Friday, November 22, 2013

Is it OK to 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. This line was voted the 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 today: swearing is commonplace - on the street, at work, on TV, at the movies and on stage. In fact I just saw "Riflemind" by Andrew Upton - and by the end of that play 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 hang 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 as 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 emotional content.

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, what I call The Almond Effect® in action.


And I realize now that this reaction is exploited by retail clothing brands such as FCUK (French Connection).

Every time you use or hear a swear word or something that  looks or sounds like one, your limbic system quickly assesses what it's hearing and gives 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, it 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 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 know 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 discussions on mirror neurons that your staff will take their behavior 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. 

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

Please feel free to forward this to a colleague

Friday, October 04, 2013

What do you do when they say 'We've tried that before'?

"We've tried that before"  "Here we go again"

These two phrases torment every change implementer's life. They usually signal negativity to the change that you want to instigate. 

And these words are not only used by change resistors at work. I'd guess many of you have heard them or even used them yourself at home! 

Researchers such as Lila Davachi who study the way that memories are formed and later recalled, say that it is rare that we accurately recall exactly what happened in the first instance. This is because a memory is not a single function or brain system/network. 

For example, even if you were close to and witnessed a powerful event like 9/11 or your colleagues made redundant in a restructure, your memory of it might not be as clear as you thought. 

Is your memory as accurate as you think?

There's a great illustration of this written by Greg Boustead in Scientific American How the brain remembers 9/11
It is an example of Davachi's explanation at the NeuroLeadership Summit in the USA that memory is never an exact playback of the video of the experience. Rather it is a reconstruction of the event drawn from many different parts of the brain. 

And because memories are not stored in a single location, when we ‘remember' something, we may not remember or recall accurately all the elements of the event. 

This topic was discussed at the World Science Festival 2011 in the session on The Unbearable Lightness of Memory
"One of the primary functions of memory is to be able to use our experience of the past to be able to act adaptively in the future" - Elizabeth Phelps 

"When we remember an event from the past we are drawing on information that we've actually experienced BUT sometimes we're combining that incorrectly with other things that we may not have experienced. These mistakes can have important consequences, especially in the legal world." - Daniel L. Schacter 

We can increase the durability of a memory if it has an emotional connection

Some work has been done to show that memories formed in the presence of negative emotions are more likely to be recalled clearly.

Think about your holiday last year. You probably don't recall the detail of the logistics that went well. But you will definitely recall where and when it went wrong. 

For example, earlier this year I travelled in Europe and Africa. I can barely recall the details of the check-in counters in most airports but I can remember the one in Morocco. I clearly recollect that the check in woman in Marrakesh said: Would you like me to check this through to Johannesburg for you? 

And that was the last I saw of my bag for three and a half weeks! 

I can easily bring to mind the emotion, the frustration I felt that my bag was lost. And the memory or the whole saga is triggered every time I see an Air France plane or advertisement - guess which airline I flew? 

But it would be fascinating to see if my memory of the check-in woman's words and how the situation was ultimately resolved is accurate. 

Overcoming past memories of change

The job of the amygdala is to watch out for signals that might compromise our safety and survival. That's what The Almond Effect® is: when the amygdalae confuse the actions and behaviours of others in a non-life threatening situation as a threat to our physical survival and cause us to act accordingly with one of the 4 F's. 

If you add this together to what is known about memory recall, then you have to have a plan for what can you do when you hear words of resistance based on perceived history. 

Your goal is to reduce the fear, anxieties and stress being stirred up by past memories. Until you do that, the limbic system and especially the amygdalacreates a smokescreen which logic and reason will find hard to get through. 

First step

As a first step, my suggestion is that you simply accept that their negativity is being triggered by memory whether it is accurate or not. It won't help if you tell them they've got it all wrong. That's an appeal to their logic at a time when their evolutionary survival instincts are on red alert. 

Instead ask them and any others who were around at the time of the previous events, what happened previously or what recollections are triggering their views that it's all been done before. Then check that against any known facts about the event. 

