Tag Archives: developing leadership intelligence

Remembrance for times ahead

Recently, I posted on Facebook to express my concerns at the changing use of the poppy, once a symbol of remembrance for those who died in World Wars I and II.  I shared an article by Harry Leslie Smith and published by the Guardian in 2013, explaining why, aged 91, he had decided to wear the poppy of remembrance for the last time.  And a blog posting, whose author calls herself “stavvers”.  My sharing was met with some resistance.  One friend responded by highlighting the emergence of the white poppy, available to buy online.

This year, two great political shocks have made me focus with fresh eyes on Remembrance Day and on how I choose to remember.  On June 23, 2016, the British electorate voted by a narrow voter majority to leave the EU in an advisory referendum, unleashing a genie from the bottle whose consequences cannot yet be told.  Today, November 9th, 2016, the American people elected their 45th President of the United States of America, Donald J. Trump.  To say that I was shocked by the result of the UK’s “Brexit” referendum is not to exaggerate.  I have been less shocked by Trump’s election – Brexit prepared me to expect the unexpected.  After Brexit, there were jokes – which had the ring of truth – that Britons would have to relinquish a favourite pass time;  that of looking down on the Americans.  Today, I suspect that pass time may well find currency again.

But what do we make of it all?  And why am I talking of the Brexit and the US election in a post about Remembrance?

Groundhog Day and the cycle of history

If you’ve never watched the film Groundhog Day, now may well be the time.  In it, the film’s main character, played by actor Bill Murray, gets caught in a time warp, repeating the same day over and over again until he learns the essential lessons he needs in order to move on.

The act of remembrance was born of a deep desire to save future generations from repeating the mistakes of the past.  In Germany, there has been a focus on education with the aim of making sure that the country’s sons and daughters would never again make the mistakes of their Nazi forebears.  The European Union was also the child of this deep desire for peace.  No wonder then, as imperfect as the EU might be, there are many in Britain who wish to retain our membership.  No wonder that colleagues in Europe have responded with shock at how easily we have shown our willingness to jump from the EU ship.

In America, Trump’s candidacy has drawn comparisons with the rise of Nazism under Hitler’s leadership.  Trump’s campaign slogan “Make America Great Again” directly parallels Hitler’s 1930s vision for Germany’s return to prominence.  And both appealed – alongside Brexit – to sections of the electorate who felt despairing and down-trodden and saw little hope for the future.  Hitler, Brexit, Trump… they all gave hope to what, only today, Trump called his country’s “forgotten people”.

Perhaps our shock reflects a prevailing view, despite evidence to the contrary, that progress goes in a straight line.  It doesn’t.  The myth of progress-in-a-straight-line leads us, in business, to the view that only targets which show improvements (increased sales, improving efficiency, rises in profitability) are ever needed. The same myth of straight-line progress may well have fuelled hope in America that the first black US President might be succeeded by its first woman US President.  Instead, the presidency of the US’s first black president, widely regarded as someone who has combined dignity in office with a huge measure of compassion and humour, is followed by the coming presidency of yet one more white man of mature years and, this time, one who has been variously labelled as bigoted, misogynist, racist, xenophobic and more.  Many Americans are thrilled – but not all.  At least as many Americans are bewildered, anxious and afraid.

Is love even here?

For those people who have fought for progress over many years, it is tempting to fall into despair.  It’s hard to see how progress can come from steps which hark back to a forgotten and maybe even imagined “glorious” past.  The phrase “dark day” has graced my Facebook feed today and, more humourously, perhaps “electile dysfunction”.  For some, humour is a moment of relief when people can find no other way to find peace.

I am reminded and grateful for the question which is often asked by one of my mentors, the wonderful Mark Silver of Heart of Business:  is love even here?  It is a question which connects us to love which is, always, here.  And I think our hope of making progress – of moving beyond our political Groundhog Day – depends on it.

These are some of the things that strike me about our current circumstances (including many circumstances I have not even mentioned).

The Brexit campaign was a bitter battle as was the US election campaign.  Amongst my friends it played out with equal intensity on Facebook.

Both were characterised by lies and more lies in what some have described as a “post-truth” era.  In Brexit, the lies were clearly on both sides, with the media criticised for their light touch response to some unholy battle-bus whoppers.  In the US election campaign, pointing out Donald Trump’s personal brand of fabrication-despite-clear-evidence drew criticism of large-scale media bias.

Both were characterised – yes, both – by insulting and disparaging the opposition before, during and after the campaigns.  In Brexit, Leavers were “stupid” and “ignorant” and Remainers “just need to get over it”.  In the US election campaign Trump, together with his supporters,  was seen by opponents as an “idiot” and unworthy of anything but laughter and disdain.

But after the battle we are left both with the electoral result and with the needs – the raw, keenly felt and unmet needs – that drove people on both sides of the argument to vote as they did.  It seems to me that this is one of the deep lessons of Groundhog Day, just as it is one of the deep lessons of our current political era.  This is the lesson that we need to learn if ever we are to move beyond our current cycle of progress and resistance.

We are all one.  When we overlook the needs of one, we hinder the progress of all.

Brexit is said to have been won largely by sectors of the population whose economic needs are unmet, even by those who most benefitted from EU funding.  In the US, early analysis suggests that it is not the most economically disadvantaged who voted for Trump but the older, white, male vote that won Trump his victory.  The “disadvantaged white male” narrative clings on and perhaps there is still some truth in this – for which so much wealth concentrated in the hands of so few, most of the population feel keenly their disadvantages.  And because of this, there is action and reaction, momentum and resistance.

Until we find ways forward that honour and meet the needs of all, our Groundhog Day will continue.

Beyond “goodies” and “baddies”

It seems to me that one implication of this truth – I’d go so far as to call it as a universal law – is that we all need to let go of our habit of dividing the world into “goodies” and “baddies” and, instead, start to see each other as the human beings we all are.

Don’t get me wrong, this is not about rolling over and accepting every behaviour as okay.  No.  But it does require us to see the humanity of those whose views and actions concern us and to be curious.  We need to show curiosity about those people we define, somehow, as “other”.  What is motivating this support for a different candidate or point of view?  What deeper needs are being expressed?  And we need to afford them the same respect we would afford anyone whose views we agree with.  In the US election campaign, I was inspired by this example from Van Jones, author and – amongst other things – CNN contributor.

Equally, we need to be willing and able to see ourselves as the human beings we all are.  As much, for example, as we need to understand that some of the behaviours we find most repulsive in others spring from positive intentions, we need to understand that our own positive intentions give birth, at times, to some pretty ugly behaviours. This opens up the opportunity to reflect on and adjust our approach.  We also have the opportunity to be less judgemental of others when we recognise our own limitations.  These are not small things.

Until we can recognise, with compassion, our own limitations, we are stuck in our own personal Groundhog Day.  Our blind spots become those of our children.  Worse still, they become embedded in our culture, in our systems, in our laws.  We talk with horror of the Holocaust, for example, yet turn our back to the needs of those people displaced from Syria by famine and war or even supply arms to foreign powers so that they can perpetrate atrocities in distant lands.  We invade foreign lands and treat native peoples with brutality and yet fear the invasion of immigrants even to lands to which we were, ourselves, not only immigrants but violent invaders.

Creating narratives for future generations

In the aftermath of World War I and II our continuing acts of remembrance create a narrative for future generations, offering a storyline which may or may not expand their understanding.  For this reason, I choose to reflect on the prevailing narratives of our era and to choose my own.

