The future is More Human than Ever!

This will be my final post of the year – my 21st of 2017.

To start, I have completed my dissertation proposal and will be diving full steam into research mode from 2018 onwards. My topic focuses on the impact of Leadership Character and Stage of Adult Development on perceived levels of integrity and team culture. It’s the best intersection of all my professional passions and I am so excited at the prospect of what I will learn (and share with you all).

This year has been a remarkable journey. Possibly the best year yet!

I had the opportunity to deliver my first professional speaking gig and captured the essence of all I believe about the future and our relevance as human beings into a short, 20-min, TED-style delivery.

I therefore end this year’s journey with more than my written voice. Please follow the link below and let me know what you think.

Wishing you a well-deserved rest and reboot for another year of demonstrated care and kindness.


Rituals and what they tell us about your culture

I often hear this question – ‘How do I make my culture better to keep up with theirs, like that company over there (usually a tech giant that they read about in a glitzy magazine)?’

The more nutritious question (and one I rarely hear) however is; ‘How can I define, see and capitalize on the uniqueness of my organization’s culture?’

Question one is a common trap, and that pit is filled with many consultants, leaders and HR professionals. Answering question two is more likely to ensure cultural relevance and alignment. It will make it easier for leaders to keep their best people, attract the right talent and supports the organisation’s cultural capital (a more interesting phrase than Employee Value Proposition). To answer that question, we first need to find and define the unique ingredients of an organisation’s culture which are most visible through its rituals.

Rituals are best defined as the ‘patterns of behaviour that transmit values, a brand image and inspire norms’. Once these rituals settle into repeated patterns across many people and contexts they become organisational habits.  These rituals then support the unwritten rules of engagement within an organisation and have very specific common characteristics including:

  1. Elements of repetition (in content, form, or occasion). Most rites are repeated at predetermined times to ensure persistence of the message, reminders of the values and an activation of the brand image.
  2. Verbal and non-verbal input. The complete mix of behavioural and nonverbal visible elements are broadcast in rituals to enhance identification, belongingness and association for example logos banners, clothing etc.
  3. Planned rather than spontaneous actions. They are a highly organized sequence of actions with apparently chaotic elements carefully arranged.
  4. Highly codified language – each organization has its own “language”.
  5. Ordinary behaviours enacted in special ways;
  6. Highly symbolic in nature that seeks to be in alignment with the greater societal identity.
  7. Evocative presentation to draw and hold attention;
  8. Always meant for collective consumption

Whilst rituals transfer a behavioural code, they also encourage social cohesion and can capture collective values and beliefs. The ceremonies associated with these rituals help bolster trust in the organisational values and binds colleagues together towards a common sense of identity, togetherness and commonness.

  • So what rituals does your team and organisation deploy?
  • To what extent do you believe that the rituals strengthen and reignite your unique culture and relevance?
  • Which parts of your organisation are seemingly on mute? And which leaders are OK with that?
  • Are there conflicting rituals, and what needs to change to align them?

Rituals capture the observation that where communication flows culture grows, and to review how that happens in your organisation is a smart place to start.

You should know this about Organisational Culture!

There are two primary perspectives on culture, on the one hand there is a view that a culture can be broken down into its different components, and as a result can be built quite deliberately with a plan and focused execution. The other view is that it is a complex idea, and has no specific constituent parts, but is more of an evolving and dynamic phenomenon (much like the human beings that create it).

I subscribe to the latter perspective, but many in business don’t. Hence the question that many CEO’s and HR professionals ask me – how can we create the culture that we need for the future? My response is invariably a polite ‘well, you can’t!’

At this point they mutter and protest, and begin to wonder whether I am the right partner on such a pursuit. What they don’t realise is that to misunderstand their role in culture evolution could potentially cost them their job. Yes, they may be planting the seed of a culture implosion and resistance.

There may be just two questions to ask:

  1. What can I do as a leader to amplify aspects of our current culture that serve us?
  2. And how can I diminish aspects of our current culture that undermine us?

You see, organisational culture may ‘just be’ – it is what it is – and it responds to small flexes and shifts, but generally is embedded and persistent (and quite unshakable).

