The Survivor Personality - why some people beat the odds.

Research of the survivor personality highlights personal attributes that help people survive against the odds. These personality traits have been studied in a range of potentially overwhelming circumstances: 

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  • People lost or stranded

  • Life threatening medical situations

  • Accident and trauma

  • Redundancy

  • Prisoners of War

  • Entrepreneurial failure.

One of the key traits is an optimistic mindset, but it’s not rose-coloured-glasses-blind-faith-fingers-in-the-ears optimism.

It’s optimism tempered by reality. Blind optimism may work in the short term. It’ll get you over a small hump. When pitted against massive adversity or long burn situations though, it falls over and can actually lead to despair. Imagine an optimistic view “the market will turn by the end of the week”. Each week that passes with no turn is another knock to the belief. Add enough of those together and the person may get totally overwhelmed by the circumstances they face.

Adding reality to optimism is simple - Focus on what you can control.

Here are some examples of effective optimism

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What are you currently facing? How could you adjust your mindset to be more Unshakeable in the long term?

Reduce the Policy Load

Things had been dodgy to say the least. The organisation was losing money, and while it was never proven it was pretty likely that some was being internally skimmed. A new CEO was appointed and she was met with a tangled web involving people at all levels right up to the board. Had the organisation continued “as is” it would have been broke in 18 months and likely facing a number of legal ramifications. People were suspicious and guarded. It was an emotionally charged and manipulative environment. There was very little trust. The organisation was far from unshakeable and on the verge of being shaken to the core.

As the new CEO uncovered the extent of the chaos, the organisation slipped further with people running for cover behind blame. Factions began making threats in an attempt to ensure compliance or silence. Threats ranged from minor to very serious. 

In the aftermath there was very little trust. In rebuilding the organisation there was a strong swing to creating policy and procedure (P&P) for everything. It’s an understandable reaction - an attempt to lock the doors and bar the windows.  

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However the higher the quantity of P&P, the lower the effectiveness:

  • Higher quantities of P&P increase the likelihood  that some or all of your staff are operating outside the ‘rules’. The more there are, the less it is possible to know, understand and apply them all. In fact, time and effort will be spent finding work-arounds and short cuts.

  • High volumes of P&P increase the annual workload of review and update. If the team takes the task seriously, it requires a detailed look at each document and how it is serving the organisation (or not). High volumes tend to result in a ‘tick and flick’ mentality that does nothing to contribute to the security that P&P are trying to create.

  • People who will do the wrong thing will find a way, regardless of how thick the P&P file is. 

  • P&P is a great killer of innovation and improvement.

  • High volume P&P implies staff aren’t to be trusted and need every element of their work guided by the organisation.

  • It raises the centre of gravity, by taking decisions and processes up the hierarchy. In turn, this restricts thinking and creativity at the coal face.

  • High volume becomes addictive, as every little gap in P&P is hunted down and filled. It’s like  rabbits or those wire coat hangers from the dry cleaner.

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Unshakable organisations are lean on Policy and Procedure, but do not leave the organisation without guidelines. Ray Dalio’s book “Principles” is a great example of detailed guidance that leaves heaps of room for flexible approaches to changing conditions.

A great principle for organisations who want to be unshakable is to reduce P&P as much as possible.

When reviewing documents, ask yourself “Is there any reason why this document could not be deleted or shortened?”



Lower the Centre of Gravity

The boat was skittish and unstable. Every time a small wave rolled beneath us we struggled to keep it upright. We were planning for an extended sea kayak trip and this experience told us there was work to be done. Fighting the boat for days on end, at times miles from shore was never going to work.

The solution turned out to be simple. A paddling friend suggested attaching a 1kg diving weight to the lowest point inside the boat. That small weight lowered the centre of gravity and suddenly the boat was easy and delightful to paddle.

If you want to build an unshakeable team, lowering the centre of gravity is just as important. Old world organisations relied on hierarchy and decisions being made at the top. It used to work. Now it’s way too slow, and too easy to disrupt. Lower the centre of gravity by empowering your team to make decisions close to where the action is. Here are some ways to do it. We’ll talk more about them in coming articles.

  • Reduce bureaucracy. Be relentless in the pursuit of making things easier and smoother. Pay attention to where people take short cuts and either enhance the process or adopt the short cut. 

  • Set clear boundaries for autonomy. If people know where they can make decisions and be backed by leadership, they’ll start doing more things, more effectively in direct response to the challenges of their work. As a leader focus on removing barriers and establishing the direction. The team will come to life.

And when disruptive situations occur your team will be more unshakeable.

