Monday, October 15, 2012

Could your 'one-liners' cost you your job?

Emotions spread like viruses

‘I‘d like my life back'

When Tony Hayward, CEO of BP at the time of the Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill said these words millions of people shuddered. It was a careless, stupid and thoughtless thing to say when the human, environmental and economic cost of the BP disaster is almost incalculable. And it cost him his job.

His apparent insensitivity was made emphasised by reports and footage taken of him sailing off the Isle of Wight shortly after.

I doubt anyone felt sorry for him. However if you know about The Almond Effect®, you'll know about the emotional state he was in that caused him to speak before thinking.

The Almond Effect® - Lack of judgment

His words and actions showed a complete lack of judgment. It was The Almond Effect® in full force. Tired, battered, desperate for a solution and an end to the disaster, Hayward wasn't thinking. He was anxious, no doubt fearful and his emotional brain was talking.

This was a very public example of the need we all have to manage our amygdala and develop the skills to think before we speak or act.

Split second actions

Can you, like me, think of times when you wish you could go back in time and regain the opportunity to do or say something differently?

The email or SMS sent too quickly, the words that just tumbled out of your mouth, the inappropriate facial expression or body language, the action you regret - all happening in a split second, without thinking, just reacting - like Hayward.

Those times when we didn't stop to think about the impact of what we say or do on others.

Do you use one-liners and throw-away lines?

One-liners and throw-away lines fall into the same category. The words are probably meant to be funny but instead make the target of the remarks and people around at the time cringe? It's another example of our amygdala talking, it's certainly not the thinking brain unless we rationally intend to do emotional harm.

Emotions spread like viruses

In addition to the stupidity of the words, there is another element to Hayward's blunder that is almost as scary - and it impacts all of us who want to bring about change at work. It is the speed with which Hayward's gaffe, and the negative emotions associated with it, spread around the globe.

We know that emotions are contagious. People catch and spread emotions the way they catch a cold.

Now add the power of global media and social networking into the mix.

How long does it take a negative comment in your workplace to spread? How quickly do your people post it on Facebook, Twitter or simply SMS. In addition to the chatter, facial expressions and body language, all it takes is a mobile phone.

Lessons for leaders

When you take on the role of leader, I believe you also take on the responsibility to watch every word that comes out of your mouth, especially when you're tired, stressed, having a bad day, had an argument at home or simply that your coffee tastes awful.

Learn the skills to recognise your triggers and ANTs before your amygdala precipitates you into saying or doing something you regret or that negatively impacts changes you are trying to bring about in your organisation.

This skill that will not only make you a leader that people want to follow but it will significantly enhance your career.

Monday, September 24, 2012

What to do when people won't contribute at meetings

Silence is golden - or is it? What to do when people don't speak up

Robert sat there with his arms folded. He dropped his head a little, widened his eyes and looked up at me with an expression that was hard to accurately read.

Was he still engaged with the discussion? I think so but was it positive or negative engagement?

I suspect the latter because my almond had already started smoking! My amygdala must have become aware of his body language and change of facial expression momentarily after we began talking about the way negative emotional responses infect the team around you.

I wondered what was going on for him. Was it The Almond Effect®? He had just received some challenging information from his personal profile. And a co-facilitator had given him similar feedback about the negative emotional impact his management style had on others. I suspect the current conversation was ‘hitting a nerve' and resonating uncomfortably with him.

Do you notice someone going quiet?

He wasn't happy - that much was clear. His silence, the subtle shift in body language and eyes told me that he was withdrawing from the conversation.

I'm not sure how many others noticed. Certainly no-one in the rest of the group said anything.

And it got me wondering. How many meetings or discussions do we attend where someone simply holds back, doesn't do or say anything because they are in fight/flight/freeze mode?

We lose valuable input, ideas and challenges because, without effective self-management, we ourselves may experience The Almond Effect® when we see it in others.

Silent Saboteurs

We recognise The Almond Effect® when it shows up in explicit ways. For example, people become aggressive, walk out of meetings, go home sick, get together in the lunch room or via Facebook, send nastily toned emails, make mistakes or simply don't show up.

Yet withdrawal can be just as damaging because we no longer have full engagement, participation and contribution. In fact we may mistake someone's silence as implied agreement and consent to a course of action, when unknown to us, we have a silent saboteur in the room.

We are more likely to notice when an extrovert withdraws. But it can be harder to tell if an introverted thinker is simply thinking about the issue or has made a decision to withdraw their contribution.

How can we tell if the silence is golden or a problem?

How much time do you spend actively noticing emotional reactions in your interactions i.e. focussing beyond the content of what you want to say? We are all busy, we all need to get stuff done in a hurry. Looking for and responding to emotional cues requires focus and energy. So it's not surprising that we might miss some of the more subtle signals.

Yet I know that I am not the only one who has regretted not picking up on something in a conversation. Have you ever been there? At the extreme, it could result in a horrendous outcome - someone harms themselves because they are clinically depressed and we either haven't noticed or if we do, we think:' I haven't got time to deal with this now' or: ‘it's not my job to deal with this".

The Black Dog Institute encourages us to take the time to ask "R U OK?" when we notice that someone might be in a dark emotional space.

How can we become better at interpreting silences?

One way is to learn to really focus on what is going on beyond the actual words. Mindfulness is a skill that helps us develop self-awareness and self-management skills which in turn helps us master the ability the read the emotions of others.

It works by teaching us to how to keep control of our own emotions, minimise distracting thoughts and concentrate of what is happening around us at that moment.

If you go here you will find a simple explanation of mindfulness and some techniques to develop it.

Ask the right questions

Another leadership skill in these situations is to ask questions, the right questions of the quiet ones. If their withdrawal is caused by The Almond Effect® then your purpose is to actively engage them in a thinking activity which may help to dampen down the amygdalic activity. This means asking questions that are open-ended and require an answer.

Here are some to give you a flavour of what I'm thinking about here:

  • What roadblocks can you see with your area?
  • How will this be received in your team?
  • Specifically, thinking about how it impacts you/your area, what are the items we must take into account?
  • What would it take for this to gain traction in your area?
  • If you were me, what would you do about......

