Tuesday, February 28, 2017

Ode to the Oscars: The agonising dilemma of merit and morality

It would be a rare thing indeed for me to be immersing myself in Hollywood pop culture, glitz and glamour on a work day or truthfully, any day really.

But this is no ordinary day. It’s the Oscar’s and it’s no ordinary Oscar’s day. The 6,687 voters of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences have had to make the same agonising decision that senior executives with help from their HR friends have to make constantly about their “performers and artists” – how to resolve the exquisite and agonising tension between pure merit, in this case directing or acting ability and conduct… Conduct known or alleged, public or settled confidentially before or after a hearing, public testimony or a story by an intrepid investigative journalist. Three Oscar nominees have a cloud over them – Casey Affleck (Manchester by the Sea) for sexual harassment allegations, Nate Parker (The Birth of a Nation) for allegations of rape when in College and Mel Gibson (directing Hacksaw Ridge) for that DUI- related anti-Semitic rant.

We see these decisions being made in sport, in workplaces, in life. We see them debated in the media, in the pub and around the lounge room table.

Wayne Carey became persona non grata at North Melbourne after his extra marital indiscretions. One interviewed footballer put it succinctly: “The one thing you don’t do in football is sleep with another man’s wife… and especially if it’s your mate’s”. And later, horrifically, Carey ‘glassed’ his girlfriend. We were shocked. We were outraged. And then I waited. I waited and I counted…. Days turned into months, and months to years for the announcement I felt sure would come. Wayne “The King” Carey would be doing special comments for the football call on radio that afternoon. While I’m sure the station got some blowback, he became a regular. And then he and a television station executive put their toes into TV water to gauge public reaction… and sometime later, well, the rest is history.

The most embarrassing thing Shane Warne has done in a while is to state publicly that Steve O’Keefe shouldn’t be called up for the Australian test against India and the young bowler took 12 wickets in the test that finished yesterday. But arguably one of, if not the finest spin bowlers to ever play the game, S.K. Warne,  our loveable, irreverent, baked bean eating larrikin always got to bat on (forgive the weak pun). He made numerous errors of judgment including accepting money from a bookmaker for information about pitch conditions and many would have found his serial ‘sexting’ and rumoured infidelity abhorrent - but it was never fatal (putting aside the fact that Ricky Ponting, five years his junior, was elevated to captain of the Australian team ahead of him).  

Nike stuck by Lance Armstrong interminably and renowned for being loyal and tolerant with their most edgy bankable stars, only after the damning USADA report, did Nike pull the pin in October 2012. That’s when the other sponsors left him, with skid marks on the pavement and this became Armstrong’s infamous “75 million dollar day” in lost future earnings as he confessed to Oprah.  

Mark McInnes left David Jones in disgrace after allegations of sexual harassment we are unlikely to forget. His complainant, Kristy Fraser-Kirk now works overseas. McInnes presumably sat living off his bank account for around a year and then took up the plum position with Premier Investments and their stocks rose, considerably. Because he would seem to be a genuinely high performing CEO.   

Is there a crime that’s unforgiveable? And what is it?

How long in the wilderness is long enough?

How do we balance the desire to give someone a second chance when what they did is so bad that they don’t deserve one? Or that at least a majority of those making the decision think does not deserve one.

Is making a decision based purely on merit our highest form of morality?

How does this moral dilemma cause heartaches and sweaty palms at work?  Examples?

· The sexually harassing lawyer who brings a million dollars in annual billings to the firm.

· The underperformer being carried by others because he/she is mates with or the cousin of a senior executive and it would be career limiting to highlight their deficiencies.

· The workplace bully who doesn’t need to be liked and isn’t out to make friends who pulls off the most miraculous deal for the company or makes brutal, even necessary decisions to shed staff in bloated departments; saving the company millions.

Even more vexed is the board that might be almost unanimous in its belief someone has to go, except that the Chair doesn’t agree and the offender stays on…. And how much more likely might that be if the offender is a top performer?

