Thursday, September 27, 2018

Fallen Heroes

Image from Shutterstock

It was 2001. I’d gone out on my own a few years before but still did some work through a large training organisation. I confess to being somewhat star struck by the account executive with whom I partnered. She was stylish, confident, resilient, and successful. When I grew up I told myself - I was in my 30s - I wanted to be just like her.

So that particular day, I got a call from a former client of mine from the Bank I’d left to establish Brash Consulting. He “couldn’t promise anything” because they were speaking to other providers too but I’d been highly recommended for design and delivery of a large scale roll-out of Employee Relations training for a major Australian airline. A dream gig doing M.A.D (Make a Difference) work. We made an appointment to meet.
An hour later my “hero” called with the most exciting news. Her RTO had just been invited to pitch for, you guessed it, a large scale ER roll out with an airline and when I was I free to meet them?

I told her I’d already been approached. She sat on the other end of the line silent for what seemed like ages.
To her credit she regrouped quickly to proclaim: “Oh, Leanne. That’s great! When we go in together we’ll have two chances out of three instead of one. Besides, they would surely prefer to go with a big training organisation than a boutique consultancy.”

What was I thinking in that moment? Not necessarily. And the financial implications were hard to ignore as with her I’d be working for less than half the fee charged and I really believed I had as good a chance as aforementioned RTO to win the business. I told her that politely and said I’d need to think about it overnight.
She sounded shocked, but again regrouped quickly to say: "Well, I can’t believe this. To me it’s a no-brainer, but sure. You think about it."

And then came the knife in my heart as she continued: "But of course, if, say, another opportunity came up another time, I’d have to remember that when we had a great chance to work together, you chose not to work with me….."

What did I tell her the next day? That we’d go in together.

Whenever I’ve told that story on the platform, audiences have been shocked!

For those of you who do know me and the work I do, there is no doubt I would do it differently now.

I’d be far less vulnerable to the mother-daughter-disapproval ritual. I would have backed myself, said “No” nicely, and assertively called out the passive-aggressive thinly-veiled threat.

Months later, half way through the roll-out of the 53 workshops I would ultimately run for Ansett (of course it was!) she invited me to pre-Christmas lunch. It was tortuous. I realised the relationship could never recover. The woman I had looked up to, even idolised was a fallen hero.

Some people told me they felt the same way when Wayne "King" Carey cheated on his then wife and even more deeply when he became the subject of domestic violence and assault allegations. I know that Carey has worked hard to rebuild his life and his reputation but for some does the disappointment or the damage ever go away?

A member of my team told me how awestruck she had been by the inspirational wellness blogger, Belle Gibson, until Belle told the Women's Weekly that she'd never had brain cancer so didn’t cure herself and her hapless publisher, her family and the charities she had purportedly raised money for, paid the price.
Having recently dipped back into the fascinating Watergate saga via the phenomenal podcast “Slow Burn” I was struck by how long Richard Nixon supporters stuck by him as John Dean turned, as evidence mounted and Oval Office tapes were released. Deep into 1974, over two years after the infamous break-in on 17 June 1972, one heard a multiplicity of rationalisations from “The President wasn’t involved” to “Everybody does it” to “Remember Chappaquiddick and Teddy Kennedy?"

Neuroscience tells us we need vast amounts of contrary evidence before we’re prepared to shift our position and even then we may move slightly and we may move late.

The human brain doesn’t need to be logical, but it needs to be right.

What are everyday workplace examples in which we give people the benefit of the doubt when there isn’t any? When we rationalise other's behaviour? Or keep saying Yes when we want to say No? Or lose respect for failing to act? Or even become "dazzled" in the shadow of someone else's aura and have others accuse us of denial?

Here are a few.

The employee who’s chronically late and never counselled but brings energy and humour to the place when 
they’re there!

The abrasive worker who is tolerated because they tell people they’re stressed (and might be).

The blaming and shaming boss who continues to wreak havoc because, until and if anyone complains in writing, why bother? (Even with a sneaking suspicion that staff are too scared to complain).

The person with a representative role e.g. social club secretary or footy tipping coordinator, WHS rep or union delegate who spends much of their time not attending to core duties or using their positional power inappropriately.

The friend or family member of someone senior who gets all the opportunities precisely because they’ve got friends in high places. 

The educator with a poor reputation as a lecturer but students say nothing because they’re an easy marker.

The person who engages in unethical practices but brings in significant revenue via questionable means likely 
contrary to the organisation’s stated values.

How might we ensure we’re seeing the picture fully and clearly? That we’re not sitting in denial or delusion?
  • The good old “front page of the paper test”. Would the situation if it was spelt out in public cause us any discomfort or the brand any damage? Think the current ABC crisis!
  • Routinely ask ourselves: Is there something unique here that could be clouding my judgment and making it hard to be objective?
  • Where do other fair-minded and reasonable people sit on this issue? With me or far from it?
  •  If I “subbed out” this person (for whom I have empathy/affection/admiration) and “subbed in” someone else altogether, would I still feel the same way or differently?
  • Is this behaviour analogous or equivalent to other situations we’ve been forced to confront before? What did we do? What is our current 'custom and practice'?
  • What are our stated values and unwritten ground rules? Does this person or their behaviour violate them?
  • Is the justification given for any bad action an explanation or an excuse?
  • Even if I’m prepared to be lenient, generous, compassionate or accommodating in this instance, what are the to-be-anticipated and the potential unintended consequences of my action/inaction? What message do I send? What precedent do I set? (Note, these are not always negative).

Finally, is there a way to metaphorically “have our cake and eat it too"? In our examples, might we show empathy and understanding yet still stand up for great culture, abide by laws and rules and pay homage to values?

A few weeks ago allegations surfaced about an AFL Football player testing positive for illicit drugs. His club came out with a well-rounded and well-delivered message. It said clearly and unequivocally that:
  • the Club would provide all manner of support to their young player knowing that ASADA needed to do its job and that the player could potentially face a ban of several years
  • that the Club respected ASADA’s policies; and
  • there was no widespread problem at the Club.  

We may want heroes, but what we need are role models. To forgive is divine and we must remind ourselves that no-one is perfect, and even more, that humans are exquisitely fallible, but leaders must remember we get the culture we deserve and the behaviour we’re prepared to tolerate. 

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.