Getting your kids to open up

It is not just at work that people withdraw. In a recent workshop discussing the language of emotions and feelings, one participant shared a fabulous strategy to open the door for more meaningful conversations with our children.

Single word answers like ‘good', ‘OK', are not allowed in response to questions like: ‘How was school?,' ‘How are you feeling?', ‘What do you think about that?' What a smart parenting and leadership idea!

Monday, September 03, 2012

Does your subconscious mess with your career?

Never forget that your unconscious is smarter than you, faster than you, and more powerful than you. You will never know all its secrets.

Cordelia Fine: "A mind of its own" (Allen and Unwin)

Do you see people at work act illogically?

OK, I know - you see heaps of illogical behaviours at work but have you stopped to really try and understand where they come from?

We need to to look at this in connection with our emotional memories. The role that emotional memory plays in our everyday interactions and reactions is profound. Not only do our emotional memories cause us to react to perceptions of physical threat but also to certain people and events as well.

The emotional memory function is part of our brain's emotional centre, the limbic system. As you know, that is also where the amygdala is, the part of the brain that is responsible for our instant emotional responses, our ‘non- thinking' reactions.

We subconsciously use our emotional memories to help us recognise threats to our survival. I sometimes think of these memories as stored in our brain's ‘database of nasty things'. Emotional memories are made up of experiences, events, thoughts and feelings shaped and defined throughout our lives. When we form these memories in our childhood, we often do so with limited and inaccurate perception and then these distorted memories may come back to haunt us in our adult lives.

When a situation or a person triggers an emotional memory of a threat, our brain goes into overdrive to protect us. Often this reaction is outdated, over the top and not even related to the present circumstances. It's what I call The Almond Effect®.

Her new boss reminded her of her brother

Take this work scenario: Kylie had just been promoted. She had done such a great job in her time with the company that she was asked to train and manage a group of new staff. This meant a move in offices and a new manager. Kylie had heard great things about her new boss and was eager to impress.

Kylie arrived at the new office and was greeted by her new manager. At first, she was a little unsure of what to make of him. She was instantly intimidated which was unusual for Kylie, she even felt a little scared. She found it hard to communicate and was lost for words several times in their first meeting.

In fact, it was her emotional memory connecting the past to the present. Her new boss reminded Kylie of her eldest brother who throughout her childhood was dominating and physically abusive.

Kylie was petrified of her brother and those feelings flooded her brain when she met her new manager. This kind of emotional response is the brain's way of recognising and reacting to a perceived threat. The problem is that this threat though real once is not relevant to the present situation.

Sadly, after a few weeks, Kylie left the office emotionally shaken and convinced she could not work for her manager. She turned down the promotion and went back to her old job. The Almond Effect® had taken its toll and it wasn't until sometime afterwards that Kylie realised what had happened. Even then, knowing how her brain had sabotaged her, Kylie said she would still feel uncomfortable if she had to work for the new manager in the future.

Don't let past memories sabotage the present

Can you relate to Kylie's experience? I can. I recently worked for a client and I thought it quite odd that I found it difficult to make ‘small talk' face to face with him. It was really weird because we had been exchanging emails and having phone conversations quite successfully for many months before we actually met.

I couldn't work it out so I simply reminded myself that sometimes you have to work with a person who for no obvious reason you don't really connect with on a personal level, but that's life and you get on with the work, professionally.

It was only when we were having coffee one day and the client moved in a particular way that I ‘saw' the image of a person from my childhood. The penny dropped and the reasons for my feelings became clear. He reminded me of someone who also had caused me great distress when I was much younger.

When I shared this in a workshop one day, one of the participants also had an ‘ah ha' moment and said: "I hadn't even thought of it before. I hate the fact that because of the recent re-structure, I had to change workstations and now I don't have a window. And in a CLM (career limiting move), I kicked up a real fuss. I've just realised that when I was at school..." and then she told us about an emotional memory to do with sitting by a window, that she realised must have been subconsciously at work, in theory to protect her but in fact causing great unhappiness.

Fascinating isn't it? Think about situations or people who might be irritating you. I wonder if they are triggering an emotional memory buried deep in your limbic system? It might also be happening in your relationships outside of work.

Now you know, let it go

Becoming aware of what you are remembering and the feelings associated with that memory is the big first step to take back control over The Almond Effect ®. Take time to revisit the memory and ask yourself whether it is appropriate that the memory still controls you. It's unlikely to still be relevant so take time to tell your limbic system, thanks but no thanks for the future. Retrain your amygdala that this situation or person is no longer a threat. Get your logical, rational thinking brain working.


One final word - sometimes that ‘gut feel' or intuition that you can't put your finger on, may be coming from an emotional memory. If no amount of logical self-talk gets you past your concerns, they may be real. So talk to someone else and seek assistance to work out where the concerns are coming from. Then you'll take the appropriate action for the situation.

Wednesday, August 15, 2012

Get up for work or hit the snooze button?

Do your people love or hate their jobs? How long will they stay?

When the alarm buzzes to get you up for work, what’s your reaction?  Do you open your eyes to a world of endless possibilities or do you hit the snooze button and contemplate calling in sick?  What do you think your employees do?

The people you work with, your work environment and your own emotional intelligence will influence what we do.  If our work place is filled with anxiety, anger and fear then we are unlikely to wake up full of enthusiasm.  We’ll more likely hit ‘snooze’ than leap out of bed ready to take on the world.

On the other hand, what if people at our workplace, especially managers, respect and understand of the role of emotions and conduct themselves in tune with the concepts of emotional intelligence (EQ)?

It is a statement of the obvious but managing people is essentially about understanding and managing emotions: our own, our employees and our colleagues.  That’s EQ. If EQ is missing, especially in managers, then the price is likely to be high - dwindling commitment, productivity, profits and high staff turnover.

Lousy managers are often victims of The Almond Effect®

Managers or leaders with low EQ and a low capacity to manage their reactions are often at the mercy of The Almond Effect®.  This is when our emotional centre, the amygdala, reacts to everyday situations as though our lives absolutely depended on it.  Maybe it is more aptly described as over-reacting. From an organizational perspective, this can be immensely damaging. 

