Friday, December 17, 2010

She broke my heart

You damage your health if you don't have social relationships according to Matt Liebermann.

At the 2010 Mind and Its Potential Conference, Liebermann said the damage was equivalent to smoking two packs of cigarettes a day.

In fact, he said, sociality is not an accident – it is ancient and by design.

We had and still have a much better chance of survival if we are not alone.

It still holds true today

Think of how animals hunt – they search for and pounce on the loner, the one separated from the group.

And reflect on the language we use as we encourage people to sign up to our point of view or pitch: “there’s strength in numbers”; “we can’t go this alone”.

Consider also the stories of babies who don’t thrive when they are deprived of social connection. Click here for one commentary that reflects on what happens.

Amygdala can’t tell the difference

So if sociality is critical to our survival, perhaps that’s the explanation why our amygdala can’t tell the difference between social pain and a threat to our physical existence.

The Almond Effect® is all about that – our bodies jumping into survival mode, fight, flight, flock or freeze, when our amygdala perceive an emotional or mental threat (e.g. your boss’s raised voice, an irate customer, the exclusion by the team, running late for a critical meeting), yet none of these are likely to result in us being wounded or injured physically.

The way we talk about social pain reinforces our amygdala’s inability to discriminate. We use the language of physical pain: “She broke my heart, you hurt my feelings, I’m gutted.”

Learn to accept the things you can't change

There are many tools we can use to manage the social pain we feel, The Almond Effect®, both at work and beyond.

One critical tool for me is the use of acceptance.

So for example, one of the best ways to deal with ongoing challenges at work, is to accept that work will never be completely harmonious and free from irritations and politics. To believe it will, is simply living in a false reality.

I came across these words ascribed to Fr Alfred D’Szouza. They sit above my desk and I reflect upon them daily to help me accept and deal with social pain and my ‘almonds’. I hope you find them useful too.

For a long time it had seemed to me
That life was about to begin – real life;
But there was always some obstacle
in the way.
Something to be got through first.
Some unfinished business,
time still to be served,
a debt to be paid.
Then life would begin.
At last it dawned on me
that these obstacles were my life.

Then you can move on

In other words, once you have accepted the situation, you can do something about it.

There will be more about strategies on how to do that in future CLUES.

Wednesday, December 01, 2010

Geoff Huegill triumphs over depression

Do you feel uncomfortable talking to a colleague about their mental wellbeing?

Why are we so fearful to ask someone if they are OK? Or to say that we notice that they seem a bit down and is there is something they'd like to talk to you about?

We don't hesitate if they have a sniffle, a limp or a black eye. But a concern about someone's mental state is often too hot to handle.

We usually tell ourselves that it is none of our business. Or "what if I open up a can of worms?"

Of course it's your amygdala talking, The Almond Effect, holding you back because it's feeling threatened about what a well meaning question might lead to.

Each year, undiagnosed depression in the workplace costs $4.3 billion in lost productivity and this excludes Workcover/insurance claims, part-time or casual employees, retrenchment, recruitment and training. 

In addition to absenteeism, depression accounts for more than 12 million days of reduced productivity each year. 

The World Health Organization expects Depression to be the second leading cause of disability after heart disease by 2020

But depression can be overcome. And you can play a part in that recovery by not being afraid to have the conversation.

This is all leading me to say warmest congratulations to Geoff Huegill who was awarded 2010 Sports Performer of the Year.

Geoff has experienced depression. He talks about it - a key strategy.

Another of his strategies to overcome depression was exercise - and his reward was to win the Gold Medal in the 100 metre butterfly at the Commonwealth Games and another in the 4 by 100m relay!

Geoff is an Ambassador for the Black Dog Institute, the same organisation for which I am a volunteer Community Education Presenter on Depression and Bipolar Disorder.

He also has a great smile (and abs!)

Don't let The Almond Effect stop you lending an ear to the 1 in 5 Australians who suffer, sometimes in a very lonely way, from this very common challenge. The person you talk to may not win a Commonwealth Gold Medal but be assured that they would want to give you one.

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Why Don't you quit your job?

Well, why don't you??

Sorry – only joking!
But seriously, how many of you want to quit your job and get another but are procrastinating for some reason?

“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? Any of them come from you?

Why are you holding back?

The problem with suffering 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.

I have created two Wordles to help you choose the words: one is of positive emotion words and the other of negative ones.

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 evidence, how much have you developed personally since the last time?

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 changed jobs.

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

Act: Take some steps. Set aside time to update your resume. 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 interest you, that you can already do and the parts that would challenge you. Make sure there are plenty of the latter.

Then start applying.

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, October 18, 2010

Don't do your Inbox

What do you do first when you get to work? Do you go straight to your email or do you start on the toughest project that you have to do?

Most of us open the Inbox.

And there’s a good reason why.

Other than the size of it, usually an Inbox is low threat. It needs nowhere near as much brain energy as the big project and we get an instant sense of satisfaction as we delete, delete, delete and clear lots of messages.

And if you ever near the bottom of your inbox – wow, now that’s a buzz.