Breathing for action

Last week we talked about breathing to relax. Breathing deep into the belly.

The steps were:

  1. Breathe slowly and rhythmically

  2. Acknowledge emotion 

  3. Set your intent 

But what if you need to switch on and be ready for action?

The three steps are the same, just change how you breathe.

To be ready for action, lock down your core muscles, so your belly moves very little as you breathe. Allow your chest to expand and contract. The breathing is still slow and rhythmic, just higher up in your torso.

Breathing this way gives an almost contradictory feeling of being relaxed and ready for action.

Ideal for big moments in work and life where you need to be switched on!

Leading from where you are

"The team don't like or respect him", he said. "But I can make a difference to how the team operates, even if I'm not the leader."

It was an inspiring conversation with a young man who understood leadership. He was working in a team where the official leader was dictatorial and inconsistent. The team spent a lot of time over the 'water cooler' complaining about their boss and the direction he was taking them. 

"That just adds to the dissatisfaction and tension. When people push back they make themselves a target." 

When I asked what he did differently, here's what he shared:

  • I don't buy into gossip. It doesn't help anyone. If something is factual, i share what I know, otherwise I stay out of it.

  • I don't talk behind people's back, and when I hear others doing that, I pull them up. If I have feedback to give, I'll do that straight up with the person it concerns.

  • I do the best job I know how, even when I don't like how the instructions are given.

  • If I'm told to do something unreasonable, I respectfully  say why I think it is unreasonable.

  • I maintain my own standard of work and encourage others to do the same - It's easy to let it slip when you don't like the boss, but that reflects as much on me as on him.

It's a great example of leading from wherever you are. This young man is making a contribution to his team and his workplace that adds value and quality. What he is doing makes his team more unshakeable.

How do you lead from where you are?


Stilling the whirlwind

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I tossed and turned. It didn’t seem to matter what what position I lay in, I couldn’t get to sleep. My mind was a whirlwind of activity . It churned with ideas and sequences for an upcoming workshop with a new client. I tossed and turned some more, eventually falling asleep, only to spring awake almost immediately. It was as if the whirlwind had prodded me awake. After a while a thought adds to the whirlwind, “If this keeps up, I’ll be shattered tomorrow!”. It adds to the stress. The more I try, the less I sleep.

When I talk to my coaching clients, I’m not alone in finding it hard to relax and switch off sometimes. 

It seems we get the “whirlwind” from 3 categories:

  • Stressful thoughts about things yet to be completed, things that make us worried or anxious, overload, tight timelines, big decisions…

  • Creative thoughts like big ideas, great solutions, new directions…

  • Processing thoughts like when you have learned something new and your mind is filled with it and how it fits with other things you know…

Fortunately, the Guerrilla Mindfulness tactic can be really effective in those moments.

Guerrilla Mindfulness is:

  • 3 long, slow rhythmic breaths

  • Acknowledge how you feel

  • Clarify your intention


When I can’t sleep for the whirlwind I use it this way:

  1. Focus on the rhythm of your breathing. Make the breaths in and out the same each time. Breathe into your belly. To do that, ‘lock’ the muscles of your ribs together and let your belly expand and contract with each breath. Try to keep your ribcage still as you breathe in and out. Let the belly fill and empty. Breathing this way is deeply relaxing.

  2. Acknowledge how you feel, without getting into the story of why. You might be stressed, anxious, frustrated, excited, or curious. Use as few words as you can to describe your feelings. Acknowledging your feelings in this way reduces the stress hormones in your system.

  3. Be clear about your intent - it might be ‘I’m going to park this for now, relax and sleep.”

  4. Go back to breathing into your belly - slow, deep, rhythmic. I usually find I’m asleep before I count 7 cycles. If the whirlwind interrupts your breathing, be kind to yourself. Gently notice the thoughts and return your attention to breathing. Even if you don’t sleep, your gentle focus on the breath will have you more relaxed tomorrow than a night with the whirlwind.

Sometimes you’ll wake up again during the night with the whirlwind spinning again. Rinse and repeat as often as you need to. I also find it helpful to do a quick brain dump into a notebook to get the whirlwind off my mind.

And of course, if you find yourself getting stuck in a pattern of long term sleeplessness, seek help.

Next time, we’ll talk about using Guerrilla Mindfulness when you need to be switched on and ready for action.

Surviving Christmas - Six Silly Season Survival Strategies

A few years back a team of psychologists at Coventry University did some work on Stress at Christmas time.

