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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either (a) over-reacting – overtly displaying anger etc or manically piling-on more and more to-do lists; or (b) have withdrawn or even disappeared from the scene.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.


Beyond Impostor Syndrome

On the other side of impostor syndrome lies great possibility. Don’t just settle for the comfort of overcoming it, go beyond.

Almost everybody trying to do something challenging or worthwhile will at some point have felt that sense of Impostor Syndrome.

This is where people are looking to you to achieve something, but inside you don’t feel all that confident. You might worry that people will find out you’re just making it up as you go along, or you might somehow regard yourself as a fake because you don’t know all the answers. Or you might just tend to put down your successes to a one-off piece of luck.

Working on overcoming impostor syndrome is a great thing to do with your coach. But, my experience with clients has taught me that there’s a place even beyond that.

When I’m working with aspirational leaders who really want to make a difference and to have a positive impact, I invite them to not just settle for overcoming impostor syndrome, but to go way beyond.

On the other side is a way of leading that allows people to be really true to themselves, to not have to ‘fake’ anything and, at the same time, to be able to meet the leadership needs of the people around them. This is a gorgeous bit of work to be able to do. It’s about finding what your true strengths are, what your character is really about, and then seeing how it feels to apply that in ways that suit your circumstances.

The impact you can have when people get that you’re leading in a way that matches what they need and is totally genuine and true to who you are, is astonishing.

Like anything that’s really empowering, going beyond impostor syndrome to that place of fully-integrated leadership can be a scary transition. But, if you want it, it’s definitely worth the journey. Don’t just settle for the comfortable feeling of overcoming impostor syndrome, dare to go beyond.

When I let go of what I am,

I become what I might be.

Lao Tzu


How to do Inspiring Visions

JFK’s “We Choose to go to the Moon…” Speech

Lots of stuff on tv at the moment about early space exploration, reminded me of this video – one of the most inspiring ‘big vision’ speeches ever. President John F Kennedy speaking at Rice University in September 1962.

Scroll down and play the video to see for yourself.

After the video I’ve put some tips of my own about the kind of things that this sort of ‘vision’ speech needs to include.

Some brief thoughts about the key elements to include in making your own inspiring vision speech:

  • Re-calibrate – not all of us are planning on moon landings, but don’t let that make your vision any less important than this
  • Challenge – notice how President Kennedy makes it clear that there are big obstacles to be overcome. The right amount of challenge is what makes life worth living and work worth doing
  • Sensory Details – you can almost feel what it’d be like to be on that mission, the heat, being cramped in the capsule; really brings it to life
  • Tangible Measures – there’s lots of facts and figures in this vision “240,00 miles away”; “a giant rocket more than 300 feet tall”; I can see and imagine those much more readily because of those numbers
  • Metaphor –  “…fitted together with a precision better than the finest watch”; do you go away knowing exactly how precise he wants you to be and how to explain that to somebody else?
  • “We”“Because that challenge is one we intend to accept, one we are unwilling to postpone and one we intend to win”; I’m rolling my shirt-sleeves up to get stuck-in right away
  • Present tense – he really switches into the present tense towards the end “Re-entering the atmosphere…”; again this just helps to feel like you’re already there. I can believe this vision because I’ve practically lived it even before he’s finished speaking
  • Upturns Convention“Not because it is easy, but because it is hard”

“The Future is Here – it’s Just not Evenly Distributed”

What kind of leaders do we need to deal with today’s unparalleled pace of change?

When William Gibson, the eerily-prescient sci-fi novelist talked about the future being already here, he might have been thinking about TV reality shows, or ‘cyberspace’, or the cure for AIDS, or any number of the many other things he’s accurately predicted in his books.

However, I like to think he was describing the alarming rate at which change is coming at us, and how we’re all struggling to keep up.

Let’s be honest, though – change is not a new thing.

In about 500BC the Greek Philosopher Heraclitus suggested that ‘The only constant is change’, and I really couldn’t agree more.

Except, Heraclitus didn’t know just how fast and constant the changes would be, some two and a half thousand years later.

Take the global rate of economic growth (GDP):

  • For the first 2,000 years following Heraclitus’s lifetime,  GDP per person was pretty flat,
  • It started to steadily rise in the mid 19th century, (about the time of the Industrial Revolution)
  • For the last 100 years, it has grown exponentially, (in some decades literally doubling)

For example, somebody born in a western country around the end of World War II would have seen economic output more than triple over the course of their lifetime, while the baby-boomer generation have already felt it double in the first half of their lives:
GDP Per Capita

But what about the rate of technological change?

Technology gurus often talk about Moore’s Law – how processing power doubles every two years – but perhaps, just as important, are the rates at which people choose to adopt new technologies.

As this chart shows, when the telephone was first introduced in the USA back in 1876, it took 35 years to reach a quarter of the American population.

A little over a century later, it took the world wide web just seven years to reach the same proportion of people:

Rate of Technology Adoption

To stand any hope of managing the constant influx of change, we need to firstly, accept it, and then decide how to manage it.

Not an easy task.

