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Posts Tagged ‘being human’

Don’t talk about morality at work

April 17th, 2010 No comments

Silenced

Silenced

Research** has found that managers often recognise they are making a moral decision at work, and they draw on their own moral standards to make those decisions. BUT THEY DON’T ADMIT IT! When asked to explain their reasoning, they will explain their reasoning in purely rational terms.

Bird and Waters, who carried out the research, refer to this as the ‘moral muteness of managers’.

To me this is an example of not being fully present, of not fully showing up for work. And organisations and individuals both contribute to this happening. Organisational cultures give people particular resources with which to explain their actions – complying with rules and regulations, or doing what we’ve always done, or doing what the boss would want can be the ‘usual’ or expected explanations that are offered for decisions or actions. And as individuals, we can also choose not to disclose the full reasoning for our actions or decisions – for fear of criticism, or because we don’t want to spend the time in debate, or just because we don’t want to stick out and appear different.

The problem is that as a result we shrink a little bit each time we do this. If we don’t bring our moral selves to work with us, then work becomes a place where we can’t develop as moral people. The same happens if we don’t bring our emotional needs, our needs to be physically healthy, or our needs to learn to work with us – work has much less potential to be a place where we can express emotion, be healthy and learn.

I am trying to ‘show up’ more in my work. My focus is on being more transparent about my reasoning (explaining not just what I think, but why), being more curious about what other people think (so I may learn something, and may change my own opinion), closing the gap between what I think and what I say, and speaking up when I am unhappy or have a different view. I’m not finding it easy, but I’m going to keep trying. I’m already a good listener; now I am choosing to speak as well, rather than remain mute.

* The photograph at the top is from Flickr.com, reproduced under a Creative Commons Licence.

** In interviews with 60 managers, Bird and Waters found nearly 300 examples where managers had dealt with moral issues at work, but in only 12 per cent of those examples was there any public discussion of the moral issues. F B Bird and J A Waters, ‘The moral muteness of managers’, California Management Review, Fall 1989: 32, 1, pp. 73-88. Hat tip to Nancy White, who refers to the study in her book Dialogue at Work.

The power of less

March 1st, 2010 No comments

less is more

The power of less

It has been quite a while since I posted here. I’ve been feeling a bit like I backed myself into a corner by committing to covering the whole of Fierce conversations by blogging about it – it’s felt more like a chore that I haven’t wanted to come back to.

And I realised that the commitment I made was only to myself, and I could relieve myself of the commitment any time I wanted! So that’s what I’m now doing.

Reading The Power of Less by Leo Babuta recently has helped me to see where I am over-extending myself by making too many commitments, and getting less done as a result. Leo is the creator of the Zen Habits blog, one of the most popular blogs on the web. And in the book he shows how to focus on exactly what you want, and then make sure that you get it.

What I took away from reading the book

This is not a book about getting more done in the same fixed amount of time. I probably can’t be dramatically more efficient than I already am. The message of this book is to do fewer things and do them better.

I feel overwhelmed by the sheer number of things on my to do list. I subscribe to blogs that I never read. I receive e-mail newsletters that go straight into my ‘Reading’ folder but never get read. And I haven’t seen the bottom of my in-tray since…I can’t remember when. And this makes me feel stressed and inadequate for not doing what I ‘should’ be doing.

Any of this sound familiar?

The message from this book is not that I will suddenly be able to process all this information and complete all my tasks, by following some simple rules. The message is that I should reduce the amount of information I am trying to process, and identify the tasks that will really help me to move in the direction I want to go, and focus on those.

Make fewer commitments. Focus on seeing them through. Place limits on yourself to help to focus.

But for me this is easier said than done. I find it relatively easy to identify what really matters. I find it much harder to focus on that and give up the rest. That means giving up some information that ‘might be useful one day’. And it means accepting that there are some tasks that I won’t complete, even though ‘it would be nice to do them’. I have to give up something I want in order to get what I really want – less stress, a more achievable ‘To Do’ list, more order and less ‘stuff’ to manage.

