Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Kick Start 2012 with these Tips

My gift of Tips and Strategies for 2012

Thank you for your continuing interest and feedback on my thoughts, tips and stories in using our knowledge about the human brain to develop better leaders.

The more we learn and discover about The Almond Effect and other neuroscience, the better we will become at developing and being change leaders.

In appreciation, here is an e-book full of tips and strategies from over 30 experts on how to make 2012 your best year ever.

Click here to download your copy. I hope you enjoy it.

I wish you and the ones you love a wonderful 2012.

PS If you prefer Facebook for CLUES and a whole lot more including discussion and ideas from other contributors, go to Anne Riches on Facebook and Like the page

Friday, November 04, 2011

Do you work with someone with Depression? Would you employ someone with depression?

Statistically the chances are that you are working with a person who is coping with a mood disorder such as Depression or Bipolar Disorder or that you have recruited someone with this challenge. It may be that you are the one with the mood disorder or have a family member who is.

Recent research published in BMC Medicine tells us that 15% of the population in high income countries are likely to experience depression in their lifetime, with 5.5% experiencing depression last year. In low to middle income countries, this number is 11%. You can read the full text of the research here.

The experience of a Major Depressive Episode (MDE) is higher (over 30%) in USA, France and the Netherlands, and lowest in China (12%). The incidence of MDE was very high in India (over 36%) though the Indian Health Ministry is unhappy with that finding.

So potentially, 1 in 6 of your employees, your team leaders, your managers, your customer service representatives, your salespeople, your number crunchers, your lawyers (actually it's statistically much higher for lawyers), your safety staff in fact anyone in any occupation may be clinically depressed at work at any time.

Depression is prevalent in the best countries to live

In Australia the most often cited statistic is that 1 in 6 women and 1 in 4 men will experience Depression in their lifetime, an average of 1 in 5.

This is worrying given that the 2011 United Nations Human Development Index rates the five best places to live as Norway, Australia, the Netherlands, the US and New Zealand and the World Health Organisation suggests that by the year 2020, Depression will be the world's second global burden of disease. It already is for men and women between 15 and 44 years of age.

Do you have workmates who are depressed?

The symptoms of depression include poor concentration, lack of motivation, little interest in anything, low energy and disturbed sleep. Just getting out of bed, showering and getting to work can be a major achievement.

What is the impact of these conditions on the quality and quantity of work of your employees ?

Productivity, quality, safety and engagement

It is not simply a challenging health issue, it is a productivity, safety and indeed, an engagement issue.

Why engagement? Because Depression (and Bipolar Disorder) don't pick and choose where to land. They are prevalent. And may be impacting your best performers.

What you do to support them and the people around them, may be a critical factor in choices that your employees make to remain with you or move on.

How do you support depressed employees?

There is a range of alternatives available that can bring relief. They include the 'talking' therapies, i.e. counselling, working with a psychologist, Cognitive Behavioural Therapy, Dialectical Behaviour Therapy and so on.

Exercise is a powerful tool with research showing that 30 minutes of exercise a day is the equivalent of a dose of Prozac.

Mindfulness mediation is also being shown to be amazingly valuable.

But given that most people with jobs spend most of their waking hours at work, we have to think about the role of the manager and of colleagues and team mates – does what you do help or hinder recovery?

It’s nothing to do with me

If you don't think it's anything to do with you, think in hard terms of the bottom line. Ignoring it or even inadvertently making it worst, will impact your goals and the morale in your organisation.

In my experience, there are two main barriers.

First there is still such stigma attached to Depression that people don't admit to it. And if they do, people around them simply don't know what to do or say so they either do and say nothing or say things like 'just move on, get over it, don't bring it to work, there are 'plenty more fish in the sea', you'll find someone else, pull your socks up, it's not my problem, go and get a coffee, just take a few days off, take my advice and....' etc.

Underlying those thoughts is the notion that the person is just malingering.

But people don't choose to be depressed. It is an awful place to be. It is not something you can just 'snap out of' just like you can't just snap out of cancer or heart disease.

It is a medical condition. It is real but it is manageable.