Humans crave stability

Human beings are naturally inclined to predict stability. We assume that tomorrow will be roughly similar to today.

That’s why we look to our leaders to provide a stable environment and clarity of direction.

If we ignore changes in the external environment, or we fail to respond quickly enough, or we stubbornly stick to yesterday’s plans, we will fail. That is an acknowledged fact.

On the other hand, we can’t react to every single change.

Imagine the amount of energy and attention you’d need to constantly scan the ever-shifting horizon, and respond to every new development (it would bury the average business, and even huge businesses, with massive resources would likely see ‘paralysis by analysis’).

Similarly, flitting from one great idea to the next with no continuity and no sustained effort just won’t work for most organisations (even ones that sell fast-moving fashion items).

What we need now, and I mean NOW, are leaders who have the foresight to see through the background noise of constant change, and hook into the important trends, making bold decisions where necessary.

  • We need forward-thinking, infinitely-adaptable leaders with the personality to carry people through disruption after disruption.
  • We need brave, stoic leaders at the heads of our businesses and public organisations, with the force of will to keep things on track regardless of what gets thrown at them
  • We need objective, selectively-excitable leaders with the flexibility of approach to dodge around new obstacles and grab the right opportunities as they arise.

I think William Gibson was right. More and more ‘futures’ arrive all the time, and the rate of their distribution is getting faster and faster.

To be a truly great leader, you must organise your business effectively today, but lead it like tomorrow is already here.


Compassion Fatigue

If my client is experiencing compassion-fatigue, how do I spot it, what might it tell me about their situation, and what should we do about it?

As I write this, it’s at the darkest, coldest time of year here in the northern hemisphere. Things seem strained, people feel under pressure and there are global-messages of scarcity, conflict and new cold wars.

No surprise then, that occasionally I’m seeing signs of compassion-fatigue in my clients. That said, compassion-fatigue is something that doesn’t need a global-background to happen – individual circumstances can bring it on at other times too.

Why would you be concerned about this as a coach?

My stake in the ground is that compassion is an integral part of a fully-functioning, well-rounded person and an essential element of great leadership. If it’s missing then not only is my client not able to be a well-rounded person or a good leader, but there is probably something in their life and work that is causing them harm. And we need to deal with it.

Other professionals face this too. I recently saw a great example with my accountants, dealing with a really difficult client. That client’s lack of compassion was the signal for the accountants (with great compassion themselves) to gently step-in and find out more about just what business problems their client was facing.

I want to say a little something about what compassion is – and how it fits with other similar sounding ‘states’ – before exploring how to spot compassion-fatigue and what it tells me about my client.

  • Sympathy is a heightened awareness of somebody else’s hurt. It typically sounds like this: ‘I’m sorry for your loss’ or ‘I hope you are coping well.’
  • Empathy is the attempt to understand and even vicariously experience another person’s situation and emotional state – ‘being in another person’s shoes’. It focuses on experience and often reads like this: ‘It sounds like you had a bad day at the office and you probably need a break’.
  • Compassion is where someone feels empathy and then a desire to help alleviate the suffering of the other person. The emphasis here is on action. It typically sounds like this: ‘I can feel how hard it must be to go through this alone. Is there any way I can help?’

So there’s this sense that compassion includes both the awareness and understanding in sympathy and empathy – and then chooses (whether or not and how) to go beyond that into action.

Now I need to be aware of some clients’ tendency to be the ‘hero’ (click here to read my article on that) or to be always helping. But set that aside for a moment and assume that’s not the case here.

If I’m spotting compassion-fatigue, what I’m seeing and hearing in my client is an awareness (and possibly understanding) of somebody else’s pain. But no desire to get into action about it. Actually, I’ll probably see and hear more than that – closer to anger, frustration or despair at somebody else’s pain. Phrases like:

“Why is that idiot always in such a mess?

I’m sick of the fact that they can’t sort themselves out

I can’t always be the one who has to take care of things”

When I see or hear anything like that, my coaching alarm bells start ringing. My intention at this point is to make space for some exploration about my client’s own pain. It doesn’t have to be right then and there.

It also doesn’t need to be a sledge-hammer approach (“Sounds to me like you’re overloaded yourself – you need to deal with that first!”). Nor does it need to tiptoe around it (“How are things for you personally right now”). Although both of those approaches could be appropriate depending on my client’s level of self-awareness and reality-sense.

And occasionally I like to talk about the coaching process that’s going on in my head: “You know, when I hear that kind of complaint about somebody else’s pain, from somebody like you who is normally strong and compassionate, it makes me wonder what’s going on. What suffering we all carry around and that sometimes gets so heavy we don’t feel able to help carry other people any more.” – or some rubbish like that!

Bottom-line: if my client is angry, frustrated or in despair at somebody else’s plight, then there’s a good chance they are suffering themselves. They may not have realised it yet or their way of coping might be to deny it, but it is definitely worth exploring.


