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


No Time to Think

Perhaps ‘the’ most tantalising allure of any advancement in engineering or technology through the ages has been the promise of saving us time. Cars, trains and planes certainly get us places faster than horses ever did. Bridges and tunnels allow us to take short-cuts over rivers and through mountains, saving us hours. Advances in IT and robotics mean that tasks previously handled manually have been automated with exponential levels of increased productivity.

Why, with so much technology and time-saving gadgetry at our fingertips, do people still present at coaching sessions with issues and concerns about their ability to manage their time? After all, our lives have never appeared to be more organised ~ or perhaps I should say digitised!   More and more of us are hooked up to the Net from morning to night.

Our smartphones and tablets wake us up, we check our diary for appointments and read our messages before getting out of bed. We catch up on missed shows on iPlayer or Stitcher while we commute to work. We juggle collaborating on Sharepoint, with watching company Webcasts, while occasionally dipping into our personal Instagram, Twitter or WhatsApp accounts. We may even check in on Foursquare while grabbing lunch, and be just as likely to choose where to go by WiFi availability as the quality of the food. On the way home we might burn some carbs, having gained access with our fingerprint or iris, which are digitised on the gym’s customer database. We immediately wire ourselves up to the screens on the machines so as to catch up on news, or check Facebook activity.  And when we get home, after a microwaved dinner, and a quick skype chat with your mum, our relaxation and wind down time may well include logging on remotely to your work’s email to ‘finish off’ a few things, and give yourself a fighting chance of making a clean start on things again in the morning (fat chance!).

Continue reading

Performance dips. Is it all just statistics?

source: wikispaces.psu.edu

source: wikispaces.psu.edu

In the age-old debate about which works best – positively rewarding desired behaviours or punishing non-desired behaviours – we need to be careful that we don’t fall into the trap of making a causal attribution that does not actually exist. We may be observing nothing more than a mere consequence of statistical distribution known to students of statistics as ‘regression to the mean’.

This is described in the excellent book Thinking, Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman (p 175), where he describes an Air Force trainer who objected to Kahneman making the claim that rewarding improved performance was more effective than punishing mistakes. His objection was based on his experience. When he positively praised someone for performing a manoeuvre well, on the next occasion the individual inevitably performed worse. On the other hand, when someone did badly, he would blast a condemnation into their ear which, in the view of the trainer, always caused an improvement in performance.  Ergo, negative reinforcement works more effectively than positive.

source; aperfectchef.hubpages.com

source; aperfectchef.hubpages.com

And, so it might seem, on first inspection in this example. That is, until you think about these situations as being distributed levels of performance around a mean. It makes sense that one single piece of outstanding performance is very likely to be followed by one that is closer to the mean than before. Likewise, an extremely poorly executed manoeuvre is more than likely an aberration, and (even without the blast in the ear) is likely to result in an improvement, and a performance closer to the mean on the next occasion.

What the trainer had stumbled upon was a rule of statistical distribution, and not a profound principle of psychological reinforcement theory.

What we do know, however, is that the brain is wired in such a way as to be biased toward negativity.  This is a consequence of our evolutionary journey and is one of the reasons that we have survived as a species.  It was critical, and indeed life-saving at times, for our ancestors to be alert to danger, to be primed to detect predators, to see risks everywhere. Neuroscience demonstrates that our emotional centres are biased toward negative emotions, and, for this reason, positivity does face an uphill battle. It is working against the tide of our emotional make-up, and to overcome the bias (or at least redress it) we need to experience at least a 3 to 1 ratio of positive thoughts or experiences over negative ones on a daily basis.  (for a deeper treatment of this area see the previous post Overcoming the Brain’s Negativity Bias).

Negative reinforcements and punishments have their place in a world associated with danger and risk, but in a world where our safety is less of an issue, and the emphasis is on how well we thrive, grow and develop, the powerful effects of positive reinforcement are in the generation of optimism, creativity, empowerment and confidence.


If you feel that you or members of your management team would benefit from exploring ways to make substantial improvements to personal and collective effectiveness and productivity, please do get in touch.       Simply  submit  your contact details on the Contact Us page and I will be delighted to get in touch for an informal initial chat.

About me:  I enable people in business to operate more successfully.  You may be struggling to implement corporate strategy, you may want to get more productivity out of your teams but don’t know where to start,  or your people may not be having as effective conversations with each other as they could be. I will work with you to enable you to formulate more effective ways of leading, to raise awareness of blockers to successful ways of working, and ultimately to help you to lead more successfully.  


Are your people ready to change?

If you’re in a bad situation, don’t worry it’ll change.  If you’re in a good situation, don’t worry it’ll change.  ~  John A. Simone, Sr.  

