Get Vulnerable and Get Curious.

I accept that my perception of what is going on the world is tinted by the lens through which I find myself viewing it.  Brexit, Trump, Knife Crime, The Wall, Gaza. The daily menu for rumination is endless.  But what worries me most are the reactions I see and hear around me; in the street, on the train, in the barbershop, on radio phone-ins, and on social media. People sound angry. Angrier, it feels to me, than just a few short years ago.  Not just a good old-fashioned straightforward type of anger. The anger that wells up in our chest when we observe an injustice only to dissipate soon after.  No, the current anger that is milling around among us is more impatient, more intolerant and much more pervasive.

What’s going on?  We hear the cry around us all the time for greater certainty.  I hear it everywhere.  People demand answers and they want them now. They want decisions and they don’t understand why decisions are not being made, now. They have had enough of politicians, they have dismissed experts, indeed they feel that the whole ‘establishment’ (whatever that actually is) has let them down and they have simply had enough.

This is unfortunate timing, as we are living in an era that is arguably the most volatile, uncertain, ambiguous and complex period in the history of the planet.  The term VUCA has been coined specifically to capture this and has become something of a trendy managerial acronym.  If there was ever a time when we humans need the capacity to live with, and cope with, VUCA conditions, then this is it.

image by Alexey Kljatov // creative commons

But this growing intolerance is not happening simply by chance or because the world has hit a particular high water mark of VUCA. It appears to me to be more sinister than that.  It is being fueled by politicians and governments, ably supported by elements of the media, to generate populism and simplistic thinking.   Arguments are reduced to ‘Yes versus No”. “Us versus Them”. “Right versus Left”. Social media often gets blamed for causing shallow analysis and lack of critical thinking, and I have some sympathy with that view. But, let’s be clear, social media has exaggerated and amplified things, it has not created the problem. When we are engaged in our social bubbles we get fed more of what we already believe. Information comes to us, not as conversations with arguments and rationale, but as  soundbites, as snippets, as shock headlines. We become more and more lazy in the way we consume data. Continue reading

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Spark Inside

This blog has been copied from a blog written by Jack Merritt on The Exceptionals, an organisation that helps businesses employ ex-offenders by connecting them with relevant organisations who provide training, recruitment and ongoing support.  

“Sometimes when we talk about prisoners and prison, we forget that we’re talking about people. These are parents, siblings, children.” – Baillie Aaron, Spark Inside Founder and CEO

Spark Inside Founder Baillie Aaron: ‘Why we need to rethink England’s prison system.”

“Spark Inside’s work is vital and unique. It is the global pioneer in offering life coaching to young people in prison, enabling those facing the most significant life obstacles to have more fulfilling, purpose-driven futures. Spark Inside provides that rare antidote in today’s complex criminal justice climate: hope.” – Rt. Hon. David Lammy MP, Member of Parliament for Tottenham

According to Spark Inside, prison doesn’t work, because it isn’t effective in reducing crime. Although 97% of prisoners say they want to leave crime behind, 49% will go on to reoffend within one year. This figure increases to 65% for 15-18 year olds. Spark Inside wants to see people leaving prison break this cycle of reoffending. Founded by Baillie Aaron in 2012, Spark Inside aims to bring about a criminal justice system which prioritises rehabilitation.

How do they plan on doing this? Through two innovative and effective coaching interventions.

Continue reading

You’ve got 8 seconds to get my attention!

“The average attention of a “millenial” is 8 seconds”.

Who said so?  Well, a “millenial” of course!  Not just any “millenial”.  This attention-grabbing claim was made by an impressive young man who was a presenter at a conference I attended this week in London.  Billed as a ‘disruptor’, (credit: Ilias Vartholomaios, Co-Founder of Owiwi) he spoke about the realities that those of us who identify with the 20th Century (I’m one) will have to come to terms with as we live out the remainder of our lives in the 21st.

Young people born after 1995 have not yet become part of the mainstream workforce. He informed us that, by the time they reach the age of 21 they will have spent (on average) 10,000 hours playing online games. As a comparator, that is pretty much the same amount of time an average US student will spend in high school between fifth grade and graduation, assuming a perfect attendance record.

