We all have a dirty pair of pants

One thing that strikes me about the current election campaign is that Brexit has been kicked under the bed like a dirty pair of pants. Their existence won’t change because of the lack of visibility and at some point they’re going to have to get hoiked out and dealt with by some unfortunate soul.

The tough, the difficult to manage, the hard to explain and the unpalatable so often get moved out of sight. We push them away in our organisations, in our teams and in our lives because, quite frankly, they’re tough. Why would we address things that by their nature are divisive and difficult, when instead we can focus on the things that have higher levels of agreement and approval (in the case of the current campaigning, who can spend more on public services).

Good organisations, good teams find a way of addressing these topics. They find a way to bring people together to discuss the things that risk causing division and help to find a way forward. Good leaders never lose sight of the topics, but know that the timing and right approach are key. They are brave in addressing the hardest topics, but achieve it through creating an environment of safety.

Recalculating the data never really makes the problem go away, presenting shiny new opportunities cannot erase the underlying issues. They may provide brief respite, but they’re not a cure. The only way out is through and that means a slow and sometimes difficult exploration of the hardest and most sensitive topics. Nothing goes away when you close your eyes.

Whether it is a long standing performance issue in a team, a slow but unavoidable decline in revenue or membership numbers, a loss of market share or even an organisational culture or behaviour that is causing damage. None of these issues go away by ignoring or avoiding them, they linger in the darkness, their existence remaining entirely whole.

We all have a dirty pair of pants, the measure of our success is whether we’re willing to address that.

 

Actions and consequences

Are we always responsible for the consequences of our actions? It seems that’s the accepted wisdom, but I’m really not so sure. On one hand, it makes for a remarkably neat way of judging others, but it also feels like a convenient “get out of jail card” for absolving others of acting in an appropriate way.

Our social and political landscape is full of judgments on decisions that were made and the unintended consequences;

He should have known…

She should have seen that coming…

And similarly, our organisational rhetoric often places so much onus on individual actions and the subsequent consequences. Particularly the more senior that an individual gets.

I have no doubt that our actions define us, how we choose to be, how we present and behave, how we interact with others. Unless you believe in a higher force, we are all responsible for our actions. But in accepting this, do we throw ourselves open to however the universe responds as entirely fair?

If you choose to go out at night, are you responsible for being mugged?

Or wearing the wrong clothes, accepting of being harassed?

I don’t think anyone would suggest that the individual has to accept these consequences. Yet in the political, social and commercial aspects of life we hold a different burden of proof.

Being able to differentiate responsibility for the choices which we control and the consequences we do not allows us to analyse and interrogate responsibility in a much more balanced way, but it also helps us place responsibility where it really lies.

None of us want to be held to account for events truly out of our control. But whether we set the same bar for others…well that’s a different question.

 

 

 

I already know who you are

A couple of events last week made me reflect on the assumptions that we so often make of others and how in doing so we build narratives that skew our perspective on the world. Every day is filled with multiple interactions that we evaluate with the aim of creating meaning.

Let me give you a most basic example. On Friday, driving home, there was an accident involving four cars. Inevitably with an accident that size in rush hour traffic, things got snarled up and slow and the journey took substantially longer than normal. As I passed the accident and moved into more free-flowing traffic I was aware of a driver behind a few cars behind me who seemed to be in a rush. She pulled out to overtake a car behind me and then I could see her gesticulating in the rear view mirror, unhappy with my speed.

The narrative commenced;

What’s her problem?

Why does she think she needs to be somewhere quicker than someone else?

Who the hell does she think she is?

By the time that she’d flashed her lights at me and driven off in a tail of smoke, I pretty much knew who she was and what she was about. But of course, I had no idea.

Was she trying to get to a sick or unwell relative? Was there a work or domestic emergency? Could she have been a surgeon trying to get to an operation? All of these thoughts were as entirely plausible as the reassuring answer that I’d come to…a Friday night nutter.

And of course at work we do the same, but once the narratives are built they’re maintained. People become, the moody one, the difficult one, the obstinate one, the quiet one with nothing to say. We create the stories that help us to justify our own behaviour, because it just makes things easier.

In the same way that I can tell you I intentionally slowed down by a few miles per hour to really hack the unknown driver off, I wonder what actions we take in the workplace to slow down the people that we’ve created a negative narrative about.

And I wonder how much more productive we could be if we entertained alternative possibilities?

If you want a much more articulate and thoughtful discussion of the same topic, then check out this by David Foster Wallace.

Care just enough

How many times in life have you put off doing something because of the perceived consequences, only to find out when you did take the action, that it wasn’t so bad after all?

It’s a tricky thing about leadership – the multiple demands on emotion and energy that can make sometimes even the most straight forward of decision, feel just a little bit too hard. And as outsiders we look on and think, “that’s obvious, why aren’t they doing something about it?”

This situation is amplified when it involves decisions that materially impact other human beings. Whether it is a promotion, a restructure, a performance issues or a reward challenge. We can look at this situation with our own lens and see our own version of perfect clarity, but we will never see the situation from the leader’s perspective.

As a partner or advisor to that leader, our job is to seek to understand, to help, to support, to maintain forward movement and prevent emotions from getting us stuck or avoiding the challenge. Most people understand on a rationale level the things that need doing and the decisions that need taking, but they get complicated by the feelings, emotions and fears.

As a leader, our job is to care enough, but not too much. We shouldn’t eschew all reference to the personal or the human, we should recognise that part of what allows a leader to truly own that title is their ability to feel. At the same time, we need to recognise when we’re allowing “emotion” (and I use this term in a more scientific, rather than literary sense) to prevent us from acting in line with our beliefs.

Where people are involved, there will always be difficult decisions to be made and there will always be outcomes that are less desirable than others. There simply is no other way, regardless of the rhetoric that is sometimes easy to believe. And leaders and their advisors, being human beings too, will bring their own emotional frameworks, relationships and history to any given situation.

Caring at work is really important. We just shouldn’t let it get in the way.