Tag Archives: Leadership

Tony Abbott, horses mid stream and musical chairs

23 Jan

Changing horses mid stream


I’m most interested to see what the LNP do with Prime Minister Tony Abbott come the next federal election. He’s been conspicuously absent in recent state election campaigns, presumably because nobody thinks he can do them any kind of good with his presence. So what on earth will his party do with its leader when we troop off to vote for our country’s next government?

Abbott subjected himself to some self-harm yesterday as he argued his case for the dangers involved in changing leaders during a government’s first term. Citing the epic game of musical chairs played by the ALP government during the Julia Gillard – Kevin Rudd leadership saga, Abbott expressed the opinion that it’s certain death to switch horses mid-stream. His party has the sense to know this, he believes, and so his leadership is secure. The country can go to the dogs and the less well-off can struggle and starve, but hey, I’m secure in my job, folks.

I know I’ve mixed metaphors, but I sort of like the image of chairs, music, dogs, streams and horses in the middle of them. It makes as much sense as anything else in our politics.

It’s hard to imagine that changing leaders could do the LNP government any more harm than staying with the one they’ve got. I suspect many people would be hugely relieved and congratulate them on their common sense if they took that step.

The dangers of succumbing to the idée fixe that because it was so damaging for the ALP to change leaders it will be equally damaging for the LNP, are many. They include an ignorance of the significance of context: the two situations are quite different in the broad perspective, the  perspective that is most apparent to voters. Rudd was an extremely popular leader who was to all appearances ousted unjustly and in a manner that outraged much of the electorate. Practically everyone has some grievance against Abbott, and many just hate him because he is.

There may be similarities in the in-house view, the view apparent to political tragics rather than more broadly, of party discontent with a leader who is perceived as out of touch and chaotic, and perhaps even a tad despotic, if leaks of discontent are anything to go by. There’s an enlightening piece on these matters by Paula Matthewson here.

What we see at the moment is a leader who appears increasingly weakened by strife, both endogenous and exogenous. Tony Abbott never seems less than strained. As we used to say when we lived on Bougainville Island, we have two seasons, wet and wetter and so it is with Abbott, he is strained and more strained, but I don’t believe I’ve seen the man comfortable with himself since his days in opposition when he raged across the table at the Labor government.

For mine, they should let him keep his job. The ALP needs all the help it can get, and Tony Abbott has to be one of the opposition’s best helpers.

If Abbott gave a stuff about anyone other than himself, he’d step down, citing ill -health or some other face-saving gibberish, and give his party a better chance at a second term. Otherwise, come the next election campaign they’re going to have to lock him in a cellar till it’s over, because the man mostly nauseates everyone, as far as I can tell.



Changing Behaviour is Trickier Than it Looks

15 Mar

Guest post today on change, by Stewart Hase

Key points

1. Leaders often underestimate the difficulty of changing behaviour.
2. People are naturally resistant to change for sound biological reasons.
3. Teachers, trainers, coaches and managers are mistaken in thinking that well presented logic will win hearts and minds.
4. Most change efforts fail miserably.
5. Leadership behaviour can make the difference by changing habits over time.
6. Changing behaviour takes careful planning and good techniques.Recently, I have been surprised (again) that leaders don’t understand the complexity of behaviour change. As a consequence they become frustrated when people don’t do what they have told or do what is expected.While it is true that humans have a history of adaptation to their environment, the process is relatively slow: generational rather than situational. We are hard wired to resist rapid change.

The reason for this is simple and based on biological imperatives that are several thousand years old and belong to a world where primitive drives such as hunting, gathering, procreation and survival involved high risk activities. These activities require a lot of energy and, hence, we find ways to be energy conserving. In addition, we have a finite capacity in short and working memory that limits our attention and a significant task like change is not likely to be a natural priority.

It may be unpalatable to many but the same primitive and self-interested drives still preoccupy our species: it’s just that the behaviours associated with meeting these drives are more complex compared to pre-agrarian times. Despite having modified our environment and our control over our circumstances, we have yet to throw off this tendency to preserve energy.