And so here we are with the red carpet having been rolled out and two hours to Jimmy Kimmel’s opening stand-up routine. I no longer care what he does and doesn’t decide to say about Mr. Trump. I’m much more interested in what the voting Academy will say about Mel Gibson’s anti-Semitic slurs or the charges of rape made against Nate Parker when he was in College but for which no trial took place. Last year, the Oscar’s was slammed for the fact that all Best Actor nominees were white. Will Nate Parker be adjudged the winner because he is truly deserving? Or if he wins will it be because Academy members feel morally compelled to redress the racial imbalance (or perceptions of such) of last year by giving him the gong? What amount of dissonance will any of them feel if they have genuine concerns about the disturbing allegations against him which were neither proven nor disproven? And will such concerns transcend any sentiment about race and the desire to prove the Oscars are truly colour blind?

You see we could fall back on the argument that it’s all about the art but when does bias, conscious and unconscious get in the way. In the workplace we try to safeguard against unconscious bias by constituting a selection panel. Well the selection panel this time is 6,687 panellists strong so we’ve just got to hope they get it right on the night. But what will we decide is right? I dare say there will be several different versions and, despite the fact that it’s a work day, I know I will be taking a sneaky peak at the awards ceremony as it unfolds.

Monday, February 20, 2017

A Different way to be Smart

I shouldn't name drop. But think: Roger Federer. The Australian Open. Practice partner. Tennis ball. Fractured foot. They were all involved. Just not the way you might imagine. It was a year ago. Roger was warming up. At the Australian Open. He was on the television screen at the time. I stepped out into my back garden...onto a tennis ball and fractured my foot. Quite the inglorious sporting injury.

Emotional Intelligence (or the lack of it!) makes headlines in one way or another every year at the Australian Open where the stakes are high. This year, there were gruelling long matches played outside during Melbourne’s heatwave. We witnessed players consumed by adrenaline...until the torment of injury kicked in at which time they had to put their emotions aside, re-tie their laces, stand up off the bench, wipe the sweat off their brow and continue, displaying almost a robotic-like demeanour.

In the first five minutes of the Women's final, we saw Serena’s heightened emotions. We've heard her say several times that playing her sister is the hardest match of all. One slip of the foot hushed the crowd who felt her intensity as she smashed her racket into the court surface, clearly frustrated. We saw the self-destruction of Nick Kyrgios in his final match against Italian Andreas Seppi as his lack of emotional control inevitably brought him into the spotlight yet again for the worst of reasons. 

So, a question for you. If I gave you an option of raising your IQ by 20 points, you’d probably say yes in the blink of an eye. But, what if it was at the expense of another intelligence?

Articles like this have prompted us to assign a numerical figure and consider the value of 3 big traits - IQ, Emotional Intelligence and Grit, and the impact they have on success. If you could genetically design your future offspring and you had '250 points', how would you divide your points between the three? Which intelligence would you prize the most?

Studies have shown that 70% of the time, individuals with an average IQ have outperformed those who have a high IQ (Peter Salovey & John D. Mayer, 1990). So why might those with high intellectual ability fall behind?

The weight given to one's Emotional Intelligence quotient (EQ) over IQ as a predictor of success in many contexts is increasing as theories of IQ being the sole source and standard of excellence have been debunked. The rules of the employment game are changing. How well do we manage our emotional state at work when tested and what time and energy do we devote to strengthening our social competence with colleagues?

Emotional Intelligence at work is defined as:

“The capacity to effectively perceive, express, understand and manage emotions in a professional manner” (Stough and Palmer, 2002)

In his book, Outliers, Malcolm Gladwell argues that there is a strong relationship between success and IQ but only up to a certain point. Once an individual has an IQ of approximately 120, having an IQ higher than that doesn’t pull much weight as a predictor of success. Therefore, if IQ makes a significant difference only to a specific threshold, it seems logical to conclude that after this threshold, other factors come into play. Factors like EI and grit, tenacity or what I call stick-ability? More than a few people in footy have told me that sometimes those with the most sublime talent as kids or teenagers don't understand they will have to make sacrifices, work hard even when they don't feel like it and steel themselves for withering feedback. Some bug out when they realise discipline, hard work and resilience will make the difference between being the talented youngster and having an AFL career. Being able to deal constructively with sometimes brutal (not cruel) feedback is a measure of one's EI.