For example, you probably know someone like, let’s call him, Rick. He is a manager who likes things done his way.  He is results focussed and has little time for alternative approaches to his way of doing things.  He has the final say on decisions to do with his team and he doesn’t like being challenged.  Does this conjure up a picture of anyone for you?

During one meeting, a member of his team offered her opinion on how things could be run more efficiently within the team. Rick didn’t like the idea simply because it went against his own.  He shot down the idea but then the rest of the team agreed with her.  Rick felt backed into a corner and became angry and upset.   He refused to hear any more on the topic.

Are you surprised that Rick’s team is often reduced due to mysterious sick days?  And what do you think the chances are in future for creative and innovative input from the team?

Cruelly our reaction often brings on the very thing we are afraid of

I think Rick’s heavy-handed reaction to his team likely stems from his emotional memories.  As a member of a competitive family, he always had to fight to get his ideas accepted. It was the same at the school he went to. And when his ideas weren’t taken up, he always felt miserable, left out and missing out on the accolades.

Rick noticed in his previous roles that his teams were not particularly innovative but he didn’t think it was to do with him. It was because they were so busy! His current team soon realised that every time his ideas were questioned or challenged, he became over sensitive and reacted aggressively.  So they now simply keep their mouths shut.

Why do people refuse to listen to other ideas?

Rick has a deep-seated fear of not being respected and major doubts about his self worth and the value of his input.  His amygdala interprets this as a threat to his job and so to his survival. In an ironic twist, his fear translates into aggression that brings about the very reaction he is afraid of: lack of respect, no new ideas to get runs on the board and his job on the line. His aggressive behaviour is the result of his brain’s survival instinct kicking in and manifests as being closed to the team’s input.
In the workplace, aggression is a potent and paralysing emotion that can render even the most rational person inept.  It is often an irrational reaction triggered by your emotional memory. But the price is high.

If you are having difficulties retaining employees, check the emotional pulse of the organisation, starting with managers and team leaders...and yourself.

Tuesday, July 31, 2012

Why don't you quit your job - you know you want to .

Seriously, how many of you want to quit your job and get another but are procrastinating for some reason?

Do you say to yourself: "It's not the right time, I've just come back from leave, they were really understanding when my mother died, they were generous when we had our baby, I don't want to let my team down, I'd feel like a rat leaving a sinking ship. What would I do? What else can I do? I'm too old or not old enough, haven't got enough experience, am overqualified, they paid for my Masters, my boss would bad mouth me etc. I will do it soon."

Any of those phrases resonate with you?

Why are you holding back?

The problem with this dilemma is that you are probably unhappy, getting grumpy with your family, are dissatisfied with what you are achieving, hate going to work, feeling stressed and tense and not performing in your job to the best of your ability.

In the worst case scenarios, you could end up alienating the people at work who you want to ask to give you a reference or even precipitate some performance management counselling. At the least you are increasing your chances of a stress induced illness.

What's holding you back?

It's probably The Almond Effect® - your inbuilt human survival system is mistaking the thought of changing jobs for an ambush of sabre-tooth tigers and showing up as avoidance, delay, excuses - in other words, you're resisting change and finding plenty of valid reasons to do so. Is that you?

Have you changed jobs before?

If you've moved on to other roles in the past, please think about how that worked out.

You might have been unlucky and it was not a good move. If that is the case, then the STAR suggestions are definitely for you.

If you have successfully changed jobs in the past, then in addition to STAR, think about what is the same about your current situation and what is different?

What was good about the previous move? What wasn't? What were you afraid of then, if anything, and how is that different to this time? What can you build on out of that past experience?

Use the STAR approach to sort this out

  • Stop: You have to find a circuit breaker to stop the worry words from dominating your thought process.

Curiously the best way to do this is to focus on the feelings you have and put a name to what you actually are experiencing.

Naming your emotion calms down your amygdala and engages your pre-frontal cortex.

Then you can...

  • Think: Once you've put your ‘almonds' on hold, now think carefully about why you are feeling the way you are.

What evidence is there to say that the feeling is justified? If there is,  how much have you developed personally since the last time you changed jobs?

Considerably I am sure and now you are much better able to manage the situation and any negative impacts that you went through last time.

You stand a better chance of managing your emotions if you ...

  • Act: Do something instead of justthinking about it. Set aside time to update your resume. Think about the kind of employer you would like to work for. sSan the job websites to see what jobs are out there that appeal to you. Let me know if you would like the name of someone who can help you with this.

Next, cut out or print some job ads that could interest you. Study them and highlight the parts of the job that really excite you, that you can already do and the parts that would challenge you. Make sure there are plenty of the latter.

Then start applying even if you haven't decided 10% to leave.  Test yourself in the market - it might help you make up your mind what to do.

  • Rewire:Every time you have either an interview that doesn't go so well or a ‘not at this time' note, review what you are doing well and what you can do differently.

If you take the time to do this and focus on thinking about and repeating the actions that are working for you, you'll strengthen those new synaptic connections which will make the whole change job process easier each time.

You can't erase the fear yet

Neuroscientists are getting closer every day to understanding how our amygdalae work and how it will be possible to eradicate bad memories.

When they can do that, we'll have the ethical question about whether we can have some neuro-cosmetic intervention to allow us to selectively inhibit our responses to certain stimuli.

Until then, if you are unhappy in your job or simply need to move on for more experience, more money and/or a fresh challenge, don't let The Almond Effect® stop you.

It evolved for us to stave off real predators not the ones you imagine will jump out at you when you hand in your notice.

Monday, July 23, 2012

Are you a stressed out manager?

Are you a good stress manager? You need to be to keep your people engaged.

You may be one of those lucky people who never feel stressed. If that’s you, that’s fabulous – although you might want to check with your family and the people who work for you to see if they agree based on what they see.

Stress is a natural and normal part of our lives. But if your heart constantly races, your shoulders are always tight, your tummy is a tangle of knots, you haven’t slept properly for ages, you continually feel sick, on edge, weepy, angry etc, then your amygdala is triggering physical warning signs that you need to take notice of.

It’s The Almond Effect®, the inappropriate activation of our survival response. This fight or flight reaction is designed to help us in life threatening and dangerous situations. At those times, our amygdala triggers the release of chemicals and hormones to heighten our awareness and give us a jolt of power and strength to protect ourselves from the threat. It’s a short-term solution to a short-term threat.

