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