Wednesday, June 27, 2012

Why some meetings are a waste of time

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!

Tuesday, June 19, 2012

Dealing with Resistance to Change

Do you make these errors?

Most organizations make two fatal errors when it comes to dealing with resistance to change. First, they under-estimate the strength of current patterns that are comfortable and familiar to employees. Second, they also under-estimate what will be required to change those patterns and deal with the automatic, though sometimes subtle, fight or flight responses that occur when employees interpret changes as threats.

Our brains are hard wired to do three things: match patterns, resist or fight any threats to survival, and respond first with emotion over logic. So how can you get employees to rewire their brains and build new neural-pathways that will support change initiatives?

Neurobiologists can show, using brain scans, that rational decision making is inextricably intertwined with emotions. Human beings are primarily emotional and secondarily rational, so emotions call the shots in business and in life. Unless an organization accepts and addresses this reality, managing change with an emphasis on logic not emotion will not diminish resistance to organizational change.

Does your organisation reinforce fear of change?

Let me ask you to reflect. What does YOUR organisation do to reinforce people's fears and passions about change? What do you do to rewire their neural-pathways? How have you been reinforcing their resistance to change? What are you doing to encourage changeability?

What subconscious patterns have been laid down by you or your organization that might invoke your employees' amygdalae and build up their resistance? Do you only call them into your office to deliver them bad news? If so, don't be surprised if their hackles are up and they are already on the defensive before they even get into your office.

Does the CEO only communicate to announce bad news or to announce that the company is in a difficult situation? Does a departmental meeting usually mean bad news and more work? Is the appearance of the human resources director only ever associated with retrenchments? Even in these examples it is easy to see how employees may be on the defensive regardless of the real facts when they see a message from the CEO, a department meeting called or the HR director walking around.

What can you do?

Let me make a few suggestions. Say your change initiative is to vary your value proposition from high volume/low margin to innovation and first to market. In other words you want your people to be more creative and take a few risks in developing new products and finding new ways to deliver to the customer. Now this could be pretty challenging when the previous approach had put accuracy and dependability above all things. Patterns have been set up to expect reward fornot taking risk.

My suggestion would be that if you encounter resistance from people to this change, i.e. from playing it safe to risk takers, you have to reframe the situation as threatening.

For example: our market share has fallen and competition is overtaking us because of its cost effectiveness. We can't match their efficiencies without pain so we need to have either new products or better service to regain market share. If we can't do this, then we'll have to cut costs, and that will mean jobs.

Focus on their emotional response

In other words, focus on shifting the emotional response. Challenge their existing neural pathways and engage their amygdalae by showing why the change is

(a) Urgent (b) Will ensure the company's survival

Challenge pre-existing patterns and memories, address history, look at the good things that have occurred, validate them and then show why the patterns need to change.

Build in ways to reinforce the new patterns. Milestones reached, goals kicked. Have celebrations - connect new patterns with good emotional memories not bad ones. But don't be surprised if this seems to take a long time.

Our brains do have plasticity. Our brains can be retrained, but remember any new neural pathway has to be strongly embedded before it becomes easy and clear to follow and becomes our natural choice.

Wednesday, June 13, 2012

Should you f@#^ing swear at work?

Frankly, my dear, I don’t give a !@#$%

So said Rhett (Clark Gable) to Scarlett in ‘Gone with the Wind’ in 1939. And this line was voted the number one movie line number one movie line of all time by the American Film Institute in 2005.

One reason for its infamy was that it contained a swear word – just about unheard of in a movie or on-stage in those days.

Fast forward to the 21stC: swearing is commonplace - on the street, at work, on TV, at the movies and on stage. In fact I just saw the play “Riflemind” by Andrew Upton – and by the end of it I wondered if there were any words in the English language other than foul ones!

While it’s acceptable to many, some people are still uncomfortable with this form of communication. If you need to some alternative ways to express angst at work, look here

But maybe you should keep on or even take up swearing. What if it’s good for you...?

Swearing at work – a stress management tool?

Organizations have a range of approaches to swearing at work. Some workplaces don’t directly address it. In others, a code of conduct might require employees to treat each other with respect, courtesy and without harassment. Or a term of the employment contract might be to uphold the values, integrity and reputation of the company.

The problem is that such general wording in policies can cause problems as everyone has a different standard, and the whole issue can become very subjective and very personal.

Let it all out – it’s good for you

So it was interesting to read some research that says swearing at work can be of benefit to staff; that the use of expletives helps employees let off steam, boosts morale and can reduce stress.

In fact, Yehuda Baruch, professor of management at the University of East Anglia warned bosses that any moves to prevent workers from swearing could have a negative impact.

Fascinating assertion. So how far do you go? Is it OK to swear out loud in the lunch room? At a meeting? At a peer? At a junior staff member? At the boss? At the customer?

The professor answers with this: "In most scenarios, in particular in the presence of customers or senior staff, profanity must be seriously discouraged or banned.”