Energy preserving behaviour is easily seen through the phenomenon of habits. These automatic behavioural scripts mean that we do not have expend effort to rewrite behavioural scripts for similar, and even not so similar, circumstances. Humans mostly like routine. We also tend to have quite durable values, attitudes and beliefs. I am sure you can think of many ways you demonstrate this capacity daily.

Nothing wrong with doing this, we are all just practicing an ingrained drive to survive. Recognising that this is the normal human condition is important and helps explain why we are so resistant to change. Recent research shows that changing a habit takes about three months before the new habit becomes, well…..a habit!

Changing attitudes, values and beliefs (collectively known as schema) is even more tricky and beyond the scope of this blog. In short, though, the best and quickest way to change schema is to change the person’s behaviour. The easiest way to increase resistance is to challenge someone’s schema because they will automatically find arguments to support these holy cows. We often talk about winning hearts and minds. We should, in my view, think about winning hearts by changing behaviour. But more about this in another article, even though the answer is still found in effective leadership.

I have been involved in clinical psychology work for around 30 years in one way or another. Countless people I have met have been in dreadful pain with depression, anxiety, addictions and other good reasons to change their behaviour to improve their lot. Nonetheless many have resisted change and, for various and often complex reasons, decided that they would rather stay in pain rather than ‘risk’ doing things differently. As might be expected others are very motivated to try something new even though it is hard work. Pretty well everyone needed intensive help to do this.

Sometimes people do change spontaneously but often in response to a traumatic or extremely enlightening experience that accelerates learning. Mostly motivation to change is enhanced and the required skills are obtained through the resulting expenditure of effort.

So, in the face of a natural human propensity to resist change why would anyone be motivated to change when: they are relatively healthy; their habits seem to be quite functional in the absence of any personally relevant evidence to the contrary; they are not experiencing any incongruence between their attitudes and their behaviour-in other words their behaviour makes sense to them and they feel comfortable about it; and they are being sufficiently rewarded in a variety of ways to keep on doing what they do?

I think most change agents, teachers, trainers, coaches, and managers overvalue the impact of what they do and attempt largely ineffective approaches in their attempts to change other people’s behaviour. Mostly we think that logical argument, well presented reasons attached to emotional messages, policies, procedures and simply telling people will win people over. We are often surprised and then frustrated to find that what we are doing does not work.

So, changing behaviour, whether it is our own or someone else’s, needs to be planned carefully. It requires good techniques and, we need to be motivated which is often emotionally mediated. If it is another person we need to get their attention.

Leaders can get attention by: having a good relationship with the person in the first place; being prepared to have difficult conversations; providing clear description of the desired behaviour; coaching where necessary; establishing an action plan with timelines; providing support; intervening when there are difficulties; providing resources; ensuring the desired behaviour becomes part of the KPIs (or whatever performance system is used) for that person or persons); and follow-up.

Remember too that people will find change easy and others will have reasons to be resistant. Whatever the case, we need to have a clear process that creates a reason for the person to spend energy on change.

Dr Stewart Hase

Guest author Dr Stewart Hase is a registered psychologist and has a doctorate in organisational behaviour as well as a BA, Diploma of Psychology, and a Master of Arts (Hons) in psychology.

Stewart blogs at stewarthase.blogspot.com

From Knowing About to Knowing: An Example of Leadership and the Psychological Contract at Work

6 Dec

Guest post today by Dr Stewart Hase

Unhappy with definitions of learning and rather traditional, if not ancient, teacher-centric educational practices a colleague, Chris Kenyon, and I have been thinking about an alternate view since around 2000. If you’d like to read more about this please search the word ‘Heutagogy’ and all will be revealed in detail.

