Sunday, December 24, 2017

A Reminder that Black and White aren't the Only Colours

Photo by Getty

I must admit I did a double take when I learnt the news. A part of me groaned inwardly. Was it a smart decision? Do we need the grief? Will people see the ‘frame’ or just the convenient canvas? I could hear the trashy (but clever) memes. And I could see the pain of people I know and care about and the hurt and suffering they felt when it happened to them. 

And yet St Kilda Football Club has appointed Simon Lethlean, former General Manager at the AFL to head up its football department. 

At a time when the public and the media is white hot about sexual harassment and the #metoo movement, it would be easy and negligent to confuse what Lethlean admits he did in having an illicit relationship with a junior staffer and the sordid allegations tumbling forth every week since the Harvey Weinstein scandal. I am not going to reproduce my thoughts on the initial AFL saga when it unfolded but you can read the OpEd I wrote for the Sydney Morning Herald here if you choose. 

An illicit relationship between consenting adults may be morally abhorrent to many but it will never constitute sexual harassment or worse, sexual assault.

The roots of St Kilda Football Club are in the St Kilda shoreline, the fun and the outdated tackiness of Luna Park, our spiritual home at Moorabbin to Mordialloc, the posh suburbs of Brighton and Portsea. It is home to the hipsters and the homeless, the fabled and the fallible, the suave and the second chance. The Club above all else embraces inclusion.

Human fallibility is the reason St Kilda got to interview Lethlean in the first place. Would he have stayed with the AFL for a while if not for this? Of course. Is his CV outstanding? Undoubtedly. Might he make the difference to the Club to bring us closer to that elusive second flag? Quite possibly. But that on its own for me would never have been enough to hire him.

I will never advise an organisation to turn a blind eye to conduct just because someone is a star performer. Too many boards and too many companies have obfuscated, wimped out, rationalised and even condoned below the line behaviour because the perpetrator was the CEO or the darling of the media, or the best rainmaker or someone's drinking buddy or niece. I know it happens. I wrote a book on it.  But St Kilda Football Club is not a "vulture culture", not with Matt Finnis as the CEO or with Peter Summers as its President. And I'm saying that as someone who has had the privilege to get to know them both over the past three years. If Lethlean has learnt from his actions; if others much closer to him than you or I have had the capacity to forgive, might we do the same?

Gillon McLachlan hoped Lethlean would find a home again in football. It's widely publicised they are friends. Yet Gillon, whom I respect a lot, accepted Lethlean's resignation. Because life is not just black and white. It's not as simple as: “You're either with me or against me”; “I'm your friend so I can't be your boss and the custodian of culture.

Finnis has said the Club's brand is now strong enough to withstand the scrutiny and the inevitable questions and pushback. Yet any club is one tweet or one drunken night away from ignominious scandal. He knows it. We know it. St Kilda Footy Club has both brought it on itself in days past and suffered for it through no fault of its own.

Life is complicated. Some decisions are complex. My colours outside work are black and white...and red. And the red is for heart - hearts filled with empathy, compassion, forgiveness and acceptance. With the highest engagement of any AFL club despite our paucity of on field success to date, I trust the Club to have crafted a message that is authentic, balanced, sensitive and honest about the decision to hire a flawed yet competent new Executive. Having just been granted our licence to launch St Kilda's team in the AFL Women's League, the women who play for us and those who follow us with such enduring passion and loyalty deserve nothing less.

Saturday, December 2, 2017

When looking on the bright side ain't so bright

There is no doubt we all can be placed on a continuum of optimistic to pessimistic. That is not to say we will have the same predictable reaction to everything, but we may tend to lean one way, to the middle or to the other. Some people have a voracious change appetite that manifests as a genuine restlessness to be doing new things and challenging themselves often. Others of us, if given a choice, might prefer things stay largely the same. If we keep going back to the same coastal holiday destination year after year, that may be an indication of a preference for low risk and for familiarity (and predictably good times). If we’ve made a vow we will never visit the same place twice, our mindset is probably somewhat different. 

