All posts by Dorothy Nesbit

A compassionate welcome to 2014

Last week I found that a message from a friend (“Dot, we haven’t seen you since your birthday!”) triggered an overwhelm of emotions – some I hardly dared own in the quiet of my own heart, let alone share with my friend.

The first emotion was anger.  Didn’t you read the letter I sent you at Christmas?!  In it I shared, as tactfully as I could, the experience I had of supporting a friend in a suicidal episode (an experience I also referred to in my blog posting entitled Preventing employee suicide).  How could my friend – if she’d read my letter – admonish me for our lack of contact over recent months?

Sitting with the anger, I quickly realised that it masked a layer of guilt.  It wasn’t just guilt about my lack of contact with my friend – no.

I am feeling guilty about all sorts of things right now.

My most chaotic New Year ever…
The truth is, this year has been my most chaotic start to the New Year  – ever.

I haven’t yet written all my Christmas cards (yes really).

I haven’t yet opened all the Christmas cards that loved ones have sent to me (sadly, also true).

I haven’t yet bought Christmas presents for all my loved ones.

And it’s not just about Christmas.

Last week, I spent hours catching up on my first couple of days back at work – opening December’s unopened post, sending invoices for the work I did last month, bringing my diary up to date and more.

I also spent time every day washing clothes, and sheets and towels.  I now have a huge pile of ironing to contend with.

I can still see all sorts of carnage that needs sorting out throughout the house.  My office needs a good clear out.  In my dining room, I need to move a cupboard back into place that was treated for woodworm and put the contents back in place.  I have decided that one of my priorities in 2014 is to create storage for a new hobby – buying and selling china on a well-known *ahem* on-line trading facility.

And my diary is already tightly packed.  On Saturday, I took part in a singing Day as a member of the London Symphony Chorus.  I have a number of feedback sessions in the coming days with assessment candidates I interviewed last year.  I am working intensely in preparation for the launch of my new website.

The list goes on…

…And yours?
I wonder if you, too, have stumbled into 2014 in a way that is less than ideal.

Maybe you’ve enjoyed time with friends and family and, still, you missed some longed-for quiet time over the Christmas break.

Maybe you spent the last couple of months last year meeting tight end-of-year deadlines and you know you’ve failed to plan for 2014.

Maybe you know you’ve got too much on your plate but you can’t see what you can cut out of your schedule, unless it’s the things you put in precisely because you wanted more “life” in your “work/life balance”.

Maybe you have so much in your schedule for 2014 and you still need to catch up with the remnants of 2013.

You’ve started the New Year feeling tired and in need of a rest.  Or perhaps you’re confused about what you want in the year ahead.  Or maybe you feel overwhelmed with everything that lies ahead.

The pressures that come with stepping in to a New Year
One thing I have noticed about Christmas and the New Year, is a certain amount of pressure we put on ourselves at this time of the year.

I’ve noticed, for example, how some people struggle to give an honest account of the year just gone because they believe that, somehow, their year should have been better.  Their career (or their spouse’s or children’s) should have been more sparkling than, in fact, it was.  Perhaps their relationships or even the people in their lives (spouse, parents, children etc.) should have been better.  More challenging still, perhaps they, themselves, should somehow have been better.

There’s another challenge, too – the pressure to be happy.  In the UK, for example, happiness is a matter of government policy.  In July 2013 the BBC reported a small increase in happiness across the UK as measured by a UK-wide annual well-being survey.  The pressure is often closer to home.  Friends and family can be so keen to see their loved ones happy that they offer solutions, unbidden, when we share our problems and challenges or even criticise us for feeling anything other than happy.  This pressure carries the risk that we start to hide our emotions from ourselves and others or to respond to authentic emotion with criticism and self-punishment.

The gift of keeping it real
One person who argues for something different is psychologist and author Oliver James.  I was grateful over the holiday to hear him (on BBC Radio 4) arguing for emotional health rather than happiness as a goal worth aiming for.

What is emotional health?  James argued for being present in the moment to our emotions rather than prescriptive about what we should be feeling.  My own experience is that it is the way we feel about our feelings (based on judgements of what is or is not acceptable) rather than our feelings themselves (what some call our primary feelings) that causes us most distress.

More than this, I would add that our feelings are a valuable gauge;  a guide to needs that may or may not being met.  When we give space for our authentic feelings in the moment, we open up a space for our needs – to welcome them, to experience them and, at times, to meet them.

Happy New Year
Last week, opening my heart to my feelings and to the needs that lay hidden beneath them, I noticed that, more than anything, I have a need for understanding from friends, family, even colleagues and clients, for the ongoing impact from having taken time to support my friend.  Taking time to understand my need also opened up the opportunity to ask for understanding.  I also caught myself in an interpretation (that my friend was intending to admonish me) and was able to honestly share my interpretation and ask, is that what you meant to do?  This was my way of keeping it real.

As I think of you, dear reader, I wish for you that you, too, step into 2014 with the gift of keeping it real.  I hope, for you, that you welcome whatever happens in your life in 2014, just as it is.  I hope for you that you find time and space for your authentic responses to the events in your life.  I hope that you release any pressure to create the perfect life or even to be perfect and, instead, that you welcome your life, just as it is.
Welcome to you.  Welcome to your emotions.  Welcome to 2014.

Dealing with challenging feelings: who is responsible for the way you feel?

“As I walked out the door toward the gate that would lead to my freedom,
I knew that if I didn’t leave my bitterness and hatred behind,
I would still be in prison”
Nelson Mandela
1918 – 2013

I have been super busy in the last four weeks with a trip to Munich for one client followed by a three-week intensive project to assess the graduates of a High Potential programme for another.  I completed the first draft of the last report and sent it off for peer review just hours before my sister-in-law, Judy, arrived from South Korea for the start of her Christmas tour of family and friends.  Today, I am pausing for breath.

During this period, we heard of the death of Nelson Mandela, on Thursday, December 5th, 2013.  Mandela’s death was not unexpected and still, it touched me deeply – he was truly an elder statesman of our age.

It is not surprising that, as well as giving news of Mandela’s death, of his funeral service and of his final burial at his home town of Qunu, journalists have been reflecting on Mandela’s life.  I have repeatedly seen extracts from the speech he made in 1964 at the dock, in what became known as the Rivonia Trial.  These words have been widely quoted:

“I have fought against white domination, and I have fought against black domination.  I have cherished the ideal of a democratic and free society in which all persons live together in harmony and with equal opportunities.  It is an ideal which I hope to live for and to achieve.  But if needs be, it is an ideal for which I am prepared to die.”

It happened that, at much the same time, I received a question from a client who was struggling to come to terms with his feelings about an experience he had had.  He wrote:

“I’ve been telling myself that other people are not responsible for the way I feel.  Yes, the things my manager did triggered a lot of anger, but only because of the thoughts I had at the time… I felt really concerned about staying in my job under such a manager and also afraid to leave my job in this difficult economy.  One of my colleagues has told me forcefully that my manager is responsible for my feelings – what he did was completely unacceptable.  I don’t know which way to turn…”

His next question made me think of Mandela:

“I’ve been wondering, is the whole business trying to ensure we don’t take a definite stance on where change comes from?  In other words, it’s not me or my boss who has to change… instead, let’s work out a way.  And when I attribute responsibility for my feelings to someone else, I’m at risk of taking the oomph out of my own effort?”

In the midst of grappling with this question, I have particularly been struck by the number of times journalists have reported that Mandela was “without bitterness” at the end of his 26 years of imprisonment.

