What Can You Do When You Feel In Over Your Head?

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:

How to Clarify Your Values

Acceptance – here are some posts on handling painful emotions

Defusion Techniques

If you want to read more about leading in VUCA environments, these resources are good:

Simple Habits for Complex Times

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.

You must have a good reason to….

The Lego AisleLast week I was wandering around Kmart trying to find an adapter plug. In my search I found myself walking through the Lego aisle. I was taken aback by the fierce feeling of joy and longing that hit me as I walked into that aisle. When my son, Patrick, was little we would spend a lot of time in this aisle. Pat would carefully examine each box – trying to decide, ‘Is a Luke Skywalker + Desert Skiff set better than a Hans Solo + StarFighter set?’ I would get bored and impatient as he carefully pondered these questions and start to hurry him along.

Standing in that aisle, those memories came back to me with such intensity. I felt so proud of the young man that Pat has become and at the same time I longed to go back in time, hug that earnest little boy and gently tell that younger version of myself not to be in such a rush, that these moments were precious.

I drank in that memory and walked on. A moment later, I saw these bargain jeans.$7 Jeans

I thought, ‘How can they do that for $7?’ and unbidden, thoughts of the recent news about deaths in garment factories in Bangladesh came to mind. I felt sad, guilty and powerless.

Someone watching me might have been surprised by the emotions I seemed to be experiencing. They might have come up with a story for why I seemed upset looking at a pile of jeans or why I had a tender smile in the Lego aisle. It is unlikely that they would accurately work out what was going on inside me.

These two moments show why perspective taking can be so hard.

On the surface they seem very similar. I was reminded of something and then I felt an emotion. But they are quite different in one important respect. In the Lego Aisle I was reminded of something that had actually happened to me. But in the jeans aisle the ideas that provoked the painful emotions weren’t a result of my direct experience. I had looked at a series of squiggles on a computer screen a few days earlier and now seeing some jeans makes me sad. This difference might seem pedantic but it has some important practical implications.

The second incident requires language.  Language means that a pair of jeans can make me sad because of something that has happened to some people I have never met, in a place I have never been to. This is an important difference between humans and other animals.  It is part of the reason that humans are much more vulnerable to emotional pain than other animals. It also means it can be incredibly hard to interpret, predict and influence our own and other people’s emotions.

Say my manager tells me I haven’t done a good job on a piece of work. My response won’t just be to that event, it won’t even just relate to all the other experiences I have had that my mind tells me are similar  – conversations with this manager, with previous managers or other colleagues and possibly even that time 40 years ago when Mrs Leary (the scary teacher) shouted at me in grade 3. (I asked to go to the bathroom 10 minutes after we had returned from lunch break, she found this annoying.) Experiences I have had in the real world won’t be the only factors influencing me. I will also be influenced by what I have learnt through language. It could be my Dad telling me that most managers are fools, the theory I learnt at university about how these conversations should go or the story I have about myself that I am disorganised and incompetent.  The factors influencing my response could be numerous. (Psychological flexibility is the skill of not being pushed around by these responses and is the central theme of this blog.)

This means that when my manager tries to do the right thing and work out my perspective on the feedback, she is likely to get it wrong.

It is almost impossible to really see the world through another person’s eyes. Insoo Kim Berg used to say ‘You must have a good reason to…’ She believed that people’s behaviour always made sense to them. If the behaviour doesn’t make sense to us then it is because we don’t have enough information. Her response was to ask questions with a stance of genuine curiosity and a real interest in understanding the other person and their behaviour.

Unsurprisingly, research shows that negotiations lead to better outcomes when at least one party asks good questions. Negotiators tend to make false assumptions about the other person’s needs and motives. Acting on those assumptions leads to poorer outcomes for both parties.

So next time you need to have a difficult conversation with someone – do spend time considering their perspective before the conversation but also make sure you remain curious throughout the conversation, gathering information that will help you both to reach a good outcome.

“You must have a good reason to…” Insoo Kim Berg

The Science of Gratitude (or What your Mother didn’t teach you about how to say ‘Thank You’)

Spring Bouquet 032909Saying thank you is important. Your parents probably spent hours drilling this into you. A polite ‘Thank you’ smooths social interaction and makes life a little kinder.

But what your Mum probably didn’t teach you, was how to express heartfelt gratitude in a way that enriches your relationships, has genuine meaningful impact on the other person and can also make you happier.

Expressing sincere appreciation is risky. The other person is often pleased but sometimes they seem uncomfortable and occasionally they seem to see it as an invitation to tell you how disappointing you are. Which can be unpleasant.

Is it possible to be more skilful in the way we express gratitude?

Behavioural science has some suggestions.

How Behavioural Psychology Can Increase The Impact Of Gratitude

In the new bookMindfulness, Acceptance and Positive Psychology,  Mairéad Foody et al analyse a positive psychology intervention called the gratitude visit.