However, one of the more challenging ideas we have posited is differentiating between having knowledge about something and actual learning. We find out about something in a training program or at school, and it is stored away in memory: we might even be able to recall it in an examination. In neurological terms the knowledge (or skill) has little impact on other neurons at this time. But later we have an experience that brings that knowledge or skill into play and in this ‘Ah, Ah’ moment lots of neural connections are made that result in us seeing the world in a different way. This may be a slight change in perspective or it might be dramatic: a continuum of impact perhaps.

Some of you will no doubt be thinking of brain plasticity and, yes, this idea has been borrowed from neuroscience. I’ll deal with the educational and organisational implications of this idea later, after giving a personal example.I once wrote a paper on what happens in organisations when psychological contracts are violated. As the name implies, these are unwritten contracts that occur in the minds of people but they are no less important or binding than those signed in blood. When we arrive in a workplace, we observe how people treat each other and how managers treat their staff. Very quickly we develop expectations about how we will be treated and those expectations are usually consistent with our observations. This is a psychological contract. A breach of this contract can be devastating for employees and can cause problems ranging from disengagement to very complex workers’ compensation claims. Sadly, managers and leaders are often unaware of this important aspect of organisational culture. In short, when people perceive they are being treated differently this is quickly translated into a sense of unfairness, resentment, anxiety, and a need for justice.

It is clear from reading my paper that I knew about psychological contracts at that time. I can assume that most people would assume that my knowing about the subject constituted learning. By most current definitions of learning this is probably the right assumption. In fact, I was able to include the concept in my corporate training programs and, as a psychotherapist, treated people who had experienced a violation of their psychological contract.

However, relatively recently I really learned about psychological contracts by being a victim. The result was startling. Clearly the addition of emotion to my understanding was important. This is akin to the different between bacon and eggs: the chicken is involved but the pig is committed. I also instantaneously made vast neuronal connections that completely changed the way I see the idea of psychological contracts. It was really interesting how I was able to relate the concept to other areas of psychology, particularly leadership and management behaviour, in ways that I had not done previously.

For me this was a great example of the difference between knowing about something and real learning. The implications of this idea are wide-ranging but I’ll stick to a couple of major points here. We can never be sure when learning occurs in other people: it occurs when the learner is ready not when the teacher expects. It is probable that real learning will occur in a real life situation, not in a training room.

Unfortunately, we still tend to think of education and training as an event rather than as context. We also don’t know, unless we check, what impact the educational experience is having on the learner. Thus, the concept of the fixed curricula or the fixed and carefully designed training program becomes inappropriate for the individual, if not the group. The same can be said for the way in which we assess knowledge and skills, and even performance: it needs to be contextual and individualised based on the learner’s (staff member’s) experience not the teacher’s (manager’s) expectations.

Guest author Dr Stewart Hase is a registered psychologist and has a doctorate in organisational behaviour as well as a BA, Diploma of Psychology, and a Master of Arts (Hons) in psychology.

Stewart blogs at stewarthase.blogspot.com

What does brain plasticity have to do with leadership?

9 Aug

Guest post today by Dr Stewart Hase 

There are three related issues that I’d like to briefly mention here on the way to providing some hard science that people who want to be leaders could find useful, if not compelling.The first is that the ‘great’ debate about whether leaders are born or made is a non-event. The issue is more about what people do that make them leaders and whether they have the capacity to perform the behaviours. It is clear that some people can’t be good leaders and others can. The second issue is closely related to the first and that is that people in leadership roles do not pay much attention to the social, anthropological and psychological evidence about what great leaders do and how to get the most out of people and, ergo, organisations. Leadership is treated a bit like counselling and teaching (other than in schools), that it that anyone can do it, without any formal training, if they have the inclination. It is fascinating that we still promote people to leadership roles on the basis that they have demonstrated high levels of competence in their profession (being an engineer, academic, town planner). Lastly, for this little article at least, the leadership literature is, at best, fluffy and has probably not had much impact, other than the occasional halo effect, on what most people in leadership roles do at the coalface.With these three issues in mind it is interesting to actually look at the science behind what people need to do in order to become good leaders. The evidence is pretty well overwhelming concerning the conditions in which people perform best at work. The tragedy is that the evidence is not accessed, oversimplified or incorrectly interpreted. I know of many organisations that have been sold psychological ‘pups’ by consultants or whose CEOs have read a trendy book on leadership at the airport that sounds good but has not evidential base. These ‘pups’ come in the form of untested theories and models that are anecdotal at best. They might consist of colourful and sexy personality testing instruments that have no reliability or validity whatsoever and are simplistic in the extreme. Medical practitioners, psychologists, dentists, nurses, physiotherapists, engineers are required to use evidence based practice. Why not people in leadership roles?We know from many social psychological experiments that people work best in an environment where they have control over their immediate work, are informed, make a contribution to decision making, feel that what they do is worthwhile, feel that they have a positive future, feel a valued member of the team, are acknowledged for what they do, are appropriately rewarded, have interesting work, and enjoy optimal variety in their work,