In her book, The Positive Power of Negative Thinking (2001), author and psychology professor, Julie K. Norem argues that rather than thinking positively, defensive pessimistic strategies can help people to effectively manage their anxiety so that it can work for rather than against them. For example, how many times have you been left feeling more anxious and infuriated after hearing the phrase "look on the bright side" from a family member or a friend who meant well? Norem's research found it wasn't that people were able to do well despite their pessimism but rather that it was the pessimism that allowed people to do well. They were able to turn anxious thoughts into action and thus optimise their performance.

A change announcement may be made to a number of people and it may end up affecting all of them from a structural point of view in the same or similar way. That does not mean they will all react or respond to the change in the same way. The perceived quality and number of options open to us can make us feel very constrained, even vulnerable or secure in the knowledge that we’re holding some attractive cards. It is unlikely we will feel good about the change, particularly imposed change, if we feel what is being offered to us is a choice between bad or disastrous or worse and "worser"! Based on the impacted person’s understanding of the change, how well does it seem to match the hopes, skills, interest and passions of the person undergoing the change? In other words, how attractive/comfortable is the change likely to be and how well can the person see him/herself flourishing and enjoying the fruits of the change?

"VUCA" (Volatile, Uncertain, Complex and Ambiguous) is an acronym first used in the US military in the 1990’s to describe the general conditions and situations of the armed forces. As a metaphor, it reasonably depicts the fluid environment and the changes that employees are asked to embrace. In view of the above, we might be facing a challenging re-structure at work, the job requirements of our role have expanded and become more onerous than anticipated or a new CEO has taken over the company and we may need to bounce back, demonstrate mental toughness and manage our own 'state' particularly when under stress to increase our competence and confidence to flourish post change.

American author and organisational consultant, William Bridges, postulated that whether or not change is self-initiated or imposed, we do experience loss even if that loss is only the 'old way of doing things'. He says that it is unlikely we can envisage every possible consequence of the change, even when we initiate it and and therefore we might need a period to adjust or adapt. An analogy for a mild change is the excitement of learning that we were successful in our application for a new job. The success of the application marks an "ending" to whatever we were doing before. Initial elation can sometimes give way to some nerves about how we will fit in, whether or not we oversold ourselves at interview and could find the role too challenging, whether or not it was the right decision to leave the current company we were working for and how much adjusting we will have to do to feel comfortable in a new work environment. Many of those anxieties will prove to be ill-founded but that won’t necessarily stop us from fretting about them until the large “realm of unknown” shrinks and is replaced by a larger "realm of what’s known".

Defensive Pessimists spend a lot of time and energy investing in the possibility of how things might go wrong. Our anxiety is fundamentally fuelled by the discomfort in uncertainty and loss of control. Therefore, if we can convince ourselves of the likelihood of future good outcomes occurring we can a) reduce our feelings of anticipation and fear of the unknown, without ignoring or denying them happening or b) we are able cope better with change if the worst possible outcome we imagined, occurred. The key here being that we feel more in control. By mentally preparing for disasters or setbacks to occur we are more prepared to plan and respond quicker in case things don't go as planned.

Norman went to her son's pre-school and as part of career day was asked to explain to a class of five-year olds what her job was.

"I gave them smiley-face or frowning-face stickers and told them a series of short stories describing various situations such as 'It is a cloudy day and Mary is going to the park. What do you think will happen?"

For each example, the children were instructed to put a frowning face or a smiling face sticker on their paper and at the end counted up the number of each sticker they had.

"We talked about what it meant that some kids had more smiling stickers and some had more frowning stickers. The children were able to explain to me, as one boy did, that 'it can be good to remember that it might rain, because then you will take your raincoat and boots, and you can stay outside and play. This makes Mary feel better about the clouds'".

This is a perfect, yet simple example, of a circumstance where it is effective to call on defensive pessimism. However these are some tips to consider:
· Is my reaction to the change proportional to what’s actually happened? Am I allowing myself a 10/10 reaction to a 3/10 stressor? Can I intentionally bring myself down to something more proportional?
· Is the thing that I fear (really) likely to happen? Am I worrying for nothing? Am I worrying excessively?  
· What are my Primary Driving Forces? Do I really want what I say I want? Is someone else telling me this should matter to me?
· Am I dwelling on the past (which I can’t change) or worrying about the future and robbing myself of joy in the here and now? 