Increasingly, companies are looking for Emotional Intelligence in candidates they hire and as a focus of their leadership development. In comparison to IQ, the focus is on personal attributes such as self-awareness, empathy, intuition, adaptability, social skills and emotional control, particularly under extreme pressure. 

Tips to improving our Emotional Intelligence - Things to Think About

· How often do we reflect on our emotions? How well do we balance work and life outside work? What do we do to achieve flow and peace? And do we readily give ourselves permission to do so?

· Do we have a supportive network of colleagues at work? What is the true focus of our interactions? Are they quality relationships that nourish? Can we count on each other?

· What investment do we make in our personal and professional development? Are we growing and learning every day? Does fear or complacency thwart that development?

· How good are we at recognising the signs that we’re not doing well? How clear are we on the ‘refresh’ strategies that get us back on track? Do we employ them readily?

· What self-defeating patterns (of thought or action) do we continue to reinforce? Do we understand why they seem to serve us even when they don’t?

· Are we pro-active or reactive in relation to difficulties and challenges that arise at work? How well are we working to respond rather than react in situations? And do we know what's actually going on in situations we find it really difficult not to react? 

· What are the main challenges we face when dealing with difficult key business relationships? Do we have the ability to be assertive and express difficult emotions when necessary? Are we able to 'bounce-back' when things don't go our way?

When our ‘state’ is not what we want it to be, we can do one of two things.

1) Change our thought. Restructure the doom and gloom, awfulising and catastrophising.

2) Shift our physiology, move our bodies, take control of our breathing – either start breathing or belly breathing (Breathe in, tummy out or breathe out, tummy in. Counter intuitive, I know, but ensures good deep diaphragmatic breathing).

We live in an era where the case for Emotional Intelligence has been fought and won. Self-awareness and self-regulation are critical pathways to resilience. What strategies do you use to help your emotions work for you and not against you? As always, would love to hear your thoughts.

Wednesday, February 15, 2017

A Tale of Two Mindsets


Last week I bumped into the mother of the young graduate who had starred in all the musical productions at my children's former school (They didn't change schools. They have all since graduated!). Now, please understand that as far as we were concerned, her daughter was an exceptional talent. She sang beautifully. She played piano beautifully. She was the automatic pick for the lead in every school musical. And I genuinely loved watching her perform. I asked her mum how her daughter was enjoying the VCA. She hesitated, debating internally whether or not to be truthful which was not something I had anticipated. I guess I assumed I would get a rapturous response. "Well", she said, "It's not so easy. In truth, at school she was a very big fish in a small pond. Here she's a small fish, among a lot of fish and in a big pond. She's finding it quite difficult."

Carol Dweck's writings on Mindsets based on decades of research conducted by the Stanford University psychologist plays out in my life and in my work every day. I read the book years ago and gave it to my son. We never quite found it again but it was good enough that I ordered another one. I found its basic premise fascinating and it resonated with my observed experience strongly. I did think Carol could have got to the point earlier and finished it quicker. I was not alone. Apparently a lot of people said the same thing on Amazon. Perhaps it could have been an HBR article - a classic, no doubt - not necessarily a whole book. But why do we feel the need to jump to evaluate, and critically so? Who cares if it took a while? If we got anything out of it, it was worth it, wasn't it? Paradoxically, herein lies the crux of Dweck's polemic on mindset.

If you're one of the few people who haven't heard her, read her or TEDed her, Dweck says that people tend to have been socialised/parented into the adoption of either of two mindsets in their approach to learning and growth. If they have a "fixed" mindset they are more likely to spend time and energy proving they're talented or smart and don't tend to believe that achievement requires sustained effort. If they have a "growth" mindset they are more likely to see intrinsic value in growing and learning every day and believe talent, skills and performance are elastic, that we have good and bad days in terms of what we can produce and that we are able to be developed. How our parents and indeed, how we, define, praise and reward success can shape how people end up responding to failure; that is, what is rewarded and reinforced develops or impedes the growth of resilience and willingness to try especially with no guarantee of success.

I see some people paralysed by inaction because their fear of making a mistake is deemed scarier than the fear of non-accomplishment. I see corporate clients scared of making a decision, for example, terminating the employment of someone who's toxic lest there be some sort of reputational backlash that will make them look unfavourable as an employer of choice.

