Wednesday, September 12, 2018

Beware razzle-dazzle mumbo-jumbo neuro-speak bearing promises of awesome

Image by Shutterstock 

An email hit my mailbox this morning promoting a leadership coaching program. The content looked good. I didn't know the presenters and the flyer said nothing of their backgrounds which immediately aroused my suspicions. 

Firstly I wondered if I was about to click on a virus-infested spam email. 

Secondly I noted the course was in St Louis Missouri and would have given me a total of 1.5 hours of PD so I decided I'd leave that for another time!

After fact checking the names on google, I clicked on the hyperlink to their website.

Richard (Rik) Nemanik has a doctorate in organisational psychology from St Louis University, has served on numerous boards and consulted since 1996. Robert (Bob) Grace PhD is an industrial and organisational psychologist consulting since 1990. If Fortune 500 companies trust them and that's what they've done, that's qualified and experienced enough for me to have invested 1.5 hours, notwithstanding the travel. 

Contrast that with "Mary", then financial controller for a large iconic sporting organisation - whose Executive I was coaching - who had negotiated an exit package as she had come to accept she wasn't performing well enough in the job and would be leaving three weeks later. I asked her in a coffee break if she had any plans. 

"Yeah, I exercise a lot. I'm a runner you see. I've read a few books. I'm going to be a life coach," she said brightly. 

I'm not going to weigh into the Adelaide Football Club saga to say that Collective Minds did any damage. I don't know. I can't determine if Adelaide under-performed this year relative to its potential because of a training camp eight months ago. I would ask Aboriginal colleagues if anything done may have been offensive to their culture long before I would comment on it myself as I would never speak for them. I do know as a consultant that would most certainly have been a lucrative job if it involved 25 facilitators and the fact that reportedly none of them were psychologists is hugely concerning. But unlike some Twitter followers, I don’t see how we can blame the AFL. I don't blame the players for fulfilling their contracts. I don't "blame" anyone for mal-intent. I understand more than ever before, football has become a game of one percenters. Everyone is looking for an edge but organisations do have a duty of care and at the risk of sounding like a pompous snob, any team development work requires decision makers to do their due diligence and to admit to not always knowing what they don't know. 

The truth is anyone can call themselves a life coach. A counsellor. A coach. A high performance coach. Even a therapist. I have colleagues in my network who are exceptional coaches with very impressive coaching accreditation, but they're not psychologists. And they get amazing results. I often recommend a counsellor friend to people who has decades of experience working with gifted children. Her first qualification was in occupational therapy and her specialisation grew from there. I know business coaches who have failed and succeeded many times over and do a good job as the "been there, done that" coach but they need to be careful they are not being depended on to provide support around psychosocial stresses while the person is setting up their business or gearing up to float on the stock exchange (the company, not them). Some former players coach top ten tennis players but they weren't top ten players. I think Peggy O'Neal is an outstanding CEO of Richmond FC and came here from the US 24 years ago so she knows and loves our game as well as most, but she's their most senior administrator and doesn't tout herself as a future senior football coach. Some former elite footballers have made lousy coaches... some even sacked themselves they were that bad. (Don't get me started). 

Just like psychometric tests, facilitators have to be fit for purpose. But anyone looking for an edge, suffering from "bright shiny object" syndrome, unduly dazzled by psycho-babble terms that you can't find in any credible books, neuro-speak because it sounds scientific and intellectual or those who've read a few books by Martin Seligman or Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi in positive psychology and are positive that means they can run good courses in it, are potentially ineffectual and "expensive" at best and irresponsible, even dangerous, at worst. 

One of the hidden and much less talked about negative impacts is the sense of guilt, shame and inadequacy people can be made to feel when the positive quotes they get online every day and the friends who tell them to "Just think positive!" are not only not working, but make them feel useless and inadequate. Or those who reach for drink, drugs or food to self-medicate because they can't just flip their thinking from awful to awesome, from catastrophic to calm.

I remember well 25 years ago driving to a country conference venue the night before a day I was scheduled to run for my bank. The group was already there and an evening "team game" had been planned (the blue/red game for those who know it). Remember, I wasn't even technically meant to be there yet and was standing in the corner winding down from a long drive and sipping on a wine. But after several teams lied to and attempted to cheat each other through this "light hearted and interactive after dinner team activity", the trainer looked at me in panic and said: "This has got way out of hand. You're a psychologist. You take over." He literally shoved me into the centre of the room to lead the debrief. 

Some questions to ask in making decisions about high risk, high value interventions:

1. What is our driving intent and the specific objectives we wish to achieve in embarking on this professional development for individuals or teams?

2. How will we choose between the myriad of options that might help us achieve that intent and objectives? What are our decision criteria? Are they valid

3. What do we know about the people who would design and facilitate the intervention? Qualifications/Experience? Clients? Testimonials (always verbal)

4. Do we have enough internal expertise to even understand the jargon, outcomes, activities, psychobabble they're spouting or are we being dazzled by mumbo jumbo? 

5. What are all the inherent risks against payoffs? Physical risks (e.g. prior to a footy season?) Psychological risks? Cultural risks including religious? Are we going to demand that someone kosher eats yabbies from a swamp or else they're not being a team player? Or allow the most senior person there to skip the safety demonstration because they were taking an important call and see them dangling out of their carabiner harness half way down the cliff face (true story!) 

6. What boundaries and opt-out policies do we have? To what extent could peer group pressure drive unsafe, attention-seeking behaviour or have people push beyond their limits with lingering effects? 

