Thursday, August 2, 2018

Waging the water cooler

Image from Shutterstock

It has often been said that as long as two people stay in a room long enough, there will be conflict. I think it’s safe to say that we could put one person in a room and establish that they are, on a bad day, a seething mess of internal conflict!

We only have to contemplate what is happening in the world right now to know that as smart as we are, as technologically advanced as we are, we still haven’t mastered some of the basics. Why might that be?

Is it because we don’t know how or because we “just don’t wanna”! If we accept that conflict is common, then do we accept that conflict is inevitable? I would suggest that some conflict is inevitable and it is here that it is useful to distinguish between realistic(objective) and non-realistic (subjective or dynamics-driven) conflict.

Realistic conflict occurs between individuals clashing over opinions, beliefs, values, needs or resources. Sometimes we want different things and sometimes the same thing (even a piece of land or a country) but we can’t agree on how to divide it. An example of realistic conflict may be budget allocation; a fixed pie with direct implications for the achievement of one party’s outcomes when decisions are made. Non-realistic conflict stems from ignorance, intolerance, historical precedent or the need for tension release. Non-realistic conflict may occur where two individuals with different personality or operating styles and perhaps pent up negative experiences with each other, clash with each other verbally, physically, psychologically; often resulting in the adoption of two disparate positions and pushing them hard.

Let’s not make a mistake. The two types of conflict are not mutually exclusive. Realistic elements of conflict can get inextricably caught up with the non-realistic elements. In our earlier budget example, rational pragmatic business decisions about the projects to fund or promote and which to divest can put hurtful competitive strain on relationships; both parties seeing the funding allocation issue as a reflection of their respective worth rather than as decisions which do or don't align with strategic objectives. They take things personally and jockey for attention and resources in a win/lose way.

Why do we bother to distinguish? 
Very simply, realistic conflict must be managed. Non-realistic conflict can be avoided or eliminated. Let’s recognise however that some people:
  • create non-realistic conflict because it is a way of maintaining control to they are "spoiling for a fight"
  • have learnt patterns of behaviour that are difficult (but not impossible to break)
  • use conflict to combat boredom and routine; that is, they don’t need a high job focus so “people focus” becomes very salient
  • may suffer from mental health challenges or disorders including personality and anxiety disorders thus creating challenges for themselves and others
  • are reacting to a culture that may encourage competitive, even bullying behaviour. This can result in non-realistic conflict that is condoned or encouraged because people low on job or leadership skills resort to counterproductive workplace behaviour to get things done. They may resort to inappropriate behaviour out of frustration, feelings of helplessness and resentment. It is easy for us to judge others and put them in one category or another.
Let us not forget the dynamic nature of relationships. The issue is rarely the one individual; mostly the chemistry between the two. If you find yourself in conflict with someone else it may be important to ask:
  • Are there realistic or non-realistic elements of the conflict?
  • What may you have done to contribute to the conflict?
  • Has the conflict served to foster creativity, lateral thinking and a break from complacent thinking? (some of the benefits of conflict) and at what cost has this come?
  • What choices have you made along the way? What ‘moments of truth’ have you faced and how did you deal with them?

A Case Study 
Let’s explore a simple case. Judy reports to Mary. Mary has been asked to lead a department where the group norm of behaviour and acceptable performance is low. At times she recognises that she should tread softly in her first few months and use observation to guide and validate her instincts. On the other hand she has a clear mandate to make her people accountable and improve performance. As far as Mary is concerned, in her early assessment, Judy is under-performing so Mary begins to performance manage her.

Mary’s enthusiasm to turn her new team around and Judy’s power base make Judy an obvious subject for performance management. “If I fix Judy”, says Mary to herself, I can fix anyone!”

Judy doesn’t like the scrutiny she is receiving after being managed so loosely in the past. She has spoken with many people about her dislike of her new manager. She claims that Mary resents her because she is popular and experienced and wants to scapegoat someone because Mary is under pressure to turn the department around after the previous manager wimped out on team leadership (which is true).

Mary is becoming furious at the number of stories she is hearing from others about Judy’s criticism of her. Realistically, Mary has a mandate to demand better performance and to counsel her staff member. Judy has the right to be treated with respect and consistency, not used as an example and certainly not given feedback until her manager can be sure that any dissatisfaction is justified. Non-realistically, Mary is furious that Judy is talking about her behind her back and may allow that to dictate her approach. Judy is trying to galvanise support unprofessionally and does not appear to be taking responsibility for genuine concerns.

In this case both have allowed emotional baggage to get in the way of establishing a mature and productive relationship characterised by honest, assertive and non-defensive feedback from one to the other. They have made choices for which they are now both living the consequences.

