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?

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.
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.

The “Better than Average” Trap

The “Better than Average” Trap

There are two areas of understanding involved in our sense of self-awareness:

  • Who we believe that we are  our identity, including our values, fears, thoughts, feelings, behaviours, strengths and weaknesses, drivers and motivators.
  • How we fit into the world around us – based our beliefs about how the world works.

The problem is, we aren’t typically very good at making these assessments. Worse, as human beings, we have a tendency to overestimate ourselves, especially in relation to others.

For example, in one of a series of experiments by researchers at Cornell University, students were asked to predict how many flowers they would buy in an upcoming charity event, and how many the average student would buy. They then compared the predictions with actual behaviour. Consistently, the students greatly overestimated their own contributions, while making good guesses about what others would do.

This trait is known as illusory superiority, and it leads directly to problems like over-confidence, poor critical thinking, and a weakened ability to learn.

To compound the problem, even being given feedback on actual outcomes doesn’t lead us to make accurate adjustments. People have no resistance to adjusting down their estimates relating to others, but don’t similarly revise their perception of self, preferring to maintain their inflated self-image. The result is that, while we evaluate everyone else on observable behaviours, we cling to our original assessment of ourselves, even in the face of evidence to the contrary. For us, our knowledge of what we are “really like inside” is preferable emotionally, and therefore outweighs the external evidence.

The evidence of illusory superiority has been found in many studies, for example:

  • High school students evaluate their leadership ability as above average 70% of the time, while only 2% of them see themselves as below average.
  • When MBA students were asked to estimate their contribution to a team effort, the overall total came to 139%.
  • 94% of university professors rate themselves as above average.
  • In one company, 32% of the employees saw their performance as being in the top 5%.

Leaders are especially susceptible to the tendency to overestimate their skills and contribution, because the delusion affects people most when the traits required are ill-defined – which is definitely true of leadership! That enables us to set up comparisons in a way that favours us.

This comprehensive article examines the power of reflective capacity, or mindfulness, to increase self-awareness because of the way it improves our ability to observe ourselves objectively. It examines the importance of giving consideration to our “inner self”, which is separate to our thoughts, looks at some of the benefits of self-awareness, and offers some simple practices for improving it.

Read the Article: What is Self-Awareness and Why is it Important?

My Advice

A powerful way to reduce our sense of illusory superiority is to become completely intolerant of our own excuses for our shortcomings, especially those which are based on the idea that poor results were “outside our control”. I call this desire to take personal responsibility, “getting to cause”, rather being “at effect”. Then, taking advantage of the fact that we are generally pretty accurate in assessing other people, seek third party input any time you find yourself making excuses, and make sure that you give full consideration to their responses. It won’t be comfortable, but you will increase the speed of your learning and immediately improve your decision making.

Zoom Fatigue: A Hazard of the Times

Zoom Fatigue: A Hazard of the Times

Don’t automatically assume that video will be better than a phone call – the overloading of the brain as it strives to make sense of information which it expects to be there, but can’t find, has a mental cost which needs to be taken into account.

In the context of the need for psychological safety, that was highlighted as being so critical in the last article, these barriers to effective collaboration create a significant additional hurdle. It is much harder, for example, to monitor non-verbal feedback from other attendees in order to determine how a message is being received, making it difficult to know when it would be beneficial to ask for feedback or adjust course.

This article looks at some of the ways that video conferences can create mental stress through their unique impact on our unconscious mind, leading to poor concentration during, and unusual levels of tiredness after, the meetings. One interesting point highlighted by the article, which serves to illustrate that this environment is different in a fairly fundamental way, is that people who have a restricted ability to handle interpersonal situations, such as autistics, may actually benefit from the switch from physical to video conferencing!

By becoming aware of these factors, we can prepare ourselves differently, thus making such meetings more effective.

Read the Article: ‘Zoom fatigue’ is taxing the brain. Here’s why that happens.