Culture is also not as universal as you might think. In every organisation there is a primary culture, much like the trunk of a tree, and then numerous sub cultures, much like the branches of that tree. Wherever there are influential leaders across the organisation and geographical spread, we expect to experience variations of the primary culture. It seems that team leaders decide how to interpret and role model the primary culture and naturally amplify and diminish aspects of the primary culture to suit their ends. Again, I have known the odd CEO to gasp in disagreement; ‘More than one culture? We only have one single culture, I would know, I am the leader here!’ they again protest.

Oh boy!

Yet again, leaders are unaware of just to what extent that attitude could shatter their dreams of executive glory. The existence of sub cultures is in itself not problematic, provided they aren’t brazenly oppositional and counter culture.  If they are however simply variants of the primary culture (they still share more in common than not) research suggests that the more the dominant culture distances itself and indeed bullies the sub culture, the more likely people will disengage and leave. However, organisations that embrace the sub cultures and utilise them as innovation hubs for the evolution of their primary culture seem to have capitalised on the value of the differences. It’s a case of primary AND sub cultures existing together.

It takes a mature leader to embrace this quintessentially complex human phenomenon of culture and work within the grey areas. To what extent do your leaders (or you the leader) thrive in those grey areas?

I didn’t know much about culture!

They say ‘Culture eats strategy for breakfast!’ They say it with such conviction, often as a precursor to their own philosophy on leadership and the future. They say it often, almost as much as I have said it.  I have sat through countless meetings with senior executives who claim high expertise and command of the topic, and we all seem to nod and smile in anticipation of the great work we will do together.

And then I began reading, not HBR or a clutch of online articles and trendy business magazines but hard, empirical research; and I have been self-muzzled. I don’t cough out that slogan anymore. I swallow back the one liners and pop MBA catch phrases and admit ignorance. But the more I read and learn, the more it makes organisational culture and the work within that space unexpectedly rich, diverse and certainly more complicated. As an advertising executive shared with me recently; ‘without strategy, culture is just a party and a fussball table’.  Spot on, and also just laughing at the surface of the topic.

No matter the levels of ignorance, it seems many leaders seem to be asking the same questions; how do we create the best culture? What type of culture do we need? How do we implement successful culture change? Who will best fit our culture? And on and on they ask.

All these questions are pertinent but also based on a handful of flawed and torpedo-like assumptions. 1. That a culture can in fact be changed, or deliberately created; and 2. That culture is a singular, organisation-wide phenomena.

Research offers the more useful assumptions, 1. Culture is always present and can vary across an organisation; 2. It is almost impossible to change, and 3. We don’t yet understand who or what influences its genesis over the life cycle of an organisation.

Nonetheless, it seems that the rising interest in organisational culture has much to do with its association to a unique competitive advantage, and thus some form of enduring relevance. That is an important insight, and is based on the following, research backed findings:

  1. A culture’s dimensions are difficult for competitors to imitate;
  2. A culture possesses rare and unique qualities;
  3. A culture is cumulative and generates upward momentum;
  4. A cultures sources are interconnected to form part of a whole;
  5. A culture can be renewed faster than eroded

What exactly does that all mean? In the course of my next batch of blogs, I will be sharing a perspective on culture that may be more useful than what you currently think you know. Stay tuned!

If the President were a Psychologist

‘Constructive Disruption!? Read the banner advert.

What an odd idea, I heard a lot of people saying.

It was the title of a recent Consulting Psychology Conference (and I may have had something to do with it). It was designed to challenge psychologists to assert their relevance and voice in the post-apartheid reality. It urged experts in emotion, cognition, behaviour, the conscious and unconscious to lift their spectating selves (and behinds) off their seats and get involved. The whole profession was challenged to justify why it has allowed its silence to be screaming so loudly.

As the speakers filled the room with research, perspectives, questions and ideas, the debate gravitated towards activism and the urgent need for psychologists to provide insight into what we see in the South African discourse, and begin to counsel the nation to health.

