Why your focus doesn’t determine your reality, why you can’t choose how you feel, and why you are most definitely not self-made

There are times that I read things on LinkedIn that cause my insides to have a small, irritated melt-down, and they’re inevitably these little slogans which appear innocuous, but which can’t stand up to scrutiny. (Incidentally, the comedian Joe Lycett does a funny sketch on #bullshitquotesIjustmadeup that captures this kind of thing quite well, if you wanted a laugh).

Three that I’ve fizzed out over recently include:

  • “Everyone is self-made, but only the successful will admit it”;
  • “Your focus determines your reality”; and
  • “You can choose what you feel”.

They sound like truth, but they’re actually only half of the truth, if that. They’re compelling to us because all three of them assert that we actually have, or can have, something that we always want a lot of - control. But they’re actually dangerously incomplete ideas for us to put our agency behind, because of what they mean for the way that we live our lives and the ways that we respond to others. 

How much control do we have in life, really?

Stephen Covey released the 7 Habits of Highly Effective people in 1989, and it has gone on to sell over 25 million copies. Whether or not we see it directly, many of the ideas in that book have been accepted into popular culture, and anyone interested in self-help or leadership development will have been exposed to them in some fashion. 

0.jpeg

This book is relevant to today’s article because in The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, Covey outlined a concept called The Circle of Influence and The Circle of Concern. Basically: we all have numerous things that we could be concerned about (they live in the circle of concern) but only certain things that we can influence (they live in the circle of influence, which is typically smaller than our circle of concern). Covey asserts that proactive people spend most of their energy influencing things in the circle of influence, not the things outside of their circle of influence.

That’s all fine and good - I agree. 

The issue I take with these slogans is that they state that certain things that sit across the line of influence and concern, actually sit wholly within our circle of influence: that is, that we have complete influence over who we are in the world, our reality, and our feelings

This simply isn’t true, for multiple reasons.

Breaking down why these ideas aren’t complete

1. Why you’re not self-made (but you're also not devoid of responsibility for your adult self, either): 

There was a study done back in 1995 - 1997, called “The CDC-Kaiser Permanente Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACE) Study”. You can check it out here. It is one of the largest investigations of childhood abuse and neglect, and the impact of that on later-life health and well-being.

0.png

It found that if a child was exposed to an Adverse Childhood Experience, then it would significantly effect that child’s physiological and psychological development, and thus their later-life opportunities. If a child was exposed to 6 or more Adverse Childhood Experiences, that child would, on average, grow up to live a life that was 20 years shorter than average because of the profound impacts to their physiological and psychological development that happened in childhood. 

The astounding thing about this study is that 67% of people have been exposed to an Adverse Childhood Experience. That is, the majority of people have, through their childhood, been set-back from reaching their full potential, both physiologically and psychologically. 12.6% of people have been exposed to 4 or more Adverse Childhood Experiences, and thus are extraordinarily set-back. (Here's a great TED Talk on the ACE study, which is quite an easy way into it, if you were interested).

The notion that we’re self-made is literally impossible because: 

  1. Someone else creates us in their body;
  2. Someone else keeps us alive during our vulnerable developing years, and may very well have done enough damage to us during that time to seriously stunt our physiological and psychological growth (to a point where we might live 20 years shorter than someone who had not been exposed to that kind of damage);
  3. In the western world, we are constantly invested into by our government in the form of mandatory schooling, infrastructure, and medicare;
  4. We have access to books and other forms of information which house someone else’s ideas, which we can choose to let affect us and the way that we live our lives, or not; and
  5. There will have been countless people who have interacted with you, and influenced you, in some way or another - teachers, aunties and uncles, friends, bosses that saw something in you, lovers, significant others… even randoms who have smiled at you in a cafe on a day that you really needed it. 

The small grain of truth in the slogan is that, as an adult, you are capable of making choices about how you are going to live your life, and you are responsible for the outcomes of whatever choices you do make. These choices are within your circle of influence.

But let’s not kid ourselves that we’re all starting from the same starting point: our capacity to make ‘good’ choices for ourselves is directly referable to the ways that we were facilitated to develop during our childhood. So, some people’s circle of influence will be much smaller than others, through no fault of their own.

This deserves our empathy and our support, not our judgement or our censure.

2. Why your focus does not determine your reality (but your focus can help you cope with your reality):

When I was seven or eight there was this “Troll Doll” craze that happened. The way that these Troll’s were advertised on TV was that you could wish for things and the Troll doll would make it happen - I particularly remember this because the little girl in the advertisement wished for curly hair, which is something I already had, and I thought she wasn’t all that imaginative. So, via the troll, your focus would determine your reality. But, as you can all imagine, the wishing I did on my troll doll made absolutely no difference to my reality. 

The notion that we are somehow able to cause outcomes as a result of our thinking is what psychologists call Magical Thinking. It’s predominately displayed in children between the ages of 2 and 7, and you’re expected to grow out of it. 

The reality is that our reality determines our reality. The reality of people stuck in refugee camps, or people suffering through a terminal illness, or people unable to conceive a child, has nothing to do with their focus. 

Now, where we might get confused is that: 

  1. We do have some capacity to influence reality through the choices that we make (but our individual capacity to make 'good' choices will differ, as outlined above, and there are certain things like the country that we're born into which are entirely outside of our control); and
  2. What we choose to notice about our reality is within our circle of influence. 

For example, I might be in a refugee camp and having an expectedly crap time of it, but I might also have made some friends who are a deep comfort to me and enrich my life. By focusing on those friendships, it might prevent me from falling into a well of despair, or might simply make the well of despair more bearable because at least I’ve got good company. Or, I might have cancer and be having an expectedly crap time of it, but I might also be experiencing enormous amounts of gratitude for the way it has bought my family together. 

My focus doesn’t determine my reality, but the small grain of truth in the slogan is that: 

  1. I have some capacity to make choices about what my reality includes; and
  2. My focus can help make my reality more bearable. 

3. Why you can’t choose your feelings (but you can choose how you respond to your feelings):

Covey quoted Viktor Frankl in the 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, who said that “between stimulus and response, is the freedom to choose”. 

And that’s partially true. 

The reality is that there are actually four responses that happen in response to stimulus, and we only have the freedom to choose our response to the third and the fourth.

If someone punches you, then several things are going to happen:

  1. Your first response is sensory, and you experience it internally: Your brain will interpret the data it has just received through its 5 senses, and you’ll have a physical response (in this scenario your brain will interpret the outcome of the punch as pain, your body will take a deep breath, you’ll instinctively recoil etc).
  2. Your second response is emotional - you experience it internally and in response to the way your brain has interpreted the sensory data you received: You’re going to feel some form of emotional impact (maybe grief, or anger) as your brain makes sense of the fact that you are now hurting.
  3. Your third response is cognitive - you experience it internally and in response to the emotions that have come up for you: You’re going to make sense of that emotional impact by running it through the cognitive meaning-making frameworks that you have constructed over the course of your life. You link the emotion (grief or anger) to the cause (being punched) and you might think, “It’s wrong to punch someone else, and I’m angry that I was the victim of that injustice”.
  4. Your fourth response is acting - that is, some form of external expression: You might tell the person who punched you to sod off, for example, or if it was your child who lashed out then you might calm yourself and take the moment for a teaching opportunity. 

Human beings are firstly sensory, then emotional, then thinking, then acting, beings. When we’re born, all of our senses are already developed enough for us to survive, and sight and hearing continue to develop for the 6 months after our birth. We’re also born with our amygdala in operation, which allows for rudimentary emotional experience… But our right orbito-frontal cortex develops over our toddler years, and it is this part of the brain that allows for more nuanced emotional feeling and expression (note that our brain development can be seriously disrupted by adverse childhood experiences). We don’t fully develop our thinking abilities until much later in life (abstract reasoning doesn’t appear before age 11, for example). 

As a fully developed adult, you have the power to choose how you are going to act in the world, including some power to choose how you are going to make sense of things. Your meaning making frameworks (that is, your thinking) can be adjusted over time through a concerted attempt (and support) to understand them, how they came to be, how they play out in your life, and, if they're not serving you well, then how they could be different. 

But you do not have the power to control how your brain interprets sensory input, or the instinctive, emotional responses that arise in response to sensory input. These things are hardwired in to our biology, and are designed to protect us. 

The grain of truth in the slogan is that you can choose how you act on your feelings - that is, you can deny them, repress them, or find safe ways to express them - but you can’t choose them. You aren’t responsible for your state, but you are responsible for what you do next. 

Why these ideas are dangerous to adopt in their incomplete form

These ideas, in their incomplete form, are dangerous because they ascribed far more control to human beings than we actually have. 

Consequently, they enable one to put aside any empathy for those who find themselves in a painful reality, or dealing with painful feelings, or dealing with a self that had been profoundly injured and set-back by others during childhood. Basically, they enable us to hold people who suffer as completely responsible for their suffering. "They’re self-made, after all. Their focus is in the wrong place, clearly. They’re letting their feelings get the better of them."

But not only does the science not support this notion (we would hardly hold a child responsible for the ways that they have been traumatised), haven’t we all lived long enough to experience the reality that “shit happens”? And also the reality that unexpected goodness happens, too! And while it would be incredibly reassuring for us to feel as if there were some rhyme or reason to this (because if there was, then we could replicate the good outcomes by ‘following the rules’), there isn’t. Healthy, kind people, as well as unhealthy, mean people, get cancer. People who display a profound lack of ethics and empathy, as well as people of incredible integrity, get put into positions of power. As a very old and well known religious text says: “The rain falls on both the righteous and the wicked.” 

We also apply this expectation of control and a corresponding lack of empathy to ourselves, too - we’re harsh, expecting that ‘we should be better’ than we actually are, rather than accepting the reality of what is, and then working with that with kindness and compassion. But tyranny never works to effect transformation in people: as Carl Jung once said, "Condemnation does not liberate, it oppresses."

We will be more able to influence our reality when we're actually realistic about the variables that are in play - in this case, the variables are human beings, and human being's capacity to influence their inner and outer worlds. The reality is that human beings are immensely complex machines operating in and interacting with an immensely complex universe. Neither can be easily understood, so we should treat what we think we know about humans, and their inner and outer worlds, with some humility. Let's not dumb things down just because it is convenient, or because it makes us feel more in control.

Going fast, going far, and going where?

I spent a lot of my early twenties as a bit of lone wolf, running hard after the things that I thought that I wanted and racking up the most audacious achievements I could come up with. I was relentless about ‘going fast’ with my life. Whether that kind of “Have to do it all now!” is one of the hallmarks of ambition meets youth, or whether it’s because I never really thought I’d live all that long (I was sort of resigned to the fact that, one way or another, the world would probably end before I was 30), I was the poster-child for both Drive and Energy.

Eventually, though, I came to realise that I was well and truly on the wrong road. I was, in fact, going fast in a direction that was slowly choking the life out of me. So there was a period of time when I stopped – I had a year off work, and tried a whole lot of things that I had never tried before, and started spending time with a whole lot of different types of people that I had never been close to before – and I started really exploring all of the “Who am I, and what makes life meaningful to me?” questions. Over time, the practice of introspection and reflection (which I consider to be time spent creating a deep relationship with yourself) meant that I found myself on roads that felt more and more in alignment with my real me. So, ‘going where’ was improving.

Last year I decided to hike the Camino de Santiago, an 800 km walking trail that winds across the north of Spain. I had just moved to Melbourne a few months earlier and was living out of a suitcase while I waited for the right rental to become available, and I was also in the first 6 months of a new relationship, which we were trying to navigate long-distance. It was a difficult time. The sheer amount of change, and the lack of access to the things that would normally make me feel well (friends, family, piano, art room, any of my things) meant that I was unusually fragile. I was earnestly debating whether I was even made for relationship, fearing that it would just ‘slow me down’ from achieving the enormous dreams that I live with. But, providentially, I came across a saying that I ruminated on while I marched through the Spanish wheat fields: “If you want to go fast, go alone; if you want to go far, go together.”

0 (1).jpeg

It’s like the changes you make to your running pace depending on whether you’re aiming for a marathon or an ultra-marathon distance – you go slower if you want to go further. “Do I believe this?” I wondered. “Do I believe that a relationship could be so sustaining that it did mean I could go further than where I might get to if I was just by myself? And does being in relationship really mean that I can’t go as fast?”

Independence is both a profound strength, and, I’ve come to realise, weakness, if taken to extremes where we can’t let others in to our hearts, our lives, and our dreams. I have a whole history of going fast by myself, of being unwilling to let people in to see the uncertainty and vulnerability behind the confident façade for fear that someone might ‘take advantage’ if they saw my soft underbelly. But most people don’t take advantage – they don’t stab you in your soft spots. And you can learn the wisdom needed to know who is safe to let in, and who, perhaps, you shouldn’t let in. 

