RAVELED SLEAVE OF CARE

It’s been a long time since ‘lunch is for wimps’ was said in earnest.

We are softer now, aren’t we?  The current obsession is sleep.  Are any of us getting enough?

A cursory browse through ‘leadership’ blogs, or tips from high achievers, still reveals

  • Daily ‘gym by 5.00 am’ badges of honour.
  • The sleep message hasn’t really got through yet.
  • The deep association of not needing to rest and being successful seems to be hard to shift.

Or perhaps it’s not about a need to achieve at all.

Perhaps ‘sleep’ becomes less ‘valued’ than a simple sense of ‘at last, this is my time away from them…’

Perhaps there is no other time to escape.

An article in The Atlantic this month suggests we may not be alone.  Animals are experiencing sleep disruption too.

The article describes how over the last few years a nocturnal shift has occurred in many mammals.  From antelope in Tanzania to elephants in Mozambique, mammals that had once roamed primarily in the day are now roaming at night.

The reason? To escape humans.

The pattern can be seen apparently in dozens of species that come into regular contact with humans.

It could be called an avoidance strategy on a vast scale.

Are 21st century human beings trying to do the same?

METRICS SCHMETRICS

What sort of process does your company use to recruit new team members?

More and more organisations are outsourcing their recruitment to ‘test centres’ and relying on a raft of psychometric tools to categorise and profile applicants.

Good luck with that.

(A parallel industry comes to life of course to train candidates how to ‘pass’ these tests.)

At a recent team day, we all fell to imagining more helpful ways of recruiting people you would really enjoy working with.

Interestingly, only half the team felt that checking on essential skills was necessary.

This sub group thought that skills could, largely, be taught.

But character traits in certain situations? Hard to change.

Here were some of the suggestions for successful recruitment to a team:

Imagine being trapped next to the candidate in the corner of a large boisterous table at the Christmas party. How does it feel? Want to chat and drink when there’s little chance of escape?

(A build on this idea was to imagine the party on a boat)

From sporty members of the team came the idea of playing any sport where personal performance over time is visible – golf or snooker perhaps – and note temper loss or quick-to-frustration tendencies.

And then the team became quite power mad.

Why not travel together with the candidate on public transport routes that are uncomfortable, crowded, prone to cancellation – under time pressure?

Look, it was all light hearted and during a break.

Yet I can’t get that last idea out of my mind.

If you find yourself asked to an interview on a rush hour station platform….

You heard it here first.

CHANGE, DENIAL, AND REINVENTION

Changing a culture involves choices; what to keep, what to lose, what to grow.

Or does it?

Two helpful gurus suggest more contemplation.

Terry Pratchett was characteristically forthright:

‘If you do not know where you come from then you don’t know where you are, and if you don’t know where you are, then you don’t know where you’re going.

And if you don’t know where you’re going, you’re probably going wrong.’

While Buddha….

‘If you want to know your past, look into your present condition.

If you want to know your future, look into your present actions.’

The contemplation route is little longer and a little harder.

It should be.

Changing course in a business, a career, a life, is always more nuanced than a mere traffic light exercise can describe.

And the keep / lose approach tends to play to our vanity; we can hide away parts of the story that don’t suit.

So brands with a long history are tempted to re-invent themselves by losing an important part of their story; businesses choose to forget their origins in the process of reinvention.

Successful and healthy change is steered through full awareness of all the story’s ingredients.

What those wise gurus are protecting us from as we try to change is simple.

They are saving us from denial.

THE GENTLE ART OF PESSIMISM

Who wants to hear bad news?

Who wants to work with a bunch of pessimists?

We are surrounded by constant reminders to be upbeat and positive at work.

Yet this may be another example of human hardwired biases that lead us all into comfortable self-delusion writes Ben Yagoda in ‘The Atlantic’ this month.

He takes us through dozens of the unconscious biases (apparently there are over 180) from which we all suffer.

The subject of cognitive biases and faulty heuristics emerged in the ‘70s as social scientists Amos Tversky and Daniel Kahneman (author of ‘Thinking Fast and Slow’, and ‘Nudge’ with Richard Thaler) wrote about their research.

