Listening and the Politics of Humiliation

Why do you listen to people? When I ask this question of clients and others I tend to get answers focussed on the content: "listening lets me learn something I don't know". There is no argument from me on that point. But why would you listen to others when you don't think you can learn anything from them? One obvious answer is that you are probably wrong about that, and you almost certainly will learn something. But here I'm interested in another answer that is important to all collaborators.

In a recent opinion piece, New York Times Columnist Thomas L. Friedman wrote about the "politics of humiliation" and suggested that humiliation is one of the strongest, most motivating emotions we can experience. He quotes Nelson Mandela as saying "there is nobody more dangerous than one who has been humiliated". Then Friedman goes on to make the point that the countervailing emotion is respect. "If you show people respect, if you affirm their dignity, it is amazing what they will let you say to them or ask of them".

And this brings me to the second answer to my earlier question. One of the reasons to really listen to someone, even when we don't expect to learn something from them, is to show them respect and affirm their dignity. As Friedman writes: "Sometimes it just takes listening to them, but deep listening - not just waiting for them to stop talking. Because listening is the ultimate sign of respect. What you say when you listen speaks more than any words."

Those who feel humiliated will never collaborate; Those who feel disrespected will never collaborate; Those who feel unheard or ignored will never collaborate unless and until they feel respected. And as Friedman says, one way to clearly demonstrate our respect for another is to listen to them deeply.

Friedman is writing in the context of US politics, but the message seems universal to me. In order to work effectively with others to tackle hard problems together we need to genuinely respect them, and demonstrate that respect in the way we act. Listening holds the key.

So now let me listen to you. What is your takeaway from Friedman's article?


The Presence of Trust

When this photo (the one of the guy on the motor bike) comes up on a screen in a collaboration workshop or conversation as an example of trust, everyone laughs!  It is clear that those standing on their heads must trust the guy on the motorbike!

I’ve pondered about this thing we call trust.  I’ve read the books.  I’ve interrogated my own experiences as an employee, a traveller in foreign lands, a mature-aged student, a manager, a consultant, a company director, a mother, step-mother and grandmother.  I’ve asked myself ... what is trust?  Why is it so important in human relationships and human communication? How do we build it?  How do we lose it?  How do we rebuild it when it’s been lost?

Trust is the glue of individual relationships, therefore of communities, of organisations and societies. It’s what makes them tick and stick. When it is present, we are willing, even eager, to be part of a group whose purpose and values we expect to share.  We are willing to step into mutual interdependence with other people, even when we don’t know them yet or have a history with them. When trust is not present, or we need to build it from scratch with a new group, we don’t immediately engage with people we don’t know.  We wait until we are drawn in by the empathy and energy of a group. If trust doesn’t build, then early relationships may become fragmented, we feel uneasy and mistrust emerges.

So how do we build trust? The Dalai Lama is quoted as saying ‘To earn trust, money and power aren’t enough; you have to show some concern for others. You can’t buy trust in the supermarket.’ Stephen M.R. Covey (the son of the Stephen Covey who wrote the 7 Habits of Highly Successful People) suggests that a key principle of trust is that ‘You first have to trust yourself, because trust is similar to confidence’. 

What I’ve learned is that trusting yourself is important.  You won’t be confident that others will keep their word, will be sincere and authentic, will be open and transparent, will work with you productively, if you know you don’t behave like that yourself.  Behaviour comes from personal values, so holding values such as integrity, dependability, openness, fairness and equity and recognising their importance in relationships, will help each of us act in a way that encourages others to trust us.

Recently being asked to design and run a program for a client whose staff will need to do their work in fire-ravaged, damaged and traumatised communities, has reminded me about the importance of empathy as part of building trust.  If we are to communicate effectively with people, we must start by listening ... not just hearing, but actively listening to understand.  ‘Walking in other people’s shoes’ for a little while helps build trust, and by doing so we can better understand and empathise with their situation.  In short, we need to build trusting relationships before trying to help, or transacting.