If our self-efficacy is high, we will be less likely daunted by unexpected events and imposed change. If our self-efficacy is low, we are more likely to be dubious about our ability to cope and may worry more than is necessary for longer than is necessary. It is important at times to turn up the volume of the voices in our heads and work out which ones need to be silenced and when… (because they can be really unhelpful).

If you've recently coped with a difficult change, we'd would love to hear from you about your thoughts and strategies.

Saturday, October 7, 2017

Organisational Psychologists – Staying Relevant

OK, we may be domiciled within an HR department, labelled with varied nomenclature from Personnel Services to Employee Relations, People and Culture to Organisational Capability. Each label will presumably reflect the orientations of that organisation. The titles aside, whether or not the heads of our Business Units, Divisions or Branches sit on the organisation’s senior leadership team will say a lot about how these functions are viewed (read, valued) in our organisation. Put it this way, if I may generalise, (and it could be argued that psychologists are paid to do that!) I have not met many fulfilled and efficacious psychologists reporting through the Finance stream.

If one considers some of the hot issues occupying the hearts and minds of Australian executives including operational excellence, corporate governance, values and culture, talent retention, ageing workforce, workplace bullying, intergenerational conflict, accelerating change in increasingly “raplex” (complex and rapidly changing) environments (Lindgren and Bandhold 2003), then, the relevance of organisational psychology is at an all time high. We have expanded our repertoire from the days of screening elite combat soldiers to minimise the likelihood of “choking” or succumbing to PTSD following combat duty (not that there’s anything wrong with screening for that!). 

However how many hats do we need to wear in a day and how much do we need to know and know how to do to make a difference to the organisations that employ us or in the case of independent consultants like me, invite us to partner their business? The key to our potency, indicated by the trust and reliance placed upon us by organisations, is to stay relevant.

What are some of the issues that confront companies and fall within our expertise?

The profile of workplace bullying is at an unprecedented high. Since the publication of the Guidance Note on eliminating workplace bullying by WorkSafe Victoria (2003) and parallel work in NSW, attention has been drawn to OH&S that goes to psychological and emotional health in a way not seen before. The difference is in the focus on workplace stress (e.g. toxic culture), vs occupational stress (armed services, air traffic controllers etc).

However, not all issues around workplace behaviour have a safety flavour to them. EEO is principally about ensuring the Aussie fair go and critical employment decisions that are made on the merit principle. Oft cited statistics like the low percentage of women at board level in this country appear to testify to the fact that women are hardly taking over the country, much less the world and yet some women will cite the "sticky floor" rather than the glass ceiling as their reason for staying at their current level. Organisational and industrial psychologists involved in Equity and Diversity and dealing with the entire culture piece must push workplace flexibility, help ensure workplace justice, and robust recruitment and selection practices to provide role models and an aura of confidence for any person of minority group status who must believe they will be supported if they take on more responsibility. EEO and workplace flexibility can no longer be seen as women’s issues and selling these types of arguments require real nous in the area of strategic influence. Be that as it may, why are workplace justice issues within our domain? Because they are far less about “how to” and much more about “want to”; often requiring attitudinal shift.

Some of those in our profession are heavily involved in psychometric testing. We defend testing and executive coaching on an almost daily basis (see Berglas, 2002). Only yesterday a sales manager in a manufacturing company told me he thought they were “all a load of cr-p” (he may have received recent feedback on lower than average EI). I found myself gently explaining the importance of selecting tests that were rigorously researched and well chosen for what was being measured, that the administration had to be “flawlessly executed” (Spanyi, 2004) and feedback handled professionally and empathically for them to be effective and well received. Who had actually managed this conversation previously with that very passionate individual? What gave rise to the prickliness and in what way is our profession served when a strenuous pronouncement such has his was delivered by a senior manager in front of 20 others? Rather than point the finger, however, I believe that we should not fall into being apologist or confrontational in pushing our worth. We should continue to add, no create, value for clients such that they find our expertise compelling if not irresistible.