Rob Wilde, a psychologist at the university, reckons Christmas stress is a result of:

  • extra responsibility

  • a radical shift in daily patterns

  • more people, alcohol, food, spending and over-excited children than we normally experience.

Rob also notes that we often pass the stress we can feel at this time of year off as tiredness or a hangover. Really Rob? There's every chance it's option D, All of the above!

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How is the silly season for you? Are you heading into it with a sense of joy and relaxation, or is it more like the picture above?

I could say a whole lot about not eating and drinking too much, and making sure you stay relaxed, but like me you will probably over indulge and be charging from one thing to another.

So here's my top 6 Silly Season Survival Strategies:

Simplify - Reduce the load on you and your family by simplifying the plan. Can the load of preparing be shared? Can meals be simplified? Can travel be minimised?

Breathe - When we are under pressure we tend to breathe less. At least once a day pause and take some long, deep, conscious breaths. It's still one of the simplest and easiest ways to reduce stress and improve wellbeing.

Eat - I presume you will over indulge (I know I will!) So take every opportunity between feasting to eat fresh, healthy and light food. It will ease the load on your digestive system and help keep your immune function up.

Drink - Stay well hydrated. Water is essential to good digestion and to processing toxins like alcohol. It also helps reduce stress and keep your thinking clear.

Expect - I often talk about expectations. Whenever our expectations don't match reality we experience stress. Spend some time asking yourself what your expectations at Christmas are. Are they realistic? Can they be met? How will you react if they are not? Share your thoughts with the people around you. Just being clear about your expectations will significantly reduce the chance of heated moments. Some examples of expectations that could cause stress are light traffic, no queue at the shop, getting something other than socks this year.

Gratitude - is a powerful way to reduce stress and increase wellbeing. Take some time to express gratitude to the people around you, including the people in service roles who get run off their feet at this time of year.

Enjoy the Christmas Season. Blessings and Joy to you and your family.

Feel Like a Vending Machine - Ask More Questions.

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Many leaders feel like a vending machine. Staff come to them with problems. They dispense solutions. It's exhausting and keeps leaders down in the weeds, rather than focussed on higher level thinking and work. The article I wrote about it hit a nerve and provoked some questions. Over the next few weeks, we'll explore some tips for getting out of the 'vending machine' cycle.

One of the easiest ways to break the cycle is ask more questions. Questions help you and your staff think through the issue and understand it. From your point of view, you want to be able to offer assistance (if it's genuinely needed) without bailing people out too easily. From their point of view, assisting them to think about the issue increases their understanding and ultimately their capacity. For both of you, the process builds greater trust and understanding making future issues and delegated tasks easier to tackle.

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Here are some great questions to ask. You don't need all of them every time. One or two insightful questions create the space for your staff member to come up with their own solutions. They also identify what your most useful contribution to the issue, or your staffs development might be. Even if it is an issue that needs input from you, ask some questions first. It establishes an expectation that staff will think for themselves, and that you value/trust their input. The three questions in bold italics are almost always worth asking.

  • Who is involved in this issue? Who does the issue impact the most? Who would benefit from a solution? Are there any people this impacts who may not be aware of it yet? Who raised the issue? Who do we need to communicate with as we work on a solution?
  • When did you become aware of this? Are there any significant or critical timeframes we need to consider?
  • Where are the resources you need? Do you have access to them?
  • How would you solve the problem? 
  • Why is this important to you/us/the company/our stakeholders? Why do you need my assistance?
  • What is the impact if it isn't solved? What would it take to solve it? What resources/connections/networks would help? What attempts have you made to solve the issue? What do you think would be the most effective solution? What barriers (if any) are there to you doing that?

Go on - Unplug that vending machine!

Leading like a Vending Machine

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Do your staff keep expecting you to have all the answers and solve all the problems? Do you wish they would show a bit more initiative and try to solve their own problems? Does the constant flow of requests from your team add to your daily pressure and work load? If you answered yes to any of those questions, perhaps you are leading like a vending machine. Over the years I have  coached many leaders who experience this issue. I coined the phrase "Vending Machine Manager". 

Staff come to the Vending Machine Manager and punch in a request "B4". The machine shakes and rattles a bit. There's a couple of clunking sounds. Out of the flap pops the perfect answer or solution to their problem. It's cool and it's sweet. Next time they have a problem, they remember how easy it was. How cool and sweet it was. Back they come. They punch in "A9", and walk away satisfied. Before long, the Vending Machine Manager has a constant flow of traffic wearing out the floor in front of their work station. "D7", Clunk, WooHoo. "F2" Clunk, WooHoo. "B6"Clunk, WooHoo. On and on it goes - and your workload continues to grow.

