The village needed a number of important resources to survive, including food, water and people. Without protecting these resources, such as supporting parents to have children, they would all perish. The water source was drying up and in 20 years there would be no fresh water supply. Disaster. However, the elders knew that there was a fresh spring a few miles away. If only they could find a way of getting it.
The Answer – Devoting Resources
Gog, the person in the village most skilled at making things, had an idea for a system to carry the water to the village. He would build a pipeline underground to protect the water from other tribes. This would take some time and effort to do and for the sake of their survival, the village would need to give up resources to Gog. The village gave it’s blessing. Crucially, no-one suggested that if took on this project, then that was his decision alone and he was on his own. After all, the village need this pipeline.
Gog decided how long it was going to take – the village agreed that he was best placed to make that decision – and he set off with precious resources; tools, food and other workers.
The work was sometimes tiring, sometimes exhilarating. There were setbacks. There were advances. Gog and his crew learnt much. Meanwhile, the village waited patiently.
A few years later Gog returned triumphant because the water supply had been secured for the future. Hooray! The whole village celebrated; they were happy to have their friend back and they also knew how important this work had been. They rewarded him and gave him status. He had grown in knowledge. He returned with a new outlook and perspective. All of this was helpful to the growth of the whole village. What a party they had!
Gog had his old job back but he wanted to carry on working on other engineering projects. This made sense, so again the village agreed. In addition, in order that he could catch up on what had changed, he was given attention and support. It was a wonderful time of joy, growth and confidence.
Nobody criticized him for leaving the village for a year or two. No-one complained that the village had to give up resources so that he could do this. Everyone understood that there had been some short-term cost for a long-term investment in their future. As a society they are going to survive. As a society they benefitted.
The Learning – Supporting Parents
Now compare this with how society is supporting parents today in having children and protecting the future.
Having children is not some hobby that parents indulge in.
We are all somebody’s child. Also, our employees and customers were somebody’s child. The businesses that we buy goods and services from – their employees were somebody’s child. Society needs this pipeline.
All the time that the Hermit Crab remains in its shell it is safe, but it will eventually need to take a risk and move to a new house, if it is to grow. Whilst it is moving to another shell it is vulnerable to attack. However, if it doesn’t move it will die, as the shell becomes too small for it.
What Can We learn?
To grow, survive and thrive, we have to face up to taking risks:
to try something new
to say no to a request when we usually say yes
to say yes to an opportunity when we usually say no
to change jobs
to leave a relationship
to challenge bad behaviour
to move house
All these things take a certain amount of risk as we step outside of what is familiar and safe. Taking a risk stimulates our Limbic system and we feel fear – as if we were under threat of death. I’ve written about some of this here.
But unless we face these things, we stagnate, shrink even. Our outlook shrinks, our options shrink and our opportunities shrink. To make the most of what we have, we need to take chances and risk what we have. Sometimes we lose, but even if we lose, we gain learning.
So What If We Do Lose?
Mark Twain said
“Good judgement is the result of experience and experience the result of bad judgement.”
When we get things wrong we learn. When we get things right we grow. But if we never try we gain nothing.
A Hermit Crab hides in its shell for safety, but sometimes it leaves that safety in order to gain something new and of value. We could learn a lot.
Cartoons by Janet Webb, who had a go at something new.
Imagine you were an archer. You fire your arrow and you get feedback immediately; either you hit the target or you don’t. You can adjust your technique and get instant feedback on those adjustments. In time you become better and better as an archer.
Suppose that you can’t see the target; it would be very difficult to hit and you would have no idea of the result. The only way you could tell how well you were doing was if someone, like a coach, told you.
Now suppose that they also can’t see the target – how can they give you feedback? All they could do is share with you some data about how often you fired the arrows or whether your technique looked OK or not. You might tell them how you felt; probably you would be frustrated.
Eventually the coach would stop talking about it because nothing helpful would be happening. In turn you would stop bothering and just fire off arrows in the right direction, probably as fast as possible, to get it over and done with.
Now let’s look at managing and coaching staff. How do you know if you hit the target? You probably try various things and look for feedback through outcomes and whether the member of staff looked happy or not. You might even have a discussion with your manager about how you think it is going.