Dr. Tony Grant (2004) in his excellent article in this publication cited the importance of applying theoretical and applied tenets of psychology to this form of positive psychology at work but says as I do that we must actively engage the marketplace, promoting and applying our strengths (whilst being ever conscious of our weaknesses). In the cool light of day I challenge the average senior executive to bother with the fine print on the reliability and validity of any particular instrument or the published findings in a prestigious journal on the efficacy of coaching in the non-clinical population.

They want results and will rely on word of mouth and a good reputation ahead of a Masters degree in organisational or clinical psychology (would they even know the difference?!). To continue to argue that we do it better, we have more training and that the others could be life coaches today and financial controllers last week (true story!) can so easily be misinterpreted as elitist, self serving or arrogant when we know that we are arguing persuasively, intelligently and logically. It is appropriate to have those discussions en masse and in print but for the individual psychologist it can sound self serving, and even less sexy than that, sour grapes and desperate.

We hear and read clichés about the ageing population and changing demographics in the Australian workforce. How active are we professionally in trying to hold on to older workers, retrain those who through no fault of their own have become square pegs in round holes due to technologisation and process re engineering? It is not just the humane thing to do. We will need older experienced workers over the next decades and we seem to be heading for an acute shortage (C’wlth Gov’t, 2003). Yes, people will live longer with better quality of life, but we are having fewer babies and fewer people are having them. Added to this is the fact that Aussies still seem to want to retire earlier than most other world populations.

Parker (2004) claims that in Australia only 49% of people between the ages of 55-64 are in the workforce compared with 59% in the US and even higher percentages in New Zealand and Scandinavia. In what way is organisational psychology then dealing with the phenomenon of malcontent older workers who stay because they haven’t enough Super but feel undervalued and less relevant? How many poorly executed change programs and restructures have they endured? What are we doing to engage them while younger people around them have written them off? In reverse, how do we instil greater appreciation by the Boomers for the focussed self confident X’ers/Y's many of whom are seen by older workers doing the Shannon Noll (What about me?) but sparking insecurity in older workers nevertheless.

I have not even touched on the myriad of psychosocial and familial issues that are brought to work by employees every day and therefore impact the fabric of working life. Whilst we are more likely in a work context to be talking coaching not counselling, facilitation rather than therapy, relationship breakdowns, the challenge of work/life balance, worries about children, dealing with illness, depression and death has not waned. Employees will expect and have the right to receive empathy understanding and tangible idiosyncratic accommodations to suit their personal situations. Those who choose not to have children and that stands now at just under a third of the female population will still wish to attain work/life balance. Those who find themselves circumstantially single and/or without children may want or need support. In an employees’ market which is what we will have for decades, they will leave physically or emotionally if the organisation cannot accede to their demand for flexibility in where, who and how work gets done.

What competencies do we need? 

If we want to be in the ear of CEO’s we have to talk their language. We have to help them make connections between the people stuff and the bottom line. However if we want respect and potency among shop floor workers too, we must be able to flex our style and delivery, be empathic, non judgmental, even jocular and refuse to take ourselves too seriously. Our ability to help is only as good as their willingness to open up about the needs, challenges, insecurities, weaknesses with which they have to contend. This is absolutely critical if some of our key result areas lie in talent retention, occupational or workplace stress, or even brand management where the perception of the company in the marketplace is one of our most important intangible assets or liabilities.

Above all else, we must practise what we preach in any aspiring learning organisation, identify our mental models, strive for personal mastery - which is not an end point according to Senge (1992) - but an intrinsic hunger for growth. We need to be blindingly self aware, have, in the words of my new favourite tennis commentator Jim Courier “ridiculous” (i.e. great) interpersonal skills, a learning appetite, core competence (i.e. a genuine expertise) and a strategic focus where our work constantly stands up to scrutiny for its alignment with business goals.