So what?  Continue reading

The Power of Deep Democracy

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I recently experienced my first Deep Democracy workshop as a participant and it was a real eye-opener.  It is simple yet powerful, and has the potential to create real transformation, not just routine actions for improvement. It was born out of  South Africa’s transformation from apartheid to democracy, and is used by leaders and facilitators from all walks of life. The process enables voices to be heard that are often left unheard, and mines the inherent wisdom hidden within the system by resolving tension and conflict.  (see Deep Democracy).

The process invites people to step into different perspectives or roles, some of which they may not be in agreement with.  The conversations that emerge from these different perspectives are illuminating. New information is surfaced, new possibilities emerge and collective wisdom that has been buried within the system is given an opportunity to reveal itself.

At a time when people all around the world are questioning what is real, what is true and what is fake news, the very meaning of democracy is under challenge. Who runs things? Is it the politicians?  What is the role of the media? And what about the technology giants, such as Facebook, Google and Amazon?  Where do we go to seek our answers and who can we rely on to reveal the truth about what is most important for us?  Continue reading

What if people just don’t care?

You are a manager. You are responsible for getting the best from your team. You will be held to account if deliveries don’t happen, if deadlines are missed and if budgets overrun. But of course, you are a good manager and those things rarely happen.  You know how to engage, motivate and inspire your people. Don’t you?

We’ve all had those conversations with people where you’ve had to lay out what’s on the line.  Why it’s so important this time – again!  And, on the whole, those cosy chats work. People walk away from those sessions, and they get on with it. They pull out all the stops and you can all go down the pub and enjoy a few drinks to celebrate the team’s (and your!) success once again.

But, what if it just doesn’t matter to them that much? What if they don’t care?  Or, they just don’t care enough?  What’s the right conversation to be having with that person now?

Continue reading

How do you know when coaching has been successful?

As a professional coach, I regularly take coaching issues and dilemmas to supervision. These sessions are an essential part of every coach’s development, growth and emotional maintenance. I thought I’d share something important that came up for me in my most recent session with my coaching supervisor, in the hope that you may too get something from it.

courtesy: Maurizio Pesce, under Creative Commons, Flicker

courtesy: Maurizio Pesce, under Creative Commons, Flicker

The dilemma I expressed was around exploration of vision. Some of my clients move naturally towards vision. They are comfortable with the language and for them it is not a threatening or challenging conversation when we explore what it looks, feels or even smells like. Other clients struggle to talk in terms of vision. Even the concept of aspiration, dream or goal can be challenging. This is particularly true for some of my clients who find themselves in custody as young offenders. Many express the view that they do not like to think too much about dreams or visions as it only results in them becoming disappointed. They say that they do not want to build up their hopes only to be let down, and as a result they content themselves by living in a world of very low expectations.

When I put this issue on the table in my supervision session, the statement that my supervisor came back to me with was “It is not our job as coaches to breed optimism.”

I let this statement sink in, and my first instinct was to rail against it.  Some of the clients I work with have very low levels of hope or positivity, and I believe that people do their best work when positive neural circuits are switched on. My coaching often focuses on work around beliefs, particularly limiting beliefs, and how those give rise to thoughts, words and actions that generate negativity. Surely the work of the coach starts from the basis that people want to seek improvement, do ‘better’ than they are currently doing (whatever that means), and fulfil their potential? Why wouldn’t we encourage them to look toward alternative futures and choices?

Is The Appraisal System Dead?

If, as is reported, as many as one third of U.S. companies have abandoned the traditional appraisal system (ref:The Performance Management Revolution), and the signs are that more and more are joining the revolution, what is the future of performance management? How will companies ensure that people do what is expected of them in the future? How will managers know who’s good and who’s not? How will they advise on development, or decide who to sack and replace?

