CRASHING THROUGH THE LOOKING GLASS

Even if you began a much needed news-abstinence programme on November 7th, some tweaks to the world order will have made themselves known to you by now.

We find ourselves crashing through the Looking–Glass.

Just like Alice, we discover that the great chess game in which we are now all involved works with fantastical counter-intuitive rules, logic-defying moves, and personalities much, much less pragmatic and constructive than the Red Queen’s.

As the dust does the opposite of settling, some words and phrases begin to appear and re-appear in just about every conversation- with individuals and teams, inside offices and outside work:
‘normalisation’
‘it will be alright’
‘more activism, not less, is what’s needed now’
‘I don’t know how to get engaged’
‘its not the end of the world. It’s the end of A world’
suggesting that ‘just buggering on’ as Churchill would say is proving difficult for everyone.

The new Looking-Glass world reaches into work life. It is far too tiring to pretend that all is well – to oneself, or to others – constantly within one context, work.

Those words -normalisation, activism, engagement – matter, and deserve some more thought.

Normalisation
On the world stage, I’m seeing this is in the well-intentioned (and standard-setting) graciousness greeting the (previously) unacceptable and loathed. I suspect that I too have ‘normalised’ behaviours and habits in business cultures with whom I’ve worked. It’s not going to help in the new Looking-Glass world. We should call things out now more than ever before.

This might mean being more of an ‘activist’, or being more ‘engaged’.
(But what does that even mean?)

Activism
The dictionary definition reads ‘The policy or action of using vigorous campaigning to bring about political or social change’.

Engagement
An elusive term in the world of organizational / leadership consultancy but most definitions include, somewhat platitudinously, that engagement involves emotional commitment to an organization and its goals.

A much better way to think about an employee’s ‘engagement’ is to think of creating as small a dislocation as possible between that person’s own values, and those of the organisation.

And suddenly, activism and engagement connect.
Bring about change, be active.
Alice, remember, survived.
She didn’t ‘normalise’. And boy, did she keep on trying to change things.

SHIPS IN THE NIGHT

Talk to any working team and group, in any culture, and the same handful of ‘wish this didn’t happen’ issues will appear.

The top winner, by miles, is the casual use of email.

Over use. Misuse.

It’s a perfect storm of demotivation. A workload problem (having ‘00s or ‘000s of emails to deal with daily) combines with a communication problem (so many of these emails containing unclear, unsuccessful and unnecessary versions of communication that just devalue the recipient).

The most common cry?

‘They could just come and talk to me….’

Email isn’t the problem of course, only the symptom.

Just about everyone finds connecting with colleagues in a ‘real’ way difficult.

Its not a recognized or supported skill. It suits any hierarchical culture not to build this skill.

But reporting email-over-use as the top ‘wish this didn’t happen’ issue keeps the real interpersonal communication issue underground and out of sight.

An interesting word was used by a team member the other day as he described a how it felt to receive a slew of emails from his bosses.

‘It’s like they are being aloof. It keeps them aloof’

I looked up the origin of the word, suspecting perhaps a military or sporting etymology.

It was nautical. And conjured rich imagery.

The word meant ‘windward’, to keep distance from another vessel.

From ‘luff’, or ‘loef’ (old Dutch) the word aloof has grown in everyday usage from a sense of distance to include a sense of a lack of sympathy.

The perfect image.

The word describing a vessel at sea using the wind to keep its distance now describes a management style that uses email to do exactly the same.

THUMBS UP. OR IS THAT DOWN?

F80pxtreeinding out what someone really feels about an idea is hard. It really is.

The most useful position to take over satisfaction scores, ‘likes’ and approval ratings is …healthy doubt.  One of the first focus groups I observed during trainee days, years ago, demonstrated this the hard way.

The new-product creative concepts were going down really well with just about everyone. I was loving it.  Phrases such as ‘those will work very well’ and ‘those are very clever’ and ‘yes I think people will really get these’ were scattered through my notes.
(I know, I know – naïve and inexperienced)

The moderator taught me a lot that day.

Prompted by a) brilliant instinct, and b) recognition of the pattern of the responses, he continued,

So we like them. Good.
Theoretically, which of them would you take home?

The answer?  None. Not one.

Approval could safely be expressed for an ‘over-there’ world, for ‘other people’, but personal buy in? Nope.

Personal buy-in is expressed actively, and…personally.

Which brings me to employee surveys.

I keep coming across the weirdest thing.

I am seeing leadership teams inside businesses whoop that scores for the question..
“How likely are you to recommend working here to someone else” have improved year on year, while scratching their heads that scores for a question such as…“ How likely are you to be working here in 18 months time?” have plummeted over the same period.

The recommendation question will tell you absolutely nothing: it’s impersonal.

It’s the thumbs up to the personal that matters.

It’s whether you would ‘take it home’.

ALL HANDS ON DECK

…we say when things look wobbly. But until a real frisson of danger is felt, we’ll just carry on. We carry on trying to do the right thing, trying to be as perfect as we can.   And what could be wrong with aiming for perfection? It trails energy, concern and effort, raises the bar and gets that best foot forward. What’s not to like?

But there is an unlikeable aspect. Exclusion.

I saw an example this week. It was all very counter intuitive.

A superbly arranged conference debated ‘Leadership’.

A new report into Global Leadership in the 21st century was the catalyst for the discussion. It’s always tricky to organise groups of people, but there are time-honoured methods that seem to work. So the format was a prestigious panel of speakers, neat seating in accessible rows, a clear timetable – perfect military precision, in fact. (Hurrah for that – it’s good to feel safe, that things aren’t chaotic.)