Since those weeks in Spain (where, coincidentally, I decided to stay in the relationship and see what happened – which is by far the best decision I’ve ever made), I’ve come to define “going together” more broadly than just one significant relationship, to include any deeply supportive relationship that you have in your life. Whether it’s one significant relationship or a whole tribe of people, the support, encouragement and meaning that we can experience when we are connected to others who love and believe in us is immense. Staying in relationship – choosing to ‘go far’ with others – has taught me so much about asking for (and being willing to receive) support, encouragement and belief, and I can already see that I am further along than if I was still lone-wolfing this journey. Being in these relationships has opened up doors that weren’t there, has allowed me to invest in others’ dreams (which feels amazing), and operates as an amniotic sack of meaning around the dreams that I’m bringing into the world. 

Paradoxically, the meaning that I have found in my relationships with my tribe has been so energizing that I am actually going faster, too, (not just further) than if I was doing this by myself. So I feel like the saying needs to be adapted: “If you want to go fast AND far, go together with your tribe.”

The take-aways for me when I ponder on all of this are: 

  1. If you want to get on the right road, you need to know yourself, deeply.
  2. If you want to go fast, you need drive and energy. There has to be a very compelling reason that you’re running after the things that you’re running after, and you need the energy to keep running. Think about what motivates you, and what sustains you (in addition to my relationships with people, I’m energized by beauty, time outside, time spent cuddling small furry beings, colour, flowers, and large bodies of water. Having regular injections of these things in my life keeps me operating at my peak).
  3. If you want to go far, you need to do life in deep, meaningful connection with others. Learn how to ask for, give, and receive, support that sustains you as you journey. Invest in others, and find ways for them to invest in you.

The kindness of contracts

As an ex-lawyer, I’ve come to realise that many people labour under a delusion that lawyers (or, indeed, anyone who loves to be precise and document agreements between parties) behave the way that they do because they’re retentive control freaks who are scared of everything going wrong. While that will certainly be true for some of my brethren, it’s not the only reason. In fact, the most genuine reason (for me, at least) is that conversations about expectations, followed up with agreements about future actions (contracts), are a profound act of kindness for everyone involved.

But first, a little bit of Human Nature 101:

  1. Human beings want to Do The Right Thing, and the real issue is that we all have a very different idea of what The Right Thing actually is. This makes sense, when you think about it: the way we each see the world is the product of a lifetime’s worth of highly individualised experiences filtered through everything our particular upbringing taught us about how the world works. The fact that we can understand each other at all is something of a miracle, in my opinion, but I digress, and now return to the point: the shared value - that is, the shared intention to Do The Right Thing - is there. Very few people are narcissistic and angry enough to act out ‘screw the world,’ but the problem is that this small minority always ends up on TV, so it looks like they’re everywhere. 
  2. Because we all have a very different idea of what The Right Thing is in any given scenario, then, when humans are in relationship with each other - whether at work or at home - conflict is absolutely inevitable. We will even have conflict about our preferred ways to handle conflict! Knowing this, we have the opportunity to get strategic about: 
  • How we mitigate the potential for conflict, and 
  • How we will handle conflict if/when it does eventuate. 

How we mitigate the potential for conflict

As per the above, conflict often stems from humans having different expectations about how things were going to be handled or unfold, and assuming that their particular expectations are shared and are Right. We know this, and yet we’re rarely strategic about calling out our, and others, expectations before we launch into action.

We mitigate the potential for conflict by having upfront (that is, before we launch into any kind of action) conversations about each parties’ expectations on:

  1. How a certain situation will proceed;
  2. What might go wrong; and
  3. How we would like to handle things if they do ‘go wrong’.

Having this conversation upfront enables us to see where we are not in alignment, and to do something about that before it becomes a problem.

We don’t tend to have upfront conversations about expectations because: 

  1. Most of us are unsure about how to bring up unspoken expectations without appearing weird;
  2. Having these conversations takes time (which we rarely feel like we have); and 
  3. Doing this forces us to confront the inevitable reality that things may go (perhaps irreparably) wrong. And that’s not a notion that we’re comfortable with, because it flies in the face of our craving for certainty. 

So, how do I have these conversations? 

Well, if you’re me, you’d simply say, “Before we launch into anything, I’d like to have a conversation about how we think this is going to go, and what we both need from this in order to consider it a success.” By specifically referencing both parties’ needs (not just yours), you’re opening the door to a really collaborative conversation. 

How we will handle conflict if/when it does eventuate 

I really couldn’t stress enough how important it is to have conversations about how parties will handle conflict if/when it eventuates. So much of our instinctive behaviour in conflicted situations is likely to make the situation worse, whereas having an agreed upon process pulls people toward something which is much more sober and rational, and thus, more likely to resolve the conflict. 

Take pre-nuptial agreements, for example: they make so much sense given our divorce statistics and the very great emotional volatility that can accompany the end of a relationship, and yet, most people don’t enter into them, or have some kind of conversation about ‘how would we handle the ending of our relationship?’. Why wouldn’t we determine now, while we can still think clearly and while we still want what is best for each other, what we would do in those circumstances? We don't do this because it makes us sad to consider the ending of the relationship, and uncomfortable as we need to advocate for ourselves at a time when there isn't actually an immediate issue. So we don’t do any of that upfront work, and we end up in protracted and very damaging proceedings at a time where we already feel like our whole world has been blown to bits. 

When I was managing a big team, we came up with a jointly agreed upon process about how we were going to handle conflict when it inevitably arose. It covered off on what everyone thought was important – the opportunity to respond to an accusation before it was made more public, what ‘respect’ looked like in these situations, the medium in which a conflict was communicated, when management would be involved etc. And because we made those agreements, conflict barely arose because it never escalated past the first step of the process (which was to have a face to face conversation with the other party, where we explored what wasn’t happening that we expected would happen). That is, that little bit of upfront work paid enormous dividends in keeping us on track, and in happy, respectful relationship with each other.

Summary

Contracts are kind because they recognise and respond to so much of what is instinctive and irrational about humans. If you’re not getting what you think you ‘should’ be getting in a situation, try having a conversation about each parties' expectations, find out where you aren’t in alignment, and be prepared to hunt for an outcome where everyone gets what they need. 

Susan+David-+Insta.jpg

Relinquishing the struggle to be 'more'

It’s an enduring feature of humanity that every person has aspects of themselves that they struggle with. Even the greatest amongst us are not immune: the Apostle Paul once wrote in his letter to the Corinthians that, “In order to keep me from becoming conceited, I was given a thorn in my flesh, a messenger of Satan, to torment me.” He didn’t mean a literal thorn, of course - he meant one of those internal stumbling blocks that bring us low. One of those “This aspect of me is a problem, and I wrestle with it on a regular basis” type of thorns. 

The fact that we struggle with ourselves at all is a feature of our mammalian biology: our bodies are wired to connect with a community of other mammals. You see this in the way we develop over time - our physical bodies literally grow through physical contact with our primary care-givers, and our psychological self develops via the relationships we engage in over the course of our lives. It is in the context of relationship that we receive feedback about how we are, and how we are not, acceptable, and it is also in the context of relationships that we, as pack animals, originally managed to stay alive. So, when we receive feedback about how we are not acceptable, our instinctive fear of being exiled from the tribe is activated, and we start relating to certain aspects of ourselves as ‘good’ and certain aspects of ourselves as ‘bad’.

The content of our struggles are directly referable to our societal context. For example, our current western society celebrates the thin bit, the smart bit, the productive bit, the beautiful bit, the coupled status. When these aspects of ourselves are celebrated, our brain says “I’m connected! I’m safe! Hurrah!”. Our society doesn’t routinely celebrate the average bit, the tired bit, the pudgy bit, the al naturale bit, or the singled status. We may receive censure and mocking (implied or overt) for those aspects of ourselves, which our brain is liable to interpret as “Argh! I’m about to be exiled from the tribe! Death is imminent!” 

We need to understand that what society is currently celebrating is not available to all of us. We can’t all be super-model thin. We all have differing levels of, and types of, intelligences - and one of them is not more valuable that the others, despite what the majority opinion may appear to be on this front. We can’t be productive all the time. What if you don’t want to be in a relationship? Or, even if you did, finding the right partner is often a harrowing undertaking. So, we can’t win, here: we can’t be all of the things that society celebrates, unless it was at great cost to our authentic self. That doesn’t mean that we can’t experience profound acceptance, though. Our options are to: 

  1. continue to struggle with the ‘less than’ aspects of ourselves, perpetually feeling like being our authentic self is a danger to our ongoing wellbeing while we strive for acceptance from others; or 
  2. realise that self-acceptance is the only form of acceptance that we can reliably obtain on an ongoing basis, and decide to give that to ourselves.

When we surrender on the belief that we can be more than what we are, and we accept what actually is, then, paradoxically, that’s when everything starts to change. That's when we change. I used to be terrified that accepting those ‘less than’ parts of myself meant that I was embracing mediocrity. But the truth was that I was just ending the life-long war I had going with myself by saying, “Actually, you’re okay. You’re human. Struggle, shame and vulnerability are all a part of being.” As Carl Jung noted, “We cannot change anything until we accept it. Condemnation does not liberate, it oppresses.” 

Self-acceptance is the lubricant that enables your inwardly stuck situations to start moving. Learn to find your struggles cute and amusing, extending the grace toward yourself that you would normally extend to a two year old who was trying to do something that they hadn’t learnt how to do before. When we remove the instinctive Life And Death fear we have about our struggle, a lightness of being arrives that enables us to think more creatively and kindly about what’s really happening for us. 

I like to think of the things that I struggle with as ‘the cracks where the light gets in’. Because these cracks hurt, they make me stop and reflect, and, thus, grow. They’re also the cracks that let other people in, too, because they show up where, precisely, I need something - that is, they open the door to collaboration and care and comfort. “The truth is: belonging starts with self-acceptance. Your level of belonging, in fact, can never be greater than your level of self-acceptance, because believing that you’re enough is what gives you the courage to be authentic, vulnerable and imperfect.” (Brene Brown). That’s not to say that it’s comfortable - it very often isn’t. But it’s real. And I think that's what really matters.

Jack+Kornfield-+Insta.jpg

How stuck is your thinking?

I think a lot about our very human need to create certainty: from our earliest moments we are learning machines that are constantly gauging Cause And Effect, pulling together an increasingly complex framework in our heads about how everything works. If we can effectively navigate our environment then we are more likely to survive, and so we are hardwired to start making those connections as soon as possible. Before you know it, we start seeing the concrete “I know how everything works” views of adolescence emerging. 

As we mature past adolescence, our thinking may develop (or not develop, as the case may be) along several pathways:

  1. Pathway One: We live out our lives in a comfortable routine where nothing shocking happens, we are never really challenged, and our thinking is not encouraged to evolve. We pick friends that are like us, watch programs that support the views that we have, and continue with the traditions that our parents passed down to us. 
  2. Pathway Two: Over the course of a full (but reasonably steady) life, our views on how the world works evolves as we move through a variety of life experiences and come into contact with a variety of different people. This is when you might hear people say things like, “He’s mellowed with age”. 
  3. Pathway Three: Something shocking happens (death of a young person, our own unexpected diagnoses of terminal illness, war etc), and it causes us to reevaluate the ways that we thought life worked and what’s genuinely important. Our thinking quickly evolves in the face of the unexpected occurring. This can happen at any time, but it’s often most noticeable in young people who appear to have learnt lessons that won’t naturally come to others until their later years. 
  4. Pathway Four: Something shocking happens, and we refuse to let it move our thinking – instead, we dig our heels in, more convinced than ever of the rightness of our convictions and paradigms. Our thinking stagnates in the face of the unexpected occurring. Indeed, one could argue that it goes backward. I’d posit that the longer one stays on Pathway One, or the more you are surrounded by people that are on Pathway One, the more likely this response is. 

So, what causes some to stay rigid within their frameworks, and others to evolve? 

Well: 

  1. Our meaning making frameworks are formed by a series of value judgements which we have learnt (and accepted) over time about what is ‘good’, ‘bad’, ‘right’ and ‘wrong’. 
  2. These value judgements can be challenged by evidence which suggests that there is a flaw in the framework that we have created. For example, if I believe that "good things happen to good people" and I spend my life trying to be a good person, but then I got cancer, does it mean that I'm a bad person, or that I might need to revise my belief to "shit things can happen to anyone, and there really isn't much discernible rhyme or reason in the world"?
  3. The moment when we let our meaning making frameworks get challenged is necessarily a moment of existential crisis. It is a moment of existential crisis because a challenge to our meaning making frameworks goes to the heart of how we think the world works and to who we have become in response to that – that is, it is a challenge to our very selves. 
  4. The severity of the existential crisis depends on the size of the challenge. For example, I might more easily navigate a change in circumstance which makes me uncertain about whether I’m in the right job, than I might navigate a change in circumstance which makes me question whether or not I have anything valuable to offer the world. One is more surface (“Am I in the right job?”) and one goes to the heart of my existence (“Am I worthy? Do I matter?”). 