Second, people are afraid to raise the issue. It's an example of what I call The Almond Effect. In this case, your amygdala warns you that by raising the issue you could be opening a Pandora's Box, that you haven't got time for it, that you might tip them over the edge, that they'll tell you that it's none of your business - all responses that you may not feel equipped to handle so we become fearful and don’t raise it.

But with 1 in 6 men and 1 in 4 women at risk, it is as significant a work issue as physical safety at work. It is not something that can be ignored.

What should you say or do?

One of the biggest fears is not knowing what to do or say.

I have given many presentations to CEO's, managers amd employees about the signs, symptoms, causes and treatments for Depression. Invariably these talks of themselves open up a significant channel for communication about an issue that remains stigmatised and troubling for employers and staff alike.

As a first step, provide your team with information and skills to work with colleagues with a mood disorder. I know that this will translate into increased productivity and engagement as people begin to understand the issues and how to help.

This is not just the right thing to do, it will produce tangible results on your bottom line. It gives real meaning and practical application to the words 'we care about our people'.


* Don't ignore it

* You won't tip people over the edge if you ask them if they are ok

* If you don't know where to start, begin by simply asking them how they are feeling

* Go a little further by saying what you've noticed in their mood or behaviour and gently describing what that is

* Don't be judgemental

* Don't think or tell them they are weak. The strongest people I know are people with Depression - think what they have to manage each day to even get to work, let alone perform well

* Don't think you have to give advice – that’s not what they need

* Use all your best listening skills - use open ended questions and acknowledge that you are listening with your body language and eye contact

* Encourage them to seek help if they have not already

* Validate them. i.e. let them know that you understand that it is a real experience for them and that it’s OK to talk about feeling down

* Suggest they speak to their GP or to the workplace employee health services provider

What you should do next if this is an issue in your workplace

1. Invite me to give a free awareness raising session in your workplace

2. Contact me if you’d like more information

3. Visit the Black Dog Institute website for facts sheets and resources

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Is technology dramatically changing the way our brains work?

Do you have a bigger brain because you have a lot of Friends on Facebook or is it the other way around? Have a look at this interesting research from University College London.

If neuroscientists discover that our grey matter increases the more social networking we do - that will raise some challenging questions for employers around the optimal use of time at work for employees, won't it!!!

Wednesday, September 28, 2011

My Tip for Procrastinators

I’m one of those people who love to get things done. Give me a big challenge or a difficult task to do, I’m on it!

But simple things like deciding what to get for dinner if my partner is home or what to wear? I can mess around for ages on those.

In my blogpost July 2008 I wrote about Procrastination and invited reader’s comments.

Could you live with this person?

Here is one person’s reply that made me think again about when and why I procrastinate.

“I have a close relationship with a person (my partner) however he procrastinates about everything.

If I ask what he would like for dinner he walks away pretending he didn't hear me asking him.

Anything that is in the "too hard" basket for him is left for later with some excuse.

There are broken things in the house that have been broken for years!

He was made redundant from his job a few years back and it took him nearly a year to finally pick a new job after many offers.

We have been together for over 30 years and initially I put this behaviour down to laziness and it was the cause of many disagreements in our relationship.

After a while I got to understand his reasons even though he won't discuss them.

It comes down to this. If he does some of this stuff and it is not right then he is most fearful that someone will criticise him, even though he might be criticised for not doing it.

I believe that some of this is due to the relationship my husband had with his father who was a controlling man - best intentions I am sure.

There was a constant battle of wits in that family, hiding "stuff" from dad so he would not know about it and therefore could not comment. I think this learned behaviour and fear is one of those things that have become part of his nature. He knows about it but can't get past the reliance on blaming his behaviour on his upbringing and what is the "norm".

I have come to terms that he needs gentle coaxing and encouragement and a pat on the back when he does accomplish something - after all we are all babies in big people's bodies!

Thanks for the opportunity to comment. I regularly receive your newsletters and I really do enjoy reading them.”

Fear and perfectionism – the (im)perfect match

Wow – she must be a saint! That behaviour would drive me crazy!

Yet her comments stung me. Why - because I can make decisions and do most things quickly except writing. That’s a whole different ballgame.

I’ll research, get readily sidetracked, distracted, busy, in fact anything except writing and then, well, there’s another day gone and I still haven’t done the writing I want to.

