Something that comes up a lot in client conversations is out of the blue experiences, where people think everything was ticking along nicely and it turns out that wasn’t the case. I had a boss once who, for over a year, reassured me when I frequently asked if there was anything I should be doing that I wasn’t doing that I was doing a great job - only to recount in granular detail every error I had made (including not being charismatic enough) during my exit interview when it was impossible for me to do anything about it in that organisation.
I am also haunted by the memory of giving unexpected end of year feedback to a colleague who wholeheartedly believed they were doing a great job, so I am not holding myself up as being a model for getting any of this right. However, I would like to assure you that I was very careful not to make that particular error again.
We are all really hesitant about giving bad feedback to others and often either avoid it altogether or soften the blow so much the message gets lost. What we are doing by not giving feedback is not allowing that person to learn and grow. Humans learn by trial and error and if you break the feedback loop, you are in fact denying them them the chance to become better.
There are many ways of giving feedback and we need to find our own style. Here are a few techniques you can try (and one to avoid!)
This is an approach from Marshall Goldsmith, who suggests that you couch the information is terms of “what might be great to try in the future” rather than what wen’t wrong in the past. It implies that you believe they can change and that you want the best for them. Its a great technique!
This is more of a generalised approach rather than a technique. Its good to start with checking in with the other person - what do they think is going well and whats not going so well? In my experience, most people have doubts and just need a safe environment to air them. That neatly segues into the opportunity to explore alternative ways of tackling a problem.
5 Word Review
This was a method created by one of the founders of of Kayak.com. You solicit feedback from a colleagues or your manager but their contribution is limited to 5 words and they need to cover what you are doing well and what could benefit from improvement. You meet to talk about it for an hour, ideally. Nothing is written down, so its not on anyone’s record. Repeat multiple times.
The DESC technique is a nice structure to support you when you give feedback:
Tell a story
Telling a story about yourself or another person who had a similar experience that led to a happy outcome is a technique that works for people of all ages to illustrate a better approach to a common set of circumstances. It also helps them to recognise that they are not alone in misjudging a situation, which helps to reduce the natural tendency to become defensive. I leave it up to you to decide how grounded the story has to be in reality, but do remember people have a sixth sense for deception!
And the one to avoid? Its the feedback sandwich - where you offer praise then tuck in the criticism and follow up with more praise. It is very popular (having been recommended for years now) but super confusing for the receiver. They either just hear the positives or they brace themselves for the second punch and let the good sentiments fly past unheard.
I hope this inspires you to give feedback more often. And to see it as a gift rather than as a negative experience for you and for the recipient. Instead, look upon it as something that helps them grow better and stronger, like fertiliser for the soul.
Photo by CDC
It appears that viruses are a lot smarter than we might give them credit for. And they are remarkably singleminded: their whole lifecycle and survival strategy is focussed on making as many people ill as possible. A fascinating tactic they employ is one where they are able to manipulate the behaviour of their hosts in order to further their own interests. There is now evidence that people become measurably more social when they are first infected and most contagious and this significantly helps the virus achieve its goal of infecting as many people as possible.
They are cleverly good at taking advantage of the fact that humans are ecosystems, with millions of microorganisms, many of which live in our gut. We are vastly outnumbered by them - possibly as many as three times more than what we might consider to be our human selves. This vast collection of microbiota is largely made up of bacteria, fungi and even viruses that symbiotically help our bodies to function efficiently.
Viruses have a lot in common with our internal saboteur thoughts: they too are parasites and are acting in their own best interests and not ours. They often are so good at persuading us that they are our own thoughts that we assume they are. They are 100% focussed on winning now and have no interest in the long term, so they egg us on to do and say things that feel satisfying in the moment: lose our tempers, over eat, make a clever but barbed comment but they have no care, like all parasites, about the long term prospects of their hosts.
