My daughter is in Year 10. This is the ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’ year. To my delight I discovered my own copy from 1980 when I was in Year 10.
To support her I decided to read it again. Needless to say my experience of the book was somewhat more enjoyable and intellectually reflective than my original attempt, and I endeavoured (with her permission of course) to coach my daughter around some deeper insight around the story. My first question to her was “So why is it called ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’?”
Hmm, good question, Mum!
So we worked through that one and I threw her some other questions to think about. There is so much to reflect on in terms of the story beneath the story in this novel and I was keen to enjoy unpacking it with her.
When I asked what the assessment for the semester would be, she explained that they had to write an ‘intervention’. Apparently this means she has to pick an event or situation in the book and rewrite it with a different outcome. Not what I expected, and kind of negating the need to continue with the intellectual reflection (or so it seemed on first thought).
My response was ‘why?’ What is the purpose of that activity in terms of your learning and appreciation of the novel you have just read?
She had no idea. Her only (understandable) focus was on what she had to do to complete the assessment, and probably a bit of how and when it needed to be done in order to tick the appropriate boxes.
We live in a ‘what’ and ‘how’ world. It’s a shallow world in need of a good dose of substance.
Simon Sinek (Start with Why TedX) famously proposed that organisations that know why they do what they do are infinitely more successful than those that only know what and how they do it. (Check out his TedX if you haven’t seen it).
When we take the time to ask ‘why’ of ourselves and of others, we are infinitely more successful than when we only focus on ‘how’ and ‘what’.
The ‘what’ and ‘how’ is easy, but not meaningful. It’s the ‘why’ that engages us and connects us with the meaning that drives motivation. It is the ‘why’ that ultimately drives our decision-making. It is the why that enables insight and engagement.
Along the same vein, when my daughter was attempting trigonometry homework and exhibiting less than desired enthusiasm for the task (my recollection of the experience 30 years ago was pretty much the same), I suggested we google ‘why’ trigonometry. We discovered that it is used for things like measuring the height of waves, and to measure the height of buildings and mountains, and in video games and so on. Whilst she is still not a mathematics fan, asking and discovering the ‘why’ provided some context and meaning behind the activity and helped her to make the effort required.
Think about your conversations at work – are they ‘why’ conversations that test assumptions and get curious, or are they ‘what’ do we need to do and ‘how’ will we do it conversations that are uninspiring and repetitive?
Think about your meetings at work – are they ‘why’ meetings that challenge and stretch your thinking and lead to innovation and simplification and clarity, or are they task-focused ‘what’ and ‘how’ meetings that lead to detail and overwhelm.
The very simple act of stopping and asking ‘why’ can made a huge difference. Give it a try for a day.
Your team member falls into your office. They are emotional. Something has happened and they need to get it off their chest. You know that you just need to give them the opportunity to vent.
During that venting process, there is a lot of blaming, regret, frustration…but at least they are getting it off their chest. You look at your watch, an hour has passed, no sign of letting up, and you are feeling like crap now…the negative energy is contagious.
So here’s the thing…venting is not useful.
Yes, we have been taught that it is necessary and of value, but my belief is that it serves no useful purpose.
- It wastes valuable time that could be focused on moving to a solution or resolution – like when you stuff around getting ready to go somewhere, then are late and miss it anyway, so why did you bother – nothing gained.
- It reinforces the issues by going over and over them – like a child over-doing the colouring in to the point where the paper tears
- It reinforces and extends the emotional experience associated with the issue – by keeping it alive, even taking it to new levels of negativity – like when you use a magnifying glass to use the sun to set an ant on fire (no I never did that – someone told me about it).
So why do vent?
- It feels good. It feels like problem-solving. But it’s not.
- It alleviates stress and tension in the moment, but not long term.
- An inevitable sympathetic response makes you feel better, like you are not alone.
I believe there are two things that are really happening here. Firstly, the ventor is avoiding the effort and accountability associated with owning the situation and owning progression to a solution i.e., they want to pass the buck. But most importantly…
‘People vent, whinge and blame because they haven’t felt heard!’
If you have a team of ventors, or whingers, or blamers…begin with taking the time to let them feel heard. Here are three steps you can take to help them feel heard and then redirect their energy to more useful places.
- Validate what they are saying, but ‘shrink wrap’ it into factual, manageable chunks – ‘So what you are saying is that John didn’t deliver for the third week in a row’
- Focus on their emotion, not the content – ‘I can see that you are disappointed in this outcome.’
- Redirect their focus – ‘So what is it you need to do to move beyond this…’ or ‘So what is the thinking you need to do, or action you now need to take so this situation changes?
You will find your own language around this, just follow the general approach.
Sometimes it’s useful to get back to basics.
On a daily basis I hear of the motivation and engagement challenges that leaders face. We live in an evolved, sophisticated social world, yet our brains have not evolved at the same rate and are still designed to survive and respond in a relatively primitive social world.
All humans have a one-track mind.
The fundamental role of the brain is to ensure the perpetuation of the species …
which is, actually, just as relevant today as it was thousands of years ago. To achieve this important goal your brain does two things:
it seeks to protect you from threat
(anything that might lead to your death or disablement), and
it seeks reward
(anything that will keep you alive and thriving).