People stay rigid in their thinking for several reasons:

  1. For some people, they have been taught that to move away from the ‘good’, ‘bad’, ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ rules that they have learnt is to put themselves in terrible physical, emotional, or spiritual danger. For example, one might be strongly disincentivised to evaluate the efficacy of one’s religion if it meant that one would be persecuted by their state, or that they might go to hell. At a less extreme level, one might feel just as disincentivised to evaluate the efficacy of their lifestyle choices if they feared that they would lose all of their friends by giving up drinking or by becoming a vegan. 
  2. To the uninitiated, an existential crisis feels a lot like death, and we are hardwired to avoid death at all costs. And it is a death – an ego death. It is the bear losing its weight while it sleeps all winter; it is the caterpillar locking itself into a cocoon while it transforms into something else entirely. It is a period of loss - of you losing a way of thinking and being that you’ve realized no longer serves you or the world – and loss is always painful.
  3. In order to avoid the existential crisis, we refuse to see evidence that should challenge our meaning making frameworks. We simply block it out, or repress any part of ourselves that wants to respond to it. We are comfortable on Pathway One, and have no intention of getting off it.
Quote+Portrait+for+LinkedIn+-+Brene+Brown.jpg

Evolution in our thinking becomes possible when several factors are present:

  1. We accept that it is impossible for us to truly know anything. We can strongly believe things, of course… but absolute knowledge does not exist. We are too tiny to accurately comprehend the incredible complexity and incredible vastness of the universe that we operate in, and of the universe that operates inside of us. That being so, we should carry a very large grain of salt alongside all that we think that we know about how the world, and ourselves, work.
  2. We embrace a healthy dose of curiosity about the world, and about ourselves. Curiosity is the antidote to judgement. When we are able to move from “I know how it works!” to “I’m open to seeing multiple options for how this might work”, quite incredible shifts in thinking can occur. Powerful perception becomes possible when judgement is suspended. Similarly, when we stop thinking we’ve got ourselves ‘pinned down’ in our own minds, we create space for our ongoing evolution. Keep track of this by asking yourself each month, “How am I different from 30 days ago? What’s shifted?”.  
  3. We are adequately supported to deal with the ego deaths that are necessary for the evolution of our thinking. We have believed the things that we have believed for a reason. We have attachments to those reasons, and a whole lot of supporting emotional experiences. Letting particular beliefs go can be painful, even if we know it is necessary. Getting support to evolve – either with friends, a trusted counsellor, or a therapist – has certainly been the greatest investment I have ever made in my own life.

Taking it a step further, you can also force the evolution of your thinking on at quite a rapid rate by:

  1. Consistently seeking out new learning and new experiences. Some of my greatest learnings have come from doing some really unusual challenges – things that I initially thought “Why on earth would anyone ever do that for?!”… but where I decided to suspend my judgement and see for myself. I now have a “Don’t knock it until you’ve tried it” rule because it is amazing what has come out of those experiments; 
  2. Creating a “Things I would be doing if I was living a fearless life” list, and start working your way through it. The things that you fear are very often the things that you really need to do in order to make those big breakthroughs. And they can be small things – for example, a number of years ago I used to have this real blocker about fishnet stockings (“only xyz girls wear fishnets!!”), until I forced myself to wear them one day in public just to explore the fear I had about being judged. I realized how entirely irrational the fear was, the judgement disappeared, and it became step one to me feeling entirely free to wear whatever I want (whatever my size or shape) without reference to other people. 
  3. Developing a supported practice of introspection. It should be supported because you will have blindspots when it comes to observing your own thinking/feeling, and having someone else witness your thinking/feeling processes and engage with you on that will get you through those blindspots more quickly. Again, find a great mentor or therapist, and take one hour out for introspection every fortnight - you won't know yourself in a years time, if you do.

Why you think you're Not Creative

Whenever I get chatting with someone new and we start trading the answers to the “what do you do?” questions, inevitably my art and my music turns up in the conversation, and about 80% of the time I’m hastily, pre-emptively assured (I don’t even need to ask the question!) that this other person is “Not Creative”.

I find that statement both intriguing and sad, because I absolutely believe that creativity is not the domain of a few: it is the inherent birthright of every human being. As Steven Pressfield says in his book, The War of Art, “Creative work is... a gift to the world and every being in it. Don't cheat us out of your contribution. Give us what you've got”.

It also makes sense to me why so many people believe that they are Not Creative. I’m convinced this happens because:

  1. When we grow up, we’re incentivised to adopt one way of being. It’s easier for society (and, often, for our families) if we’re “the smart one” or “the musical one” or “the sporty one”. It helps people to know where to channel you. Even our organisations are structured on specialisation - on you being good at one or two things, not many. Where Renaissance people were once celebrated, today’s society doesn’t know how to handle someone who is good at multiple things... I once had a CFO say to me, “I can’t figure out if you’re a corporate warrior or a hippie.” The truth is, I’m both. I love businesses and I love people; I enjoy art and music AND systems thinking and contracts (not even kidding - they can be beautiful examples of structure and clarity); I love time in high heels and pretty dresses, and time where I’m in the same outfit, day after day, getting grubby while I hike a very long way.
  2. Over time, we come to over-identify with that one way of being, and, by so doing, we limit other intelligences that may be available to us. We see ourselves as a head person, or a heart person, or a creative person, only. We don’t seek to learn and integrate those other, missing, parts of ourselves… instead, we just assume that they were never ours to have. Our parents want to set us up for success in the society that we operate in, and this society absolutely values head intelligence, over heart intelligence and over creative intelligence. I, however, am convinced that true genius turns up when you've managed to integrate your head, your heart, and your creativity.

3. Incentives include both carrots and sticks - and that early incentivisation imparted some emotional baggage about those things we were told weren’t important for us. For example, I’ve always been celebrated for my brain. When I was asked by my Dad about what I wanted to do at university, I said I wanted to do an arts degree - I wanted to study things I was interested in, like sculpture and history and english literature. “You’ll never make a career out of that!” my Dad responded, horrified. “You’ll do law instead.” While I have no doubt that my Dad’s intentions were great (he values security, and wants that for me), the message was that my creative, emotive side wasn’t really valuable to the world. Consequently, I spent the first 5 years of my career as a workaholic lawyer with no creative outlets, until I had a breakdown because I was so out of balance. My psyche would only let me crawl out of the pit of depression when I started feeding those parts of me which needed to creatively, and emotionally, express.

If we are going to heal this belief that we are Not Creative, we need to do several things:

  1. Redefine what “creative” means in your head. Creative doesn’t just mean art and music. It’s wood-working. It’s quilting. It’s cooking. It’s any kind of “I feel compelled to express myself through a particular medium”. It can be how you arrange your house. It can be how you dress your body. Just ask yourself “What have I always wanted to try?,” and start walking toward that thing. You'll know you're on the right path if you feel pretty terrified.
  2. Grieve the ways that your creativity was diminished and demeaned. If an essential component of who you are (such as your creative self) was treated as Less Than when you were growing up, grieve it. There’s no way that wasn’t painful to your child self, and your psyche learnt, as a consequence, to avoid the pain associated with the rejection you felt when you tried to express creatively. I remember my mother once saying to fifteen year old me that I might be able to sing in a chorus line (implication: definitely not as a soloist) and it stopped me from sharing my music with people for years. In fact, the thing that undid it was when, in my adult years, she heard me singing along at a James Taylor concert, and said I was as good as the woman front-running the support band. I could have given myself that freedom if I had just acknowledged, and grieved, the impact that her first comment had had on me sooner.
  3. If you’re finding it too difficult to stop judging your creative attempts, give yourself permission, instead, to be shit at whatever avenue you’d like to exercise your creativity in. I remember feeling such a strong urge to express myself through drawing and painting, but my inner perfectionist wanted to vomit at whatever was coming out of my hands. “It’s too abstract! Too pink! Too juvenile! Too sexual! Too self-focused! Too comic book! TOO! TOO! TOO!” So I made up a big sign in my house that said: “Permission to create shit art”. That got me over the initial blocker long enough for me to develop skills that let me create things that I’m proud of. But, also - skills schmills!! You've undoubtedly seen art that you've thought, "I could do that" about. That's because art is less about what is created, and more about what that created thing makes the audience feel. You don't have to be technically good at something to be "creative" in it. So, stop judging yourself, and let whatever wants to come out, come out.

You ARE creative. You DO have a unique contribution to make the world, and your creativity is a big part of that. Just because it was convenient for others to limit you down into one thing, you now have a choice about whether you keep limiting yourself down, or if you get brave enough to show up as a full person.

download.jpeg
0+(2).jpeg

Evolution v Revolution: Why your company isn't leading the pack

I’ve worked in organisations that range from the very small to the enormously large; ones that are owned by private equity companies, ones that are ASX listed, ones that are owned by families, ones that are subject to partnership arrangements, and ones that are not-for-profit. The consistent experience across all of them has been a sense that organisations are never living up to their true potential: they’re always years behind where they could be.

I’m sure you’ve had a similar experience - someone starts touting the benefits of an open plan office when you know all those supposed benefits were debunked twenty years ago, or your CEO says that engagement really matters but, when pressed on the issue, has no idea why or how to address it. All of these things link back to the same issue - we have heard about some kind of change in, or idea from, the ‘outside world’ which makes us think that some kind of change is required in, or would benefit, our organisation… 

The pace & size of the change required to remain relevant (and, thus, competitive)

I hypothesise that the pace of change that our organisations adopt, and the enormity of the step change required to keep up to the evolution curve, links back to two things:

1.        where your organisation sits on the Rogers innovation adoption curve; and

2.        how ‘heavy’ your organisation is with ‘fixed’ assets.

Where your organisation falls on the Rogers innovation adoption curve

The Diffusion of Innovation (by Rogers) is a theory that seeks to explain how, why, and at what rate new ideas and technology spread. It categorises adopters of ideas and technology into 5 categories - innovators, early adopters, early majority, late majority, and laggards.

This theory is applicable to how we go about the business of running our organisations. That is, to the approaches we adopt to organising our people, what systems we implement, what causes we put our corporate support behind… even to the level with which we document our processes. 

0 (1).jpeg
0 (3).jpeg

If you’re an innovator business, you’re on the evolution curve - you’re accurately reading the times that you live in, and you’re responding to it. You’re constantly making incremental changes in order to remain completely relevant. As Hannah Gadsby recently said in Nanette, “Artists don’t invent zeitgeists, they respond to it.” 

If you’re an early adopter, then you’re quite close to the curve. You’re able to quickly see the merit of any evolution that is occurring, and how it is or is not applicable to your business. You’re not leading the way in terms of ideas, but you’re a great first follower.

0 (2).jpeg

If you’re in the early majority, this is where we will start to see step-change ‘revolutions’ in your business, rather than constant adaptive behaviours (‘evolution’), in order for your business to ‘keep up’ with where society actually is.  

If you’re in the late majority then you’re probably going though large step changes to keep up. This kind of organisation either can’t perceive how the context that they’re operating in has changed, or they’re too heavy with fixed assets to respond in a timely manner… they make changes because someone in the company once heard that was a good thing to do, or because they’ve suddenly gotten a very rude awakening about how far behind the times they are (Nike and it's sexist work culture, much?).

If you’re a laggard, then your organisation is probably seeing massive negative impacts to its bottom line as it fails to keep up - it’ll either shape up, or it won’t be around for much longer. 

How heavy your organisation is with fixed assets

I think of organisations as full of ‘assets’ - these aren’t just your typical balance sheet assets, but they are all things that make a business what it is - that exist somewhere on the spectrum between ‘fixed’ and ‘flexible’. 

Fixed assets are hard to change- they’re the 10 year lease, the EBA, any long term contracts without much wriggle room in them, data centres, that computer system you spent a fortune on, and the policies and processes that are documented down to the nth degree such that no one has any room to do anything creative. 

Flexible assets are easier to change- they’re policies that provide people with sensible limits while still allowing for some freedom in execution, they’re cloud-based working, they’re short term leases, they’re contracts that get you great prices on the basis of you being a great client (and not great prices on the basis of you being locked in forever). 

One of the major impediments to evolution in an organisation is if it is heavy with ‘fixed’ assets. The typical organisation cares about its bottom line far more than anything else, so it attempts to create certainty about its bottom line through: 

1.        locking down variables (such as employee behaviour) that can influence costs; and

2.        entering into long term deals as a way of obtaining better prices. 

But by doing so, we make it really hard to respond to the evolution that is happening in our society, and we’re forced into being ‘behind the times’ for a period before we’re ready to spend the money and the effort required to make a step-change that will bring us closer to the evolution curve.

Why is it so difficult to be an innovator or an early adopter, when we know that the world is changing at an unprecedented rate and our organisational survival depends on it?

1.        The typical organisation incentivises us to operate in the short term, which is completely at odds with the long-termism and foresight that being an innovator requires.

It is difficult to be an innovator or an early adopter because the typical organisation (that is, one listed on a stock exchange, or one which is owned by a company which is listed on a stock exchange) is beset with a short-termism and risk aversion that is slowly killing the very great potential of our companies. 