I don’t believe I’m lazy or inefficient. Yet ironically a task that is not that difficult for me once I get going, has me running in search of anything else to do rather than the thing I should be doing.

Lots of reasons for it but in a nutshell, it’s your amygdala

Some authors suggest that procrastination is a time management issue.

Others talk about it coming from fear of failure, fear of success, fear of loss of autonomy, fear of attachment. Whatever it is, there is one common thread, fear.

For me, it is fear of not being perfect. Isn’t that ridiculous? Yet my perfectionism has been (and still is) the biggest personal challenge in my life. it stops me doing things.

It’s The Almond Effect® again. My amygdala believes that somehow if what I do is not perfect, I am in someway a lesser person and won’t be successful. Seems like madness to some but the frustration of procrastination is real.

What to do about it

And just as my wonderful correspondent observed of her partner, my father had a huge role to play in setting up this state of mind for me.

So some of you will belong to the ‘Socks’ school of thought - just pull your socks up and get over it. Easy to say if you’re not a perfectionist!

If only it worked like that. Behaviours built up over decades don’t miraculously change overnight.

In my experience, the best way to deal with it is the Nike approach: Just do it. If your world doesn’t fall in and no one gets hurt, it’s probably safe.

Gentle coaxing and encouragement and a pat on the back

The strategy that struck me in my correspondents note was what seems like a statement of the obvious but often simply not done: coaxing, encouraging, supporting and acknowledgement.

This approach works for change leaders as well as in the family. Set up the opportunity and persuade resistors, recalcitrants, procrastinators to try out the new ways of doing things in the development stage and before you go live. It can work wonders.

And if you encourage, support, and recognize their achievements you often turn your most reluctant participants into advocates.

Just do it

But for me, this quote from a University of North Carolina article sums it up:

The art of writing is the art of applying the seat of the pants to the seat of the chair 
— Mary Heaton Vorse

That’s just what I did to write this CLUES and I think that applies to everything we put off doing!

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Daniel Goleman describes The Almond Effect

The August 2011 newsletter from Six Seconds reports how Daniel Goleman describes what I call The Almond Effect. Great description.

He describes the neurological response to stress, or a threat, as a pure survival mechanism designed to guide us through “a short-term emergency” which has evolved into “an ongoing hazard for performance.” This ongoing hazard is the neurological spiral of stress that has us trapped.

Goleman explains that our “attention narrows to focus on the cause of the stress, not the task at hand; our memory reshuffles to promote thoughts most relevant to what’s stressing us and we fall back on over learned habits. The brain’s executive centers – our neural circuitry for paying attention, comprehension and learning – are hijacked by our circuitry for handling stress.”

Thus, we’re stuck until we become aware of our own stress spiral. Those with more emotional awareness and stronger skills in managing feelings are able to turn this cycle around more quickly.

From a neurological standpoint Goleman notes, “people who can manage their emotions well are able to recover more quickly from stress arousal.” Once we recognize that we’re on a destructive path, we can actively work to retrieve the brain’s executive centers from the stress spiral and begin to make better decisions.

As Goleman describes it, our “attention becomes nimble and focused again, our mind flexible, and our bodies relaxed. And a state of relaxed alertness is optimal for performance.” Thus our stressful situation becomes more manageable and the bigger picture is once again visible.

If you are a regular reader of these posts, you will know that using my STAR approach Stop - Think - Act - Rewire develops the skills to be able to manage stressful situations (The Almond Effect) not only while they are happening but also to better handle future triggers. STAR builds self-awareness and confidence and an ability to deal with what life throws at you. That seemed to me to be the best reason to develop it!

Thursday, August 25, 2011

I remember it like it happened yesterday...but you probably don’t!

“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.

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

Some research 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 amygdala creates a smokescreen which logic and reason will find hard to get through.

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.

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.

Tuesday, August 02, 2011

Getting People to Change

When would you give up your passion? How would you feel if someone told you that you had no choice?

This happened to a good friend recently. She was told that for health reasons she would have to stop scuba diving, at least in the short term, maybe forever.