For my own part, I feel concerned as the Royal British Legion, who have provided poppies for our act of remembrance for many years now, begin to talk of a new generation of veterans that need my support.  It worries me to read – on, of all things, its “Our Brand” page – “We want people to understand that the poppy is not just about Remembrance; it’s also about providing hope for the Armed Forces community of all ages, throughout the year.”  This is a message which dilutes the poppy as an act of remembrance and, by supporting more recent veterans, invites my moral and financial support for the UK’s continuing engagement in armed conflict.

I am not so naive as to think no time will come when others invade our shores.  I know that my taxes have been co-opted to fund action abroad.  Let my taxes also be co-opted to give due care to those who fight in conflicts, including those I do not support.  For my part, by my act of remembrance, I want to think ahead to a time in which we choose to engage with people as our brothers and sisters rather than to demonise them and overlook their humanity.

Today, Angela Merkel extended a cautious hand of welcome to Donald Trump:

“Whoever the American people elect as their president in free and fair elections, that has a significance far beyond the USA.  Germany and America are bound by their values: democracy, freedom, the respect for the law and the dignity of human beings, independent of their origin, skin color, religion, gender, sexual orientation or political position.  On the basis of these values I offer the future president of the United States, Donald Trump, close cooperation.”

For my part, I see Merkel’s words as a reminder of just how deeply the German people have chosen to reflect on their history.  Perhaps, too, Merkel offers an invitation both to voters in America and to observers around the world, to remember the dignity of human beings of all political persuasions.  It is a time to take stock, to treat each other with love and respect or at least, if caring for each other proves to be beyond what we can achieve right now, to take time to care for ourselves.

When it’s time to stop doing and start dreaming

So, you’ve been trying to reach your goals.  Perhaps it’s your goal to find a new job. Or to attract new clients, new sales. It might be something personal, like finding a partner or conceiving a child.

But somehow, it isn’t quite happening.

If only you could push a little harder.

You think about what action you need to take next.  You identify and plan your next steps.  It all seems perfectly logical.  Easy even – just a half an hour here, a quick phone-call there.

Easy, yes, but somehow it isn’t quite happening.

You’re not taking the actions.  Or you’re taking action but not seeing the results.

The truth is, at the same time, you know you’re exhausted.  Your head is full of “shoulds” and some part of you is resisting the sense of obligation that comes with “should”.  The very thing you’re doing (or planning to do) precisely to make life easier, more comfortable, more joyful, more tailored to you is leaving you feeling exhausted, unable to rest, more joyless.

You feel the weight on your shoulders and you want to put it down.

Are you listening?

Recently, this was the experience of a client of mine.

Some part of her was pushing, assiduously, forward.  Some part of her was yearning for rest.  She wanted to make progress towards her goals but somehow she wasn’t taking action.  She was yearning for rest but never felt relaxed.  “On the one hand…” she was saying, “but on the other hand…”

Is this you, too?

We took time in our coaching to listen.  We wanted to connect with the needs she was trying to meet and to explore possibilities for meeting her needs.  The more we listened, the more we found that it is possible both to take steps to move forward and to take time to rest.

Actually, we found it was not only possible but also essential.

And there’s more.

As we found a way forward that she could sign up to – that all of her could sign up to – something else popped up.

“Maybe,” she told me, “I need to look at a larger question… not just my next career steps but also the whole of my life.”

In her struggle to carve out her next career move, a more fundamental need was not being heard.  It was time to step back from taking steps to make things happen and to ask “What is it that I really want in my life as a whole?”  This was a question about every aspect of her life – career, yes, but also leisure, family, location and more – as well as a question about the the weeks, months and years to come.

It was, in short, a time to stop doing and a time to start dreaming.

But how do you dream?

It may seem strange to some, but if you’re used to planning and taking action, it can be hard to know how to dream or even to know how to connect with the dreams you already have.  I’m writing this post today because I’d like to offer some simple ways to get started:

  • Learn from your past (or someone else’s):  Has there ever been a time in your past when you had a dream that came true?  If you have past experience of conceiving, pursuing and fulfilling your dreams, you already know what happened and can look for moments in the present that are similar to your experience in the past.  Did you see it in your mind’s eye?  Or have a feeling that something was coming your way?  Different people dream in different ways, so tapping into your own experience or getting curious about other people’s can be a valuable source of information about how you dream.  The suggestions below are a reflection of the ways in which different people envisage a new and different future;
  • Taking stock:  As a coach, I often begin a coaching assignment by helping clients to take stock using two “coaching-wheels“.  The coaching wheel supports self reflection and can help people get started who find dreaming difficult.  How content are you, for example, with your professional life?  Or your personal relationships?  A mark out of ten can be easy to assign and further reflection can help you to explore what’s working in your life and what more you want;
  • Tracking your emotions:  How are you responding to the events of your day, week, month?  When do you feel most joyful and alive?  When do your energies feel drained.  What possibilities excite you?  What ideas are joyless and laden with “shoulds” and “oughts”?  When you track your emotions in the here and now – when you really pay attention – you begin the process of understanding what you really want in your life;
  • Listening to the small voice within:  Often, when I talk with clients they already know something is off track but are pushing this message away.  They may even know what they really want but, because they don’t know how to make it happen, they carry on with life as it is.  Sometimes, listening to this inner voice is as simple as saying “yes, I’m ready to listen”.  Sometimes, it’s about carving out the kind of unscheduled downtime that allows these messages to come through.  A day with no agenda.  A walk in the countryside.  Time curled up in your arm chair with a notepad and pen;
  • Cultivating gratitude:  To cultivate gratitude is to notice those moments in your life when something meets your needs.  It might be something you do, or something someone else does or, simply, something that happens.  At first, you may want to dedicate a time to do this, keeping a gratitude diary, for example, which you write in at the end of the day.  In my experience, over time, this has morphed into a constant alertness to those things in my life which are most precious to me.  I say thank you to myself.  I say thank you to others.  My personal Facebook Page is now littered with status updates which reflect my gratitude.  (These are the ones my youngest nephew thinks are terribly long.)  To cultivate gratitude is to become more aware of those things that meet our needs and this, in turn, increases awareness of what we might want more of in future;
  • Visualise your dreams:  A notice board, a notebook or an online application can be a great place to build up a visual image of the things you dream of.  What do you see that catches your eye? It may be the different aspects of your life that you are starting to represent or more detail about a particular aspect of your life, from decorating the lounge all the way through to where you want to live or work.  It may be photos that catch your attention, or phrases… find a place to bring them together so you can build up a picture of the life you dream of;
  • Drawing inspiration from others:  Who do you most admire or envy?  Who – or what – inspires you?  Noticing your response to others can also help you to connect with everything that is important, inspiring, joyful or simply yes, that’s it! right for you.  This can be about the content of the dream (the thing they dreamt of and made happen) or about their capacity to dream (how they did the dreaming and how they realised their dream).

Why dream?  Conceiving the impossible

Right now, my client may not know what she really wants, or how to make it happen.  Nonetheless, realities start with a dream.  So, as I close, I think of those who have dreamt and whose dreams have come true.

Some of them are clients of mine, men and women who have made radical career changes, who have found the sweet spot where work and family can coexist, who have realised the life they were leading was not for them and moved towards something that was more congruent or fitting.

Some of them have held dreams for society at large – dreams of inclusion and social cohesion, dreams of justice or peace, dreams for the environment we live in, dreams for our health, wealth or well-being.

All of them made something happen because, first, they imagined its existence.

If, like my client, your struggling to make something happen, could it be your time, also, to stop doing and start dreaming?

The boys in the (wo)men who run things

Recently, and for the first time in my life, I walked into a betting shop.

I wanted to find out if I could place a bet, and at what odds, that Brexit will not go through. It was, after all a plebiscite – a non-binding, advisory referendum. And who in their right mind would implement a decision as complex and significant as leaving the European Union on the basis of such a tiny majority of votes to leave, particularly when the overall statistics suggest a broadly three thirds split between “leave”, “remain” and “didn’t vote”?

