Hands up if you’re scared

Liberté, égalité, fraternité

Hands up if you are more scared this week than last?  Hands up if you believe you are more likely to be the victim of a terrorist atrocity than you were before the Russian airliner fell from the sky? Or the killings in Paris?  I see a fair few hands raised. I’m guessing that your hands are not raised having quickly calculated the complex statistical probability associated with being mixed up in such occurrences. More likely, it is coming from something in your gut, or in your heart. Somewhere far away from cognitive reason and rationality.

creative commons

creative commons

And, of course, that is what terror intends. To switch people off from reason, rationality, logic and constructive discourse, and switch on our more primal decision-making systems. “I feel it in my water. In my gut. I can smell it. My heart is ruling my head”. Believer v Non-Believer. Black v White. Love v Hate.  For v Against. Polarisation, simplification. No room for the grey. Choose your side.

Operating in a state of fear is commonplace. Workers fear for their jobs, their livelihoods, and being able to fend for their families. Patients fear the worst when waiting their medical results. City traders fear the flashing lights on the trading board when they glow red for what it might be about to signal. Could this be another crash in global markets?

Fear serves a useful evolutionary function. It kept our ancestors alive, and we have their fear to thank for us being here today. Unfortunately it is the enemy of progress. It stunts creativity, blocks new ways of thinking. Neuroscience shows quite clearly that, when the fear system in the brain is active, exploratory activity is turned off. In other words we stop looking for new ways to solve problems.  We resort to what we know worked in our evolutionary past. We either cower and hide and hope the danger passes, we flee and turn our backs on the problem, or we retaliate with force and hope to win with might. Continue reading

Can Emotion Recognition be Taught?

Being able to accurately process emotional cues from others is a critical ability that underpins effective and appropriate interpersonal relationships.  If we misread signals, or miss cues from others altogether, it can lead to some embarrassing and uncomfortable moments.  We are neurologically wired to scan the faces and body language of others in our social groups to help us determine emotional states, providing us with clear survival value. Detecting anger or fear is useful, not least in helping us avoid getting too close to danger or making situations worse, while being able to identify happiness or joy in others is key to establishing or enhancing positive connections and initiating relationships.

Some recent studies on emotion recognition have concluded that individuals with conduct disorders (CD) and antisocial behaviours (ASB) are significantly worse at recognising emotional signals associated with sadness, disgust, anger and fear, relative to controls.

It perhaps wouldn’t come as a surprise to people working within the prison system, and exposed regularly to ‘angry’ young men (most studies have focused on men within the criminal justice system), that their ‘sensitivity’ to cues may be different to the general population. The reasons for this, at least at an anecdotal level, may appear obvious. For example, take a young man who has been raised within an abusive environment, where the levels of anger he was exposed to were extreme. His normal baseline for detection of anger is likely to be set higher than the average person. He is used to seeing and hearing the cues of extreme anger, while possibly also experiencing their direct impacts. It may be reasonable to assume that this exposure to negative emotions will impact his sensitivity to detection of negative emotions such as anger, fear and sadness. Continue reading

Why don’t we do what’s good for us?

I have toothache as I write. I am in pain.  My tooth needs to come out. I am
attached to it, but, it has done its job and we now need to part company. But don’t let me fool you into thinking that I have taken a completely quick and rational pliersdecision. I have had recurring problems with this particular tooth for some time. Each time the pain flares I know that it needs extracted. My dentist has confirmed this and told me to arrange an appointment whenever I feel it needs to happen. However, just before I make the call, the pain inevitably recedes.  Why is this? Does it really? Do I imagine it has? Do I fool myself that it has? Whatever the reason, I end up putting off thoughts of calling the dentist until the next time the pain returns.

So why is it that we avoid taking action that we know would alleviate our pain? Why is it so hard for people to do the things that are actually good for them?  A study published in the British Journal of Clinical Psychology (2014), Gilbert, McEwan, Catarino, Baiao and Palmeira, suggests that the fear of experiencing a positive outcome might be stronger than the desire to heal.

Continue reading

The Danger of Conviction

What do you do if you can no longer live with the doubt…? You try to cure yourself. And the best cure for doubt is over-conviction. ~ Richard Holloway (2013)

As a Scot, I have been intrigued by the developing rhetoric of the politicians on either side of the upcoming referendum question. They hone their arguments in an attempt to win over voters to one or other side of the debate. Should Scotland be an independent country? Simple enough question, but it sits atop a mountain of uncertainty, doubt and fear.

source: with thanks to Marf (Martha Richler)

source: with thanks to Marf (Martha Richler)

Many people have already made up their minds, and nothing the politicians do during the campaign will sway them from their conviction. They are people who are clear on the question, they are certain what the answer is, and they are in no doubt. But, ultimately, the people who will determine the outcome, are the currently undecided people of Scotland. They remain uncertain, they have doubts, they have no clear conviction.

And what is it that people want to hear from their politicians and leaders when they are unsure? What engages people who are having doubts and uncertainties about the future? Personally, I want to hear leaders tell me that they understand my concerns, that they too have those feelings of uncertainty, that doubt and fear have entered their head too. I am unlikely to respond or relate to yet another ‘conviction’ speech. The sort of argument that suggests that there is no room for doubt. And, yet, what I am hearing, from both sides of the referendum campaign, are entrenched arguments, conviction statements, and a total absence of humility.