From a survival point of view, humans are designed to find the easiest return for energy expended. The Vending Machine Manager plays straight into the hands of that design. To change the dynamic you need to move from dispensing answers to building capacity. Work with your team to build their own knowledge and skill. Make them experts in their own right. If you keep vending, they'll keep coming. Change the game!

The Engine Room

I love working with Small to Medium Enterprise. Talk about adaptable. This segment of the business world is filled with people who see opportunities and move. In many ways they are the engine room of the Australian economy. So many businesses which translate to jobs and opportunities of all shapes and sizes.

 

The entrepreneurial mind is exciting. People who take risks to bring ideas and people together have many of the same attributes of those who survive against the odds in survival situations.

 

And despite being many, many people across the country, they often work in relative isolation - whenever I can, I like to support their work.

 

On the 21st September I’m teaming up with the Growth Box in Malaga to present “Thrive and Adapt – tools for success”

 

If you are a business owner or leader who would like to network with others over breakfast and come away inspired, come and join us.

 

The short video is an interview I did with Clive Haddow, CEO at the Growth Box about the event. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SGt-rn-yJFc

and tickets can be booked via this link.

 

https://www.trybooking.com/book/event?eid=304399

 

By the way, I’m doing this event free of charge to support the work of Growth Box and all the great SME’s out there. I hope to see you on 21st September for brekky.

Buildings, Births and The Beat

100 years. Depending on how you look at it, it's either a long time or a short one. In cosmic terms it's less than blink of an eye. In lifespans it's either one really long one or around 1.3 average length ones. In career terms, it's about 3 working lifetimes (unless you are a professional sports person in which case it's a lot more).

So much has changed in 100 years. Back in 1917 The tallest structure in the world was the Eiffel Tower. More than 95% of births happened at home. There was no such thing as Mother's Day. Pneumonia was still the leading cause of death.  The average life span was around 50! Perth wan't even connected to the national phone system until 1930.

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In 1917 Helen Dugdale (L) and Laura Chipper (R) made history. They were the first women in WA's Police Service. I'm privileged to present tomorrow among some other awesome speakers to mark the 100 year anniversary of Women in Policing in our state. As I have prepared for the event, I'm humbled by the number of "firsts" that continue to happen as pioneering women stand up and tackle roles that are traditionally male.

The day before something is a breakthrough, it’s just another crazy idea
— Peter Diamandis

Firsts take effort. You have to make your own road. There's no chance to follow or learn from others, only to do the best you can with what you have got. Often there's a lack of resources and active opposition. We've got a lot of pioneers in this state. It's a line from well before colonial times right up to the moment. I'm honoured to be asked to celebrate Women in Policing, and it makes me grateful for all the incredible changes made by courageous people who built their own road.

 

A Reason to Celebrate?

Today is the winter solstice for us southern hemispherians.  From today the days gradually get a little lighter. I have written before about the power of gratitude to shift how we see the world. It contributes to mental and physical wellbeing, creativity, ability to solve problems, get along with others and a host of other benefits. Mid winter is a time for celebration and gratitude in many cultures - why not pause today and reflect on what you are grateful for.

As I write this the sun is coming up and there is a cacophony of birds chorusing outside. I'm grateful for their song and the opportunities this day brings.

Six Things I Learnt at Comedy School

Each year I set myself a challenge. Some of them have been physical adventures, others reflective or learning. The idea is to stretch myself beyond my comfort zone. I wrote more about why here http://www.mikehouse.com.au/blog/2017/2/15/staying-fresh

This year my challenge was a 6 week stand up comedy course. Graduation was a 5 minute stand up set in front of a live audience. Even though I speak for a living, this was very different - and very confronting. Thanks very much to all the people who supported me on the journey and bravely faced 7 newly minted comics on the night.

Here's what I learnt:

  • Process and method rock - If you can learn the mechanics of what you want to achieve it saves effort and significantly ups your chance of success. Having a mentor/teacher who knows the territory speeds the learning up even more.
  • Process and method are not enough - All the courses, books, videos and you tube clips in the world are not enough to prepare you to do something well. No matter which way you slice it, that takes some time and elbow grease.
  • None of it counts til you are on stage - Process, method, work - all good, but the only way you can know if it works is step into the spotlight and have a crack. Those lights are bright and it feels exposed. There are so many areas in work, life and relationships where we encounter challenging moments and just have to go for it. The alternative is to timidly wonder how it might have been.
  • Theres nothing like a deadline - Even the day before, I didn't feel ready. Knowing I had to deliver put some urgency into the prep.
  • You might have to step out of your well worn grooves - I speak for a living, so I have some very effective and efficient ways of preparing. This was different, and I found I needed to take a different approach to my preparation. Sometimes we can generalise knowledge and skill from one thing to another. Sometimes you have to break new ground. Just doing that made me much more aware of how I normally work, and gave me the opportunity to refine it.
  • They don't laugh where you think they will - Some of the bits I thought were hilarious got no response from the audience... and they laughed a lot at some bits I didn't think were funny. It reminds me of the Tech/start up concept of minimum viable product - to truely know if something will work, you need to get it to a "customer" and find out what they think.