Are you struggling to know who’s responsible for your feelings?
This posting is for you if you, too, are grappling with difficult feelings and don’t quite know who is responsible – or how to respond.

Perhaps someone has done something that has had significant – and negative – implications for you.  At work, for example, the failure of a colleague to deliver on his commitments means that you’ve let down a key client.  You can tell your manager that it was not your fault but even that puts you in difficulty – you don’t want to be someone who points the finger and besides, you know that your manager will hear no ill of this particular colleague.  This is, of course, just one example of experiences that might be stimulating pain, anger, frustration or anxiety at work.

It happens that I’m writing this posting in the final sprint towards Christmas when many people are grappling with issues within their family.  Maybe you find it difficult to spend time with your mother, father or sibling because they still do the thing you found so difficult as a child – be it the explosive temper, the lack of empathy, the competition with you or the coldness between them… whatever it is, as you come closer to spending time with them you feel the mounting anxiety, the anger, the frustration… who says they’re not responsible for the way you feel, given everything that’s happened over the years?

Without bitterness:  the ones who forgave
Mandela chose deliberately to let go of his feelings of bitterness and hatred.  He is not the only one.

Recently, I met a man whose daughter had been murdered and yet was entirely at peace with his loss.  When he spoke of his daughter it was with gratitude for the years they had had together rather than with any sense of anger towards his daughter’s murderer.

This was all the more striking because so many parents of murdered children are quoted in the media as saying how the loss of their child has ruined their lives for ever.  Their message is clear, “This person did something which has ruined my life.”  Again and again, the implication is that this enduring sense of loss, anger and bitterness is the only option available to the bereaved.  The message is also, clearly, “you did that to me.”

And who can blame them?

At the same time, Mandela knew, when he finally left prison in 1990 that any feelings of bitterness and hatred he took with him would, in themselves, constitute a prison.  For this reason, he decided to leave them behind.
When we take responsibility for our feelings, then what?
Often, when people consider the option of taking responsibility for their own feelings, they have two main concerns.  Firstly, they have concerns about the other person – will they get away with it?  Will they do the same thing again and with a similar impact on other people?  At root, they’re concerned that taking responsibility for their own feelings lets the other person or people off the hook.  Secondly, clients can be concerned that when they let go of the idea that someone else is responsible for the way they feel, they let go of their power.
These two concerns are closely related …and entirely without foundation.
Let’s take the second concern first.  If you’re feeling anxious or frustrated at the prospect of spending time with your family at Christmas, it’s a sure sign that you don’t feel confident that your needs – whatever those needs might be – will be met.  Perhaps you know that you don’t find it easy to be around your mother-in-law when she seems to resent all the work that goes in to hosting a family gathering.  You may even have strong feelings about the fact that she chooses to host a family gathering at Christmas given that she finds it so stressful and given that you’ve repeatedly offered to host lunch yourself.
As long as you hold your mother-in-law responsible for your feelings, you’re thinking that it’s your mother-in-law who needs to make changes.
You may also be struggling to give due weight to your own needs… are you willing to say, “my needs matter” and to make choices that reflect this belief?  This is often an area of great struggle, because it comes with all sorts of fears.  In particular, there’s a fear that can come when we realise that taking responsibility for own feelings means making choices that other people may not support…
…the choice to say no to an invitation from a relative to join them for Christmas, knowing family members will struggle to accept your choice…
…the choice to share your concerns about your manager with, well, your manager – even though you have no way of knowing how he or she will respond…
…the choice to move away from grief and towards joy after the loss of a child, even though society at large finds it hard to accept that grief and joy can exist side by side…
…the choice to hurt someone’s feelings (because if they’re responsible for your feelings you must be responsible for theirs, right?) or – more challenging still – to act, knowing that someone will struggle with your actions, and knowing that whatever they believe, it is what they think about your choices and not your choices themselves, which causes such pain…
When we make these and other choices with a sincere desire to meet our own needs and a willingness to support others in meeting theirs we do, increasingly, feel the power that comes with owning our feelings.  Instead of “yes, I feel angry that you…” we start to own that “yes, I feel angry that I…”  “I feel angry that I said yes to the job he offered me, even though I knew he was unreliable”.  From this place we can learn to do something different next time.
But what about that other concern?  The concern that someone may do the same thing again and with a similar impact on other people?
The truth is they might.
…the Christmas hostess may still want to be hostess and still feel resentment about all the work involved…
…the manager, whatever his or her weaknesses, may do the same thing again and again, without learning…
. .the criminal may repeat an act of crime…
Over the years I have found that, when we have concerns about the acts of others, it’s because we care deeply for people’s well-being.
…We care deeply about our own well-being…
…We care about the well-being of people who do things that hurt themselves, or others…
…We care deeply about other people who may be treated in the way we were…
In each case, we can take action.  To do so is to stand in our own power.
We are not, though, some omnipotent god and we cannot guarantee any particular response.
Our power lies in recognising that yes, this did not (or does not) work for me.  My needs are not met.  I accept that this person did the best they know how.  I accept that, given the way I see things, I am bound to feel what I feel.  I accept it is for me to decide what I will do now.  I accept that I cannot guarantee any particular response.
And you?  What’s next for you?
From Mandela, through work, to Christmas and our loved ones, I have given examples of some of the things that challenge us most.  I wonder what’s next for you.
If you’re struggling with difficult emotions, here’s my invitation to you… notice them, welcome them, own them.  What’s the emotion?  What’s stimulating that emotion in you?  What need are you yearning to meet?
And insofar as you know that it’s for you (and for nobody else) to honour your need and to do what you can to meet it, what one thing would you like to do next?
Perhaps there’s something you can easily do that will give you much greater ease as the year draws to a close.  Perhaps this line of questions opens up something much bigger for you.
Either way, lovingly, gently, I leave the responsibility for your feelings with you.