Maybe they were right on the money but I'd bet that their recall of the event will reveal differences between what was happening in the past and what you are proposing now. If they were right then you've got some valuable information to work on to ensure that your change activity this time is different and won't arouse the same negativity. 

Explain the difference

But if you can show them the difference and explain in positive terms why what is being proposed now is different to what they recall happened last time, you've enhanced your chances of change success. 

Until a pill is marketed for eliminating particular remembrances that we'd prefer to forget, it's worth operating on the premise that many of our recalled experiences are based on the feelings we had at that time, not necessarily the facts. 

Learning how to deal with these emotions that accompany change will significantly enhance your ability as a change leader.

Friday, September 27, 2013

Give this to a lousy manager

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 they do. If your work place is filled with anxiety, anger and fear then they are unlikely to wake up full of enthusiasm. They'll be more likely to hit ‘snooze' than leap out of bed ready to take on the world.

On the other hand, what if people at your workplace, especially managers, respect and understand of the role of emotions and conduct themselves in tune with the concepts of managing emotions intelligently (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.  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 (R)

Managers or leaders with a low capacity to manage their reactions are often at the mercy of The Almond Effect®. This is when our emotional center, 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 focused 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 the number in 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?

In a cruel twist of fate, our reaction often brings 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 praise.

Rick noticed in his previous roles that his teams were not particularly innovative but he didn't think it was anything to do with him. It was because they were so busy!

However his current team soon realized 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 behavior 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 paralyzing 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 yourself, the other managers managers and team leaders.

Tuesday, September 10, 2013

Do you feel guilty if you sit still?

My life as a comma

I find it hard to sit still. My mind is always buzzing. The moment I sit down I usually jump up again because I think of things I've forgotten to do, can't forget to do or have to do at that moment. When I do sit down, my husband says it's just a comma in my life!

In fact, unless I am on holiday I feel really uncomfortable, even guilty, just sitting down to read a magazine or novel. And watch a movie or TV during the day? It would be simpler, emotionally, to fly to the moon.

Can you relate to that?  What is it that drives this behavior? And what implications does it have, not only for rest and recharging but also for creativity and innovation? 

And how does this spill over into our lives at work? How can we be energized and efficient, reflective and strategic if we don't sit still long enough to let thoughts percolate? How can we build trusting relationships with the team around us if we don't stay still long enough to be emotionally engaged in the relationship?

The boss who never stops

I thought about Peter. He was a man I worked with many years ago. Peter arrived in the office at 7.30am and was usually the last to leave. He was always on the go - visible, active, always busy but he didn't get the results that we anticipated. And his relations with his team were poor.

That made me think about a CEO I worked with for a number of years. Let's call him Simon. Simon was another of those people always on the move. Yet I spent most of that time trying to get him to stay out of the operational areas and focus on being ‘emotionally' available to his executive team. The challenge was that his comfort zone was in the operational area where he had excelled and charted his very successful career.

Our boss didn't know us

To put it bluntly, he was shy and uncomfortable talking to people who weren't his buddies. And it showed. His staff meetings and presentations made us all see and feel his discomfort. He shared plenty of facts and figures, strategy, plans for the future and intelligence about what the competition was up to.

But he never engaged us on a personal level.  although he was always busy, we didn't know anything about Simon. And we certainly didn't believe he knew anything about us.

As a result, people switched off, felt uninspired and did not feel they could raise questions that were on their minds. Simon lacked personal credibility as a leader even though he was a smart and likable man and a great engineer. 

Inevitably the good people took their ambitions, ideas and innovative ‘what if's' elsewhere and the organization lost serious intellectual capital.

If only Simon had taken the time to do the things that really count: ie get to know people personally, share stories, pay attention to their individual needs, goals and aspirations, help them overcome their concerns and encourage and reward their enthusiasm. And as a leader, that was his job.