We also know, again from social psychological research, what it is that good leaders do to have influence and to get the best out of people. They have empathy, listen attentively, have good interpersonal skills, make people feel valued by involving them, are optimistic and positive, involve people in decision making that affects them, and don’t micro-manage (they believe that expertise outranks rank). Good leaders consciously create the type of environment or culture described in the paragraph above.

In recent years technology has made it possible to view in living brains how experiences change our brain structure, how new neural networks grow and how relationships between the various are affected. In general it can be said that positive experiences have a growth and positive effect on our nervous system and negative experiences have the opposite.

This research has now given us some explanations of why the social factors described above seem to be important in what has come to be called employee engagement. People perform best in a situation of what I call Goldilocks Stress: it has to be just right. That is, not too much and not too little. This means the environment has to be safe and you don’t have to be Sigmund Freud to see that the factors described above from social research lead to a sense of safety. People are more likely to learn and adapt when they feel safe and is a central theme in the research on brain plasticity.

Research into brain plasticity also tells us that people learn and function better in enriching and challenging environments. This would explain why people tell us that they enjoy work when they feel that they are involved, have a valued role to play, work in functional team settings, have a role in decision-making and have control over what they do. Positive parenting has been shown to have very powerful cognitive and emotional advantages to children thus exposed. There is no reason to suspect that the same thing is not true for adults whose brain, we now know, develops throughout the lifespan.

Finally, we can see the role that positive interpersonal relationships are such an important aspect of leadership. Specifically, it is easy to see why people report that they most admire and are engaged with leaders who have empathy, listen and demonstrate good interpersonal skills. In short, it has a positive effect on their nervous system. Bullying behaviour, for example, has the opposite effect: it creates stress, reduces enrichment and diminishes cognitive ability.

At least there is a significant physical science to reinforce the already considerable social psychological evidence that what managers/leaders do really does matter. As does what they do not do.

Dr Stewart Hase

Guest author Dr Stewart Hase is a registered psychologist and has a doctorate in organisational behaviour as well as a BA, Diploma of Psychology, and a Master of Arts (Hons) in psychology.

Stewart blogs at stewarthase.blogspot.com

When a Failure of Leadership Morphs into a Training Solution

13 May

Guest post today by Dr Stewart Hase

You have almost certainly heard the joke about the drunk Irishman scrambling about on his all fours in the middle of the night under a streetlight. A policeman happens by and asks what the drunk is doing and receives the reply that he is looking for his car keys. The policeman helps for a while but the keys are nowhere to be found. The policeman asks the drunk where he may have seen them last and the drunk points vaguely into the pitch black darkness of the park over the road and says, ‘Somewhere over there.’ In exasperation the poor member of the constabulary asks why on earth they are wasting their time looking in this spot. The drunk replies, ‘ Don’t be stupid officer, this is where the light is.’So, it is with organisations that frequently seek solutions to problems in completely the wrong places. The most common of these is when the CEO or senior manager decides that a problem requires a training solution when in fact the place to look is with leadership. Training can be in the form of providing skills, team building, and even running leadership trainingfor the middle managers, who are seen as the potential weak link in the chain. This training can be elaborate and quite expensive.However, it is invariably ineffective. The keys will not be found because they are in a different place altogether. Nonetheless, senior management is able to tick the box and do a Pontius Pilate when things do not work out as expected and the problem persists. Employees can be such ungrateful wretches when they don’t embrace the valuable opportunities that have been provided!

