last year, you may notice that some are very familiar to you. They will have shown up for you many times over the course of your life. Perhaps there is some aspiration that is important to you, that just keeps being put to one side?
To give you an example.
Since I was 11, I have wanted to be a writer. I love reading and I wanted to be like the authors I admired. I wanted to be one of those people, the people that befriend strangers by sharing their thoughts in a book.
I have started many books but, despite this deep desire to be an author, I have never finished writing a book. This desire to write seems to matter a lot to me but each year goes by and I still don’t accomplish my goal.
A couple of years ago, I turned 50 and I realised that time was running out. If I really want to be an author, I need to knuckle down and actually write a book. So I started another book. It is on a topic that matters to me (Meaningful Success). Sitting at my Mac trying to express my ideas with honesty and courage is hard and scary and wonderful. Two years later and I am still wading through this project. Trying to create something useful. Something that isn’t rubbish. In the process, I am discovering that this writing lark is harder than it looks!
But even though this matters deeply to me. Even though I love writing. Even though every thing I read about how to become a good writer starts with the advice – just write.
I often don’t write. My days are filled with other stuff. Stuff that isn’t writing.
How about you? What are the goals that really matter to you? The goals that year after year, you don’t quite manage to give enough time and energy to? It could be:
Creating a beautiful garden;
spending more time playing with the kids;
travelling to beautiful and exotic places;
learning to play an instrument or speak another language….
What is the goal that calls from your heart?
And …what gets in the way of you pursuing that goal?
There are lots of reasons why we don’t pursue these important goals with the necessary energy and passion. One reason that seems increasingly common is, ‘I am too busy.’
So what are we too busy doing?
If you analyse what you are too busy doing, you can divide your actions into:
1. Things that were genuinely, at that moment, a higher priority than the important but non urgent task.
For example: spending time with the people you love; caring for your fragile human body; doing meaningful work; earning enough money to pay the bills; volunteering for causes that matter to you…
These choices are valued actions. You are being the person you want to be. Life is full of conflicting priorities, can you notice these choices and be gentle to yourself about them?
2. Things that, at that moment, felt like they were a higher priority than the important but non urgent task but they actually weren’t.
For example: trying to impress or please people; trying to earn more money than you need; doing things just to get prestige or recognition; doing things to avoid unwanted feelings.
This is a recurring problem for many of us. I certainly keep getting hooked by these activities. I look back on my life and I have spent too much time focussing on things that seemed important at the time, but actually, from the perspective of a few months or years later, I realise didn’t really matter.
3. Things that, at that moment, didn’t even feel like they were a higher priority than the important but non urgent task.
This is basically all the things we do to procrastinate and avoid the harder stuff. It might be: watching inane TV or silly YouTube clips; checking in on Facebook; going shopping. (NB These activities can also be acts of self care – in which case they are category one activities – only you can decide this.)
At this point I could just tell you to make sure you focus your energy on the right things. But I don’t think that advice is very helpful. I know it doesn’t work for me.
So I want to encourage you to do something different. To start gently.
Just start by noticing with curiosity what you are doing. In real time. Notice which category your behaviour is in. You might also notice if you tend to berate yourself for spending time on the ‘wrong’ things. How effective has this harshness been for you? What would happen if, instead, you responded with compassionate understanding of your human failings?
Instead of harshness, could you notice how each behaviour feels? Notice how it feels in your body as you take these various actions? What emotions are you feeling? Notice which circumstances seem to encourage you to do which types of behaviour. Are there any common themes?
For me the ‘category two’ activities – the ones that seem important at the time but actually aren’t important- are often associated with a scrabbly feeling, like I am desperately trying to get something. At those times, if I pause and notice what is going on inside me; I realise that I am often hooked by thoughts that I am not good enough in some way and/or there isn’t enough of what I think I need. The best response to this seems to be to pause and breathe. To turn to myself in kindness. To be willing to be with myself and the thoughts that I am not adequate or the world is not the way I want it to be.
‘Category three’ activities – the ones where I know I am frittering time away – sometimes feel to me like I am hiding out. Trying not to think about the scary task I am avoiding. At other times these activities are accompanied by a whiny voice – ‘I don’t want to…I am too tired…I deserve a break…It is too hard…’ It feels like when I was a kid and I used to put my fingers in my ears and loudly say ‘I can’t hear you…LA…LA…LA…I can’t hear you’.
If I am courageous enough to pause and check in. I notice the thoughts and feelings I am trying to avoid. Can I turn towards these feelings with compassion, knowing they are part of being human?
I want to encourage you to do the same. Instead of trying to get it right. Instead of fighting with yourself.
Notice whether what you are doing is moving you towards your values; towards what matters to you or whether it is taking you away.
Notice what is going on inside you at those moments.
Be mindful and curious.
And then notice what happens next.
It may be that you will make a small move towards what matters. It may be that you won’t.
Could you notice that with compassion and curiosity?
According to Ludeman and Erlandson (2004). ‘Alpha’ executives make up 70% of senior executives. They are confident and intelligent, competitive and impatient. They like to be in charge.
‘Alpha’ executives don’t tend to listen well to others. They engage in dominance behaviours, (Schmid Mast and Hall 2009) such as:
Taking charge of the conversation
Talking down to people
Expressing strong opinions
Tending to steamroll others into doing what they want (Schmid Mast and Hall 2003)
Senior alpha executives can find it hard to let others influence their decision making. (See, Morrison et al. 2011)
Alpha executives often have unrealistic expectations of themselves and others. This can lead to burnout, both in themselves and in members of their team. Alpha executives can be dismissive of others feelings and can fail to notice the negative impact that their competitive and aggressive approach has on others. Colleagues and direct reports can sometimes experience the aggressive alpha behaviour as bullying.