Saboteur thoughts come from the part of our brain that is less evolved (brainstem) that deals with self preservation and reacts at lighting speed to handle any perceived threats. It takes a short term view and is totally focussed on keeping us alive. Our saboteur thoughts are the strategies that we developed as small children that kept us safe when we were tiny and the world seemed very threatening even if we grew up in kind loving households. These childish rules of thumb - the ones that encourage us to say yes when we ought to say no or letting a desire for doing everything perfectly (or not at all) stops you getting anything done - are not fit for purpose in the adult lives we end up leading and they end up undermining us.
To break free of them, we need to recognised them as being good ideas who have outlived their sell by date who now reside in our minds and masquerade as our own thoughts which should be coming from our higher brain (neo cortex). Fortunately, like getting a vaccine, there is something you can do:
Want to know more about silencing your saboteurs? Take the saboteur assessment and then let's talk about how we can work together using the Positive Intelligence method to silence your saboteurs for good.
Mahatma Ghandi, a man many of us see as an incredible leader and role model, is credited with challenging us to the "be the change you want to see in the world". Apparently, he was never heard to have used that phrase, but as it is very aligned with what he could have said, its a helpful inspiring sentiment for us all to remember.
What he did say was: “We but mirror the world. All the tendencies present in the outer world are to be found in the world of our body. If we could change ourselves, the tendencies in the world would also change. As a man changes his own nature, so does the attitude of the world change towards him. This is the divine mystery supreme. A wonderful thing it is and the source of our happiness. We need not wait to see what others do.”
People come to work with me because something in their work-life isn't working for them, their efforts are not yielding the rewards they were expecting. This applies to groups as well as individuals. The conversations often start of with identifying poor attitudes, habits or behaviours in others. There is normally a lot of "evidence" to suggest that if these other people behaved differently, the world would be a better place, for my clients and often for others. If only the other person/people listened more, or was less of a control freak or whatever.
This ties in with Stephen Covey's concept of the circles of influence and concern, where he advises us to focus on the things we have direct control over and step away from fretting about the things we have no control over.
Be the change you want to see is a call to focus on the difference you can make to the one thing you have a lot of control over: yourself. If we want our colleagues to listen to us, we can start by listening to them. And if we want our leaders to trust us, we need to demonstrate that we are willing to reciprocate and trust them. It takes courage to take the first step, to be vulnerable and to be generous without having any certainty that we will see any benefits.
My challenge for all of us is to be the change you want to see, because if you are different, people will notice and respond to you differently. You may get a variety of reactions, some good and some less good, but you will be able to stay confident and strong, knowing that you are the best role model for whats important to you.
Covey, S, “The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People”, Simon Schuster Ltd Uk, 1990.
On a walk in Peckham Rye recently I saw this tremendous tree, with a fence that it had absorbed at some point in its long life. It reminded me of how resilient all living things can be. The tree, if it could share its thoughts, would confirm that it would have much preferred to not have had any contact with a fence, I am sure, but it has been able to incorporate it into its existence and thrive magnificently. And thats a wonderful example to us all of the resilience we can aspire to have in our lives.
I have yet to meet an adult who has not experienced a setback or challenge of one kind or another. I'd say, by the time most people leave school, they will have had a setback of one kind or another: a failed exam, a broken heart, a loss of some kind.
Elizabeth Kübler-Ross exposed to the world how grief works: There are 5 stages: denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance. Its not a linear experience and each person experiences if very uniquely. Its possible to cycle through all of the stages in a day or stay in one one for months. Her final stage was acceptance, which is when the person accepts that the change has happened and there is no going back to how things used to be. Recently, one of her collaborators, David Kessler, through his experience of a devastating personal loss, was able to discover a 6th stage: the ability to find something meaningful in the grief, a phoenix from the ashes of loss.
This, in the Positive Intelligence framework is the 'gift of inspiration'. The ability to find meaning from loss and disappointment. The skill of looking back on a broken heart and know that it was something that needed to happen, a life lesson that helped shape a better future. Or a less-than-ideal exam result turning out to be a great wakeup call for improving one's focus on study. David Kessler was able to find a way to process the loss of his adult son was through acknowledging that his son "was proud of what I did, and he’d be pleased that my work has found a new dimension because of him,”. It is my deepest hope that none of us are exposed to experience that test our resilience so deeply.