That means making choices and deciding not to have some things.

Forming a new habit

One of the main things that Leo recommends is to form new, productive habits. He has clear advice about the best way to do this:

  • start only one new habit at a time: this is one way of placing a limitation on yourself to help yourself to focus. One new habit that sticks is worth any number of new habits that fade;
  • choose an easy goal: this is motivating, and builds up early experience of success;
  • choose something measurable: it should be obvious to you whether you have done it or not on any particular day;
  • be consistent: do it at the same time every day;
  • report daily: make yourself accountable by telling other people daily that you have acted on your new habit; and
  • keep a positive attitude: expect setbacks now and then, note them and move on. Get back on track.

My new habit

My new habit is to get my e-mail inbox down to zero at least once a day. I’m going to focus on that for a month, by which time it will hopefully become a new habit.

This should be achievable – I spent a couple of hours the first time getting my inbox down to zero, but if I do it daily it will be easier and quicker in future. I am being more ruthless about some e-mails that I just don’t need to read. I have already unsubscribed to some regular e-mails to reduce the number of e-mails coming in. And I’ve set up some new rules in Gmail to automatically archive routine e-mails so I don’t need to read them (like e-mails from Amazon telling me that my orders have shipped – if I need to check up on an order I can always do it online).

I have publicly committed to doing this and am posting daily on Twitter and e-mailing a friend who has agreed to hold me to account (and I’m also blogging about it here, and will blog again in a month’s time to say how I’ve got on).

I’m not quite being as consistent about when I do this every day as Leo would recommend. But I am saying that if I haven’t done it by 7pm, that is when I will get to inbox zero.

Summary

This is quite a short book – 170 pages – and is an easy read. It is packed with ideas for new habits to form and straight-forward productivity principles. Some of the ones I would like to try include:

  • Identifying your three Most Important Tasks (MITs) each morning. At leasat one of these should be related to your main goal or a major project that you are working on, and should move you forward on those. And you should act on your MITs early in the day before anything else.
  • Single-task, not multi-task. Really focus on one task at a time – turn off your e-mail and mobile phone, don’t internet surf or ‘just look something up’. Notice when you are being distracted and just return to the one task in hand until it is complete.
  • Check e-mail just twice a day.
  • Reduce the number of commitments you take on, and say ‘no’ more often.
  • De-clutter and then let less physical ‘stuff’ into your life.

These would all be good things to do, and I am doing little bits of them here and there. But I am trying to stay true to the message of the book, and my only new commitment right now is to empty that e-mail inbox once a day for the next month. Then I’ll pick one of the other goals I’d like to achieve, and work on that.

Wish me luck!

* The photograph at the top is from Flickr.com, reproduced under a Creative Commons Licence.

Why are ‘fierce conversations’ good for you?

December 28th, 2009 No comments

a fierce bald eagle in defensive mode

a fierce bald eagle in defensive mode

My stand-out book of the year for 2009 is Fierce Conversations by Susan Scott. This book was recommended to me this autumn by five different people who heard about my interest in conversation for change, so it arrived at just the right time for me.

The book is about how to have ‘real’ conversations about the things that really matter, with the people that really matter. While the book contains a lot of practical techniques and exercises to try, it is more than a set of top tips – the core of the book is about helping you decide the kind of person you want to be when in conversation. Do you want to be someone who plays safe and keeps every conversation light, or do you want to take the risk of being seen for who you are, and perhaps being changed?

The book is also packed with nice one-liners and quotes that help to keep the main messages memorable.

I’ll be writing a series of posts summarising some of the key ideas in the book, mainly to help me make sense of them for myself, by putting them into my own words. But I’ve also been trying to act on what I have read, so I may well reflect on that too.

So, what is a ‘fierce conversation’, and why would you want to have one? The best place to start is with the book’s Introduction: the idea of fierce.

Why are ‘fierce conversations’ good for you?

What is a fierce conversation?