Finally, a key component of trust is the ability always to be your authentic self. Someone who never admits mistakes or shares their human side, rarely hears truth from others. If you are able to admit being wrong, to acknowledge and apologise for errors or mistakes when they happen, to admit to being unsure or not knowing and to ask for help, this very vulnerability will help others to trust.

Trust is the core of a group or team’s capability to collaborate. It’s worth the effort of building trust within any group of collaborators, starting with trusting yourself to do so, because trust is the glue that keeps the collaborators collaborating.    


Four ways to build collaborative habits in the workplace (despite weak flesh)

"Reverting to the usual way of doing things is a deceptively easy default option and often appears to be lower risk than trying something different."

So said someone in their response to our recent survey. It reminded me of another quote which has been around a little longer:  "Watch and pray, that ye enter not into temptation. The Spirit is indeed willing but the flesh is weak".

In terms of collaboration - and to be honest, most other contexts - I can definitely relate to the idea that while the intention to do something different is there, it can be difficult to stick with the change. Just today, for example, I realised I have participated in a series of one-off conversations around a group, rather than finding a way to get the group together. The outcome has been some confusion, when shared clarity would have been so easy. Yet I got lazy and reverted to business as usual. Definitely some weak flesh here folks.

It is a good reminder of why many clients find it very difficult to achieve a change that sticks, despite knowing that more collaborative behaviours are useful. Behaving differently requires us to, well, behave differently, and as I can attest, that isn't easy. As always, this brings me to the role of mindset, or how we think. It is very clear that, while being more effective as collaborators is about doing things differently, what it is REALLY about is thinking differently. In order to 'do' collaboration we must 'be' collaborative.

So what does it take to think differently in order to avoid sliding back to business as usual ways of working? We are still finding the answer to this question, but here are some things that seem to help.

  1. Learning by doing is powerful. Trying different behaviours, perhaps not always getting them right, but going again.
  2. The magic training intervention is a myth. Time is required to build new patterns of thought. It can't happen overnight so don't expect it to.
  3. Reflection on 'my' mindset is essential. Ask yourself, how am I thinking about this situation, this person or team, and what are the implications of that? If I was thinking like a collaborator, what would I do differently?
  4. Do your learning together with your collaborators. Make it public and make it part of the process. Learn to collaborate by collaborating to learn.

I wonder what your experience has been. If you are like me, then sliding out of the collaborative mindset is an ever-present threat. It is for this reason we have been working on a Collaborative Project Guide (watch this space) to support teams to collaborate more effectively by working differently, despite the gravitational pull of business as usual. While our spirit is willing, we hope the Guide will help our flesh be strong.


Fear of failure - does it shut us down or drive us?

Perhaps fear of failure starts at school where the words ‘failure’ and ‘fail’ are scary. They are represented by teachers and parents as something definitely undesirable. I was a bright kid in a small primary school in the UK, so I didn’t come into contact with those words until, at age 11, I went to grammar school, where I was among lots of other bright kids in a much larger school with regular tests and exams.

Used to being near the top of a small class, I found myself struggling. Tests and examinations became opportunities to fail. “What did you get?” was a common question as results were handed out. Failures made me feel inadequate and less worthy. I didn’t always meet my own expectations let alone the expectations of teachers, friends and family.

These failures at school, while uncomfortable, didn’t frighten me or shut me down. I think I just redefined my future. I decided on exploration as my next step rather than university and a specific career. I might have experienced failure academically, but I wasn’t going to fail at work or at life.  I’d be successful if I applied myself, stayed open to new experiences, met new people, travelled to new places, set and met my own goals and lived the life I chose. My inevitable failures would be temporary and be learning experiences.

These beliefs drove me. With every move, every new opportunity, every compliment, I gained confidence. I even tried academia again ... and succeeded.