Leadership and your relationship with your staff

Last month was Berlioz month for members of the London Symphony Chorus.  This year the ladies of the London Symphony Chorus had a gap of notable proportions in the schedule (no prom concert this year, and a – men only – performance of Verdi’s Rigoletto to start the season).  Our first concert in the series, on Sunday 2nd November – a performance of Berlioz’s Damnation of Faust – was my first concert since we sang Mark-Anthony Turnage’s At Sixes And Sevens at the Guildhall in July.
Many conductors – most conductors – make time for what’s called a “piano rehearsal” with the chorus.  This gives conductor and chorus the opportunity to prepare before the tutti rehearsals, in which everyone involved – conductor, orchestra, soloists and chorus – comes together for rehearsal.
This time, our first rehearsal was a tutti rehearsal with chorus, orchestra, conductor and soloists.  I was glad of the extra time which I packed with any number of chores before making my way to the Barbican for our first tutti on Saturday afternoon.
Getting on the wrong side of the class
It’s not unusual for the first meeting between the Chorus and their fellow musicians to stimulate discussion about the conductor’s leadership style and this, in turn, can lead to a discussion about events outside the chorus.  Sometimes, these events bear no relation to what’s going on inside the concert hall;  instead, they reflect a universal concern to be led in ways which are comfortable, constructive and productive.
This time was no exception – on the way to rehearsal on the Sunday morning, I found myself in conversation with one of my colleagues, a teacher by profession, who described the experience that every teacher has from time to time, of getting on the wrong side of the class.
You know you’re on the wrong side of the class because pupils start to misbehave.  It’s a wearisome experience and difficult to come back from – as you’ll know if ever you’ve been there.  It’s particularly difficult because, often, the misbehaviour of your team can be hard to pin down or even to describe as misbehaviour.  Maybe your team members start to turn up on time – but never early.  Maybe they do a full day’s work – but don’t go the extra mile.  Maybe the number of doctor’s appointments goes up in your team.  Over the years, I’ve noticed how creative people can be in signalling to their leader that (s)he’s on the wrong side of the class.
In your heart of hearts, you know that you’ve lost the support of your team but there’s nothing you can easily criticise: from time to time, everyone needs to take time to go to the doctor, right?
It’s all about relationship
In the corporate environment in which I mostly work, very little emphasis is placed on the quality of relationship between a leader and his or her staff.  Notions of what’s professional can get in the way of an open acknowledgement of the importance of relationship.  There’s a risk that, because the central role of relationship in the workplace is not acknowledged, it is, equally, not cultivated.
And yet, it is relationship that keeps you on the right side of your class.
Members of your team will go the extra mile when they sense that they matter and their contribution is valued.  Insofar as you cut them some slack based on an understanding of their real needs or a recognition that everyone makes mistakes, they will cut you some slack, too.  If you cover their backs, they will cover your back.  The list goes on.
There are big questions involved if you want to cultivate a relationship with your staff which is both professional and fruitful for everyone involved.  Perhaps the mother of all questions is this:  are you ready to give up “being in control” for an approach based on mutual learning and respect?  I say this because research tends to show that the use of a command-and-control approach to leadership tends to undermine staff engagement and motivation.
At the same time, an approach based on mutual respect demands more of us in terms of relationship.  It requires of us that we put out what we want back – giving respect, for example, where we want respect, or investing in our staff insofar as we want them to give their heart as well as their professionalism to their work.  Sometimes it requires us to have faith in our staff and their potential even when they have yet to deliver to a standard we require.
And it requires dialogue – a willingness to listen as well as to talk.
Cultivating a fruitful professional relationship with your staff
When your style of leadership is well-established, it can be difficult to know whether or not you’re cultivating the kind of relationship that keeps you on the right side of your class.  For this reason, your first steps need to be about bringing into your awareness the nature of your relationship with the people you lead.  Here are three things for you to reflect on as a way to get started:
  • What are your aspirations for your relationship with your staff?  To what extent do you aspire to work in partnership with your staff based on a relationship of mutual trust and respect?  It may be that your relationship with your staff is not even on your leadership agenda.  Perhaps, though, you do want to have a relationship with members of your team and words like “trust” and “respect” feel comfortable to you – something you aspire to and enjoy when it happens;
  • What words would you use to describe the relationship you have with members of your team and with your team as a whole?  To what extent do these words suggest that your relationship is in line with your aspirations?  As a member of the Chorus, for example, I have worked with a wide range of conductors with diverse styles and I notice how clear my personal preferences are.  I want to know that I’m working with someone who has a real passion – love, even – for the music they are conducting and who works to high standards.  I prefer to work with someone who works with me rather than with someone who takes out his (or her) frustration on me or who is, even, simply absent.  For me, this implies relationship – a relationship between a conductor and those (s)he conducts.  Relationship, building over time, is the accumulated effect or outcome of shared experiences;
  • To what extent do you cultivate a relationship with your staff in which you receive feedback as well as giving it?  And what feedback do you get from your staff?  It’s easy as a leader to focus on the limitations of those you lead.  It takes more courage to say “how am I communicating such that they are behaving in this way?”  It takes both courage and maturity to ask members of your team about their experience – and to be able to listen to whatever answers they give you.
And Berlioz?
I still remember singing Berlioz’s Trojans for the first time in the early 1990s.  This, too, was with the London Symphony Orchestra and Chorus, with Sir Colin Davis.  It was not my first experience of Berlioz (I had, after all, been singing the Shepherds’ Farewell since childhood) but it was my first experience on such a grand scale, and a truly magical one at that.
I did not know it but our conductor this time, Valery Gergiev, like Sir Colin, has been a life-long admirer of Berlioz.  On 10th October, writing in the Observer, Ed Vuillamy’s article was headed by the quote, “Berlioz inspired me long before I ever dreamed I would conduct.”
Our first concert, on Sunday 2nd November, was greeted warmly by the audience.  If the audience applause at the end of the concert was anything to go by, it was a performance of considerable aplomb.  For me, there was a vigour in the performance which was lacking at rehearsal (or perhaps – as one chorus member remarked wryly – we had friends in the audience).
Some critics were not complimentary.  Sebastian Scotney, for example, writing for The Arts Desk, use the word “perfunctory” in the course of his review and Mark Valencia, writing for What’s On Stage, highlighted something of which members of the chorus were only too painfully aware – the absence of our much-loved Sir Colin Davis.  He said of the chorus:
Most disappointing of all was the London Symphony Chorus, normally a tower of strength.  Their succession of soldiers, students, peasants, gnomes, sylphs, demons and ‘the damned’ were under-characterised and apparently under-rehearsed.  In Part Two the male drinkers seemed to frequent a very sober tavern and would have been more at home at a game of skittles than an orgy, while in Part Four the ladies of the Chorus (to the mirth of some sitting behind me) diligently checked their copies before delivering a single, hellbound scream.
Not every critic agreed.  Colin Anderson,writing for Classical Source, said (of the second performance, on Thursday 7thNovember):
It was the London Symphony Chorus that in many ways stole the show with focussed and unanimous singing that survived every microscopic detail that Gergiev (and Simon Halsey, chorus director) extracted from it.  Distinctions between soldiers, students, peasants and others may not have been that obvious, but the preparation and delivery was top class.
By the time chorus members finished five performances of Berlioz’s Damnation and Romeo and Juliet, critics were fulsome in their praise.  Nicolas Grienenberger, writing, said of the ensemble:
On ne peut que saluer l’engagement total du chef, attentif à tous les plans sonores, variant ici une dynamique, là un vibrato, et entraînant tous les musiciens vers une palette de nuances proprement stupéfiante, leur faisant oser des pianissimi impalpables à la limite de l’inaudible, forçant ainsi l’assistance au silence le plus absolu, et demandant à l’ensemble des spectateurs un présent devenu rarissime : leur écoute. Prodigieux également, le chœur du London Symphony Orchestra, d’une cohésion sonore et d’une clarté dans la diction exceptionnelles, d’une délicatesse dans le murmure qui n’a d’égale que l’intensité de leur éclat. A leurs côtés, les jeunes chanteurs formant les Guildhall Singers ne sont pas en reste, commentant l’action d’une superbe pâte sonore au phrasé élégant.
You don’t need to speak French to notice such words as “délicatesse” and “élégant”!
I was not at these subsequent performances and can only wonder; do these diverse critiques reflect the different tastes of the critics or did the quality of performance build over two weeks, in which the chorus sang five performances of Berlioz’s Damnation of Faust and Romeo and Juliet?  I don’t know.
I do, though, believe that – in business as much as in the concert hall – it takes time to build a relationship with your colleagues and, equally, with the work you are doing.  In short, whatever your work environment, it takes time to sing your way into the totality of the piece. 

Your personal need for integrity

What has this tea pot got to do with integrity?


For me, it all began with a tea pot.

In February of this year, I bought a tea pot in my local Oxfam shop in Blackheath.

Let me tell you, I had no need of a tea pot.  But I loved this one so much – the vibrant colours, the weight and the feel of it – that I decided to buy it, along with six bowls in the same pattern.