There are many examples of this but I’ll choose something reasonably benign to illustrate. Take the case of Stress Management programs. Clearly staff are stressed to the maximum and cracks are starting to show in the organisation that can no longer be avoided. So, it is decided to hire a trainer and run some single or perhaps two-day programs on how to manage stress (or whatever organisational ailment has been identified).

As every consultant and trainer knows, the training is next to worthless and will not produce any long-lasting behaviour change at all. There will be a halo effect of a couple of weeks similar to that obtained from listening to Tony Robbins or Billy Graham but any change wears off and things go back to normal. This is particularly true if the situation to which the person goes back to does not change. Conversions do happen to a small number but they are often highly contextual and rely in other substantial changes occurring at the same time: this would involve becoming a disciple perhaps. Training does not often create these sorts of transformations.

The results, however, are satisfactory to the main players. The consultant becomes rich and the manager can tick the box, wash the hands and move on with a satisfied smirk.

The real solution for this problem, and many others for that matter, is a need for good leadership. Problems are often systems based rather than a lack of skill on the part of employees. The stress problem is often about the workplace and a need to redesign work: to do things in a different way. But CEOs are reluctant to go down this path and display some real leadership by tackling the hard stuff.: the more complex. Instead they go for the simple, but ineffective, solution. Naturally enough I guess given human nature but a failure of leadership nonetheless.

There are many other examples and some have to do with a rather less obvious leadership failure. Often I have been asked to mediate with either individuals or even whole teams who are in conflict or ‘being difficult’. In many cases the situation has come about because of a lack of action on the part of managers: mostly action was required early, when the problem is developing., but does not occur for a host or reasons.

Good leadership requires time, commitment to people and work. It means being involved with employees and relationship building. Then, when things start to go wrong there is early identification and subsequent action to set things right. This demands participation by staff and a certain democratic state of mind on the part of the manager, which is also not easy to procure. All of this needs skill and a willingness that goes beyond a focus on technical issues in the manufacture of whatever widgets the organisation produces.

I was recently involved with an organisation in which the pas de deux between consultant and manager was different. The initial problem was painted as a team that were ‘playing up’ and acting unsafely in what was an inherently dangerous workplace. When the issue was analysed in consultation with management, and in more detail, it was obvious that the ‘training solution’ of safety training that had been the initial brief was barking up the wrong tree. The training program we had designed was quickly dispatched to the scrap heap. Instead we undertook a modified search conference, which is a democratic and highly participative process that tackles workplace problems front on-with the troops. The result was that we unearthed a whole bunch of systemic problems that were creating the problem, at least in part, and which management committed to address. And the team committed to changing their behaviour and sticking to safety processes and procedures. At the same time, managers also committed to taking a more proactive role in pursuing safety goals. In effect, they were prepared to show leadership. A day of normal training would have been a dance of death.

So, the more enlightened consultant and manager can go beyond the ritualistic dance of the ‘training solution’. Instead they recognise that there may be a need to provide training but it needs to be accompanied by work redesign perhaps or system changes. Maybe it requires leading from the front and making sure that desired changes do in fact occur. This means the leader learning some psychological techniques for facilitating behavioural change in others. The manager may recognise that individual coaching involving self and employees will be more likely to address problems than running a workshop in a fancy location with a nice lunch. Sadly, the latter ticks the box in so many ways for the main players.

Dr Stewart Hase

Guest author Dr Stewart Hase is a registered psychologist and has a doctorate in organisational behaviour as well as a BA, Diploma of Psychology, and a Master of Arts (Hons) in psychology.

Stewart blogs at stewarthase.blogspot.com

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