But situations where the possibility of failure disables me and makes me vulnerable are still there. One of those is giving ‘expert’ presentations. Standing on a platform, being an expert on something, giving advice from a podium gives me serious imposter anxiety. I don’t like pontificating. I don’t like talking ‘at’ people. I feel vulnerable in a way I never do when in conversation with others where I love to listen and engage. I don’t think I’m alone in this.

No-one enjoys failure. No-one enjoys failing. However, working in the complex space, in uncertainty, just trying something is a useful strategy ... and whether our experiment or trial succeeds or fails, we will learn. Failure is just a detour not a dead end.


Failing my way to expert status

It's official. I'm now an expert! How do I know? I've just been appointed to an "expert panel" so it must be true. Over the next six months or so I will be working with some eminent scientists on some challenging water quality issues in coastal lakes.

It's great to be an expert, or at least I feel it should be, but I'm learning that it comes with its own challenges. What I have quickly recognised is that while part of me is pleased with the label, another part of me is going "oh no, what if I'm not expert enough? What if I get it wrong? What if I make a mistake?" In other words, now I'm an expert, the fear of failure is all the greater.

I've been pondering over the weekend and have decided on three little strategies to help me confront failure and cope with the inner doubter. Of course, they may not be very helpful, I wonder if they're wrong....? Oh no what if they don't work!!

...Ahem. Anyway, here is my plan:

  1. I'm going to keep in mind that on the complex issues we'll be dealing with as an expert panel, there is never a single right answer. Yet I know that stakeholders, and perhaps my fellow panellists, will at times be looking to me for 'the answer', and the urge to meet their expectations will be incredibly strong. But I will try to resist and instead invite them into our shared uncertainty, rather than fall into the expert trap.
  2. I'm going to listen to my own language. Specifically I want to hear myself say "I don't know" as often as I provide an 'expert' answer. This can be hard to do, but I take comfort in my belief that expertise surely resides in knowing the limits to our knowledge?
  3. I will seek to acknowledge the expertise of my fellow panellists, while avoiding putting them in the same expert trap. After all, I'm as comforted as the next person by the 'right' answers of specialists, so when I'm feeling uncertain I'll be just as prone to seek refuge in their expertise, and they will be just as likely to feel pressure to be seen to have an answer for me.

So these three strategies are my way of managing my own fear of failure. If you have experienced something similar, perhaps you could share the ways in which you have been expert in a complex world in which 'failure' is unavoidable.


Is uncertainty good or bad? 4 different views + mine

To me, uncertainty is a state of not knowing. it’s when we can’t make sense of what is happening; it’s when we don’t know what will happen next; and worst of all it’s when we don’t know what WE SHOULD DO next.

Is this positive or negative? When uncertainty, unpredictability and not knowing feels uncomfortable, is it useful to invent or pretend certainty?

For many professionals to admit to being uncertain or not knowing is ‘career limiting’.  Careers are built on knowledge, on having answers, on solving problems. Leaders advance within organisations by knowing what to do, when to do it and why their solution will work.

Michael Lewis, author and financial journalist, says: ‘In the world we live in, political leaders don’t acknowledge uncertainty because it means admitting the possibility of error. The entire profession has arranged itself as if to confirm the wisdom of its decisions.’

However, not everyone sees uncertainty as negative. Austin Kleon, in his book ‘10 ways to be creative in good times and bad’, says: ‘To be 100% certain of who you are and what you do ... is not only completely overrated, it is also a roadblock to discovery.’

In my work over the past decade, I have become very aware of the dangers of knowing, of being the expert, and how it can be a roadblock to curiosity. The opposite of being certain doesn’t mean floundering in uncertainty. In my world the opposite of being certain, of being the expert, of having the answer, is being open, curious and willing to embrace the challenges of paradox rather than having a definite answer that closes off possibilities.