It was a chance purchase, which opened up a whole new hobby for me…  I started to look for items to match this tea pot and discovered eBay.  I decided to make my collecting habit self-funding, selling items for which I no longer have a use and beginning to buy and sell items from Greenwich Auction House and the market at Lee Green.

This was a new habit for me, and at the same time, wholly familiar.  I have always been drawn to objects of beauty.

Owning my personal “quirks”

Such is my love of beauty and order that, sometimes, it is the object of some hilarity.

Last week, for example, I was in Germany, running a development programme with a group of colleagues.  My colleagues were quite taken aback when I realised that my outfit for Day 2 was a terrible match for the name badge I was wearing.  I was able to laugh with them at just how much it meant to me… and still, it did mean something to me.

I can’t help but tidy up the displays when I’m looking for books in shops.

If I decide to do something – learn a language, play a game, write a report, sing, whatever – I want to do it well.

In the language of Hogan’s MVPI (motives and values) questionnaire, I have a primary value, which Hogan calls aesthetics.  This is defined as “focusing on innovation, style and appearance”.  Low scorers care about functionality;  high scorers care about creative self-expression and the look and feel of their work.

Knowing this has helped me to make connections between a wide range of activities in my life… it’s the reason, for example, I’ve gravitated towards roles at work which involve quality in some shape or form… a curiosity about what it takes to be effective as a leader, a desire to embody fully my values around communicating in ways which honour everyone’s needs, a desire to help others – especially people in leadership roles – to find greater ease.  I could go on…

It also shows up all over my private life…  it’s the reason I love to take a house in disrepair and turn it into a place of beauty, or prefer to have a statement “sculptural” set of shelves in my kitchen (thank you, Gary) than yet more cupboards… even though I need the storage space.  It’s the reason for my long-standing relationship with the London Symphony Chorus.  It’s the reason why writing a blog-posting is, for me, a pleasure rather than a chore.

Not only has knowing this helped me to make sense of my past, it is also helping me to plan for my future – to move increasingly towards living my life in line with my values.

Your personal need for integrity

Whatever the pros and cons of employing people with integrity in an organisation, you may already be aware of your own deep need for integrity – a need to live your life in line with your own values.

You know when you’re living your life in integrity with your values.

When you are, you feel comfortable and at ease.  You experience moments of deep satisfaction.  Your life is peopled with activities that you enjoy.  If your values are people-based, your life is peopled by people you enjoy.

There are moments when you feel deeply uncomfortable, too.  Perhaps you are finding no joy in the life you are leading.  Maybe you are doing things in your personal and professional life which lack meaning for you, because they have no connection with your values.  Worse still, maybe you are really struggling with aspects of your life, because those aspects – activities, people, job – stand squarely in opposition to everything you hold dear.

What’s more, we do not live in isolation.

Not just a benign force – values and the amygdala hijack

As we came away from our course in Germany, my colleagues and I took time to review the feedback from participants.  One participant’s comments clearly got under the skin of one colleague – why on earth would anyone say that about the principal trainer?  How could it possibly help?

Our principal trainer was unmoved.

My colleague was expressing one of her most important values – yearning for recognition for her colleagues as much as for herself.  It was not, though, a high value for the trainer himself.

I can claim no moral high-ground when it comes to the amygdala hijack.  Only recently, I was shocked to be on the receiving end of an approach which was the antithesis of everything I aspire to in terms of leadership and communication.

Truly shocked.

And I let that person know.

The thing is, I suspect that the same person who was behaving in ways I found so unacceptable was also responding to her own amygdala hijack.  I had trodden on her toes – her values – by mistake.

It wasn’t pretty.

It’s easy to condemn the amygdala hijack.  Daniel Goleman, in his books on emotional intelligence, highlights the primitive part of the brain which is the seat of the amygdala hijack.  When we “act out” in response to such a hijack, we are likely to do things we later regret.

At the same time, the amygdala hijack tells us – loudly – that some value is not being met.  Sometimes, it’s telling us about something immediate, something about the here and now.  Equally, a clash of values can be a long, slow burner which leads us slowly towards major decisions… can you continue to work for a boss or an organisation which does X, Y or Z without thinking of the consequences?  How can you sustain a marriage with someone whose values, you discover, are so different from your own?

Moving towards greater personal integrity

If you want to move towards a life of greater personal integrity, you need to understand what’s important to you.

The Hogan MVPI is one tool I use in my work with clients.  When I first took it myself, I had been through so many psychometric tests I doubted I would learn anything new.

Its effect has been profound.

If you would like to explore options for you or for others in your organisation, please contact me.

You can though, move towards a greater understanding of your own most personal values without investing in coaching or the results of a questionnaire.

Instead, try these questions on for size and see what they tell you:

  • When have you been most happy in your life?  Your moments of greatest satisfaction tell you a lot about what’s important to you.  Take time to reflect on events and experiences that have stimulated the greatest sense of joy, contentment or meaning for you.  Notice what themes there are across these events – what is it that made you happy?  In my work with leaders, for example, I have seen how some love to develop their people and others to knock targets to smithereens.  What is it for you?
  • When have you been most angry in your life?  Say hello to the amygdala hijacks in your life – they have a lot to teach you about what’s important to you.  Notice what themes there are at times when you’ve been most angry.  Notice what themes unite the themes.

Me and my tea pot

I hope that, by now, you understand the relationship between a humble tea pot and personal integrity.  For me, the Denby arabesque tea pot speaks to my love of beauty.  Your values will certainly be different and have different manifestations even if they are the same.  But I tell you this, the more you are living your life in integrity with your values the more you will find pleasure in life.

It’s interesting, too, that when you are living life in integrity with your values you will, increasingly, take pleasure in the tiniest of things.

Recruiting for integrity? Be careful what you wish for!

What is your concept of “integrity”?

Recently, I worked with a client to shape a new competency model for leaders across the organisation.  There was a time when organisations would pay a lot of money for deep research to establish which behaviours marked out their most effective leaders, but this seems to be less fashionable nowadays.  Few organisations have the budget and some find it hard to believe that yesterday’s stars are the right people to meet the very different challenges of today – let alone tomorrow.

No, this was a more pragmatic approach, mining the wisdom of leaders themselves about the core leadership challenges they expect to face in the next 5-10 years, about those people who are handling these challenges most effectively, and about the core behaviours demonstrated by their chosen role models.

One behaviour, integrity, came up as key – and not for the first time.  It seems that, no matter what the challenges of the era, organisations aspire to employ men and women of integrity.

What is “integrity”?
Often, when clients discuss integrity, they think of someone who has clear values and who acts in line with those values.

The person who shows integrity makes promises and keeps them, and acts in ways which are consistent with the values they espouse (some call this “congruity”).  What’s more, they are not easily swayed from their values, even when acting on personal values carries a high risk.  Ideally, the man or woman of integrity speaks up about wrong-doing in the company and challenges poor decisions, with the greater good of the organisation in mind.

Implicit in the concept of integrity is the idea of “good” values – honesty, for example, probity, perhaps.  Clients also associate integrity with wisdom and emotional intelligence, too.

“How,” you may be asking yourself, “could such a person be anything other than an asset?”

Why organisations don’t like integrity in practice
Years ago, I was briefly the colleague of Annie Machon, a former MI5 officer.  She left the organisation I was working for quite suddenly after her partner, David Shayler, hit the news here in the UK after blowing the whistle on some aspect (I do not remember what) of MI5 practice.

Whistle-blowing is just one thing that people do who act with integrity.  In recent history, for example, whistle-blowers Edward Snowden and Julian Assange have been talked about around the world. (Read 5 Famous Whistleblowers Who Shaped History to learn more).  But who loves the whistle-blower?  Rarely is it the higher echelons of the organisations whose practices (mal- or otherwise) have been revealed.