It seems we are not in our right mind

So many things about Brexit highlight that we are not in our right minds that I need not mention them all.

Perhaps, even, any.

From the safe distance of the US, a friend wrote on Facebook. First, he responded to the result of the referendum, by saying:

To all my friends and colleagues in the UK and the EU: the “Brexit” vote is a huge deal! My heart goes out to you in the instability and change, regardless of which way you were voting.

Sending hugs and fierce love today.

Then, he responded to David Cameron’s post referendum speech by saying:

Can someone explain the intricacies of UK politics to me around a prime minister resigning? I can’t tell, from what I’ve been reading, whether David Cameron is resigning on principle, or if there is a process in the way the prime minister loses his position when something… changes…? <confused>

After I get an answer to this, I’ll ask about the rules of cricket.

Of course, from the safe distance of the UK, the possibility that Donald Trump might become President of the United States also seems pretty off the wall.

Even so, we might still have to live with it.

Wounded Leaders

Everything about Brexit pointed to one thing for me. It was time to read Nick Duffell’s book, Wounded Leaders: British Elitism and the Entitlement Illusion.

For over twenty years, Duffell has been exploring a topic that came to my attention only because of conversations with a friend: the impact on men and women in adulthood of attending boarding schools in childhood.

Duffell’s thesis is that sending children away to board exposes them to the traumatic experience of being separated from their parents before they are ready. Then, as if this were not enough, they have to make sense of their parents’ reasons for doing it, raising fears that they were sent away because their parents didn’t love them or that the fact that they are not enjoying boarding school means there is something wrong with them. Finally, the experience throws up the need to find ways to survive in their new context. They become bullies or buffoons, or possibly both. In Nick Duffell’s language, they become Boarding School Survivors.

Duffell’s thesis is vividly reflected in a documentary film, made in 1994, entitled The Making of Them, which is still available to view.

As his book outlines, the results of boarding in the adult lives of boarders are also plain to see in the behaviours of our political elite.

You are not alone

You could think that this posting is directed only at people who have been to boarding school, or to people who work with former boarders. It’s not.

Reading Duffell’s book, I found parallels in my own experience both as a child transitioning over time into adulthood and also as someone who works with men and women in leadership roles.

If you, for example, are sometimes triggered in the work place… if, at times, you respond at a speed that can only come from some kind of automatic pilot to the events you face at work… if you sometimes regret your reaction but don’t begin to know what to do differently or if you seek to justify your response by finding fault with the person or people you are dealing with… if there are things you desire as if your very life depends upon it… if you are riddled with self-doubt unless you achieve X or Y or Z… you are not alone.

It is common for children to experience things in childhood that are beyond their capacity to understand. It is equally common for children, in finding ways to cope with difficult experiences, to develop strategies that, whilst far from effective, nonetheless get carried into adulthood. These are strategies that protect us – or attempt to protect us – from the worst fears of our inner child.

At the same time, in our adult lives, our inner child remains stuck unless and until we are able to recognise our pain (the “wounds” implied in the title of Duffell’s book), to understand the source of our pain and to seek out and embody the learning we need to move forward.

When your inner child is running the show

Early in his book, Duffell reminds us of David Cameron’s now (in)famous remark to Angela Eagle in the House of Commons during Prime Minister’s Questions: “Calm down, dear”, which he analyses in some detail as an example of the kind of strategies boarders adopt. It’s the kind of strategy that works in the moment, at least to some degree.

At the same time, as you may know from your own experience, strategies that come from your inner child can only work to a limited degree and may even be harmful.

What are the consequences of these strategies, of which we may or may not be aware?

  • Often, they are accompanied by high emotions, particularly anxiety, on the part of the inner child. We may look as elegant as swans on the surface, but maintaining appearances takes untold energy and can lead, over time, to exhaustion, stress and more;
  • Formed in childhood based on the thinking of our immature child, the harm to ourselves is self-perpetuating, because the thinking that drives them is taken as true. You think you have to work ten times as hard as your colleagues to be accepted? You think you have to be top of the corporate class in order to be liked? You will strive, constantly, in line with your inner belief. Worse still, because you fear, at some level, that you are not, fundamentally, okay, it can be hard for you to receive feedback that brings your hidden belief into awareness, lest it be proof of the flaws you fear so deeply;
  • Paradoxically, the very strategy that you adopted as a child may prevent you, in adulthood, from achieving the needs it was designed to achieve. This can become more and more apparent as your career progresses… when, for example, the attention to detail that made you an asset early in your career becomes a failure to see the larger picture in your role as a leader;
  • There may be consequences for those you lead. These are likely to be designed into your strategy but also unconscious. If you strive for perfection, for example, in order to prove you’re okay, you may be highly intolerant of any mistakes, wherever they come from. As a consequence, you will come down hard on the mistakes of others and may even try to make others responsible for your own;

If you’ve read this far, you may already be aware of some hidden anxiety or behavioural pattern that is running the show. You may even be aware of the implications for you and for others in your career.

You don’t need to be alone with it.

It’s not just that you’re one of many people who have one or more stress responses which date back to your childhood experiences.

No.

In addition, there are many ways – such as learning to pause before you act or learning to meditate – to begin the work of re-shaping your approach. In addition, professional support is available from highly skilled therapists, coaches and trainers. Far from being a sign that you’re flawed or failing in some way, the decision to seek professional support signals a step towards conscious self-awareness and making adult choices.

And Brexit?

Nick Duffell would, I think, propose that Brexit is the natural consequence of attempts to survive a boarding school education. In the prologue to Wounded Leaders, he writes presciently:

Having had to do without loving parents and being thrust into a false community – a single-sex institution with a narrow age-range – most ex boarders develop a very complex relationship with groups and communities, characterized by a mixture of suspicion and unfulfilled longing. Despite their intentions, those with an overriding thirst for power seem to end up suspicious of Continental values, backing self-reliance and prolonging a deep conservatism that keeps the old for the old’s sake and robs the country of the benefits of its natural dynamism. This, of course, affects the whole of society from top to bottom.

If Duffell is right, our decision, by a narrow majority of voters, to leave the European Union, is the result of unconscious survival strategies at the most senior levels of Britain’s political elite. In my view, it has also been met by similar survival responses across the electorate.

As for me, I did not get to place my bet.

I explained to the man who was serving me that I had not missed the result of the referendum (as he assumed) and talked about the process of invoking Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty. At the time, there were no odds on offer (and I missed the opportunity to place a bet on Theresa May.)

A fellow customer, standing next to me at the next counter, looked quizzically at me and told me that we’ve already left Europe.

Nothing I could say persuaded him that this was not, actually, true.

New Year and the art of rebalancing

Last month, I started to write a post for publication before Christmas.  Finally, I’m publishing it today.

At the time, it was about two weeks since I started to experience some low-level, lingering lurgy.  It had the irritating quality of being not quite serious enough for me to take time out and not quite, well, not serious enough for me to perform at full strength.

It’s interesting to notice that this lurgy coincided with some very difficult world events.  Friday, 13th November, brought vicious attacks on the men, women and children of Paris.  And as if this were not bad enough, the French president responded by launching attacks of their own.  Belgium staged a lockdown.  In the UK, the House of Commons passed a vote which was swiftly followed by targeted attacks on Syria.  And there was more, much more.

More locally, my value-for-money courier company had failed to collect on the day I booked them for.  Or the day after that.  Or the day after that.  Again.  I wish I could say that I managed my inner state with grace but I didn’t.  I responded by feeling frustrated and angry.  Again.