Lee Iacocca, the man who ran the Ford Motor Company in the 1960s and Chrysler in the 1980s, was pretty clear. He advised his executives that when they were faced with a sticky or tricky problem and weren’t sure of what to do next that they should: ‘Do anything ... something ...so long as you don’t just don't sit there. If you screw it up, start over. Try something else. If you wait until you've satisfied all the uncertainties, it may be too late.’

One of my favourite 21st century authors Yuval Noah Harari believes that to survive and flourish in today’s uncertain world, we need a lot of mental flexibility and great reserves of emotional balance. He says we will have to repeatedly let go of some of what we know best and feel at home with the unknown.

So, let’s learn to sit in the current uncertainty, even when it feels uncomfortable. Let’s take some of this advice and try stuff. Let’s be mentally flexible, emotionally balanced, open, curious and willing to embrace the challenges we face.

A friend recently commented how refreshing she found it when, in this current uncertainty, our leaders are able to admit to not knowing. They acknowledge that what we are facing is new and ‘unprecedented’, and there is no way of predicting with any certainty what is going to happen.  They are trying things, based on what they do know, while they monitor outcomes and learn from situations around the world. I think this is real progress.


Is it time to get off your horse?

A mouse! A mouse! My Kingdom for a mouse! Said no King ever. But maybe this is what leaders should be saying at this time of rapid change, disruption and great uncertainty.

How so? Picture a great maze that is all but impossible to solve. Two people stand ready to find the way through – a small girl with her shoebox full of mice and a great leader astride his horse. They start. The leader rides in with a plan to explore sector by sector. The girl releases her mice.

Eventually a mouse emerges from the exit, while from within can be heard the rider, still executing the search plan. While the horseman is still applying his idea, a mouse has found a way through.

According to a lovely framework by Chris Bolton, the horse represents the way most of us go about problem solving or creating change in uncertain situations. We have an idea we think could work. We get agreement to trial it. We do lots of work we hope will increase its chance of success. We plan it out and we run it. By the time it looks like it might not work we are so vested in it, with so much emotional and financial resourcing sunk into it, that we proceed  anyway.

Bolton says it is a solution dressed up as a trial. In other words, the horse is a Trojan horse – something sold as a test but built and run as ‘the answer’. The approach might have worked in Troy when all the Greeks had to do was get through a gate, but it doesn’t work well in more complex times.

So to the mice. Each one represents a small idea that is easy to put together, easy to test, easy to walk away from if it doesn’t work. Each test is an experiment designed to help you better understand the situation and learn more about the best way to proceed. Each mouse is set free in the maze and many will only find the dead ends, but even that is useful as it helps narrow down the options.

When facing uncertainty and complexity, Bolton advises us to use mice, not the horse. Test small, agile ideas that might include something obvious, something from left field, something naïve, something that seems unlikely to work, something that seems counter to your understanding of the situation. Together these diverse mice – each one a small opportunity to test an idea and learn from its success or failure – will point the way forward.

In these uncertain times, are you creating a solution dressed up as a test, or setting the mice free to run in unexpected and useful directions?


Who do you trust?

Who do you need to trust when working with others on difficult problems? I have been reflecting on this question since a recent conversation with a colleague. He has joined a big infrastructure project that continues to cause some disruption for people living and working in the area. The organisation has managed to build good relationships with most stakeholders, but there is one local stakeholder who seems to be particularly angry. My colleague hasn’t met him yet, being new to the team, but all of his colleagues have been telling him what a difficult man this person is.

“Don’t go near him alone” is their advice.

My colleague wants to improve the relationship with this person and his instinct is to go and talk to him at his place of business. But he’s nervous about going alone. He also isn’t sure who to take with him, because his co-workers seem to have made up their minds that the man is a lost cause.

What can he do? Seems to me this is a question of trust, on a couple of fronts. He could take his co-workers’ warnings at face value and choose never to go near the angry stakeholder, but he knows this can’t lead to a better relationship. He wants to go and meet him. But can he trust the guy if he goes alone?

