The way we act and react in situations today, is often the result of years of hardwiring.
This week, a client related how powerless she felt to voice her opinion to senior peers, even though she was the project lead and had to offer her advice and guidance.
She didn’t want to speak her mind because she didn’t want to seem disrespectful. As a child, her mother told her she should hold her superiors in high regard.
If you have a strong memory of an experience, you may have hardwired a response in your brain.
My client was hardwired ‘not to challenge’ and to ‘act respectfully around her superiors’, albeit that she disagreed with them and knew her advice was sound.
In instances like this, our amygdala is getting in our way. The amygdala is our fight, flight or freeze mechanism. I like to call it our ‘caveman brain’. Anytime the caveman sees danger, it will sound the alarm in your brain, to make sure that you defend yourself; whether that means saying nothing (flight or freeze) or becoming defensive (fight).
The caveman chooses to protect us in situations that seem familiar or that it considers risky. The problem with the amygdala, is that it often bases its reaction on past experiences that are not relevant to our current situation.
My client was confusing hierarchy with the nature of her role and whilst she has no reason to fear her peers, her caveman (the amygdala) was ‘forcing her’ to always react in the same way she always does i.e. acting respectfully and avoiding any form of possible conflict.
Often just acknowledging the ‘caveman’s presence’ is enough. It’s like saying, ‘Hey there caveman. I hear you, but this is not a scary situation. I can handle this!’
Next time, she will remember to breathe and to act in the way that she intended i.e. being respectful whilst challenging her peers, offering sound advice and hammering out the best solution for their mutual client.
Becoming aware of where your emotions, thoughts and feelings stem from and challenging them, is a good start to understanding why you may act and react the way that you do.
Throughout your life, you may have been fooled to believe that your strengths are what you are good at and your weaknesses are what you are bad at.
But, that’s not entirely true!
I’m sure, that if you were to list your strengths right now, that there would be a number of activities on that list that you don’t even enjoy doing. If you’re good at something, that’s performance; it’s not a strength, and as such you are the least qualified to identify your strengths, because you’re not the best judge of your own performance.
So let’s look at this slightly differently.
Think of yourself as a Superhero. Your strengths are activities that strengthen you, and your weaknesses are activities that weaken you, much like kryptonite. If you define a strength as an activity that strengthens you, then the person most qualified to identify your strengths is you.
Those tasks that you put off and don’t like doing – those are your weaknesses – even if you are GOOD at doing them.
I challenge you to keep a log this coming week. On one side of your log, write LOVED it and the other side write LOATHED it. Each time you look forward to carrying out an activity and it gives you pleasure and energy, log it under LOVED it; these are tasks that strengthen you. Every time you procrastinate about a task, delegate it to someone else or feel exhausted when you’ve done it, log this under LOATHED it; these are tasks that weaken you.
You may find yourself becoming more aware of what your true strengths are, and you can start really enjoying what you do and adding lots more value at work!
I learned late in my career that working long hours did not equate to the importance of my job and the success of my career.
I learned to ask ‘how urgent’ someone’s request was, and that asking to push out a deadline was not detrimental to my career. In fact, deadlines were often quite negotiable, and I could deliver higher quality work with less stress and, as I had more time to think, I could also be more creative.
So often I had delivered within the period of time that constituted ‘urgent’ for me, only to receive an ‘out of office message’ from the person I was delivering to. I had never asked when the actual deadline was.
In fact, being too available made my colleagues believe that I couldn’t be that busy, as I always had time to deliver within short timelines. My colleagues began to disrespect my time and workload because they had no idea as to what I was working on and if it had a much higher priority than what they were asking me to do.
But why change? My rational brain was telling me that everything I had done to date, had brought me the success I had. I had been rewarded for my ‘bad behaviour’ with ‘well done, congratulations and thank you’ when I succeeded, or delivered a good piece of work. And, it felt fabulous!
As my career continued, I became well known for my quick turnarounds, quality work, and more and more people asked me to get involved in projects. I was busy, was making a name for myself, made promotion and I felt very successful. I had arrived!
Like many of my clients, you too may be telling yourself that your long hours are necessary, so as to hold on to your job. But how is your behaviour serving you?
Many of our behaviours are habits. We tell ourselves ‘lies’ like, ‘if I don’t get the work done now, I will be fired from my job’. We are actually worrying about future events, that may not ever happen. But, the habits that got you where you are today are not the ones that will bring you success in future.
I have challenged a number of my very busy clients to slow down, to challenge ‘urgent and hard’ deadlines, and to put themselves first, both mentally and physically. It’s been a few months and none of them have noticed any detrimental effects; instead, they report feeling less stressed and more in control as they are challenging their own beliefs and assumptions about how they work and use their time. By putting their own oxygen mask on first, they are achieving so much more.
Reflection is a brilliant way to become aware of what drives you, what and who triggers you and what your standard responses and ‘bad habits’ may be. Gibbs reflective learning cycle (Graham Gibbs, 1988) can help you on your way to self-awareness and eventually self-care. The complete model and instructions of how to use it are below.