 If you'd like to see how I went here it is. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FNTfFEGpj30&t=2s

When the game is over move on

I was talking to a colleague who has a rapidly growing business in entertainment. They manage artists, bring shows to Perth and create venues for great content. She's a great leader with a clear vision for her business. Her team are excited about creating it with her. With growth come several inevitable challenges for leaders. Systems have to move and evolve to keep up with where you want to get to. As the team grows, vision and leadership become more important, and simultaneously more diluted - Getting good and consistent messaging to staff and the market about what you are doing is critical. Growth also means that there may be times when staff who were a good fit when you were a different size, no longer are.

My colleague was describing a couple of conversations she had with staff who had been with her a while. In the early days, they had been awesome - Productive, switched on and enthusiastic. But that had waned.  She had spent considerable time with them attempting to recreate how it had been but nothing seemed to be working. Motivation continued to drop and they were starting to get in the way of progress.

She decided to have a straight conversation about the expectations they each had for the business and the role to see if that would lead anywhere productive. End result, the person left and was relieved. The staff member had been feeling obliged to stay with the business - feeling she would let the owner down if she left. She'd been excited about it when she first joined and had been a big part of creating the success. The rapid expansion was hard for her though, and she really liked smaller teams than this one was now. She found the constant evolution and growth stressful and wearing.

When they had an open conversation about what the owner needed from staff, and how her staff felt about the environment, it became clear to them both that it was time to move on. For the business it has been like taking a foot off the brake. A new person has joined with skill and enthusiasm for the current business, rather than what it once was. No doubt the person who left is also feeling relieved.

Situations like this are often stressful for everyone involved. It's easy to become victim to unspoken expectations and assumptions. Our perspective gets bent out of shape, and sometimes that results in conversations like this one becoming adversarial when there was no need for that.

Actions we can take:

Employers/Leaders/Managers - Set up clear expectations for people and roles early, and check in with them often. Use as many opportunities as you can to deepen you/your teams understanding of the expectations. Create an environment where conversations about what we expect and whether those expectations are being met are safe and regular. Don't let things fester. If there is tension, friction or conflict do something about it as soon as possible - most big problems start out a small ones.

If you work for someone else - Be bold about asking for clarification of what the business expects from you. If your ecxpectations are not being met, raise the issue and explore it. Don't let things fester. If there is tension, friction or conflict do something about it as soon as possible - most big problems start out a small ones.

For both - If it's time to move on - do it.

Get the Basics Right

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Anecdotal feedback from many leaders in many sectors suggest Western Australia is currently facing challenging times. It seems that there is more effort required to secure a sale, and that buyers are more consciously looking for lower cost and/or higher value for their spend. Providing good quality and timely service is always important. In a tough market it seems to me that it is essential. Scrap that - I reckon it's essential all the time. I'm amazed at how ofter I hear of businesses not even getting the basics right. In a buoyant market, it may be overlooked, but in a tight one, it could be enough to get you side lined.

A good mate of mine supervises technical work crews. His role is to liaise with clients, ensure the work is done to spec and act as a technical/safety back up to his crew. He gets deployed all over the world. He has two skills that I reckon make him stand out from the crowd:

  • He's quick - His work rate is high, but more importantly he can get to an unfamiliar location and quickly get his head around the skillset of his crew, the issues on site, and build rapport with the people he needs to liaise with.
  • Great Communication - He'll make sure every one is in the loop. He anticipates issues and gets in front of them. And he's always on the look out for ways to improve the standing of his company and their reputation with clients.

As a result he often gets pulled off his main job to sort out potential issues, and it's amazing how often this is the result of the basics not being covered properly. Recently, the supervisor that was replacing him on the next shift did not have the minimum qualifications to supervise the job. If he had left without rectifying the situation the whole job would have stopped costing many thousands and who knows what in terms of reputation. It's a basic of the job. A fundamental specification that was either overlooked or ignored. That seems an unnecessarily high risk to me.