Annual reporting, and the consistent push for revenue growth, means that we stop investing in things that may fail (or which don’t have any quantifiable short-term benefit), but which could be game changing in the long run. It forces us to become an “early majority” at best, once we’re sure that adopting some new way of being will deliver the results we want it to. That is, our desire for certainty (in order to meet the demands of our shareholders for as much profit as possible) means that we stop doing anything until it’s a surebet. You can't lead the pack with that level of risk aversion.

We need to move the needle away from short term results, to longevity and legacy, if we’re going to see organisations do truly amazing things. 

2.        The majority of us are too scared to be creative, or to justify (in the short term) the contribution of those that are

Creativity is, by its very nature, uncertain. We don’t know what it will produce, and we don’t know if that thing will be commercialisable or have a quantifiable positive benefit that we can point to. Creativity provokes all of our very human fears about mess, failure and judgement, and organisations very rarely demonstrate the emotional maturity required to create a safe space in which people can be messy, potentially fail, and do so without judgement. 

3.        We don’t actually believe that our organisational survival depends on it (our organisation hasn’t died yet, after all)

I think about the revolution going on in the legal services sector... I remember being told as an article clerk (a baby lawyer) to see my billable rate as “1/3 to the partner, 1/3 for overheads, 1/3 to you.”* Commercial clients can see those kinds of margins and have demanded a different service offering in the form of fixed fees, or lawyers that they can second to their businesses for a day or two a week at more usual contractor rates. While this revolution hasn’t killed the big firm model (yet), it has noticeably cut into its market share. Automation will be the next big transformer of the legal sector, with Deloitte estimating that 39% of jobs could be automated.

4.        Even if our organisational survival did depend on it, we’ll be able to shirk any accountability for its survival that should be ours  

The above statement might sound horribly cynical, but I don’t think it is - from my perspective, this is simply human nature in action. When we’re in structures that leave us feeling like we’re not 100% in control of the decisions that we make, the majority of human beings will do things that lack integrity because they feel like it’s not really them who is making the decision (check out the Milgram Experiment for the data on this).  So, we stop seeing the success of a company as something that we’re collectively responsible for. Instead, we console ourselves that we’ve done our bit, and if it failed, it failed.

So, why isn't your company leading the pack?

  1. It is operating in a context that prioritises certainty over creativity.
  2. It has too many fixed assets that are preventing it from making continuous adaptations.
  3. It doesn't have the emotional maturity to facilitate creative approaches.
  4. People don't feel personally accountable for the success of the organisation, because the way that it is structured removes any real decision making from them.

If this made you think, please share it.

______________________________

*I did the math – only 1/5 was going to me, and, usually, I was working so many hours that I was financially no better off than if I had become a workaholic barista.

Rethinking Engagement: Why Our Current Approach is Back To Front

Human beings seek to “know” how a particular thing works in one of two ways:

  • By looking at the thing “in and of itself”; or
  • With reference to the things’ particular context, and how changing context causes the thing to react.

Why is this important? Well, today’s approaches to employee engagement focus on the impact of the environment on the employee to determine what is or what is not engaging, rather than focusing on what we know about how humans are wired to be in the world and designing for that. That is, we are going ‘outside in’ to develop an approach to engagement, rather than ‘inside out’; we’re coming up with frameworks to control context based on our engagement experiments, rather than frameworks that reflect a deep comprehension of humanity “in and of itself”.  

Engagement is, first and foremost, a psychological issue: it is literally the degree of connectedness that a ‘self’ feels to something outside of its self. A deep understanding of the human psyche is necessary to reliably design organisations, systems and processes that will engage people.

This article focuses on an "inside out" approach, by looking at what we do know about the human psyche, and how that should inform our approaches to creating environments where employees experience real engagement. 

We can understand many things about the wiring of human beings by looking at their behaviour, which, of course, is driven by their biology: 

1. Human beings are biologically wired to make social connections: we literally develop (physically and psychologically) through connection with others. This wiring also makes sense from an evolutionary perspective: we’re more likely to survive if we’re in packs. Organisations are simply groups of people working together in a configuration that is designed to produce a particular outcome. The most significant part of that sentence is “people” and “working together”. That is, relationships- what humans psychologically need to connect, how they relate, how they experience safety in relationships etc - have an enormous impact on organisational outcomes.

2. Human beings are biologically wired to make sense of their environment, so that they can reliably meet their needs, so that they can stay alive. There have been multiple models proposed for characterising human needs, which I don’t propose to go into. At their simplest, however, we note that humans have: 

  • needs which contribute directly to their survival (physical connection with other humans, food, water, shelter, air etc);
  • needs that contribute indirectly to their survival (intimacy, love, play etc); and 
  • needs that contribute to psychological thriving (self-actualisation, creativity etc). 

3. Once our direct and indirect survival needs are reliably meet for a period of time, human beings are wired to start thinking more broadly about their ‘self’ and their existence - that is, human beings move from sense-making to meaning-making. Sense-making is how we make sense of our environment; meaning-making is what we make everything that happens to us mean. This is when start thinking about “Why am I here?” and “What’s my purpose?” It’s when we start longing to express our authentic selves even though it might mean rejection from others; it's when we feel the urge to create. Whether or not you believe that life has any innate meaning, the reality is that the odds of your existence are so small as to be miraculous, and the odds of the variables that have gone in to shaping you and making up your life are similarly incredible. The outcome is that you are a completely unique being, with a completely unique contribution to make, and there is a part of you that absolutely wants to make your unique contribution. 

So, engaging environments are those that meet our needs for: 

  1. Connection with others;
  2. Certainty about how the environment works; and 
  3. Making our individual Contribution.

Knowing this, we might start to ask ourselves of each design decision that we make:

  • Do we think it’s likely that doing this thing will positively contribute to people’s sense of connection with others? Will it cause collaboration or competition? Does it encourage cross-functional approaches, or reward silo's? Does it create opportunities for people to form new relationships?
  • Do we think it’s likely that doing this thing will positively contribute to people’s sense of certainty? Have we been clear as we can about how this is meant to work, or will we leave people frustrated and confused? Have we explained where people can find the information they might need? Have we clearly explained the rules of the game for people? Are we creating an environment that our employee population feels safe in? Do we walk our talk? 
  • Do we think it’s likely that doing this thing will positively contribute to people’s sense of contribution? Are we honouring the individual, here, or are we treating our employees like untrustworthy children or unimportant robots? Are we giving people the opportunity to grow? The opportunity to create? Are people empowered to be authentically themselves in this workplace?

10 Ways An Organisation Can Strategically Facilitate Dissent

Toward the end of last year I wrote an article about The Power of Intentional Dissent in Organisations, which advocated that, because dissent forces progress, organisations that can strategically facilitate dissent from their employees will end up with a competitive advantage. But how, practically, might an organisation strategically facilitate dissent? As with any behaviour that you want from your employees, you must firstly make it safe, and then make it valuable, to engage in.

To make dissent safe, it must be: 

  1. safe to give - that is, there is no retribution for expressing a dissenting opinion; and 
  2. safely given- that is, dissent is delivered in a way which is respectful and enquiring, so that the people who receive it are not damaged in the process. 

These are behavioural norms that would need to be established within the culture of the organisation.

To make dissent valuable, it must be: 

  1. incentivised,as all human behaviour is a response to an incentive; and 
  2. engaged with in a meaningful way. That is, dissent must result in some form of clear response from the environment. No employee will keep giving their feedback if it is never acted upon, or if the action doesn’t respond to their feedback in a way that feels appropriate. 

Bearing in mind these requirements for safety and value, here are 10 ways to make it more likely that your employees will tell you what they really think:

  1. Train employees in how to deliver dissent respectfully, succinctly and compellingly. This is particularly important if the dissent is in relation to the efficacy of a management or leadership style. 
  2. Train managers in how to facilitate, and appropriately respond to, dissent. Help them to understand their individual reservations to facilitating dissent, so they are not tripped up by them.
  3. Create a code word that someone can blurt out to indicate that they need to dissent, and to remind everyone else that the rules for dissent need to be remembered in the interaction that is about to happen. I like the phrase “By George!” (in reference to George Bernard Shaw, who said that all progress in life depends on the unreasonable man) or the word “Emperor!” (for the Emperor Has No Clothes). 
  4. End each meeting with an invitation to dissent - something along the lines of “Who can offer a dissenting view?”, “How do we make this better?” or “What am I missing?” are all sufficiently positive and open-ended. 
  5. Make it fun - celebrate the courage of those who do dissent, until it becomes normal to do so. What if you handed out a Lion Award (in reference to the Cowardly Lion from the Wizard of Oz, who went to the Wizard for courage) each team meeting, to the person who had offered up the most useful, or thoughtful, dissenting view in the previous period? 
  6. If you genuinely want to incentivise behaviour, it must have a carrot or a stick attached to it. You could reward really helpful dissent with some form of compensation or recognition, or you could make dissenting a certain number of times a KPI that each manager and senior leader needed to hit.
  7. Use technology to poll your employee population whenever a large change is imminent, so you can understand how they think and feel about it. Politicians poll their constituents to gauge sentiment, so why don’t organisations do the same? If we cared more about the opinions of our employee population, I posit that we would end up with much better engagement scores than those that currently exist. 
  8. Stop telling your employee population what you’re going to do with the results of engagement surveys, and let them tell you what they want you to do about it. If you've asked for their input about areas for improvement, the least you can do is also ask them how they would like to see these areas addressed.
  9. Build float into projects to accomodate changes that need to happen as a result of information or ideas that have come about through dissent.
  10. Keep a register of dissents, so that you can see how many are or are not resulting in actual change. This will give you an idea about whether or not you are engaging with dissent in a meaningful way, or if it’s all just lip service. 

What do you think? How else, practically, could organisations facilitate dissent?

Love it? Please share it.

Why Managers Need Stellar Contextual Thinking Skills

I often meet managers who think that the sum of being good at their job means delivering whatever results their boss has told them should be delivered. If I'm lucky, this manager might also realise the importance of engaging their team in these efforts. But I think we're missing out on the potential impact of managers, which is far greater than one happy boss or one happy team: it's a happy, healthy organisation. But, how? Well, it starts with contextual thinking skills.

Contextual thinking skills are the ability to accurately comprehend one’s context. Why is this important? Because literally nothing can be understood in and of itself: everything is a product of the way that its inherent nature responds to the context that it is in. 

Consider the blobfish, for example: it lives off the coast of Australia at depths of 600 metres to 1200 metres, where the pressure is 60 to 120 times as great as at sea level. As a result of its’ usual environment, blobfish do not develop the muscles that you’d find in a fish that lives closer to sea level. Thus, when a blobfish is removed from its usual environment and brought to the surface, they look like a pile of gelatinous pink goo. For a long time, no one understood what they were looking at. No one had seen a pile of gelatinous pink goo swimming around at sea level and fulfilling whatever biological imperatives it has. It wasn’t until scientists figured out that the blobfish they were looking at was, in fact, a deep sea fish that had suffered decompression damage, that everything became clear. That is, it wasn’t until they accurately comprehended the context of the blobfish, that they were able to decipher what it actually was.

The dominant Organisations As Machines paradigm I talked about last week leads us to believe that organisations are a series of parts (like the parts in a machine) that get put together to produce an outcome, rather than an inextricably linked series of subsystems (like the organs of a body, or the members of a tribe) that cannot be understood independently of each other. This paradigm prevents us from really perceiving the impact of external and internal context on organisational outcomes, and, because of this paradigm:

  1.  Leaders (and, as a result, managers) do not take the time to provide valuable context to the employees working in the organisation, because they undervalue the impact of the bigger picture on the operation of our organisations’ organs. That is, we don’t see how providing lots of information about the context that the organisation is operating in, and the way the organization is pieced together to create a particular outcome, as immensely valuable to the people working in the organisation. Whereas, for example, in our bodies, the brain is constantly feeding information to every single part of our bodies about the environment we are in, and the effect of that environment on other parts of the body. This enables each part of the body to adapt, and to support each other well.
  2. Managers are incentivized to optimize performance in their function, rather than incentivized to optimize cross-functional performance. This creates competition rather than collaboration. Again, you won't see your body cannibalizing itself by prioritizing the function of certain parts of the body over the function of others, unless you’re in extreme environments that forces that kind of behaviour in order to survive. 

Continuing with the body analogy, we might see leaders as the brain of the organisation, but managers are the major organs. If managers are not able to work well together, then the body will fail. But, in order to work well together, managers must first be able to appreciate how their functions have been designed to interface with and support each other. 

This is where contextual thinking skills come into management, and the potential for a happy, healthy organisation exists.

When a group of managers can each comprehend: 

  1. That their function doesn't operate in a vacuum (that is, they're each seeing the whole internal context of how the organisation is put together to produce a particular outcome); 
  2. Where the strategic objectives should take the organisation (that is, they're accurately comprehending the external context they're moving into); and
  3. That they, as a result of their role, have the potential to have a positive impact on more people than just their team (by prioritising cross-functional collaboration), 

then they will start to see (and be able to sell to their team): 

  1. the vital role that each function plays in the achievement of the organisational objectives (in an ideal world, this would prevent people in revenue-making functions and those in cost-control functions from being perpetually at odds with each other, for example); 
  2. how the needs of other functions might call for adjustments in their own function; and
  3. where new strategic objectives (that is, where a move into a new external context) might cause issues within the organisation, and how they might adapt and support others.