At a time when most businesses are seeking ways to emerge from the effects of the recession, and get themselves back on the road to economic growth, one inevitable question their leaders will all face will be, “What things are going to have to change around here to start us moving again?”  

  • Will the strategy and tactics they have been deploying during the crunch be the same ones they need to drive growth?  
  • How do they shift mindsets on their management teams from ‘cost avoidance’ to ‘growth and profit’? 
  • Do they need different types of people in their company to take them in a different direction?
  • Will their own leadership style need to be different as they move forward?
  • Are they even the right leader to take the company forward and be successful?

Some of these questions can be extremely daunting, and will challenge even the most competent leaders. However, much will depend on how the workforce has been led during the period of recession. 

Have people been continuously aware that this day was coming, or will it come as a surprise to them  that they are now expected to do things differently, think differently, perhaps adopt new practices.  Remember, even unpleasant circumstances become comfortable after a while, and people will resist moving away from the ‘way things are’ even if they are promised a better future.polar-bear-ice

It’s not enough to simply promise things will get better and hope they will change.  One major reason for this, we now know, is because of the way our brains are organised. Regular patterns of thinking and behaviour become ‘wired’ at the neural level. It is certainly not a trivial matter of expecting people to one day waken up and operate as if they had a different wiring pattern. Not even after the most rousing and stirring ‘all-hands’ kick-off event !!  Our brains need to have new connections created (and old connections disused and atrophied) over a period of time in order for new patterns of thinking and behaviour to take root. New visions, positive futures, different expectations, alternate rewards, all help generate these new connections, and ultimately, different behaviours.

That’s why the best leaders 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

What is Coaching anyway?

I am sometimes asked by people what I actually do when I’m coaching. Before I have started to answer, it is often closely followed by a question about the difference between counselling (or therapy) and coaching. Of course, there is the text-book answer. Coaching is not intended to work from a position of fixing people. Coaching is rooted in the principles that people are naturally creative, resourceful and whole.  And that is a good and important principle that coaches adhere to

In coaching we are seeking to provide people with the self-awareness to be able to come up with their own choices, answers and solutions, to take responsibility, and be empowered to improve and fulfil their potential. All well and good. Nothing wrong with that. The agenda is the client’s to bring to the coaching and it is not the coach’s place to ‘judge’ what is important to the client or not.

source: listas.20minutos.es

source: listas.20minutos.es

This is where it can start to get tricky.  People will often present (particularly in a business setting) with a problem they want to fix.  It might be a business-related issue that they are stuck with and they are looking to work out a way forward with it.  Coaching can provide the client with a useful sounding board for their ideas, for the coach to explore areas that are causing the client to feel stuck, can provide the independent, non-judgemental environment that allows the client to clear their head before stepping back in to the fray with a new plan of action. There is nothing wrong with that of course, and for many people it is a great service.  Some clients will say “I always feel so much better just talking to you.”

But, do our clients deserve more than this from their coach?   Continue reading

Overcoming the Brain’s Negativity Bias

We didn’t get where we are today by being positive you know. Oh no.  Survival is a tough, uncompromising business.  Our ancient ancestors needed the negativity bias that is neurally wired into our brains in order to be successful. And successful they were; the fact you are reading this today being proof of that. The paradox is that this very successful survival mechanism – ‘the negativity bias’ – can often get in the way of people being able to experience life positively.

Let’s look at a simple model of how the human brain has been built up over tens of thousands of years of evolution.  (see also Rick Hanson’s article on this subject).          We can think of it as being composed of three (evolutionary) layers:

1. The Lizard Brain            This is the ‘old brain’. It shares many characteristics with the reptilian brain. It tends to fire in a reactive way. It is alert to dangers.  One classic and well-know example that is often quoted is the ’emotional hijack’ – when our emotions take over and we can actually feel like we are at the mercy of another brain. In some ways that is true.  When the ‘red mist’ falls across our eyes in moments of fury or fear, the lizard has taken over the controls.

2.   The Mammalian Brain      The middle layer of the brain, which we share with other mammals (in an evolutionary sense) is much more concerned with seeking rewards. More sophisticated processing takes place at this layer than in the ‘old brain’, although in neuroplastic terms it is still relatively ‘rigid’.

3.  The Primate/Human Brain    The most recently developed, upper layer of the brains of primates and humans is concerned primarily with attachments and relationships.   We see this most clearly in the use of communication, language, social network development and extracted thought concerned with abstract concepts such as philosophy, religion and science.

Some of the most recent advances in the science of neuroplasticity have started to reveal amazing abilities for the brain to change and alter shape (by creating new connections and thickening existing connections) as a result of experiences and repeated use.  While neuroplasticity can, and does, take place at all three levels of the brain, it does appear that it is much more difficult to affect changes in the lizard brain than in the primate/human level (or neocortical region) of the brain.  For a superb in-depth treatment of this area, I refer you to Rick Hanson, author of Buddha’s Brain.