It was heartbreaking for her. As a keen diver myself, the thought of not being able to explore below the ocean’s surface is simply awful.

Change is hard work whatever the situation

The mechanisms for changing what we love to do or are simply comfortable with, are the same in our personal lives and at work. We have to rewire our brain. We can do this because our brains have plasticity.

The nature and intensity of our motivation to change will differ in various circumstances but regardless of our reasons for wanting to change behaviours or thought patterns, we will have to create new neural pathways and then to use them in preference to the old ones.

Until the new patterns become the new default response, it is hard brain work. Think about when you are tired and how easy it is to default to established patterns.

The old patterns are seductive

For example, when we had our kitchen renovated last year, I still found myself looking in the old place where the cutlery was kept until I got used to the new location.

And recently I was driving back from a meeting in Sydney’s northern suburbs to another at Rushcutters Bay in the East. Coincidentally it’s the same route as if I was going home. I was so busy thinking about what I was going to say at the meeting that I was driving on auto-pilot. I missed the turn to the meeting and found myself on my way home!

(Then I experienced The Almond Effect® and became anxious about being late and the impression that my lateness might create.)

Some other examples: using your old phone’s commands on a new phone, using old keystroke patterns on new systems at work, using approaches that used to work with your our old boss on the new one!

And maybe there are some things that are so hard-wired that people can never change. I am thinking here of a friend from Scotland who has lived more than 40 years in Australia and still has a really strong Scottish accent!

When we have to change, and even if we are strongly motivated to do so, we need to stay actively focused on changing our behaviours.

If not, you may find yourself in a situation where the old behaviours are triggered automatically and the old behaviours reappear.

Our autopilot at work

Many managers seem to overlook this. They become frustrated and impatient with the time it takes for people to adopt change at work.

They get tired of answering questions like:

But what about…? What’s wrong with the existing way? We’ve tried this before, what makes you think it will work this time?

Many questions are rationally based, yet many more have an emotional basis.

As managers, getting commitment to change requires us to respond to those emotion-based concerns even though we are under time pressures and deadlines. It is false economy not to do so.

Successful change leaders know this.

Failure to address the emotionally based questions results in delayed or failed change efforts. After all, these questions are triggered by our amygdala which are concerned with anything that doesn’t fit the existing patterns we know are ‘safe.’

We still see more than 40% of change projects failing to realize the projected goals of the change.

IBM identified the most significant challenge to change as Changing Mindsets and Attitudes in its Global Study Making Change Work 2008.

In a 2009 survey of CEOs, IBM identified Complexity as the number one challenge for CEOs and leaders currently.

Here is one of their recommendations:

“How CEOs can capitalize on complexity:
The effects of rising complexity calls for CEOs and their teams to lead with bold creativity connect with customers in imaginative ways and design their operations for speed and flexibility to position their organisations for twenty-first century success”

So even if Complexity is the number one challenge for leaders, dealing with it may require changed mindsets. Many executives will have to change their own behaviour as well as the behaviours of others.

How do we change ourselves and others?

It’s worth remembering that:

• Humans are hard wired for survival above all else

• Our default thinking is habitual and self-perpetuating

• Everyone is the product of their own experiences with different motivations and unique memories

• Change can be frustratingly slow because it’s hard brain work to rewire – even if it is logical and in the best interests

So to create the optimum conditions, change leaders should:

• acknowledge past patterns were OK at that time

• fully explain the ‘why’ of the change, the WIFM and ‘what will happen ‘if we don’t’

• understand “once is not enough” and send consistent change messages in multiple ways through multiple channels on multiple occasions

• model change – and be congruent

• focus on the emotional side of change; don’t just ‘install’ the new system or process or procedure

• use reward and recognition continuously to embed new brain patterns and behaviour

People don’t change behaviours easily.

This is especially true in workplaces with cultures and histories that are slow and resistant to change. A structured approach and full understanding of how people change is essential for managers and other change agents in today’s fast-moving world where ironically slowing down to get people on board, might be the optimal way to speed up.

As Marilyn Ferguson said:
“No one can persuade another to change. Each of us guards a gate of change that can only be opened from the inside. We cannot open the gate of another, either by argument or emotional appeal.”