Fortunately, Christmas brought rest, plenty of rest.  Even so, I notice that for many people stepping into the New Year, there’s an uncomfortable gap between the way they are feeling and the pressure they feel to bounce back into the New Year full of energy and New Year’s resolutions.

What’s grinding you down?

At low tide
At low tide

I wonder if you, too, are feeling out of sorts as you read this.  You’re not alone.

Perhaps Christmas was stressful for you, highlighting stresses in your family and personal relationships or the need to “go public” about your pending (or recent) divorce.  Perhaps you have experienced major life events, such as bereavement or redundancy.  Perhaps, like me, you are deeply affected by major world events.

Perhaps you reached the end of the year exhausted after working intensely on a number of fronts.  Christmas was far from enough to restore you.  What’s more, you still face the need to balance your work with your commitments to friends and family, to organisations you belong to outside of work, even to maintain and manage your home.

Perhaps you face uncertainties in your personal and professional life including potential reorganisations (again), health scares (for you or for members of your family), the uncertainty of challenges in your marriage or of children transitioning to the next phase.

Perhaps you find yourself bumping up against the same problem, again and again, in some corner of your life.  This could be the repeated conversations with your noisy neighbour or the demands of a difficult boss or the misunderstandings with colleagues in department X.

It may even be that you feel weary as you face the same issues again and again and again… and not just one but all of the issues that create a cumulative cocktail of challenges.

It may be that even reading this list leaves you feeling yet more out of sorts.

Favourite ways to stay out of sorts

On the river bank
On the river bank

If you are feeling out of sorts, it may be worth asking yourself how you’re keeping yourself in a state of imbalance.  Here are some of my favourite ways to do this – do you recognise any of them as yours, too?

  • I keep myself in a state of imbalance when I keep pushing through. I keep doing the things that need to be done.  I keep telling myself I will get better soon… things will get better soon.  I keep thinking that if I just keep doing what I’m doing, something will change;
  • I keep myself in a state of imbalance by blaming others for ongoing problems.  I look at what other people are doing that is causing the problem and I feel frustrated.  I analyse what other people should do differently.  I look to other people to make changes;
  • Sometimes, I keep myself in a state of imbalance by blaming myself.  Perhaps I blame myself for the difficult things that are happening in my life (the misunderstandings must be my fault, right?).  Perhaps I blame myself for my failure to rise above the experiences I am having;
  • I keep myself in a state of imbalance when I imagine a future that may or may not happen and treat it as if it were true.  When I think about what could go wrong in a conversation or generalise from current difficulties to all the other difficult experiences I have had I am creating a false reality rather than connecting with what really is true;
  • I keep myself out of balance when I take responsibility that’s not mine to take, putting time and effort into sorting out problems that belong elsewhere;
  • I keep myself in a state of imbalance when I fail to face the truth of the issues affecting me.  The biggest failure is my failure to look the truth squarely in the face and recognise that something I want to change just isn’t going to change so that I continue to behave as though this change is both desirable and possible.

And whilst I’m doing these three things there’s one thing I am failing to do.  I am failing to acknowledge and bring care to my own experience.  And because I am failing to notice just what’s going on for me, the experience continues.

Bringing care and restoring our equilibrium

In the midst of writing this posting, more than one conversation I had with clients made me reflect on what we can do to bring care and restore our sense of balance.

On the bank of the Thames
On the bank of the Thames

One conversation was rooted in the recognition that our sense of imbalance comes largely from the way we are reacting to events.  Restoring balance is as much about shaping a more effective inner response as it is about choosing what actions to take out in the world.

Here are just some of the things that help me and my clients to bring care to our experiences and restore equilibrium:

  •  Whether we are experiencing ongoing exhaustion or a sudden surge of emotion, it’s so easy to let our emotions “run the show” or to push back with self-blame or -judgement.  Instead, it’s good to check in with ourselves – to notice what feelings are coming up and ask what we need right now.  When I take time to do this with love, I feel calmer, more settled as heightened feelings subside;
  • One of my dearest friends responds in challenging times by reminding himself that they are only temporary.  Somehow, knowing that intense feelings or ongoing exhaustion will, ultimately, go away helps him to “hang in there” when times are tough;
  • I find it helpful to notice what thoughts I am having and to ask myself “Is this really true?”  Is it really true that I have to keep ploughing on, for example?  Is it true that I am on my own in dealing with a person or situation?  This kind of curiosity helps me to separate what I know, objectively, to be true from the hidden beliefs and assumptions which sometimes guide my approach;
  • Sometimes, the process of asking questions reveals something that is true and that needs to be acknowledged.  Perhaps, for example, you need to acknowledge the real pressure you are under to deliver more than you can possibly achieve in your contracted work hours.  Perhaps you need to acknowledge that, no, you don’t have any support from your line manager.  Facing and acknowledging difficult truths opens up the possibility of taking action based on knowing what is rather than knowing what “should be”.  Taking action from a place of awareness is an important way to restore balance;
  • As you connect with your feelings and needs and as you acknowledge the truth of your experience, it becomes easier to identify and take practical actions to move things forward.  If you’ve identified an assumption that you need to do something “right now”, for example, you can check it out.  It’s always wonderful to me to discover that the thing that’s being asked for is not needed until next week.  Equally, when you’ve faced up to the lack of real support from your boss you can make requests for the support you need or find other ways to meet your needs, such as looking for a mentor or coach or starting the process of looking for a job which affords you the support you long for;
  • When you’re exhausted and overwhelmed or triggered in the moment, the solution may seem enormous.  In practice, maintaining or restoring balance often depends on identifying small practical steps.  Far too much work on your plate?  This may be a sign that you need to delegate more rather than a sign you need to work harder, for example.  One colleague often asks “What’s the smallest and easiest step I can take right now to move things forward?”
  • Sometimes, examining our thoughts also reveals a disconnect between what we know is objectively true and what we experience when exhausted, triggered or overwhelmed.  Think you don’t have what it takes?  Objectively, you know of your successes and yet, somehow, this knowing goes out of the window when your emotions are high or your energy levels are low.  Over time, it’s possible to design a practice that helps you to feel the truth of your successes (or whatever you need to know) even in times of stress.  Taking time to write, for example, can help you to capture your successes – what happened, how you felt, what feedback you received and more.

I hope you find something in this posting that helps you to restore your sense of balance.  Equally, if you’re wondering if and how coaching might help you to restore balance, please contact me directly to arrange to talk.

Bringing heart to leadership in difficult times

I have been somewhat parochial in the last couple of weeks in my approach to the news.  On 10th February, the news reached me of the death of someone whose work has enriched my life immeasurably:  Marshall Rosenberg.  Marshall was the creator of an approach to communication which he called Compassionate or Nonviolent Communication, a passionate advocate for social change, a great teacher and author of a number of books, including his core text Nonviolent Communication:  A Language of Life.

New concert hall boost for London
New concert hall boost for London

Then, too, there has been a flurry of commentary about Sir Simon Rattle.  Journalists have been speculating for months now that Rattle, whose tenure with the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra is due to come to an end in 2018, will take up the post of Principal Conductor of the London Symphony Orchestra.  (This matters to me because, in my spare time, I sing with the London Symphony Chorus.)  Rattle has spoken openly about his belief that London lacks a world-class concert hall and some have speculated that he is holding out for a commitment to build this hall as a condition of taking up the post with the LSO.  It seems the politicians have been listening:  in recent days, there have been public statements from various politicians.

There has been wider news.  There was an attack on a café in Copenhagen, which was hosting a discussion about free speech.  Three teenage girls left the UK, apparently to travel to Syria, raising concerns about their safety.  British football fans were caught on camera in Paris, chanting their love of racism.  There have been discussions about the Greeks in Europe.  In the UK, election fever is starting to build.