But it must happen a fair bit - I'm amazed at how often people tell me of clients who are grateful for something that seems pretty basic - like follow up, or customer service, or delivering on an agreement, or holding yourself accountable.

I'm sure we have all experienced the receiving end when the basics are not done well. My wife and I did an online booking for a restaurant a while back. We got the usual email confirmation. When we arrived we were told there was no booking. "On line" we said. The owner then proceeded to berate us for using the online system which was broken. We got a table and breakfast, but we haven't been back, and possibly neither have several other parties who were in earshot of the dressing down we got.

A warm greeting at the door is a basic. It is called hospitality after all, unless they changed it to hostility while I slept.

One of the easiest and most underrated ways to stand out, regardless of your job, position or level of ownership is simply to do what you say you will do. I my mind that includes the basics which are surely implied if not explicitly stated. 

If for some reason it is not possible to deliver on the basics, be courteous, accountable and professional while you negotiate a solution. It will help you stand out from the crowd, and often the only cost is discipline.

Banking for the Future

What's it like being on the team you are on? The experience can be dynamic and productive. A great team performs well, exceeding the results that any one member could achieve. Other teams get in their own way. When the objectives are not clear and people are not pulling their weight, a team can add work and confusion. 2017 has been dominated with discussions about teams for me. Leaders and team members have been tackling the ingredients for high performance and also dysfunction. Over the next few weeks I'll share a series of insights about teams from both sides.

"You have to bank for the future and trust that will get you through the challenges"

Picture this:

The sector you are in is facing the largest change it has seen in 40 years. There's widespread optimism about the change, but also lots of confusion. The big picture looks compelling but for some individual staff and customers it's not great. People are looking for answers and they are not always available - not because anyone is trying to mislead - simply because many things are still on the drawing board. The nature of jobs is changing. Employees are dealing with their own uncertainty while facing a barrage of customer uncertainty and angst. 

One leader reflected on the unofficial nature of some of the teams he is leading. Groups of people who are held together more by relationships and common ground, than because they are an actual team. He spoke of "banking" trust and reliability. Doing the right thing consistently. Following through on promises. 

In an environment that is totally relationship based these are the only tools available to make the team perform. They are powerful tools and in a more formal team setting they often get overlooked.

How do you build trust within your team? I reckon the most powerful way to influence trust is to consistently do what you say you will do. Regardless of whether you are a leader, or a team member, backing yourself in this way creates a sense of certainty and reliability around you. "Banking" credit in relationships will help when the team faces challenges. 

HUH? - Digital Dialogue

The beep of an incoming message had me reaching for my phone. New text message. From a colleague and mate. Like me, he helps people get better at understanding each other and communicating better. The communication between us is some of the best work place comms I have ever experienced. Clear, precise and with each of us checking we have an actual understanding, rather than just an assumed one.

We'd exchanged a few short txts to clarify details of a meeting. We were pretty much done, so I expected his last message would be a simple confirmation.

So the txt baffled me. It was long. It was filled with heaps of detail about the meeting. It seemed to have an impatient tone about it - which would be fair enough. We'd been through the detail days ago.

I started quizzing myself about what it meant. I imagined him feeling frustrated, and wondered if the level of trust we had built had been damaged somehow. I felt mildly angry - does he think I'm stupid, or disorganised? Maybe both.

I sent back:

THANKS FOR THE DETAILS, I ALREADY HAVE ALL THAT. WAS THERE A REASON YOU SENT IT?

His reply:

YES. YOU SENT ME 2 QUESTION MARKS

All of a sudden it was clear. He was responding to uncertainty from my end. But I had not sent 2 question marks. I had sent 2 thumbs up emojis, universally understood in our part of the world as "ALL GOOD".

Somewhere in the mobile network/smart phone universe my "ALL GOOD" had changed to "HUH?"

It was a moment when both of us could have acted on our frustration and sent messages back and forth that made the situation muddier and inserting little needles of damage into our otherwise excellent comms.

I often say that friction, tension or conflict, however slight, are an indication that there are different perspectives at play. Sometimes it also means blind spots are being created. If you become aware of of tension, friction or conflict pause and notice how you might react - I was on the verge of slightly crisp and sarcastic response to his txt. Switch on your curiosity and see if you can understand where the other person is coming from. Curiosity will create clarity.

And beware the emoji - regardless of what you meant, who knows what comes out the other side.

The single biggest problem with communication is the illusion that it has taken place
— George Bernard Shaw

Staying Fresh

Do you ever get into a groove? Not the helpful sort that's characterised by flow and productivity, but the sort where you feel you are getting stale. Depending on how deep and long it is you might even call it a rut. I reckon it's part of human nature to experience these times. Most people I speak to have experienced it at least once. Maybe it's a product of our search for certainty.

