Leading Through Adversity to Emerge Strong from the Lockdown

Leading Through Adversity to Emerge Strong from the Lockdown

I love this article, which addresses a key question: How do we take action to lead, and emerge strongly, from something challenging that we (individually and collectively) have never experienced before?

The authors identify two specific challenges businesses are facing right now:

  1. The situation is unique, so no one has the experience to know how to handle it. This means that creativity and experimentation are required to identify solutions.
  2. The brain’s reactivity, which is triggered by escalating bad news and uncertainty about the future, inhibits us from accessing the mindset needed to be creative.

When we are stressed our brain automatically handles anything that appears threatening as though it’s a survival issue, exactly as it would if we were facing a predator. Clearly, that kind of situation is not the time to take a break, relax, and seek some creativity! Irrespective of what is actually driving the stress, our brain shifts all its resources to focus on what is happening RIGHT NOW, losing all interest in POSSIBILITY. Being survival-oriented, this impulse is incredibly powerful, and it has the impact of shifting us to a state of pure reactivity. Thus, stress forces us to focus on the problems of the moment and makes it unlikely, or even impossible, to come up with innovative solutions.

I consider this to be the central paradox of leadership, and especially decision-making, in ambiguous, volatile and challenging situations: our brain has evolved such that it naturally shuts down access to the mental resources required just when we most need them.

This needs to be born in mind as you consider the very practical and, I believe, useful measures suggested in this article. It suggests seven actions that can reduce people’s sense of unpredictability, lack of control, and unknown outcomes that are the root of much of today’s fear. As such, it gives leaders a means of encouraging the open and creative thinking that will maximise business results.

Read the Article: There is a Better Way to Weather the Downturn: What Post-Recession Winners Know and Do

My Advice

According to a recent Kaiser Family Foundation survey, nearly 45% of adults reported that the pandemic was harming their mental health. Given we know that exposure to even mildly uncomfortable stressors will have a negative impact on our decision-making, it is more vital than ever to give attention to managing stress.

All is not lost, because we can learn to better handle stressors. I recommend ensuring that you commit time every day to doing something which enables you to unwind. There is such a temptation when the pressure is on, to hunker down, focus, and battle through the challenges. However, these situations are when we most need our recovery time.

There’s an old Buddhist saying which captures this idea perfectly: “You should sit in meditation for 20 minutes a day, except when you’re too busy, then you’ll need the full hour”!

Our body and mind have evolved to handle world-class stress, as long as it is paired with world-class recovery. Even a few minutes of mindfulness/meditation practice has been scientifically proven to make a difference, and the benefits build over time. If you haven’t started such a practice yet, perhaps now would be a good time to start?

Leaders Who Give, Gain

Leaders Who Give, Gain

There’s no doubt that the people who work for you are much more likely to give their best if they, emotionally, choose you to lead them. One way of achieving this was highlighted by a fascinating study conducted at the University of Kent.

The research was based around a “cooperation game”, in which a group of participants were each given a small amount of money and invited to use it to make a contribution to a common fund. The fund was then doubled in value and shared equally between all members of the group.

This experiment cleverly confronted participants with a common dilemma:

  1. Cooperate with the collective interest by continually reinvesting their money, thereby maximising the overall gains, or…
  2. Act selfishly, by holding back some of their money, which maximises personal gain at the expense of others.

Thriving businesses need maximal cooperation, yet, as the experiment showed, there are always people who prefer option 2. It also demonstrated just how critical it is that leaders don’t fall into this trap! In the second phase of the experiment, participants were divided into teams and each was asked to elect a leader. They found that:

82% of the leaders elected were those who had given the most during the first phase.

The study showed that the act of giving is recognised as a leadership quality, and that this is true even if that person is a complete stranger.

This article provides helpful advice to anyone seeking to give more. It warns, for example, that while givers may be the best performers, they can also be the worst, and why this happens. It also identifies six different profiles of generosity, to help you to understand where your skills and interests may fit most naturally, and highlights the danger of going too far and giving too much of yourself!