7. Is there a sound performance-based or resilience-based reason to do any activity or is it gimmicky i.e. not aligned with strategic intent? 

8. What if any concurrent stresses are people suffering (that we know about). Is it even reasonable to make such physical or emotional imposts on people? In a work situation is it even reasonable to ask people to stay away from home for five nights with young families or anxiety issues or anything else that's relevant to that 

9. Might someone we know and trust look at this plan with "fresh eyes" and be assertive enough to challenge certain ideas or activities? "Group think" is not our friend when playing for high stakes. 

10. Finally, do we have the skills to deal in real time with anyone who is triggered, distressed or behaves in unforeseen ways even if it was well thought out and the variable impossible to control with 100% certainty is people in high stress situations? Do we have the personnel with qualifications and experience to deal with anything that happens with skill and empathy whilst preserving dignity and maximising confidentiality. 

Monday, August 27, 2018

Julie Bishop: Gracious and 'glass-cliffed'?

One of my close friends is a former judge for the Children's Book Council of Australia and she once went off at me once for using the verb "incentivise". She won't be happy that I have turned the relatively new notion of "glass cliff" into an adverb. But how did Julie Bishop, a woman described by so many people on all sides of politics as the best foreign minister we've ever had; hugely popular, smart as all get up, gracious, loyal, collaborative and strong enough to own her choice to stand up for what she will and won't tolerate without sweating the small stuff, get up this morning, go for a run and take a seat on the back bench?

Without this commentary necessarily reflecting my own political leanings, she epitomises the balance of progression without aggression. A woman, comfortable in her own skin with nothing more to prove than her desire to do a great job and work hard to do it. She has all the hallmarks of sublime emotional intelligence, particularly 'state' management (even if she can't help looking drawn). We know she is highly intelligent and sees the big picture which is imperative in foreign affairs. She didn't stab anyone in the back and portrays high self-belief like a Serena or any other elite athlete must without the egoistic shenanigans and spite that seemingly dogs all sides of politics because someone took their bat away and they couldn't play cricket anymore. Life is too short for grudges and I doubt she will hold them. 

Julie Bishop has reportedly actively resisted previous invitations to vie for the leadership. Why now? Did she think she had the best chance to beat Mr Shorten? Judging by today's reaction poll and previous ones, she surely did. Did she finally yield to pressure to put her hat in the ring to save the party from a flogging at the next election and the potential for 4-8 years in the political wilderness? Maybe. In the context of timeout and #MeToo, was there ever a better time for Australia to proclaim their preparedness for another woman as PM? Might we get it right this time? We've already talked about her designer suits and her brooches. She doesn't have Michaela Cash's hairdo and we don't seem to find a contorted face photo to plaster all over digital media. People commented on Julia Gillard's weight and ill-fitting suits. Could we have treated her by a worse double standard? Yes, there's always death threats.

The latest scuttlebutt this morning is that some of Julia Bishop's colleagues didn't vote for her because they were worried she couldn't defeat Mr Dutton. Why did they harbour such fears? We learnt about the tone of some of his emails when he sent one to the woman he was 'flaming'. Julie Bishop loves social media but has she ever made such an electronic faux pas? We know about some of Mr. Dutton's personal views when he thought the microphone was off. Whilst admirable as a former policeman, he is as unsociable and non-relatable as Ms Bishop is personable.

We know about the glass ceiling but the glass cliff? Waiting until a situation is so fraught, so risky, so desperate that we think we might as well give a woman the job. Coz, like, it couldn't get much worse. The most cynical manifestation of the phenomenon, actually documented in contemporary research is that if she ends up doing a creditable job in a most difficult context, then great, but if it ends up an epic fail and she falls off or gets pushed off that cliff, no man was harmed in the making of that disaster. Less cynical is the school of thought that says we got to a bad place because certain men messed up so is it time for someone new and fresh? For different thinking, diversity, for a deal maker, for a strategic influencer par excellence maybe? So whether or not, "they" urged her to nominate or she decided to offer a viable alternative to the perceived "insurgents", her numbers belie her public standing and her grace.

Like Malcolm Turnbull she has a strong BATNA (Best Alternative to a Negotiated Agreement). In negotiation theory, our position is strengthened if we have standby options that are attractive in the event agreement can't be struck. To me, Mr. Turnbull's almost breezy, relaxed performance in his outgoing press conference (AFR subscribers, check my comments here) demonstrates a man with choices. Financial freedom (earned, not given), a rich family life outside politics including a seemingly beautiful marriage. A man who proved his capacity before he got there and will have that after he leaves. So too, Julie Bishop had a distinguished legal career. She's had to face up to the grind, the pressure and the scrutiny of two decades in politics. As foreign minister she had, by her own admission, the best job in the world and in the spirit of some our best footballers, has gone out on her terms before playing on with injuries clouded the impact she had on "the game". It probably didn't occur to the new PM or other cabinet members that the ultimate fallout of this epic saga would be losing one of their best assets.

I imagine Julie Bishop will take some time to think. She will balance emotional and logical factors in her decision - another hallmark of high emotional intelligence. She will most likely write a book. She'll join a speaker's bureau and field numerous requests to chair ASX200 company boards. Perhaps she'll take a role with the United Nations or become a future Federal Human Rights Commissioner or both. While all the events of the past week have been quite fascinating to this organisational psychologist, I can't help but feel sad. Talent in every corner of politics only makes everyone else better. Look at what equalisation has done for AFL football.

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.