Alpha’s often achieve results in the short to medium term; they look confident; they speak up in meetings. They look like potential C-Suite material and they get promoted.
But once they reach higher levels of management, the need for cooperation and collaboration grows and their dominance behaviours start to hold them back and sometimes even derail them.
I often coach executives who exhibit some, if not all, of those alpha behaviours. I enjoy working with them. I like their intelligence, their focus on results and honesty. It can also feel intimidating. The curiosity and exploration that is central to good coaching can seem like a waste of time to these executives – and they let me know this assessment in no uncertain terms!
How does ACT help these executives to develop more effective leadership behaviours?
An ACT-informed coaching approach would likely include:
– Identifying workable and unworkable behaviours
– Helping the executive to make better quality decisions
– Choosing values and choosing how to convert those values into action
– Developing compassion for self and others
– Broadening behaviour and improving the criteria the executive uses to select their behaviour in a given situation.
– Building psychological flexibility (of course!)
– Uncovering unhelpful internal rules that are controlling behaviour
In this post, I want to explore the tricky topic of working with these executives and their emotions.
My observation is that many, but not all, of these executives have learnt to disconnect from their own emotions. This disconnect is often contributing significantly to their insensitive and impatient behaviour. The behaviour is, in a sense, a form of running away from unwanted thoughts and feelings.
Executives have often donned corporate armour, in order to protect themselves, in the sometimes hostile environment of organisations. Whilst this armour can be helpful, it does make it hard for them to be emotionally intelligent and agile.
In many, the armour was actually created early in life. It may well have been adopted in the school years, as a response to the harsh experiences that many of us have during childhood. This means that many of these executives have never learnt to really notice and label their emotions, a core skill of emotional intelligence.
Emotionally intelligent leaders can tease out the different grades of their own and others emotion, for example separating impatience from frustration or anger. Emotionally intelligent leaders can notice emotions that may be pulling them in different directions. They can pause, notice their emotions and notice the urges that result from these emotions, without having to act on those impulses. They can hear the wisdom their emotions often offer, perhaps about the risks in a situation or how others may be feeling about something.
The lack of emotional awareness that some alpha executives experience is often coupled with avoidance of many of the ‘softer’ emotions. This does not mean, however, that the executives are genuinely emotionless, the emotions will still be present and will often drive behaviour unconsciously.
The aim of coaching alpha executives can often be to help them to learn to engage with their own emotions with more curiosity and wisdom.
This work can be scary for executives, many of them have an emotion phobia; where approaching certain emotions, such as sadness or fear, can make them freeze or escape. Just like with other exposure work, this needs to be done with the consent of the individual concerned and with gentleness and curiosity.
Often the most important thing that a coach can do in this situation is to help the executive to pause and notice. How does it feel in your body as you talk about this issue? And what does that tell you? And what do your values and the needs of the situation suggest you do next?
As people become more fluent with their own emotions, they become less driven by them and have a greater capacity to choose the most effective behaviour in a given moment.
As people become more open to their own emotions, they also become more aware and empathic towards others.
(For Australian Readers – I am running a workshop on this topic at the APS International Coaching Congress in Melbourne in November 13th to 15th)
We are experiencing a rapid increase in the incidence of ‘lifestyle’ disorders such as diabetes, obesity, cardiovascular and cerebrovascular disorders, depression and anxiety.
Dr Kelly Wilson (who IMHO wrote one of the best books I have ever read on psychotherapy) is hoping that contextual behavioural science and evolutionary science can help us to work out what can be done to understand and reverse this trend.
At a recent workshop, Kelly reflected on the impact of the 24/7, hyper-connected yet socially isolated world many of us inhabit and he kept coming back to:
‘We aren’t that kind of a monkey’.
Now Kelly knows we are hominids not monkeys, but ‘We aren’t that kind of hominid’ is a bit less catchy.
The hominid family includes humans and our close genetic relatives – gorillas, chimpanzees, bonobos and orang-utans. Just sit with that for a moment – think about what our ‘cousins’ need to thrive…
A sense of belonging?….Lots of fresh fruit and vegetables?….Time to rest?
What if many of the problems that beset us are because we are ignoring our most basic ‘monkey’ needs?
Based on an extensive review of the literature, Kelly suggests that, in order to flourish, you probably need to:
Minimise your exposure to toxins (physical and social)
Eat real food
Move your body
Give yourself more sleep/rest opportunities
Engage in meaningful activity
Cultivate your social network, and,
You can learn more about his suggestions here.
Now Kelly isn’t saying that, if we do this, there will be no more illness or distress. What he is suggesting is, if we look after ourselves in these ways. Then, when stressors visit us, as they will, we will have a little more resilience. We won’t be living at the limit of our resources. We will be less vulnerable to those ‘lifestyle’ disorders.
And during less challenging times, perhaps we will be more likely to flourish?
Read that list again:
Minimise your exposure to toxins (physical and social)
Eat real food
Move your body
Give yourself more sleep/rest opportunities
Engage in meaningful activity
Cultivate your social network, and,
and ask yourself:
What would happen if I were to care for myself in these simple ways?
What would be one small step towards self care that I could take in just one of those areas?
Kelly travels the world delivering workshops. He currently in Australia teaching counselors and psychologists how to support their clients in making these simple but challenging changes. You can get details at his website. Highly recommended.