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.
- 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).
- 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.
‘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?
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.
- 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.
Someone will always win – let it be you!My friend ‘Harold’ and I were yesterday discussing the critical impact that conversations have on the culture and performance of an organisation. Harold is a highly respected and experienced businessman and consultant, semi-retired, and currently Chairman of the Board of a very large institution embarking on a necessary and significant cultural change process Interestingly, he was lamenting the state of conversation he is experiencing across the board – in politics, in coffee shops, in business meetings and in Boardrooms. Harold came to Australia in the 1970’s – to a refreshing culture of boldness, larrikinism and authenticity which, in his observation, seems to have been diluted and sanitised to the point of non-existence – and in his opinion to the detriment of the culture of both our personal and professional worlds. “You start a conversation over a coffee, and it ends up a whinge-fest and somehow you get drawn into it.” And that’s called Emotional Contagion. It’s a real and powerful force. AND it operates predominantly below our conscious realisation. Your brain is highly tuned to connect and align with the emotional states of those around you, and for good reason via some clever brain cells called mirror neurons. Imagine you are not in the line of sight of some form of extreme danger, but your friend is. Your friend sees it, they become instantly fearful, and somehow you are able to instantly and intuitively pick up on that fear and feel it as well, without any form of deliberate or language-based communication needed and you respond accordingly. From an evolutionary perspective, this sophisticated human ability is quite useful in keeping you safe. Emotional contagion is why you can intuitively ‘know’ when your child or partner is not happy, or that the manager at the end of the boardroom table is about to share something bad. So when two or more individuals come together in two or more emotional states, there begins a battle. In this Emotional Contagion Battle, with the absence of deliberate and conscious overriding, the negative emotion will always win – for all the evolutionary reasons I’ve already mentioned. And it is a difficult battle to win. It can feel a bit like yellow food colouring in a glass of water fighting to stay yellow when some black has been mixed in…! An uphill battle! Sometimes, of course, this overriding negative view is necessary, but in our socially evolved and relatively safe business environments it gets in the way of the objectivity, logic and useful intuition needed for a great organisational culture to survive. Now the evolutionary odds are against us here.
- Humans are born with a negativity bias – an evolutionary tendency to view the world from a negative perspective before a positive one.
- To save the expensive use of brain fuel required to think consciously, our brains encode and automate repeated patterns of thinking and behaviour – if you regularly see or engage in ‘whinging’, then your brain encodes (hardwired) that way of being.
- Engaging in those hardwired activities is easy and preferred by the brain – again under the brain fuel saving banner.
- Acknowledge it – call the emotional state of the other person or the group. Eg, “I can see that this is really frustrating you”
- Shrink wrap it – people need to be heard and validated. Ask them to succinctly express their concerns and then shrink wrap that into a phrase or idea or concept that represents it – then put it aside. Eg, “So it’s really about….”
- Redirect it – gently redirect the conversation to what can be usefully done about it, or to a more useful conversation entirely. Eg, “What specifically do you want to now do about it so you can move on…”