‘Fierce’ can sound threatening, cruel or scary. But Scott intends it in a different way – for her ‘fierce’ means passionate, intense, robust, strong, unbridled and untamed.

In its simplest form, a fierce conversation is one in which we come out from behind ourselves into the conversation and make it real.

‘Fierce’ doesn’t quite do it for me – I can’t shake the feeling of aggression or threat that goes with that word. So I tend to talk instead about ‘powerful conversations’ or ‘effective conversations’, or just ‘conversations for change’. Not quite as passionate as Scott’s phrase, but then that may say something about me 😉

What are conversations like when they are not ‘fierce’?

Scott adapts a quotation from Ernest Hemingway to argue that “our lives succeed or fail gradually, then suddenly, one conversation at a time.” She paints a picture of avoided or unsuccessful conversations, where nothing real is said, relationships fail, tough challenges are avoided and no one learns anything.

If the conversation stops, all of the possibilities for the relationship become smaller and all of the possibilities for the individuals in the relationship become smaller, until one day we overhear ourselves in midsentence, making ourselves smaller in every encounter, behaving as if we are just the space around our shoes, engaged in yet another three-minute conversation so empty of meaning it crackles…

Many work teams as well as couples have a list of undiscussables, issues they avoid broaching at all costs in order to preserve a modicum of peace, to preserve the relationship. In reality, the relationship steadily deteriorates for lack of the very conversations they so carefully avoid. It’s difficult to raise the level if the slide has lasted over a period of years, and that’s what keeps many of us stuck.

Ouch. Not easy to read, particularly if it reminds you – as it does me – of conversations you are having or failing to have. In Scott’s view, each conversation has the potential to enhance our relationships, provoke learning, tackle touch challenges and interrogate reality. No single conversation can be guaranteed to do these things, but every conversation can.

Scott observes at various points in the book that “when the conversation is real, the change occurs before the conversation has even ended.” That was certainly true of the powerful conversation I had earlier this year.

At home and at work

Scott considered writing separate books about fierce conversations in our personal lives and in our work lives, but decided that would have been a mistake. In her view (and in mine too) “who we are is who we are, all over the place”. We can’t separate ourselves off successfully and have different conversations at home to the ones we have at work, not in the long run.

Scott’s observation has been that people who have problems at work have similar problems at home. For me, this is also a matter of choice and authenticity (about which Scott has more to say in a later chapter). Personally I want to be the same person at home as I am at work – to talk and behave in recognisably the same way, as much as I can (recognising I am only human and won’t always achieve what I set out to achieve). If I want to tell the truth, tackle a persistent problem or have a better relationship with my partner or my children, then I can approach it in the same way as I would at work. The techniques are the same, and so are the objectives:

  • interrogating reality
  • provoking learning
  • tackling touch challenges
  • enriching relationships

And she quotes the poet David Whyte:

The conversation is the relationship.

Every conversation we have has the potential to either enhance our relationship with the people we are speaking to, or fail to do so. We have a choice about how we want to use our conversations, and how much attention we want to pay to them.

Getting started

Scott is very pragmatic in her advice to the reader; most chapters have one or more assignments to try out. She advises us to be patient with ourselves, as change takes time. We can start one conversation with a time, beginning with the next person who stands in front of us. Her advice at the end of the introduction is to:

Begin to overhear yourself avoiding the topic, changing the subject, telling little lies (and big ones), being imprecise in your language, being uninteresting even to yourself. And at least once today, when something inside you says, “This is an opportunity to be fierce,” stop for a moment, take a deep breath, then come out from behind yourself into the conversation and make it real…

When you come out from behind yourself into the conversation and make it real, whatever happens from there will happen. It could go well or it could be a little bumpy, but at least you will have taken the plunge. You will have said at least one real thing today, one thing that was real for you.

So, are you interested in giving it a try?

* The photograph at the top is from Flickr.com, reproduced under a Creative Commons Licence.