There are other reasons why organisations don’t much like integrity in practice.  If you’ve ever been in a meeting, for example, in which one of your colleagues has made the case – repeatedly – for or against some proposal based on a set of personal values that you don’t share, you will know how much time can be lost in circular discussion.  Especially when the individual’s values are out of alignment with the values of an organisation, integrity can be – quite frankly – a real pain in the arse.

There’s something else, too… that integrity without insight, the behavioural flexibility or even the position to influence or persuade can impede progress towards an organisation’s most fundamental goals.  And who judges whether the (wo)man of integrity is appropriately standing his or her ground or (as Jeffrey recently said of Edward Snowden in the New Yorker) a “grandiose narcissist who deserves to be in prison”?

If you want your leaders to show integrity, and if you want the result to be positive for you or your organisation, there are things you need to get right.

Getting it right when recruiting for integrity
Here are just four things for you to think about before you include “integrity” as a competency in your model of effective leadership:

  • Are you clear about your organisation’s core values?  Integrity can be a hindrance as much as a help if your leaders show integrity in line with values your organisation does not espouse.  Before you look for integrity in your leaders, you need to get clear on the core values of your organisation.  Only then is helpful to understand if your recruits share your values and can embody them in practice as well as espouse them in theory;
  • Integrity is just one behavioural ingredient:  Think carefully about what other behaviours your leader needs in order for integrity to be an asset to your organisation.  Do your leaders show empathy, for example – the ability put themselves in the shoes of their colleagues and to look at things from another point of view?  Do they show judgement – the ability to see the issue under examination in a larger context or to weigh the pros and cons of a particular forward path?  Integrity without empathy or judgement can look like just plain bloody-mindedness;
  • There may be other things besides leadership behaviours:  If your concern is to promote a certain set of values, you need to look beyond the integrity of individual leaders.  Recent scandals in the UK’s NHS, for example, point to a wide range of issues which undermine patient care.  What checks are in place when recruiting new staff?  What training is provided to develop core skills associated with good patient care?  What is the impact on staff of short-staffing or other issues?  The list goes on;
  • It may not be integrity that secures adherence to values:  This is something organisations struggle with and still, when your organisation’s values are clearly outlined and reflected in policies and practices which have been designed to support them, it may not be the integrity of your leaders that keeps people on track.  Instead, it may be other behavioural qualities such as a desire to do well.

And what about you?
I hope this posting has helped you to think through some of the issues that face you if you are thinking of including integrity as a core leadership behaviour in your organisation.

Having said this, I also want to point to something more personal – your own need to live a life of integrity.

This, though, is the stuff of another blog posting.

Are you confident of recruiting the right (wo)man for the job?

In recent years, the relationship of the UK’s banks with the concept of “risk” has been evolving rapidly.

Risk in the banking sector comes in many forms.  Lending risk is perhaps the most obvious.  The collapse of the global economy in 2008, for example, has been widely attributed to a policy in America of offering sub-prime mortgages – essentially, of lending to people who couldn’t possibly repay their debt.  In the UK, the appetite for lending risk in banking has changed dramatically in the intervening years in response to changes in the regulatory environment and an overall move away from an environment of light-touch regulation.

Another prominent area of risk – in banking and other sectors – is the risk of fraud.  I don’t know about you, but I often field e-mails purporting to be from this, that or another well-known high-street bank and urging me to update my security details.  I’m tempted to dismiss them – who on earth would be fooled by such a scam?!  But the fact that they keep on coming suggests that yes, they work.  Of course, this is just one way in which client accounts are accessed fraudulently.  Banks increasingly have to keep abreast of the creativity of crooks.

Periodically, banks also fall prey to the risk of trading by staff beyond authorised limits with the consequential losses.  Another prominent area of risk in banking is in the failure of IT systems.  And, well, the list goes on…

The risk of recruiting the wrong person for the job
There’s a risk that’s spoken of less often, in banking as elsewhere, even though it’s a risk that we take on a regular basis – the risk of recruiting the wrong person for the job.

Maybe you’ve been there yourself.  You interviewed a range of candidates and one or two really stood out as front-runners.  Perhaps they had a track record of experience that was way ahead of their peers.  Perhaps they had worked for all the best organisations.  Perhaps they had had an early success that made them stand out or, simply, impressed you in interview… you made your decision and looked forward to the outcome…

…except that…

…the person who looked so good on paper and who impressed you so much at interview turned out to be someone quite different once his or her feet were under the desk.

If ever you’ve had this experience, you’ll know how painful it can be and how difficult it can be to unravel.  For starters, even if your antennae start to twitch early on, it takes time to realise that yes, you really have got a problem on your hands.  Probably, you’ll want to take action to support the individual you’ve recruited to give him or her the best possible chance to succeed.  Meanwhile the body of evidence starts to grow which tells you you’ve got it wrong.  Some of these can be hard measures –  deadlines or targets that have been missed, for example, or a failure to deliver something (a proposal, a new client, an IT system…) that was promised in interview.  Some of them can be so-called “soft” measures – a failure to engage with key stakeholders, for example, or to set a clear and compelling agenda.

By the time you’ve identified the problem, tried to support the person you’ve recruited in getting up to speed, realised you need to move them into a different job or to sack them, sacked them and recruited a replacement, the consequences can be bruising and include the time lost in moving forward a key agenda, the alienation of employees or key stakeholders, the costs of recruiting a replacement… the list goes on.

Recruiting for competence
As early as 1973, Professor David McClelland wrote a paper entitled Testing for Competence Rather Than for Intelligence which was published in the American Psychologist.  He proposed that a proliferation of aptitude and intelligence tests had created a whole movement in the US which, however, failed effectively to predict actual performance.  Instead of joining his colleagues in pursuit of a general and universal test of individual aptitude, McClelland proposed an alternative;  he looked for ways to test for competency which were rooted in an understanding of the job and of the characteristics and behaviours that actually differentiated high performers.

Ground-breaking at the time, McClelland is widely credited with opening up our deeper understanding of what makes people effective in a wide range of roles and the word “competencies”, which he used in his 1973 paper, is now widely understood.

Widely, but not universally…

Whilst some organisations have made great strides towards recruiting the right (wo)man for the job, mistakes still happen.  Organisations are particularly vulnerable to making mistakes in which people make decisions based on a poor understanding of the job and of it’s essential requirements, a poor understanding of what it takes to succeed in the job, and replacing effective methods of assessing for competency with over-reliance on a person’s career history (as reflected in a CV), on interview methods which fail to get under the skin of a candidate’s actual capability and on “gut feel”.

If you want to recruit effectively, here are just some of the things you need to be thinking about:

  • Do you have a clear and simple job description in place which clarifies the core purpose and essential requirements of the job?  Too many senior recruitments fall at this very first hurdle;
  • Do you understand the competencies that predict success in a given job?  It seems to me that, at the moment, too many behavioural descriptions are “motherhood and apple pie” rather than reflecting any careful observation of (let alone quality research into) what makes people effective in a given role.
  • Do you have an effective method for testing for competency?  Assessment centres are widely used when recruiting for multiple role-holders whilst I use competency-based interviews to assess candidates for senior leadership roles.

I would add that the use of psychometric tests can enhance your recruitment efforts – though they are not, in my view, a substitute for any of the core elements outlined above.