If you're anything like me, you might have times where your active mind leads you to feeling quite disconnected from your body... and yet, your body keeps on surviving even when you're not paying it much attention, taking care of itself as best it can despite whatever harebrained schemes your brain might lead it into. And I think organisations could be like this, if we had management teams that were full of people who could accurately perceive both the internal and external context they were operating in. They would knit together to create a safety net for leaders, and, simultaneously, an umbrella for employees. They would do a great deal for keeping an organisation alive and mostly well, even when dysfunctional leadership might be present.

Contextual thinking skills can be taught, and should be taught, if we want our managers to create great organisations.

The Effect Of Paradigm On Performance: Why We Should View Organisations As Tribes, Not Machines

I think a lot about the good and the bad of organisations - of what makes them wonderful, meaningful, purposeful places for us to spend our time, and of what makes them live up to every awful cliche that we might hear about on the news. One piece of this puzzle is the paradigm that we have about what an organisation actually is, which, I'd posit, hasn't been updated since the Industrial Age. 

In the Industrial Age, we began to make and use machines. This enabled tremendous leaps in productivity, which then enabled tremendous leaps in income for those lucky enough to be owning those machines. For those who could not afford to own a machine, or have access to a machine to use in ones' own enterprise, you would, instead, be arranged in a machine-like pattern in a factory, to produce these machines. And, somewhere along the way, we began to see these collections of human beings working in factories as their own type of machine, because we overvalued (then, and still do, now) what was produced, rather than who was producing it. 

There's something very intoxicating about the notion of the organisation as a machine. It enables us to: 

  1. say with certainty that this is how something works. Human beings love certainty, because the illusion of knowledge gives us the illusion of control, which makes our ego feel a bit safer. So, we like thinking that we understand how things get done in an organisation, because then we can control it, and change it. But you've all been in organisations where there is a certain person who gets to skip a certain process, or where the relationship between two people means that certain work (not yours) gets prioritised as a result. We have constant examples that organisations are not what they're reduced to in an annual report or in a business process map. 
  2. treat people (which are the component parts of the organisation) as machines, themselves. That is, we dehumanise people, and we do that in multiple ways: by limiting their contribution to their job description (or only valuing that contribution and not, say, something less quantifiable like how much good energy or optimism they bring to the team), by reducing their worth to what they produce rather than acknowledging that their worth is inherent (so, for example, when they quit, we might treat them as if they were already dead to us), by restructuring constantly and saying that redundancy isn't personal (it is to the person who is losing their job, and to their colleagues who have formed bonds with them), and by only investing money in things that will make employees more productive (as opposed to, say, a more whole human being). 
  3. abdicate responsibility for the impact of our decision making. The Milgram Experiment (Google it!) found that 65 percent of experiment participants would deliver a 450-volt electric shock to another experiment participant simply because they were told to do so. When human beings are arranged in hierarchical lines and 'given orders', it turns out that the majority's conscience takes a back seat. 

Jung once said, "It all depends on how we looks at things, and not how they are in themselves." So, what if we changed how we looked at organisations? What if we reverted a few Ages back in our history (or came full circle, however you'd like to view it) and changed the dominant paradigm of 'Organisations as Machines' to one that focused on the human beings in them? If we came to see 'Organisations as Tribes', we would likely do the following things differently:

  1. hire people for passion, values and strengths fit, rather than previous experience, and have a cultural induction for new starters;
  2. provide more ‘human’ roles in the organisation, like having wise elders (very senior people whose sole job it was to impart wisdom), healers (who could help people with the more existential concerns that humans have), and seers (whose job it was to discern trends and 'predict' the future);
  3. consider the wellbeing of everyone, equally, and incentivise leaders to maximise engagement (which, paradoxically, maximises productivity); and
  4. have far more transparent, and downwardly-accountable, leadership. 

As a result of making such an adjustment, we would see huge shifts in engagement, in people's experience of connectedness and purpose, and in accountability. What are your thoughts? 

Does Authenticity Mean 'Giving Less F*cks' About Others?

We hear a lot about authenticity these days - about being authentically ourselves, and about creating workplaces where we can ‘be who we are’. We also happen to exist in a society that is full of examples of narcissistic leadership, increasingly polarised view points, and this dominant narrative of ‘giving less f*cks’. Lest anyone make the mistake of thinking that their ‘being authentic’ means they can treat others inconsiderately, I figured it was time for a more in-depth look into what authenticity actually is and isn't, and where it comes from.

What is authenticity?

Google asserts that authenticity means: “the quality of being authentic”. It then defines ‘authentic’ as: 

  • “of undisputed origin and not a copy; genuine” and 
  • “in existentialist philosophy, relating to or denoting an emotionally appropriate, significant, purposive, and responsible mode of human life.”

These definitions tell us that authenticity has two prerequisites: consciousness, and intention. One cannot be truly genuine, or living an “emotionally appropriate, significant, purposive and responsible… human life” if they are also unconscious about who they really are. Coming to consciousness requires intention (the intention to become aware); what you do with yourself after you get conscious also requires intention (repress, deny, accept etc). 

So, where does authenticity actually come from?

Authenticity is generated by our ongoing choice to look inwards, to see ourselves as we actually are, and to accept what we see without judgement. For ease of reference for the rest of this article, I’m going to call this the “Authenticity Process”.

Model - Where authenticity comes from.jpg

The Authenticity Process generates authenticity in two ways:

  1. By helping us to find our genuine self: We cannot genuinely be ourselves if we do not genuinely knowourselves. Most people do not genuinely know themselves because so much of who we understand our ‘self’ to be has been inherited from others, and from society, at a time in our life when we couldn’t make conscious choices about whether or not it was a good fit with us (that is, we inherited it in childhood). But, over time, the act of looking inwards and seeing ourselves as we are, builds up a bank of self-awareness. We are then able to see what is ‘genuinely us’ and what about us has been unconsciously adopted from others. 
  2. By removing the fear of living in alignment with our genuine self: As we give our self the acceptance that we deeply crave, three things happen: 
  • Paradoxically, our own transformation becomes possible when we stop fighting our self into a ‘should be’ and just allow our self ‘to be’; 
  • We start to create a deeply respectful, loving and caring relationship with our self. As such, we start to hear from our self more and more clearly, because we are no longer living in constant repression or denial or distraction; and
  • Our desire to hide who we are (for fear of what others might think, say or do) diminishes in the face of our own self-acceptance, and thus, a natural ‘being yourself’ arises.

The Authenticity Process also has these side-effects:

  1. Our new-found self-awareness means that we can start to say with some confidence who we are, what is true for us, and what we need in order to be our best self; 
  2. Because we now accept ourselves (at least, in increasing doses), we will start advocating for what we need, and we will stop staying in situations that do not support who we authentically are;
  3. We will develop a deep empathy for the way that others are in the world, because we have had to develop that empathy for ourself, first, in order to accept what we’ve learnt about ourselves; and
  4. We get far more tolerant and curious about the world because we realise that what is ‘true’ for us is so specific to our personality and our life experiences. We stop expecting that other people will see the world in the way that we do, because we start to comprehend how truly unique we all are. 

What authenticity isn’t

I see too many people brand their own particular expressions of narcissism and lack of empathy as ‘authenticity’: a “This is what I believe, you can like it or lump it, I give no f*cks for your opinion about me”. That would be fine if you lived in a vacuum, but you don’t: you live on a finite earth with seven and a half billion other people, and if we’re going to survive as a species, then we have to care about the impact that we have on each other and the planet. 

Genuine authenticity arises from a very conscious, intentional place. It doesn't come to you without a commensurate rise in empathy and curiosity. As such, genuine authenticity is not divisive - it's accepting, and kind, and thoughtful. It's about taking up space in yourself, not about taking over space from others. It's about being able to say "This is me, in all my glory and madness, creating room for myself and others to be, to be accommodated, to question, and to evolve."

New Manager? 11 Approaches To Help You Succeed.

I was the grand old age of 24 when I was first made a manager, and - no bones about it - I was genuinely bad. Having come from a family where sarcasm was banned, not only did I take myself far too seriously, I actually couldn't tell a joke from an insult. As a result, I spent half of my time feeling insecure, and the other half feeling offended. I was also a bit of a tyrant: because so much of my self worth was tied up in what I produced, rather than who I was as a person, that came through in my management style.

Thankfully for me (and for everyone who has ever worked for me since then), the school of hard knocks delivered me a couple of roundhouses to the heart, and I found my empathy, which, you know, is kind of essential for leading people. Since then, being a manager has been an ongoing lesson in humanity - both my own and others - and humility (or, humiliation, depending on the day) as I continue to learn new things.

Want to kick butt as a manager? Adopt the following approaches:

1. Be confident about what you do and don’t know, while staying across “who knows what” in your team.

Organisations are structured so that different roles are across different levels of detail. That means that you don’t need to know the finer points of everything that’s going on in your department, but you do need to know who you can find out more about it from. 

It’s a screaming indicator of insecurity when a manager lives down in the detail of their staff’s work. Your staff might not be as blunt as me, but rest assured, they hate that approach. You’re getting them off side, while neglecting your actual job. No one is winning, here.

Check out my article “New Manager? Mistakes you’ll be tempted to make right away,” to find out how you can respond when you’re asked about a level of detail that you’re not across.

2. Perfectionism will paralyze output, so be pragmatic instead. 

“Near enough” really is “good enough” most of the time (unless you’re giving legal advice or doing brain surgery. Near enough is not good enough then). If you keep aiming for perfection or something close to it, you’re going to take far too long to get things done, and that will annoy everyone far more. 

3. You need to let people do their jobs, while enabling them to do their jobs, while holding them accountable for doing their jobs.

Let: Don’t dip down or re-do their work. Your staff should have clear areas of responsibility that they actually get to take full responsibility for.

Enable: As a manager, your job is to remove the obstacles that prevent your staff from getting things done. 

Hold accountable: People will take you seriously when you take them seriously. If they say that they’re going to do something by a certain date and to a certain standard, you’re entitled to take them at their word. And if it is not delivered, you’re entitled to ask why and express that the non-delivery (or the non-communication about the non-delivery) isn’t acceptable.

4. You are human. You have flaws that will impact other people. Be strategic about mitigating the effects of these flaws.

Repeat after me: I am human. As such, you need to know that you have both strong and underdeveloped ways of doing things that impact other people. 

You should:

  1. Find out what your strengths and weaknesses are (take a CliftonStrengths assessment);
  2. Invite feedback on what other people notice your strengths and weaknesses to be; 
  3. Accept yourself, and be self-forgiving rather than self-flagellating; and
  4. Do whatever you reasonably can to mitigate the impact of your weaknesses on other people

For example, I find administrative tasks particularly burdensome (don’t even get me started on how I feel about filling in forms), so I avoid them like the plague... Which would be a real issue for everyone that I work with if I didn’t mitigate that quirk by finding someone in my team who likes administrative tasks, and who is happy to take them on so that things keep moving. 

I once gave a team of mine “The Guide to Hacking Anna” so they knew precisely what they could and couldn’t expect from me, and how to get what they needed. 

5. You do not have the monopoly on good ideas. So, don't act like you do.

People will love you and give you enormous amounts of respect if you’re able to facilitate their great ideas. That doesn’t mean that all of their great ideas will get to come to fruition just yet, but if you have to say no to someone’s idea, then give them an explanation as to why. As a manager, you’ll have (or should have!) far more context about organisational strategy than your staff will, and it’s important that whatever they’re suggesting is sense-checked by you against what you know about that organisational strategy. 

6. Do not agree to deliver additional outcomes without receiving additional resources or renegotiating previously agreed priorities. 

If you’ve got a great idea that needs additional resources or additional budget in order to be delivered, and someone approves the idea but not the resources or the budget, then say that you can not deliver it or negotiate something else that can be left by the wayside. 

A finite amount of time and money and brains can only produce a finite number of outcomes. Do not let yourself become the schmuck working all hours of the night because you didn’t know how to set realistic expectations. Do not be the schmuck who thinks that he’s going to be rewarded for all of this unnecessary effort. We are given the respect that we give to ourselves, so respect yourself enough to advocate for what you need.

7. Expect to fail from time to time, and get over it when you do. Apologise unselfconsciously (but sincerely) and move on.

I’ve had some epic failures in my time - things that lacked any form of sober-minded judgement, and which, in hindsight, I would not do again. However! I’m human, and what’s done is done. I apologised, I learnt the lesson, I got back up, and I kept going. What more could anyone else ask of us? We’re human and failure is inevitable, so do what you can with it.

8. Do what you say you will do. And if you can’t do that, then, as soon as possible, renegotiate what you’ve said that you will do. 

People will forgive you renegotiating a deadline, but not if you attempt to do that just before it is due. Have the courtesy to forecast ahead, and, depending on the size of the task, give an appropriate amount of notice. 