The form of participation was a Q & A …and some great questions were asked. None seemed to challenge or stretch the speakers, but intelligence was displayed and opinions heard.

In a little crowd later around the coats I found myself talking to a shy young person. The timing was just right and we chatted.  She and her colleagues ran a business co-ordinating social media campaigns for big businesses. I asked her about Leadership.

‘We don’t really have that’ she said. ‘ We lead ourselves. I didn’t know how to raise it in there!’

Ah, a successful – leaderless – business.

So if the set up had been more relaxed and less perfection-seeking, we might have heard something radical. We might have had a chance to have all hands on deck for what is looking like an increasingly wobbly time.

From now on, it’s out with believing in perfection, and in with a little unplanned and inclusive chaos.

Perfect timing, of course.

IDLING SPEED

Y80pxtreeou know how it is. Some meetings you leave feeling uplifted, some wondering if it’s too early for a gin & tonic.

Its out of fashion, I notice, to feel relaxed.

I listened to lots of brilliant brands and leadership talks at a conference the other day. There were some great speakers. There were Big Screens and lots of Important Walking to the stage.

There was a common theme. Leaders aren’t leading, they aren’t doing the right things, they are missing what matters, they are unable to respond in an agile way, and we are all doomed.

I idly checked my notes afterwards. If a conscientious Leader were to take instruction from every titan who spoke that day, they would have received over 40 separate advice points.

And just as I was wondering how such a huge advice input could be managed, how to master these additional necessary activities, a wee article came to my attention.

Each of us, Leader or no, has something in our brains called a ‘default mode network’.  In a quite revolutionary turn around in the world latest neuro-scientific discovery, it appears that the health and vitality of this network (it’s a sort of hub that is most active when we are at rest) is the enabler of alert, intelligent reaction to unforeseeable events.  If we were to take a ‘Psychomotor vigilance test’ – essentially a screen simulation of catching things before they drop – it will be this default mode network that drives our performance.  So important is the functioning of this network, that reduction in its effectiveness correlates with Alzheimer’s and other cognitive impairment conditions.

And what keeps this network healthy?

Periods of rewarding idleness. Yep, doing nothing.

I sat down, tore up the advice points, and started some idle doodling.

THE ROUGH WITH THE SMOOTH

W80pxtreee think we know how something works. And then we find we don’t. Probably when it breaks down.

A (lovely) team I know was pretty sure about why things worked. And then they weren’t.

They kept telling themselves that it was something to do with poor communication. While mysteriously all being able to communicate this thought quite clearly to each other.

The best lesson I could find to help explain the why, the what, and the how, was offered by a current exhibition at the British Museum called ‘Drawing with silver and gold’.

image00
Hendrik Goltzius: Self-portrait, c.1589   (British Museum: 1895,0915.1020)

This beautiful exhibition explores the art of metalpoint from across 6 centuries and includes some heart stopping drawing work.

http://www.britishmuseum.org/whats_on/exhibitions/drawing_in_silver_and_gold.aspx

What has metalpoint silverpoint got to do with a team; a group of committed people who work closely together?

The process is a very helpful analogy. And amazing.

Coated paper was drawn on with a fine soft-metal stylus. The paper coating was traditionally finely ground bone, pigment, and a binding agent. Several coats might be applied, resulting in a finely abrasive surface on which the metal would leave a delicate trace.

So think on this for a moment.

A very soft material is leaving a fine, permanent, distinctive trace on…a rough material.

As the team talked, something emerged.

One team member had just been seconded elsewhere. He is gentle, softly spoken, and self-effacing. His loudest colleague might even have admitted under pressure that it was sometimes possible to forget he was there.

Now he wasn’t. And they had, without recognizing the feeling for what it was, noticed.

It would appear that he left an indelible – and now much missed – mark on his more up front colleagues.

So then they knew how they worked: the rough with the smooth

BECHDEL FOR BUSINESS

The Bechdel test started out as a witty way of pointing out how profoundly absent women are from mainstream cinema. The cartoonist Alison Bechdel had one of her characters in her strip cartoon (Mo, in ‘The Rule’) describe how, to avoid wasting her time on gender biased cinema, she would only watch films that met 3 criteria.

  • There must be two female characters. With names.
  • They must talk to each other.
  • The conversation must be about something other than men.

And in various forms the test moved from cartoon land to real life.
JestershatThe years have passed, and entire film franchises (Harry Potter, Lord of the Rings) continue to fail the test.

Critics have stated that this is no way to judge a film (it was never meant to indicate quality, just absence), while in Sweden a couple of years ago an arthouse movie theatre resolved to show only films that had passed the test. (A big ‘A’ appeared on the poster. Just as worrying.)

The test is clever because it helps us see what we could previously only sense – and then to make our own judgement.

Let’s adapt the Bechdel test to work meetings.In the workplace, there are two biases – gender, and power.  So we could really have fun with these criteria..

Feel free to boycott any meeting that does not pass these 4 conditions.

  • There must be more people than communication devices.
  • The meeting must begin with everyone present speaking -checking in- for 30 seconds.
  • Everyone must prepare. Prep is 3 words only, 3 things to be achieved.
  • Any one eating must share with everyone else.

To really make a difference, then this additional condition applies.

  • Anyone apologizing for their point of view wears a Jester hat for the rest of the day.

Jesters tell the truth, and sometimes we all need to hear it.
Have a truly productive meeting. You’ll feel amazing.