When you are in ‘threat’ mode (i.e., checking to make sure everything is safe) your capacity for logic, creativity, seeing possibilities and being open-minded and curious is significantly inhibited. Your brain will instruct all non-essential functioning to go ‘on hold’ till the threat is managed or gone. It’s like a fire alarm or bomb threat in a high-rise building…until the ‘all clear’ is given, all non-critical work and activity (ie, except for getting people out of the building and making sure all is safe) is abandoned.
BUT…the circumstances that impact our perception of threat have changed significantly. The brain does not distinguish between physical and psychological or social threats – they are treated with a similar ‘threat’ response in the brain.
Primitive threats tended to be more physical and included …
- wild animals
- crazy neighbours with spears
- commonly occurring famine, floods and drought
- abandonment or ostracisation from the tribe which potentially led to no food, water or shelter.
The more common threats we experience today in a country like Australia tend to be more of a social nature and include…
- social or contribution rejection;
- discrimination, loneliness, embarrassment and humiliation;
- changing goal posts and the rate of change;
- lack of control over our work environments;
- financial insecurity;
- social media jealously (everybody looks like their life is better than mine);
- high social expectations and the impact of media on our sense of ’normality’ and our ability to achieve that normal (i.e., driving a fab car, huge house with a pool, looking like a model) and so on.
The problem is that the definition of ‘threat’ is ‘anything that is not expected’.
Think about it…how many times in a day do you experience something you didn’t expect? How many times do things not go to plan? How many times do you and others react in ways you didn’t predict? And as a result, how much time and energy in your day is channelled into making sure that these potential threats check out to be ‘ok’?
The answer: more than is useful in terms of us remaining productive and engaged. Way too much time in our day is ‘wasted’ on responding to the calls from our primitive brain. Until we feel physically and psychologically safe, we cannot function to our potential or learn or adapt.
The solution: we must understand and learn how to manage and change our habitual responses and shift to more useful ones. This is where taking a neuroscience approach to leadership can help.
The role of neuroscience is to explain behaviour in terms of the activities of the brain. And we now understand our ‘operating system’ so much more, and indeed enough to understand that we can influence and evolve it’s primitive processes to be more aligned and useful in today’s sophisticated social world.
Leading well requires mastery over the one-track mind. Mastery over one’s own mind, and the skill to support others to a level of awareness around their own primitive responses.
This is about increasing our human skills – our understanding of how humans are really motivated, how they tick. We need to bring back some substance into our leadership.
My thoughts around developing Leaders of Substance are outlined in this video.
The capacity to diagnose and respond effectively to a lack of psychological safety – in self and in others – is now a critical leadership skill. If you are not playing in this space…it’s time to at least take a look.
As a leader you spend 80% of your time in conversation. Many leaders severely underestimate both the power of good quality conversation in getting things done and improving performance…and also how very ordinary we are at it. Here are five myths about business conversations that need to be busted!
Myth 1: I am good at communication and conversations
Conversation is a skill and an art and very few of us are taught how to use conversation to get the very best from the brains of others. Our role models and habits, not to mention the pressure of time and energy also mean that we resort to ‘telling and instruction’ as the predominant means of communication over a work day. The brain does not like being told what to do – even when an individual asks you to ‘tell’. When people are told or instructed – even if they ACCEPT and ACT ON the instruction, they will not OWN the outcomes.
Myth 2: What people say is the truth
Truth in itself is a myth. There is my truth, and your truth, and the version of truth that makes sense. People lie, for all the right reasons. Cognitive bias colours and filters the truth. Our past experiences and behaviours create the unique ‘wiring’ that drives future behaviour, and it’s not always based on an objective reality.
Myth 3: People know what they want
When I begin a coaching engagement, more often than not my ‘coachee’ arrives with their clearly documented ‘3 goals’ that they wish to achieve from the coaching. It usually only takes about 20 minutes to uncover that beneath those goals are some very different goals. We tend to think and exist on our ‘surface’ and it takes effort and skill to help people to delve beneath the surface to find out what people really want and need. But if you can, the rewards are plentiful.
Myth 4: Emotion is destructive
We avoid emotion, particularly emotion that we categorise as ‘negative’. There is no such thing as positive or negative emotion, it is our interpretation of emotion that categorises them. It is much more useful to view emotion as valuable data that can guide us to know the truth (see Myth 2) of what is going on for us. Learn to embrace and regulate emotion rather than avoid and suppress it.
Myth 5: Conflict is not productive
Conflict (in its useful form) is not only productive but necessary. I prefer to refer to conflict as Deliberate Debate and I specifically teach this in my Rewired Teams programs. If your meetings are a round robin of ‘sharing’ updates, then you are either missing a great opportunity for creative thinking and problem solving, or simply wasting precious time. The process of challenging and stretching our own thinking and the thinking of others – of not accepting at face value what is put forward (see Myth 2) and of leveraging off the thinking of others is the critical missing piece in many teams.
Five more myths to come in my next blog…
Have a nice day!