Whilst maintaining an ever-present eye on the ball we must continue to scan the horizon i.e. exhibit forward thinking. This is not just critical for our profession (it has been argued we were caught napping on the rise of coaching, as an example) but also to assist our organisations, indeed our communities and countries to thrive. For those of us involved in diagnostic and analytical work about the current state of play, how much of our reporting is about “what was?” and “what is?” and how much of the emphasis is on asking “So What?!”

Is our professional reading all in psychology or do we read The Economist and other business magazines? Is our professional development mostly technical or specialist or do we opt for stretch. For those of us who facilitate in our roles, how often might our organisation source an external facilitator because the perception is that we don’t understand the business well enough and/or that we will not be prepared to confront them to enhance the quality and breadth of their thinking? 

I believe our biggest contribution lies in culture and its alignment with strategic imperatives. By implication this requires holistic interventions and solutions. However it is not easy to shift a bullying culture, for example, as some of the worst perpetrators are senior managers, exploiting the power imbalance that exists between them and others. Again using bullying as an example, destructive behaviour that is perpetrated, condoned, reinforced, or worse still rewarded, creates undesirable norms in an organisation. These not only promulgate WorkCover claims, lost time injuries and occupational stress, but threaten “brand”, employer of choice status, breed cynicism and mistrust and serve to alienate valued employees who may simply vote with their feet therefore impacting retention of talent. Dr. Robert Hare, author of Without Conscience; the disturbing world of the psychopaths among us (1999) argues that bullies in suits or corporate sociopaths “tend to rise to the top – like sour cream”.

As organisational and industrial psychologists we can be integral to establishing group norms of behaviour that marginalise such antics unless of course the sociopath has sacked us first. Adherence to protocols including spending or trading “limits”, susceptibility to corruption or fraud are all related to the norms that exist around ethics and integrity. If ethical behaviour is part of the fabric of the organisation, lived breathed and practised fervently as a “corporate religion” (Kunde, 2000), it is very unlikely that widespread corruption or governance violations will get a foothold. Some would-be transgressors will conform to the critical mass and others will be exposed by whistleblowers who feel strong enough and safe enough to transcend our Aussie anti-dobbing culture. Whilst organisational leadership will make the biggest difference to what we stand for, whom more than those in our profession should be the custodians of the collective psyche and enablers of 'discretionary effort' (Evans 2000). But we’re impotent if no one listens which is why I would stress the importance of finely crafted influence skills. We have every reason to be proud of the little miracles we perform, humbled by those who take us into their confidence and every justification to be self-assured about the discipline, professionalism, empirical grounding and the empathy we can bring to organisations we touch, but if a consultant is only as good as their last job then we are only as effective as our workplace culture, our sphere of influence, our credibility and our clients would suggest.

Wednesday, September 20, 2017

Struggling with Juggling

Is there any more that could be written on work/life balance that hasn’t already been said? Probably not a lot and yet some of us need to hear things 9 times (according to McKinsey disciples) for things to sink in.

At worst the whole balancing act thing is just that – an act. We may appear to be coping but we’re not and in any case, does it really matter? What is it that we are meant to be balancing?

Balance, I believe, like happiness, is a journey, not a destination; yet might balance include the same components for everyone? If you inherited millions, retired young or live exclusively off investment income, then physical hours at work, office politics, work/life balance are an irrelevance. So balance, while not necessarily elusive, will mean different things to different people.

Tell Tale Signs of a Life Unbalanced 

How might we know life is unbalanced? Do we care? Is it always our fault? A couple of notable symptoms of a lack of balance are stress and guilt. When I coach or train people who say they are struggling with juggling, some common clues about imbalance emerge. That strong feeling of disequilibrium comes about when they’re:

1. Not doing what they want to be doing when they want to be doing it e.g. working or flying when they wanted to be parenting; and

2. They may have gone to some lengths to plan for work/life balance and then life came along and trashed their plans!

What do people seem to want to balance – traditionally the holistic picture includes self, family, work, community, recreation, exercise, social and spiritual dimensions. The discourse on struggle with work/life balance usually centres around work and family so the short answer seems to be – hope to win Tattslotto or don’t have one, not tatts ticket. For many of us that’s unacceptable or far too late (I have four children!)

