Development for difficult men and men in difficulty at work

Hitting a Rough Patch

The six reasons why men lose the plot at work, and what to do about it

I’m sometimes asked to step in when a key person has somehow (and often unexpectedly) hit a rough patch at work and their company has sensibly decided to help them through it. You’ll know when this is the case, because either their output/quality has dropped off the chart or, more commonly, people around them are feeling the brunt of them losing the plot.

My experience has been that this is one of the situations where taking some time to find out why they’ve lost the plot can really help. Here’s my list of causes and tips about what to do, in order of the ones I’ve come across the most:

1. They’ve lost sight of the wood because of all the trees
Even when you’re a really senior leader, there are times when you’ve got to get down and dirty amongst all the details so you can understand things enough to lead people through it. The coach’s job then is to help them remember why they’re there and where they need to be going and to pull them back up into the helicopter view again.

2. They’re not being a ‘complete’ version of themselves
People often seem to slide into the habit of hiding parts of themselves at work. They hide parts which they judge to be “too frivolous”, “too weak”, “too demanding”, “too friendly” – you name it, we’ve no shortage of possible judgements. Over time, the parts they are hiding are like they’re relegated half their team to the sub’s bench and are playing without a full squad. The coach’s job then is help them be a great team manager, to find out the strengths of their own hidden parts and bring them back into play in the right position.

3. They’re feeling powerless to do what needs to be done
Spot the warning signs for this one by looking out for extremes: people who are either (a) over-reacting – overtly displaying anger etc or manically piling-on more and more to-do lists; or (b) have withdrawn or even disappeared from the scene.
Working with feelings of powerlessness is demanding, because you’ve first got to go through the fear and vulnerability and then start looking at the beliefs and habits that give away power. After that, you can, if necessary, consider competence. My experience has been that simply training for more competence (skills and capabilities) is less effective without those first two steps.

4. They’re carrying shame about who they are or what they’ve done or not done
Someone once told me that shame is our fear that the rest of the world will see us as we really see ourselves. It’s the gap between how we think we need to be or behave externally and what we know about our limitations and weaknesses on the inside. And it leads us to put on more and more layers of armour to stay safe.
We often have an inherited picture of the ideal male leader: powerful, independent, having the answers, invulnerable, always acting with integrity. This can be a very constricting view! So the first part of working with shame is about coming to terms with who we really are. And then we can start letting some of the heavy, suffocating armour go clanking to the ground.

5. One or more of their boundaries is being or is at risk of being crossed
“Here’s a line. In your interactions with me, you can go all the way up to this line. Do what you want on that side of it, that’s fine. Do not cross it.”
It seems simple to talk about boundaries; everybody gets it. Yet, in the busy-ness of work, with lots of demands for our attention, our virtual border guard can get forgotten. And who wants to be the unreasonable, snapping Rottweiler, constantly patrolling on the end of his chain? Coaching around boundaries can be a really straightforward discussion – what are the no-go areas for you? Where are the lines in the sand? What is unacceptable? How do you let others know where the border is? What are the warning signs that an incursion is happening? What do you want to do, if a boundary gets crossed?

6. One or more of their key values are not being upheld
Although this is the last one on my list of six, I think it’s down here not because it happens less, but because it less often leads to overtly negative behaviour. My guess is that we could all do with fairly frequent reminders about our values. Values are the things that are intrinsically important to us (recognition, creativity, just to randomly name a couple). And when we are actively living and working in line with them it is incredibly empowering. The coaching job here is around discovery – eliciting and experiencing values. The leadership job is to help individuals align what’s important to themselves with what’s important to the business.


The Language of Emotions

A resource to help describe what you’re feeling, in order to support change

One thing that can get in the way of clients being able to change how they think and behave, even when they really want to, is that they struggle to make sense of what’s happening to them internally, on an emotional level. Put simply, we all sometimes just lack the words to describe what we’re feeling accurately enough to be able to deal with it.

Lots of psychologists and thinkers have attempted to categorise, label and structure our emotions and feelings. Right from Aristotle through to our current emotional intelligence guru, Daniel Goleman. If you’re googling, take a look at Plutchik’s work, which I think has one of the best structural approaches to classifying emotions.

For a simpler approach, which is slightly structured but can be used to be mostly just about the words themselves, the work of W. Parrot is really handy. I’ve made the simple chart shown above. You should be able to click on the image and then alt-click to “save as…” if you might find it useful.


The Hero Shadow

The three steps to replacing heroics with genuinely useful decisive action

If you’ve ever done or said anything that you regretted, were ashamed of, or got negative feedback about, then this mini-series might be useful. Look for the shadow tag.