In the UK, talk of deflation has been carefully framed and, largely, played down.  Still, talking to friends and family, and to clients in the privacy of my offices in Harley Street, I am repeatedly reminded of just how different the business environment is right now compared to ten years ago.  The possibility of a round of deflation is one more nail in the coffin of hope for many businesses.

Is your organisation struggling to weather difficult times?

Businesses continue to struggle:  yours, too, may be struggling.  It can be hard to lead in an organisation that’s grappling with change.

As a leader, you have to make decisions in the face of great uncertainty, when many things you used to rely on can no longer be taken for granted, such as year on year improvements in sales and in what you can charge your clients.

The decisions you make have an impact on large numbers of people, from staff in your own organisation, suppliers, their friends, family and communities.  This can leave you feeling torn, uncertain, though you try hard to maintain the calm authority your staff expect of you.

What’s more, you know your own employment is at risk and your prospects of career advancement are diminished.  At no other time have you given more, been more tested, with less opportunity for any kind of reward.

How do you weather such difficult times?

Turning the screw on under-performance

It can be easy to think, in difficult times, that you need to use more force to achieve results.

This was the approach that Sheldon took.

Sheldon was a sales manager in a time when sales were sluggish.  Under pressure from his own line manager, Sheldon shared targets with members of the sales team and spelled out the consequences of not achieving those targets.  The consequences for the company were significant, he said, and everyone’s jobs were at risk.

Sheldon piled the pressure on individual team members, too.  One team member was new and struggling.  This team member, Ash, had made a flying start on joining the team but his results had been patchy following a down-turn in the economy.  What’s more, he was finding it hard to balance his core work with his contribution to a new initiative in the team.

Sheldon kept a close eye on Ash, giving detailed feedback on every failing he could find.  Ash was frustrated and devastated when he was copied in to an e-mail from Sheldon to the company’s MD, highlighting a particular problem and attributing it to Ash.  If only his manager had checked the facts, he would have known the problem lay elsewhere.

The thing is, the more Sheldon gave feedback, the more Ash’s performance deteriorated.

With love, not fear

One of the articles I recommend most often to leaders and aspiring leaders is Daniel Goleman’s article Leadership That Gets Results.

In his article, Goleman lays out research which identifies six different leadership styles and explains their impact on the performance of those being led.  This research suggests that the most effective leaders use a range of styles when managing their employees.  It also shows how the most effective leaders do this consciously, because they understand that they need to do what’s most effective in a given situation.

There’s more.

Goleman’s article (which he develops more fully in his book The New Leaders) shows that, over time, the use of four styles in particular is more likely to build a climate in which team members can perform.

There’s one thing that Goleman doesn’t mention in his article and that Sheldon didn’t know either.  Sheldon’s choice of leadership style was largely driven by fear.

Sheldon’s senior management were driven by fear of the consequences for the company of a whole if the sales team did not perform.  They passed their fear right on to Sheldon, together with the responsibility to find a way to increase sales.

Their approach intensified Sheldon’s fear and Sheldon lacked the skills to turn down the dial on his emotions in order to reflect on how best to handle the situation.  Like his own managers, Sheldon passed his fear right on.

Ash was already anxious when his performance started to drop and he didn’t know how to respond.  What’s more, he could see that an initiative in the sales team, designed to give better service to some of the company’s smaller client organisations, was asking members of the sales team, repeatedly, to be in two places at once.  He’d tried to give feedback to Sheldon but Sheldon seemed to be on a mission to prove to Ash that he was not up to much.

Ash was struggling to maintain his confidence and self esteem.

So was Sheldon.

So, too, were members of the senior management team.

About Marshall Rosenberg

On the day I heard that Marshall Rosenberg had died, I noticed my heart opening and the sensations in my body.  I knew it was not a day to bypass my experience but a day to take time out to be with everything that was in my heart, including the great sense of gratitude and the feelings of love.

Following the announcement of his death, colleagues at the Center for Nonviolent Communication (CNVC) set up a call for people to share their memories, to celebrate and mourn together.  Intended to last a few hours it went on for seven days.  A group set up on Facebook has become a living memorial to this towering giant of a man.

Early in his life, Rosenberg was struck by the various forms of violence he encountered growing up in Detroit.  He went on to study psychiatry and obtained a doctorate before going on to develop the approach to communication which has become known as Nonviolent Communication, with the aim of widely disseminating much-need communication skills.  During his life he worked widely around the world, bringing healing to many individual people and to troubled, often war-torn, communities.

It’s a testament to Rosenberg’s leadership that he set up a Center for Nonviolent Communication as a way to spread his approach and worked with many people around the world to share his skills.  He leaves behind many people who are themselves experienced in training others in NVC and in mediating conflict.

At the heart of his work, Rosenberg emphasised paying attention to feelings and needs so that we can find ways to meet our own needs whilst also respecting and contributing to the needs of others.  The disciplines of NVC – the process he described for communication – are especially powerful when they are rooted in love and in an intention, where there is fear, to find our way back to love.

I owe much to Marshall Rosenberg and to the approach he developed.  I am particularly grateful to the clarity of intention I have, as a result of studying with him and with others in the community, to live my life from a place of love.

Leadership with heart

This posting is, for now, my own testimonial to Marshall Rosenberg and an expression of my own love for and gratitude to him.

At the same time, I am aware of the power of love as an underpin to the kind of leadership Goleman describes in his article, Leadership That Gets Results.

Marshall advocated separating our observations from our judgements and Goleman highlights the need to step back and assess what is needed in each situation we face as a leader.

As a leader, Sheldon’s experience started to change when he learnt to notice his emotion and to bring care to his fears before choosing how to respond to each situation he faced.

The experience of his staff was also changed by this.

So, too, was their performance.

Marshall Rosenberg, 1934 – 2015.

Managing your boss

Portrait of Albert Einstein
Portrait of Albert Einstein

 

 

Insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results

Albert Einstein

 

 

 

 

In the last couple of years, I’ve enjoyed selling things on eBay.

In recent days, however, I’ve been grappling with a fair degree of frustration.  On Tuesday, I booked a courier to collect a parcel on Wednesday.

The courier didn’t come.

On Thursday I was out and left it with my neighbours.  I checked in with them on Thursday evening.

The courier hadn’t come.

Friday?  I was at home in the morning.

The courier didn’t come.

I had a meeting in the afternoon and left the parcel with my neighbours.  (Again.)  I collected the parcel from my neighbours on my way home.  The courier made his first attempt to collect soon after.  “Everybody’s complaining today,” he told me.  I knew I was not alone.

I was all the more frustrated because this has happened a number of times in recent weeks and my attempts to engage the company concerned have generally been met with an apology and a request that I deliver the parcel to them.

Are you working for your worst boss ever?

Working for a difficult boss is a subject that comes up repeatedly.  If you’re working for your worst boss ever, you may already recognise some parallels with my courier experience.

Your boss is the boss, right?  You expect him or her to do the things bosses do.

You expect your boss to clearly define what he or she wants of you.  He doesn’t.

You expect your boss to support you in shaping an agenda for your part of the business and to help you to gain support for important initiatives.  But you can’t get time in your boss’s diary or you face a wall when you put your ideas forward.

You expect your boss to organise herself to be effective.  You expect leadership from your boss.  But the last thing you get from your boss is good, sound leadership.

You expect the boss to provide support and coaching to help you become more effective in your current role or prepare for your next role.  But all you get is criticism when you don’t do things his way.  (And how the hell are you supposed to know what his way is?  He certainly doesn’t tell you.)

Perhaps you try making requests of your boss or giving feedback.  He may agree with your assessment of the situation but nothing changes.  She may take offence at your feedback.