Kahneman introduced us to the notion of System 1 and System 2 thinking, and showed how these built- in judging errors are all neatly nestled in the System 1 part of our brains.

Are these biases unalterable?

Some of them do seem to get us into hot water time and time again.

The optimism bias for example is responsible for us all consistently underestimating both cost and time for just about every project in which we are ever involved.

Kahneman feels that it may be impossible to effect any changes on System1.

He suggests taking conscious counter-acting steps.

Check in with others outside our projects and organisations, for example. (An outsider might see what we are unable to imagine let alone acknowledge.)

Or adopt a procedure or checklist.

There is a simple process (an idea from another cognitive psychologist, Gary Klein) that might just save us.

He recommends a project ‘pre-mortem’.

Ask some of the team to imagine the task in hand going horribly, horribly wrong and write it all down.

It helps the team think ahead more realistically.

‘Pessimist’ is a label that so deeply out of fashion that our optimism bias is surely enjoying maximum influence.

The description ‘carrying out a pre-mortem’ might just save the day. And us.

REPRESSIVE TOLERANCE

Spike Lee has been talking about his new film BlacKkKlansman and told his interviewer Matt Frei from Channel 4 that to understand what’s going on around us politically and socially we should look at history.

He reminds us that ‘America First’ was first used as a rallying cry by the KKK in the 1920s.  And now its Number 45’s presidential strategy. (Lee calls him Agent Orange). Spike has a point.

Sometimes a grainy old text or reference can suddenly illuminate the crisp technicolour present. In the 1960s Herbert Marcuse was a hero of the young Liberal Left in the US. And the ‘grainy old text’ that throws some light for me on the current state of organisational health of so many of our institutions is ‘One Dimensional Man’, published in 1964.

While working with a quite (very) compliant culture recently, I was struck by how tricky everyone found it to generate new alternatives during a discussion about the future. Marcuse talks of a gap between two dimensions in which critical thought, and the possibilities of futures different from the present (the current system) can flourish. The dimensions are (roughly) ‘the system’ – and its opposite.

How can this opposite be expressed?

In culture and expression that is different, is counter to the orthodoxies of the system, delights in conflict, and can distinguish between real and false needs.  By the time we are all homogenised into wanting (not really needing) the same things through technology and convergent media, and accustomed to a magnolia ‘culture’ that is folded into one mainstream flattened accepted form, the gap has disappeared and we are lost.

Too comfortable, under the impression that we have free will, and in a fantasy position of congratulation about how tolerant we are, we become merely -one dimensional- and incapable of change.

Terrifying, isn’t it?

It’s an old book, Marcuse failed to see the social movements of the late 60s, and for lots of reasons it now feels dated. But in some ways how startlingly relevant.  Too comfortable and ‘tolerant’? It might just be time to wake up your ‘unhappy consciousness’.

One question only needed.
Is there enough of the ‘opposite’ in your organisation?

GROUP NOT THINK

Maintaining your mental health if you live in the UK at the moment is unlikely to rely on keeping up with news and current events.

If, on the other hand you are looking to gen up on dysfunctional group behaviour, our domestic Political Party Punch and Judy instant story creation is both illuminating and entertaining.

Cast your mind back to the last time you were participating in a group endeavour, perhaps a workshop or group discussion, and began to feel that nothing constructive or of relevance to the task in hand was happening.

The group begins to change its mental state from being engaged with its purpose to dissipating its energy in – anti-purpose.

Wilfred Bion, the wisest of the wise on all things ‘group’ (1897-1979), alerted us to the changes in mental states that groups experience.

He described a framework for understanding the contrasting ways in which a group – sometime temporarily, sometimes changeably – will operate.

A ‘work group mentality’ is operating where a group’s disposition and dynamics enable it to manage shared tensions, anxieties and relationships. The group members all demonstrate an ability to relate to and to engage with each other and the purpose for which the group has formed.

Bion described the outcome for such a group as the ‘capacity for realistic hard work’.

By contrast, a group that can be described as having a ‘basic assumption mentality’ has been taken over by strong emotions (and this can happen so quickly) of anxiety, fear, hate, love, anger, guilt or depression and will lose touch with the group’s purpose.

