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.

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.

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.

Home Working Lessons from Cockroaches

Home Working Lessons from Cockroaches

After weeks of lockdown, science suggests that significant numbers of those being forced to work in isolation could be finding it progressively harder to maintain their motivation. Part of the problem is the double-edged sword of a human trait described by a psychological theory called Social Facilitation Theory, which explains the well-known tendency for people’s performance to change when being watched by others.

One of my all-time favourite studies examined this phenomenon with cockroaches as the test subjects. It was led by professor Zajonc of Stanford University, and it demonstrated that behaviour modification in social settings is not a uniquely human occurrence. First, he created two different tunnels – one easy and the other much more difficult – for the cockroaches to run through. He then timed how long it took the cockroaches to get from start to finish under two conditions: 1) while being observed by other cockroaches, and 2) when on their own (I’d give him an award just for the creativity of it!).

Amazingly, the results showed that being observed affects cockroaches in the same way as it does human beings! Compared to their performance when on their own, the presence of observers caused them to do better at the easy task (running more quickly through the easy tunnel), but worse when challenged with the task of navigating the difficult tunnel. Similar studies have now found this trait in many other animals as well.

This illustrates the basis of social facilitation theory, which is that our natural dominant response is amplified in the presence of an audience. This term – natural dominant response – refers to anything that we do automatically as a result of instinctive human reactions or practiced behaviours and actions. For example, in the presence of observers or competitors, people are likely to:

  • Perform better if they are doing something that they are already good at. For example, athletes put in more effort and are much more likely to achieve a personal best in front of a crowd. Similarly, cyclists are faster riding against each other than against the clock.
  • Make errors when undertaking tasks they are not familiar with. For example, individuals taking their driving test are often much more prone to errors in front of the examiner.

The explanation for this change in behaviour is that the presence of others heightens arousal and thus increases our ability to perform habitual or well-learned tasks. However, the same arousal leads to stress and produces social inhibition, reducing performance in areas where we are not confident/competent.

Studies have found that people in groups tend to perform better than those who are alone, and that has significant implications in the current era where huge numbers of people are required to work from home. Quite simply, in areas of competence, we are motivated to work harder when people are watching us. This article explains this phenomenon in greater detail and provides some ideas about how its effect may be reduced.

Read the Article: We Work Harder When We Know Someone’s Watching

 My Advice

The essence of the recommendations in the article is that accountability needs to be maximised. An extremely powerful way of achieving this is to create a forum within which tasks and deliverables can be shared, which leverages a powerful psychological driver: that commitments made public become central motivators of behaviour.

More generally, maintaining an awareness of social facilitation theory can convey benefits at any time, not only during this pandemic. Whenever people are outside their comfort zone, I’d suggest making additional efforts to ensure they feel supported, which can do much to calm their evaluation anxiety.