Thursday, July 03, 2014

Do you bite back if someone barks at you? Or do you just cop it sweet?

Why is it that sometimes, people who are in the wrong or caught out doing something they shouldn't be, act really aggressively  back instead of just copping it sweet?

For example, someone does something foolish on the road eg is on their phone. You stare at them and tell them to stop using it. Next thing you do, you're being verbally abused or even worse.

What's going on here?

What's your earliest memory?

Mine is being smacked across the bottom by my father. I think I must have been about three years old. I have a clear picture in my head of walking with my parents along Cantilupe Road in Ross on Wye in the UK - past the school which would become my primary school - on the way to see my adored nana and grandad.

I remember asking my parents if we could cross the road so we could get to nana's house. "Can we cross over now?" "Please can we cross over now?" "When can we cross over?" "Why can't we cross over now?"

No response came from my mother or father. So, as any self-respecting three year old would do, I took control of the situation. I let go of my mother's hand and ran out into the road to cross it.

Clearly I wasn't killed but when my father caught up with me, I got smacked because he told me I could have been! That smacking didn't make a whole load of sense to me when I was three and still doesn't now - a pretty confused message isn't it? ‘We don't want you to get hurt but let me hurt you with a smack for trying!!'

What was really happening in my parents' heads?

The real truth of the moment lay in some other words I remember dad said: "you scared your mother to death".

And of course, as we know from The Almond Effect®, even though mum herself wasn't at risk, seeing me run into the road and place myself in apparent danger, was enough to trigger her amygdala.

And it is probably true that I could have frightened her ‘to death'. Her body would have reacted as if she was the one about to die. Adrenaline surged through her and she froze on the spot. Fortunately she didn't have weak heart! But I can remember her face when she caught up to me - just staring with her eyes wide open and tears running down the sides of her pointy nose.

Do you respond to fear with fear?

What do you do when people do something that gives you a fright? e.g. they take a risk; grumble and threaten to leave; don't do as they are asked; breach company policies; don't meet their deadlines; don't turn up for training; miss teleconferences etc etc.

Do you respond in kind by doing something to scare them - just like my dad did to me? Do you get angry? Do you ignore it completely? Do you make sarcastic or aggressive remarks?

Or do you face your fears, deal with them and produce an appropriate and effective response?

The impact

Here's the challenge. If you or any of your team members, experience fear at work - you may not be functioning at the optimum level. You may not be performing both individually and as part of a team, to ensure that all of you reach your goals and objectives

Of course, fear and apprehension can act as a wonderful motivator. People convert their ‘nerves' into the spark, energy and commitment that brings out the very best in themselves and others.

Why elite sportspeople 'lose it'

However reflect on what happens for example, when elite sportspeople, the best in their game, respond to their nerves (fear) during competition by letting nervousness take control rather than controlling it.

Naturally competitors feel anxious that they might not win. All their hard work, dedication and training is focused on winning.

But their competitive edge is in the mind game. Often it is their mind training that fails when they are in a winning position but lose. The loss is usually because they let their guard down too early (i.e. let their amygdala off the hook too soon).

Or they realized they were so close to their dream and then got scared that they could still lose even when that close - that's even scarier. Focus is lost as is the ability to perform at the level they clearly can.

You see this at work all the time. One of the clearest illustrations is in interviews and presentations or at press conferences. Enough has been said and nothing more should be said, the goal is achieved. But something (fear) in the silence or pause drives us to just add a bit more.....

The leader's role

Basically memory and imagination use the same neurological circuits and potentially have the same impact. So our amygdala doesn't ‘know' the difference whether fears at work (or anywhere) are based on previous experience or imagined.

Nor does it know whether these fears are justified or not. That's the job of the pre-frontal cortex (PFC). Our challenge is to ensure the PFC is given the opportunity to take control of the situation.

As leaders and team members, we have to accept, even though we may not understand the reason why, that we work with people who have fears, real and imagined. Sometimes it's impossible to know where they come from, how they are generated, why they stay with us, when, where and how they'll show up.

Controlling responses to fear

So what we must do is learn tools to control our fears and our responses to them. We also need to provide our people with these skills to ensure they are not in a state of fear when they are working alone, as part of a team, interacting with customers.

Your job is to build a relationship with your team so that you can understand where peoples' concerns may be coming from. Develop the trust between you so that your team members will share their concerns with you. I know plenty of examples where team members do not trust their managers or supervisors well enough to share their concerns for fear there may be retribution.

And teaching them STAR skills is a great way to start the conversation. Let me know if I can help you and your team develop and leverage the leadership skills to Stop-Think-Act-Rewire.