Both sides appear to have forgotten Continue reading

Enough v Perfect? You choose.

I am enough!

As a leader, would you ever tell your people they are “Already enough”?  What would stop you saying that?  Have you ever said to yourself, “I am enough”?

with thanks to: Hugh at gapingvoid.com

with thanks to: Hugh at gapingvoid.com

Doesn’t it amount to an admission of defeat? Isn’t it saying I can’t get any better? Where is the ambition in the word “enough”? It is surely the antithesis of everything we aspire to. To keep improving, to become more effective, to control, to perfect. To be perfect.

But, think again. We are a society riddled with uncertainty. As a result we battle against that uncertainty and it comes out as anger, as fear, and with bitterness. The more scared we get, the more certain we become in our beliefs. The angrier we get, because others just don’t get it, the more it results in increased frustration and fear. A vicious cycle of fear, anger and increasing uncertainty.The struggle to attain is driven by ever rising expectations. Expectations from where? From parents, from peers, from ourselves? The pressure to be the best you can be, to maximise your potential. They are well-meaning expressions, I find myself using them as self-motivators, what harm can they do? The trouble is, they don’t come with an instruction manual. No-one ever knows Continue reading

Don’t Lose the Plot

“Life is a journey, not a destination.”  ~ Ralph Waldo Emerson

I can’t imagine many people will not have heard (or used) this quote – or a variant of it – at some time in their lives.  It does seem fairly self-evident I guess.  People who set out on any journey, whether they get to where they imagined they would or not, do at least get the satisfaction of knowing that they tried. They have the opportunity of enjoying the thrill of the ride. They gain experience and learning from the venture. The challenge of the journey will often, in itself, be a major part of the reason for embarking on it.  Isn’t that obvious?
"It's A Long And Winding Road..."

Well, Intuitive though this may sound, it does not always appear that way when observing people’s behaviour. How many people are genuinely enjoying their journeys?I watched a documentary on TV this week, in which Ian Rankin (the famous and brilliant crime writer – check out his Rebus novels if you don’t know about him) keeps a video-diary of his thoughts, activity and progress while writing his latest novel.  He has a sketchy idea for the plot and how to start it off, and a vague notion of how the book should end, but has no idea how he will fill the 300 or so pages in between. For Rankin this was very much a process of discovery. It was as though he were chopping and beating a path Continue reading

Wrong thing well or right thing poorly. Which do you prefer?

People at the top (however you define that) are more in need of support, coaching, or even just “an ear” than most, and yet they are the least likely to get it. High achievers are afraid to show any limitations. Asking for help – whatever that form takes – is to admit weakness, and our culture does not take kindly to ‘weak leaders’ who need help.

So, how do we want our leaders to be?  What is our model of the perfect leader?

If we don’t expect them to need help, then I fear we are expecting too much of them, and, at the same time, we are creating a ‘vicious cycle’ from which we won’t escape.

The norms and mores of our society have created unrealistic expectations, and as a result we see smart, ambitious people who are less productive and satisfied than they should or could be. Anxiety about performance compromises progress, resulting in lower levels of risk-taking and plateauing careers.

It is not unusual to see high potential achievers avoiding  Continue reading

You Cannot Lead without Inquiry

BLOG UPDATE:  This article was originally posted in February 2012, and I am delighted to see that Hamza Kashgari, the young Saudi writer who inspired the article, has eventually been released from his prison sentence in Saudi Arabia. If you missed the original story, Hamza was imprisoned for expressing views deemed blasphemous by the authorities.  

(see Freedom House article on his release here)

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POSTED Feb 20, 2012      Too many people in positions of authority operate from a position of fear. Fear of not knowing, fear of being found out, fear of looking incompetent, fear of losing what has taken them years to attain.  This is true in companies, public service and politics. People who are in these positions are rarely stupid.  Being smart is usually a big factor in them getting to where they are. But, once they are there, something seems to kick in which is profoundly ‘anti-learning’. To paraphrase the great Chris Argyris, “Smart People find it tough to Learn”.

Today’s story in The Nation of Hamza Kashgari, a 23-year-old journalist, who faces potential death for daring to question, shines a powerful spotlight on the fear with which ‘leaders’ operate. As a species we progress by learning.  We are problem solvers, we are cognitive thinkers, we naturally question, challenge and inquire. It is by doing so that we have overcome the multitude of obstacles that have stood in the way of our evolution over millenia. But, we do not and cannot stand still. To do so would consign the human race to extinction, probably through self-destruction. More than ever before, we require Continue reading

Two Father’s Days in the Year? – wildthoughts

Australia’s Father’s Day was on 2nd Sep this year. The UK Father’s Day was earlier in the year, but I jibed my kids relentlessly about the fact that I should really benefit from a) being their father and b) being in Australia on that country’s Father’s Day. I was told in no uncertain terms to stop pushing my luck…..but when the day came I was delighted to receive a book as a gift (genuinely unexpected despite all the hints I had dropped). It was the classic “Feel the fear and do it anyway” by Susan Jeffers. A great little book which I would recommend to anyone. We can all benefit from the inspiring messages and exercises it describes. A great addition to my collection of little gems.