Guilt in the home

I also thought about two women I am close to - a friend and a family member. One works extraordinarily long hours (over 13 hours a day) in a very senior role, then spends almost all of her non-working time looking after her young daughter. Yet she feels guilty if she reads a magazine for 5 minutes or takes time to exercise.

The other woman has just had an operation to remove a cancerous growth. 48 hours after the operation, she is feeling guilty because her pain and exhaustion mean she has to sit still.

Too much activity can sabotage us

As a leader and change catalyst, engendering trust, building relationships, listening to others and garnering emotional commitment are mission critical skills. How else can we get our people on board with cost cutting, streamlining processes, with changing or eliminating practices and behaviors they know and are comfortable with? How else can we excite their curiosity and passion about a new version of the future and what it might mean for them?

Three fundamental of successful change

ChangeTrack Research (CT0508
has identified three fundamentals of successful change:

* Change must make a positive difference to the bottom line
* Trust in leaders. If it evaporates, change falls over
* There is no such thing as ‘one size fits all'

So while Simon and Peter were setting out to achieve the first, their inability or unwillingness to be ‘still', to be in relationship with their people long enough to work on the other two fundamentals, meant that neither they, nor the companies, achieved their full potential.

What drives this behavior?

Perhaps it's a gene and generational thing. I recall my mother, who never sat still herself, made sure that we were always doing something. Sitting and reading was only permissible if it was homework and all the housework was done (almost an impossibility). That's my recollection yet it's probably faulty because we now know that each time we recall a memory, we refashion it into the new context. That's both the ‘beauty and the beast' of neuro-plasticity.

But unless and until we examine our behavior drivers, we simply keep doing them and they become ingrained, habitual and hard to change. Even though I know that the implications I draw from my memory may not be accurate, the ‘guilt' attached to sitting still feels real.

Visibility at work

And at work, what do we value? What have we habitually valued over the years? Even though organisations talk about focus on outcomes and results, how many managers do you know, still feel uncomfortable if someone is not in the workplace, is working from home, seems to be spending a lot of time talking to others or conversely doesn't seem to be doing very much at all? Why aren't they DOING something!

The Almond Effect®

Of course I suspect our amygdala is  involved in this. So I ask what are we anxious (fearful) about that conjures this need to be constantly on the move and be suspicious of others who aren't?

As I have discussed many times, The Almond Effect® is when our amygdala triggers reactions to perceived threats that are simply psychological not physical. It doesn't make it any less real of course.

And thoughts are just that. They are simply constructs in our brains. We can change those thoughts and the feelings and behaviors that go with them. We can apply STAR to these behaviors:

* Stop and catch yourself moving, moving, moving whether it be in your mind or your body

* Think about what's driving your behavior and what would be the consequences if you were ‘still' and reflective for a period

* Act differently - set goals for how long you will be 'still' and 'present' for others

* Rewire - ask yourself if anything disastrous happened when you did reach your goal and stayed ‘still' whether in mind or body. When you realize it didn't, rewire that insight and reflection into your memory.

My goal

So I have just been still for the last couple of hours writing this blog. 

Admittedly I am on a plane so that may have an influence! But I am practicing what I preach and am re-training myself to be still both in my mind and body, in the office and at home.

Practicing Mindfulness is one part of that strategy and we will come back to Mindfulness, its role in focusing attention and controlling stress and anxiety (The Almond Effect®) in another blog post. 

In the meantime the goal I'm aiming for? That my husband tells me I've progressed from a comma to a semi-colon and so I'm aiming to be ultimately to a page break!

Wednesday, September 04, 2013

Sleep deprived? It could make you a lousy manager

Are you getting enough sleep?

Ever considered that the amount of sleep you get is a key factor in whether you retain your staff?

Researchers tell us that sleep is critical for our children's capacity to learn. If they don't get enough sleep, their ability to make new connections and their ability to concentrate is impaired.

Typical daily sleep requirements for children by age are:

• Infants (3 to 11 months): 14-15 hours 
• Toddlers: 12-14 hours 
• Preschoolers: 11-13 hours 
• School-age children: 10-11 hours

So, are your kids getting enough sleep?