My Advice

The advantages of video conferencing in the current environment are obvious; however, it is important to be aware of the additional risk of exhaustion that it can create. The cause of this tiredness is the unique mental challenges involved in online collaboration, especially as we attempt to pick up social nuances and maintaining attention. These practical steps can help:

  • Don’t automatically assume that video will be better than a phone call – the overloading of the brain as it strives to make sense of information which it expects to be there, but can’t find, has a mental cost which needs to be taken into account.
  • Ensure that everyone in the meeting is fully engaged, encouraging them to show up with energy and to give good visual feedback. This makes the presenter’s task much easier and eases the load on the unconscious mind of everyone in the meeting. For even greater benefit, it helps enormously if cameras are arranged so that participants fill their screens with their face and upper body, thus providing stronger non-verbal signals. This might sound like common sense, but it is not common practice!
  • Because the mind is working harder, it is likely that attention spans will be significantly shorter on video calls than face-to-face. To offset this, more breaks are necessary. As a rule of thumb, I’d recommend taking shorter breaks at least twice as often as you would normally.

Leading When Uncertainty is Pervasive

Leading When Uncertainty is Pervasive

That leadership is about dealing with change – handling difficulties as they arise and adjusting course when necessary – is not news, or new. It involves diagnosis, then action, and it involves a great deal of resilience.

The problem is, the nature of decisions, even the approach needed to make them, varies hugely depending on the level of complexity and uncertainty in the environment. The more volatile and ambiguous the circumstances we face, the greater the difficulty of diagnosis becomes. As this happens, decision-making becomes less science and more art.

This is a real challenge, right now. If there is a simple way to describe the operating environment of the last few months, it is the absence of predictability and increase in ambiguity. Complexity has been spiralling out of control, and this has fundamental implications for leaders, many of whom have leaned heavily on their market, technology or industry expertise in reaching their level of seniority. The problem is, as uncertainty increases, so does the risk that expertise will become more of a hindrance rather a help.

“I know that I am intelligent because I know that I know nothing.” ~ Socrates

The most compelling warning that I’m aware of, which highlights the dangers of over-reliance on expertise and being blinkered by certainty our knowledge is correct, comes from the largest study to date on this subject, completed by Professor Philip Tetlock of the University of Pennsylvania. Over 20 years, and involving 82,361 forecasts by a large group of experts, he investigated their thought processes as they made predictions about future events, then he followed up to assess their accuracy.

This piece of work has become quite famous, perhaps because the high-level conclusion that Tetlock drew from it is rather memorable: that the average expert “is not much better at predicting the future than a dart-throwing chimpanzee”. Many of them, he found, would have done better if they had made random guesses!

I believe this should strike a note of caution for all of us…

What makes this study extremely important, is that Tetlock was able to identify a small group of experts who consistently defied the odds. They made startlingly better predictions than everyone else, even in the face of massive uncertainty.

What differentiated this group was their thinking style: they were comfortable with complexity and uncertainty and did not allow themselves to become overconfident. This allowed them to constantly seek new perspectives and to avoid getting locked into the rigid mindset of what they already “knew”.

This article suggests that responding to the pervasive and unprecedented uncertainty that we all face today requires a whole new style of leadership: one built on humility, openness and commitment. I like this suggestion, not least because strengthening these traits does much to overcome the problems associated with over-reliance on expertise outlined above.

Read the Article: Leading in Uncertain Times: Be Real – Not a Hero

My Advice:

Remember, one thing that history demonstrates conclusively is that almost everything, even the most widely accepted scientific “facts”, will be disproven eventually. Unfortunately, we naturally tend to resist the idea that we might be wrong, because falling back on our expertise is comfortable and almost effortless. On the other hand, learning requires commitment and can be very uncomfortable. That’s where resilience comes in. We must learn to welcome the discomfort inherent in facing new challenges to maximise our ability to cope with highly complex and ambiguous situations. By practicing humility and openness, which will help you to see things from a new perspective, while displaying confidence and commitment, you will dramatically improve your resilience, thereby transforming your ability to adapt effectively.