We are as we think & how we’re treated +

We are as we think

We’re told we are as we think.

Perception can have a dramatic impact on wellbeing but the reality is far more complex.

We are as we are treated

Mostly we believe we are as we are treated.

When we’re treated well, we presume that who we are and what we do is okay and can withstand a bit of ebb and flow.

But when we’re treated badly we worry that we caused it, deserve it or even worse – are fundamentally bad.

This is particularly true for those who are mistreated young and do not understand that adults are flawed.

Abusers know this intuitively and depend on it.

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False hope is futile

Hope is life-affirming, a longing for the particular that gives energy to go on despite struggle and disappointment.

Hope teaches the value of persistence when there are scant results and we doubt the worth of our efforts. We learn to value the process of working towards a goal, not just reaching it.

This is not blind hope, it’s hopefulness underpinned by hard work.

Many great accomplishments have been made this way, from dismantling segregation to life-changing scientific discoveries.

False hope

But false hope is deadly. It chains us to an outcome we hope for but cannot achieve.

It locks us into an idea – of a person, job, institution – that has little bearing on reality. We are seduced by the idea of what could be, instead of what is.

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Why I choose Samuel Beckett over positive thinking, any day

I believe we can learn more about what it takes to succeed from the closing assertion of Beckett’s The Unnamable than any other motivational book

You must go on, I can’t go on, I’ll go on.

This insight about the need for persistence in the face of obstacles and even despair offers no illusions about what it takes to keep going or false promises that success will be great when you get  ‘there’ (wherever that is).

This is useful advice. We should be given more of it.

Instead, we’re meant to be inspired by motivational cries and images of a positive Duracell-style achiever who stares doubt in the face and relentlessly bangs the drum; pitting the emotional equivalent of an airbrushed model against our puny efforts.

This makes us feel bad.

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Avoiding groupthink

How many people do you know who can –

  1. Identify the biases they bring to the table and understand how they can be used (for good or bad)?
  2. Listen to and respect all views while recognising ideas are not equal?
  3. Bring others along but not at the cost of sound decision-making, even when that means standing alone?
  4. Encourage a style of dissent that does not veer to chaos or produce fake consent?

Coherence is so strongly associated with survival and its value so deeply embedded in management practice that we would rather deal with the future consequences of a bad decision than the discomfort of going against the group here and now.

This is called groupthink and it’s what happens when members of any in-group try to minimise conflict by agreeing to something without critically evaluating alternatives.Disagreement is often perceived as disloyalty, rather than as a path to better decision-making.

Groupthink has been implicated in many disasters, from the Bay of Pigs to the GFC. What has emerged in much of the research that follows these events is that many people had doubts about what was happening but did not speak out, sometimes to remain ‘in’ but also because of an understandable concern they might lose their jobs.

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What is trust?

If I offer you my trust am I –

  • Agreeing with you?
  • Doing what you ask of me?
  • Offering robust feedback?
  • Protecting your feelings?
  • None of the above?

What is considered a sign of trust to one may appear as a betrayal to another.

We cannot define the minutia of every interaction, but without a shared understanding of what trust means it becomes another meaningless word on the annual report next to ‘integrity’ and ‘collaboration’.

And yet, because trust is vital to personal and professional life, we need to understand what it is and how to build it.

One way to understand trust is as a set of agreements about how we will behave towards one another. These agreements may be implicit or explicit and, over time, they may change.

For example, an implicit agreement is that parents feed their children. While parenting obviously requires more than this, a child’s dependency demonstrates the way in which obligations emerge by virtue of the type of relationship that exists.

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‘I don’t know’. Uncertainty as a platform for growth.

When leadership is confused with the need to know everything it can lead to cultures of bluff where people feel it’s more important to give a response (including a wrong one) than acknowledge doubt.

Instead, these three simple words from a leader can establish a very different context: I don’t know.

“I don’t know” puts the focus on rigour and says many things including:

  1. Let’s not assume;
  2. We need data not anecdotes;
  3. Let’s find out.

Then why is saying it so difficult?

For one, we like to believe that certainty is possible.

This is despite knowing that many of the things we once through to be true we now know to be false (that the earth is flat or that ulcers are caused by stress, for example) and that this will most likely happen again in the future.

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Platitudes undermine credibility

The leadership space is peculiarly susceptible to platitudes.

But oversimplification makes them inadequate for dealing with the real difficulties that people face.

We relate to the grain of truth that a platitude embodies but often apply them in the wrong context in ways that do not fully reflect the complexities of a situation.

Part of a leader’s role is to help others be stretched but not overwhelmed by a problem.

Think about the leader who says bring me solutions not problems. In such cultures, employees may lose confidence if they don’t have an answer or feel it’s pointless to raise real issues that require multiple inputs to solve and that could become problematic and expensive down the track.

A more balanced approach might be to say: let’s talk this through. First tell me what you’ve done so far and some of your ideas. 

It’s less snappy to be sure.

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Moods as a controlling device

Have you noticed how some people control others without doing or saying anything?