The Motivation Equation

Motivation is like a chain – only as strong as its weakest link. Here’s my top five tips for motivating yourself and others

Motivation is a chain of unconscious questions or judgements that people make about things and is only as strong as its weakest link. Here’s my shorthand for the motivation equation, followed by a look at the questions or judgements that people make, along with my top tips for boosting personal motivation and leading others.

Motivation = Self-Belief x Task-Relevance x Outcome-Value

Self-Belief = “Can I do this task well?”
In my experience, personal self-belief is the single biggest factor in motivation and often overlooked by businesses. I’ve seen people move mountains with very little stake in the outcome, just for the sheer joy of exercising their personal empowerment.

Tip 1: Always start here.

Tip 2: When you need to motivate someone who is lacking in self-belief, remember Roosevelt’s saying: “Do what you can, with what you have, where you are.” There is always something that somebody can do. Great leaders take the time and insight to find out what that is.

Task-Relevance = “If I do this task well, will it lead to the required outcome?”
People come undone at this link for two reasons. One: they only have one strategy, one way of doing things, and they always apply that regardless of relevance. Or two: they get rabbit-in-the-headlights syndrome trying to find the ‘right’ or ‘best’ thing to do.

Tip 3: Leaders need to encourage experimentation and the principle of failing forwards. Help your people to be more like scientists, engineers or artists: think of something to do that might lead to the required outcome, try it, evaluate its success, learn from it.

Outcome-Value = “How much do I personally want that outcome?”
This is the link where leaders most often seem to come undone, because they make assumptions about what’s important to others, based on what they themselves would want. By knowing what is important to individuals it becomes easier to frame the outcome, emphasising the elements which do match what is important to other people.

Tip 4:  For people who like achievement, emphasise the positive aspects of the outcome. For people who like to avoid problems, emphasise how this outcome will avoid something bad. If you’re talking to a group of people, mention both!

People are generally not that good at imagining forward to what things will be like when an outcome is actually achieved. Often, it seems to me, because they are focussed on the first two links in the motivation chain. I don’t think people actually do very much evaluating of what they really want or how things will be after something is achieved.

Tip 5: Good leaders paint a picture of how things will be once an outcome is achieved. They give people a feel for both the positive aspects and the problems-avoided by it (see Tip 4). They talk about what people will see and hear on the outside (the evidence) and how people might feel inside (the intrinsic reward).


Three Leadership Lessons Inspired by Long Walk to Freedom

How do we apply the kind of strength and courage that we know is inside us, and lead other people to victory, when it’s not clear at all who or what the enemy is?

I watched “Mandela – Long Walk to Freedom” recently (great film and book) and thought about Mr Mandela’s early decision to stop being a lawyer, join the ANC and take the fight to the enemy.

For some men, including me, fighting against something is a very energising and satisfying thing to throw yourself into. But for most of us, not living under oppressive regimes and in a time of peace – who is the enemy?

What do you fight against? Who do you resist with the kind of positive intention that Mr Mandela found? How do you gather and lead other people in that kind of selfless resistance when things aren’t so ‘black and white’? How do we apply our full strengths in the workplace?

I think it begins with three relatively small steps, which together are a real leadership tipping-point:

1. What do we stand for?
It’s not enough to resist for the sake of resisting. Find what it is that you believe is worth defending or fighting for. It might be a belief in the way that things should be done or a situation that needs correcting. These are perfectly valid things to tackle in the workplace or outside it.

2. Define the battleground
We may not live under something as malign as the apartheid regime, but injustice, wasted opportunities and distress are around us, if we choose to look. Your battleground need not be a whole nation, but we do need strong people to raise their gaze and see where the fight is.

3. Be like a magnet: Resistance + Attraction
I loved how Mr Mandela used his charm and personality to draw people to him, and it was this charisma that the ANC knew they needed. He made the decision to join an armed resistance and to fight against the regime. But it was his force of attraction that gave the movement its strength and which ultimately enabled him to win over guards at Robin Island and the ruling National Party.


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.


Give some recognition today

International Recognition Day

Some people are just waiting to hear, straight from you, what a difference they make. Don’t let them wait

As I write this, it was recently Blue Monday – officially the most depressing day of the year. Despite that, you and I are still here and still going strong – well done us!

In response and opposition to the whole Blue Monday thing that the news jumps on every year, I’m declaring every day my official International Recognition Day, and I invite you to try it too:

  • Who do you know who would benefit from being reminded how great they are?
  • Who’s been kind, caring or just a good listener?
  • Who has had the kind of attitude towards life, work and other people that made a difference?

When I was a young manager in a big organisation somebody I really valued gave me a great piece of advice. He told me: “Some people are just waiting to hear, straight from you, what a difference they make. And they’ll wait forever if you let them. Telling them now, while you can, is the act of a great leader”.

I haven’t always lived up to that, because of my doubts and fears. Often because I don’t want people to think I’m joking, or because I don’t always believe that I’ve got the ‘right’ to say anything. And sometimes I haven’t done it because that person isn’t always great like that or because the behaviour they showed might not seem like that big a deal. And I wish I’d done it more.

None of those doubts or fears matters on International Recognition Day though, just tell people what an impact they’ve had – I dare you.