But not directly paying attention to the member of staff and getting their feedback is as hopeless as firing arrows at a board and not knowing whether they hit or not. Ask your direct reports how well you are doing if you really want to improve as a manager.
Of course, if you don’t care whether you are a good manager, then that is a different problem altogether.
Many businesses are going through a period of great change where the solid ground is frankly now a bit wobbly:
some are thriving
many are having to adapt business models to provide very different services
and some are doing the same thing but in quite different ways
What is true for all of these scenarios is that bringing your staff along with you is vital, whether you are busy or having to start again from scratch. Good supervision of your staff is always important but particularly so during periods of uncertainty; staff need to know what you expect of them in order to feel confident. They need to know what it means to do good work and to do it well. They also need to know that you will support them and the limits within which they can work.
Helping Staff Stand On Solid Ground
1 – Purpose. Make sure that they understand what the purpose of their job is and how vital they are to your business. Unless they truly know why they are doing what you are asking them to do, they are working blindfolded.
2 – Outcome Focused. Be specific about what the outcome is rather than focusing on the methodology or a list of tasks. Give deadlines and explain why these deadlines matter.
3 – Flexibility. Having explained what you want and by when, give staff as much flexibility as possible to do things their own way. Let them know what the boundaries are, e.g.
house style and values
policies on customer service, health and safety, IT guidelines etc.
…then get out of their way!
4 – Give them credit. Give constructive feedback on what they are doing well. Be specific. “You are doing fine” is not helpful; no-one knows what you mean by that and therefore cannot reproduce it.
5 – Stand in their shoes. Your staff are likely to be feeling a bit distracted: juggling home life and work, worrying about family and friends, concerns about their own health, uncertainty about the future. Check how they are really doing and cut them a bit of slack. In the long run, your empathy will breed loyalty.
6 – Prepare for mistakes. Help them to learn from mistakes rather than make them fearful of ever making a mistake again. Fear shuts down effective working practice like a nasty virus! Matthew Syed’s research on learning from mistakes shows that organsiations that embrace mistakes and learn effectively from them have a super power over their competitors.
We take drinking as a very ordinary thing. However, what is happening is quite complex and based on a mass of learning.
Our hand grabs the cup. This is quite a sophisticated action requiring us to:
judge distance and pressure
work out a specific placement on the cup so as not to knock it over, or miss all together.
We lift the cup at the speed, learned over a life time, that doesn’t swill the liquid out of the cup but is fast enough to satisfy our desire. Without looking we touch the cup to our lips. Then we judge the level of tilt required to deliver a reasonable amount of fluid, without sloshing a deluge up our noses. We brace ourselves for it to be too hot and we take evasive action if it is. We respond if someone knocks us mid-swill and we adjust position to deal with this.
Judgement as sophisticated as this takes a lifetime to develop.
Taking a drink of tea (or anything else) requires extensive experimentation and learning though our lives. Without realising it, we develop the skill to analyse, measure and adjust in a rather refined and unconscious way. All this in order to be able to drink a cup of tea effectively.
Is it possible, therefore, that actually we aren’t all experts on what to do during a more complex situation, like a pandemic, for instance?
Is it conceivable that people with the responsibility of making the best decisions on a situation far more crucial than drinking tea, are quite possibly doing a good job? Even if it may not look like it? Maybe what is happening is complex and so we will have no idea what the “right” choices are until the whole thing has blown over? At that point, and only at that point, we will be able to analyse the outcome? Could it be that currently we really have no idea?
I wrote an article for The Littlehampton Times recently about whether staff need to find their inner superhero. (They don’t.) This is an extended version of that article.
Our values, beliefs, assumptions, prejudices, emotions and thinking are all interlinked.
They are formed through our experiences and have a huge impact on our behaviour. And this can be problematic. When we are anxious, our behaviour can become very unhelpful. If we are facing a phobia then our behaviour can become extreme. But our behaviour can also be affected by much more subtle and benign (to some) situations. Just when we want to react positively, we find ourselves struggling.
Typical examples of when this happens include:
speaking in public, talking to strangers
managing tricky situations
talking to someone who is usually aggressive
doing something exciting
– basically any situation where we perceive a risk, even if the risk is minimal.
We want to be calm, professional, persuasive and competent. Instead we cringe, avoid things, get distressed and feel super stuck, rather than superhero. Sound familiar?