It is incumbent on the manager to attempt to be objective in the assessment of performance which could result in disciplinary action and for Judy to take responsibility for that “bit” of the team performance that is hers. Mary could take a team-based approach to coaching and/or training if performance is not up to scratch and ensure she has provided clear vision, expectations, reasonable timeframes and articulated consequences to all staff before she attempts to single one out.

Two suggestions would be to:
1.    Encourage both to fight fair (not get personal, abrasive or vindictive)
2.    Own their choices and accept responsibility for exercising inappropriate options like loss of emotional control (Mary) or game playing and covert resistance (Judy).

Focus on the objective elements of conflict and be really disciplined particularly until they stabilise a safer, more respectful way of interaction. 

In so doing, both increase their chances of being able to focus on the real(istic) issues that can make the biggest difference to both.

Tuesday, July 17, 2018

Wimbledon 2018 - Cause for pause to reject old paradigms and flawed thinking

I have been fortunate enough to travel overseas for work often enough that I know my post-return jet lag profile. I tell myself "I don't do jet lag", function well all day and then lapse into unconsciousness, somewhat impractically for someone who only does around 5 hours sleep a night, at around 9pm. However this week I knew one thing would save me from boredom and frustration each morning at 2am.... Wimbledon. And this week it hit me. This grand slam dares us to reject conscious and unconscious bias around age, experience, confidence and competence and the continuum of normal/abnormal behaviour. Might Wimbledon 2018 cause us to rethink outdated, outlandish views and old paradigms?

The Role of Context.
Any debate for me on whether or not Roger Federer is the Greatest Of All Time (or "GoAT") might be both as fun and as futile as asking everyone I know who loves world football to choose between Ronaldo and Messi. I just feel lucky that I bear witness to them all playing at the same time and pushing each other to be better. If Nadal didn't play in this era too and if Djokovic had been born 20 years later and not dominated in 2015/6, there would be no discussion and Federer might have 30 slams to his name now. But context including the role of competitors or Porter's so-called "new entrants to the market" is an essential frame to include when evaluating performance, if indeed we have to indulge in the often insidious pastime of "compare and contrast" at all.

Relevant context is not just about other "players". It is also about discrete and unique skills. In this era as in many past, the serve in tennis is a tactical weapon used to scintillating effect by many players who haven't always had a lot of other tools in their arsenal. Our own Nick Kyrgios. Devastating serve. Emotional intelligence and mental toughness? Not so much. Surely the advances made in racquet technology and the speed with which said racquets can be restrung during games allowing for weather conditions and roof status etc. make comparisons with players in past decades difficult. Fifty aces in a game produce 'cheap points' and are therefore a good energy conservation strategy (particularly if your opponent doesn't return serve like Serena, Steffi (forehand) or the Joker, but lots of aces doesn't automatically predict short matches.

The Contribution of Critical Success Factors to Performance
Enter Kevin Anderson and John Isner. Their history making six-hours-plus semi final must also bear testament to the value and efficacy of conditioning and recovery (particularly if one remembers Anderson's epic five set quarter final played two days before and against Federer). Even elite AFL footballers can cramp after 90 minutes.

Where is the metaphor here you ask? Raw talent in any field is a good start. But some will outperform others; possibly even prevail over those with more natural talent if the critical success factors that catalyse performance are in place. And these include Emotional Intelligence, hard work and discipline. The parallel? In jobs with high emotional labour, self-care is critical.

The Continuum of Situational Strengths vs Maladaptive Traits
Camera men were harsh on Nadal a few years ago. They fixated on his developing habits, tics or rituals. Commentators talked about them, bemused. Now they don't. We're more aware. More sensitive. Yes, he probably has Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder. No-one wants to be anxious. Anyone who has Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder didn't ask to be. They often know their obsessions and compulsions are irrational and possibly unhelpful, even debilitating, but they do them anyway. Last week, the cameras filmed Rafa adjusting the chairs courtside ever so slightly. He lined up his water bottles just so and of course we witnessed the pre-serve 'routines' (at least until the curfew stopped the game). There was mention made of a marathon night match earlier in the tournament and the fact that Rafa was out on the practice court at 10am the next morning. "Ah yes", said Boris Becker, "Rafa is a man of habit. He sticks to his routines." Well, except for any penalties for taking too long between points, these habits don't hurt anyone. We will all have certain routines, idiosyncrasies, superstitions, some of which are adaptive or at least we think so. Wherever I am in the world, I will force myself to go for a morning jog (their time zone) as a way of acclimatising/orienting to the time zone. For me this is functional - as long as I'm in a safe part of town and I watch for potholes.

We can all be measured on a continuum from normal and adaptive to extreme. We would have to say that at least from those we can observe Nadal's routines work for him. He doesn't skip a practice session even when a match finishes late the night before. The coverage showed a picture posted on Instagram with him sitting in an ice bath. This is part of being professional. Djokovic is 'obsessive' about diet and nutrition. Some executives ensure they read a business book a week. Some of us journal every night or exercise every morning. Some of us buy the same coffee every morning from the same hole in the wall religiously. What right do we have to frame others' behaviours as extreme because they fall outside the realm of our own paradigm? Checking the gas stove when we finish cooking or at least once before bed is probably smart, not neurotic.