Life is full of ups and downs, some are bigger and more important that others and each of them takes their own time for us to work through them. I invite you to consider this lovely tree in Peckham Rye (in fact there are a couple of them) and consider how you can take the setbacks you have experienced and weave them into your life so that you continue to grow into your confident, strong, wonderful self.
Need some help with getting your bounce back? Get in touch and lets talk about it!
Moorhead, J (2021) "Finding meaning in the life of a loved one who dies is part of grief", The Guardian, 17 Jan
More about David Kessler on his website Grief.com
3 tools to help you decide what’s best for you right now
You are in a job you’ve had for a while. Some things are going well, you might love your team or the work that you do or the location, but something isn’t quite right. You try to ignore the niggles because there is so much that you like about the job that it seems ungrateful to even think about the downsides. Every so often, especially in the middle of the night, you try to weigh up your options and make a decision only to flip back into uncertainty minutes/hours/days later. Sound familiar?
I have a few tools that can help you make up your mind:
1. Pros and cons
This is an old favourite but don’t let that put you off because it works. List out what is great and what is not good about each option. Try and be as thorough as you can be, so that you tease out all the genuinely good and bad things about your current place of work versus going elsewhere.
2. Ask your future self for advice
Imagine you could speak to your older, wiser self and ask their advice on this dilemma. What would he/she say? Sit down in a nice quiet spot, take a few slow deep breaths and imagine travelling in time to visit yourself in your later years. Take your time and enjoy the journey and try to take note of the detail of your future life. Ask your elder self to advise you on what you should do now. You may be surprised with the advice you get!
3. Cartesian questions
René Descartes (1596-1650) was a French mathematician, scientist, and philosopher. Aside from his famous pronouncement “I think, therefore I am” he also invented a method of deductive reasoning that consists of four rules: (1) accept nothing as true that is not self-evident, (2) divide problems into their simplest parts, (3) solve problems by proceeding from simple to complex, and (4) recheck the reasoning.
You can use that logic to ask yourself the following questions about each side of your dilemma:
The questions are designed to go from straightforward to totally confounding, which helps flip a mental switch and moves people into a much more creative state of mind.
I hope you find these tools useful. I often use them myself or with clients. I'd love to hear your experiences of using them!
I have always had mixed feelings about agile product development. Agile is sold as being the way to “increase success rates in software development, improve quality and speed to market, and boost the motivation and productivity of IT teams” (HBR, 2016). Its not that I am in any way a fan of the “waterfall” method, its just that I am dubious about an approach that is largely dictated by rituals. I have seen many teams follow all the routines and deliver diabolically poor outcomes, because the process in and of itself can never control the output if the foundational thinking is either absent or flawed in the first place.
I am also dubious about a way of working that mimics team harmony without having a good understanding of what makes a great team and how to grow one. My experience of working in high performing teams naturally followed a lot of the agile processes: regular updates with other team members to make sure we all knew what each of us was doing (and not doing) and a good rhythm of planning and examining progress. So far, so agile, but what I believe a significant amount of agile teams lack are the emotional elements that contribute to great team performance
In the Google team study (2015), they found that there were five key dynamics that set successful teams apart from other teams:
Agile only really focusses on the 3rd element - structure & clarity - and treats the others as optional whereas Google noted that the psychological safety to be the most critical and influential element of all. And that is why I think Agile is not the answer: its an element but relying on it as the way to get to great outcomes is like hoping a car chassis will be all you need to make a 100 mile journey - without the wheels and the engine, you are not going to succeed!
The other four elements of high performing teams need to be acknowledged as being key contributors of good outcomes and good, skilled team coaching can build the environment that is needed for them to grow. Currently team coaches are hired purely based on their agile qualifications. No certificate? No job! Any checks on team building capabilities? A “nice to have” at best.
I say its time to talk about all the elements of team building and not just focus on 1/5th of it. Who is with me?