Seeing the world in a more useful way

December 20th, 2009 No comments

In my last post I wrote about how we don’t see the world they way it is, we see the world the way we are (since writing that, I’ve learned that this is a saying that comes from the Judaic Talmud). In the entertaining and thought-provoking video below, Beau Lotto demonstrates this same point using some eye-popping optical illusions.

Seeing the world in a more useul way

Lotto shows that what we see has no inherent meaning of its own – the same visual stimulus on our retina could come from an infinite number of real-world situations. What our brains do is create meaning and significance by making some assumptions about what it is we are seeing – assumptions based on what has been useful to us to assume in the past.

So evolution explains how we see the world now – those of our ancestors that survived to pass on their genes probably made assumptions about the world that were more useful than the assumptions made by their brothers and sisters who didn’t survive. They spotted predators hiding in the bushes, for example, and reacted more quickly.

The conclusion that Lotto draws in the video clip is that our brains didn’t evolve to see the world the way it is – we can’t do that. Our brains evolved to see the world in the way it was useful to see the world in the past.

Ted Talk: Beau Lotto: optical illusions show how we see

But Lotto also makes a wider point. He argues that what is true of visual information is true of all information in general. There is no inherent meaing in information, it’s what we do with that information that matters – we make sense of it.

Making more useful assumptions

We can see this process at work in the way that we make judgements about other people, including complete strangers. We size people up by the way that they dress, the colour of their skin, how they walk and talk, and so on. We do this in ways that we are not even aware of. So within 20 seconds of meeting someone for the first time, we have decided whether we like them or not.

When we do this we are making assumptions about people based on limited information – assumptions which may have been helpful in the past. But this kind of assumption is also often wrong.

Rather than try to fight our natural tendency to make assumptions – which is nearly impossible to do – what we can do is be aware of the assumptions we are making. Notice how we are responding to other people, and ask ourselves on what information our assumptions are based. That then gives us an opportunity to seek out new information that might change our point of view – we can be more open-minded, and more generous towards the other person than we might otherwise have been.

This is very relevant when we are working with people in conflict. They will be telling themselves stories that make sense of their situations, based on assumptions that may well have helped them in the past. But there may be a more useful set of assumptions they could make instead – more useful in terms of meeting their needs. And we can help them to test out and choose to alter their assumptions.

This applies to mediators too. We need to be aware of the judgements we are making about the parties in the conflict, catch ourselves making those assumptions, and give ourselves the opportunity to change our minds as we find out more, and be open to that possibility.

What can you learn from a glass of water?

December 6th, 2009 No comments

Glass of water

I attended a corporate awayday on Thursday, as a participant rather than a facilitator (for a change). It was a pretty good day, made better by the fact that the agenda was not too packed (only 4 main sessions), and time was allowed for networking and chatting. Not enough time for my taste, but then my preference now is for the Open Space model, which essentially turns an awayday into one long coffee break.

Guy Browning of Smokehouse led an entertaining session on creativity. He told some good stories, and encouraged us to try out some good techniques, one of which struck a particular chord with me.

What can you learn from a glass of water?

Standing at the front of the room in front of the 60 or so participants, Guy held up a clear glass of water. He asked us each to take the viewpoint of the glass of water, and write down what the glass of water was seeing, feeling and experiencing at that moment.

My thoughts were:

  • seeing: a room of people, a hand very close, windows and greyness outside
  • feeling: anticipation, fear, curiosity
  • experiencing: feeling new-born, just been taken to a new vantage point

Guy made the point that the exercise allowed us to project ourselves onto something as plain and unfeeling as a glass of water. And what we had each come up with told us something about ourselves – what we thought the glass of water was seeing, feeling and experiencing was connected with how we ourselves were at that moment. “You don’t see the world as it is, you see it as you are”. And I can see some links between my thoughts about the glass of water, and how I was feeling at that time.