The group will ‘become caught up in an unconscious group delusion’.

The outcome he described here as ‘stagnation’.

These ‘delusions’ or ‘assumptions’ tend to revolve around 3 unconscious force fields – dependence (a leader / moderator will relieve the group of all anxiety), pairing (the group will rely on the output of a pairing (s) to rescue them), and fight or flight (some common enemy is perceived within or without the group inviting fight or flight).

While all group situations involving fallible human beings are both fluid and complex, one behavioural truth here is universal.

The group’s shift from real purpose to assumed new purpose is unconscious.

If a group becomes dominated by a basic assumption mentality, it is unlikely to be able to recognise the change. It may even feel as if the work is going well. Or even better than before.

An emotional state is avoided. An assumed (unspoken) anti-purpose now acts as (an unconscious) substitute for the real work.

We’re watching all this unfold in front of our eyes, aren’t we?

SHORT POPPY SYNDROME

Swoosh. A scythe swings into view and a tall poppy, easily standing proud of the rest in the field, is cut down.

A brilliant image for a disheartening habit: that of ‘bringing down’ anyone who appears to outperform or overachieve: tall poppy syndrome.  So vivid is the image that it’s hard to drag our attention to the rest of the field.

Isn’t the expanse of ‘short’ poppies worth thinking about? If the analogy illustrates performance, why aren’t they all – tall?

Herbert Simon, who won the Nobel Prize for Economics in 1978, developed a powerful theory early in his career about human decision-making: ‘bounded rationality’.

Choices, economic decisions, and behaviours are driven by instinctive notions of ‘good enough’. The pursuit of the best doesn’t happen in real life, as there is never enough information (or skill) available for such a complex computation.

The now familiar word ‘satisfice’ was coined- a cross between ‘satisfy’ and ‘suffice’.

And this may be where short poppies need our attention.

A ‘good enough’ option is also a ‘not terrible’ option.

From behavioural science we know that within organisations across the spectrum there is huge agreement on what constitutes a terrible option. It is one that invites humiliation, or blame.

The short poppies have satisficed.

They have actively sought to avoid having blame rain down on them.

The cutting down of the taller outlier is simply a way of rationalising what has been a strongly instinctive choice to stay low.

How do we help all the poppies grow tall?

Rather than concentrate on that cutting down drama, we could concentrate on reducing blame within the culture.

If the fear of humiliation or blame is reduced, then ‘good enough’ could become very good indeed.

ANECDOTE ANXIETY

A criticism was levelled at a previous (Blair/Brown) government, particularly towards the end, that cabinet had become driven by the ‘how will this look?’ question rather than the more useful ‘what shall we do?’.

That ‘give a good account of yourself whatever the situation’ virus has spread, it seems, across the land. It’s a power-point contagion. In recent work with teams, a heated debate about the choice of the right visuals or presentation sound tracks seems to have noticeably squeezed out any real conversation about …….what is actually going on.

It might be the case that the (lovely and impressive) presentation technology available to us all has swapped the gift wrap for the gift, but that would be too easy a target.  The ‘lights, camera, action’ approach appears to take root wherever there is – anxiety: wherever the leadership ethos tends towards the narcissistic, and wherever blame is the handiest currency in circulation.

And it happens so easily.

Therapists know all about this.

Ask those who know, and they will describe a similar behaviour seen amongst anxious clients.  The individual might begin to think on the way to the session about what they are going to say this time. The sub text here is that they feel they must impress (even entertain?) the therapist with some worthwhile material, and that they must fill any possible gaps with experiences and stories.

(Remember that the client is paying for the session. Interesting.)

Some colleagues report a process of elaboration as the client nears the consulting room that would qualify for 5 star reviews anywhere on the Edinburgh Fringe.

But the point is that the therapist knows all about this.

Time, technique, care and attention will eventually win through.  The truth will be reached, the anecdotes discarded, the client able to explore that which needs to be explored.

Leadership teams don’t have these skills. The constructed drama will continue to disguise reality. Yet all they need to do is take one leaf from the therapy room’s book.

Create a safe space for discussion.

Let your teams spend their precious time thinking, critically and honestly, out loud with you: not aiming for a video award.