However if we don’t manage longer term stress that comes from work or home situations, our bodies stay in a stressed or alert state for much longer periods of time than is safe for us to cope with. We end up exacerbating the situation and doing even more harm to ourselves.

Not only your health but your job may be at risk

Symptoms of stress are like a smoke alarm going off. We need to do something about it, immediately. If we delay and allow stress to turn into distress, not only will we experience a negative impact on our health and personal relationships but it may prove to be a career limiting move  - especially if you have aspirations to move up the corporate ladder.

Your stress impacts engagement

Why? Failure to deal with your own stress could seriously influence how people feel about working with you and for you.

One of the key elements in retaining good people and keeping them engaged is your ability to manage your stress so that it doesn’t affect the people around you.

Who wants to go to work not knowing whether the boss will be ‘up’ or ‘down’, approachable or not, communicative or sullen, energetic or lethargic, short-tempered or easy-going, acknowledging good work or not even noticing, empathetic or distant, clear in what they want (or don’t want) or has fuzzy thinking?

A statement of the obvious? Of course! Yet some people-managers think that stress is a weakness and deny its existence even when it is demonstrably clear to everyone around them that they are stressed out.

They often try to suppress or ignore the signals usually with very sad longer-term health consequences.

You damage yourself, your people and your organisation

Even employees with the highest level of self-awareness and management are worn down dealing with the actual or potential ramifications of your stress. And as the economy strengthens and regains traction, retaining our best employees and keeping all our people engaged will continue to be a major issue.

 So what to do about it

These are the fantastic tips from Kay Wilhelm of the Black Dog Institute.

1. Work out priorities
Keep a list - make the tasks possible. Prioritise the tasks in order of importance and tick off when done. Include the important people in your life as priorities and attend to these relationships.

2. Identify your stress situations
Make a list of events that leave you emotionally drained, with one or two ways to reduce the stress for each. When they occur, use them as an opportunity to practise your stress reduction techniques, then, keep notes on what works for next time.

3. Learn to ‘reframe’ statements: Don't react to imagined insults
It is a waste of time and energy to be oversensitive to imagined insults, innuendo or sarcasm. Give people the benefit of the doubt; talk over the situation with someone you trust. They may have another spin on what was said.

4. Think before you commit yourself to other people's expectations
We can often perform tasks merely to feel accepted by other people. Practice saying "no" to requests that are unreasonable or more than you can handle at the time - rather than suffer subsequent regrets and stress. Consider whether you should learn to rely less on the approval of others, again, talk this over with someone you trust.

5. Move on: Don't dwell on past mistakes
Feelings of guilt, remorse and regret cannot change the past and they make the present difficult by sapping your energy. Make a conscious effort to do something to change the mood (eg mindfulness technique or something active you enjoy) when you feel yourself drifting into regrets about past actions. Learn from it and have strategies in place for next time. Learn to forgive yourself for past mistakes.

6. Learn to defuse anger and frustrations rather than bottle them up
Express and discuss your feelings to the person responsible for your agitation. If it is impossible to talk it out, plan for some physical activity at the end of the working day to relieve tensions. Let go of grudges –they do not affect the potential victim because he does not necessarily know about them. However, the grudge-bearer pays a price in energy and anxiety just thinking about revenge.

7. Set aside time each day for recreation and exercise
Gentle repetitive exercise such as walking, swimming, cycling are good to relieve stress. Meditation, yoga, Pilates and dance are also excellent. The trick is to find what suits you best. Hobbies that focus attention are also good stress relievers. Take up a new activity unrelated to your current occupation, one that gives you a sense of achievement and satisfaction. Establish new friends in your newly found interest. There are handouts with a range of techniques for relaxation and mindfulness on the Black Dog Institute website that you can use.

8. Take your time: don't let people rush you
Frenzied activities lead to errors, regrets, stress. Request time to orient yourself to the situation. At work, if rushed, ask people to wait until you finish working or thinking something out. Plan ahead to arrive at appointments early, composed and having made allowances for unexpected hold-ups. Practice approaching situations ‘mindfully’.

9. Take your time on the road: Don't be an aggressive car driver
Develop an "I will not be ruffled" attitude. Drive defensively and give way to bullies. Near misses cause stress and strain, so does the fear of being caught for speeding. If possible avoid peak hour traffic. If caught in it, relax by concentrating on deep (stomach) breathing or ‘mindful driving’ (using mindfulness technique, also available on website). Advanced driving lessons can be useful.

10. Help children and young people to cope with stress
Children need the experience of being confronted with problems to try out, and improve their ability to cope. By being overprotective or by intervening too soon, parents may prevent young people from developing valuable tolerance levels for problems, or from acquiring problem-solving skills.

11. Think positively – you get what you expect
Smile whenever possible –it’s an inexpensive way of improving your looks and how you feel. Try and find something positive to say about a situation, particularly if you are going to find fault. You can visualise situations you have handled well and hold those memories in your mind when going into stressful situations.

12. Cut down on drinking, smoking, sedatives and stimulants
They only offer temporary relief and don’t solve the problem. They can create more problems in terms of physical and mental health. Consider the effects you are looking for (sedation or stimulation) and how else you can achieve them

It’s your life and job on the line

Your ability to manage stress is not just an issue for you and your family. It is critical to effective leadership. Your impact on staff will lead to good people staying or going and whether they perform at their optimal levels.

I strongly believe that great leadership starts with crystal clear awareness about ourselves, our emotions, our responses and our ability to manage ourselves for optimal health and performance.
Isn’t it fantastic that mastering stress and mental well-being is not only essential for yourself but will have a hugely positive effect on the people around you and their performance? And that can only be a good thing for your career.

I’d love to know if you found this blog useful and any other topics you’d like to read about.

Wednesday, July 11, 2012

You are so predictable!

The power of patterns

The Almond Effect® is when our amygdala recognises a pattern in its most rudimentary form, instantly assesses that it might pose a threat to our ‘survival’ and causes us to react inappropriately to the ‘danger’.