And banking?
We can all look at the banking sector and name senior figures in the industry who were reckless in the extreme in the period which led up to the events of 2008.  They are casting a long shadow over the industry… the mythology of the banking “fat cat” is alive and well and will no doubt be slow to respond to any actual changes in banking behaviour.

My own experience has been a little different.  Assessing candidates for senior roles in UK banks I have met any number of men and women who are concerned to support the success of UK banking, the effective management of risk and a real connection with the customer.

At least in retail banking, that’s you and me.

PS  The photo came from a recent walk along London’s South Bank.  Some of the photos I took on that day will be appearing on my new website – coming soon – at

Coaching: when you need help to find your own way

By the time she reached her thirty-fifth birthday, Clare had established a strong reputation as a lawyer with a top flight London law firm.  Married to someone she had met via her firm, she had laid the foundations for her home life.  Her friends thought she had it all.
Soon after her birthday, two things happened that sent Clare into something of a spin.  She was asked by her firm to take on the management of a team of lawyers.  The request came to her just two days after she discovered she was pregnant for the first time.
Even without the pregnancy, the prospect of taking on a leadership role raised plenty of questions for Clare.  She was good at what she did and felt anxious about taking on a leadership role and about the possibility she might fail to deliver.  As she looked around her for role models, she realised she was struggling to find leadership role models she could relate to – over the years she and her friends had had bruising experiences in the hands of their managers and she didn’t want to follow these managers’ examples.  At the same time, she didn’t know what she might do differently and with what consequences for her career… she was not confident that her firm was ready for a different approach.
Then there was the pregnancy.  Clare knew she would be asked to decide about the job in a matter of days.  She was under no obligation to tell her firm that she was pregnant but feared some backlash if she took on the role and then revealed in a few weeks’ time that she was pregnant.  She faced personal questions, too – did she want to handle two challenging transitions simultaneously?  And if she said no to this leadership role, how long would she have to wait until the opportunity might come again?  She wondered whether she should discuss her situation with her firm and at the same time feared that she would be seen differently as a result of her changing situation.
Two common ways of handling dilemmas… and why they don’t work
 Clare talked with her husband and close friends about her situation.
As a colleague in the firm, her husband was also concerned about the firm’s reputation of handling everything by the book (they were lawyers, right?) and at the same time gently and subtly side-lining women mothers.  At the same time, he faced his own dilemma… he wanted to protect his own career and also to know that his child would receive the care he or she needed.  He was torn between meeting his own needs and giving advice that would support his wife.  This new situation threw up a new level of challenge in their relationship and communication.
Clare’s friends were passionately supportive of her.  One friend told her that she had every right to enjoy both a new role and motherhood and that, to guard against any possible discrimination, she should keep quiet about her pregnancy until the question of her potential new role was settled.  Another friend told her that times were changing and she should speak openly with her colleagues as a way of establishing a relationship of openness and trust.  Another friend told her that taking on her new role and becoming a mother was just too much.
Clare felt she had to choose between handling decisions all by herself or doing what other people told her but neither of these options was working for her.  Listening to friends she became increasingly confused and uncomfortable.  On her own, Clare found her thoughts going round and round in circles.  She couldn’t get her friends’ contradictory arguments out of her head and found it increasingly challenging to connect with her own deepest desires.
In thinking in this way, Clare was making a classic mistake:  used to giving advice in her role as a lawyer, she thought that seeking help means taking others’ advice.
Coaching:  a third way
One of my favourite books on leadership is Sir Clive Woodward’s Winning!  in which he tells how, as coach to the England rugby team, he led the team to victory in the 2003 World Cup.  As an example of what leadership involves, I find it full of useful information.  It’s striking for example, how Woodward knew that it would take total commitment to translate a vision of success into World Cup glory.  I was also struck by his attention to the tiniest of details, including commissioning the redesign of the team’s rugby shirts to make it harder for opposing teams to impede team members’ progress by grabbing their shirts.
Even if you are not a follower of sports, it’s possible that your concept of coaching reflects some knowledge of the sporting world.  Perhaps you think of the coach as the person who has all the answers, who barks out instructions and who provides the motivation, discipline and accountability for his or her players.
Outside the sporting world, coaching is seen differently.
At the time of writing, for example, the International Coach Federation (ICF) describes coaching in the following way:
ICF defines coaching as partnering with clients in a thought-provoking and creative process that inspires them to maximise their personal and professional potential.  Coaches honour the client as the expert in his or her life and work and believe every client is creative, resourceful and whole.
Coaching has the potential to help Clare and others like her precisely because it focuses on helping clients to discover what is most important to them and to find ways to move towards their desired outcomes.
How does coaching work?
Coaching can take any number of forms.  In my own business, for example, I offer face-to-face coaching in client’s organisations and at my Sunday coaching clinic in Harley Street.  I also coach clients by phone.  Most of my coaching is with individuals though some is with groups or teams.  (You can find out more about this by visiting my website).
With so much diversity, you may be wondering what these different kinds of coaching have in common.  Here are just a few things to look out for:
  • A coach works with clients based on a clear agreement:  even when an organisation sponsors coaching for an employee, for example, my client is the individual employee;
  • A coaching agreement identifies the client, focuses on their desired outcomes and on how coach and client will work together:  a key aspect of coaching is the focus on clients’ desired outcomes – helping the client to clarify his, her or their desired outcomes and agreeing how coach and client will work together to support the client in making progress;
  • The coach helps clients to find their own answers:  Coaching is about helping clients to generate new insights and self-awareness and this, in turn, opens up the possibility for the client to identify his or her strategies, solutions and next steps;
  • The coach helps to create a safe space in which to explore:  Whether the coach is working with an individual or a group, he or she plays a major role in creating a space within which clients feel safe and can, as a result, raise and explore issues, thoughts or feelings that might otherwise be overlooked;
  • The coach helps clients to be responsible and accountable for their own progress:  The coaching process is designed to help clients to focus on what they can take responsibility for and to follow through to make things happen.
Clients report a high level of satisfaction with coaching which helps them to develop the confidence and behavioural capability needed to achieve their goals.  This in turn has a significant impact on “hard” measures of work performance.  Latest research from the ICF suggests that 99% of clients report positively about their experience of coaching. 
And Clare…?
Like many clients, Clare’s experience of coaching was transformational.  Coaching helped her to identify and prioritise the key questions she was facing and then to work through them one by one.  On close inspection, what started out as an apparently simple question (“shall I accept this job?”) proved to be a series of questions which related to deeply-held values of which Clare had not been aware.  Her coach helped Clare to clarify her values and then to use them as the basis for addressing each question as it arose.
Clare was astounded by the results of her coaching.  Much clearer about what she wanted from her life as a whole, she was able to consider her job offer as one part of a larger whole and also to clarify the kind of relationship she wanted with her current and any future employer.  This gave her confidence to talk to her employer openly and without fear of the consequences – she knew that if she didn’t have her employer’s support, it would be time to think again about her forward career path.
Clare’s coach also helped her to get clear on her aspirations for her relationship with her husband and on the need to discuss with him the implications of becoming parents.  Her coach supported her as she thought about what she wanted to say to her husband and how she wanted to say it and this, in turn, led to a deepening in their relationship.
Coaching helped Clare to deal with the immediate issues she faced, yes.  Far more than this, it opened up new learning that Clare could apply in a wide range of new and as yet unforeseen situations.
You can find out more about coaching here on this blog or at the website of the International Coach Federation (ICF).  If you want to know about the services provided by me at Learning for Life (Consulting) click here or, if you’re ready to talk, please contact me.