Obviously we all need to prioritise personal safety, yet in my experience extending trust is usually rewarded. If my colleague takes the step alone, demonstrating that he trusts the guy to be rational, he will likely find a rational guy. Angry? Perhaps. Unhappy? Sounds certain. But neither of those things are unbearable.

I also wonder if there is a deeper trust barrier here. To go and meet and talk with an angry person who feels aggrieved about what has been ‘done to him’, takes courage. It also takes some confidence. And I wonder if my colleague is thinking about whether or not he has the capability to manage an outraged stakeholder. In other words, he may be thinking “can I trust myself to do this difficult thing?”

When collaborating, we need to extend trust to others. But I’m starting to think that it is just as important to extend trust to ourselves. Collaboration can be challenging and difficult, perhaps leading us to think “I can’t do that”. But if we want different outcomes we have to do different things.

So trust yourself. You can do this!


Build a relationship before you tackle a job

Even though our home wasn’t at risk, my own reaction to the bushfires and smoke over the holiday period surprised me- I was tentative, worried, frustrated, lacked focus and was generally a bit stressed, even around family and good friends, and even more so with strangers.

It reminded me of the challenges of getting things done when people are stressed, and I remembered a few things I have often found helpful in similar situations....

  • feel, feel, feel- show that others matter- acknowledge how people feel
  • listen, listen, listen- acknowledge and understand what matters to others first. Then people may be willing to listen to what you have to say
  • build the relationships before you tackle the job
  • acknowledge that you do not know- what to do…., what is best..., where to start.... etc, and that it's OK to ask for help
  • understand that the solutions are best not coming from you, but are better to emerge from conversations with others (even if you think you know what to do!)
  • expect the next steps will not necessarily be the "answer", but will be a start towards finding some solutions together
  • accept that it will take time and people can't be rushed.

Looking at the list also made me realise how hard I find trying to think and act like that- my default is often the opposite!

Do you have other ideas that might help?


Surviving workplace disruption #2

Organisational restructuring seems to be an ever-present solution to many issues - often in the belief that "if we only we had the right structure, we would work better together, be more efficient and effective...etc, etc."   A bit like the success fantasy that Vivien wrote about in the previous blog.

Now I'm not suggesting that restructures aren't both necessary and useful in the right circumstances.  However, given that they tend to be quite disruptive, and can have serious impacts on staff, it makes sense to consider how to tackle them using a more collaborative mindset - and to consider some Golden Rules for Thriving in Workplace Disruption.

When proposing a new structure, we invariably ask people what they think. We seek feedback because we want to know about the impact the changes might have, and help people through such changes. This is a great start, but it often misses the most important element - how people feel.   Some might be excited and enthusiastic, while others might be frustrated, lost or frightened. And how people feel influences how, and even whether, they respond. So you may not know how people think if you don't check and acknowledge how they feel.

One Golden Rule - Check in and listen to how people are feeling, because that is what impacts their behaviour.

Given our unbridled enthusiasm for the change, and the conventional need to be discreet on sensitive restructures, we have a tendency to decide the new structure in a small group and have most of the answers ready in advance. While this seems to make logical sense, such structural changes are inherently complex, impact people, and can never quite appreciate all the nuances of how the organisation operates. From our experience we know that surprising solutions can emerge from tapping into the knowledge and ideas of those involved, and implementation of any new structure is invariably smoother when staff feel they have contributed to the solutions.

Another Golden Rule - Just "try stuff"- generate a range of ideas together (rather than sticking to the first 'right' answer), because that delivers smarter and more owned solutions.

As well as being sure of the answer, we often are quite sure how to progress the planning and implementation i.e. the process of involvement and solution finding. While no doubt efficient, it can leave people feeling a bit disenfranchised and "done to". By stepping back and acknowledging some doubt about what the best process could be, those leading such restructures can invite staff into putting their 'fingerprints' on the process, which encourages staff participation and ownership.

A last Golden Rule - allow people to put their fingerprints on the process, and they are more likely to go on the journey with you.