Of course, everyday our brain relies on stressless non-thinking patterns that don't trigger The Almond Effect so we can get on with our lives. That’s why we are ‘creatures of habit’. We get into ways of behaving, patterns, because then we don’t have to think about it, we just ‘do’.  It’s less stressful and takes up less brain energy.

Change, even good change, is demanding

Yet anyone who has ever tried to change their diet or give up cigarettes, move to a new city, take on a new work role, learn a new language, work with different software, study a new subject, improve a long used swimming style (or your golf swing!)as I am trying to do now, and a myriad of other examples – you know how demanding and tiring making those changes can be. Your brain finds it draining.

Even good changes, eg getting a great new boss or work colleague can be difficult as your brain has already laid down patterns of behaviour attached to working with the previous person. And that's why it's hard to get people to change at work and indeed, at home.

We prefer the status quo

Unless we are highly motivated and determinedly ‘think’ our way to persist and be resilient during the challenges of laying down new patterns, our brain will always prefer to rely on existing patterns rather than have to learn and lay down new ones.

That’s why if we don’t maintain the determination to keep trying, we (and our people) just slip back into the old ways. It’s simply easier – and, automatic!

Patterns are our default

For example, we lay down multiple new brain patterns when we are learning to drive, but once we have mastered the skills, it’s easy and becomes almost a ‘non active thinking’ skill.

How many times have you driven somewhere and didn’t even notice the journey as your mind was pre-occupied with something else. Scary at times! But if you were driving in another country where they drive on the other side of the road, I suspect you’d be concentrating on every metre – until your brain had ‘got’ the new pattern!

Same thing happens at work – we get into ways of working and behaviours that make work life easier for us and then rarely think about them – especially if the patterns deliver results.

Shrieking Sharapova

One of many great sporting examples of this is Maria Sharapova.  She, like many other tennis players and other sportspeople, have a pattern that they repeat before every shot. And I mean every one.
Between each shot, she walks to the back of the court. Then, if serving she selects the tennis ball she is going to use to serve and approaches the base line. She takes a breath, looks at the part of the court she is serving to, slowly bounces the ball on the court twice, and then serves.

Every time! It is fascinating. Clearly she uses this pattern to get focussed, get her nerves and adrenaline under control and make winning shots. Though even when she is losing, she never breaks the routine.

Isn’t that interesting? This is a conscious use of a brain pattern that she knows usually works, even when it isn’t actually delivering the results, to make sure that she doesn't lose her cool, fall prey to The Almond Effect® and do something rash, impulsive, without thinking and contrary to her years of training.

 Manager's patterns aren’t always helpful

The challenge with patterns is that because they happen without thinking, sometimes we don’t realise the impact of our behaviours (patterns) on others.
For example, the manager who never looks up when someone comes into their office – what message does that pattern send to the staff member? The CEO who never makes any announcements that have any good news – what signal does that pattern send to staff? What do you think is their state of mind, their expectation, whenever the CEO indicates their intention to make an announcement or visit?

Other examples:

Managers who don’t work with their team to formulate new organisational strategies because “what’s the point, the CEO will do it his way anyway.” And he does. Why would you be surprised when these managers complain that the CEO is an autocrat and he complains that they don’t co-operate. Both parties are set in their own patterns of behaviour, both reinforcing each other's.

What about trying to improve safety by changing uniforms in a manufacturing environment? What if the employees are used to uniforms with long sleeves and you want them to wear short sleeves. Or vice versa? Seems on the face of it like a small thing. Yet because of the change required in mental patterns (try listing them from the employees' point of view), such a request can present real challenges for managers implementing change.

We have unhelpful patterns we're not even conscious of

And outside work. Have you ever said something like: I don’t like sour cream on potatoes – but in fact have never tasted it?  Or "I’ve always vote Liberal" or "Labor" as the case may be – why? Because your parents always did.

Where do those choices/patterns come from and what makes us stop, or not stop, and review them? You know you have a pattern that you’ve never reviewed when you say or think to yourself: “I’ve never really thought about it”. Or someone says to you: you are so predictable and you're staggered that you are!

So how predictable are you?

In fact, have you ever thought or said to someone else: “you’re so predictable”. How often has anyone ever said that to you? Do you just ‘know’ how someone is going to react to a certain situation, what they are going to say? Would they say the same about you?

It’s hard work to lay down new patterns especially if the old ones seem to have worked well enough so far. The first step to overcoming the negative and stressful impacts of The Almond Effect is to stop and reflect on what’s going on for you at that moment. It’s about developing self-awareness. It’s about looking at what automatic behaviours you engage in, or what automatic assumptions you make, without thinking, just on reflex.

Try this

Ask a trusted work colleague if they can predict how you would react (behave) if:
 - a new IT system was introduced
 - a new manager was hired from outside over internal competition
 - your boss got a new expensive car
 - you were asked to stay  - back late for the third night in a row. 

You know the kind of examples I’m thinking of.

And what about at home: what’s predictable? About you? About someone you share your home with?
Not that there is anything wrong with predictability. As I mentioned at the beginning of this post, patterns help us live our lives less stressfully, usually.

Good leaders try to discover and reflect on their patterns

In order to change and to build leadership skills, we must develop and hone the ability to reflect on our patterns, good and bad, and assess their impact on others and how much they contribute towards our goals.

Sometimes understanding this can be the most important step we can take towards becoming a great manager.

Wednesday, July 04, 2012

Are you a bad decision-maker?

What Sharks can teach us about Decision Making

Two questions for you:

1.      Do you consider yourself to be a good decision maker? Yes or No?

2.      Would you go swimming at the world famous Bondi Beach in Australia when a shark has been seen in the area?

Yes or No?

If you answered Yes to question one and No to question 2 then I want you to reconsider your first answer.

And I also want you to consider: Are you really as good a decision-maker as you think you are? 

Risk, Reality and The Almond Effect®

Many people answer No to the second question because of The Almond Effect® which compromises our ability to evaluate risk because we are not thinking clearly, if at all.

The chances of getting killed by a shark are infinitesimally small. A non-fatal attack on Bondi Beach in 2009 was the first in 86 years.