Over time, you feel more and more frustrated.  Perhaps you feel anxious.  Maybe, if your boss is super critical of you, you lose confidence.  Your performance starts to slide.  Or maybe you find yourself increasingly filling the gap.  Others approach you rather than seeking help from your manager.  Or you start to shape the agenda, to do the influencing, to make things happen.

What Ben knew

Recently, I met someone who had made quite an art out of working for difficult bosses.  I was intrigued to learn more.

The first thing he told me intrigued me most of all.

It hadn’t always been that way.

Early in his career, he had set out to change a difficult boss.  He was confident that his perceptions of his manager were correct and felt sure that if he only raised his concerns at more senior levels, something would be done to address the boss’s behaviour.

In a way, he told me, he got lucky.  His boss’s boss was sympathetic to his concerns.  At the same time, she also highlighted the risks of taking on someone who was so powerful within the organisation.  “You can’t change the others,” she told him.  “You can only change yourself.”

Ben (let’s call him Ben) became curious about the possibilities of what he could achieve by focusing on what he could do rather than focussing on how his boss should be different.

In his first experience, for example, he recognised that his manager had a lot of power in the organisation and a strong desire to look good.  Ben learned to make the most of his boss’s powerful position by working with him to develop initiatives that moved the organisation forward.  “Whatever his limitations” he told me, “I always treated him with the utmost respect.  I shared ideas with him and explored the implications with him.  Quite quickly, I realised I had to start small if I wanted to get him on board.  The effect was to create a pathway towards the next small initiative and the next one and the next one.  I gave credit to my boss whenever I could and, quite quickly, he started to take the credit for the way he had encouraged me.  Once this happened, he started to sing my praises around the organisation so that we both looked good.”

I asked him if this kind of strategy had always worked for him.

“No,” he told me.  “There are times when I look at a situation and ask myself what I can achieve by adjusting my own behaviour and what changes I can make.  In one job, I gave feedback to my boss and he acknowledged all the issues I raised with him – and then did nothing at all to address them.  After I’d had this conversation with him several times I thought hard about my next steps and decided that I needed to accept the situation or, if I couldn’t accept the situation, I needed to accept that I couldn’t accept the situation.   At that stage, I knew it was time for me to move on.”

Tolle2Ben had learnt something I still find difficult.  Eckhart Tolle summed it up like this:  “When you complain you make yourself a victim.  Leave the situation, change the situation or accept it.  All else is madness.”

You could also put it this way:  “When you expect your boss to manage you, you make yourself a victim.  You need to start managing your boss.  Accept that your boss is the way s/he is, do what you can to transform your relationship with your boss, or leave your boss.  All else is madness.”

What struck me about Ben was not that he turned a blind eye to the weaknesses and failings of his line managers.  No.  He was curious about his bosses’ strengths and weaknesses.

He did, though, give up the word “should”:  he stopped telling himself that his line manager should be doing all the things that good bosses do.

My experience with my courier was a reminder that, whatever views I might have about my courier and what they should be doing, they were not.

Making your peace with working for the worst boss ever

The courier should have turned up on Wednesday but it didn’t.

I have already tried to attract attention and get the help I needed.

I’ve used the on-line chat facility and talked to people in Mumbai.

I’ve tried tweeting the UK team.

I tried writing to the courier’s Head of Customer Service.

Twice.

I got no reply.

Because the issues with this courier’s service have been repeated, I spoke to the Citizens Advice Bureau.

And then I looked hard at my courier’s standard Terms and Conditions.

I was surprised to discover that, as far as the courier is concerned, the service starts once their courier has collected the parcel.  (How weird is that?!)  What’s more, they take no responsibility for events beyond their control, including mechanical failure.  (In short, if the courier’s vehicle breaks down, they won’t collect.)

The thing is, I realised that my courier isn’t going to change.

I thought about the reasons I use this particular courier and I knew they still stand.  At their best, this courier provides a good standard of service at a price that suits my customers on eBay.

I decided to add a few words to my listings on eBay – my own Terms and Conditions – to alert my clients to the possibility of delay.

And, having done this, I felt at peace.

If you’re still waiting for your boss to change you’re doing what I do when I get cross when the courier doesn’t come.  Of course it’s logical to expect my courier to come on the day scheduled.  It’s what couriers do.

But all couriers are not equal and neither are all bosses.

Instead, you will be at your most effective – and peaceful – when you take a long hard look at the boss you have and ask yourself, “Where do I go from here?”

Please let me know how you get on.

Stepping into your power as a leader

Greenwich Park
Greenwich Park

If there’s one word that has people running for the hills in our culture, it’s the word “power”.

In the world of politics, one conspicuous example of this became evident in 2008, at the beginning of a major global economic crisis.

Europe looked to Germany to provide leadership.

Germany had reason – frightening, historical reason – to hesitate to exercise its full power.

“Power” is a word which has so many negative connotations.

No surprise, then, that there’s a phenomenon I notice amongst some of my coaching clients.  You could call it walking away from your own power.

It’s easy to spot amongst the young and talented leaders I get to work with.  But it’s not confined to any age, gender, ethnicity or other group.

Are you walking away from your “power”?

You’re walking away from your own power if you have scope to take action and you’re not taking action.  This is as true in managing your life and career as it is in your role as a leader.

Of course, it sounds so simple but the reality of it – your experience of it – is far more complex.

It’s possible, for example, that you don’t even know how much power you have to take action.  You’re used to thinking of others as powerful, but you?  You just don’t see yourself in that way.

Maybe you lack the motivation to embrace the power you have.  Yes, you want to get things done and to a high standard.  But exercising power?  You think of yourself as a doer rather than as someone who can make things happen beyond the scope of anything you can do yourself.

The very idea of power may be daunting for you.  Maybe it involves giving yourself a level of permission you can barely conceive of at this stage in your life or career.  Maybe you’ve seen how others exercise their power and you know you don’t want to be like that.

Giving your power away

London's Shard
London’s Shard

One client (let’s call him Lewis) recently expressed his frustration at the decisions being made by his line manager and the impact of those decisions on his staff.  Wasn’t it obvious to his boss that the organisation’s plans were ill-conceived and would ultimately backfire?

Another client (let’s call her Maja) expressed her frustration that her organisation was doing so little to recognise her career aspirations.  Yes, she was being offered another job.  But she was painfully aware that it met the organisation’s needs much more than her own.

I asked both Lewis and Maja what conversations they were having with the boss about their concerns.

They weren’t.

They hadn’t realised that talking to the boss was even an option.

Faced with the option of talking to the boss, each one expressed concerns.

Lewis could see that his boss was heavily invested in the decision he thought was so ill-conceived.  He was probably right.  He thought that to raise his concerns would have little effect other than to irritate the boss.

Maja struggled to embrace her talents or to give herself permission to gave priority to her own preferences over those of the organisation.  In her heart of hearts, she was frustrated with her organisation precisely because she was looking to her employer to validate her need.

Lewis, Maja, were both giving their power away.

Your power to what?

What power did Lewis have?  What power did Maja have?  Each one had far more power than they realised.  At the same time, each one had a particular idea of power that got in the way.

Each one saw power as something you exercise when you know precisely what the outcome will be.

Lewis didn’t speak to his boss because the only reason he could see to do this, was to persuade his boss to change her mind.  He thought she wouldn’t change her mind so he didn’t exercise his power to talk.

Maja didn’t speak to her boss because she wasn’t confident her employers would support her career aspirations.  She thought that learning her employers had different plans for her than she had for herself would put her at a disadvantage.

Neither Lewis nor Maja understood that our power to take action does not guarantee a particular result.  Instead, it opens up a conversation.