Image: D&D Beyond
When was the last time you...
...lost your temper and later wondered how that even happened?
...said yes when you knew you should have said no?
...went on FaceBook for ‘a minute’ and stayed for a few hours?
...said you’d start a diet and then ate a piece of cake?
... were hijacked by your saboteurs?
Our saboteur thoughts come from our early years, when life was confusing and sometimes scary. How ever good or bad our childhoods were, each of us came up with simple guidelines to try and stay safe. Rules like "don't make adults angry" or "don't make mistakes" or "lie low and you'll stay out of trouble" and somehow, we cruised into adulthood without ever checking that those edicts still hold water. And, because they have been with us all our lives, we trust them implicitly. Middle-aged me can be intimidated by people with a certain kind of confident demeanour because my inner child instantly sees them as as being more powerful than I am. Effectively, we're all following a map that has parts that were laid out by our five year old selves and we wonder why we sometimes get stuck in the mud.
I have yet to meet someone who is saboteur-free so its great news that there is a tool that can help us all defeat them. Rooted firmly in neuroscience, cognitive and positive psychology, and performance science, Positive Intelligence is a easy-to-adopt protocol, neatly slotted into an app, that can reduce the unhelpful thought patterns and behaviours all of us have picked up in some way during our childhoods and replace them with positive, constructive thought strategies,
It consists of three steps that work together to rewire your brain to make new default behaviours:
There are 10 saboteurs and each of us have all of them to some degree, with some being more influential than others for each of us. Here is a brief summary of each of them:
If you are interested in finding out more about it you can:
Disclosure: I was invited to be one of the first cohort of coaches, called PQ pioneers, who trained with Shirzad Chamine, the creator of the program, and are still working with him to develop a way to spread the word and bring this amazing tool to the world.
TL;DR - make sure that your behaviour doesn’t inadvertently trigger a threat response in other people!
Neuroscience tells us that our desire to minimise threat and maximise reward is what motivates our behaviour. And the part of our brain that governs this is our most primitive brain, the amygdala, which also looks after our basic survival needs. This totally makes sense from a species development perspective - we need to be able to quickly discern what is dangerous and what will help us thrive. It turns out, according to the SCARF model (Rock, 2008), that co-locating these two functions in the limbic system means that we respond to social threats and rewards in a similar way to physical threats and rewards. We are very quick to decide if something is ‘good’ or ‘bad’ for us and take action accordingly. In fact, that part of the brain can react faster than we can actually think, so its more of a reflex than a conscious thought.
The SCARF model looks at our lighting fast responses to 5 areas of human social experience: Status, Certainty, Autonomy, Relatedness and Fairness and how humans process information in those areas in order to decide if someone else is a friend or a foe. The model was originally interpreted in an organisational context, to help leaders engage with their teams better but it has potential for much wider application.
There is research that suggests higher status individuals (also seen in ape communities) live longer than others, due to having lower baseline cortisol levels. Many animal social units are structured around just one adult male in the group, to ensure genetic survival and any threat to that is fiercely defended. Being higher status also helps to guarantee increased access to basics like food, water and shelter - and often much more than that as well.
With survival at stake, we do not respond well to threats to our place in the social pecking order. It activates the parts of the brain involved in the perception of physical pain. Sometimes the 'threat' is unintentional: giving advice and offering criticism are the types of experiences that are interpreted as a status challenge and thus seen as being highly dangerous. On the other hand, praise, recognition, promotion, responsibility and access to information are seen as rewards and with this insight its easy to see how the way that we treat people will be interpreted by them at an instinctive level and cause cause them to respond in a way that that can have a huge impact on our own survival.
In order to not over tax or brain resources, we tend to rely on pattern matching to identify situations where we need to focus more intently. Which is why its possible conduct familiar tasks on auto-pilot and almost be mentally elsewhere, for example, while driving a car on a routine journey. Unexpected events, like a dog crossing the road, jolts us back into consciousness. When humans are in situations where they can’t relax into a comfortable predictable pattern, they experience ongoing low level stress, which impairs the function of the orbital frontal cortex. The impact of this is not insignificant because it can significantly reduce productivity.