Volunteerism we’re told is on the wane. With everyone too busy trying to strike balance, who’s got time to do anything for free? Recreation and exercise seem important because if we’re unfit, ill or die too early, we can’t keep tormenting ourselves about lack of balance in our lives. And what of spirituality? This is Australia. We are a sunburnt country, a land of sweeping plains. We are girt by sea and drunk by lunchtime and off on a long weekend if given half a chance.

Yet statistics on recovery from serious illness in those who live by a spiritual framework (whether mainstream religion or otherwise) are compelling. Often other dimensions are neglected because, we say, we’re too busy working and yet depressing statistics about the mortality rate amongst recently retired men abound so work must be good for us. Let’s work harder....huh? However, if work gets in the way of the other dimensions, then work has to provide more than just an income or we should spend less time there. If work is meaningful and energising, then it shouldn’t be a source of stress. Ask yourself: Does your work give you meaning? Does it nourish you? If it doesn’t then you’d better have some really pragmatic reasons for being there and then be prepared to find other things that do nourish and satisfy you.

The Givens for Balance

The 3 L’s - Leisure, Laughter and “L'exercise” are critical. Do you have the scope to flex based on other shifting priorities? Even if work is meaningful it can carry a lot of responsibility. Do you have someone to bounce off, adequate opportunity to off load or decompress when responsibility becomes burden. Can you sometimes say “Enough is Enough” and then act on that sentiment?

Ask people why they do volunteer, pro bono or charity work? One meets the occasional power tripper but essentially it’s because that type of enterprise makes us feel good and allows us to balance the material with the communal. Refusing to find the time is not only denying others of our talents and caring, but us of self-worth.

What about obligations at home? I have never read a headline that said someone died from changing too many beds or ironing too many business shirts. However frustration, resentment and a shaky identity borne out of inequitable distribution of unpaid work around the home are much more likely to cause problems, particularly to relationships. That is, it’s not the work itself but how it makes us feel about ourselves and others. Therefore communication with important others and judicious outsourcing, if affordable, seem to be reasonable responses.

What Might be Some Other Strategies? 

1. Reality test your irrational beliefs about the world and the people in it.

Do you suffer from perfection-itis? Ironically the more we talk about work/life balance the more we create the impression that balance is attainable and sustainable, that others are doing it, so what’s wrong with us. More stress, more guilt. Is it the case that every time we invite someone over, there has to be a feast, that when we go out, our kids can never play up? I think we have to give ourselves permission to feel bad, resentful, tired and hurt sometimes and express these same emotions that we would not want people close to us to bottle up. We also have to learn, that we are not being bad parents, slack workers or uncommitted members of the community if we spend some time replenishing ourselves.

2. Recognise that the way we live our lives is mostly a matter of the choices we have made (at least in our lucky country).

At times the choice may seem to be the lesser of two evils but it is still a choice. We are more empowered when we recognise that we are charting our own destiny, and with all those pressures on us to be perfect, it’s worth remembering that we, still do, for the most part, a pretty wonderful job. We will feel bad when bad things happen or we get it wrong but the trick is not to feel any worse than is necessary for any longer than is necessary. If the guilt and or the anxiety is debilitating then it’s time to re-evaluate.

3. Live to your values; be authentic and focus on your personal best and not on what everyone else is doing. The constant "compare and contrast" is a debilitating illness. 

4. Assert yourself about the things that are really important. Don’t bottle up the things that eat away at you and don’t forego your own needs unreasonably all the time. Remember that asking for what you want increases the chances of getting it!

5. Remember the 3 L’s – leisure, laughter and l'exercise. And if exercise isn’t fun find some that is or do it anyway.

6. Get a coach, a journal, a mentor, a therapist, anyone qualified! To strike equilibrium, we need to know ourselves and why we do what we do (particularly when it comes to counterproductive or self-defeating behaviours).

7. Let’s remember to count our blessings.

Let’s not wait for tragedy to realise how lucky we were. Today, the anniversary of September 11 is a timely reminder. What would many of us say we want - “World Peace”. However that may take a little longer so perhaps while we’re waiting or even better doing something about that, we can work on our own “Inner Peace”.