Read the Article: The Power of Giving

My Advice

“The greatest gift is a portion of thyself.” ~ Ralph Waldo Emerson

When we give, it says to others that we are seeking to serve; it shows that we are interested in placing their interests ahead of our own; it demonstrates that we are willing to invest in their world, not just our own. Perhaps it is unsurprising then, that when people witness us to be givers, they will see us as a leader.

Please remember that the power of generosity will not enhance your leadership if applied as a technique. If you fall into the trap of giving in order to get something, that is NOT influence, it is manipulation. To unlock the power of giving, it must be done authentically, without expectation of return. It is about being, not doing.

How Our Personal Stake Can Cloud Judgment

How Our Personal Stake Can Cloud Judgment

If there is one factor that has defined the challenge leaders have faced in the last few unprecedented weeks and months, it must be uncertainty. In times like this, being able to change course and maintain our adaptability is absolutely vital, particularly as we seek to make critical business decisions. In this kind of environment, there is a cognitive bias that has particular potential to wreak havoc: sunk cost bias, also known as the sunk cost trap or escalation of commitment.

Sunk cost bias, the tendency to continue investing in a losing proposition because of what it’s already cost us, has been responsible for the failure of countless relationships, projects, and even businesses. If you’ve ever bid more than you planned on eBay, held onto a financial investment for too long, sat through a dreadful movie right to the end, eaten far too much in order to finish a meal you bought, or continued to wear an uncomfortable pair of shoes to “get your money’s worth”, you’ve most likely been caught by this mental trap.

The problem is caused by a (probably unconscious) desire to avoid losing the value of an earlier investment of some sort. As such, the sense of loss of the initial investment distorts our ability to properly evaluate the pros and cons of the current situation. There is no need to look any further than the collapse of Barings Bank, which was caused by the desire of a single trader, Nick Leeson, to recapture escalating losses, to see how devastating the impact of this kind of decision-making can be.

Many critical leadership activities involve a series of choices, rather than an isolated decision. They are vulnerable to sunk cost bias because each choice tends to be approached serially, creating a desire to justify previous investments. When this happens, we are highly susceptible to an escalation of our commitment to the original decision and, consequently, likely to become stuck on a failing course of action.

This may not sound complex, but in practice, it can be very difficult to avoid. The solution relies on developing the ability to remove the unconscious biases that lead us to treat initial costs as though they are relevant to new decisions. In reality, these costs are “sunk”, so the goal is to ensure that ongoing decisions consider only the future benefits weighed up against the additional costs, inconvenience, and time involved.

The key, as described in this article, is to implement a set of protective measures and to learn to let go of the past, without becoming overly risk averse. It provides six “rules” that can help, and I particularly like its final recommendation.

Read the Article: How Great Leaders Avoid the Sunk Cost Trap

My Advice

When commitment escalates inappropriately, what is really happening is that our judgment is getting clouded by our personal stake. This stake may be financial, or it could be associated with how we feel our reputation will be impacted by changing course. Either way, it is essential that we find a way to shift our focus of attention away from the previously selected, now irrelevant, course of action to give proper consideration to future costs and benefits. Some simple techniques that can help, in addition to those in the article, include:

  • Getting views of those who weren’t involved early on.
  • If you find that admitting an earlier mistake feels distressing, explore to try to identify what is at stake for you personally, and deal with any self-esteem and ego issues that arise.
  • Avoiding a culture of fear or blame which will tend to encourage staff to perpetuate mistakes.
  • Determining rewards by looking at the decision process rather than the outcome. This motivates people to make the best decisions at different stages, whether or not their initial decisions have been proven to be correct.
  • Constantly reassess the rationality of future commitments based on future costs and benefits, attempting to identify failures early. Take an “experimental” approach and be prepared to shift to another course of action at any time.
The Germ vs. The Terrain, Part 1: The Rise of Microbes

The Germ vs. The Terrain, Part 1: The Rise of Microbes

For the health and wellbeing section this time, I want to cover a subject which also has great relevance to leadership in general, because it looks at core aspects of the advancement in knowledge of all kinds. Due to the amount of information involved, I’ve split the article into two parts, the second of which will be in the next newsletter.