9. Apologise when you inconvenience the people working for you.

Inconveniencing your team is one of the inevitabilities of being a manager. If you apologise, and don’t make a habit out of it, people will forgive you. If you apologise, and then keep doing it, you will quickly lose any respect you may have already gathered because your apology is (apparently) insincere. 

To be completely clear: do not be the manager that constantly reschedules meetings with his staff. You’re communicating that they are not important. That makes you look like a jerk, which I’m sure you’re actually not. 

10. Create space for people to be utterly genuine, but know what you can and can’t provide.

You’re working with people, not robots (okay, you might also be working with robots, but you’re managing people). Routinely ask your team members how they feel, really. And create space to hear the answer, while knowing that you don’t need to fix it. Some of it you may be able to fix. But it’s actually often just in the fact that we were sincerely asked and made space for, that we experience care and respect.

11. End every meeting with a staff member by asking, “Do you need anything from me?”

This approach became a game changer in my role as a manager. Once I started doing this, several things happened:

  1. My team knew I was serious in my expressed care for them, which made it a lot easier for them to care about me. Our relationships became very reciprocal;
  2. I started getting genuine, and extraordinarily useful, feedback; and
  3. I started hearing about interpersonal issues before they escalated into conflict.

This question also provided a platform for me to express what I needed from my staff, in a way that didn’t feel threatening or conflictual (because what I need isn’t about them or their performance - it’s about me). 

New Manager? Mistakes You're Going To Be Tempted To Make Right Away.

Getting a promotion - or any kind of change that leads to increased responsibility - is nerve-wracking for a lot of people. Eager to prove ourselves right away, we leap into a frenzy of doing, before we really take the time required to orient ourselves to where we are, and to deeply understand where we should be going. 

Before you give in to the urge to look like you’re doing important things! slow down, read this list, and don’t make these rookie mistakes right off the bat:

1. Don’t prioritise doing work-work over the other things that are far more important to get right first

When you’re a specialist, your job is to do work-work - you know, write that memo, review that drawing, analyse that data. When you’re in charge of a department, you have a new list of to-do’s, and it isn’t immediately leaping in to help your staff with their work-work.

The most important thing that you need to do first, before anything, is to start building relationships with the people who can make your life so much better or so much worse:

Get a mentor, stat: Find someone who has been a successful manager before, and who has an incredibly good reputation. You know, the kind of person everyone wants to work for. You’ll want to catch up with them very regularly, so you are able to get an ‘as you go’ sense-check from someone who knows. 

Get to know your boss, and their priorities: You should get yourself extraordinarily clear about who your boss is as a person, what they value, what their priorities are, and their perception of what needs to happen in your function. You may ultimately end up with a different view to your boss about what’s important for your department after working in it for a while, but getting their view upfront will be a really important context-set and, more importantly, an opportunity to start building a productive relationship. 

Get to know your staff, and who they are as human beings: You’re probably walking into a patch that already exists - that is, some part (or all) of what you’re expected to do is already getting done, in some measure. So, at least in the short term, you need the people who are doing that work to keep on doing it. Change is unsettling for the majority of people, and getting a new boss is a big change. This means that there may be a period of time when your staff are feeling wobbly about their roles and how they’re going to work with you - so put them out of their misery and spend some quality time with them as soon as you possibly can. In order to get the best out of people, you genuinely need to know who they are and what’s important to them.

Let your staff tell you what they’re doing, before you try and tell them what they should be doing: Part of your initial catch up with each staff member should involve you asking them to paint you a high level picture - from their perspective - about what they do. Don’t judge what they say. No one intentionally does meaningless work, so if something sounds unusual, don’t dismiss it. Instead, ask why that work gets done and what it links to (that is, you’re actually asking what would break if that work didn’t get done).

Which leads to the next point…

2. Don’t immediately start making changes

This bears repeating: Do not walk in and immediately start making changes. Have the humility to get to understand what’s genuinely going on first, and who’s who in the zoo, before you start burning the zoo to the ground. For want of a better analogy, the animals will stampede at the first sign of you wielding a fire brand… that is, until they know that you’re a trustworthy sort. That’s going to take a bit of time and some intentional relationship-building.

This advice holds true even if someone else (like your boss) has told you that the department is a wreck and immediate changes need to be made. All too often people (who are not down in the detail) make these sweeping statements about the performance of things, and never really seek to understand why something is happening. There are normally pretty good reasons for why something is happening, and you should find those reasons out before you make any moves.

3. Don’t try to know everything that’s going on in your department

You have misunderstood the rules of the game if you think that you need to know everything that is going on in your department. You can’t possibly be across all of that information, unless you’re doing everyone else’s job. Attempting to do your direct report’s job will deeply demoralise and disengage them (which will then make them far less productive), so restrain yourself. Instead, accept that the organisation has been structured for each role to be across a particular level of detail. If you are asked a question about a level of detail that is below you, then don’t be anxious about that - just say that you’ll find out and get back to the person asking. 

Practice confidently delivering these responses to the question, “What’s happening with [insert thing you don’t know enough about yet]?”: 

  • “Let me ask [insert name of responsible staff member]/ the team. I’ll be able to get back to you on that one soon.”
  • “Let me double check that. I’ll get back to you on that point by the end of the day.”
  • “[insert name of responsible staff member] is across that - I’ll have her send through a status update.”

Over the course of your job, people will frequently ask you questions about things that are simply not important. However, if it is an important person who is asking you, then it is often tempting to immediately start treating the thing as if it were important. Don’t do that. If you sound like you’re calm and comfortable with the question and with not having the response immediately to hand, that attitude is normally enough to keep everyone else calm while you go and find out the answer.

Underpinning all of this is what you believe about the competence and performance of your staff. The reality is that you either trust your staff to know what is going on and be doing a good job and providing you with a reasonable level of reporting, or you don’t trust them to be doing those things. And if you don’t trust them to be doing those things, then hire new people who you do trust, or fix whatever issue is causing your distrust.

4. Don’t try to prove your worth in areas that you shouldn’t

The areas that you should be proving your worth are set out in the venn diagram in this document, and these should be reflected in your job description. Don’t have a job description? Get one written immediately. And then stay within its’ confines until you’re killing it at your job, at which point you can start branching out again into other areas. 

While you’re at it, make sure that you have a one-year development plan that specifically sets out what you’re going to be focusing on. 

Until your job description and your development plan are written down, you have no way of knowing if you’re actually doing the job that your boss wants you to do. And your boss would have no idea what areas of responsibility might be falling through the cracks until that level of clarity is in place. So, it provides you both with valuable information.

5. Don’t play at a level that they haven’t hired you to play at

Very often people are promoted because they were good at their previous job. Except, a promotion doesn’t mean that you get to keep doing what you were good at - you’re actually expected to add value at a higher level, now. You need to learn how to do new things, like engaging and influencing people, and thinking strategically. Learning new things can feel really challenging to our sense of competence (and, for some, to their sense of self-worth), so we often revert to doing the things we feel comfortable to do. Please don’t do this. You’re not adding value to anyone by playing at a level below you, and you will really, really annoy your team. Sit with the discomfort and learn some new skills, instead.

Which ties into the next point…

6. Don’t do the work yourself because it’s easier than training your team to do it the way that you want it done

It can be hard to know how to communicate that you need work to be redone. There is an art to it, but it’s immensely learnable. 

Before we get to that, though, you need to ask yourself whether you were clear enough in expressing what you expected to see, and when you expected to see it. 

If you were very clear, and the work isn’t up to snuff, you’ll probably feel tempted to avoid having a conversation about that (or tempted to mitigate the fact that the timeline will now be a bit screwed up as a result of the re-do) by doing the work yourself. Acknowledge those feelings and don’t give in to them. You have the opportunity to help someone grow right now, as well as the opportunity to reduce the likelihood of receiving poor work again from this person. You will destroy trust if you redo the work yourself, because you’re implicitly communicating that something was wrong but you’re not having the conversation about it (which looks weak and or dishonest) and you’re not giving them a chance to fix it (which is unfair).

Try the following phrasing: “Thanks for sending that through. I’ve gone through it, and I’m going to need you to adjust it a bit. [list out which bit, list out what outcome you would need the revised bit to achieve]. Can you have this done by [insert time frame that you think it is now reasonable to have it done by]. Let me know if you have any queries along the way.”

Why We Pay Experts To Tell Us Things Our Employees Already Know

I’m sure we’ve all been there: banging our head against a brick wall as we repeat a message that just isn’t being received by our colleagues or leaders, only to have some guru hired in at exorbitant rates for your annual leadership conference, or to run some workshop, or to transform some process, who says exactly the same thing that you’ve been harping on about for ages but without all the business-specific knowledge you yourself could have also brought to the table.

Why does this happen? Why does this happen with such alarming frequency?

Jesus encapsulated this uniquely human phenomenon rather perfectly: having performed a bucket load of miracles he then returned to his hometown, only to find that they didn’t think he was All That, and he remarked to his disciples, "A prophet is not without honor except in his own town, among his relatives and in his own home."

So, what makes it difficult for us to see, hear and receive the genius that is within our own people? Why are our organisational prophets so often without honour? And why is paying someone outside of the organisation to tell us what we could actually find within it, such a palatable alternative?

  1. We want our prophets to be gods, not people: We live in a culture that is prone to making idols out of people, and then, when they turn out to be human (like the rest of us) by committing some uniquely human but socially unacceptable act, we tear them to shreds. We throw them off the pedestal, and we burn their entire lives to the ground with what we say about them. I suspect that the truth of the matter is that we aren’t comfortable with the ways that we are flawed, so we don't feel comfortable when we realise the ways that our heroes are flawed, too. We tend to only let exceptional, admirable people (as we might individually define 'exceptional' and ‘admirable’) teach us things. With an outside expert, we haven't spent enough time with them to get to know how they, like us, are limited, and so we can subconsciously believe that they aren't. And for a lot of people, it is this belief that makes it possible for them to remain open to learning something.
  2. We want to keep employees in the box of their role description: There are several reasons why we might want to keep employees in the box of their role description - either because we're used to seeing them in a particular way, and that's comfortable for us, or because the patch that the person might like to move into is one that we think is ours or that we want to be ours alone. I remember being told by someone in human resources that she was the expert in that field and so I should take what she said without question... and yet I knew myself to be someone with an enormous amount of value to add in that space. We need to see past someone’s role description to what they’re capable of and or passionate about, and this will only happen if we create the space in our minds - and the opportunities in real life - for our employees to continually evolve.
  3. We don’t have the humility necessary to let our peers take a teaching role: When we know that our peers are just like us - a combination of strengths and weaknesses - it takes a lot of humility to see beyond that ordinary person to whatever message of value that they might be delivering. We also get jealous of other people being honoured in ways that we would like to be. But this isn't a zero sum game: that is, more honour for one person doesn't have to mean less honour for someone else. What if we were able to institute humble learning cultures, where we genuinely considered the merits of the message, rather than the merits of the messenger? What if teaching was a part of everyone’s role?
  4. When we spend a large amount of money on something, we’re biased to see it as good: "Surely, it must be good! I've just spent $100,000 on this speaker! He’s the best! Everyone loved what he had to say! HE CLIMBED EVEREST!" The reality is that it is hard for us to consider that we might have just wasted a decent amount of money being told something we already knew or could have easily found out for ourselves, and so we convince ourselves that we haven't. This is where deep thinking up front, and candid reflecting post event, would help us. Unfortunately, both require time, and one requires a lot of emotional maturity, to do really well... and neither are things that the average organisation is known for having a lot of. It’s a little different with employees, even though we’re also paying for them. What we end up doing is subconsciously assuming that the value an employee can provide is somehow linked to the salary that we pay them or their position on the org chart. This is wrong: people at all levels of the organisation can provide value that far exceeds their salary or position, if we create the space for them to do that.
  5. We want to be able to blame something 'out there' (the expert) if things go wrong, rather than looking 'in here' (ourselves, our business, our employees, our culture): External experts give us a scapegoat, someone to project onto if the outcomes aren't great. Again, it requires a lot of integrity and humility to take responsibility for the state of things in your organisation, to let learning spring from within, and to realise that there is no magic bullet that is going to transform whatever organisational issue you are beset with.
  6. We’re lazy (often disguised as 'too busy'): It requires far less from us as leaders to pay one person to give us the answer, than it does for us to facilitate those learnings from a diverse group of people. But, by taking that route, we miss out on a diversity of perspectives, specific business knowledge applied to the problem, and the benefits of the employee engagement that that kind of collaborative problem solving work often creates.

Familiarity might often breed contempt, but it doesn’t have to. Familiarity could, instead, breed a profound respect for the reality of human beings: for the ways that someone is both whole and limited, for their latent genius and their latent madness. But in order to receive that genius we must bear with each other, and being in relationship is naturally uncomfortable. This is because being deeply present to another human forces us to grow and change. External guru’s don’t have to do this - they don’t have to get in the trenches with people over the long haul and endure through the illogical, emotional and messy reactions that human beings have to things. They don't have to invest, particularly not in the ways and to the depths that your employees do.