More than just a smattering of delegates proposed a radical new role – psychologists should become non-partisan lobbyists and Politicians – yes Politicians! That sentiment was broadly supported and when a summary of research into a typical South African reality was shared, it galvanised the idea. The study focused on unemployed people of a sprawling informal settlement. The findings showed that the vast majority of over 30 year olds had little belief they would ever find work and most had given up trying. The bulk of them felt increasingly alienated and under-supported by the very community they lived in. They were outcasts and excluded, seemingly condemned by their employment status and were increasingly angry about that.

A juxtaposition of responses to this rising discontent emerged. First there was the politician’s response – throw quick fixes, promise them jobs, provide them with small contracts, extend the social wage, condemn the living conditions, seek their vote, blame someone else and promise change.

Then the Psychologists response – speak to the unemployed, listen to them, empathise with them and share their lived experiences with other community members. Then seek to understand the hindrances to job access both physical and emotional. By doing that, discover how dozens of NGO’s and government supported projects can offer these people some form of work, and realise that few of the unemployed people that were being interviewed knew they even existed and those that didn’t, couldn’t find them or contact them. Psychologists Solution – build community led support groups that make the links to employment opportunities and do so with empathy and care. Nett result – Change lives. A true story.

It all sounded quite intuitive to the audience seated in that conference hall, but it further highlighted how often we have overestimated the levels of psychological awareness among the general population, and especially many of our leaders. Do they understand the consequences and manifestations of anger, anxiety, self-worth and dignity? Do they understand projections and social psychological dynamics of belonging? Have they prepared themselves to avoid capitalising on in-group/out-group dynamics? Do they know what to do to heal centuries of psychological abuse? Do they understand how scapegoating and blame erodes national trust, and thus our collective relatedness and future? It is highly likely that there are spin-doctor’s, PR professionals, advisors and political heavy weights who know exactly what to exploit in our psychology to gain favour and power; and it’s usually a pivot around fear. So what could the alternative be?

If I were a psychologist as president, I would like to think that I would focus on creating a national sense of belonging and engendering a sense of common identity that is shaped by a compelling and exciting shared view of the future. I would seek the synergies in our diversity and always ask the question – what more can we learn from each other to make us a champion nation? I would focus more on all the behaviours we want repeated over and over again, and pontificate less on what is always right or wrong, and a little more on what is appropriate for the context and the time. I would profess that there are multiple versions of the truth and celebrate the discovery and sharing of what makes each and every person unique, rather than different. I would role model tolerance and demonstrate care. I would communicate by listening, and listening and listening, and in the end I hope I would celebrate the contributions of even my most ardent critics. I would make sure we get things done and put every citizen at the heart of what we do.

What more would you do?

The Pulse of Organisational Development is…

Greetings from a conference venue packed with shiny suits, touch screen displays, overflowing bowls of sweat, and just one big, red and inviting Heartstyles Heart (for those of you that don’t know, this is a character development tool that is currently deepening all the work I do –

We are exhibiting at this conference for the second time, and I wanted to share the shift in momentum and interest that I have observed from colleagues in the field.  Thus far this conference has been a fascinating check on the pulse of the field of organisational psychology, psychometric assessment, leadership development and coaching, and in the main I have been disappointed. The persistent desire to place an ‘=’ sign against every person and assumption about people, has made the field seem more narrow and irrelevant than ever.

The palpable anxiety around the full human experience has been counter balanced by an obsession with measurement and prediction and the ability to sell anything that ranks, ticks, orders and even condemns people. It was a worthwhile reminder that the field emanated in this country from the mining industry – exploiting resources seems to be in its DNA – and not much seems to have changed.

In this field there seems to be no space for the magical, for the unearthed potential, for curves of growth and learning that shift and meander like all organic things do. There is an avoidance of the blurry and unpredictable expressions and sources of emotion. I also haven’t seen so many black leather jackets in one room since a Michael Jackson ‘Bad’ concert.