This activity involves writing a letter of gratitude and delivering it in person.

Foody et al suggest that, in behavioural terms, gratitude involves a complex interplay between the thanker and thankee.

If you thank someone for something they don’t see as important or if your ‘thank you’ feels transactional, that you are doing it out of obligation or as a reward for good behaviour rather than as a genuine expression of what really matters to you, then the interaction can easily go awry.

So the first step is to ask yourself whether expressing gratitude is a behaviour that you value. Is it an expression of your best self?

If your answer to this is ‘Yes’ (and research would encourage you in this) then the next step is to realise that:

‘Gratitude requires complex levels of perspective taking, in terms of recognising what you value for yourself and how you perceive this should be … appreciated by others’

“Gratitude is an intimate expression of shared values that goes above and beyond what is felt’

Mairéad Foody, Yvonne Barnes-Holmes & Dermot Barnes-Holmes

This means that if you want your expression of gratitude to have the best chance of positively impacting on the other person, it would be wise to consider:

1. How does what happened link to the values of the other person? For example, ‘Thanks for signing my expenses form when I don’t have the receipts’ is unlikely to link to your manager’s values but ‘Thank you for trusting me enough to know I wouldn’t put in a false expenses claim. I promise to be more careful with my receipts next time’ might have more meaning for them.

2. How does what happened link to your own values? And where is the overlap between your values and theirs? It is in this shared space that deeper connection can form.

Taking a moment to think through these questions is likely to increase the chance that your expression of gratitude feels meaningful to the other person. And if, despite your best efforts at perspective taking, your thanks still don’t seem to have the positive impact you were hoping for – you will know that in that moment you were doing your best to be the person you want to be, which isn’t bad.

So…

I want to thank you for reading this blog post to the end; for trusting that I will do my best to write something helpful and meaningful that, in some small way, enriches your life.

Thank you!

PS For Brisbane based readers  – I am running another low-cost ‘Introduction to ACT’ session on May 26th. Details here.

(How to) Stay on The F*****G Bus

I recently came across Helsinki bus theory, an interesting metaphor by the photographer Arno Minkinnen which is usually applied to creativity.  Being a big fan of bus metaphors, I started using it with my coaching clients and it resonates, so let me explain:

In Helsinki all buses follow the same route at the start of their journey.  For at least 1 km all buses take the same route and make the same stops, irrespective of their number and eventual destination.

Helsinki 3

After this they diverge and the differently numbered buses start to separate into more distant and less familiar parts of Helsinki.

HelsinkiLet’s imagine that in the metaphor you are a new artist who wants to create innovative art.  Each bus stop represents one year of your life, so the third bus stop represents 3 years of learning your craft and trying new things out.

After 3 years people begin to notice your work but they start by comparing it to people who have done similar work before.  Being driven to do something unique, you feel discouraged at finding you’re following someone else’s path.   So what do you do?

You get off the bus, go back to the terminus and try another route.

This time you take a different number bus in the hope that it will lead to something different.

But the same thing happens.  You had the intention of changing to something new, but you get compared to others and feel discouraged.  So back to the terminus you go. As Minkinnen says “This goes on all your creative life: always showing new work, always being compared to others.”

So what’s the answer?

Well the advice offered by Minkinnen is simple:

Stay on the fucking bus.

Exactly!  Stay on the bus!  And this is true not just for creative endeavours, but for anything that requires persistence, including career, life or behaviour change.  As this HBR article makes clear, it is long term commitment to a direction which is often the key to success.

The Problem with Staying on the Bus

Unfortunately, most of us find staying on the bus very difficult, mainly because we are directed by our short term thoughts and feelings. Just as in the case of the artist, we feel as though nothing has really changed, that this is just the same as before, that maybe we should have taken a different route.

This is where we all need help to understand how to stay on the bus.

How to Stay on the Bus

The first step is to get clear on which bus you want to get on.  I suggest a combination of decision science, The Dip and values work for this.

But next we need to learn how to deal with the thoughts and emotions that come from staying on the bus.

Let’s be clear that it is not the feelings themselves that force us off the bus.  It is our interpretation of those feelings – our relationship to them – which leads us to get off early.

The Role of Psychological Flexibility

Psychological flexibility is the ability to see our immediate experience from different perspectives.  For example, instead of thinking about our immediate thoughts and emotions, we can consider our longer term values.  Instead of seeing emotions as reliable guides to behaviour, we can place them in a different context as the flipside of what really matters.   Instead of running away automatically from certain thoughts, we can see them as just learned behaviour and not something we necessarily need to listen to or struggle with.

With practice, we can become less influenced by our short term impulses (‘this is just the same as last time!’) and more by our long term values.

This can help us to stay on the bus, and to persist even when our immediate thoughts and emotions make persisting difficult.

Passengers on the bus