These emotional dictators wield emotion like a sword and then step back from the consequences.

I am not talking here about low-level sulkiness; we all get moody from time to time.

A partner or colleague upsets us and rather than either sorting it out directly, or letting it go, we do neither. We say nothing but they know in no uncertain terms it is not forgotten. While not ideal, we are all human and it’s not a problem when it’s not a pattern.

Where it becomes a problem is when it becomes a pattern.

Emotional manipulators are different from those who don’t have the skills to be direct because of their upbringing, socio-political environment or just a difference in power or position (where directness can have serious consequences). People who get shot down may also retreat to indirectness as a defence.

What distinguishes them is that they thrive on drama; where it doesn’t exist they will create it. They love the fallout from their antics because it puts them slap bang at the centre of the universe where they feel powerful and in control, and that’s just the way they want it.

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Disagreement is not disloyalty

It may seem counterintuitive but formal processes are not a panacea for good governance; post-mortems of Enron and WorldCom, or closer to home Centro, reinforce that these companies failed despite entrenched controls.

What leaders can learn from these high profile failures it that risk-taking is a cultural issue and that with respect to decision-making, a culture that encourages independence and debate is an asset.

Yet in many companies, disagreement continues to be seen as disloyalty.

Worse, as in the case of Enron, active collusion can be seen as a precondition for maintaining a seat at the table.

In his book Innovation Corrupted: The Origins and Legacy of Enron’s Collapse, Harvard’s Professor Malcolm Salter highlights sophisticated internal controls failed to impact the behaviour that led to Enron’s demise.

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Leadership is not a position


I was talking to a friend about a situation in which he felt powerless in the face of change. He was ‘waiting’ for an outcome about his future in the volatile manufacturing sector that was making him increasingly anxious and he was struggling to stay engaged. At times, he admitted, he felt depressed.

Waiting for what I asked?
Fate? Providence? Godot?

The difficulty with waiting for something to determine what happens to you is that it makes you feel less an adult than a child.

Your ‘locus of control’ (or the extent to which you believe you impact life) is farmed out to something beyond your self rather than remaining inside.

Given the demonstrated impact of the latter on job performance and satisfaction, it’s any wonder that adults in such an environment feel debilitated.

While there’s no doubt our superiors can and do make decisions that influence our lives, what remains in hand is our response.

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Value expertise but don’t defer

I was at a workshop where a man introduced himself like this: when I did my doctorate at Insert Ivy League University Here.

Now there’s nothing wrong with establishing credentials in particular when they are relevant to the discussion, which in this case they were not.

What he had done was to anchor the rest of the group around his primacy as an intellect, which he certainly was. Without needing to say it directly, he had sent a signal that his views were ipso facto going to be better and to disagree with him if you dared .

Many subsequently and unconsciously looked to him to lead. Those who dared speak cast glances in his direction, tacitly seeking his approval.

This is how individually and collectively we agree to defer and give away power.

People anchor others in many ways, sometimes overtly (which makes it easier to detect) but often subtly.

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What values drive you?

Whatever we think we are, or say we are; our own and others’ perceptions largely result from: what we do.

Of course, we are not wholly defined by behaviours nor should we be.

Sometimes life demands we reveal only a sanctioned side of ourselves, such as in an oppressive regime or unsafe family/relationships where it is prudent to keep parts tucked away.

We’ve probably all been in states at some time or another where we’ve acted ‘out of character’. A normally loving parent may lose their temper, a trusted colleague unable to hold their ground might kowtow to a decision they do not like, a partner forget to call the other to advise of a change of plan.

But the very expression suggests that these are anomalous events that do not reflect the way we normally behave. Want to know what truly drives someone? Listen to the words but pay acute attention to the patterns that appear in their lives. These are the shape of accumulated choices, some deliberate, others not, and a powerful narrative.

It’s also important to recognize that how we behave is in part situational.

Emotionally aware people know that different times call for different styles. We may need to be tough in driving a legal outcome but empathetic delivering bad news or responding to someone’s pain. This does not lead us away from the core, on the contrary, values act as an anchor from which we extend our reach into the world.

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Productivity needs play

Given that innovation is practically a mantra for CEOs globally and that countless studies have laid out the conditions for creating it, you’d think workplaces would be operating a little differently from a decade or so ago.

The literature is overflowing with cries for agility, decentralized networks, collaborative architecture or cultures that enable creativity through play.

Yet few organizations walk their talk, demanding innovation while pinning people to desks and archaic behaviours that confer credibility simply because they are familiar.

Companies continue to worry about absenteeism rather than the far more concerning trend of what Harvard Business Review’s Paul Hemp calls presenteeism – where workers turn up without really being there, and which is far more costly than paid sick leave.

Why do we still measure inputs rather than outputs, promote head-down-bum-up cultures that drive outcomes from A to B when we know that quantum leaps result from more haphazard associations?

We have entrenched views on what a serious workplace looks like. And despite studies that suggest serious is not synonymous with productive, many of us cling to old ideas rather than pushing against them. But push we should.

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