The impact of The Almond Effect, ANTs and STARs is enormous. The teams now have a common language to support each other and support our customer interactions." Michelle Bevan, General Manager, Customer Service Division, ICAA

Thursday, June 26, 2014

Do you find it easy to talk to your CEO?

Can you talk comfortably with your CEO and senior management?

Can you relate to this?

One of this Blog's readers, let's call her Sue, recently wrote to me:

"I wonder why we sometimes avoid speaking with people our senior at work? When I changed positions and organisations I vowed that I would be more open to people my senior in the workplace. This was for two reasons: first to be more approachable and second to further my career by being 'top of mind' so to speak. But again this hasn't happened very easily. I still avoid speaking with the CEO, so is it to do with a fear of rejection of some sort?

In one position I had held for a long time I had no fear of the CEO and ended up doing an interview with them for an assignment I was doing about leadership styles. I felt very comfortable in that organisation and had a good depth of knowledge so was very much an 'expert in my field'.

But I would like to be able to join an organisation and feel comfortable speaking with seniors even without a so called 'expert' hat on.

I wondered if you could shed some light on this, or whether other people may have approached you with the same issue."

How's your EQ?

As I read through Sue's email, a number of thoughts were running through my mind. My first response is ‘well done Sue' for recognising that her ‘fear' and discomfort may not only make some work relationships uncomfortable but also could be career limiting.

There is no doubt in my mind that success and indeed strong leadership at work is built on good relationships and the capacity to have them. This depends on the ability to communicate well with people at all levels of the organisation up, down and laterally.

To make the journey up the career ladder, expertise and skill are essential but are, in my view, simply the platform from which other much more important capabilities must spring or develop.

I am, of course, talking about emotional intelligence. Most readers know that the core skills of EQ are:

    the ability to recognise what emotions we are experiencing and when;

    how they impact us and others, and to manage both those impacts;

    to recognise what emotions others are experiencing;

    to understand how that might be affecting them; and then

    to take all that information into account in whatever decisions are made and/or actions carried out.

EQ also involves resilience, motivation and persistence. I think that a heap of courage is also involved particularly in situations like Sue's.

Check out your amygdala

Sue is certainly sufficiently self-aware to know that an emotion, probably fear, is impacting her ability to develop rapport with people her senior at work. Her next step is to see where that is coming from and then to manage it.

Sue says she has had both successful and not so successful experiences with CEOs before. When it was successful, Sue said she had no fear and "was very much an 'expert in my field'". So is it fear of not being seen as having expertise that is holding Sue back?

We know that The Almond Effect® can cause us to react inappropriately or retreat from an invalidly perceived threat.

So Sue should be looking into the emotions she is experiencing and asking ‘Where did that come from?' In fact to assist her, I'm going to send Sue a copy of my e-book Where Did That Come From? How To Stay In Control In Any Situation. Proven Tips To Manage The Almond Effect®

Of course, I would encourage Sue to continue to build her expertise.

See them as a person first

In addition my advice to Sue would be to stop thinking about the title or level that someone has in the organisation. Instead train yourself to see them first and foremost as people with jobs to do.

When Sue meets these people, she should take a genuine interest in what they are doing; ask or say something about that and think of/suggest ways in which she can help them achieve their goals. Sue can talk about what work she is doing that is contributing to the overall goals of the organisation.


If Sue feels uncomfortable initially about that, she should at least find out what else interests the CEO and other senior people so that she can make a comment about that.

A key component about the ability to build relationships and to influence others, is 'likeability', i.e. that we like and respond to people who are like ourselves. That makes sense from an evolutionary perspective - we are not threatened by members of our own ‘tribe'.

I think Sue should also actively confront her ‘fear' and seek out the opportunity to work directly with the senior people. When this happens Sue needs to get information from the senior people about how they like to be worked with!

If Sue does this, she will immediately improve the quality of her dealings with senior people - she is giving them what they want and in the way that they want it. It will also diminish her fears as she has removed uncertainty about whether she is doing the right thing.

I have a small presentation on Managing Upwards if you want to this information. Email me if you would like a copy.


Some of you have attended my workshops where we talk about not only what The Almond Effect® is but also how to manage it. In essence you need to be a STAR:

= S: = When you catch yourself getting worked up or feel an unhelpful emotion coming on, like fear, anger, frustration, STOP. Stop yourself from immediately reacting. Take a deep breath. Count to 10 - whatever it takes.

= T: = Then THINK about what is really going on. What are the consequences/ outcomes you really want to come from this situation?

= A: = Then ACT - do whatever you have decided is the best thing to do for the outcomes you would want outside the heat of the moment.