"Managers need to understand how their staff feel about swearing. The challenge is to master the art of knowing when to turn a blind eye to communication that does not meet with their own standards."

Not helpful Professor – better look at their amygdalae

Personally I don’t think that’s too helpful a guide for managers. So I looked to see what I could find out about how the brain processes swearing to see if there are any clues there.

Steven Pinker in his book “The Stuff of Thought” (Allen Lane) says that swearing makes the brain pay attention.

Pinker considers that words’ literal meanings may be concentrated in the thinking part of the brain, the neocortex, especially in the left hemisphere. But their connotations are not just in the thinking area but linked to the amygdala, which as we know is a primitive area of the brain that helps to give memories emotion.

The research reports that in brain scans, the amygdala lights up when a person sees an angry face or hears an unpleasant word such as a taboo swear word. These evoke emotional responses and even reading a swear word causes the brain to involuntarily sit up and pay attention. In other words, The Almond Effect® in action.


And I realize now that this reaction is exploited by retail clothing brands such as FCUK. Every time you use a swear word (or something that on first pass looks like a swear word – remember how quickly the limbic system makes its assessments?), you are, in effect, giving an emotional whack to the person who hears it.

Do we want to allow emotional whacking at work?

Well we don’t allow physical whacking at work, so why would we allow or encourage more ‘mental’ whacking at work than already goes on? If we encourage people to swear at work as a way to manage stress, could we be doing more overall harm than good?

Even if the swearer is using the language as part of their everyday vocabulary and/or does not mean it aggressively – we can’t know how it will impact on anyone hearing it because we don’t know how the listeners’ amygdalae react to swearing.

What’s acceptable?

I asked some people how they felt at work about people swearing around them or to them and they gave quite complicated responses.  For example Greyer said it’s OK for people to swear if they are just saying ‘s***’ or the equivalent when they are late, get their finger jammed, receive an email from their boss and so on.

But Jaime said he hates it when people are talking about others and saying things like: What an ‘a*!@#$%^”. Or that f***** ***** etc. Reeta said she couldn't care less.

Then Greyer added the swearers don’t even have to be aggressive when swearing to make her feel really uncomfortable. It can just be their everyday language but all the same, Greyer hates it.

These and many more examples just confirmed for me that whether swearing at work is acceptable and useful as a stress management tool is so context and individually driven as to be almost impossible to resolve.

Why don't you ask the people around you when, where and with whom wearing is and is not acceptable at work. I am sure you'll get a huge range of responses.

Add the look on their faces

Usually when people swear, the accompanying look on their face is one of anger, irritation, annoyance, embarrassment etc. All these looks are fear-based expressions.  And that can be a challenge. Some other research just published confirms what we are probably already aware of: our brains process a look of fear on someone’s face much faster than any other expression.

Here’s how the researcher, Dr David Zald, a psychologist from Vanderbilt University in Nashville put it:

“Fearful eyes are a particular shape. You get more of the whites of the eye showing. That may be the sort of simple feature that the amygdala can pick up on, because it’s only getting a fairly crude representation. That fearful eye may be something that’s relatively hardwired in there.”

So the angry face (or swear word) may trigger The Almond Effect in others. And we’ve explored several times in CLUES the idea that emotions are contagious. So if someone is swearing, even if they are not afraid, their words may trigger off fear reactions in others and the consequent aggressive/defensive reactions, i.e. feelings of discomfort, annoyance, irritation or even anger.

Stress relief or fear provoker?

Most workplaces encourage communication, teamwork and empathy. Swearing at or around others doesn’t seem to me to be a good enabler!

I think that Professor Baruch’s warning that any moves to prevent workers from swearing could have a negative impact may be true for the individual who needs to deal with his or her ‘Almonds’ but if they need to swear I’d be encouraging the stressed worker to find a private space and not let it all rip in front of anyone at all.

Apart from the apprehension it might cause in others, it also makes you look like someone not in control and with a very limited vocabulary.

The better option for managers

So do you personally swear at work? Is that what you want others to do? Do you have any explicit boundaries in place? Do you know how swearing affects others in your team? Are you sure when you say: it doesn’t bother anyone?

Remember from our discussion on mirror neurons that our staff will take their behaviour cues from what they observe their bosses doing?

So stay calm yourself. Model what it means to be emotionally intelligent enough to consider the impact of emotional outbursts on others and how that might make them feel and react. Show how it is possible to stay in control without swearing or doing anything that sets off a fear reaction in others.

Remind yourself that emotionally intelligent leaders are the ones who get their people to perform and remain engaged.

Work with your team on dealing with the stress or angst triggers and situations that trigger their amygdalae in the first place. Get them to identify the stress points. Coach them in ways to avoid stress altogether. Keep it in perspective. Breathe. Count to 10. There are lots of tips in Where Did That Come From?

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

Wednesday, June 06, 2012

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.

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