So what’s going on?
Your limbic system, that’s what.
This is the part of your brain that is trying to keep you safe. It reacts to situations it sees as threatening or risky or just unexpected. But it is very simplistic and responds as if you’re about to die. Adrenalin flows through your body to help you fight an attacker or run away from a wild animal; useful in a dangerous tribal landscape. Not so useful when the perceived danger is a shop keeper, or your friend, or an audience, or your boss!
When the adrenalin is flowing we feel stressed, we sweat, our stomachs churn; we may even shake. Blood is switched from our normal thinking systems (our pre-frontal cortex) and from our digestive system and is sent to our muscles. We prepare to run or fight – we need to do a pooh or be sick (to lighten our load) and our muscles twitch if they aren’t used, which is why we shake. It’s all really unhelpful. We want to do something positive but our bodies are trying to stop it.
What’s the solution? Do we need to be a superhero?
Understand what’s happening. The limbic system is an old bit of our brains from an evolutionary perspective and is really dumb! It’s either happy or it’s really scared – no in-between. It’s like having a small child inside you shouting “we’re going to die!” But of course we aren’t. Knowing this can really help.
Learn to calm your limbic system. Notice what fires it off and then really think about what is going on – what is the truth about the situation. Is your anxiety warranted? If not, tell your limbic system that all is well. And then choose to ignore the symptoms. They may not go away but they will calm down.
Understand that the way to feel OK about a situation is to face it over and over. The first time someone drives a car they feel petrified. Only by repeating the experience and practice does someone get to the stage where driving is no big deal – fun even.
Practice makes perfect – or at least it makes things possible.
Practice a range of techniques to control your response, choosing how to behave rather than reacting from fear, e.g.:
Visualise being excellent before an event that is worrying you, so that your limbic system knows what to expect – you being terrific and having fun.
When we are feeling anxious we can lose control of our breathing; it can become shallow and rapid. Get control back by breathing OUT, hard and slowly. Then force a normal breathing pattern – shorter in breaths and longer out breaths. Practice this when you are feeling calm.
Listen to your thinking – is your inner superhero or your limbic system speaking? Telling yourself that you are scared just makes things worse. Instead, talk to yourself about the reality of the situation. For instance, tell yourself that you are in control, notice that there are people around who are looking out for you, remember that what you are about to do is exciting. Research has shown that just saying “I’m excited” is enough to change your perspective and feelings.
Notice and accept what’s really happening – you aren’t about to fight a sabre-tooth tiger. You may still feel anxiety but you have the strength within you to feel anxious but to choose to go ahead anyway. Because you are in charge – not your limbic system.
Your anxiety is not who you are. YOU are who you are; fabulous, shining, clever, creative, wonderful and loved.
Your limbic system is a pretty dumb thing in comparison – show it who’s boss.
I spoke at Chichester College’s Professional Student Graduation ceremony last night about the future. Students from Marketing, Accountancy, Human Resources and Learning & Development received their certificates and then contemplated what’s next. As the guest speaker, this is the heart of the advice I gave them.
1 – Say Yes If You Can
When life offers you an opportunity, grab it with both hands even if it isn’t part of your plan and not what you were expecting. This is particularly important if someone else is saying “I think you would be great at this.” Doing a wide variety of things opens your horizons and makes you more effective.
Opportunities don’t always work out well but they are never wasted. We learn from the bad times as well as the good times. Say yes and make it yours.
2 – When You Say No, Let It Go
If you have to say no to an opportunity don’t waste your time wondering what would have happened differently – you will never know. Sometimes we come across two paths and have to choose which one to go down. Whether you choose the path “less travelled by ” or the massive motorway, travelled by a million people before you, let the other path go.
3 – Stay A Student Forever
You will learn things today that in the future you will discover are not true. You must keep looking, studying, learning, challenging, testing yourself and what you know. Never give up being a student; it hasn’t finished, it has only just begun.
You can’t see the road ahead, only what is now and what has gone before. You can scream with excitement or you can scream with fear. Your choice – choose excitement.
About a year ago I was running a session for some Learning and Development professionals on the Neuroscience of Learning.
I was contacted before the event by one of the potential delegates and asked this question:
“Will there be some actual content or will it be all of us just sharing what we know?”