The next time you’re considering bringing in an external expert to assist with something in your organisation, cast the net about instead to see if there is someone (or several people) for whom this could be a passion project. If you give them the same level of support and consideration that you would give to an external expert doing the same thing, then you will likely be positively surprised by what comes out of it.

The Power of Intentional Dissent In Organisations

“Always ask why, Annie,” Dad said one night to a fifteen year old me, as we were washing the dishes together. “Never take anything at face value.” I’m pretty sure Dad later came to regret that advice when I took it to heart and applied it to everything he had ever told me (“Clean your room.” ... “Why?”), but the life lesson had been delivered and accepted: there is profound merit in asking “Why?” with the intent to understand, and then, if the explanation doesn’t sound quite right, asking “Why?” with the intent to dissent. 

Dissent, according to a quick “define dissent” Google search, is: the holding or expression of opinions at variance with those commonly or officially held.

Organisations are full of commonly or officially held opinions. We have elaborate narratives about who the company is in the market place, the service we provide, the need we fulfil, the types of people we employ, the culture we have, the place that our strategy will deliver us to, the efficacy of the leadership that we exist under, and who we are as managers. 

And, as always, amongst our employee population there will be those who:

  1. Accept the narrative;
  2. See the holes in the narrative, but go with the flow; or
  3. See the holes in the narrative, and say so, like the child crying from the sidelines of the parade, “The emperor has no clothes!”

Dissent isn’t something that is routinely encouraged in organisations. In fact, if you’re one to challenge the ‘company line’ then, depending on the appetite for challenge in your company, you could quite quickly become the social pariah for it. Cue the un-evolved response of: “Bob just isn’t on board with where we’re going. He’s so negative. He puts people offside.” 

The majority resist dissent because it demands change - whether it’s a change in narrative to a more truthful but less palatable one (e.g. “we care more about cashflow than we do about people”), a change in opinion, or a change in approach or direction. And change is hard, even for those who think they’re well seasoned in it: we don’t keep changing for change’s sake, and we can become quite attached to narratives that we have accepted or the plans that we have formed. As the mighty Errol Boffey (my eighty seven year old grandfather) once said from the soapbox within his lunchbox, in describing the Law of Inertia: “Things like to keep doing what they’re already doing”. And that includes us: most human beings like to keep thinking in the way we have become accustomed to. 

So when we meet dissent, our instinctive response is to dismiss it (“it’s not true”), discount it (“it’s not really true in this situation”) or to dehumanise the person saying it (“I’m not entertaining the notion that this might be true because I don’t like Bob, who said it”). We do this rather than acknowledging: “This makes me feel uncomfortable, but I’m going to quietly sit in that feeling until I remember that dissenting views help us to create more realistic and robust answers. And once I remember that, I’m going to calmly open my mouth and say, “Oh yeah? Tell me more about that.” ”

Why dissent is brilliant for organisations

  1. Dissenting views given upfront and out loud are a sign of engagement. People want to contribute, and, at this point, they’ve just communicated that they still care enough to do so. You need to facilitate that desire to contribute if you want to ongoingly get the best out of your employees.
  2. When you facilitate dissent, it enables progress. As George Bernard Shaw stated: “All progress depends on the unreasonable man.” Who is the unreasonable man? The one with a dissenting opinion. Everything we take for granted - the fact that women can vote, the fact that we routinely put people in space, the fact that we have discrimination laws that are enacted and upheld - was all a profound unlikelihood at the time it was first raised, and it came from a dissenting view. And the dissenting view held firmly over time ultimately forced progress. Although people are typically (and strongly) incentivised by organisations to be compliant rather than dissenting, organisations will be better off if they make room for employees to force progress through dissent. 

Beliefs that prevent us from facilitating dissent

We won’t facilitate dissent if we believe:

  1. We don’t have the time to do anything about it. It takes time to hear these views and respond to them (either by querying, actioning, or providing reasons for why action won’t occur). And this time might not look like the kind of action that we're so routinely rewarded for.
  2. There is no appetite for change in the organisation. If too many people think, “What’s the point? It’ll never change. That’s just the way things are done around here,” then that view becomes a self fulfilling prophecy. 
  3. It’s too controversial. If you feel too scared to support a view that you see as controversial, then you won’t put your neck on the line for it. 
  4. Dissent is wrong. A lot of people have grown up in situations that have taught them that dissent is dangerous to their well being (command and control parents) or morally wrong (certain religions believe that all authorities are instituted by God and are not to be resisted) or culturally wrong (certain cultures have face-saving drivers that strongly discourage dissent). Those are hard beliefs to combat, so you’d need to institutionalise safe ways to dissent, and normalise that as a behaviour, in order to combat those beliefs. 
  5. That we don’t, personally, have the ability to handle a dissenting person’s opinion. There might be a number of reasons that someone could feel like this. If you have a conflict avoidant personality or are high on the strengths of Harmony or Consistency, then you’re probably going to freaking hate the situations where you come face to face with (as you think of her) Negative Nancy. Actually, she’s just Dissenting Debbie, and your response is an instinctive one, not a fair one. It is, as the colloquial saying goes, “your shit, not her shit.” 

Ideas that help us make room for dissent

  1. Dissent gives us a more complete, more truthful picture. Picture a group of objects on a table in the middle of the room, surrounded on all sides by people with sketchpads. Everyone is going to draw a different picture of exactly the same group of objects, based on where they are sitting - that is, based on their perspective. Whenever we approach a situation at work, this exact same thing is happening - we will all see different possibilities based on our perspective. If we facilitate the input of everyone, we will get a much more complete picture than if we don’t. We need to remember that there is always more than one way of seeing the world, and so, while convenient, individual ideas about “right and wrong” are rarely helpful and definitely never complete. As the cliche goes: no one has the monopoly on good ideas.
  2. Dissent is not a personal attack. Even if you’re the person who came up with the thing that someone else is saying “I don’t think we should be doing that,” we need to remember that that is not the same thing as saying “[insert your name here] is an idiot for thinking that we should do that.” Sometimes dissent might look like a personal attack when we challenge a narrative that we have surrounding a person - say, a leader or a manager - but this can be mitigated if we set up safe environments to express dissent about leadership or management styles respectfully. 
  3. Dissent is indicative of courage, not a character flaw, on the part of the person delivering it. Dissent requires courage. At its most unconscious and instinctive, the mental process for the majority of human beings will go along the following lines: “If I challenge this person/situation/issue then I might ultimately lose my job, and thus lose my means of meeting the various needs that I and my family have. Dissent = bad.” Most people don’t bother to open their mouth, and either put up with whatever issues the organisation is currently beset with, or they vote with their feet instead by leaving. 
  4. Dissent can be done in incredibly respectful, enriching ways, that leave everyone better off for it. It doesn’t have to be rude or blunt or traumatic. It does require time, a safe space and attentiveness, though. It does require a willingness to suspend what you think you know, in order to create room for something new to penetrate your realm of possibility. 

What happens in organisations that do not facilitate dissent 

Dissent can be an incredibly powerful tool when harnessed and approached in strategic ways. If you do not harness it, and instead dismiss it, you can expect to:

  1. Create a culture of Yes Men. The resulting homogeneity of views will stifle innovation that most organisations require to stay alive;
  2. Disengage people with dissenting views, thus leading to their lower productivity and possible turnover (both of which have bottom line impacts); and or
  3. Create division within the company when the dissenting person simply starts dissenting in private to their peers. There’s a real potential for toxicity (and widespread disengagement, with all of its negative side effects) when this occurs.

There are multiple ways that organisations can strategically facilitate dissent, but that’s an essay for another day. 

Meaning and Purpose At Work

My earliest existential crisis occurred at age ten, when I started seriously staring down the barrel of my own mortality in the face of Jesus’ imminent return. It was the early 90’s, and the protestants were laughing-crying-falling-over through their rapturous revivals, convinced that we were all shortly to cast off our mortal shells in favour of glory, and that was the family context that I grew up in. I remember hoping that Jesus would hold off long enough for me to get a bra, so I could, at least, experience some semblance of womanhood before I was transformed into a gender-neutral heavenly being (or something like that… my ten year old self wasn’t quite sure what was meant to happen next).

The vague sense of my impending death never really went away, even when Jesus didn’t turn up as predicted, and Y2K didn’t spell the end of the world, or when the Mayan apocalypse that I heard about in my year ten social studies class didn’t occur on 21 December 2012 as slated. I remember the day after that one, realising that I hadn’t banked on life past age 27… all of the five year plans I had created since that social studies class (they were my attempts to maximise the output of my inevitably short life) had stopped there. There was a brief high on realising that I wasn’t going to prematurely die, followed by multiple years spent undoing all of the conditioning that got me there in the first place.

Needless to say, over my time I’ve thought a lot about the meaning of life, or, as I think about it these days, how to create a meaningful life. I’m sure it goes without saying that while there may be broad similarities between what feels meaningful for people, we should assume that each person will have a completely individualised response to what a meaningful life would be for them. But I think all people care about questions of meaning, even if they don’t spend too much time thinking explicitly about it. No one wants to feel like their life doesn’t - or, didn’t - matter. No one wants to get to the end and regret what was.

So, what does this have to do with work? Well, unless you’re one of the very few people who don’t need to earn a living, work is the thing that we all share. It characterises our adult lives. It is the vehicle that we get from twenty to sixty-five (thereabouts) through. Our most stunning strengths, and our worst weaknesses, can be expressed through it. Some of us experience it as an unavoidable reality that we don’t care too much about, and, at the other extreme, others of us give it 110% and have a lot of our self-worth wrapped up in it. Regardless of how we relate to it, it’s taking up a huge portion of our lives, and thus is a significant factor in our wellness, our life’s story and legacy, and our sense of how meaningful - or otherwise - our life is.  

I personally believe that work can be a deeply meaningful exercise through which people can find self-knowledge and experience purpose beyond a pay cheque. That said, it can also be the exact opposite, and we see that too often: work and workplaces that demotivate, demoralize, and destroy people’s sense of connection and contribution and purpose. What we also see is the difference in productivity and output that a human being who really enjoys their work and workplace has, in comparison to a human being that doesn’t enjoy their work or who is running the gauntlet of a dysfunctional workplace.

The corporate search for profit and man’s search for meaning can be highly synergistic, and should be leveraged. A smart organisation recognises that there will be a direct, positive impact on its bottom line when it invests resources into creating a workplace where people can experience meaning and purpose in their work. 

That said, let’s be very clear: this isn’t as easy as giving people a wellness app and a few company-sponsored yoga sessions. This isn’t about beanbags and pie. This isn’t about a rebrand or a new set of values plastered on the wall. The image that keeps springing to mind is the oft-quoted (but apparently fictitious) instance of Marie Antoinette, in response to the starving, rioting masses, saying ‘let them eat cake’. But the people were hungry for so much more than food, and, in our organisations, people are hungry for so much more than perks. They’re hungry for a good life. They’re hungry for a sense of belonging. They’re hungry for integrity, and purpose and connection and the opportunity to genuinely contribute. They’re hungry for meaning.

So how does an organisation go about creating an environment where people can experience meaningful work? This is a huge topic, obviously... but here are a few (by no means exhaustive) thoughts from me:

  1. Organisations are, firstly and fundamentally, collections of human beings working together in a particular configuration and with particular tools, for the achievement of a particular purpose. As such, the framework of the organisation needs to be designed on a profound understanding of, and acceptance of, human nature. Too many organisations are built as if they had predictable machines working in them, rather than the wild art that is humanity. You need a structure that can flex, to accommodate the genius that people will bring to their work if you let them.
  2. You need a psychologically high-functioning leader (like, seriousEQ) with a radical commitment to creating a psychologically safe environment. But that leader can’t just be great at the human stuff - they also need the ability to marry what they know about human nature and needs, with what they know about running high performing businesses. That's a unique individual.
  3. The organisation needs to be designed to continuously but purposefully adapt - to evolve in sync with the world it operates in and with the humans that are operating within it. Too often I see companies undertaking revolutions - that is, drastic change and transformation programs - to keep up with change in the market, rather than having a way of continuously evolving. The problem with revolutions is that you’re almost immediately out of date (as soon as the program is complete), and they’re also highly disruptive (people will get change fatigue).
  4. A strengths-based approach gets awesome outcomes. Don't put people into roles that they don't have the strengths for, because they - and everyone around them - will be made miserable. Check out Gallup or Via Character Strengths for two different approaches to this.
  5. Prioritise clarity (see this article for what I think that looks like).
  6. Prioritise connection. Human beings are social animals, and are wired to bond. Create ways for people to do that authentically and safely.

I'd love to hear your thoughts! What do you think an organisation could do or provide that would enhance people's experience of meaningfulness?

The Organisation Of The Future: 5 Roles We Need Now

My mum has a photo that she pulls out from time to time, shot in the early 90's, from when she looked out a window into our front yard and saw a six year old me lying in a cardboard box, apple in hand, gazing vacantly off into the sky. I was born navel gazing - I literally love to think. I also love organisations (well, systems generally), but am frequently surprised by how little time and how little investment is given to deep thinking in organisations.