And as importantly, are you?

Why does it matter?

High performing brains, especially the pre-frontal cortex areas (PFC), require heaps of energy in the form of glucose. The PFC is responsible for our executive functioning like planning, decision-making, analysis, comparisons and behavior control i.e. complex cognitive activities.

Just like children, if we are haven't had enough sleep then our bodies prioritize the available energy just to keep us physically functioning. That means our brains, especially the PFC, lag behind in the race for glucose.

Result: tired brains find it hard to come up with new answers. One consequence is that we end up repeating what we have done before even if we know we should find a new way. We find it hard to focus, we procrastinate or we hastily make decisions that we should sleep on!

Negative memories and bad decisions prevail

Add this piece of research into the mix: Dan Ariely at Duke University wondered if decisions made in negative emotional circumstances in the past influenced future actions when the original emotion was no longer present. He did some experiments and concluded that they did.

Reason: when we make decisions, we tap into the memories of decisions we made in the past in circumstances that can be linked in some way to the present situation. That's easier for our brain than having to come up with new neural connections (a new decision).

Now, negative memories (and their associated decisions) will always come to mind first because our amygdala is always on guard to protect us. They will, as Ariely puts it ‘become part of the blueprint' for future actions.

And it's when we use this blueprint and respond inappropriately, that's what I call The Almond Effect®.

If we are tired our PFC is too exhausted to reflect back on the emotional circumstances in which the original decision was made and consider whether the decision is still the correct one in the fresh situation.

We are then likely to make the same poor decision again even though we may not be feeling the same negative emotions we felt when the original decision was made!

I wonder if that's why office feuds, silo battles, home arguments, even wars, go on for so long - long after the original cause has been defused. We just haven't stopped to challenge the pattern in our brain and so keep repeating decisions and behaviors because ‘that's the way it's always been.'

Ask your people if they like working for you when you are sleep deprived

So, for most of us lack of sleep means snap decisions, procrastination, repeating bad decisions, inability to concentrate and bad moods. And because we are tired we eat the junk food our bodies crave for an instant sugar (glucose) hit. We are too weary to do any exercise and so the exhaustion cycle continues - just adding to the load on our bodies and the depletion of energy.

Do your people love working for you when you are like that? Are you a good leader? Do they feel ‘engaged'? They might put up with it for a few days, a few weeks, even longer but in the end, they'll walk away and find someone who is easier to work with.

What to do about it

I'm not your mother so I'm not going to tell you to go to bed earlier, take a break, get some exercise, eat proper food, cut down on the alcohol - you can work that out yourself.

But at the very least, acknowledge when lack of sleep is impacting the way you lead. Consider whether, if you were in your people's shoes, you are providing the kind of leadership that will encourage your best employees to stay?

If the answer is no and lack of sleep has something to do with it, then maybe you should let your kids put you to bed, read you a bedtime story and kiss you goodnight!

Thursday, May 23, 2013

Managing Resistance to Change

Why is it that most organizations struggle to make real change? Whether it is consolidating a merger, re-engineering business processes, restructuring, changing value propositions, introducing new IT systems, relocating premises, or any other type of change, all too often the process is derailed by the resistance of employees.

Resistance to change is one of the most powerful drivers of human behavior, and the key to dealing with it effectively is to understand both its physical and emotional components.


Have you ever had the experience of hearing a song that instantly brought back memories taking you to another time and place? This happens because the song triggers memories in your brain, memories that were created through neural-pathways established in the past.

Neural-pathways are formed in your brain to enable you to quickly recognize a situation and automatically react to it, almost without thinking. These pathways form in much the same way as you might wear a path through a grassy field. The first time you walk through you don't leave much of a trail, but each subsequent pass makes the trail more noticeable and easier to navigate. The same thing happens when your brain forms a neural-pathway.