This is interesting to me for two reasons. The first is because these kinds of projective techniques can be useful to facilitators, coaches or mediators. Rather than asking people directly to describe how they are feeling or what they are experiencing (when they may censor themselves, or say what they think you want to hear), you can use a technique like this to help people find other ways to reveal how they are – drawing, choosing a postcard from set of 50 postcards, taking an imaginary walk and describing what they can see, and so on.

The other reason this is of interest to me is that it is connected with bringing about change. We may be acutely aware of what we are unhappy with in the external world – what we would like to change. But we are often unaware of how our own actions are bringing about the outcomes we so dislike. For example, I blogged recently about how our desire for security and control may actually make us less secure.

If you’re not part of the problem…

Adam Kahane touches on this in his book on mediation Solving Tough Problems. He takes issue with the slogan “If you’re not part of the solution you’re part of the problem”. Kahane says that this slogan

actually misses the most important point about effecting change. The slogan should be…”If you’re not part of the problem, you can’t be part of the solution”. If we cannot see how what we are doing or not doing is contributing to things being the way that they are, then logically we have no basis at all, zero leverage, for changing the way things are – except from the oustside, by persuasion or force.

This is a really important point for anyone who wants to bring about change. It would be easy to see ‘being part of the problem’ as itself a problem for a change-maker, but Kahane encourages us to see it as an opportunity. Being inside a problem makes it easier, not harder, for us to have empathy with the other ‘problem people’ – they are more similar to us than we may care to admit. And it gives us an insight into how they (we) are creating the problem, how difficult it is to make personal change, and what we can do to make it easier for others to change – often by taking the first steps ourselves.

Security is a harmful illusion

November 22nd, 2009 No comments

Security is not just an illusion, but it’s a harmful one, according to Eve Ensler in the video below. This way of seeing the world has links to the way in which good improvisers make themselves vulnerable on stage.

Security is a harmful illusion

Eve Ensler makes her argument at the very beginning and very end of the video, and in the middle tells some stories to illustrate what she is saying. At one point she says:

we all die, we all get old, we all get sick, people leave us…and that’s actually the good news! Unless your whole life is about being secure

If what you want is to be absolutely secure, anything that might affect you or change you becomes a threat. So your time becomes focused on protecting yourself. You insulate yourself and isolate yourself – the only way I can absolutely prevent my relationship with you going bad is not to have a relationship with you in the first place.

And Eve Ensler points out that this just makes us less secure, as we are less connected to people and the world around us. So she argues that we should actually make ourselves less secure – we should “hunger for connection not power.”

Be changed

One of the basic guidelines that improvisers follow is to allow themselves to be changed – they allow themselves to respond to what is happening around them on the stage. This is not as easy or as obvious as it sounds.

Keith Johnstone is one of the founding fathers of improvisation. He recently returned to the UK to run an improvisation workshop, which I was lucky enough to attend. Keith explained in the workshop how as a theatre director in the 1950s he was puzzled by the way in which some plays had a lot of ‘stuff’ happening – war, death, torture – but he was left feeling unmoved. And in other plays not much ‘happened’, but he found himself emotionally affected by what he saw on stage.

Keith realised that the key difference between these types of plays was whether one character was changed by another. This is what ‘action’ is and it is what drives a story. So improvisers need to actually care about what is happening on stage, engage with it and be changed. It is easier to try to drive a scene in the direction you want it to go – towards the funny conclusion you can see in your mind’s eye for example – than to surrender to someone else’s idea and go with that. That involves being vulnerable and giving up some control. But scenes where two improvisers are fighting for control, with neither being changed by the other, are dead scenes for an audience – there is no development and no action. What audiences love to see is the improvisers taking risks, going with an idea and exploring it, committing to it.

So if our lives are going to have a story, to have some action, to go somewhere, then we need to allow ourselves to be changed by others. That is how we can make a real connection with someone else. And if Eve Ensler is right, this is more likely to give us what we need and want than pursuing the illusion of security.

The ripple effect

October 30th, 2009 No comments

Poncho wearer jumping for joy

The joy of ponchos...