The book "Wheelmen" (Albergotti and O'Connell) chronicling the career of Lance Armstrong and the monumental effort of so many people to suppress evidence of doping in cycling, included a relatively innocuous paragraph that aligned perfectly with Dweck's theory on the fixed mindset. The authors describe the phenomenon whereby many physically gifted young athletes buckled under pressure once they began competing in Europe with stiff international competition. While they had achieved significant success at home and their parents were told '"This kid could be the next Greg LeMond"', they were not prepared for the fact that competing successfully internationally (and often at high altitude) required extraordinary discipline, hard work and sacrifice. Interestingly, less gifted but more driven riders didn't tend to fold. They trained harder to compensate. Armstrong was able to achieve well in the early "clean" part of his career because his family circumstances, his competitive personality, his pent up rage around some of life's blows and his ruthless drive contributed to his dogged determination to work harder and be able to endure, at times, extraordinary pain.

But obviously, not everyone bugs out, gives up or succumbs to paralysis. Of course some will want to deliver outcomes and know they are being paid to do so but the bid to live up to their own lofty standards or perceptions of others' standards is excruciating. They may bill four hours of work, but do another ten at home. They may still be making changes right up until the moment they go to air even though there's no time to change things on the teleprompter. Not only is this stressful for them, but it is for those around them.

It fuels the imposter syndrome because people with a fixed mindset who believe that talent and potential are fixed, won't necessarily believe that their success can be attributed to their skills, intellect or knowledge so they may struggle with self-esteem and wake up some days feeling like a fraud. Even Sheryl Sandberg has said she's had days like that. And Michelle Obama is reported to have thought in her early adulthood that her academic success at Harvard was due to reverse discrimination as a black American; that is, forces operating outside herself.

If we're praised from an early age for being smart, rather than for putting in effort, we may not know what to make of the fact that we find something difficult. Does it mean we are not as smart as we (and influential others) thought we were?

One of the things that lends credence to Dweck's work for me is studying the pre- or post-match interviews of champion athletes and teams. A former AFL captain and current AFL coach said he was so riddled with anxiety before a match lest he play poorly he was physically sick often (fixed mindset). Other footballers will talk about their confidence that if they keep following team structures, work hard, hit their fitness and nutrition targets and play as a team, success will follow (growth mindset).

Some of us expend a lot of time and energy competing and comparing. Others commit themselves to growing and learning every day. They experiment, seek feedback including constructive feedback and aren't frightened to try. They jump a little early and are prepared to embrace opportunities even if they feel "a little bit scared and a little bit excited" as one of my delightful coachees depicted it. I'm not talking here about brash overconfidence. In so many cases, the focus on growth and the appetite to try mean that their careers and their finances have just taken care of themselves. Their mindset is one of abundance, not scarcity. They focus on doing their best, not on what others are doing. And from an intra-psychic point of view, how much energy is released and how much goodwill is fostered if we aren't consumed with resentment, jealousy and the need to devise strategies on how to elbow others out of the way?

Some daggy 1970's motivational guru said we choose our attitude. Well, we may have a default mindset but we can choose to work on it. And while I'm trying to work on mine every day, I will try not to reproach myself for not having nailed it yet, for not being able to do it as well as some psychologists/consultants I know, for not being able to practise what I preach 24/7 and ultimately for not being perfect. I think that's a good start. Might you need to give yourself permission to do that too?

Sunday, February 5, 2017

A Convenient "Truth" - Our capacity for big (sometimes bad) conclusions on scant if any evidence

Nov 2016

There was a moment on Friday afternoon of sheer panic for me. I had felt compelled to check my Inbox one more time before I took Friday night off to spend with family. And there was the news bulletin and those words that leapt off the page.... possible explosion... fire... local suburban... Commonwealth Bank.

You see my son commenced a job a few weeks ago in a management role with a local suburban Commonwealth Bank... but thankfully it was not Springvale and after 20 agonising seconds, I had every reason to believe he was safe. Then of course my mind turned, as I'm sure yours did, to the horror for those injured, the possible motive and mental health condition of the person who did it, what we did or didn't know about him and perhaps I've read too many Tom Clancy novels but whether or not this terrible incident was part of an orchestrated attack with more to come, a revenge attack from a former disgruntled employee or the desperate even impulsive act of a very unwell person. I want to say I knew nothing at the time of his nationality or background; only his gender and approximate age.