Why is this important?  Well, it means that, no matter how sophisticated and developed our thinking becomes, no matter how much we believe we have our emotions under control, there is, deep within our 21st Century selves, a part of us which is operating on one simple rule, which is basically “Get Lunch – Don’t Be Lunch!”

Now, even in the wild, most anxious episodes resolve fairly quickly.  The highly attuned Continue reading

Are you ‘On the Bank’ or ‘In the Flow’?

“It is not required that we know all of the details about every stretch of the river. Indeed, were we to know, it would not be an adventure, and I wonder if there would be much point in the journey.” ― Jeffrey R. Anderson

Where do you find yourself most often as you wend your way on life’s journey?  Are you firmly in the midst of the river, going with the flow, navigating the hazards and enjoying the thrill of the ride?    Or are you bumping along the banks, stopping regularly to re-appraise the situation, before venturing tentatively back in to the turbulent currents in mid-stream.

source: sea2summit.net

source: sea2summit.net

The ‘river’ metaphor is very useful, and works on many different levels. I listened this week to Dan Siegel (the neurobiologist and author of Mindsight, among other recommended reads) as he discussed the nature of the mind. He spoke about the healthy mind as being integrated and harmonious (‘in flow’), and characterised the troubled mind as tending toward being either ‘chaotic’ or ‘rigid’ in manifestation.  He refers to these two states as being like opposite banks of a river. When we drop out of ‘flow’ – the balanced state of coping, experiencing well-being, and functioning optimally – we tend to drift toward one or other bank. (see Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi for a detailed treatment of ‘Flow’). Which bank you end up on will depend on the condition and situation being experienced, but people also tend to have a dominant bank they gravitate toward. Continue reading

Silencing the left brain

Last week’s post on the ‘Upstairs & Downstairs Brain’ attracted considerable attention, and elicited a number of responses – some favourable, some challenging. It appears that the implications of neuroplasticity are still very much at the early stage of consideration for many people, and, just how the new knowledge being generated can be put to use by coaches is not yet clear.

Last week, I spoke about the limbic system (or old brain) as being ‘downstairs’, and the pre-frontal cortex (or new brain) as being ‘upstairs’. Today, let’s look at the brain from a different perspective – left and right.

It has long been known that the left & right hemispheres of the human brain specialise in different areas of cognition, memory and reasoning. Put simplistically, the left side of the brain tends to be associated with more logical and analytical thinking, while the right hemisphere is linked to more creative pursuits and expressions of emotion, for example, through art and music.

source: hoffmanprocessuk.blogspot.com

Furthermore, Dr. Jordan Grafman, of the National Institutes of Health (NIH), puts forward evidence that the left-frontal lobe in a normal brain is specialized in storing of individual events, while the right-frontal lobe draws out themes and connections. People who have suffered damage or lesions to their right-frontal area often find it difficult to understand the point of a story, or a movie that they watch, and find the use of metaphor and simile extremely challenging. They understand the words spoken, and can make literal sense of things, but they lose the ability to interpret, extrapolate, find abstract meaning and so on.

But, from studying these unfortunate cases of people who have suffered brain damage, neuroscience has also discovered something fascinating about the way the hemispheres of the brain operate together. Some people who suffer damage or wastage in the left side of their brain, thereby losing their ability to understand the meaning of words, have been known to almost spontaneously develop unusual artistic and musical skills. In other words, skills that are typically processed in the right side of the brain. What is going on here?  Well, Dr. Bruce Miller, a neurology professor at UC, San Francisco, argues that the left hemisphere would normally Continue reading

The Upstairs & Downstairs Brain

Advances in neurosciences continue to inform our understanding of what makes us human, and perhaps even more importantly, how we interact with each other. In this week’s post I recommend two excellent speakers and experts in the field of neuroscience to you, Dan Siegel and Sarah-Jayne Blakemore.

We have passed through many periods of popular assumptions about the brain and the mind, including the tabula rasa (blank slate) theory that humans are born void of knowledge and acquire ideas and wisdom over time from the world in which they operate. And, until a few years ago, we believed that the wiring of our brains was pretty much determined and complete within the first few years of life. Advances in techniques for studying the brain, in recent years, have shown that development continues well into adolescence (and beyond), particularly in the pre-frontal cortex.  During this period of development an especially important process takes place. Synaptic pruning. Underused synapses and connections in the brain are pruned, just like weak or dead branches on a rose bush are cut away.  This is a vital phase of development of the brain, during which connections that are used are strengthened and those which are not are lost. Neurons that fire together wire together. (See also previous post on this subject: The “white stuff”, and what it means for your brain – March 2012) Continue reading