The fatality rate in the early 20th century was 3.8 a year in Australia. In the early 21st century that statistic has decreased to 1.2 deaths each year Australia wide even though every year, due to population increases, better transport and a continuing love of the outdoors, a greater number of people swim in the ocean, race in ocean swim challenges (like me!), paddle beyond the break on surf boards, dive and snorkel, kayak and fish dangling bait off the back of boats.

And of course, there are other reasons for the decreased mortality rates including smaller shark populations, netted beaches, no sewerage being dumped off the coast, faster rescues (if you're at a patrolled beach) and better emergency medical care.

Decision making involves the assessment of risk

So logically, there is very little risk at all if you are one of the thousands of people who every week, 52 weeks a year, year in year out, swim at Bondi, one beach out of 35,000 kms of Australian coastline.

But our brains are hard-wired for survival and most of our amygdalae have seen Jaws or at least heard of it. Or have picked up on other people's fear of sharks and so, just to be on the safe side, our brains have popped these images and fears into our own databases of things to be frightened of.

Lodge this data into your thinking brain:
In 2000 - 2006 the number of deaths caused by:
  • Horses: 40
  • Cows: 20
  • Dogs: 12
  • Sharks: 10
  • Snakes: 3 - 4
  • Bees: 2 - 3
  • Road accidents: 1616 (in 2007)

  • Drowning: 400 times greater risk than being taken by a shark
  • Shark experts' assessment of risk of being attacked by a shark: 264.1 million to 1
Source: AFR Jan 31- Feb 1 2009

Logically it is much safer to swim at the iconic Bondi Beach than to do almost anything else, including travelling by any means to get there.

But unless you are a STAR and have mastered your primeval hard-wiring, my guess is that, even if you do get safely to the beach and go into the water, you now stay close to shore and stay between the red flags - and the Lifeguards are grateful for that!

Emotions, Decision Making and Veto power

The link between sharks and decision making is that you can't make decisions in the absence of feelings. People who say they can are either kidding themselves, have learned the art of managing their emotions or simply don't know what the neuroscientists tell us about the way our brain works.

The key to good decision making is to acknowledge and deal with the feelings attached to any decision in a calm considered way and not simply by default. Let me explain.

We know from the work of Joseph le Doux that healthy brains react emotionally first.

Our brain's default position is to minimize danger and maximize reward.

But Benjamin Libet who conducted various neuroscientific experiments from 1983 until his death in 2007 gave us another piece of the brain puzzle. He concluded that we have the power of Veto over our brain's default position.

You can chose your response

This Veto power is at the heart of my STAR method for managing The Almond Effect® - training ourselves to choose our response to a situation as opposed to simply reacting without thinking.

Libet found (and other researchers have subsequently confirmed) that from the moment something enters our brains through our senses for processing until the moment we become consciously aware of it and have a desire to respond is about .2 to .3 of a second.

Libet says we will respond to that stimulus on default in about .5 of a second.

That means we have about .2 of a second to recognise the stimulus for what it is, then choose to override the default position and select the best course of action to take to get the best outcomes.

But you have to choose quickly

So in a situation where our amygdala perceives a threat (eg a snake or a piece of black hosepipe), we have .2 of a second to ascertain whether it is a real threat or simply The Almond Effect® kicking in - to ascertain whether the ‘threat' is truly imperilling our lives or it just feels like it at that instant on the limbic system's fast and cursory review of past experiences.

In that .2 of a second we can go with the default reaction (jump back or hit it with a spade) or choose what not to do i.e. exercise a power of Veto over our brain's automatic survival mechanism by quickly focussing attention on the object, registering that it's just a piece of pipe and therefore choosing to ignore it.

Veto Power in action

What this means is that whether we are about to go swimming at Bondi Beach or are confronted with an angry employee, a request for a ‘quick meeting' from the boss, a ‘can I talk to you' phone call from your spouse, an imminent performance management meeting, a ‘look' from your manager or any number of situations that your amygdala can misinterpret, we have .2 of a second to focus attention and then choose our response.

For an instant we can be a fly on the wall, an impartial observer, someone on the outside looking in.

We can then simply do nothing and go with our default flight/fight/freeze or flock reaction.

Or we can be a STAR

  • We can Stop - notice that our amygdala is on red alert - we might be shaking, heart racing, blushing, feeling instantly sick etc.     
  • Then Think - i.e. do something to calm ourselves down so we can access the logical part of our brains.
  • Only then will we Act, do what we choose to do.
  • Later on, we'll Rewire, reflect on the situation, on what we learned and embed the positive responses or think of ways to prevent any unhelpful reactions.

What kinds of decisions are made under economic pressure?

Personally I'm much more concerned with bluebottles than sharks.

And I'm much more concerned about the decisions of some employers and managers under economic pressure, who fail to acknowledge and take into account the impact that their personal fears and insecurities on the quality of their decision-making. These are people who do not understand the power of Veto and the STAR methodology.

Coaches and Mentors have a major role to play here, to hold up a mirror of reflection and ask decision-makers to honestly assess the feelings that they have that underlie the decisions they make.

However it happens, assessing the impact of our emotions and experiences on our decisions would be a significant step forward in the challenge to rebuild confidence in our economic future.

Share the concept of the Veto power and STAR with decision-makers everywhere you can. And don't be afraid to go swimming at Bondi Beach!

"Anne delivered a thought provoking session on the Almond Effect at our conference. Participants were clearly engaged and went away with some tools to help them respond rather than react to situations thrown upon them. Anne practiced what she preached when so many changes had to be made to the timing of the session, thanks to delays in participant arrivals due to cyclonic conditions. Anne handled the challenges in her usual no nonsense style." Rita Williams Career & Capability Manager Simplot Australia Pty Limited

Wednesday, June 27, 2012

Why some meetings are a waste of time

Tunnel vision of the grey matter

Peter unashamedly was reading email on his Blackberry in a team meeting. He thought the meetings were a total waste of time. The team leader asked everyone for their point of view but, unless it accorded with his own, their opinions were ignored or worst still, met with a cynical or sarcastic remark or look!

As Peter said to one of his team mates: ‘The man has got tunnel vision of the grey matter!' Interestingly, he may be right!

How our brain filters stuff out

According to an article in Wired by Jonah Lehrer there could be some truth in Peter's comments. He has an interesting explanation for why we often see or hear only what we want to see or hear.
We know that our amygdala responds to emotionally significant events that involve some sort of threat to us. Our amygdala continuously assesses whether something is a true life/death or physical risk to us.