At times, the conversation leads us towards an outcome we desire.  The boss sees the validity of our arguments and changes his or her decision.  Our employer expresses support for our career aspirations and starts to collaborate in finding the job we want.

What’s more, as well as leading us towards our desired outcomes, the conversation can lead to larger outcomes than we anticipated.  When the boss listens to our arguments and finds them valid, the relationship is changed.  We make a step – however large or small – towards a relationship of partnership with our line manager and our power to influence is increased.  Or, finding our employer supports us in our aspirations, we discover our true worth in the eyes of the organisation.  We also take a powerful step towards finding a role in which we can work to our strengths.

At times, the conversation does not deliver what we hoped for and still, it delivers.  Perhaps the boss remains blind to our concerns.  We feel frustrated at the boss’s lack of insight or the requirement placed on us to do something we have so little faith in.  Still, by having the conversation, we learn something about our boss or about our own ability (or lack of) to persuade.  Perhaps we learn how little our employer supports us in our own career aspirations.  At first, we feel thrown back, betrayed.  We may find it painful to realise that we need to look after our own interests in an organisation that isn’t invested in us.

In the short term, and especially when we first step into our power to hold the conversation, we may feel disappointed precisely by (as we see it) our lack of power.

Over time, though, if we continue to exercise our power, we discover that each time we do so, whilst the immediate outcome may or may not be what we wanted, we are better informed and have more choices than were open to us before we exercised our power.  We discover, too, that the world did not fall apart because we spoke up and didn’t get the outcome we were hoping for.  Increasingly, we feel empowered.

Embracing your power to make a positive difference

London City seen across the Thames
London City seen across the Thames

Whenever you walk away from your power, you walk away from your power to make a positive difference.  You do this, even when you are motivated by a desire to avoid the misuse of power.

You also walk away from your power to take small actions that make a big (and positive) difference.

Whilst Lewis may not succeed in persuading his boss to change her mind, to say no to holding a conversation could be to say no to being the one person speaking up on behalf of his team.

Whilst Maja may or may not get the response she wants, to say no to holding a conversation is to say no to seeking a way to fulfil her potential.  This, in turn, could mean failing to make her full contribution to others.

I wonder, what’s your relationship with power?

Taking disciplinary action? Don’t take the soft option

If you think that to bring empathy to your disciplinary process is to take the soft option, I want to show just how badly a lack of empathy can get you into trouble and invite you to bring both empathy and compassion when you exercise discipline – for yourself and for those you lead.

Is your heart sinking at the prospect of addressing some employee misdemeanour or incompetence?

It’s a rare leader who looks forward to a conversation with an employee about something that’s gone wrong.

You know the kind of thing.  Rules broken.  Poor performance.  Inappropriate behaviour.  Bad BO.  The list is long.

You know that something isn’t quite working.  You’ve taken time to monitor and observe.  Maybe you’ve asked others for the feedback – or received it whether you wanted to or not.

You’re concerned about the impact of your employee’s failings.  You can see the impact on the team, on your clients, maybe even on the reputation of your organisation.

Your heart is sinking.  You know it’s your job to have the conversation and you wish it weren’t.

When leaders get into a mess in taking disciplinary action

If you talk to the HR professionals in many organisations about times when things have gone wrong when it comes to exercising discipline – oh my!  They’ll roll their eyes!

They’ll tell you about the time they spent providing emotional support both to employees and to their managers.  Tea and tissues?  It may not be what they want to do and still, getting it wrong can leave everyone involved feeling emotionally exhausted and yearning for understanding.

They’ll tell you about the impact on employee morale.  Yes, there’s the morale of the two people most closely involved.  More than this, the impact of a poorly handled disciplinary process is rarely confined to the employee and his or her manager.  Team members provide emotional support.  Perhaps they get angry or upset or anxious for their own jobs.  The conversation that was designed to designed to address a particular issue stimulates all sorts of emotions for everyone involved.

Maybe the issue managers set out to address goes unresolved.  At best, the action taken just wasn’t effective.  At worst, it was so badly off kilter that the lawyers need to be brought in as well as HR to sort out the mess.  All this takes time and attention away from the broken rule, the poor performance, the inappropriate behaviour, the bad BO.   What’s more, you have a whole new set of issues to address.

What is it that goes so badly wrong?

Usually, colleagues in the HR department will point to just two things:

Firstly, they’ll tell you how they tried to give advice to the person concerned and how it wasn’t followed.  Often the advice is about an organisation’s disciplinary process.  If it’s well-designed it will help line managers both to meet legal requirements and to ensure that an employee feels that he or she has been handled fairly and even given support.

They may not say it, but behind the good advice about process there is often a second issue lurking undetected.  The issue?  A lack of empathy.

Creating a rehabilitation culture in our criminal institutions

Did I say criminal?  Yes, I did.

A few years ago, I was deeply touched when Dominic Barter told a story of some restorative justice work he had done in Brazil.  A baker, whose son had been shot and killed in the bakery, was so moved when he learnt of the killer’s experience of poverty and his intention only to steal a loaf of bread that he gave the killer a job as a way of making something good from the original crime.  This was possible because the baker was able to transcend his grief at the loss of his son and bring deep empathy and understanding for the man who had killed him.

More recently, the RSA advertised a talk by leading criminologist Professor Shadd Maruna entitled Creating a Rehabilitation Culture.  This is what they said about the talk on their website:

Numerous criminal justice observers have argued that offender rehabilitation does not come in a ‘programme’.

Although targeted treatment interventions can be helpful in promoting desistance from crime, these projects are too often undermined by an overarching punitive culture that stigmatises and labels the individuals that programmes are meant to be ‘correcting’.

In case you haven’t made the link yet, this is what – too often – goes wrong when leaders seek to address issues in the workplace.  A lack of empathy, coupled with labelling the very person from whom a leader wants change, sets the leader up for the hardest possible ride.  The downward spiral has begun.

Finding a place of empathy when taking disciplinary action

If you’re facing the prospect of holding a disciplinary conversation with a member of your staff, finding a place of empathy for him or her is an important part of your preparation.  So is finding a place of empathy for yourself.  Here two things you can do to get you started:

Firstly, take time to find a place of empathy for yourself.  Find a quiet place where you can be undisturbed.  Take a few moments to notice the thoughts and emotions you have when you think about this person and what they have done and without censoring yourself.  Pay particular attention to your emotions and get curious about what sits behind your feelings.  As a leader, you are best placed to handle a disciplinary conversation well when you are open to and accept the challenges this brings you and give time and space for your needs.

Take time, too, to find a place of empathy for the person with whom you need to talk.  Take a few moments to get curious.  What positive intentions does he or she bring, even when doing the things that aren’t working for you?  What hopes might he or she have for a conversation with you – whether or not s/he’s done something “wrong”?  (Some people ask themselves how they would like someone they love to be treated as a way of putting themselves in the shoes of their direct report).

Discipline yes – but not crime and punishment

Although targeted treatment interventions can be helpful in promoting desistance from crime, these projects are too often undermined by an overarching punitive culture that stigmatises and labels the individuals that programmes are meant to be ‘correcting’.

Targeted at the UK’s criminal justice system, I find these words from the RSA’s programme have a broader application.  How many of us are drawn to think ill of the person with whom we need to hold a disciplinary conversation – to stigmatise or label them?  And where else does this attitude show up in our life – with our spouse, perhaps, parents, children…  I’d like to say that it’s easy to avoid this place of judgement towards self or others and yet, in our culture, it isn’t.  It’s so easy to protect ourselves by putting others in the wrong.