When Your Neural-Pathways Fire Into Action

Your neural-pathways fire into action when you encounter a situation that triggers a memory of a familiar pattern. Because the circumstances appear to fit that remembered pattern, your brain reacts almost instantly without having to think about it.

Here's an example of how this might occur in the workplace. Your phone rings and the caller ID shows up a number you know all too well. You think to yourself, ‘Oh, no, what does HE want?' or ‘Oh God, she only phones me if it's trouble".

Another example is when the boss asks if you've "just got ten minutes" to talk about something. In a flash your hands go clammy and your stomach turns over because you're positive that nothing good will come from the next ten minutes.

What causes the reactions in each of these cases? The answer is in the limbic system in your brain. It shifts into high gear and starts working overtime when a memory is triggered. You can't help it, you immediately recall all the bad times that occurred when that caller rang in or the boss wanted to see you. Your reactions are based on both emotional and physical realities. How does it do this?

The Amygdala

The amygdala is an almond-shaped area of the brain that triggers the "fight or flight" reaction. Your brain has two amygdalae, and they play a fundamental role in ensuring your survival. Sometimes, though, the amygdalae set off a false alarm. This is what I call The Almond Effect®.

Put simply, you fire up into action without thinking and get it wrong. You can probably think of many times when this has happened, times when you said or did something in the heat of the moment, and almost immediately afterwards regretted it

The Almond Effect® and Resistance to Change

The Almond Effect® is critical if survival really is at stake, but at work it often gets in the way. It is the reason why all too often, human beings automatically react to change with resistance, even before they fully understand the nature of the change.

The amygdala has activated the fear response based on previous memories of change associated with, for example, job losses, more work, new skills required, change of roster, cost cutting and so on. Stress hormones are released as part of the inbuilt flight/fight mechanism and show up at work as anger, anxiety, lethargy, poor performance and reluctance to change.

The only way to overcome this resistance is to convince employees that the changes or new initiatives enhance their ability to ‘survive'. If you don't convince them, they may comply with changes for a while but will soon fall back into the old way of doing things. Their older, established neural-pathway patterns are simply more hard wired than the new ones. 

Monday, May 13, 2013

Are you totally predictable? Your employees think you are

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!) 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 because your brain has 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!

The 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.

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 earlier, patterns help us live our lives less stressfully.

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, May 01, 2013

Does your boss treat you like they think they 'own' you?

Watching TV the other night, I gazed in disbelief as the Superintendent of a police station yelled at his people: "I own you - I don't care what you think. Just do as I (expletive deleted!) tell you."

I was staggered. Even though it was just on the TV, do bosses still do that? Is that the way they think you get the best out of people?

I checked when the program was made - it was recent. It's usually a good show and the story line mostly believable - but did the scriptwriter base this manager's behavior in reality?

What do you think? Have you or do you experience this behavior from your bosses? If you do, click here and tell me about it - I'd really love to know.

Exploring the House of Wonders
It made me think of a place I visited in Stonetown, Zanzibar - the House of Wonders.

It's called that because it was the first building in Zanzibar to have electricity, and also the first building in East Africa to have an elevator...
... which wasn't working like mostly everything in Tanzania.

In the House of Wonders there are many exhibits on Swahili culture, including a finely carved Drum.
Here's a photo (sorry about the quality) of the explanation of the carvings on the Drum.


As you can see, it says that the Drum is an ancient Swahili insignia of power.

One of the inscriptions reads:

"Your action is a reflection of your leadership.
So call all the people together, including those who behave differently,
for the wise gathers all and satisfies them."

Clearly the Super on the TV hadn't read that inscription.

What does motivate people?

Nor had the Super read what Dr Dean Mobbs, a Senior Investigator Scientist at the MRC-Cognitive and Brain Sciences Unit at Cambridge University UK says about the latest neuroscientific research on the mechanics of Motivation.

And the Super would not be alone. Most performance reviews systems have been designed without reference to what the neuroscientists are telling us.

I cause many HR practitioners to raise their eyebrows when I suggest that most Performance Management systems emphasize the wrong thing.