Sometimes we do and say stuff that comes out wrong – but we do it with good intentions. These behaviours are a kind of distortion of our true strengths, hence the term ‘shadow’.

The Hero is a distortion of the true masculine strength of being able to take action, with energy, decisiveness and skill.

You can spot a Hero in action if you see these behaviours:

  • He jumps into action with a reckless disregard for himself and others
  • The task is more important than the people
  • He needs (or possibly even causes) a crisis in order to feel energised
  • He gets way too far out in front, so that other people are unable to keep-up and therefore accidentally creates his own solitude.

I’ve sometimes found the Hero Shadow to be a tough one for men to work on. It’s such an addictive (but temporary) source of energy and purpose. And there are also quite a lot of social expectations for men to behave heroically. We ask them to sacrifice their bodies in war or in dirty and dangerous industrial jobs. We tell them to “suck it up” when it comes to emotional pain or thwarted ambition.

Heroic Leadership in the workplace is what sometimes happens when entrepreneurs are unable to take their business from the thriving start-up phase through to a sustainable company. Because that’s not something one person can usually do by themselves. In larger companies Heroic leaders create burn-out around them and fail to get the boring processes in place so that the organisation can function without them.

There are three steps to replacing heroics with genuinely useful decisive action:

1. Reconnect with the real heartfelt purpose behind why action is even necessary. That way it transparently becomes action for the sake of something worthwhile, not for its own sake

2. Deliberately create the kind of positive solitude that gives a longer-term top-up to energy levels (long, silent bike-rides are my favourite)

3. Unearth the compassionate, nurturing side of the hero; the part that can’t bear to see suffering and wasted opportunity in people, and teach them how to help others help themselves, instead of having to save them all the time.

Unhappy is the land that needs a hero

Bertolt Brecht


Men and Organisational Politics

The three kinds of men who fall foul of organisational politics and why

I’m sometimes asked to work with a man who has got on the wrong end of the small-p politics in an organisation. These men are often one of three types:

1. A direct, action-oriented type
This kind of man often has a great straight-forwardness about him and a high-level of intuitive, natural leadership. Sometimes these strengths make him frustrated and ineffective in dealing with what he sees as the cowardly caution and game-playing of people with different styles of behaviour;

2. A highly-principled, morally-astute type
This kind of man has a strong sense of right, wrong and justice; often combined with an ability to ‘see’ the outcome of complex decisions and chains of events. Organisations often seem to him to have ambiguous values – to say one thing and then do another, or to take the easiest, most expedient route, rather than the ‘right’ one;

3. A focused, do-the-job-right type
This kind of man has a gift for making things work well, for knowing how to tinker and fix his specific part of the organisation until it is running like a well-oiled machine. He might feel particularly lost when the bigger-picture objectives of the organisation are inefficient, or at cross-purposes or put the smooth-running of his territory at a lower-priority than something else – as they often do!

In these situations, I’ve found it crucial to remember that these are strengths that have got things to this point, not weaknesses. It’s just that they may not be the most appropriate strengths for him to apply right now. We need to step away from: “You’re doing something wrong”, which is what the organisation or the system seems to be telling him – just when he is trying very hard to apply what he knows. Then we can head towards new ways of looking at how other people behave and how to relate to that, or to new capabilities that broaden the range of strengths he can apply.


Adventure

How’s your adventure-level? It’s about feeling the rapture of being alive. Without it, we get risky and aggressive leadership.

I woke-up today with a yearning for adventure – which will likely turn into my next long-distance bike ride or something similar.

Adventure training in the British Army is defined as “Activities where the outcome is uncertain” and that seems right to me on an emotional and practical level. I truly believe that until you’ve had some physical experience that involves risk (even if that is a “managed risk”) and venturing into the unknown in some way, then it’s very difficult to feel satisfyingly alive. And it’s not just a once-only experience. It needs regular top-ups.

There have been times when I’ve experienced adventure at work, when there’s been the right combination of challenge and risk and uncertainty and even some physical challenge. But to be honest, adventure for me needs to feel the weather on my face, for my muscles to be challenged and not just my mind – and I just don’t see that happening in an office.

It’s important to consider men’s need for adventure in a work context because I’m sure that some aspects of male leadership – unmanaged risk-taking and aggressively-competitive behaviour – is a by-product of NOT being able to have physical adventure at work.

Joseph Campbell talked about the need to have physical experiences which match what we already know on the inside about how it feels to be really alive.
As he put it: “so that we actually feel the rapture of being alive.”