Consider this quote:

“From inhaling the odour of beef, the butcher’s wife obtains her obesity.”

~ Professor H Booth, writing in the Builder, July 1844

Because our thinking has moved on, it sounds ridiculous today. It is obvious that the medical theory on which this idea was based, the Miasma Theory, which held that inhaling bad air was the cause of most, if not all, illness, is complete rubbish. However, that wasn’t always the case, so I’d like to start by looking at how acceptance of this theory impacted the adoption of later, more advanced, ideas.

Imagine, for a moment, if you could go back and walk the streets of London in the mid-1800s. It would have been commonplace to see people carrying a posy of flowers under their noses – at that time, it was considered very sensible to do so, as a means of protecting one’s health!

Imagine using your more advanced knowledge to persuade these people that their flowers were useless, assuring them that you had seen research proving the existence of invisible organisms which are the true cause of disease… It’s easy to envisage the likely reaction, because we’ve all experienced it many times when we challenge others’ deeply held beliefs.

In 1848, Ignatz Semmelweis began this journey. He was the first person to propose the “Germ Theory” of disease, having had an insight that deadly illnesses that were especially prevalent in hospitals might be caused by invisible, infectious agents or germs which were being spread on the hands of doctors and nurses. He gathered evidential proof of his ideas by getting medical staff in his wards to wash their hands in chlorinated lime, showing that this reduced death rates significantly. Nevertheless, his suggestion was widely criticised, ridiculed, or ignored by the “experts” of the day:

  • Even ten years later, the editor of the Wiener Medizinische Wochenschrift, the international scientific medical journal, wrote that it was time to stop the nonsense about the chlorine hand wash.
  • In 1961, his book on the subject was negatively received, and his ideas were again rejected.

Under the pressure of the scrutiny he was subjected to, Semmelweis suffered a breakdown in 1865 and was tricked by colleagues to visit a mental hospital where they locked him up. He died somewhat suspiciously 2 weeks later, supposedly from an infection.

Germ Theory finally became widely accepted over 40 years later, in the 1890s, as a result of the work of the French chemist and microbiologist Louis Pasteur, the English surgeon Joseph Lister, and the German physician Robert Koch. They are now given much of the credit for development and acceptance of this theory, which still dominates today. It is sad to consider how many people died as a result of the refusal of the authorities at that time to take Semmelweis’ ideas seriously.

The commonplace nature of this kind of powerful resistance to new ideas was brilliantly exposed in a book written almost 60 years ago by Thomas Kuhn. Though few have heard of it, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions has sold around 1.5 million copies (a huge number for a book of this nature) and is still considered a classic today. It changed scientific thinking, revealing that progress generally occurs through incremental developments in knowledge, where everyone uses a common framework, interspersed with periods of revolution, or crisis, where paradigms break down and new models of understanding are created. It was in this book that the concept of the “paradigm shift” was birthed.

I’m fascinated by these ideas because, from the perspective of mental development, there is an enormous difference between working within a model to advance it incrementally and having the open-minded creativity to leapfrog to a higher-level model which more accurately represents behaviours in the physical world. Working within the model can be valuable, however, being able to break the mold completely is where the potential for a transformation in results becomes possible.

Ironically, even before germ theory had reached general acceptance, it was already being challenged. The alternative idea, known as “Terrain Theory” (or the cellular theory), stated that the environment is more important than the germ, meaning that the quality of the internal environment mainly determines a person’s susceptibility to disease, not the germs they encounter. It suggests that when the terrain is healthy, the body can handle pathogenic microorganisms without succumbing to illness.