DESCRIPTION: Provide a factual description of the situation. Do not draw any conclusions at this stage. Focus on the information that is relevant. Use questions such as: What happened? How did it happen? Where? When? Who else was there? Did someone react? How did they react? Why were you there? What did you do? What happened at the end? This builds up the background and a better understanding of the situation.
FEELINGS: Describe any emotion that you felt during the situation. Use questions such as: ‘What did you feel before the situation? What did you feel during the situation? And, after it was all over? What do you feel about the incident now?
EVALUATION: Objectively evaluate the situation. What went well? What did not? What were the negatives and the positives of the situation? How did you and the others contribute to it (positively or negatively).
ANALYSIS: Think about what might have hindered or helped the situation.
CONCLUSION: Consider what you learned from the situation. What else could you have done in that situation? What skills will help you cope with it better next time? How differently would you react if you faced a similar situation in future? If the outcomes were negative, how could you do things differently next time? If the outcomes were positive, how could you replicate what you did?
ACTION PLAN: In this part of the cycle, you are putting together a plan of action i.e. how to effectively improve the situation next time. Is there any training, skill, or habit that you need to learn or unlearn, to equip you with handling the situation better if it occurs again? Work out the areas that need work and action them.
If you ever feel nervous about presenting and/or have the tendency to ruminate, and beat yourself up with negative, inner-chatter; ‘I can’t do this, I’m going to fail, why did I do that?, new research indicates that a simple technique called ‘distanced self-talk’ may help. Instead of using the first person “I” in your internal monologue, you can use your name, the second-person generic “you,” the third-person pronouns “he, she, they,” or even a “fly on the wall” perspective. Using myself as an example, ‘How will I solve this problem?, becomes, ‘How will Helen solve this problem’ or, ‘How will you solve this problem’, or, “What’s the ‘fly on the wall’ perspective on what happened?” etc.
This idea may seem simplistic, but words are consequential to our lived experience.
“Research participants who self-distanced by using non-first-person (vs. first-person) pronouns and their own name while preparing for a speech displayed less distress and engaged in less maladaptive postevent processing.”
Small shifts in the language people use to refer to themselves during introspection can influence their capacity to regulate how they think, feel, and behave under stress, reducing rumination, broadening perspective, and changing the way people perceive and evaluate their experience.
The next time you are trying to think your way through a socially or emotionally stressful situation, talk to yourself about it in the third person, and you can experience firsthand whether the technique works for you.
At this time of the year, many people will be writing about their achievements in 2020; how amidst the Corona virus pandemic they have learned to adapt and become more resilient, etc.
What 2020 has taught me, is to appreciate what I DO have, instead of worrying about the things that I DON’T have, or cannot control, and, to be kind to others and to myself.
Stephen Covey’s ‘Circle of Concern’, model from his book the 7 Habits of Highly Effective People (1989) is just as relevant today as it was then. It distinguishes between proactive people – who focus on what they can do and influence – and reactive people who focus their energy on things beyond their control.
The model is based on two circles: Our circle of concern, which will include a whole range of things like, worrying about the Corona virus pandemic, entering tier 4 and the prospect of spending Christmas alone, global warming, Brexit, the possibility of redundancies at the organisation you work for, etc. This list will depend on you, as an individual. What’s important to understand, is that there may be little you can do about many of these things, since they are outside your influence, and devoting energy on them, may be a waste of time.
Our circle of influence, will be much smaller and often depends on our influence. It includes all of the things that we can control and do something about. Knowing how far your circle of influence extends is an important aspect of personal effectiveness; like forming partnerships and alliances – you may not have any direct influence over something in your Circle of Concern, but you may know other people who do.
What I take from this model is that we should focus on the action that we can take, instead of worrying about the things that we have no control over.
This knowledge has helped me through 2020 and it has made me live in the moment e.g. using the time stood in lengthy queues to buy basic provisions to make notes about what I should include in my next leadership and management training, instead of becoming annoyed and frustrated about the length of the queue.
I have also become grateful for what I DO have, and perhaps, become kinder. I recently bought some food for a homeless person outside a large supermarket. I struck up a conversation with him, and I asked him what he wanted most at this time of year. I expected to hear that he longed for a roof over his head, but instead he said that he missed conversation the most; often feeling like the invisible man. My simple act of kindness had made his day.
This year has placed extreme pressure on businesses and many individuals have also been put through the wringer; receiving no income for months. I have heard stories of successful people seeing bailiffs at their doors, homes and cars repossessed, suicidal thoughts, alcohol and drug abuse and much, much more; yet so many people put on a brave face to the world. The say they are ‘fine’ and ‘good’ when asked how they are. My conversation with the homeless man made it clear that I shouldn’t assume what people are worrying about. When someone says they are ‘fine’, ask how they really are.