But there have been glimmers. As if stumbling across an elephant swimming at sea (that actually did happen recently – but rather go with the metaphor), there has been surprise and intrigue at what we do with Heartstyles. Without fail, each person that hears of our unashamed celebration of humanity and heart in the workplace – grabs an info sheet and leaves me their name wanting to know more. From miners, to retailers, bankers and consultants, they all light up, as if we have given them permission to go with their intuition and embrace what really matters – seeing people as people and allowing them to question the reductionist approach to everything else being peddled in the hall.

Its as if we were permission givers to celebrate potential and humanity within the lines of the balance sheets and organisational organogram. I must say, it felt good, and we seemed more relevant than ever!



The Coach and her Porsche

She arrived in a Porsche and wore her status with comfort and celebrity swag.

That was how he described the moment he first noticed her as his small, matchbox-like rental pulled up next to her. To his surprise, he next saw her striding across the conference stage to own the podium.

‘She was a coach!’ he exclaimed. At this point the professor lifted his eyebrows close to his hair line and dropped his mouth so deep he almost swallowed his chin. I have become used to that sequence of facial expressions when it comes to coaching and Psychologists. It’s controversial but I am not that interested in the petty turf wars.

It seems the Prof was most affronted by the idea that coaches speak so openly about their ROI – evidently the topic of Porsche lady’s conference key note.  As a Clinical and Organisational Psychology Professor, he was challenged by the ease with which some coaches even believe they could ascribe their efficacy to themselves. And then the pearls came.

According to his understanding of the research, the personal attributes of an individual counselor, therapist or coach in defining the outcomes of a process are have less impact than the context, environment, life stage, clarity of need, desire, motivation levels and quality of rapport and and and. With that in mind, how could a coach or therapist claim an ROI that links directly to their inputs and efforts? Especially because it seems more external variables are to be considered. As a result sometimes poor coaches achieve success and great coaches seem to fail. So let’s focus on one aspect of the coaching relationship – Rapport.

I call it ‘Temporary Accelerated Trust’, and here are the facts. When time is invested in genuine rapport building (note it says ‘Genuine’) confessions and admissions of culpability among suspected terrorists were four times more likely than in low or no rapport engagements. Criminal detainees were also 14 times more likely to disclose information earlier in an interview, with 50% providing some self-incriminating statements and approximately one quarter of the detainees fully disclosing their guilt. From the realm of Terrorists and Criminals, rapport is basically the essential ingredient. It could be that the ability of a coach to build rapport, drives success more than anything else, and that without any training, an individual who can build rapport might out perform a qualified coach who can’t.  Could it be that the ability to listen, match and mirror, to be warm and quickly find common ground matters most?

That type of research should build humility, and I think it is all important – the training, the attributes, the context etc. The more we understand all these influences the more skilfully we can navigate the engagement.

In time, I believe the fields of Psychology and Coaching will converge, and those that can provide support towards sustainable and observable behaviour change will claim their relevance in organisations. We may also extend our definition of ROI and focus it on human to human engagements that supports functionality and effectiveness, care and kindness and all those inherently human qualities that we see too little of in today’s world.

If that is what coaching can offer the world, then each coach deserves to drive a Porsche and own center stage.

We trust behaviours more than intent!

‘Trust me, it will all be OK.’

‘Trust me, my intentions are good.’

‘Trust me, just trust me’

Usually all said with a glint in the eye and a warm, nodding smile.

It seems trust is preoccupying not only my thoughts but my work too. Trust me, it must be important then (I write that with a grin).

Interesting how often we use the word, and yet may not fully understand what it means.

A cohort of leaders with whom I have worked for a number of years were recently discussing a series of events that transpired at a work function. The leader decided to take the management team to a fancy restaurant to celebrate recent results. Some team members made the most of the occasion with a bottle or three of wine. Others expressed their concern that those behaviours were not consistent with the values of the business, and set an inappropriate example. In my presence the conversation simmered, and both sides gathered their support. It was becoming real and dropping to the level of depth and insight that the team needed to explore (Trust and Conflict require attention in that team).

The leader then dropped the mute bomb, ‘You just have to trust my intentions’. Silence.

That was followed by a stern rebuke ‘We need to be careful about the perceptions we have about behaviour and rather focus on the facts about the behaviour.’