What I didn't think about was the divisive and ugly polemic the incident sparked in the social and print media regarding positions on refugees, detention on Christmas Island, immigration policy, welfare fraud, bridging visas, gambling and the impact of need/greed on behaviour and gross disturbing generalisations of people about race and religion. I doubt whether or not those whose comments raged in the media knew enough about the alleged perpetrator and his story at that time to make informed comment (just as I don't).

Of course we want to make sense of the world. But let's also accept we hear what we want to hear. We spout those opportunistic fragments, yes, fragments of evidence, opinions dressed up as fact, selective information (ours or that provided to us) which may not really be facts or evidence when under investigation. Why? To support our positions, to explain our fears, to justify outlandish claims and more scarily, radical courses of action.

Donald Trump while addressing Middle America cited disturbing "facts" about the Muslim population. He seemingly spoke to the fear in white Americans living in parts of the U.S. with high immigrant populations. In Trump's speech, supposedly more than half the Muslims surveyed in a particular poll wanted the choice to be governed by Sharia Law and a quarter thought violence against Americans was justified in the name of Global Jihad. President-Elect Trump on the campaign trail cited the "very highly respected people, who I know actually" at the Centre for Security Policy to assert some of his claims. The Washington Post said the conduct of the poll was "shoddy" and most of the claims made over and over again in various forums have been repudiated. Incidentally, the Centre for Security Policy has also been described as a right wing extremist think tank at best and a hate group at worst. In any case Trump's main points were straight out of their talking point playbook; a playbook they seem most happy to share with anyone who wanted to listen and better still, share their message.

As I've observed before, we know we would be overloaded with stimuli if we didn't have a filtering system. Our Reticular Activating System (RAS) is adaptive but what that means when fear in our gut transcends level heading critical thinking is the types of comments we heard in the wake of the Commbank incident.

It is the same thinking that people undergoing organisational change latch onto when they try to convince others that jobs will surely be lost even after repeated public assurances they won't be and no evidence to back up the claims.

With clearly no approval from an Ethics Committee, Facebook conducted a study in 2014 to examine the impact of positivity or negativity of people's Facebook wall by manipulating the content posted for unsuspecting Facebook users and then trying to determine if that influenced the content subsequently posted by those users. The study sought to test whether or not emotional contagion could occur in the context of text-based inputs and the effect was striking. Whilst Facebook received enormous backlash from those who alleged they had never given informed consent for Facebook to manipulate their wall, the influence of emotional content on thoughts, feelings and behaviour is as fascinating as it is disturbing.

A study done in 2001 at Stanford University posits that we tend to remember and be more influenced by bad news/feedback/experience than good. Professor Roy Baumeister in his journal article "Bad is stronger than good" (see link below) explains this phenomenon which he argues is pervasive and well-accepted in general psychology (thus I guess I'm asking you to give it credence). What's more, the residual impact of the bad lasts longer than the positive. Additional findings were that bad experiences are recollected more strongly, in more vivid detail and that people expressing negative thoughts and views are regarded as smarter than those who go positive. From an evolutionary point of view, all of this again may be adaptive as those of us who focused on perceiving and eliminating threats were less likely to get eaten for breakfast when the sabre tooth tiger wandered into the cave.

We want to be able to filter that which is irrelevant but how important for us to apply cognitive discipline and discern fact from convenient fiction; transcending those primitive mechanisms designed to ensure the survival of the species from irrational F.E.A.R (False Evidence Appearing Real).

If we need multiple positive inputs to counteract the amplified and lingering effects of the negative, let's actively seek the contrary evidence to the convenient and dastardly stereotype.

Let's engage in random acts of kindness that counterbalance cruel and random acts of violence.

If we are to be hypervigilant about anything, let it be a heightened sensitivity to our proneness to bias and distortion; that which, at its most destructive, provides an impetus for inhumane and reckless action including trolling, victimisation and racial vilification.