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.