Your amygdala prefers the Inbox

But why do we do things in that order? You guessed it; it’s The Almond Effect®. We put off the demanding projects because there is much more riding on it than clearing the Inbox.

The project is demanding - we have to focus, concentrate, solve problems and create solutions. And that’s stressful.

In other words, your amygdala senses the project as a threat (The Almond Effect®) so to avoid the threat, you do the non-threatening things first i.e. your Inbox.

Brain drain

The problem with that approach is that even though you are taking the relatively unstressful course of doing your email, you are using up brain energy leaving you less fresh to handle the project when you’ve got no other reason to procrastinate.

Now our brains only have so much capacity before the glucose runs low and our ability to think clearly and innovatively is compromised. Then we have to take a rest and eat or drink sugar.

And our brains will naturally channel our activities to save brain energy where possible – not only is it hard work to use the working memory in our brain but we might need the energy for later when the sabre-tooth tiger appears in our office or home :)

The same thing happens when we need to change – ourselves or others. We put it off because our amygdala senses a threat i.e. it's The Almond Effect®. Unless we think about it and alter the course of action, our brain will guide us to less challenging things first. And before you know it, the day’s simply disappeared and it’s time to go home!

How was your day?

So think about your day. What did you do first when you were fresh, alert and your brain was full of glucose and ready to go? Did you do the tough stuff or did your amygdala take over and guide you to an easy task first to defer the threat?

Try this

Here are some suggestions that might help you do the hard things first – and it’s all about being mindful about what you do and think:

1. Monitor your usual patterns of behaviour to find out (or simply confirm) when you tackle the more mentally demanding work. Do you do it at your freshest or does your amygdala sabotage you in some way?

2. Be very clear about your short and long term goals – make sure the way you do your work is congruent with your objectives

3. Don’t impose the need to be perfect on yourself

4. Watch what you’re saying to yourself mentally e.g. it’s really hard; I need a clear run; I’ll just stuff it up if I start now; I’ll have plenty of time tomorrow; it won’t be any good; I’m just not ready to do it; etc. etc

5. Don’t let your sensitivities and fears hold you back from doing something

6. Break the hard task down into small steps e.g. just do 150 words on it; or cover off on item 1 of the project

7. Give yourself congratulations for the small steps as well as the big ones.

Almonds all around us

The Almond Effect® catches us out in so many ways. It’s not just the big things eg: the fear of restructure, the presentation you have to give or the boss wanting to see you. It’s not just your daughter not coming home when she said she would. There are myriads of everyday occurrences when our amygdalae cause us to do something that is simply not the best course of action if you were to think about it.

So next time you go to your Inbox, just ask yourself if it’s the best time to be doing it? Or are you are putting off doing something that would benefit from the energy you are using up on reading chain mail, the ‘cc’s and pressing the delete button?

If you answered yes to the second question, you know what to do next!

Monday, September 20, 2010

Sit still for a minute!

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 behaviour? And what implications does it have, not only for rest and recharging but also for creative thinking time.

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. 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 likeable 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 get to know people personally, share stories, paid attention to their individual needs, goals and aspirations, helped them overcome their concerns and encouraged and rewarded 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 behaviours 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 behaviour?

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 behaviour 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 now 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 also involved in this. So I ask what are we anxious (fearful) about that conjures this need to be constantly on the move and suspect others who aren’t.
As we 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 behaviours that go with them. We can apply STAR to these behaviours:

* Stop and catch yourself moving, moving, moving whether it be in your mind or your body
* Think about what’s driving your behaviour 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 CLUES. 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 CLUES. 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 ultimately to a page break!

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Do you trust your memory? Perhaps you shouldn't

I was chatting with some friends over a lovely Sunday BBQ lunch a couple of weekends back. It was a gorgeous Sydney day – warm, not too hot or humid, the bluest sky you ever saw and only a gentle breeze rustling of the leaves on the gum trees around us.

One of my friends started to tell us all about seeing a couple having an argument in a restaurant. As the story unfolded, his wife who had been in the restaurant with him, started to ‘correct’ him, saying things like: ‘no, she was the one who thumped the table, not him’ and ‘no, you’ve got it wrong, he stormed out first, not her’.

Sadly our friends then started to argue between themselves about who had the correct recollection. Initially they each adamantly believed that they had the right version. Eventually the husband changed his mind and agreed that his wife’s version was correct and that his initial thoughts were wrong.

Now some of you are thinking – of course he’d give in to his wife!

This might be a serious problem

But is this a familiar scenario? i.e. people witness the same event or discussion but their recall and memories of it differ.

Perhaps you’ve even doubted your own memory of what you saw or heard. Yet after talking to other witnesses, you may have changed your mind about what you saw or heard and genuinely agree with and adopt the other version as your own.

That what happened in 1995 during the investigation of the Oklahoma Bombing. You may recall that one witness Tom Kessinger initially said that Timothy McVeigh had an accomplice. Other ‘witnesses’ who had talked with Kessinger and others agreed and this sparked a huge hunt and expenditure in time and resources for the non-existent John Doe No.2.

Kessinger later testified that he was mistaken. There was no accomplice.