Thursday, June 30, 2011

The Keys to Resilience, Happiness, Self-Confidence and Compassion

There were some interesting 'off the cuff' comments from some Presenters at the Happiness and its Causes Conference in Brisbane recently.

Let me share some that might be of value to you in your work as Change Leaders.

Dr Jane Goodall

It's a pity we've lost the concept of the elders. Then we used to ask 'What are the consequences of our actions for our community, our world, our future? Now we ask: what will make me happy now?

Matthieu Ricard (inspiring!)

Compassion without wisdom is blind; compassion without action is sterile

Dr Robert Biswas-Diener

Life is beautiful because it gives us second chances - until we get it right

Dr Anthony Grant, presenter ABC Making Australia Happy

Eight steps to happiness:

1. Write your eulogy (clarifies your goals and values)
2. Do random acts of kindness
3. Practice mindfulness
4. Identify your strengths
5. Practice gratitude
6. Forgive
7. Develop social networks
8. Reflect, review and renew

Roko Belic, filmmaker The Happy Movie

Everything we do in our lives affects someone. And if it doesn’t, it affects you and that eventually affects someone else

Professor Paula Barrett

The brain continuously forms new cells no matter how old you are as long as you are well, get plenty of sleep, eat a good diet and exercise regularly. (i.e. neuroplasticity)

Michael Rosengren

Ideas for building resilience:
* Develop the skill of 'savouring'
* Spend one hour a week to do something for someone or a cause
* Physically move for one hour a day
* Be present (eg being on your phone when you are supposed to be engaging with someone else or in meetings etc is disrespectful)
* Have someone to love and something to do or to look forward to.

Dr Russ Harris

Self-confidence does not mean no fear or anxiety. Confidence is a cognitive state.
It’s irrational not to be afraid but you can control and manage it.
Genuine confidence is not the absence of fear and anxiety; it is your transformed relationship with it

Sarah Wilson

Negative thoughts are ‘stickier’ than positive thoughts

Dr Paul Eckman

Does being compassionate benefit the giver more than the receiver?

Professor Marco Iacoboni (one of the star presenters in my view)

Our capacity for empathy is hard-wired (mirror neurons)
There are degrees of empathy. We tend to be more empathetic with people or things that are like us

B. Alan Wallace (another fabulous thinker)

Humans can use intelligence to find other ways beyond appearance to find similarities and therefore be empathetic.

We are all creatures of habit but as humans we can choose the habits we want (neuroplasticity).

Professor Pat McGorry

Genuine happiness comes not from what we are getting from the world but rather what we are giving to the world.

Michael J Gelb

How to think like Leonardo da Vinci every day -

* Have an insatiable quest for knowledge and continuous improvement
* Learn from experience, be an independent thinker
* Sharpen your senses – pick up on what is going on around you
* Manage ambiguity and change
* Be a whole brain thinker
* Maintain body as well as mind fitness
* Be a systems thinker.

Should you go to the next one?

I enjoyed the Conference but I did not think it was anywhere near as insightful and illuminating as its sister conference Mind and Its Potential

But as with everything we experience in life, there is always food for thought if you look for it.

So I am confident you found some ideas that resonated with you in the above list.

And if you did, then the next step is: so what will you do with it? What do you need to do more of, less of or keep on doing and how will you hold yourself accountable for that?

Go well.

Monday, May 16, 2011

Tunnel vision of the grey matter

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

As Peter said to one of his team mates: ‘The man has got tunnel vision of the grey matter!’

Interestingly, he may be right!

How our brain filters stuff out

According to an article in Wired by Jonah Lehrer there could be some truth in Peter’s comments. He has an interesting explanation for why we often see or hear only what we want to see or hear.

We know that our amygdala responds to emotionally significant events that involve some sort of threat to us. Our amygdala continuously assesses whether something is a true life/death or physical risk to us.

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

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

Sometimes our intuition is wrong

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

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

Those students who were not versed in physics believed that it was unrealistic that the balls would land at the same time, an intuition that strikes a chord with me.
However it is wrong as the science shows (Galileo and Newton) that once the balls reach a critical velocity, they would travel at the same rates and so the scenario where they would land together is correct.