Here are the five new thinking roles that I’m convinced that the highest performing organisations of the future will have:

The Philosopher

Once a human being’s base level needs are consistently met and he’s not fighting for his survival, his mind turns to existential questions: “Why am I here? What should I be doing with my life? What is genuinely meaningful?” Now, there are no easy answers to these questions, so most people either avoid answering them by distracting themselves (The Bachelorette, anyone?) or numbing out (too much food, alcohol, work, exercise, shopping etc), or they give themselves a ready-made solution that they don’t have to think too hard about (religion as opposed to well considered faith, for example). Man’s desire to live a meaningful life is innate, however, and the organisation of the future recognises that people wrestle with these questions, and that work can be a deeply meaningful experience for people if it is set up well. The Philosopher helps leaders (and the Remora Fish - see below) to construct an organisation that contributes to people’s search for meaning and purpose. 

The Futurist

The Futurist is the person who is looking more than 5 years down the track, seeing ‘the future’. She can perceive trends (not just in the market that she’s engaged in, but across economies, demographics, governance etc), is up to date with cutting edge thinking and STEM advancements, and is able to position the organisation well in advance to take advantage of where things are going.

The reason many organisations don’t yet have this role is because you can’t see the return on the Futurist in the short term, and also because we (unrealistically) expect senior managers to perform this role. The day to day reality for most senior managers is fire fighting and people conundrums and politics. The Futurist has a very particular way of seeing the world that is not common - there is a level of conceptual comprehension that a normal senior manager is unlikely to have, let alone also have the time to devote to positioning the organisation to take advantage of it.

The Remora Fish (AKA the Systems Thinker)

For those of you who don’t know, the remora fish is a fish that survives by attaching itself to another big fish, like a shark. It eats off the shark’s dead skin and, by doing so, keeps the shark clean and healthy. It also eats a whole load of the shark’s waste, which feels fitting, because the Remora Fish in an organisation is a systems thinker who floats between departments (the sub systems), exploring their interfaces and solving cross functional issues and dealing with a whole heap of crap. This is the person focused ‘on’ the business - how the whole is designed, how the whole is performing, where adjustment is required. The Remora Fish keeps the system well and on track.

The reason many organisations don’t yet have a role like this is because people get precious about their patch. They don’t want someone else coming in and ‘improving’ it, because it’s in our human nature to assume that:

  1. someone else saying that something of ours could be improved upon is an indictment on our performance, or, heaven forbid, our very self; or
  2. we think that we know the most about whatever it is that we’ve been put in charge of. (Note: We don’t).

Our patch sits within a whole, and the Remora Fish is focused on the performance of the whole. We can’t genuinely ‘know’ anything, without first accurately comprehending the context that it exists within, and the Remora Fish is the person with the context.

The Dissenter

The literature has been telling us for years that task conflict is healthy and necessary… and yet, it’s in most people’s nature to avoid conflict and take the path of least resistance. If you’re an especially strong personality, it’s not that you’re right all the time, it’s just that other people let you have your way because it’s easier than the alternative. The Dissenter is an organisation-sanctioned challenger. Someone who says, “Why?”, “But what about?” or “Have you considered?” They help make your thinking and planning robust, by subjecting it to critical thinking. Action gives us the illusion of progress, and organisations routinely prioritise ill-considered action over taking a small amount of time to deeply think about things. The Dissenter is the momentary handbrake that makes your thinking better, and your action more powerful. The Dissenter is the antidote to yes-men and alphas and untouchables; they make what’s really happening explicit. They’re not normally very popular, but, by jove, they really should be because of the value that they add.

The Therapist

I have a lot of theories about the impact that someone’s level of psychological functioning has on everyone around them, but it is most notable in organisations: the higher up the ladder you go, the greater the impact of your unresolved wounding on the performance of the organisation. A conflict-avoidant CEO creates a conflict-avoidant organisation, and a conflict-avoidant organisation will always be underperforming. A manager with a high need for control will (generally unwittingly, but sometimes not) stifle creativity and original thinking in the people that work for them, thus killing innovation and market-relevance. I once worked for an organisation where I speculated a lot about the retentive type of person that the CEO might be, on the basis that I wasn’t allowed to eat at my desk or hang a jacket off the back of my chair...I remember that, on hearing that edict, I wailed “I’m not a robot, or a preschooler!” before starting an earnest conversation with my colleagues about the healthy effect of civil disobedience on societal progress.

Organisations are collections of human beings, and human beings exist somewhere on a spectrum of low psychological functioning to high psychological functioning. We should be realistic about the fact that everyone’s a bit screwed up, and this will have an impact on the people in our lives, including other people at work. Personal development should be a mandatory part of every leader’s job description: self-awareness cannot be optional when you’re leading people, because of the unnecessary harm that one un-self-aware human being can do to another. The Therapist exists to counsel the CEO, executive team, and any other people managers.

The In-house Think Tank

Summing up:

  • the Philosopher is focused up, on questions of meaning and purpose;
  • the Futurist is focused far out into the future, to see where we could be going;
  • the Remora Fish is focused on the business (marrying the macro and the micro) to ensure that it is performing as optimally as it can in the current moment;
  • the Dissenter is focused at things, critically analysing them, to ensure that all of our action is as intentional as it should be and as powerful as it could be; and
  • the Therapist is focused inwards, helping us to reconcile who we are on our insides with the way we operate in the world.

Again, we’re often quite naive about what can be achieved by leaders in organisations - we either expect all of this kind of thinking to be done by them and then actioned by them, or we ignore the need for this kind of thinking entirely. But powerful thinking requires time and space and, often, quiet… for me, it also is facilitated by being almost horizontal on a couch or in a beanbag, which aren't yet usual positions to find your colleagues in, in most workplaces. It requires expertise in analysis and comprehension and application, which aren’t typical skill sets. It requires a long termism that is often at odds with the short termism of your one year development plan or annual reporting to shareholders.

I think the organisation of the future has an in-house think tank. They would be deeply embedded in the business, be trusted advisors to the senior leadership team, and share thinking that could help the business make sound decisions. Imagine getting to be the Galileo of Google or the DaVinci of Deloitte… to someone like me, that would be bliss!

Go forth and think deeply.

The Link Between Clarity And High Performance

I remember once bemoaning the state of an organisation that I worked for, to one of my favourite wise old men (well, he’s not that old, but he’s pretty wise), who happened to be my boss at the time: “It’s so broken! This isn’t working, and that person is incompetent, and so-and-so never follows the process! No one’s held accountable for anything that matters, there’s no strategy to speak of, and the lack of leadership is laughable!”

And Yoda sagely destroyed my naive idealism with a blunt response: “This isn’t unusual. Every organisation struggles with some combination of people not doing their job, defunct process, crap technology, or dirty data.”

It took me a while to swallow that pill of truth, mostly because - to someone as idealistic and self-righteous as millennial me - it felt like one of those horrendous golf-ball-sized echinacea monstrosities that causes you to gag before you manage to drown it down your digestive system with a good swig of water (or wine, if it’s a little later in the day). 

But once it was down into my metaphorical gut as an unavoidable reality, I started to think a lot about whyit was true - why is it that every organisation wrestles with some form of under-performance?

I think we forget sometimes that organisations are collections of human beings, and, as such, all under-performance can be traced back to decisions driven by distinctly human concerns. It’s easy to blame our tools (that is, our systems and processes and data) and the outputs of our tools, but they exist in the state that they’re in, producing the outcomes that they do, as a result of decisions made by people.

This is the first in a series of articles that explores the question: what is it, precisely, that humans need to receive from organisations, in order to be high performing? 

But first, a little bit of relevant Human Nature 101:

  1. Human beings are wired to seek certainty. Right down at our core we recognise the truth of our own smallness in an infinitely vast universe, and that doesn’t make us feel very safe. So, we squish down the potential for existential angst by reducing the size of our world to the scenarios that we understand and, we hope, can control. At its simplest: the illusion of certainty gives us the illusion of control, and the illusion of control makes us feel safe(r).

  2. Human beings make substandard decisions when they feel uncertain about the environment they’re operating in. When human beings are operating in an uncertain environment, they’re typically alert to potential danger, sub-conciously waiting for the T-Rex to come charging out of the bushes to eat them. That’s not the kind of head-space to make great decisions from. You can’t focus on analysing your data well or having a healthy performance review, if you’re wrestling with an instinctive flight, fight or freeze response that says “I’M NOT SAFE!”. The science says that, in that moment, certain parts of your brain functioning is reduced because your body is getting ready to spring into action.
  3. Human beings are pack animals. Like all mammals, we are hardwired to care for our young, so we have all of these “connection feels good!” responses built into our bodies. Conversely, disconnection feels very bad - there’s a reason why solitary confinement is a punishment for human beings, and that’s it. As pack animals, we know we would likely die if we got ousted from the tribe, and you see a lot of unconscious instinctive responses that still operate in us to prevent that (for example, that’s why it feels so awful when you get publicly shamed).

When a human being joins an organisation (that is, he joins his new tribe in a new location), he wants to know certain things, namely:

  • Where am I?
  • Where are we going?
  • What’s my role in that?
  • Who are all these other people?
  • What do they do?
  • How does this particular tribe of people behave?
  • What’s considered important, here?

That is, he’s trying to make sense of his context - of the environment that he’s operating in. Because work is going to meet some of his base level needs (a pay cheque provides food, shelter, clothing, and perhaps more, for example), he cares about the rules of the game and playing it well. Unless you’re seriously disenchanted with the fact that you were born into an industrialised society that forces you in the hamster wheel of work as opposed to foraging in the forest (most of us unconsciously and graciously accept it as an unavoidable, albeit often annoying, reality), you don’t turn up to a new job thinking, “Yep! I’m going to be seriously average at this. I’m going to do just enough to avoid being fired.” On the contrary, you want to understand where you’ve landed, what your role in the tribe is, and how to be successful in it.

When we feel more certain about the environment that we are operating in, then it becomes possible to direct all of our brain power to the task at hand. So much non-value-adding behaviour that I see from human beings stems from a lack of clarity provided by the organisation, which means that it’s a struggle, then, for people to create certainty.

There are a couple of disclaimers to what I’m talking about:

  1. I am not saying that people can’t handle any ambiguity. To the contrary, people can handle a great deal of ambiguity as long as their immediate context is clear. For example, you may be working in an extremely volatile market. That won’t matter to the people who work for you, if the company has a clear and credible strategy, that people know how they fit into. Metaphorically, people just need to know that they’re on a stable boat with a competent captain, not what the ocean will do next.
  2. The benefit of clarity has a tipping point: when things are documented down to the enth degree - to the point that human creativity and ownership is stifled - then it has gone too far. We’ve all probably worked for a huge company where you become convinced that a monkey could do your job because of how little room you have to move. No one wants to feel like a monkey.

So, how can organisations provide us with the clarity that we need to create certainty? By providing us with the answers to each of those earlier questions, typically in the form of documents that are easily accessible:

  1. Where am I? There should be a clear, one-to-few pager on the company, its history, where it’s going, and how it’s structured at a high level. This gets updated at regular intervals.
  2. Where are we going? There should be a clearly documented strategy, that has flowed down into clearly documented business unit plans.
  3. What’s my role in that? The clearly documented business unit plans should have flowed down into clearly documented role descriptions.
  4. Who are all these other people? There should be an organisation chart! Don’t laugh (or weep, as I felt tempted to do when I first came across this), it’s surprising how many businesses do not make one of these available to its employees.
  5. What do they do? There should be a role description for each person, which should be accessible to every other employee. See my earlier article on Dipping Down, if you’re interested on a longer statement about the benefits of doing this.
  6. How does this particular tribe of people behave? There should be a statement of the company’s values… but, as we know, there’s often a disconnect between the espoused values and the reality, so this is typically something I ask about at interviews. “How does this particular tribe of people behave, really, as opposed to what’s written on the wall?”
  7. What’s considered important, here? You will be able to tell what’s really important by what shows up in the performance review metrics, or by what the short term bonus scheme is based on: that is, on what people are incentivised to prioritise. If you are responsible for these documents in a company, then, please, either get them to align with the company’s espoused values or change those values to own what the company is genuinely about. People can sniff out hypocrisy and misalignment a mile away, and it will make them feel uncertain about their environment.

In addition to providing these documents, internal communications as a discipline is something that I see so many companies under prioritise and, as a result, do badly. If we accept that human beings need clarity in order to create certainty in order to feel safe in order to bring all of their brains to the task at hand (*deep breath!*), then we have to accept that there needs to be structured, strategic communication in the event of change. People aren’t stupid - they can see things changing and if you do not provide them with a credible narrative, then they will create their own and it likely won’t inspire them with confidence about the company.

The highest performing teams that I have worked with knew what their role was, what our function’s role was, and how that all fit into where the company was going. The highest performing companies that I have worked with prioritised keeping their staff genuinely informed. It isn’t hard to get the best out of people, but it does take some time devoted to meeting those more human concerns, such as the need for clarity.