IN, OUT, SHAKE IT ALL ABOUT

A team chat the other day about the resurgence of board games became a deeper conversation way beyond winning and losing.

We found ourselves talking about belonging versus …..not.

One team member noted a horrible personal downward spiral at a recent family Monopoly game. Luck was not with him. Throw by throw his position in the game deteriorated.

The teasing (and low level swaggering) from family members became more intense. He said he began to understand what it might be like to belong to a marginalised resistance group. (In his excitement at recalling the feeling, he quoted the world’s number one terrorist organisation.)

And so the discussion about ‘not belonging’ began.

It appears that feeling excluded literally hurts.

Neuroscience suggests that the same part of the brain – the dorsal anterior cingulate cortex – is active when physical pain is experienced as when the social/emotional pain of being excluded or ostracised is felt. So the language we all use such as ‘hurt feelings’ is completely accurate.

This matters because social belonging is a fundamental psychological need.

Not only is a series of harmful psychological consequences caused by being rejected, this avalanche of pain is produced regardless of who did the rejecting. An individual or group that you truly despise? Their rejection of you will still sting.

Yet, responses to the process of ostracism are amazing.

More and stronger attempts are made to connect and co-operate to restore what is missing. Skills such as co-operation and reading social information improve. ‘Exclusion’ is not a simple casting choice.

The ramifications are huge, and generally underestimated.

The ability to include everyone begins to feel like one of the most important skills we never talk about.
Time to shake it all about.

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?

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.

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?

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.

FUTURE SHOCK

In 1970, the futurist Alvin Toffler, a bit of a technology guru, predicted a time to come in his book ‘Future Shock’.

He described how society would develop in such a way that we might not be able to handle….information.

The day would come when we would receive, constantly, so much information and at such speed that we would not be able to deal with it. Or ourselves. Society would morph into an anxiety driven mess.

He wrote Future Shock in 1970.

(One or two predictions were a little weird. Can we say disposable clothes have caught on in any significant way? Disposable fashion seems to be quite a different thing).

Amongst the changes he saw developing was the notion of an ‘adhocracy’ – that businesses and enterprises would become self-organised in a more fluid and adaptive and –adhoc -way.  This would be a part reaction to the need to respond in a more agile way to so much ‘input’.

While the ‘too much information’ has certainly arrived, what about ‘adhocracy’?  Has that happened?

Oddly, no.

The more that information sources multiply (authenticity unknown) the more ‘overload’ seems to encourage surprising behaviours. And most surprising is the effect on that instinct towards structure and control.

From working across different organisational cultures, of different sizes, it looks suspiciously as if there is a pretty linear relationship between information overload and… LESS ‘adhocracy’.

The more teams I see, the more clear the pattern becomes.

What looks on the surface like a relaxed new way of being (casual dress, first names used, less formal language around the business and what needs doing) emerges as a thin disguise for less autonomy, and for responsibility and authority to be taken to ever more centralised and senior levels.  Sometimes this rigidity and control may now exceed anything experienced before the accurately predicted information overload.

Come back Alvin – help us understand.

How did this happen?

And how do we make it stop

PROTECTION RACKET

There’s something weird in the neighbourhood. And no-one to call.

A new tenant moved in nearby. The car is longer than each of the little terrace houses is wide.

Several of these big beasts have appeared recently.

On the underground, a backpack took down a young passenger.  Nothing serious, just that the backpack appeared to be fortified with some tank-like material.

A small trampling incident on a station platform. Again, nothing serious, except that the trampler’s sandals appeared to have soles not unlike car tyres in size and heft.

These are but tiny examples of a pattern of super-strong military grade defence design of everyday objects: where no proportional threat exists.

Leonard Lauder (Estée Lauder Companies) used to hypothesise that lipstick sales were an economic indicator.  When confidence ebbs and everyone feels that the economic future looks bleak, then small luxuries or indulgences – eg lipsticks – are purchased, rather than high price items.

Is this ‘fortress design’ pattern an indicator of something significant?

It’s fear, isn’t it?

A general level of anxiety about stuff, the world, and everything may be unconsciously influencing this trend towards over-sized, robustly made, ‘don’t mess with me’ design.

And there is an organisational version too.

Have you noticed how acceptable / common it is for meeting attendees to place an open laptop between themselves and others?

And to ensure their personal supply of coffee / water etc is maintained independently of anyone else’s needs?

There is something weird going on.

No one is an island, none of us self-sufficient; and no one (really) needs an armoured vehicle or accessories in a city.

Yet a pattern of protection is visible everywhere.

Protection from what, we wonder?