As facilitators, trainers or coaches, we sometimes know that we have made a positive difference to the people we have worked with. But we can also have positive effects which we have no idea about – what we do can have a ripple effect that can continue long after we have packed up and gone home.

At September’s European conference of the International Association of Facilitators I attended a session run by a lively fellow facilitator from Spain, Sonsoles Morales in the main lecture theatre. During her session, she shared a very effective ice-breaker that had a much bigger effect on me than I had expected.

I’m putting on my poncho…

Sonsoles invited the 25 or so people in her workshop to take a piece of flipchart paper each, and a marker pen. She then asked us to fold the flipchart paper in half, and position the paper so that the fold was at the top. Using the marker pen, we each then wrote something on the front of the flipchart that we felt best described ourselves. Some people chose to write keywords, some wrote sentences. I chose to draw some pictures that showed different parts of my life.

We then tore a half-moon-shaped hole in the top folded edge of the flipchart, creating our very own personalised ponchos.

My poncho from the front

My poncho from the front

Sonsoles led us outside into a garden area in bright autumn sunshine. I put on my poncho for the first time, wearing what I had written at the front, and wondered a little nervously what would come next.

What do you see?

Unexpectedly, Sonsoles asked us not to focus on what other people had written on the front of their ponchos, but instead to walk around the group, find people we did not know, and just look at them as people. We were then to walk behind them, and write briefly on the back of the poncho something that had struck us about the person we had just looked at – their physical appearance, or how they seemed to us as people. Sonsoles encouraged us to seek out people who did not have much written on their backs, and write a few words.

As the exercise went on, I became very curious about what other people had written on my back. I was also aware that I didn’t really know who in the group had written on my poncho – most of my attention was on the people I was looking at, rather than the people who were looking at me.

Once everyone had some comments on their ponchos, Sonsoles led us back inside. Only then were we allowed to remove the ponchos and turn them over to reveal what the strangers we had met thought about us.

Our survey said…

My poncho from the back

My poncho from the back

The words written on my back were very simple and straightforward, including:

  • Fun
  • Nice Beard
  • Funny
  • Library & books
  • Beautiful eyes
  • Love your drawing

I was surprised to find tears coming to my eyes as I read the words on the back of my poncho. A group of complete strangers had chosen to say nice things to me – someone they barely knew. I realised how rare it is for us to give or receive heartfelt, simple compliments to people we do not already know well.

For myself, I know it is much easier and safer for me to keep barriers up in a social situation where I am among people I don’t know, to manage my own anxiety. Opening up and being direct makes me feel uncomfortable and vulnerable – it raises the risk of being ignored, misunderstood or rejected. I can avoid that risk by playing safe, and not giving away what I am thinking or feeling. But having experienced how it feels to receive a heartfelt compliment has made me more willing to take the first step of paying those compliments to others.

The ripple effect

So what effect has this had on me?

One immediate effect was that I decided to give some positive feedback to a fellow facilitator at the conference who had deeply impressed me the previous day. And I have blogged about the conversation this led to, which has stayed with me since.

A second effect was a more general one – to make more of an effort to tell people what I like about them – strangers I talk to, friends and family, shop assistants, anyone I come into contact with. This effect has faded a bit since the conference – I’ve slipped back to my self-protecting old ways – but writing about it today has brought it back to the front of my mind.

Using this activity as an icebreaker

The effect the activity had on me was not one that Sonsoles could have predicted, and it will not have this effect on everyone. Nevertheless, one reason the activity works is because it does encourage people to be direct with each other in a way that builds trust. It would work particularly well for a group that does not know each other very well to start with, and could accelerate the process of getting to know each other.

Sonsoles also added a further step to the exercise, which I left out of the description above. After writing on each other’s backs, we walked around as a group again, but this time looking at the front of our colleagues’ ponchos for connections and similarities. Some of the other comments on the back of my poncho – about having two sons, and having a link to Scotland – were the result of similarities I found to other members of the group. This makes use of what is on the front of the poncho, and helps build connections between individuals in the group.