For a few moments I was impressed and genuinely beguiled by the seemingly coherent jumble of big words.  Then confusion. So what was he saying?

Partly I heard blame for something that someone did wrong. Maybe that impression came from the stare he aimed at the person who started the debate.

I basically heard him state that his intent should ‘just be trusted’ because it was more representative of the truth. And that is what made no sense because the assumptions we make about someone’s behaviour IS our truth, and the only way to shift that perception is to change the behaviour, or seek to understand directly from that person what their behaviour was intended to communicate. Boom.

My interpretation (maybe cynical but I believe well informed), is that he wanted the group to always give him the benefit of the doubt without having actually earned that right. That was a big mistake because it immediately closed any further conversations about the various perceptions and assumptions that his behaviours created. No matter what others may interpret from the behaviour, he expects everyone to assume positive intent. La la land theme song.

And then to the blame. Do you know that over 90% of all managers believe that a blame culture is the greatest destroyer of trust? What they mean is that when there is an error, a mistake or a less than desired outcome, if a leader hones in and loads blame onto an individual only, it sends tectonic reverberations through an organisation. Trust shatters.

In contrast, the leader who chooses to explore all the conditions that enabled the mistake or failure, starting systemically and ending with the individual, is likely to solve the causes and bolster trust.

To summarise. I won’t just trust you because you say so. I will have no idea what your intentions are unless you tell me, and in the absence of that, I will interpret your intentions through your behaviours and habits. As much as you might want me to trust your intent, your behaviour matters more, and leaks your true intent. And finally, when you single out individuals as the primary cause of discontent, I trust your judgement even less.

Here is a tip.

Be consistent and demonstrate your intent through your actions. Seek causes for what goes wrong from all the places where it might have started and depersonalise your perspective with curiosity and not blame.

Then, and only then, may I trust you.

Do we really know enough about People to develop them?

I froze. My cardboard coffee cup hung, mid-sip from my lips. The electric black and red slide projected across the whiteboard, drew all my attention. It was slick, the font slammed the desk with authority and the silky smooth tones of the presenters lured me in. Then panic. I was presenting next, and my attempt at answering the brief was, well…brief. The show continued with text books worth of frameworks and warm and fuzzy data. Confidence oozed across the boardroom table, and even I, sitting in my spot on the edge of the furthest bend from the screen, felt awed and intimidated. Had I got the brief so wrong? Had I finally been exposed as the imposter in the room?

It ended. And we all breathed.

Our eyes turned to the professor, sitting with a quizzical frown in the corner of the room. His leather jacket’s high collar hugged his neck, and took a decade off him.  His eyes squeezed like a finger on a trigger and then boom!

The question that followed shattered all the gloss off that porcelain presentation.

‘So where is Psychology in that impressive Industrial Psychology show?’

With the melting speed of butter in a pan, the snappy statements and bold predictions of success disappeared in confusion and concern. The presenters slumped.


‘You are Psychologists’ continued the cool academic, ‘so where in this presentation have you formulated a psychological perspective on the case study? All I see is an HR diploma, masquerading as an Industrial Psychologist, and pulling random frameworks and processes into a series of phrases and expected outcomes. It’s coherent, but makes no sense.’

The room went silent. I smiled on the inside, more out of relief than arrogance.

My training in Clinical Psychology was finally going to be relevant. I had begun to develop an aversion to the constant shrug of my shoulders and shake of my head when asked whether I knew that model or that framework in Industrial and Organisational Psychology speak.

The Professor continued.

‘If you cannot have a layered view on the psychological impact on people, real humans, then what is your role in organisations?’

The debate flowed, and what ensued was a startling series of admission and discoveries.

The long and short of it, is that too many people in HR and Industrial and Organisational Psychology, are under-equipped and unsure of their knowledge of Psychology and behaviour. They seem to evade emotion, and grasp for two dimensional processes, maps and diagrams to order their anxiety. The nett effect is the following:

  1. Too little enquiry and robust exploration of the ‘real’ brief. Often times just taking issues at face value.
  2. An uncertainty about psychological theory and evidence to frame their understanding of what drives behaviour.
  3. The development of a transactional relationship with leaders and leadership teams that reinforces a deterministic view on people and which makes it seem as if all people can be shaped, pushed and prodded through a process to change. Box ticked.