We are wired to manage our environment in a way that creates some certainty and predictability. Depending on personality and background, some people like more certainty than others. Some of us follow very precise and ordered sequences for almost everything we do. Going back to the same coffee shop, talking to the same people and driving the same way to work are all examples. Others will seek greater variety, sometimes going to extremes. But even then there are ways they create certainty. In the high risk sport of wing suit proximity flying for example, people spend huge amounts of time planning until they are certain enough of the outcome to make the jump. Despite appearances, they don't have a death wish.

Part of life is finding your personal balance between variety and certainty. Enough variety that you don't fall into a rut. Enough certainty that you feel comfortable.

Every year I intentionally do at least one thing that I have never done before. It keeps me fresh. I search for a challenge that will push back some boundaries and expose me to new skills. The experience should induce a bit of fear I reckon - something that puts me in a position of being a beginner with a lot to learn. For me a tandem skydive, or bungy jump would not meet the criteria. While both would be scary and definitely get me out of my comfort zone, neither requires me to learn. In both situations I'm dependant on an expert. 

This year's challenge is a stand-up comedy course that ends with a 5 minute stand-up performance to a live audience. I'm getting sweaty palms just writing about it. Some people don't believe me when I say that, after all I speak for a living, and sometimes it's humorous. But comedy is different I reckon. There's something very exposed about being on stage specifically to make people laugh. And there's nowhere to hide if it doesn't work. Humour is a pretty personal thing as well. What makes me laugh might not make you laugh. It could be a long 5 minutes!  

I recommend this kind of personal stretch at least once a year for anyone. 

  • It keeps you fresh.
  • It's great for brain health.
  • You become more aware of yourself, and sometimes find strength and resources you didn't know you had.
  • You'll probably have some fun.

I think it's especially important for leaders.

  • It reminds you what it's like to be lead, especially if the leader is asking you to stretch yourself.
  • It reminds you that you don't know everything.
  • It awakens creativity and insight that are impossible to access from the rut.
  • It makes you more aware of what it takes to create an environment where people are willing to follow.

What will you do to challenge yourself this year?

If you want to join me at the school of comedy details are here. https://www.schoolofcomedy.com.au/stand-up/

If you want some other ideas here's my article on the same subject from last year.

http://www.mikehouse.com.au/blog/2016/3/4/ixs8lzp8gpzkwgx13lilo5w4u9vej9

Rude = Expensive

I looked across the track at the small collection of gear I had packed for this advanced survival exercise. It was nearly dark and I was being patted down to ensure I had nothing other than a pocket sized survival kit on me. I glanced nervously at my eight companions as our gear was thrown into the back of a vehicle. We were handed an envelope and our instructors drove into the gathering darkness, leaving us alone. We opened the envelope and read our instructions, "You are somewhere on one of your 3 maps ... ".

In hindsight the next three days were characterised by hasty decisions and poor communication as we struggled to come to terms with our circumstances. We also lashed out at each other - verbal sparring as we vented frustration about our external circumstances on each other.

Over the 20 years I worked as a survival instructor it never ceased to amaze me how easily individuals and groups could be made to feel they were at threat. In that state, people are more reactive than normal and results definitely suffer. It's amazing how rarely people pause to consider the best course of action.

In the modern work context a sense of threat is not unusual either. Most workplaces experience some level of uncertainty. Mostly it's from circumstances beyond our direct control. One possible reaction is rudeness to the people around us. I can certainly think of more than one occasion when my conduct was not as good as it could have been.

Rudeness in itself is enough to make people feel at threat. It damages psychological safety (How safe people feel). And it doesn't have to be extreme (or deliberate) to have an impact.

  • Raised voices
  • Harsh words
  • Intimidating body language
  • Slammed doors
  • Banter and sarcasm
  • Side conversations and excluding people
  • Disregard for people's time
  • Sending emails, taking calls, checking watches while you should be listening to someone
  • Not following through on things you said you would do

Over the last two decades, Christine Porath and colleagues have researched rudeness in the workplace. They clearly identify many impacts on individuals, teams and bottom line. A recent article in HBR summarises their findings and others in the field. If you want the detail you can find it at hbr.org/2017/01/how-rudeness-stops-people-from-working-together

How we treat each other is largely a choice. We can choose to be civil, even in the most demanding environments. It's one of the few things that we have direct control over which has a massive and positive impact on our team environment. It's an easy way to directly impact cohesion, trust, productivity and engagement. It also takes effort and attention.