Adventure is also a great way to let out our inner Wildman. Modern life has a tendency to suppress this and yet, as Robert Bly writes, unless we can release the Wildman to remind us of how resourceful and many-sided our masculinity is, it becomes harder and harder to mature as a man and act with responsibility as a leader.


where is your leadership absent?

The Truant Shadow

Why some men are absent from their leadership at work and in families – and what to do about it

Sometimes we do and say stuff that comes out wrong – but we do it with good intentions. These behaviours are a kind of distortion of our true strengths, and one of the distortions that you might notice around you, is the Truant.

The Truant is a distortion of a someone’s strengths in being a nourishing and responsible leader who looks after the growth potential in the people and things around him. What happens is that our fear and shame gets in the way of being able to use our real strengths to lead and take care of people.

The Truant is what happens when we have a flight or freeze response to that fear and shame. We’re afraid of not being able to live up to our potential, of falling short of what people need or expect from us. And we’re ashamed that we’ve already not been ‘good enough’ in some way. Overloaded by the pressure of that fear and shame, we run or hide.

You’ll see the Truant response often in men when it comes to fatherhood. In the West, half of all children will spend time in a fatherless home. And similar issues arise at work, where men may absent themselves from taking long-term responsibility, or be dismissive of the day-to-day drudge work that makes organisations secure and prosperous.

The first step in helping men who have been Truant in some way, and are ready to return, is to stop being absent from the fear and the shame. After all, that’s what we’re really running from or frozen into inaction by. The good news is that fear and shame won’t destroy us, even if it feels like they might.

Here’s some questions that will turn people face-about to the hard issues:

  • What responsibilities have you ducked?
  • What have you failed to provide for?
  • Which people have you let down?
  • What has been the impact on other people of your ‘absence’?
  • What does the above say about you as a man?

My advice is to write down the answers to these questions often enough to be able to face the truth and to just ‘be with’ them for as much as they can, no matter how tough or bad it feels. Only then are people ready to come out the other side.

And remember, to some extent, everybody shares these experiences – it’s part of being human. You are not your behaviour and your behaviour can change.


Re-Thinking Male Leadership

Masculinity; it’s always better to light a candle than to curse the darkness

Helping my son with his homework this weekend, we found the Amnesty International motto:

It is better to light a candle than to curse the darkness

[Click here for more on Amnesty and the source of that motto]

That motto says something about how I’d like to approach my work with men.

You could talk about how men are often outperformed by women in leadership studies or in educational achievement; or about how nearly 95% of the prison population in the UK is male (making crime very much a ‘male issue’) or how men in some demographics are up to four times more likely to take their own lives than women; or the incidence of bullying at work. And there are plenty of other ‘negative’ examples.
It is definitely time to start having more open discussion of issues like these, and to encourage more men to be actively involved in doing so. But for me the darkness is only a part of the picture – and a potentially dis-empowering one at that.

If you look for them, there are examples of men leading with very positive impact in all kinds of areas – at work, in large and small commercial businesses, in the charitable sector and in the public sector. Men who have had to make difficult choices (perhaps unconsciously) to behave in ways that actually go against some expectations about what it means to do things “…like a man” but which are genuinely masculine. That’s where the answers are and where the inspiration is for the rest of us.

I think we need to know where the darkness is – and then light a candle to show that there is more to it than that.


Be a Team Player

When he was 11, my son played football for his local team.

They were still at that stage where it feels better to make a lone (and often forlorn) dash in the hope of scoring a glory-goal, than to pass the ball and let someone else grab the shot.
Knowing that playing as a team is what wins games seems to be something that comes with emotional maturity.

Generally, men are really good team players and I suspect that being part of a great team is something that we want in a deep, heartfelt way.

Sometimes though, men have a tendency to forget the rest of the team and go chasing-off on their own. They forget to ask for help. They forget that they’re not in it alone. Their intentions are often sound – these actions mostly seem to come from a sense of responsibility, not irresponsibility. Perhaps what gets in the way is that boyhood dream of being the daring centre-forward who single-handedly saves the match?


Having Purpose

Most people seem to want an answer to the “why am I here” question – what’s my purpose in life?

It makes sense that we would want there to be some meaning to what we’re doing with our limited time and effort. It helps when the going is tough to know that there is a purpose. And it gives direction so we can choose the right path when we have options available.

For some people, their purpose seems to have always been there, and they slip into it naturally. For most of us, I think that purpose is actually a choice.

There’s no magic answer to why you’re here, you actually have to decide for yourself.

You may even find there are several options to choose from – don’t get hung-up on picking the right one. If you want purpose, then purposefully choose to have it.

“A hero is someone who has given his life to something bigger than himself”
Joseph Campbell.