The Leadership Blind Spot

The phrase of my week is ‘Impression Management’. Oh and I love it, for how aptly it describes much of the superficiality in our society. It immediately reminded me of a story shared by an accounting executive who was rebuked for nestling his second hand, seven year old car in the Partners dedicated parking. The message to him ‘either upgrade your car, or downgrade your parking booth’. Impression management!

I was digging through some academic articles from the late 1990’s and discovered that in North America over 50% of all externally hired executives either failed or were fired within their first 12 months.  To my surprise tasks, skills and capabilities were not the primary cause of their demise – those were all expertly vetted in rounds of psychometric assessments and panel interviews (we seem to have overloaded our approach to finding the best people with even more of that). What had in fact stalled their integration and rise within the c-suite, was their inability to sustain their ‘Impression Management.’ In other words, they revealed their true selves and exposed the inherent nature of who they were. What the organisation saw was unpleasant and incongruent, and consequently they had to go. It seems that when the chips were down, and the stress was rising, those who had glossy, manicured images designed to seduce and be essentially likable and impressive (impression – impressive, see the link?), couldn’t sustain their charade.

More interesting to me, is what was it that they were trying to hide? And what was revealed? What were their intentions? and what was the impact of the dramatically changing impression they left with others?

In all cases, what emerged under pressure was the extent to which they could (or couldn’t) manage their impulses, emotional reactions, feelings and drives. Those that managed these poorly, were perceived to be low in judgement, and over time, their integrity (built on their reliability, consistency and honesty) was eroded too. They might have tried to bully with positional power for a while but then completely lose their ability to take others along with them. They become desperate.

It then dawned on me; Judgement and Integrity are two fundamental components of character. Character is shaped, developed or stunted by all the experiences of a person’s life. In short, those with weaker character have less self-awareness and poorly regulate their impulses and emotions under pressure. They exposed their aggression, flight or fight tendencies, immaturity, self destructive behaviours and selfishness, and damaged the relationships around them (a current US president offers a daily showcase of what that actually looks like, and scarily there is a lot of Trump in many of the people around us). Those with strong character tend to think as much about others and themselves when under pressure, and expertly manage the rising distraction and power of their inner selves.

I have spent the past 10 years designing and delivering leadership development programs, really good ones, which have filled many heads and hearts with skills and awareness, but never, not once, have we considered (or even named) the critical importance of understanding, defining, measuring and developing character.  Maybe that is why so many managers and leaders with reams of certificates and course attendance notes, still fail to inspire confidence through their judgement and integrity. It is my next crusade, to put character at the forefront of the way we think and appreciate the leaders and colleagues around us. To peer into the Leadership Blind Spot!


The two most important questions you must answer!

I love change. I am tickled by technology and the audacious dreams humanity keeps bringing to life. Everything we want to do, seems possible – and likely. I get all gawky geek-like when I imagine a world where mundane and repetitive tasks are performed by a wide brethren of digital proxies.  In other ways, I am also proudly old school. I adhere firmly to common courtesy and still use a paper diary. I appreciate the slow, weathered pace of wisdom in old age, and relationships with real people, in a brick and mortar bank, or shop can truly delight me.

As 2018 begins, and the swish of pages in my diary accelerates with new work and booked dates, I reflect on a common theme that emerged in the people and organisations around me in 2017. My life was brimming with opportunity and pace. I was full and at times drowning. It felt as if technology and the pace of progress was throttling me. I wasn’t alone, others were feeling the same. Stress was soaring, health was faltering and meaning in life seemed to be battered and confused. It was unsurprising that as the year came to an end, many of us were pensively asking ‘What is all of this busyness really for? Is this the life I really want to live? Is there another way? What price will I pay if I don’t change soon?’

In early January 2018 a mail arrived from the Center of Applied Jungian Studies.  It eased my mind and heart, and at the same time jolted me to perspective. I share excerpts of that post below:

We all know that every human being has basic physical needs: for food, for water, for shelter, for clean air, and in the same way, all humans have certain basic psychological needs too;

  • We need to feel we belong.
  • We need to feel valued.
  • We need to feel we’re good at something.
  • We need to feel we have a secure future.
  • And there is growing evidence that our culture isn’t meeting those psychological needs for many – perhaps most – people.

We have become disconnected from things we really need, and this deep disconnection is driving an epidemic of depression and anxiety all around us. Finding an “anti-depressant” that actually deals with the root issue rather than the suppression of the symptoms means finding a way to solve the problem that is causing the depression in the first place. If you sincerely want to make a meaningful change in your life, you first need to answer two fundamental questions;

  1. Who am I?
  2. What do I really want?

That’s it – old school poignant! In my professional observation, most adults in the workplace feel disconnected, undervalued and generally don’t believe they are worthy. Many then convert that overall insecurity into self-serving behaviours that further denigrates relationships and fuels anxiety in the people around them. Blaming  others usually follows, and trust dives. It becomes a toxic contagion that we become disturbingly accustomed to.

These two questions remind us that the route to fulfillment, meaning and purpose is always through the self, and the honest conversations with your inner truth, and towards the heart of who you are and what you want to offer the life you have been given.

I wish for all of you, and myself, a deeply introspective year towards answering those two questions and becoming more whole people, leaders, parents, spouses, siblings and citizens.

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.