You and your ACC and DLPFC

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

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

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

Don’t waste your time arguing

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

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

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

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

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

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

Time to put the headlights on!

Friday, April 15, 2011

The only thing to fear...

People in Burberry sunglasses and Victoria’s Secret lingerie are seen queuing for food and handouts because they lost their jobs, their homes, and their incomes in the Global Financial Crisis. Now even their self-esteem is at risk.

Radiation spews into the atmosphere in Japan. Floods in Australia cause drowning and destruction. People are butchered in countries ruled by dictators.

Tsunamis wipe out whole communities. Earthquakes crush the centres of cities like Christchurch.

The list goes on. And for a significant number of people the daily deluge of death, destruction and bad news is overwhelming and influential in their thinking process. They create fears and concerns. Even where I live, 80m above sea level, my neighbours are asking what we would do if a tsunami hit.

For particular personality types, anxiety takes hold. And for some parents it takes a big effort to maintain a positive outlook in front of their kids who are equally vulnerable to the images they see.

And then there’s work

Add another layer: unexpected uncertainty, or sudden and alarming change at work, the place where many of us spend most of our waking hours.

Job losses, restructuring, current boss leaving, a new boss, new corporate direction or new government policy, revitalized competitors, new products, the demand for more margin and reduction in costs – add your own example to this list.

Do these work-based experiences also affect the way you make decisions and how you interact with people around you – of course they do.

Six decades ago

All these happenings remind me of the words of Franklin D Roosevelt in his Presidential Inauguration speech in 1933. Although the global context was different (then the world was in the grip of the Depression), that sense of feeling overwhelmed, fearful and hopeless was as palpable as some people are feeling today.

You’ll recall Roosevelt’s words:
“...let me assert my firm belief that the only thing we have to fear is fear itself—nameless, unreasoning, unjustified terror which paralyses needed efforts to convert retreat into advance.

Roosevelt was talking about the consequences of The Almond Effect® though I hadn’t described it as that yet – in fact my mother was only 3!

And his words are as relevant today

As David Ropeik says in his blog post about keeping perspective on the risks of nuclear power:

“As powerful a tool as our risk perception system is for keeping us safe in general, sometimes that instinctive/emotional system can get risk wrong, in dangerous ways.”

As you know, in our limbic system, the amygdala is responsible for our feelings of fear. It functions as a kind of psychological sentinel, scanning every situation with only one question in mind: could it harm me or not? It’s the basic survival mechanism that sets off our fight or flight mechanism.

It served us well when we were living on the savannah plains. The trouble is, it is still functioning in much the same way today.

But it is not rational thought that dictates our amygdala’s response. Rather it is an instantaneous prediction based on experiences, memories and concepts stored away over our whole lifetime from everything that happens in every minute that we live.

Fear can make a hash of our response to change or even options for consideration

Neurobiologists have shown, using fMRI and CT scans, that rational, logical decision-making is inextricably intertwined with emotions. In fact, human beings are primarily emotional and secondarily rational, so, without care, emotions call the shots in business and in life.

At work, people resist change because of their fears around job security and the unknown. Underpinning these fears are ANTs (automatic negative thoughts) that could include concerns about capability to learn new skills, previous failures, more work, more energy, having to develop new patterns and routine to name a few.

The role of the leader is pivotal

I’ve been conducting some research over many years about what people want from their leaders in times of change.
Here are a few of the items on the checklist:

* to feel included
* to be treated with respect
* the truth
* WIIFM and to know where they fit in
* proof that the changed approach will work
* clarity of objectives and goals
* reasons for the change
* picture of what success looks like
* acknowledgement of past efforts and skills

The challenge for leaders is that often they don’t know all the answers about the change and unless they are self-aware with honed self-management skills, their own ‘almonds’ and ANTs take over. Their own fears and anxieties, even subtle ones, make a hash of their ability to make decisions, communicate wisely and lead change.

Where do you fit in all this?

So let me ask you right now to stop and reflect: does fear get in your way either at work or beyond? If I asked you to write down a list of things that could be impacting you, what would you write?

To what extent are your responses to others, your actions and words driven by your own deliberate or subconscious survival instincts?