And because the amygdala does not distinguish between physical and psychological threat, it also actively assesses threat levels in non-physical risk situations like an email from a client, a look from a colleague or the words of the boss.

In both physical and non-physical situations, if the amygdala activates the threat response and we react without using our thinking brain (pre frontal cortex) resulting in inappropriate behaviours, I call that The Almond Effect®.

Sometimes our intuition is wrong

However it seems that there are times when we don't want to accept what we hear or see because it doesn't accord with our expectations or our reality, so our brain carefully edits them out, instead ‘searching for evidence that confirms what we already believe.'

Lehrer describes an experiment conducted by Kevin Dunbar in 2003 at Dartmouth College. Dunbar showed students two video clips of two different sized balls falling to the ground. In one clip the balls hit the ground at the same time. In the other the heavier ball landed first. The students were asked to select the more accurate representation of the law of gravity.

Those students who were not versed in physics believed that it was unrealistic that the balls would land at the same time, an intuition that strikes a chord with me.

However it is wrong as the science shows (Galileo and Newton) that once the balls reach a critical velocity, they would travel at the same rates and so the scenario where they would land together is correct.

You and your ACC and DLPFC

The part of the brain that registers errors and contradictions is the ACC (anterior cingulate cortex). It gets turned on when we see or hear or in any way sense that something is wrong and doesn't fit with our patterns of experience. I have heard neuroscientists describe it as the ‘Oh Sh*t' response.

But Dunbar found that there is another part of our brain, the DLPFC (dorsolateral prefrontal cortex) that is also involved. When it is activated, it suppresses thoughts that don't square with our preconceptions.

As Lehrer so eloquently puts it, if the ACC is the "Oh Sh*T" circuit, then the DLPFC is the ‘delete' key.

Don't waste your time arguing

Now maybe my DLPFC is helping me out here, but this seems like a great explanation about how people behave when they don't seem to hear or see something that doesn't accord with their point of view.

And perhaps, significantly, it's the differentiating factor between managers who can master their DLPFC and say, ‘that's impossible' and those who say, ‘that's interesting - I wonder why you think that may be possible.'

Clearly the latter attitude is the one more likely to be open to innovative ideas, solve difficult complex problems and demonstrate great leadership.

So maybe Peter was right and those meetings are just a waste of time if the boss is only interested in their own point of view.

I suspect we all suffer from ‘tunnel vision of the grey matter' occasionally but at least you now know why!

And maybe we need to check our own DLPFC if we can't resolve a difficult sitation. Are we in fact stuck because we are filtering out other ways of looking at the situation?

Time to put the headlights on!

Tuesday, June 19, 2012

Dealing with Resistance to Change

Do you make these errors?

Most organizations make two fatal errors when it comes to dealing with resistance to change. First, they under-estimate the strength of current patterns that are comfortable and familiar to employees. Second, they also under-estimate what will be required to change those patterns and deal with the automatic, though sometimes subtle, fight or flight responses that occur when employees interpret changes as threats.

Our brains are hard wired to do three things: match patterns, resist or fight any threats to survival, and respond first with emotion over logic. So how can you get employees to rewire their brains and build new neural-pathways that will support change initiatives?

Neurobiologists can show, using brain scans, that rational decision making is inextricably intertwined with emotions. Human beings are primarily emotional and secondarily rational, so emotions call the shots in business and in life. Unless an organization accepts and addresses this reality, managing change with an emphasis on logic not emotion will not diminish resistance to organizational change.

Does your organisation reinforce fear of change?

Let me ask you to reflect. What does YOUR organisation do to reinforce people's fears and passions about change? What do you do to rewire their neural-pathways? How have you been reinforcing their resistance to change? What are you doing to encourage changeability?

What subconscious patterns have been laid down by you or your organization that might invoke your employees' amygdalae and build up their resistance? Do you only call them into your office to deliver them bad news? If so, don't be surprised if their hackles are up and they are already on the defensive before they even get into your office.

Does the CEO only communicate to announce bad news or to announce that the company is in a difficult situation? Does a departmental meeting usually mean bad news and more work? Is the appearance of the human resources director only ever associated with retrenchments? Even in these examples it is easy to see how employees may be on the defensive regardless of the real facts when they see a message from the CEO, a department meeting called or the HR director walking around.

What can you do?

Let me make a few suggestions. Say your change initiative is to vary your value proposition from high volume/low margin to innovation and first to market. In other words you want your people to be more creative and take a few risks in developing new products and finding new ways to deliver to the customer. Now this could be pretty challenging when the previous approach had put accuracy and dependability above all things. Patterns have been set up to expect reward fornot taking risk.

My suggestion would be that if you encounter resistance from people to this change, i.e. from playing it safe to risk takers, you have to reframe the situation as threatening.

For example: our market share has fallen and competition is overtaking us because of its cost effectiveness. We can't match their efficiencies without pain so we need to have either new products or better service to regain market share. If we can't do this, then we'll have to cut costs, and that will mean jobs.

Focus on their emotional response

In other words, focus on shifting the emotional response. Challenge their existing neural pathways and engage their amygdalae by showing why the change is

(a) Urgent (b) Will ensure the company's survival

Challenge pre-existing patterns and memories, address history, look at the good things that have occurred, validate them and then show why the patterns need to change.

Build in ways to reinforce the new patterns. Milestones reached, goals kicked. Have celebrations - connect new patterns with good emotional memories not bad ones. But don't be surprised if this seems to take a long time.

Our brains do have plasticity. Our brains can be retrained, but remember any new neural pathway has to be strongly embedded before it becomes easy and clear to follow and becomes our natural choice.

Wednesday, June 13, 2012

Should you f@#^ing swear at work?

Frankly, my dear, I don’t give a !@#$%

So said Rhett (Clark Gable) to Scarlett in ‘Gone with the Wind’ in 1939. And this line was voted the number one movie line number one movie line of all time by the American Film Institute in 2005.

One reason for its infamy was that it contained a swear word – just about unheard of in a movie or on-stage in those days.

