How Promising Managers Sometimes Derail Their Careers…and How to Prevent It

According to The Centre for Creative Leadership almost 1 in 2 of the managers who have the makings of success fail to reach their potential. They ‘derail’ and are either demoted, fired, plateau or opt for early retirement (William A Gentry).

There seem to be some key problems that cause this derailment:

  • Failing to build effective interpersonal relationships
  • Showing poor team leadership
  • Having problems adapting to changes in the environment
  • Lacking growth and development in the face of the changing demands of their role
  • Failing to meet business objectives (due to either failing to follow through or being overambitious )
  • Maintaining a narrow focus, so that they aren’t able to supervise outside of their area of functional expertise

What seems to happen is that these managers are defensive in the face of challenging feedback, don’t learn from their mistakes and don’t identify and address their weaknesses.

Why do they do that?

I suspect that they lack self-compassion. Self-compassion makes it easier to be open to difficult feedback; learn from mistakes and admit failings. Self compassion can probably be increased*.

These managers also need to get better at noticing when their approach is ineffective and then quickly adjusting their behaviour. A starting point here may be to learn to become more mindful and psychologically flexible.

So, if you are a beginning manager, it might be good to focus on becoming more mindful, flexible and compassionate.

* For readers based in Brisbane, I am running a low cost public workshop on self-compassion on Sunday 6th May 2012.

How to Build Engagement and Vitality

Are you willing to invest energy in your work? Do you persist in the face of difficulty and give your full attention to your work when you are at work? Do you feel like your work matters? Do you care about doing a good job? If your answer is ‘yes‘ then you are engaged with your work.

Rob and I are highly engaged with this project – we hope that this comes through in our writing. I believe that applying ACT principles to this project has helped us to maintain our energy and enthusiasm.

In our experience, ACT builds workplace engagement in a number of ways:

  1. When people are connected to their values and are able to live their values in their work they have a deep sense of meaning and purpose. They experience vitality. Rob describes here what that looks like in practice. Here is the values statement Rob and I wrote when we started working together. We spent time on it because we knew that if we were to persist with this, if we were to give energy to this project when we have so many other competing priorities, then we would need to be clear about why it mattered to us.
  2. When people feel a deep connection between their work and their values they become more willing to persist in the face of difficulty. They care about the outcome. They want to do their best. This week I gave a talk to a group of senior managers and CEO’s (arranged by the lovely people at Arete Executive.) I was frankly terrified. I tried to wriggle out of my fear by minimising the importance.“I don’t need any more work. My consultancy is really busy. It doesn’t matter whether they like my talk” but Rob, bless his heart, wouldn’t let me do that. He reminded me that the purpose of my talk wasn’t to ‘sell’ my consulting services  or the training sessions that Rob and I offer together (although that would be nice!). It was to connect the audience to some information that might genuinely help them (and their employees) to have more vitality in their lives. I felt more anxious after this conversation (Thanks Rob!) but I also had a deep sense that it was worth it.
  3. When people become skilful at ‘defusing’* from their thoughts and accepting** their feelings, they have more energy and attention to give to their work as they aren’t wasting energy trying to get their thoughts and feelings ‘right’.
  4. When people are in contact with the present moment, they make better decisions and tend to respond more flexibly and effectively to their circumstances.

Both the research and our experience is suggesting that ACT will be central to future workplace engagement initiatives. I am excited!

Explaining the jargon:

*Defusion is an ACT term that means having some space between you and your thoughts. Rather than seeing the world through your thoughts, you see your thoughts as just thoughts.

**Acceptance is about the reality that when we take action in line with our values, then often painful emotions (like anxiety) turn up. If we want rich and meaningful lives, sometimes we need to make space for those painful emotions.

Care with Labels (2) – Non Talent Management?

And so it came to pass that one day, having been considered ‘talent’ for most of my life, and having spent most of my energy on defending this ludicrous position, I eventually became known as ‘non talent’.  Anti talent? Whatever, I did not make the talent pool in my next consultancy job, and it hurt.

I only found out there was a talent pool when some whipper snapper – who I had recruited – blurted out that he was on it.  And what effect, dear reader, did this label have on my performance?  Needless to say, I did not handle it well:

1. My first reaction was childish.  I sulked and withdrew.  I stopped all discretionary effort and focused on trying to find out who was in the talent pool and what they had that I didn’t.

2. My second reaction was to believe that now, suddenly, I was not living up to my potential.  This knocked my previously overinflated confidence, and may have been a good thing, except for the fact that I very quickly bought into a story that I was failing. This led what I would loosely call ‘unfocused activity’ or panic.  I was thrashing about, trying to find answers to a problem that probably only existed in my own head.

3. Eventually I became depressed and stuck in career paralysis.  My job became one of simply getting through each day.

I know there are benefits to talent schemes, other than profits for consultancies.  But I have to ask the question whether these benefits are not hugely outweighed by the costs.  On the one hand, the talent label seems to be a way of reinforcing peoples’ tendency to recruit from their own, which leads to groupthink and a serious amount of overconfidence in one’s ability.  Financial crisis anyone?

On the other, the ‘non talent’ label leads to a sense that we are not worthwhile, and that we must defer to those who are.  In terms of performance, this takes us back full circle.  Julian McNally told us:

“Labels, including diagnostic ones, are only useful to the extent they enable constructive action”.

I’ll leave you to decide how useful the talent label is at either individual or organisational level, and whether it enables enough constructive action to justify its use.

How Using ACT in the Workplace Could Change Almost Everything – Some Slides

Yesterday I spent the afternoon at the ANZ ACT conference with an extraordinary group of ACT practitioners who, like Rob and I, are committed to using best practice to create workplaces where people find meaning and purpose in their work.