Conversely, certainty triggers dopamine, the reward hormone. We can create a sense of certainty by, where possible, being clear about what is going to happen, establishing and sticking to routines and keeping people up to date.
Research indicates that loss of autonomy - the ability to have some control over one’s environment - can impact our cognitive ability, mental health and ultimately our physical health. Being micromanaged can trigger a threat response and being in a team basically invites less autonomy due to the need to cooperate and work together. Giving people choice and a sense of control can minimise the threat response and even increase a sense of getting a reward.
Being part of a group was, for our ancestors, a matter of life or death and exclusion was a terrifying punishment. Humans are very skilled at assessing whether someone is safe to trust or not. Relatedness is our sense of safety with others and being part of a group. Lack of relatedness, when a person feels excluded, can reduce creativity, commitment and collaboration - essentially, they withdraw.
When a person feels connected with others, Oxitocyn is released and creativity, commitment and collaboration increase. We can make people feel more included in a range of ways, from shaking hands to exchanging a bit of small talk and, in a work context, including them in conversations and making decisions.
A number of studies have shown that fairness is an important motivator for us and is intrinsically rewarding to humans. A perceived increase in fairness and a financial reward both activate the same part of the brain. A sense of unfairness lights up the same part of the brain that responds to disgust and can be the motivator for political struggles and more.
Unfairness at work can affect mental and physical health. To avoid triggering a threat response based on unfairness, be clear about rules, the logic that drives decisions like task allocation and reward structures.
The SCARF model can be applied in many areas of life, from self-management, to educational and leadership development. Once we understand why we and others feel threatened, we are able to use alternative strategies that focus on the reward response to get the outcomes we are looking for.
The dictionary definition of resilience is: the capacity to recover quickly from difficulties; the ability of a substance or object to spring back into shape; elasticity. It's a subject of great interest at the moment because many of us are having our ability to "bounce back" tested by the coronavirus.
A model that comes up a lot is Elisabeth Kubler-Ross' five stages of grief theory, which was published in the late 1960's. Her experience with terminally ill patients led her to observe a pattern of thinking that people go through when facing death either themselves or in a loved one. This theory was later found to apply to all kinds of personal loss including disability, redundancy, divorce and financial problems. It's not a linear process: people can go through it at any pace, in any order and often experience cycles of it.
These are the phases:
Image courtesy of Narayana Health
I grew up in a household where logic and rationality were valued and rewarded. Emotions, along with acting in ones own self-interest were seen as disdainful, weak and embarrassing. As a result, I have not only spent decades priding myself on keeping my needs and feelings in check, I believed that getting emotional at work - crying - was up there with the top 3 career killing moves of all time. Something to be avoided at all costs, along with yelling at your boss or turning up drunk (although the severity of this may depend on the company culture and the country you work in!)
Over the years, while I revelled in my skill at remaining rational and unemotional at all costs, especially at work, I began to have nagging doubts about whether the life plan I was following was actually the right one for me. I began to wonder if I was really pursuing my own dreams and whether my goals were truly mine or not. I would torture myself with the question of what would I do if I won the lottery and didn’t need to work for a living. None of the answers I gave myself, other than developing cirrhosis of the liver, seemed genuine and believable. It certainly made me feel a bit pointless.
From time to time, I found myself in a situation that encouraged reflection and consideration of purpose, my instinctive response is that I wanted to get better at “following my heart” - which felt at the time like it was locked away in a inaccessible vault - so that I could understand my purpose in life and be the real me. I tried for many years to spring the lock and get access to my true feelings.
Like the story of the Golden Buddha in Wat Traimit, that was hidden in plain sight by ugly concrete and protected from Burmese invaders, it turns out that my feelings had been plastered over by a ton of beliefs I picked up as a child, that may never have been true and were definitely not useful to me as an adult. A few things have helped me strip back the layers and tune into my heart. I thought I would share them here:
User-centred. Digital Transformation. Coach.