Fast forward to the 21stC: swearing is commonplace - on the street, at work, on TV, at the movies and on stage. In fact I just saw the play “Riflemind” by Andrew Upton – and by the end of it I wondered if there were any words in the English language other than foul ones!

While it’s acceptable to many, some people are still uncomfortable with this form of communication. If you need to some alternative ways to express angst at work, look here

But maybe you should keep on or even take up swearing. What if it’s good for you...?

Swearing at work – a stress management tool?

Organizations have a range of approaches to swearing at work. Some workplaces don’t directly address it. In others, a code of conduct might require employees to treat each other with respect, courtesy and without harassment. Or a term of the employment contract might be to uphold the values, integrity and reputation of the company.

The problem is that such general wording in policies can cause problems as everyone has a different standard, and the whole issue can become very subjective and very personal.

Let it all out – it’s good for you

So it was interesting to read some research that says swearing at work can be of benefit to staff; that the use of expletives helps employees let off steam, boosts morale and can reduce stress.

In fact, Yehuda Baruch, professor of management at the University of East Anglia warned bosses that any moves to prevent workers from swearing could have a negative impact.

Fascinating assertion. So how far do you go? Is it OK to swear out loud in the lunch room? At a meeting? At a peer? At a junior staff member? At the boss? At the customer?

The professor answers with this: "In most scenarios, in particular in the presence of customers or senior staff, profanity must be seriously discouraged or banned.”

"Managers need to understand how their staff feel about swearing. The challenge is to master the art of knowing when to turn a blind eye to communication that does not meet with their own standards."

Not helpful Professor – better look at their amygdalae

Personally I don’t think that’s too helpful a guide for managers. So I looked to see what I could find out about how the brain processes swearing to see if there are any clues there.

Steven Pinker in his book “The Stuff of Thought” (Allen Lane) says that swearing makes the brain pay attention.

Pinker considers that words’ literal meanings may be concentrated in the thinking part of the brain, the neocortex, especially in the left hemisphere. But their connotations are not just in the thinking area but linked to the amygdala, which as we know is a primitive area of the brain that helps to give memories emotion.

The research reports that in brain scans, the amygdala lights up when a person sees an angry face or hears an unpleasant word such as a taboo swear word. These evoke emotional responses and even reading a swear word causes the brain to involuntarily sit up and pay attention. In other words, The Almond Effect® in action.


And I realize now that this reaction is exploited by retail clothing brands such as FCUK. Every time you use a swear word (or something that on first pass looks like a swear word – remember how quickly the limbic system makes its assessments?), you are, in effect, giving an emotional whack to the person who hears it.

Do we want to allow emotional whacking at work?

Well we don’t allow physical whacking at work, so why would we allow or encourage more ‘mental’ whacking at work than already goes on? If we encourage people to swear at work as a way to manage stress, could we be doing more overall harm than good?

Even if the swearer is using the language as part of their everyday vocabulary and/or does not mean it aggressively – we can’t know how it will impact on anyone hearing it because we don’t know how the listeners’ amygdalae react to swearing.

What’s acceptable?

I asked some people how they felt at work about people swearing around them or to them and they gave quite complicated responses.  For example Greyer said it’s OK for people to swear if they are just saying ‘s***’ or the equivalent when they are late, get their finger jammed, receive an email from their boss and so on.

But Jaime said he hates it when people are talking about others and saying things like: What an ‘a*!@#$%^”. Or that f***** ***** etc. Reeta said she couldn't care less.

Then Greyer added the swearers don’t even have to be aggressive when swearing to make her feel really uncomfortable. It can just be their everyday language but all the same, Greyer hates it.

These and many more examples just confirmed for me that whether swearing at work is acceptable and useful as a stress management tool is so context and individually driven as to be almost impossible to resolve.

Why don't you ask the people around you when, where and with whom wearing is and is not acceptable at work. I am sure you'll get a huge range of responses.

Add the look on their faces

Usually when people swear, the accompanying look on their face is one of anger, irritation, annoyance, embarrassment etc. All these looks are fear-based expressions.  And that can be a challenge. Some other research just published confirms what we are probably already aware of: our brains process a look of fear on someone’s face much faster than any other expression.

Here’s how the researcher, Dr David Zald, a psychologist from Vanderbilt University in Nashville put it:

“Fearful eyes are a particular shape. You get more of the whites of the eye showing. That may be the sort of simple feature that the amygdala can pick up on, because it’s only getting a fairly crude representation. That fearful eye may be something that’s relatively hardwired in there.”

So the angry face (or swear word) may trigger The Almond Effect in others. And we’ve explored several times in CLUES the idea that emotions are contagious. So if someone is swearing, even if they are not afraid, their words may trigger off fear reactions in others and the consequent aggressive/defensive reactions, i.e. feelings of discomfort, annoyance, irritation or even anger.

Stress relief or fear provoker?

Most workplaces encourage communication, teamwork and empathy. Swearing at or around others doesn’t seem to me to be a good enabler!

I think that Professor Baruch’s warning that any moves to prevent workers from swearing could have a negative impact may be true for the individual who needs to deal with his or her ‘Almonds’ but if they need to swear I’d be encouraging the stressed worker to find a private space and not let it all rip in front of anyone at all.

Apart from the apprehension it might cause in others, it also makes you look like someone not in control and with a very limited vocabulary.

The better option for managers

So do you personally swear at work? Is that what you want others to do? Do you have any explicit boundaries in place? Do you know how swearing affects others in your team? Are you sure when you say: it doesn’t bother anyone?

Remember from our discussion on mirror neurons that our staff will take their behaviour cues from what they observe their bosses doing?

So stay calm yourself. Model what it means to be emotionally intelligent enough to consider the impact of emotional outbursts on others and how that might make them feel and react. Show how it is possible to stay in control without swearing or doing anything that sets off a fear reaction in others.

Remind yourself that emotionally intelligent leaders are the ones who get their people to perform and remain engaged.

Work with your team on dealing with the stress or angst triggers and situations that trigger their amygdalae in the first place. Get them to identify the stress points. Coach them in ways to avoid stress altogether. Keep it in perspective. Breathe. Count to 10. There are lots of tips in Where Did That Come From?

Of course, you could just say that’s all too hard so "@#$%^ it!”