Are you a leader who is providing what your team needs and wants from you?

Ticking the boxes of the checklist above is a great place to start.

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

I 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 a show on the tele, 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 – 2010. It’s usually a good program and the story line mostly believable – but did the scriptwriter base this manager’s behaviour in reality?

What do you think? Have you or do you experience this behaviour 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 last month 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 tele 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 an HR practitioner to raise their eyebrows when I suggest that most Performance Management systems emphasise 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 behaviours 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 emphasise 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, February 18, 2011

Do you worry about living up to expectations?

You may be a successful manager or competent team member with lots of runs on the board. Your future career is looking good.

But even so, do you still experience moments of doubt? Do you ask yourself: ‘Am I good enough for this role?’ 'Will I stuff this up because I’m not ready for it?'

Or even this: “!@#^!----i shouldn't have taken this on - I’m in way over my head!

And are you reluctant to ask for help because you think you’re expected to have the answers and that others will think less of you if you don’t?

Do you get annoyed because people assume you’re too young for the responsibility, or perhaps too old?

Do you wonder where the fearlessness you had in earlier times has gone to?

Are you limiting your career prospects?

If you answered yes to any of those questions, you may be on track to sabotage your potential!

Linda Hill and Kent Lineback, their Jan/Feb 2011 Harvard Business Review article say this:

Such moments of doubt and even fear may and often do come despite years of management experience. Any number of events can trigger them.

They go on:

Most bosses reach a certain level of proficiency and stop there ...too many derail and fail to live up to their potential. Why? Because they stop working on themselves.

It’s The Almond Effect® at work

When we are new to our roles we are constantly on the lookout for derailers, things that can go wrong. But over time, as we become more settled and comfortable in the role, we worry far less. In some cases, complacency sets in.

But then something triggers off the doubts, the niggles, the concerns, the worries about self-competence and capability.

It can come out of the blue or simply be the result of too much to do, too little time or too many other stressors in your life.

And these derailers come from past experiences and events where things haven’t gone as planned either for you or you have seen it happen to others.

Over our lives, a huge number of these warning signs get stored in our brain which if we haven’t mastered the STAR technique, can show up at any time with miserable results.

Can you eliminate the triggers?

Because those triggers are always there, you have two choices: eliminate them or learn techniques to manage them before they control you.

So can you eliminate them?

There is a lot of research into this, particularly in the context of post-traumatic stress syndrome. What a relief it would be for sufferers if the traumatic memories could be eradicated.

There is no commercially available means to do this at present. And if there was, the ethical questions would be enormous? For example, could someone who goes through a divorce have the memory of their previous spouse erased?

You may have seen the romantic drama film Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (2004) where this was attempted!

The challenge is that if you delete a memory, you delete a part of someone’s life. And learning from our past experiences is the way that humans learn and grow.

Neuroscience not Hollywood

Neuroscientists are making progress towards techniques to selectively master that part of our brain, our amygdala, whose sole job is to ensure our survival. It does this by recording all the times when we have been under threat and letting us know or warning us when the same or similar situation is happening again.

Drs. Roger Clem and Richard Huganir most recent study on this has expounded on earlier work (e.g. by Joseph Le Doux) that there is a window of opportunity when memories can be ‘de-potentiated’.

Clem and Huganir discovered in mice that readily removable receptors (the main chemical sensors that detect messages sent from neuron to neuron in the amygdala) are only present for a few days after inducing fear, and peak at around one day.

So if the same thing happens in humans, this may well provide a window of opportunity for removal of the fear inducing receptors. And hey presto, bad memory gone.

However as you can see this is fraught with what ifs, hurdles and obstacles before it can become a reality. Does the same thing happen in humans? How long is the window of opportunity? How finely can we pinpoint the memory? What are the side effects of any drug or physical intervention to name just a few.

And then there are ethical dilemmas, too many to start on in this CLUES.

You need your amygdala

You may have read about the case of SM who experienced such damage to her amygdala that was associated not only with a decrease in the experience of fear, but the absence of fear altogether.