Dr Helen Paterson from the University of Sydney is exploring the ramifications of memory recall in the context of contaminated witness testimony in court cases.

You can listen to her talk about her research here. It goes to the heart of witness reliability and may have very serious implications for veracity of evidence from witnesses in trials especially criminal matters where innocence or guilt is determined.

Memories are not fixed

Memories are retrieved usually with the help of some cues – that’s where the problems of The Almond Effect® come in!
And the old thinking was that memories were stable and permanent. All that happened was that they faded with time.

But research has shown that memories are much more malleable and impressionable than that.
So the challenge is that we may not even be recalling accurate memories. Our memories may have become contaminated. For example by taking on other people’s versions of events?

Why can this happen? Well we now know that memories are simply reconstructions. And as such they can be adjusted, changed, tampered with.

False Memories

At one end of the spectrum there is the psychological condition known as False Memory Syndrome. This is where someone has a memory which is a distortion of an actual experience, or a confabulation of an imagined one. Many false memories involve confusing or mixing fragments of memory events, some of which may have happened at different times but which are remembered as occurring together.

However in our day to day lives, we experience this shifting in our memories as simply not quite an accurate reconstruction. For example, we can forget things, include things, ‘remember’ the event as being bigger, smaller, more dramatic, less dramatic, and declare that the fish was over a metre long!

And neuroscientists also tell us that our recall can grow or diminish under the influence of other people’s remembrances.

So what?

We have talked before about the role of ‘history’ in leading change. If you are implementing any kind of change in your organisation, then the way that employees ‘remember’ how change was implemented in the past, its implications and ramifications usually has a major impact on the mindset and willingness of your employees to adopt your proposed changes now.

So you need to pay attention to what has happened during previous organisational change.

And you need to ensure that the recall of the events is accurate.

As Paterson said: "When people remember an event together their memories become more similar to each others' than if they had not had this discussion.
"Through this process, known as memory conformity, a group of people can come to share a single, inaccurate memory for the event."

Evidence based change history

The best way to ensure accurate history is to look to the evidence, notes and records made contemporaneously. However many organisations simply do not keep records of the feelings and reactions of people during the change process. Plenty of project and technical data is recorded for posterity but rarely the qualitative journey.

Test the organisational and individual recollections

So if your organisation doesn’t have such records, you will be relying on people’s recall. This means you’ll need to carefully test and explore any negative memories to get to the reality.

However as you do so, remember that the negative feelings could be the result of The Almond Effect®. And even if the facts are wrong, the emotions evoked by a perceived accurate recollection of an event will be very real indeed.

At the very least ensure that records are kept of both the qualitative and quantitative aspects of the people change management journey so that future change initiatives in your organisation have an accurate history to work from.

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Clues Emotions spread like viruses

‘I‘d like my life back

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

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

I doubt anyone felt sorry for him though if you know about The Almond Effect®, you’ll know where that statement came from.

The Almond Effect® - Lack of judgment

His words and actions showed a complete lack of judgment. It was The Almond Effect® in full force. Tired, battered, desperate for a solution and an end to the disaster, Hayward wasn’t thinking. His emotional brain was talking.

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

Split second actions

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

The email or SMS sent too quickly, the words that just tumbled out of your mouth, the inappropriate facial expression or body language, the action you regret – all happening in a split second, without thinking, just reacting – like Hayward.
Not stopping to think about the impact of what you say or do on others.

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

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

Emotions spread like viruses

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

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

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

How long does it take a negative comment in your place to spread? How many of your people are on Facebook, twitter or simply SMS. In addition to the chatter, facial expressions and body language, all it takes is a phone.

Lessons for leaders

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

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

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

Friday, June 25, 2010

CLUES Silence is Golden - or is it?

What to do when people don’t speak up

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

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

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

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

Do you notice someone going quiet?

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

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

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

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

Silent Saboteurs

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

How can we become better at interpreting silences?

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

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

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

Ask the right question

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

Here are some to give you a flavour of what I’m thinking about here:
* What roadblocks can you see with your area?
* How will this be received in your team?
* Specifically, thinking about how it impacts you/your area, what are the items we must take into account?
* What would it take for this to gain traction in your area?
* If you were me, what would you do about......

Getting your kids to open up

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

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

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

CLUES We'll change when the bosses do

Do you find that your time is even harder to manage these days? I know I do.

A colleague of mine works for 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 trains employees to manage their time more effectively and 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, or even because of it, by the global financial crisis, the culture remains inward looking and process driven.

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

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 behaviours 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 home.

What's the result?

Staff are confused by the mixed messages; they remain 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 a few 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 behaviours to a new way of doing business?

Try this list for starters:

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.

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

CLUES Is lack of sleep making you a poor leader?

Are you getting enough?

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

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 behaviour control i.e. complex cognitive activities.

Just like children, if we are haven’t had enough sleep then our bodies prioritise 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 behaviours 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, January 28, 2010

CLUES Will your stress cost you your job?

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. In another issue of CLUES I’ll tell you more about the impact of suppressing emotions on our bodies.

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 on the Black Dog Institute website.

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 CLUES useful and any other topics you’d like to read about.