It’s easy to start in this place of judgement and yet, it does not create ease.  Our judgement – of self and others – stimulates a great deal of resistance and this, in turn, creates conflict.  With empathy, we can put our concerns on the table freely and openly whilst building or maintaining our relationship with those we lead.  We can insist on certain standards in the workplace without putting people in the wrong.

Equally, with empathy, we can forgive ourselves – or each other – when our initial disciplinary conversation does not go according to plan.  And when we ask ourselves “where do I go from here?” empathy can help us to find a way forward which maximises the positive outcomes for everyone – yes, everyone – involved.

Office politics – a force for good

Really?  You must be joking!

If this is your response to office politics, this posting is for you.

If you loathe office politics, you’re not alone

Listen, I have to put my hand up, too – I’m not a great fan of office politics.

You know the kind of thing…

…You watch colleagues get promoted ahead of you who are all show and no substance.  You know how they do it.  You watch them cosy up to the people who make the decisions and you can see that it works.  Maybe you even want your own (overdue) promotion… but you can’t bring yourself to follow suit.

…You’ve seen how your colleagues lay claim to successes when the credit really should go to someone else.  You know that a radical game-changing idea has come from someone who has gone without acknowledgement or someone else has taken all the credit for the hard slog it took to bring an important project to a fruitful conclusion.  And still they take the credit.

…You watch your colleagues promote an idea around the business and you know – you just know – that the real agenda is tucked away from sight.  The lack of honesty on the part of the person doing the promoting, the naivety of your most senior colleagues in not seeing through the propaganda – well, you’re finding it hard to swallow.

…Maybe you even listen to one of your colleague’s self propaganda and you wonder, “Does he really believe his description of himself or is it just the story he’s trying to sell around the business?”  You can’t believe how many people are taken in when you find it so easy to see the huge gap between the way your colleague describes himself and the way he behaves in practice.

You’re struggling with office politics, which fill you with loathing.  At the same time, you can see just how much politics plays a role in the every day life of your organisation.

A political epiphany

Over the years, and despite my own inherent suspicion of the office politicians, I’ve had the opportunity to observe how the ability to navigate office politics is an important skill as a leader in an organisation.  If you already have this skill, you probably haven’t read this far.  If you don’t have this skill, or you’re sceptical about the idea that politics can be a force for good, you probably need a bit of convincing.  For this reason, I want to share with you an example of one person’s “political epiphany” – it’s a simple story of one person who discovered that, after all, politics can be a force for good.

Sally (let’s call her Sally) was a talented graduate entrant in her company who liked to play with a straight bat.  As she rose to a junior management position, she became increasingly aware that she was working to a director who was poorly equipped for the role and she felt frustrated that her company did not seem to be addressing the issue.  She raised the issue with her colleagues in HR but got no joy and, after a while, realised that – whatever she thought of her senior management – she was beginning to get a reputation as a whinger.

Sally could have let the issue go.  However, she was particularly concerned about the impact of her director’s inadequacies on a project she felt really passionate about.  She decided to take the issue to her mentor.  Her mentor knew her preference for playing with a straight bat and asked her, “What’s most important to you?  Is it the inadequacies of your director and the failure of senior management to address them?  Or is it finding ways to make progress on your project?”  Initially, Sally found it hard to separate the two.

In her discussion with her mentor, Sally began to realise that there were, indeed, two forces at play.  On the one hand, she found it hard to accept what looked like inaction on the part of senior management who were failing to address something that was clearly a problem.  Her own values of openness and honesty were such that she struggled to accept the possibility that senior management preferred to work their way round the problem rather than to name it honestly.  On the other hand, she also recognised that it was the impact on the project that was most frustrating for her – at least for the time being.  With the help of her mentor, she began to see that whilst she had limited scope to address the short-comings of senior management, there were things she could do to move the project forward – if only she were more willing to play the political game.

In service of a larger cause

Years later, Sally pointed to this experience as the one that made her a total convert to office politics.

Because she was passionate about her project, she started to experience a real sense of achievement each time she did something to successfully circumnavigate the limitations of her line manager.  What’s more, because she realised she had gained the reputation for whingeing, she started to look for ways forward that could cause no offence.  She didn’t want anyone to think that the progress on her project was being achieved by side-lining her boss.

One thing made it possible for Sally to put aside her loathing of office politics – her passion for her project and what she knew it could do for her organisation.  With the help of her mentor, she began to see how she could use a political approach to move the project forward.  She began to see how, sometimes, you can’t achieve the things you feel most passionate about without becoming familiar with the political landscape, accepting it – and starting to find ways round the obstacles that are in your way.

Once she had this insight, Sally became a master politician – and started to enjoy it.  Having realised that she could use her political savvy in service of those things she found most worthwhile, she started to apply her creative thinking to this area of her work.

Finding your political epiphany

If you think I’m going to tell you how to navigate the politics of your office – or family, or local Am Dram society, whatever…  well, I’m about to disappoint you.  Instead, I’m going to invite you to go make yourself a cup of tea, or coffee, find a quite corner for 5 minutes and ask yourself this:

What are the things that really matter to you?  What areas of your life do you feel most passionate about?  And which of these are so important to you that you’re willing to let go of your revulsion for office politics and your views about how things ought to be and embrace things the way they are – in order to find ways to move towards the outcomes you most desire?

You may find your motivation at work – but you may not.  Perhaps there’s something away from your work place that you’re really fired up about right now.  It doesn’t matter where your political epiphany happens.  It just matters that it does.

Why?  Your political epiphany helps you to become much more effective in achieving results with ease.  What’s more, your political epiphany helps you to realise what matters most to you.

Whether you’ve had your political epiphany years ago or haven’t had it yet I’d love to read your comments on this subject via the comment box below.

When you hesitate to show compassion in your role as a leader

Do you feel comfortable to show compassion in your role as a leader?

If you’ve ever had a tough time in your career, you’ll know how much you yearn for compassion.  Perhaps you’ve had difficulties with a colleague or you’ve made a great howler of a mistake and are afraid of the consequences.  Perhaps you’ve had challenges at home – when someone you love has had an accident, been ill or died, for example, or when your marriage has been in trouble.  You’ll probably recognise times in your life when you have been in need of empathy and compassion – but did you get it from the boss?  In my experience, many people turn to their colleagues when they are in need of compassion in the workplace.
As a leader yourself, you may have hesitated to give empathy to your staff.  Sometimes, your judgement may have got in the way of your compassion (“What would make someone get upset about such a minor thing?”) or perhaps you fear the outcomes from showing compassion (“How can I show compassion for such a stupid mistake and still hold him accountable?”).  Roger Schwarz, in his recent article for the Harvard Business Review blog, entitled What Stops Leaders from Showing Compassion, outlines key reasons why leaders hold back.  Roger also shares a recent paper which tends to suggest that compassion creates positive outcomes in organisations.  The paper is entitled Compassion Revealed:  What We Know About Compassion At Work (And Where We Need To Know More) and it builds on a great deal of earlier work.
If you want to get geaky, follow up on this paper.  As much as anything, it has a long list of references including some of my own favourites (look for Boyatzis, Goleman and McKee).  But even if you don’t want to get geaky, I invite you to take a moment to reflect.  How comfortable do you feel to express your compassion for those you lead?  What supports you in expressing compassion?  And what, if anything, holds you back?  My own experience, from interviewing hundreds of men and women in leadership roles over the last twenty years, is that those who are most effective have a heart.  The respond with compassion to their staff in a wide range of situations and regardless of the rights of wrongs of a situation.  What’s more, they do so with skill.
I’d love to hear from you.  Yes, how comfortable do you feel about responding with compassion to those you lead?  But also, how confident do you feel that you have the skills you need to express your compassion in the workplace?  What support do you need to increase your ease and skill in responding with compassion to those you lead?