The role of experience
This was the first time since 1968 that all four men's semi-finalists were over 30 years old. Now that hardly classifies as over the hill from a life expectancy point of view but it is clearly uncommon in elite tennis. Working in equal opportunity, I am acutely aware of how rampant age discrimination is in Australian workplaces. In the old days (pun intended) one was too young and wet behind the ears. Now those who suffer from stereotypically harsh views of their likely contribution are 40 upwards. This is foolish and wrong. All four of these players had completed tens of thousands of hours of practice, were experienced performing in front of large noisy crowds and could mentally draw on countless situations where they served or volleyed their way out of trouble; a timely reminder of the benefit of experience and the compound interest when experience meets talent and discipline.

And my last dedication in this regard must surely go to Serena who played on Saturday night in a bid for her 24th Grand Slam win. I can't imagine there is anything biologically that compromises a woman's ability to play at the top of her game once she's had a child. Few woman in tennis history have done so. But again experience was to meet talent, discipline and uncommon determination when Serena took the court. I hesitate to use the word "ambitious". We know from research the negative bias in men and women towards female ambition. But perhaps the media has matured in the wake of the #MeToo movement. As Serena "leans in" again to her career as an elite tennis player, I don't hear any sexist commentary voicing concern for her deprived infant child. What a relief! Like Sheryl Sandberg did, Serena probably has a lot of of support. We know they can both afford it. But to play at that level physically after a long time away takes a rare kind of dedication and ability to manage the struggle with juggle. Yes she lost the final. Rare talent, focus and ambition can't always transcend the need for match practice. That's why most exceptional leaders are better leaders now than they were in their early leadership days even if they showed promising signs.

So with my admiration for their discipline, their mental toughness, their sublime skill, my obsession with elite sport and my jetlag for company I sat up the next two nights and watched Serena, mother and GoAT. I watched Kevin Anderson to see if Kevin could transcend the likely impact of a gruelling semi-final and put up a good fight against the winner of the Joker vs Rafa match. I was comforted knowing that if I still couldn't sleep, I had the World Cup final on which to feast.

Friday, June 1, 2018

Damned If You Do and Slammed if you Won't

On my morning jog yesterday, I listened to a heartbreaking This American Life podcast entitled Damned if you Do. It poignantly portrayed the story of a Somalian refugee interned in Dadaab, Kenya who was ultimately compelled to return to war-torn Somalia because the only way to pay the debt to the store owner accumulated trying to feed her children, was to accept the $450 incentive payment to return to her country of origin. She then pushes almost all the money she's just been given through the cyclone fence at the airstrip to the sympathetic but desperate Dadaab store owner, boards a plane with two of her children for Mogadishu; the city she'd fled, again broke and imperilled.

Thankfully, in our civilised democratic country, few situations will ever compare to the type of gut-wrenching decision this mother had to make but I can't help thinking that we're living in a time where women are wrestling with their own version-lite of Damned if You Do and the sceptics, the victim shamers and the misogynists have come out to play.

Amidst this revolution to which we all bear witness, where any contemporary business publication we read is crowded with discussion about gender equity, diversity, meritocracy, the patriarchy, feminism, wage parity, targets and quotas, we see a myriad of perspectives and many are prima facie, reasonable. The truth is that there are thirty shades of context, perspective, dynamic tension and dilemma (i.e. unsolvable problems) that don't sit tidily in a box for all of us to gift wrap and present to those who would seek clarity. And indeed the more we apply reductionist theories to such intricate dilemmas, the more our positions reek of undisclosed bias.

To be brutally honest, exploring the issues around this is difficult and dangerous; open to interpretation and mischief, conscious and unconscious bias, good intention in some and underhanded yet unspoken desire to see women fail in others. And yes, some of those who wish to see women fail, are women. It's really uncomfortable to contemplate that and even more disquieting to talk about it.

A very uncomfortable truth is that a small but destructive percentage of the population at large, not complainants per se, are immoral, untruthful, jealous, vengeful. Some of them may be motivated by attention-seeking, some pathologically so. How else do we explain trolling? Some break implicit and explicit promises to privacy. Just ask AFL footballers! And some are sadly, unscrupulously opportunistic. There I said it. Remember the author who reportedly made money off vulnerable sick people by claiming to have cured herself of cancer?