The person in question was unwell and the thought of turning up to an event, expecting to learn something new and instead being given post-it notes and coloured pens was more than they could cope with. We had an interesting discussion.
I have noticed more and more of exactly what they were talking about – a move towards L&D people being less about the content and more about the delivery. But is this a good move? I have a concern about lazy being dressed as facilitation and that the delivery becomes so important that good content is not included at all.
Last month I facilitated a similar group of L&D professionals looking at some techniques for learning that were definitely not chalk and talk. At one point, dotted around the room, were flipcharts with provocative statements on. People were invited to look at them and discuss the statements with whoever was there, for as long as they wanted to, before moving on. I tweeted one of the statements and Twitter responded. This was the statement.
Replies ranged from “Never!” to “Agreed.”
There were a lot of responses around good facilitation taking dry content and making it great and that bad delivery can suck the life out of a learning event. Conversely, that great delivery can mask poor design. There were thoughts on how good questions can deliver amazing results. There were some feeding analogies. The word context came up. “Context is the missing word. The dance between content, delivery & exploration depends on context.” from Chris Nichols @chrisnicholsT2i
There was also some talk about the importance of participation; that you can’t make someone learn.
All true. So what’s the problem?
Delivery versus Content
Example 1. I was reminded a while ago about a time when a group of us were running a residential and we ran out of activities. So we divided the delegates into two teams, asked them to design an exercise for the other team, then swapped the activities and sat back. Of course we facilitated the reflective session afterwards; we didn’t just walk away altogether. But I felt at the time, and still do years later, that this was utterly lazy. Yes they got something from it. Yes we helped them process the learning. But honestly, did we do the best for them? Could that time have been used better?
Example 2. I adore action learning sets but it has to be done right, for people who want and need it, when they want and need it. I remember once being on a course as a new manager where the facilitator gave us the opportunity to spend an afternoon together, with total freedom to manage our own learning, exploring whatever came up. The term T-group was used I think.
So we all went back to work! We had left busy work places to come and get help with our busy work places. We didn’t see the benefit of chewing the fat with other, equally busy colleagues. This was probably a sign of our immaturity as learners but it was also a sign of a Trainer (they weren’t called L&D professionals then) experimenting on us with an idea and doing it very badly. They were a bit cross with us for not engaging. We were furious for being given so little when we needed so much.
Example 3. I love great facilitation. In my opinion and experience, it’s an important, potentially life changing skill. I did a course 20 years ago at Surrey University about the dynamics of group work and facilitation that was possibly one of the best things I have ever done. However, I think there is also a place for designing great content. I think there is a place for lectures and teaching and instructional training.
Example 4. If I’m going for surgery I want my surgeons to have attended some recent lectures on the latest techniques and breakthroughs. I also want them to have discussed this between themselves and thought about how they can use these things effectively. I want them to do the full 100%.
Example 5. When I learned to drive I wanted the instructor to say
“That peddle in the middle is the break”
“OK, how do you feel about this? If this car was a stone you are carrying, what colour would it smell like?”
Great facilitation should not over-ride the need for great content, when that great content is what is needed. Chewing the fat can be amazing – give them something worth chewing.
I recently posted a guest blog – here. I was making a number of points, particularly focusing on the long term unemployed:
work gives opportunities for challenge, social interaction, expansion of our comfort zones and fun
the long term unemployed get none of that
what they do get is often dismissive, unfair, rude and thoughtless
The post got over 800 reads and lots of positive responses. I can only hope that it leads to action. Here it is in full.
A few years ago my husband, children and I packed up our gear and went off for an adventure; Four Webbs Go Mad in Dorset. Our plan was to camp at Langton Matravers and go rock climbing at Dancing Ledge, a wave cut platform on the Jurassic Coast, near the fabulously named Scratch Arse Ware.
The children had been learning to climb with the Sea Cadets (a youth organisation that gives young people opportunities for extraordinary experiences) and Jonathan and I had climbed together when we were first married, some “cough” years previously. This was the first time we had climbed together as a family; and what larks we had!