Focus on performance that ‘has room for improvement' or whatever muddying words the form might say, often engenders anxiety, even fear, for the recipient of such news, especially if salaries or promotions explicitly or implicitly depend on the Review.

And while it's true that getting this feedback might induce short-term improvement, it's unlikely to result in sustained motivation and commitment. The employee is more likely to be engaged in looking for a job elsewhere.

Our social brain is the driver

The research points to what is becoming more and more evident through Mobbs' and other's findings (and our own everyday lived experience) that the social environment is one of the most powerful contributors to how we perform.

I don't mean how many morning teas we go to or drinks after work.

Rather, if our workplace and the behaviors of others in it, appeals to the affiliation and feedback aspects of our social brain, we are more likely to try harder to consistently deliver up a good performance.

That's because, for example as Mobbs says, when we:
*       see those in our ‘in-group' win
*       help others and give advice
*       work in a team
*       hear people say nice things about us
the reward system in our brain is activated.

And we like to feel good, so we do more of whatever brings on that feeling.

Do you have leaders or troglodytes?

It is very easy to get seduced by the ‘system' of Performance Management.

But like all change management strategies, if you want to bring about change, you need to focus on the benefit (the WIFM),the upsides for people to change their, often habitual, ways of doing things.

Our brains are hardwired to focus on things that scare us first - that's The Almond Effect® in action - to make sure we take steps to survive.

But at work, life/death is not usually the issue - a positive environment and happiness is. Without them, employees and especially your best ones, simply go elsewhere for a job.

While many organisations are changing the structure and intent underpinning their performance management systems, you still need good leaders, not troglodytes like the TV Super, to implement them.

It's a key leadership skill that is pivotal to motivating your people to perform to the best of their ability. And crucial to them being willing to change the way they do things.

So reflect for a moment: what does your performance management system emphasize and how well do your managers bring out the best in their teams?

And are you making sure that your organisation is utilizing the best means available to maximize the organisation's results?

Friday, April 19, 2013

Jealousy - a nasty example of The Almond Effect®

You can control your amygdala with practice

I was once a jealous person. My father was an extremely jealous man, and used to wrongly accuse my mother of infidelity. He made vicious attacks on my mother, both physical and verbal. 

Though I swore I would never be like my father, I found that I did get jealous easily, and without justification.

One frightening day, many years ago, an outburst of jealousy nearly cost me the most precious relationship in my life. That was the turning point, the crisis that made me realise that I had to manage my fear of rejection, which was what my jealousy was really all about. 

My amygdala was reacting to a perceived, and absolutely baseless, threat that I might be left for another woman.

However, I realised that if I could learn to stall my brain's instant emotional reaction (The Almond Effect), that would give the thinking part of my brain, the pre-frontal cortex, time to click in. 

I would remember then that there was nothing to be jealous about, that my reaction was totally inappropriate, and hopefully I would be able to keep my act together.

Easier said than done

Easier said than done of course, but I was determined. 

I started to really notice the situations when jealousy tugged at my heart. When this happened, I concentrated on saying to myself: ‘You have nothing to be afraid of.'

It was a long road. It took more than six months of hard work to learn not to react. I still feel a twinge of jealousy occasionally, but it no longer controls me. I'm in control of that feeling now and it no longer threatens my relationship.

I'm telling you this because it may take time for you to be able to learn to control your Almond Effect®, however it shows up in your life. Don't be hard on yourself if you find it hard to change your ‘usual' reaction.

Just keep on practising, and ask yourself what else you could do to manage The Almond Effect®? Give yourself a pat on the back for even trying, and a huge reward when you succeed.

Wednesday, April 10, 2013

Why should I change if the boss doesn't?

A colleague of mine works for a training company that offers time management solutions. I wrote about her several years ago and, even though she's risen up the ranks, I can't believe it but she still has the same problem - this time with her CEO.

My colleague's company offers software solutions and trains employees to manage their time more effectively to improve productivity and performance. It's amazing how popular these courses are even though they've been around for decades.