Even if we acknowledge that dark underbelly of human behaviour in such a small sliver of the population, is it fair that any sexual harassment victim has to worry people will judge her through this lens? Dammed if she does. And what swift and public condemnation of anyone who doubts her or is perceived to blame her? In the recent case of EY, it appears this may have been handled poorly, but when we're dealing with perceptions, can we assume every complaint of unlawful behaviour must surely be true and every respondent surely "guilty as charged"? Sure I see some cases of staff believing they're being bullied when it's probable they're being reasonably performanced-managed. And even when we do perceive wrongdoing in sexual harassment grievances (and in my 25 years consulting in this space, often where there's smoke there's fire), how do we remain calm and objective, taking matters seriously without taking sides, coming to "The Truth" as best we can and perfecting the proportional response, including the communication around it?

A common current objection is that if the behaviour was unwelcome, why do some women take so long to complain about alleged sexual harassment? We know why. Fear of victimisation for complaining, lack of awareness that such behaviour actually constitutes sexual harassment, despairing resignation to established cultural norms are but a few. She's damned if she doesn't or if she does slowly. And let's not disregard the challenge for men subjected to unwelcome sexual attention by women. Many blokes would get elbowed in the ribs by buddies asking them what was wrong with them. The biased assumption being any sexual attention by a woman to a (straight) man must surely be welcome. 

Some women (and men) trade on their good looks and sexuality. They flirt. They accommodate. Maybe, some of us will concede grudgingly, targets merely tolerate unwelcome attention but their willingness to be 'objectified' undermines the cause and denies opportunities to those who might have earned opportunities on merit. This is a simple, oft-expressed and convenient notion. But what if the behaviour started in a "lesser" form, has continued to escalate and that what was viewed as mildly annoying, uncomfortable but tolerable has morphed into something far more intimidating and noxious? We will all have our own threshold - over which we may break... or speak. 

Here's another Catch 22. I think we're pretty well aware these days of the double standard that can operate in how women are perceived vis a vis male counterparts enacting the same behaviours. This bias isn't always vindictive yet it is heavily socialised. So is the narrow view (sometimes unconscious) still held by some that the hero leader; male, pale, stale, authoritative, above average height and looks (should I go on?) is the best version of a leader. By definition women can't be that. Many won't want to be that and is that what's needed anyway? Brad Pitt was a good Achilles but this is not Troy!

What about the ugly truth of women who kick the ladder out from under them after they climb it. Shouldn't they know better? Shouldn't they be better than that? Well I know I feel a lot better when I'm sugar free but that didn't stop me having lemon tart at lunch yesterday. While I won't condone ladder kickers, many men won't ever truly understand what it's like to be crippled by the scarcity mentality; the perception that there are still so few senior opportunities for women that the only competition they see is... another woman. And, as Sheryl Sandberg said in "Lean In" with research to prove it, it's a crime for a woman to be ambitious. And do we even have a name for the men that elbow other men out of the way for an opportunity or over inflate their abilities shamelessly to win jobs they can't really perform? No, because men are expected by the historical laws of nature and tradition to go out there and kill that bear. 

Not all men want us to fail. Some women will have wonderful male mentors and advocates. It doesn't hold those women must graciously seize their opportunities. They have the right to decide they're not prepared to make the familial sacrifices required; hence they run into "the maternal wall" or refuse to fight harder than senior men for respect and stay put ("the sticky floor") or spend their day getting concussion hitting "the glass ceiling". And even if they can transcend such barriers, they must now be on the lookout for "the glass cliff"; the hazardous possibility they've been offered the role leading a company in crisis. It may be true the company needs a radically different leader than her predecessor and she fits the bill. But if she takes the role, she's courageous at best and naive at worst. If she declines it, she's "ungracious" or plagued with fear this as the only chance she was going to get and she blew it. If she takes it and it all goes pear-shaped, does she ride out the storm, brace for the risk of a public flogging at the shareholder AGM or put the company and her reputation first by jumping before she's pushed? Damned again.

Diverse boards are statistically shown to be more successful. It doesn't automatically hold that diversity equals competence. In a world typified by long term systemic direct and indirect discrimination against women and other minorities, how do they harness the experience they have not been given the opportunity to acquire? It's not reasonable to hold women who lead troubled organisations to a different (read as harsher) standard nor let them off the hook by labelling anyone who holds them to account as automatically sexist.

Will we look back in ten years and say, in words inspired by Paul Keating that this was the bumpy, fraught, messy, ambiguous watershed moment we had to have? Yes. The circumstances by which we got to robust discussions about sexual harassment, power imbalance and even consenting workplace relationships may have been ignited by three men (Harvey Weinstein, Roy Price, Louis CK) and a baby (Joyce/Campion), but get here we did. Let's give ourselves permission, men and women alike, to navigate this confusing moment in gendered history imperfectly. What's the best we can hope for? Trying to get it right most of the time. Until when? Until such time as gender blindness, true meritocracy, work-life integration, intimate relationships protocols and boardroom diversity are as natural as breathing.