= R: = Finally reflect and review what went on. Where did the reaction come from? What caused it? How can you learn to manage that reaction in future? In other words, how can you REWIRE your amygdala?

Stop - Think - Act - Rewire.

Sue will be a STAR in future I'm sure.

Thursday, June 12, 2014

Does life sometimes catch you by surprise?

Life's little surprises sometimes catch us out. It's usually a consequence of failed expectations.

Great expectations

Some of you will think I'm crazy. Mark and I set off for three days to the Neptune Islands, off Port Lincoln in South Australia. These islands are famous for Great White Sharks!

We were going diving with Andrew Fox, the son of Rodney Fox who survived a horrendous Great White Shark attack and later advised on the Jaws movies.

As soon as we left Port Lincoln, the crew began chumming. A dead tuna was hung off the back of the boat so that its blood dripped into the sea around us. Soon after the crew attached a big bucket of tuna blood and guts to the back of the boat so that this too, washed into the ocean, to attract the White Pointers.

We were full of anticipation. Even though we would be in a cage, and even though I was standing on the deck of the ship, my amygdala had my heart beating much faster than usual as I scanned the ocean for big dorsal fins. You recognize this as The Almond Effect®!

Shark bait

Day one - no sharks sighted yet. We dropped anchor and geared up to go down in the cage to check out what was below. The water was freezing - 14C!

And as I entered the cage, my heart started to race.

So using my STAR model (Stop-Think-Act-Rewire), I stopped and thought about what was going on. My pre-frontal cortex (PFC) reminded me that I was safe in the cage but I still had to convince my amygdala with slow, deep, rhythmic breathing.

Safely down at 15 meters we saw bull rays, giant cuttlefish, big blue groper, and handfed lots of jacks and other fish - but no sharks.

Day two - the sea was turning red and still no sharks. So to pass the time we decided to land on one of the islands to look at the baby seals.

We have been privileged to be near seals previously so we knew how to behave next to these lovely animals. When we came upon a small group of them, I immediately sat down low and still on the rocks.

They were about 5 metres away. One of the baby seals gently started moving towards me. I was excited as I thought it might nuzzle me.

Wrong! Instead of nuzzling me it bit me on my leg, painfully! Talk about false expectations!

The role of expectations

And this surprise encounter reminded me of the work of Robert Coghill and also Lorimer Moseley. Both are neuroscience researchers in the field of pain and their work includes the impact of expectations on the level or experience of pain that we have.

In other words they ask the question: how does what goes on in our brain affect what we feel? How do our expectations impact our reactions?

I heard both of these men speak at several NeuroLeadership summits. Although they research on different continents, their message is the same: basically you feel what you expect to feel.

Indeed Coghill told us that he has found that, due to the impact of their expectations, patients can experience a reduction in pain equivalent to 0.08mg/kg morphine.

A similar well known and documented outcome is The Placebo Effect. This is when a patient's symptoms are altered in someway (usually beneficially) when they take an inert substance (e.g. a sugar pill) expecting and/or believing it will work. In essence, expectations and desire are key components of The Placebo Effect.

Application to the workplace

What can we draw from this for the workplace? It seems to me that if the neuroscientists can prove that expectations have a measurable impact on physical pain and can even positively impact physiological disorders, then one day neuroscientists will be able to prove what we already know intuitively, that our expectations have a great deal to do with our psychological pain including disappointment, frustration and anxiety at work.

I am particularly thinking about the implications for the way managers motivate and lead their staff through change and experiences such as performance reviews.

Expectations depend on individual experiences

If a nurse approaches you with a large needle and says" this won't hurt a bit" -depending on your past experiences, it may hurt you a lot or not at all. For another person faced with the same situation, what they experience will not be the same as you. In each case, how you react will depend on your past history with needles, the present context and what you perceive are the future implications of the jab.

Similarly if your manager says to you: ‘the new system will make your life easier', or ‘this restructure will cut costs and make us more competitive', or ‘no jobs will be lost in this merger' or ‘performance reviews are a two way discussion of how we can work together better in the future' - again how you and other team members respond will depend on each individual's past experiences of this kind of event (wherever they may have happened), the present context and what your brain predicts will be the future implications.

Everyone is different. Just as we each respond differently to physical pain depending on a range of variables, environmental, emotional and cognitive, so too we all perceive what happens at work differently.

One size doesn't fit all

The message for managers is clear - we can't manage everyone in the same way. We need to discover as much as we can about our people, their experiences, their motivations, their aspirations, their expectations.

We also need to think about ways to give our people training in the skills they need to be able to better manage their own reactions to events which do or could cause them psychological pain.