Major players such as Dell, Microsoft and IBM, as well as previous champions of the
forced ranking system such as GE, are at the vanguard of new approaches to retaining and developing talent.  These companies are responding to many issues and criticisms which have been levelled at traditional performance management systems. In some organisations they have become enormous consumers of people’s time. With  the move to
flatter organisational structures and virtual or globally dispersed teams, supervisors have had to contend with larger and larger teams. The answer to this problem in some companies has been to turn the job of performance management over to ‘specialist’ people creativitymanagers, who do little else other than manage the entire cycle, quarter after quarter. Ranking, levelling, forced distributions, identifying rising stars, identifying laggards, assessing delivery against stretch targets, calculating the distribution of the bonus pot, and starting the whole cycle again.  This has become an industry in its own right, and one that delivers no core benefit to the customer or the shareholder.

A number of factors have played a part in driving the shift we are now seeing.  Continue reading

Mining for Treasure

You could be excused for wondering whether leadership has gone out of fashion right now. Whether it be politics, business or sport, wherever you look, there appears to be a vacuum at the top, and much discrediting of those leaders who remain.

What could be going on?  Well, I think one of the problems is that we are mixed up about
what we want from our leaders. Perhaps we expect too much of them. Should they have all the answers? Should they be all-seeing and all-hearing? Is it reasonable to expect them to set strategy, direction, plan, implement, review, report and make key decisions, as well as dispense wisdom to all who seek it?   Of course not.  But, despite recognising this as impractical, and even unhealthy, as a society we are still encouraged to demand unequivocal and unwavering surety from our leaders.

Pirate_map

At this time, perhaps more than at any time in the past, we need a different set of skills from our leaders. We live in a VUCA (volatility, uncertainty, complexity and ambiguity) world where knowledge is distributed more widely than ever, where more information is instantly available than at any time in history, yet despite all that information, decision-making has never been more difficult. Those who come out of the charismatic ‘all-knowing’ school of leadership present us with dangers. Continue reading

The Power of Silence

“Silence is true wisdom’s best reply.” Euripides

How comfortable are you with periods of silence during conversations?  Do you feel uncomfortable? Are you compelled to fill the void and keep the cascade of words flowing?

I was prompted to think about this by a short article I read recently by Angela Dunbar, in which she claims that almost all coaching and talking therapies are designed to work by encouraging the client to open up and talk about what’s happening for them, to speak their thinking aloud and verbalize any insights they may be having.  All of this is based on the (not unreasonable) assumption that, by expressing out loud what’s going on in your mind, problems will be unpicked and solutions found.

The article goes on to point to research in the field of cognitive psychology (see paper by Schooler, Ohlsson, and Brooks) that suggests that the act of verbalizing thoughts actually prevents insights arising. This may be because the brain has limited resources, and if they are concentrated on the conscious activity of talking, there is reduced capacity for the non-conscious activities that are necessary for insight to occur.  The research evidence suggests that insight involves processes that are distinct from language, and which benefit from not being distracted by speech.

Continue reading

Chattering lizards

“The reason why so few people are agreeable in conversation is that each is thinking more about what he intends to say than others are saying”.
Francois de La Rochefoucauld

How many unproductive conversations do you hear people having on a daily basis?  How many of those do you get involved in?  What do you see going on that makes them unproductive?

I’m talking about situations where the parties involved in a dialogue actually do want the conversation to be effective, and the outcome to be productive. This is, after all, the primary way in which business, commerce, negotiation, consultation and relationships work.  

So why do so many conversations not work successfully?  Well, as you might expect, it is down to the way our brains work. When people raise issues, concerns or simply want to share a point of view with another person, they typically display a set of predictable behaviours which show up in a number of ways. The underlying motivations driving these behaviours can be summarised as:-

  • A need to maximise one’s own comfort / while minimising the other person’s discomfort
  • A desire to win / and not lose (i.e. to get your way)
  • A need to maintain control 

These needs ‘leak out’ into conversations in a variety of ways, but, most typically as:-

  • Leading Questions (designed to lead other people to get to the conclusions you have already arrived at)
  • Piling (loading points and/or questions on top of one another to emphasise your argument)
  • Over-advocacy (over-zealous control of the arguments without providing space for discussion)

When these strategies are being deployed by people, what is actually going on in their brains?   Continue reading