There is more, but in essence, I have learnt one key lesson. For too long I have steered people away from knowing that I am a Psychologist. I imagined people would recoil at the news. To be fair, at times they did, but if my world is focused on supporting individuals and teams to choose alternative behaviours that drive higher levels of effectiveness, then I had better understand emotion, cognition, habit, mental models, neuroscience, the mind, dysfunction, defence mechanisms, health and more. Without understanding that, it seems unlikely much will change.

The way things stand (this is going to sound harsh) many practitioners in the people field, do not understand people that well at all. They do know a lot, and intuitive feel and perception counts, but in many cases they are like computer hardware technicians, trying to work with the operating software. They experiment and fumble from button to button, and then we wonder why things change but stay the same, or why the profession is viewed with scepticism and low credibility.

It’s time to claim Psychology, and a deeper, informed understanding of people, as our primary differentiator in the people development game.

As the Prof kept asking with a smile ‘What is your psychological perspective?’

The Science of Trust – Part 2

A client of mine; an esteemed, silver-haired hotelier; once told me the secret to his success. He didn’t quite put it that way, but his message suggested as much. He proudly claimed that mastering the black and white aspects of service enabled comfort in the grey and that service excellence to humans was all hidden there. I liked that, but haven’t necessarily applied it to many aspects of my work.

In a field that seems fogged up in grey, I tend towards the black and white, often to further my legitimacy. Problem is, I often begin to believe my simplistic view of the world.

Let’s look at the idea of trust as an example of extraordinary colour that sits within the grey. This is a post aimed at me.

When you dip into the literature, Trust becomes a suitably complex topic of review, and superbly grey. Here are a few examples of what I mean.

Perspective 1: Some articles describe a clear difference between trust and distrust and although you might think they are opposites, some theorists don’t see them as opposite ends of a continuum. In fact, both trust and distrust are seen to be positive and negative. For example, high levels of trust may lead to group think which may lead to the exclusion of difference and thus potentially lead to unethical practices and discrimination. That is pretty negative. It is also important to admit that it is distrust on the other hand that drives processes, systems and structure. That could be seen as quite positive.

Perspective 2: Other research proposes that there are 4 co-existing reference points of trust. On the one end, High Trust which is defined by hope, faith, confidence, assurance and initiative, and on the other end Low Trust which is represented by no hope, no faith, no confidence, passivity and hesitance. Then there is Low Distrust which is defined by no fear, the absence of skepticism, the absence of cynicism, low monitoring and non-vigilance, and High Distrust which includes fear, skepticism, cynicism, wariness, watchfulness and vigilance. Mmmm.

Perspective 3: Trust can be divided into two types – Affective Trust and Cognitive Trust. The first is focused on an emotional state and connection with others, whilst the other is focused on competence and capability. These types of trust can be distinct from each other, and so we could have a high level of Cognitive Trust, but a low level of Affective Trust, and vice versa. More grey. I love it.

It may be too much grey for me to make sense of. On one level I get it, it’s actually all saying the same thing, but on another level, what I am beginning to appreciate is that a black and white view of what trust is, may be too narrow.

So what does that all mean? Well, it is all very valuable, and I have to ask myself how this all fits with my evolving thinking on the building blocks of trust, especially in teams.

Perspective 4:

1. Be reliable, do what you said you would, be on time, deliver, just be plain old boring and dependable. This is a powerful trust builder.

2. Be Honest – or as I often say ‘Appropriately honest’, and more significantly don’t be dishonest.

3. Keep as many of the Background Conversations, or and chit chat into the Foreground. Involve the people you are talking about, speak up when the time is right and don’t break away into reckless corridor and side conversations.

4. If you master the first three right, then you might have earned the right to some Vulnerability. This doesn’t come first as many team builders would like you to think.

Get these all right and I believe you will build a high trust, low distrust relationship that is comfortable with the positive contributions of Distrust and cautious of the blind spots of Trust; and enhances Affective and Cognitive Trust.