Neuroscientists and others are developing and using neurofeedback devices (in contrast to biofeedback) to train people to alter their brainwave patterns to achieve the optimal state for whatever it is they are being trained for.

To date the research shows that neurofeedback has some success for people with ADHD (attention deficit) and it is reported that it is also being used with sports people to improve their performance.


Teaching them STAR skills is a great way to start the process. Let me know if I can help you and your team develop the skills to Stop-Think-Act-Rewire.

Day 3

Our expectations and excitement are shattered. Despite doing everything possible (including snorkeling with seals) we didn't attract any Great Whites. So we headed for home.

And clearly the next time we go - and yes we will go looking for the Great Whites again - our experience will be different because, based on past history, we know we might not see them.

And maybe if I get bitten by a seal again, based on my revised expectations, it won't hurt as much!


The impact of The Almond Effect, ANTs and STARs is enormous. The teams now have a common language to support each other and support our customer interactions." Michelle Bevan, General Manager, Customer Service Division, ICAA __________________________________

Thursday, June 05, 2014

Using EQ to cope with complexity and chaos

One billion people practising Emotional Intelligence by  2039. That's Joshua Freedman's goal. if we get there, it will change the world.

Watch Joshua talk about it @TedxSantaCruz talk

Thursday, May 29, 2014

Make an appointment to erase a memory

Imagine if you could wipe the memory of a bad relationship? Or a really bad meeting with your boss? Or a destructive argument with one of your kids?

And wouldn't it be fabulous if you could get rid of any memory of anything that frightens you: spiders, flying or change at work?

In Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, that's just what Joel tried.

In real life, it still can't be done .... yet.

I talked about developments in the ability to forget in a previous post. So what about the ability to erase?

This search is moving rapidly with the increasing number of PTSD cases giving rise to both economic as well as compassionate imperatives.

There is an easy-to-read article on one of the latest neuroscientifc studies on erasing memories in Scientific American, Memories can be edited.

Mice are the subject of the experiments. It seems that distant memories are the toughest to erase. They are more resistant to change.

Bottom line in this study: 30 day old memories in mice could be deleted.

What is also interesting is the comment following the article where another scientist, Dr Kevin Corcoran describes his research where he found that remote and recent memories extinguish at the same rate. He offers an explanation about why more remote memories might be harder to erase.

From my perspective, the debate and the race to find the answer is exciting though when a solution is found, I hope that the ethical debate is equally advanced.

And it will be found. Each time I get a customized advertisement on my browser I think of Minority Report the 2002 film with Tom Cruise.  Set in 2054, advertising holograms appeared as you entered department stores tailored to your previous buying habits.

How close are we to that now - maybe not holograms yet, but tailoring, absolutely.

And can you contemplate the day when you have to do a memory scan when you apply for a new job - and undertake an erasure process if you have any memories that might make you resistant to the change and strategies planned by your new employer in the future?

Far-fetched? I don't think so. Who would ever have thought we could print body parts?

It's just a matter of time.

Monday, May 26, 2014

Communication during change - what should you focus on?

Communication during change - does anyone get it right? This research shows there is still a long way to go. Read the useful comment at end.

Communicating the 'why' and the 'how' are the most significant drivers.

But you can only do this well if you have  complete clarity on the 'why' and 'how' yourself.

In my experience many change managers aren't clear on this. How can you be a change leader without it?

Thursday, May 22, 2014

Downsizing is bad for the health of employees who keep their jobs

Just been reading an article published in BMJ in 2004 on the impact of downsizing on the health of the employees who did not lose their jobs during a major downsizing.

It was a study from Finland across 10 towns following a major downsizing of municipal employees.

The results have significance for change managers today, particularly as the authors suggest that the findings may have been an underestimate of the impact on the health of the remaining employees.

This study is relevant today because while the number of employees were cut, the services provided by the municipality were not - does that have a familiar ring to it?

So job demands on the remaining employees increased, as did job insecurity but the sense of control among the workers decreased. in other words, a high work stress environment.

Their findings from their analysis of the data? There was an increase in sick leave and an increased risk of cardiovascular death among permanent employees who kept their jobs.

From the results they conclude downsizing may pose a severe risk to health.

Given the current increase in downsizing as a structural change to reduce costs in many organizations, this study underscores the need to use best practice change management practices under the guidance of skilled and effective change leaders.

In particular, leaders must understand the impact of change not only on the physical health of their people but as importantly on their emotional and mental health.

This is an equally if not more important cost saving measure in the long term, given the potential ramifications of ill health and death from poorly managed change not only on the survivors of downsizing but on the business itself.