The session was wonderful – although I did keep having the thought that it would have been even better if Rob had been there with me!

Here are the slides for that session: ACT in the Workplace ANZACT 2011

The session was a reprise of a session that Rob and I delivered at Parma – a detailed handout for that session is here.

Myths and Mistakes in Goal Setting

I have recently come across some highly competent professionals who say they have become reluctant to set goals.  They don’t think that goal setting really works.

I am interested in this. I wonder if they have run into problems with goal setting because they have adopted some common, counter-productive goal setting myths. So here are some problematic but common goal setting ideas.

  1. Spend a lot of time visualising success.  A mistake.  This can actually decrease motivation –for those of us who are upbeat, imagining the wonderful outcome in detail may trick us into feeling like we have actually experienced the positive outcome, so we don’t need to do it in real life.  Or the visualisation can trigger a cynical response from our mind: ‘Yeh, Like that would happen!’ or ‘Won’t it be terrible if I don’t achieve this’. Instead, spend time making an action plan. Run through the plan in your mind to see if you can identify any likely problems that you need to deal with.
  2. Spend a lot of time getting your thinking right. Another mistake. Having confidence that you will achieve the outcome is very helpful as it encourages persistence – but this confidence only really comes from experiences of success in the real world rather than trying to persuade yourself that you will succeedwithout any meaningful evidence to back up the belief.  Instead,
    • Accept that if you move out of your comfort zone your mind is likely to start to chatter. Thank your mind for this and gently carry on.
    • Divide the steps up into bite sized manageable chunks – as you experience success your confidence will grow. And, accept that each time you move forward, your mind is likely to start chattering again.
  3. Rewarding yourself for progress – this is kind of odd.  As if you are in two parts – the part that doles out a reward and the part that does the task.  Think back – how many times do you actually follow through on this?  Do you really, genuinely only allow yourself to watch ‘Gavin and Stacey’ once the ironing is done? Does this strategy really work for you?  Are you genuinely more likely to do the ironing because you know that then you will be ‘allowed’ to watch ‘Gavin and Stacey’?  I think that this is a tiny bit psychotic (sorry)! Most of us think we will follow through with our plans to ‘reward’ ourselves but then we either just give ourselves the reward anyway (and justify it with ‘Well I have had a hard day at work and I am sure I will do the ironing later’) or we do the task and don’t give ourselves the reward (‘When I lose 5kg I will treat myself to a massage’ – Yeh right, I bet you will!). Instead, link your goals to your values. Ask yourself: What is important about this?  How does taking this action move me towards being who I want to be in the world?
  4. ‘Rewarding’* others for progress – e.g. giving a bonus. This may work in the short term but it is often ultimately de -motivating.  If an external reward is attached to something I would have done anyway, (e.g. doing my best at work) then,
    • Doing my best can start to feel like something I ‘have to do’ rather than ‘choose to do’ which is a punishing feeling
    • I stop doing my best if the ‘reward’ isn’t available
    • The ‘reward’ has to keep getting bigger for it to feel like a reward  and if it doesn’t then I will tend to stop doing my best
    • If I don’t get the ‘reward’, I feel punished

Instead, start from the assumption that your employees want to do a good job.  If possible, pay them a little over the market rate so they don’t feel taken for granted. Manage them and the organisation well, so it is easy and intrinsically rewarding for them to do a good job.  (More on this in other posts)

5. Setting challenging goals. For some personality types this works well. People who enjoy risk are motivated by ‘audacious’ goals.  These folk have a tendency to climb Mount Everest and then become motivational speakers who want to teach us ‘how to climb your inner Mount Everest’. Ignore them if you don’t have the same love of risk. Instead, set goals that feel achievable and meaningful to you.

Coming soon – more tips on effective goal setting

* A note on rewards – In this post I am using the term ‘reward’ in the way it is commonly used i.e. giving someone something external (like money or praise) when they do what you want. From the perspective of behavioural science this isn’t an accurate use of the word. There is an excellent discussion of this here

What is Psychological Flexibility?

The main focus of ACT is to increase something called psychological flexibility.  But what is psychological flexibility and why is it important?

Of all the psychological phenomena that we have studied, this is the one that is of by far the most help to the people we work with in organisations.  Becoming more psychologically flexible helps people not just cope with stress but to do more of what it is they really value.  So what exactly is it?

Psychological flexibility has been defined as “the ability to contact the present moment more fully as a conscious human being and to change, or persist in, behavior when doing so serves valued ends” (Biglan, Hayes, & Pistorello, 2008).

‘Contacting the present more fully’ means willing to be present with difficult thoughts and emotions and to accept ourselves as we are, not as we think we should be.  This is a critical difference, because research shows that trying to get rid of our difficult thoughts and emotions increases their frequency, strength and duration (Wegner, 1994).

It also helps to understand psychological flexibility’s opposite orientation—experiential avoidance (EA).  EA is the tendency to avoid or control unpleasant thoughts and feelings, even when doing so creates problems for a person.  For example, someone who has the thought that they “are stupid” may avoid situations (e.g., a classroom) that might embarrass them.  However, this strategy has the effect of systematically narrowing one’s options in life.

It’s easy to see how EA can be a problem in career change, but empirical evidence also associates EA with anxiety, depression, substance abuse, poor work performance and chronic stress.  Conversely, becoming more psychologically flexible allows people to cope with life more effectively and to derive wellbeing as a consequence of valued living.

Being psychologically flexible doesn’t make life easier or more pleasant.  But it makes it more vital and  values-directed.  And that, incidentally, is what most of our clients want from their career change; a life worth living.