Preventing employee suicide

In one of life’s strangest coincidences, Sarah spent a good chunk of the week of 8th to 14th September, 2013, in her local Accident and Emergency department.  You may or may not know that this was National Suicide Prevention week in the UK.  It was also the week that Sarah, in the grip of suicidal thinking, took a number of actions which were designed to give her relief from her unrelenting thoughts and to keep her from committing the ultimate act of self-harm.
If you’d asked me a year ago about my experience of suicide, I would have had to stop and think hard.  In recent weeks, however, I have come to understand how close to home suicide – and the risk of suicide – actually is.  My brother reported two suicides this year within a mile of his home.  One man threw himself under a train, struggling to cope with his own illness and his wife’s dementia in old age.  Another man killed himself with a sword, leaving behind his wife and young son.  Looking back, I remember the shock we experienced as a family when the son of a friend committed suicide.  I experienced the same level of shock as a member of the London Symphony Chorus when one of our members took his own life.
Let me pause here, and invite you to reflect on your own experience.  How often has your train been delayed for reasons which are unknown or, quite clearly, for a fatality?  When you survey your family tree, or your wider friendship group, is there someone – often overlooked or maybe actively pushed out of view – who committed suicide?  Have you ever known of someone in your workplace who has attempted to commit suicide?
What’s the scale of the problem?
In the UK, the Samaritans report that 1 million people across the globe die by suicide each year.  That’s one suicide every 40 seconds.  They also report that more people die by suicide each year than by murder and war combined.  They see these statistics as conservative – many suicides go unseen.  Suicides go unreported because of social stigma or because the cause of death is given as something else, such as a road traffic accident or drowning.
Suicide is the second largest source of death worldwide amongst 15-19 year-olds.  It’s not, though, only a young person’s problem.  The Samaritans report that male suicide rates are on average 3-5 times higher than female rates and say men aged 30-44 are in the group with the highest rate of suicide.  Both male and female suicide rates are increasing.  Anecdotally, I know of more men than women who have committed suicide and it does seem that men who attempt suicide use methods which ensure their success – though I struggle, in this context, with the word “success”.
Suicide and the work-place
Sarah’s recent experience made me reflect on suicide and work-related stress.  It didn’t take much research to find the Canadian Association for Suicide Prevention, which highlights the workplace as one of the key environments affecting mental health and well-being:
The workplace is one of the key environments affecting mental health and well-being.   Gainful employment provides experiences that promote mental well-being through the provision of structured time, social contact, collective effort and purpose, social identity, and regular activity.  Unfortunately, the workplace can also be the source of non-productive stress leading to physical and mental health problems, including suicidal thoughts and behaviours and suicide.
It’s clear to me that if you’re a manager or working in HR, you’re in a privileged position as the first port of call for people in distress and even if you’re not, you need to know how to respond if a friend, family member or colleague comes to you for support.
Equally, if you are under stress and having thoughts of suicide or self-harm, you need to know what to do next.
If you’re in distress
If you’re in distress, you need to turn – as soon as you can – to appropriate professionals.  These professionals are likely to be outside the workplace and include your GP and local mental health services and voluntary organisations, such as the Samaritans.  Make an appointment to see your GP as soon as you start to experience suicidal thoughts or, if you’re struggling to resist the call to self-harm, go immediately to your local Accident and Emergency department.  Call the Samaritans at any time of day or night.
I want to say to you that I hear your “buts” and I know how hard it can be to reach out.  My heart goes out to you for everything that you are experiencing right now.  I don’t know what to say to you that will help you to reach out except this:  please, seek help.
Responding to someone in distress
Whether you are a line manager, working in HR or in some other role, if you want to provide support, you need to be alert to clues that an employee is in distress and to take those clues seriously.  It is not enough to encourage people to “push through” whatever difficulties they may have:  you need to know that people may come to you for help and to be ready to talk openly with them and without judgement about what they are experiencing.  People who are experiencing extreme distress may find it hard to speak openly about their experience but they do give clues and you need to follow up by asking – openly and directly – if an employee is having thoughts of self-harm.
Nor is it enough to think that you can provide the appropriate support.  Adrianna Scott, in an article for the American Society for Human Resource Management about how to deal with suicide in the workplace emphasises the limitations of the HR professional’s responsibilities and the need to seek out professional support.  She writes:
Marina London, spokeswoman for the Employee Assistance Professionals Association, based in Arlington, Va., says labelling employees as having a mental illness is on her list of HR “no-nos.”
“It’s not the HR person’s job to diagnose the person who is clinically depressed or bipolar,” London stressed. “The HR position should be supportive of the employee and get them to a professional.”
If you want a happy ending for employees in distress, you need to act sooner rather than later and to know your own limitations as a line manager or HR professional.  In time, you may be able to help employees to find better strategies than suicide or self-harm for handling stress.  First though, you need to support employees in distress in finding the right professional help.
Life beyond suicidal thinking
The Samaritans report that between 10 and 14% of people have suicidal thinking throughout their lifetime and approximately 5% of people attempt suicide at least once in their life.  Some people don’t make it.  Some people (including – so far – Sarah) do.
What happens once the immediate crisis is over?  I hope that, for many, therapy of various kinds can be transformative.  I have, for example, been drawn to revisit an approach called “family constellations” via a core text:  Love’s Hidden Symmetry:  What Makes Love Work in Relationships, by Bert Hellinger, Gunthard Weber and Hunter Beaumont.  I remembered that Hellinger and his co-authors had touched in this book on connections between family dynamics and suicide and I found, on re-visiting this book, a wealth of wisdom and examples in a field which is about resolution – finding ways to resolve unconscious family dynamics so that family members can embrace life fully.
Suicidal thinking is characterised by extreme black or white thinking and a lack of connection with one’s most essential needs – perhaps even a lack of permission to have needs.  For this reason, I find myself wondering how much the workplace has to contribute – way before an employee reaches crisis-point – by nurturing the emotional intelligence and thinking skills of employees.  As a line manager, for example, any investment you make in coaching members of your team can be an investment in their mental health as well as contributing to their effectiveness at work.  Equally, the skills of empathy and the ability to put yourself in another person’s shoes and to see things from their point of view can be essential for the manager dealing with an employee in distress.  The same skills can also transform a sales process or create bridges between departments which are otherwise entrenched in silo thinking.
Being a witness to Sarah at a time of extreme distress has been a humbling experience for me and still, I want to make it count.  I thank you for reading this article and reaching this point and I hope that in ways I cannot yet foresee it might make a difference to you or to someone you know at a time of crisis.
I wrote this article for Discuss HR blog where it was published on Monday 21st October, 2013.

Meditations on a butternut squash

Photo: Just eying up my supper in the garden. ..
Yesterday I harvested this butternut squash from my garden before going to my local supermarket to buy chorizo and red pepper.
My plan was to make risotto for supper and to enjoy my “free” butternut squash (the truth is, I grew the plant from the seeds of a squash I bought a few months back) but somehow, by the time I got to the checkout, I knew I wasn’t going to make risotto.  Instead, I consigned my prize crop (in my mind at least) to the fridge for another day and ate soup.

Stretching the elastic to breaking point

Five weeks ago, my friend Sarah went to hospital and I went with her.  I went with her once.  I went with her twice.  I went with her a third time.  Finally, she was admitted.  That first week, I made it my priority to support her at a time of crisis knowing that, with her family living several hours away, I was the person who was best placed to help her.  Once she was admitted, I continued to make a priority of visiting her.