All of us have moments where we crack or fray and resort to rudeness out of frustration. Perfect politeness is not the goal. But in situations when we accept rudeness from ourselves and others it gets worse, not better. Increasing levels of incivility become the norm of 'how things are done around here'. Looking at Porath's research, it's way too expensive on almost every measure to allow that. And it's on the rise.

Reflect on how you, your team and your business conduct themselves when some of these common stressors occur:

  • Giving or receiving feedback about performance
  • A new deadline, or urgent of piece of work
  • A customer complaint
  • The photocopier crapping out in the middle of an urgent print run
  • An interruption when you are in the flow of work
  • New (and probably onerous) requirements from an external regulator, customer or market
  • A long day to meet a deadline
  • Scope creep
  • A financial loss
  • Personal pressures from outside work like a puking kid, unexpected bill, or relationship problems
  • Something not going to plan

Here are four things you can do to influence how cohesive and effective your team is. A single individual can influence others by paying attention to these things. It's even more effective when whole teams (or organisations) decide to remove rudeness from their environment.

  1.  Aim - to treat each other well in spite of the pressures you face. Work on respect and integrity. Even when there are hard messages to deliver or receive, do it politely.  
  2. Recognise - the kinds of situations that tend to push your personal buttons. What about the team? Start spotting rudeness and noticing its impact. Also recognise that different people have different levels of skill around rudeness. It's much easier to avoid if you have had lots of examples through life of people who handle adversity without getting rude. 
  3. Clarify - the kinds of behaviour that you want to see, and the ones to avoid. Also the situations that may trigger rudeness. Be as specific as you can. Discuss it politely away from heated moments. Talk about what you will do when you see, experience or perpetrate rudeness. Discuss how you might raise the bar and hold each other to account. Explore where the line is between healthy banter and rudeness for your team. When people do something you consider rude, give a clear example of both the behaviour and its impact on you.
  4. Apologise - when you notice something you did or said had a negative impact on others. Do it whenever you know you have crossed the line, however small the crossing might be. Accept other people's apologies with grace. Remember it is unlikely to be perfect, cut each other some slack.

 

 

4 tips for leaders under pressure

I'm kicking my year off with a bang! Next week I'm working with a diverse group of forty leaders. Together they represent State Primary Schools, Oil and Gas, Health, Environmental Services, Not-For-Profits, Human Services. There's a mix of people who founded and own their business, and others who are entrusted to lead it. Some are large, publicly listed companies and some are small. 

Together we'll be looking at Leadership Under Pressure! Regardless of sector or size, leaders are facing unprecedented levels of pressure and change. Leaders are dynamic people with a passion for getting great results. Sometimes that has an impact on their own wellbeing. Here are four tips for leaders under pressure.

Breathe - It's easy to get caught up in the rapid fire transitions between all the meetings, roles and responsibilities of the modern leader. We are not well adapted to that, but it's not an option to stop either. It all has an impact - adding stress hormones to our bodies, reducing sleep, gaining weight etc. Slow rhythmic breathing sends a clear signal to your body to switch off the stress response. Unless you are a well practiced monk, it's unlikely that you'll get through a whole day focussed on how you are breathing, so just focus on the transitions. As you are going from one thing to another pause and take 3 long slow rhythmic breaths. It will help shed the stress of what you just did and focus more effectively for your next leadership challenge. It's quick, easy and effective.

Nature - There's piles of research showing that even small amounts of time in nature rejuvenate us in all kinds of ways. Creativity, problem solving and mental clarity all improve, as do wellbeing and resilience. There's lots of other benefits too. See if you can get a small slice of nature every day. Lunch in a park, walk, meet by the riverside, sit under a tree (also a great place for a meeting) watch a flock of birds.

Clarity - A leaders role can sometimes feel like an endless repeat of the same messages. That's a good thing. Investing time making sure people understand vision, direction and expectations is rarely wasted. It's easy to get caught up in endless frenetic doing which can result in a lack of clarity. In turn that breeds confusion and inefficiency. I see so many teams doing work over because of lack of clarity. It sucks energy, motivation and resources. Make it a priority to build clarity. Even if it takes you away from your immediate task list, the result will be more progress in the long run.

Progress - For many of the things we work on, it's hard to feel a sense of progress. Take time each day to acknowledge the achievements of the team. Creating a sense of progress is a great way to inject energy and maintain motivation.

I'd love to hear from you about what sustains you under pressure.

Wishing you a 2017 filled with great leadership moments!