Let’s enjoy living in the moment, no matter where we are, or where we would like to be. Let’s be grateful for what we have and most importantly let’s be kind during this season of giving!
Stay safe, healthy and happy as we move quickly towards 2021.
‘If you can find a path with no obstacles, it probably doesn’t lead anywhere’, Frank A Clark
This week I facilitated an online conversation with the head of a financial services firm. 130+ participants were interested to hear how we can drive our careers through crisis. We focused the discussion on remaining with our current company, since the figures show that the job market will be even more competitive, post this pandemic, than it was before. Continue reading “Driving your career through crisis”→
For years, companies have been reticent to allow staff to WFH (work from home) because they believed the nature of their work, would make it impossible.
82 days later and the WFH exercise has been so successful that a client mentioned, this week, that their productivity has risen 25% since lockdown.
A 25% increase in productivity sets alarm bells off in my head, as people have been navigating the boundary, or lack thereof, between work and home. Issues brought to coaching include increased stress, not being able to switch off, not having enough personal time.
So whilst the exercise is proving ‘positive’ for many companies, for many people, it may have failed.
Human beings are creatures of habit. Just note how quickly we have changed our behaviour.
An early rise and 1 hour commute, is now a later rise, breakfast and an early start. That two hour commute every day, is now an additional week at the office,…every month. And, with little other entertainment e.g. meeting friends, going to the gym, or to the theatre; it’s no wonder that after only 82-days of WFH, that people are feeling frazzled.
Behaviour can change in as little as three months. People just need to be given the tools to change (in this case, broadband, computer equipment that communicates to company systems, and a place to sit comfortably and quietly). But, people also need reassurance that what they are doing, and how they are doing it, is right.
The Western world has had little to no experience dealing with change of this calibre, so it’s no surprise that we’ve given people the tools but we haven’t told them how to use them.
Self-belief is vital to success. If we gave an overweight person, food and a diet plan, but we omitted to tell them the quantities that they should eat, their weight may stay the same; in fact their weight may increase and they would become despondent.
I’ll leave you with these thoughts:
How healthy will your workforce be (mentally and physically) when Covid-19 is a thing of the past?
Have you ensured that your staff has the tools to WFH, given them instructions of how to use them and reassured them that they are on the right track?
I am happy to discuss this topic and share findings of my masters thesis (part of the MSc. Coaching and Behavioural Change, 2018), titled ‘Changing behaviour in 3-months’.
In 1972, my family immigrated from Scotland to a very divided South Africa. As a child, I had no idea what racism was and I accepted, without question, the apartheid laws which were enforced; only questioning these, when I found my voice in my late teens.
Growing up, I saw racism and injustices in South Africa; mostly subtle, like the way that privileged whites spoke to blacks, and whilst I can’t remember witnessing any physical attacks, I’m sure that they occurred.
As a privileged, white, British, woman, I understand what racism is, and that this can be fuelled by unconscious bias, but I don’t know what it feels like.
I asked some friends and colleagues what racism feels like.
I don’t know what it feels like because I’ve never been doubted or questioned due to the colour of my skin.
I don’t know what it feels like to be disregarded for job interviews, due to my surname.
I don’t know what it feels like to be turned down for roles because I don’t fit in with the rest of the team.
I don’t know what it feels like to be the only woman of colour travelling in the first class section on the train, and the only person to be asked to show her ticket.
I don’t know what it feels like, to ask directions in the street and to notice how the person steps backwards a little and holds onto their bag just a little tighter.
I don’t know what it feels like, not to have loads of role models in the media, who look like me.
I don’t know what it feels like to have to consider racism in a country, before I book my annual holiday.
I don’t know what it feels like to see how few people, who look like me, hold senior management positions.
I don’t know what it feels like.
But, just because I don’t know what it feels like, doesn’t mean that I have no responsibility to make change; no matter how small. If I were to put the shoe on the other foot, how would I like to be treated?
I can make a difference by being more aware and self-aware; understanding what reactions my actions may trigger.
I can make a difference by including content, specifically about racism, in my leadership and management training and coaching, ensuring that all future leaders understand what it feels like!
We live in a consumerist society, producing and buying what we don’t need. Our world is broken!
Today, our world is already benefiting from the effect that curbed manufacturing is having on pollution, with clear skies over China; and Venice claims that their waterways have never looked so clear.
Satellite images released by NASA show a dramatic reduction in nitrogen dioxide emissions across China. As the world’s biggest polluter, China contributes 30% of the world’s CO2 emissions annually, so the impact of this kind of drop is huge.
Perhaps by keeping humans away from their daily routines, the world can start healing itself. Let’s face it, I doubt the Stone Age ended, due to a lack of stones!
I understand that many people’s livelihood, here and around the world is under threat, and that saddens me, but it also begs the question how we can use this situation for good?
We don’t know how long this situation will last. Let’s use this time wisely, to consider what we can do to reinvent our world, our businesses and ourselves. Let’s make better choices that have a lasting and positive impact.