I visited Sarah because I wanted to support her and without knowing how long she would be in hospital.  It was a high priority for me and, at the same time, I knew I was stretching the elastic about as far as it would stretch and still ping back.  I kept up a regime of visiting most days until Sarah moved on Monday to receive specialist treatment some distance away…

…and I confess, that once she’d moved to get the treatment she really needed, I discovered just how exhausted I was.

Feeling exhausted?

Have you ever felt totally exhausted at the end of a project, or after handling a crisis, or simply, because you just are?  The minute your project, or crisis, is over you look at the spaces opening up in your diary and think of all the things you’ve been putting on hold.  Now you can catch up!
Somehow, though, when the time comes, your body refuses to cooperate.  At least, you could push through (isn’t that what you’ve been doing so successfully for the last few weeks, months or even years?) but only if you ignore the signals that your body is giving you… signals that are getting louder and louder and louder…
There is an alternative to “pushing through”
Janice Chapman, the distinguished Australian-born soprano and voice coach, teaches a method of breathing she calls “splat”.  The essence of the method is this:  before you take in a new breath, you need to release what remains of the breath you have just taken.  When I learnt this method, it seemed rather counter-intuitive – isn’t it more efficient to top up the breath before singing again?
Topping up the breath is a good metaphor for what we do when we push through, ignoring the body’s signals to rest before getting stuck into whatever comes next.  Releasing the breath allows us to fill up our lungs with oxygen, rather than seeking to extract the last bit of oxygen from our depleted lungs.
The same principle applies when we take a rest – be it a day or a week or even a “power nap” before we continue.  If we don’t rest and instead push through, we’re into the law of diminishing returns.  For the want of rest, we risk taking our elastic to the point at which it won’t ping back.  We start the next thing exhausted.
We need to remember this for ourselves.  We need to remember it for those we lead.
Taking a moment to check in
If you’ve read this far you may be wondering, “how should I respond to this posting?”  My message to you is…
Breathe.  Take five minutes just to breathe.  Breathe in gently and release the breath, trusting your body’s natural rhythms.
And as you breathe, notice what stage you are at in the various cycles of your life.  Where are you resting?  Where are you pushing through?  What is your body asking of you right now?  Notice, in particular, any messages you’re giving yourself about the need to push through… really?  Sometimes, it helps to recognise your need for rest and to adjust your schedule, knowing that there will be a time – but it doesn’t always need to be now – for you galvanise your energy and to get stuck in.
Everything’s working perfectly
 Yesterday, it wasn’t only that I failed to make the butternut squash and chorizo risotto.  In truth, I pretty much took the day off.  Yes, I got up with the intention of working.  I checked my e-mails.  I had my first (and only) appointment.  Soon, though, I realised that I had a choice and I decided to rest.
Sarah is in hospital now, and getting the care she needs.  I’ll be sharing more of her journey in a future posting, and I’ll be providing support when she comes back to her home nearby.  I have work to do in the meantime – lots of work, as it happens.  But it didn’t need to be done yesterday.
Yesterday I felt exhausted, torn between the need to rest and the awareness of just how much catching up I need to do.  Still, I chose rest and notice how much more energy I have today.  The morning has already been productive.  I’m looking forward to making risotto.  Everything’s working perfectly. 

Spinning your wheels in your life or career?

Recently, I spoke with a client who told me just how much he was spinning his wheels – wanting to move forward in his career but not quite sure in what direction.

Successful in his job, he nonetheless noticed, from time to time, how little it rocked his boat.  Watching colleagues discuss a new development in his field, for example, he could see how their eyes sparkled with excitement.

His didn’t.

Maybe you understand Nick’s frustration.  You’ve worked hard to get where you are.  You’re successful in your job.  It brings you a great deal that you value – kudos, maybe, a comfortable salary, the knowledge that you’re doing something well and seen to do something well.

At the same time, you are not getting out of bed with a spring in your step.

Stuck on the M25

Nick was like a man stuck on the M25 of his career.

From time to time, he would notice how little he was enjoying his job and notice how much he yearned for greater contentment.  He would inch forward a step or two – think about changing his career, maybe even look into the requirements for one or two of his options.

Quickly, though, the wealth of traffic would bring him to a halt.  One car in front of him would say “but think of all the people who are depending on you, right now”.  Another would say, “what about all the things you have got in your career”.  Another, (quite a juggernaut, this one), would say “who are you, anyway, to expect to live a life of full contentment?”

Stopping, starting.  Stopping, starting.  And all the while, Nick was going round in circles.
It’s not that he didn’t think about changing jobs.  He did.  But he didn’t know which job would suit him and he didn’t know how to find out.

A hero’s journey

Joseph Campbell, author of The Hero With A Thousand Faces, has made a lifetime study of myth from around the world.  Apollo, the Frog King, Wotan, the Buddha… Campbell has looked at the main protagonists of both folklore and religion and discovered a remarkable similarity in the underlying structure of their stories.  He calls this structure, the “hero’s journey”.

The hero’s journey begins when the hero hears a call to adventure.  At this stage, the main protagonist faces a crisis or some calling.  His (or her) ways are no longer fitting, but the way forward has yet to appear.  Nick’s experience is typical of this stage of the hero’s journey – and perhaps yours is, too.  From time to time, he would notice his discontentment without knowing what to do about it.  His response was to wait for an answer, but the answer didn’t come.

Making the journey:  you need to commit

Campbell’s research suggests that, at the beginning of the hero’s journey, the hero hears a calling and stands on a threshold.  Responding to the calling means stepping over the threshold and embarking on the journey.  The challenge is this:  when you step over the threshold, you don’t know where the journey will take you.  What’s more, the help you need to make your journey won’t appear until you’ve actually crossed the threshold.

What does this mean for Nick?  As long as Nick sits and waits for the right answer to appear, it won’t.  He needs to commit to the what – to making his journey – and then to work out how to reach his desired destination.

There’s something else, too.  A common mistake that people make is to think their desired destination is one thing when actually, it’s another.  Nick may think his destination is “the perfect job” but actually, it’s a greater level of contentment.  For Nick, this makes the difference between “How do I plan the route to my perfect job when I don’t know what that job is?” and “How do I achieve a greater level of contentment in my life?”

How about you?

Are you, too, stuck on the M25 of your life or career?  If you are, you can begin to find a clear sense of direction by uncovering what it is you really want to achieve.  Here’s a quick way to get you started:

Step 1:  Write down what it is you want that you haven’t yet achieved.  This is probably the easy bit and it’s probably quite concrete – something like “a job I really love” or “a better relationship with my partner”.

Step 2:  Ask yourself this:  what would it do for you if you had what you want?  Keep asking yourself this question and notice your emotions and the sensations in your body.  You know you’ve got the right answer when you feel a sense of connection with an answer which just keeps coming back.  The answer that really matters will be an underlying need, with no sense of the form this might take – for example, “greater contentment in my work” or “more love and intimacy”.  When you’ve found your underlying need pause for a few moments before moving to Step 3.

Step 3:  Ask yourself if you’re ready to commit to meeting your unmet need.  Notice the answer – whatever it is.  It could be that recognising what it is you reallywant is enough for you to commit to making it happen.  Perhaps, though, you’ll meet some inner resistance.  Either way, you’re closer to identifying your next steps.

In Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, Alice asks “Where should I go?”  The Cheshire cat responds, “That depends on where you want to end up.”  If, like Nick, you’re stuck on the M25 of your life or career, it helps to get under the surface of your aspirations to understand what it is you really want.

You also need to commit to making the journey.