So, can you imagine how my colleague felt when her boss, now the CEO, said he just didn't have time to meet with her to go through her performance review and career development plan! She felt like she was in a time warp!

Common reasons for failure

Our conversation set me thinking about why so many change efforts still stall or lose momentum. One of the most common reasons remains congruency or consistency (or lack of it) by the so called leaders.

For example, let's say you decide that to increase your competitiveness in a cut-throat market, your organization's culture is holding you back.

Despite the kick in the guts created by the global financial crisis, the culture remains inward looking and process driven.

To survive, the company must become outward looking and customer focused across all its operations and not just at the customer interface.

So the company embarks on the change process. It restructures; it retrains staff and starts on a culture change program.

Yet despite the clear reasons why the culture must change and past behaviors and responses examined, many members of senior management continue to resort to short term expediency of cutting costs rather spending time on a careful well conceived approach to obtain and deliver the necessary strategic outcomes. 

They haven't learned to manage The Almond Effect® yet!

So the company starts a cost cutting exercise. Senior management even visits the front line to drive the cost-cutting message in person.

What's the result?

However staff are confused by the mixed messages; the company remains inward looking, there is still no focus on the customer. Nothing seems to have changed over a decade.

Leaders should set the pace

During times of change and pressure, people always look to their leaders to set the pace and show the way.

Psychologically we are designed to respond positively or at least neutrally, to consistency. When things don't turn out the way we expect based on our brain's hard-wired patterns, that's when The Almond Effect® can happen.

Comedians play on this and make us laugh by delivering a line we can't predict. You can't see it coming. But in a comic situation, you know it's safe and not a threat.

Inconsistency is acceptable in some situations but what most people want in the workplace is to know what's coming next and to be able to rely on their leaders. People believe what they see, not what is said. They want leaders they can trust.

I have never met an employee yet who says, "I love the way I don't know how the boss is going to react. It's great that it is never the same."

If you can remember back many years, just consider your reaction and the reaction of the American people to the Bill Clinton-Monica Lewinsky debacle. It's still talked about.

Most people did not care too much about the fact that the then President had an affair. What started to shift opinions were his inconsistent statements. That inconsistency, not the affair, almost cost him the Presidency and most certainly impacted on the level of trust in him by the American people.

Beware the silent saboteur

If leaders "don't practice what they preach" or "walk their talk", their people don't trust them. When that happens, people become cynical, unresponsive to change and at worst become 'silent saboteurs'.

We know there is a problem and the change isn't going according to plan but we just can't seem to put our finger on it.

A major challenge for leaders of change is they must have the resilience, tenacity and clarity of vision to shake off the old and focus on the new. In complex and difficult change situations, it's easy to fall back into the old ways of doing things when the going gets tough.

What can management do?

So what does a CEO and the management team need to do to change the culture and bring about any changes in attitude or behaviors to a new way of doing business?

Try this list for to start with:

Get out there and communicate:

  • The business reasons for change - why change is necessary. This is one of the top reasons why people don't get on board - they have no convincing answer to the question: Why should I change
  • Create urgency- show the extreme pressure to change coming from outside the organization 
  • Validate the way the organization has been to date and their role in it
  • Describe the new vision and scope - what will it be like after change - define it from perspective of the listener
  • Identify what is not changing
  • Explain the change process - the initiatives and timelines
  • Let them know what changes can be expected and when
  • Describe the problems they might experience
  • Explain the impact of not changing
  • Don't blame the past or people
  • Answer the WIFM question and "How will this affect me? ‘What am I expected to do?'

And ensure that all your influencers at whatever level act consistently and congruently with all the change messages that are being sent. If they do not, move them out of your company or to a position of no influence, direct or indirect.

Can you step up?

This is a big job, not for the feint hearted. But for leaders who realise that this is the most important role of the leader, your reward will be to join the small and exclusive list of leaders who have successfully taken their organizations to the next level.