There is a Catch 22 of course. As the authors (Feinstein et al) of the study note:

“The unique case of patient SM provides a rare glimpse into the adverse consequences of living life without the amygdala. For SM, the consequences have been severe. Her behavior, time and time again, leads her back to the very situations she should be avoiding, highlighting the indispensable role that the amygdala plays in promoting survival by compelling the organism away from danger. Indeed, it appears that without the amygdala, the evolutionary value of fear is lost.”

The only remedy now

So until such time as the memory specific neuro-pharmaceuticals are as available as Xanax or Ativan, the best way to control your career derailers is to learn techniques such as mindfulness and STAR – Stop Think Act Rewire.

They are going to be far more use to you in the short term and enable you to be the great manager and team member you can be.

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Office Politics - ignore them at your peril

“Feeling resentment is like taking poison yourself and waiting for the other person to die.”

Ponder those words. They are gold. Many have been credited with them but whoever said them originally was truly insightful.

How much resentment do you harbour? Especially at work. Is it harming the other person or just you?

Resentment causes heaps of stress yet so much stress at work is avoidable.

How? By understanding and dealing with the emotions and feelings that underpin office politics and developing an approach to minimise their negative impact on you.

I hate office politics

Many people say they don’t want to be involved in office politics. Is that you? Do you say ‘I loathe the politics’, ‘I avoid politics’, ‘I refuse to play politics?

If you do, that’s the equivalent of committing organisational suicide.

And if you are a manager, paying too much or too little attention to office politics means you had better start looking at the jobs vacant ads.

Poor engagement, increased internal competition, conflict, withholding of knowledge and information, lack of innovation, missed strategic opportunities, reduced productivity – these are just a few of the ramifications of not attending to negative political behaviour.

And we haven’t even begun to talk about the impact on health, morale, trust and faith in the leaders.

So what’s at the core of office politics?

Self-preservation. Survival in the corporate jungle. Protecting your status and resources. Mimicking the behaviours of others to get the results you want for yourself.

Here are some examples of office behaviour that people shared with me recently:

* ‘Blatant favouritism/nepotism displayed by the 'leader' of the team’
* ‘Taking credit for something they did not do’
* ‘Manager using aggressive language to intimidate others to achieve own agenda’
* ‘People are afraid to speak up & voice their true opinion at risk of losing their jobs’
* ‘Power play within management affecting the success of the project’
* ‘Insecure boss trying to dodge criticism by lying about his staff’
* ‘Non-communication of important information’
* ‘Bullying, intimidation, spreading untrue rumours’
* ‘Pitting employees against other employees’
* ‘Denial of involvement in something that didn't go as expected’
* ‘Instructed to withhold information from Board’

Why do we do it?

We have to go back to the era of hominids to understand why people continue to engage in back-stabbing, manipulation and the ‘dark side’ of engaging with others; why people still become fearful, anxious, suspicious and cynical.

As you know, I call it The Almond Effect®. It’s when our inbuilt human survival system mistakes what other people are doing in the office for an ambush of sabre-tooth tigers.

So we react biologically to the threat as if the people were killer animals - though we modify our behaviour to fit the work environment.

We respond with anger, gossip, poor performance, back-chatting, presenteeism and withdrawal of discretionary labour. We close our doors, roll our eyes, miss meetings, deliver poor customer service and challenge everything the boss wants us to change.

It’s hard to believe that human relationships have not evolved since the era of Neanderthals. But we clearly haven’t in some regards.

Tips to survive in the office jungle

Understanding and managing The Almond Effect® - it drives much of office politics - is the critical first step in successfully navigating your way through your organisation’s political environment.

That and some other important strategies to shore up your career.

Here are some:

If you are a manager:

* Examine your own contribution – ask yourself: ‘what would it be like to work for me?’
* Set the standard and walk your talk
* Do not tolerate bad behaviour even from your most productive people
* Delegate effectively and don't meddle
* Ensure accountability goes with responsibility
* Create psychological safety for your people to talk to you

And as an employee:

* Performance is not enough – you also need EQ
* Inter-personal relationship skills are essential
* Check: Are you consciously/ subconsciously a contributor to office politics?
* Manage your emotional brain
* Build credibility through visibility and integrity, not negativity
* Grow your networks
* Manage upwards
* Maintain perspective: fight only the battles that count and let stuff go