We were top rope climbing; a rope is fixed to the climber, passed through an anchor at the top of the cliff and then held onto by someone, the belayer, at the bottom of the cliff. Their job is to keep the rope tight so that if the climber falls they don’t fall very far. My kids belayed for each other and at one point, strapped together, they belayed for their father; what a fabulous lesson in trust. We had fun, managed danger, explored interdependence and encouraged, supported and challenged each other. It was a magical time in beautiful surroundings. Together we stepped out of our comfort zones. We literally and metaphorically climbed heights and as a result gained confidence in ourselves and each other.
This kind of bonding, growing and learning is something that a good working life gives us; social interaction, the chance to try new things, learning from our mistakes, feeling supported and challenged.
In contrast, I am currently working with groups of people who have been out of work for a long time – over 10 years in a few cases. For some their comfort zones are miserably small and may not even include their own home space. They have stopped growing and learning because they have stopped having opportunities to do so. The lack of the stimulation that employees take for granted, leads to limiting habits and a shrinking of perspective, hope and joy. Life is a treadmill of applying for jobs that they have little hope of getting, trying to prove to the Job Centre that they are attempting to push a load up a mountain and eking out their funds to cover the basics of life; basics that usually don’t include Christmas parties, hobbies, being able to buy a round of drinks for friends, owning a pet, running a car. Always at the mercy of bus timetables, agencies who don’t quite bother enough and potential employers who don’t quite care enough, the struggle and isolation is dispiriting.
Take Aaron. He was running his own successful catering business, started from scratch, when he gave it all up to be a full time carer for his mother. When she died some years later he lost his home, his mother, his daily routine and his purpose. After a crippling few years of grief and isolation, he was facing the rest of his life with dread; no qualifications, no recent, relevant experience and serious doubts about his own value.
Betty. After her husband died she didn’t leave the house for ten years. By the time she sought help, her self esteem and confidence in her own ability was through the floor.
Charlie. He worked for the same employer from school, as a skilled worker, for 40 years. Now that modern life has done away with that industry, he is struggling to learn IT skills just to be able to apply for minimum wage jobs that he has no hope of getting.
Debbie. A difficult childhood and time in care homes has given her rocky foundations to build her adult life on. Walking into a room with strangers is a challenge.
These are not scroungers and wasters; these are people who have been dealt a poor hand and are expected to pull themselves out of the hole that they are in. Yet they don’t have the resources to do that. And those resources are not going to develop through a life of visiting the job centre, walking around town to relieve the boredom and sitting in a library, applying for jobs that they know literally hundreds of other people are also applying for.
The good news is that things can get better. Betty volunteered for two years in a charity shop and on the back of that she got a job last week. Debbie was given a work taster in a supermarket and is now working there full time, blossoming and loving it. Aaron was given some basic IT help and some interview skills practice and now feels able to take on the world.
What can make the difference is someone taking an interest; having a heart for them. Eric got an e-mail last week from an employer who had received his CV. A response – almost unheard of! He brought the e-mail to show us. It was written with thought and compassion and although it didn’t offer a job it was personal, wishing Eric a happy Christmas and New Year. Eric was chuffed to bits; someone had taken the time and had treated him like a person. Frank was phoned up by an interviewer to say that he hadn’t got the job and why. She also gave some feedback, unsolicited. Again, almost unheard of! Frank was amazed and the feedback was genuinely helpful.
Most of the time, they don’t hear anything and they get no feedback, even when they ask. Occasionally they get treated really badly. Jobs get offered then snatched away. Jobs are filled internally but the employer has gone through a pretence of recruitment to demonstrate fairness. Georgie had to save up the bus fare to get to a job interview only to discover that the employer wanted a skilled chef, whereas the agency had sent her for a kitchen porter job. When your self esteem is at rock bottom, to be treated so badly can just confirm in you that you lack value.
What’s needed is for employers, HR teams and recruitment agencies to have a change of heart. To:
not treat low skilled workers as low skilled people
not just farm out the low wage jobs to agencies
care and be accountable for how applicants are treated by agencies
refund precious bus fares
offer and give good feedback
challenge the need for recent relevant experience
not reject someone because they haven’t worked for two years
take care about job adverts
read past the first paragraph on a CV
give people a chance.
If you can give someone a work taster for two months, two weeks, two days even, you could be the turning point for someone and the route off the treadmill. Do it for Corporate Social Responsibility reasons. Do it because you just might find a gem. Do it because you have a heart. Do it.
Note: names and circumstances have been changed to protect identities. However, all these stories are real.