Terrain Theory was put forward by a French scientist, Claude Bernard, and later built upon by Antoine Béchamp. Like Semmelweis before him, Béchamp was branded a heretic, and Pasteur argued with him for years on the subject. However, Pasteur famously changed his mind on his deathbed, acknowledging that, “Le microbe n’est rien, le terrain est tout.” (The microbe is nothing, the terrain is everything).

While germ theory won the debate at the time, and has formed the core of Western medical thinking, the evidence is building powerfully to suggest that Pasteur’s deathbed utterance was correct. As a result, it could be that a paradigm shift towards the terrain theory might, finally, be approaching.

In the next newsletter, I’ll explore terrain theory in more detail, to see how this shift of mindset and belief systems holds the potential to transform our understanding of how to be healthy.

Should you wish to do so, you can read more on Kuhn, and the core principles in his book, in this article:

Thomas Kuhn: the man who changed the way the world looked at science

You Can Buy Hands, but Hearts Must be Won

You Can Buy Hands, but Hearts Must be Won

Employee engagement is much more than a simple buzz phrase or management fad – most would now readily accept that it’s a fundamental requirement for high performance. Yet, despite its critical importance, Gallup and others continue to report abysmal levels of positive engagement among employees (typically only 15-20%), and the UK is one of the poorest performers. Worse, these stats aren’t improving, even as awareness of the importance of this subject grows.

Why is this, and what can be done to improve matters?

A great starting point for building engagement is to ensure that your team feels valued and valuable. To this end, perhaps surprisingly, high-profile, public appearances in the work environment don’t help much. This goal is much better achieved through daily interactions, by taking opportunities to build trust and to affirm people in the small moments of their everyday lives. The more personal the connection, the more strongly it will convey that you care, and the deeper its impact will be.

I know of no role model whose example better conveys the transformative power of this approach than General Earl Hailston, the commander of Marine Forces Central Command during the second Gulf War. On 5th March 2003, less than 2 weeks before the invasion began, he and his troops were fully prepared for battle. That day, during an interview with Good Morning America, he was asked about his love of photography. He recounted that, as he travelled around, he would take photos of his men, then at night he’d email the photos with a brief note to their parents back in the USA. When asked if he had a sample of one of his letters, he turned on his computer and read the last letter he had sent. It said:

Dear Mrs. Johnson,

I thought you might enjoy seeing this picture of your son. He is doing great. I also wanted you to know that you did a wonderful job raising him.

You must be very proud. I can certainly tell you that I’m honored to serve with him in the U.S. Marines.

Sincerely,

General Earl Hailston

Saddled with such enormous responsibility, many a leader becomes lost in the challenges of the task. General Hailston’s behaviour highlights something that all great leaders know: under the most pressured of circumstances, it is more important, not less, to remember the people. I doubt you’ll be surprised to learn that every one of General Hailston’s men was committed to the cause in a way that money could never have achieved. That level of respect and caring gets noticed, and it wins hearts.

The personal, human touch makes all the difference…

This article demonstrates that this type of approach is equally valuable in business. Doug Conant was already among the food manufacturing industry elite before he became the CEO at Campbell Soup Company, having held senior executive positions at General Mills and Kraft, and been President of Nabisco Foods. When he took the reins at Campbell, the company was at rock bottom in terms of both market results and employee engagement. I love the story of how, armed with a pen, paper, walking shoes and a pedometer, he was able to change the former by working on the latter. Who said effective leadership needs to be complicated?

Read the Article: How Campbell’s Soup’s Former CEO Turned the Company Around

My Advice

To gain the discretionary effort of your team, a simple method is to seek to demonstrate that you are personally committed to making their lives better. This occurs in the moment to moment interactions you have with them, which build trust and engagement over time. In other words, the action is in the interaction.

I recommend that you try to see every interaction, including interruptions, as a golden opportunity to build human connections with others. Also, seek to recognise contributions on a regular basis, which adds to employees’ sense that they are valued. It is the stacking and layering of these small moments that strengthens communication, enhances collaboration, and cements commitment.