Leaning to People Self-Awareness

Friends… Near & Far

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Something strange has happened that made me feel grateful that I didn’t post the blog I had intended to earlier this year. Before the pandemic, I planned to publish a piece on relational proximity.

Relational Proximity is one of the dimensions upon which I make decisions in my own self-leadership; it is the degree of closeness of a relationship. The opposite way of thinking about relational proximity is to think in terms of relational boundaries, about whom we choose to let into our lives and to what degree we are open and transparent with the other person.

However, I’ve noticed something fascinating about how my relationships changed and developed during the pandemic. In a way, it has mirrored not just the constraints but also the value I place on each relationship. Allow me to give just one personal example.

Our home is part of a cluster of houses bordering green open space. We knew our neighbour next door fairly well, and each Christmas we get to know the others in our cluster a little more when we invite them around with their children for an afternoon party. We might have occasionally taken in deliveries for them. But they were pretty much strangers, keeping themselves to themselves… that is, until now.

Soon after lockdown, one of these neighbours formed our own little WhatsApp group. Now we shop for each other. Check out local issues for each other, and are generally leaning into each other, helping where we can. For example, “I have a ‘lodger’ in my parking space. Anyone know who this is?” There is now a very healthy community spirit in our group.

On the other hand, we saw a lot of some people if we had driven 20 minutes to our faith community meetings; now, not so much. Yet, others whom we are linked with through a healthcare charity we are involved with, have become fast friends, not only in our region but in other countries, on other continents. For example, I’ve discovered it can get cold in winter in Swaziland. With all my images of Southern Africa, this was a real revelation to me.

My point is that geographical proximity does not necessarily make you closer to someone. Zoom has demonstrated this reality, and perhaps communications technology—where are prevented from meeting physically in businesses, churches and leisure centres—is amplifying our awareness of it.

Even affinities of ideology or faith or race or gender don’t always matter the most when you draw near to someone, either physically or virtually. Relational proximity is something that reflects our deepest values. Simple acts of kindness are received and given. Suddenly a new positive culture arises where before there was none.

The pandemic has changed my landscape of relationships.

One of the keys I explore from our research into Positive Outliers—people who achieve and lead with a different focus— is Leaning to People. You can download my free ebook here:

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When I Made a Recruitment Blunder

One of my biggest mistakes in recruiting somebody was early when I recruited a young man, straight out of school, as a COBOL programmer. The warning sign at his interview was his reply when I asked him where he saw his work taking him:

I would like your job. I’d like to sit in an office all day and order other people around.

I smiled inwardly but at the end of the interview decided to give him a chance anyway(!). I hoped that life would quickly knock this sense of entitlement out of him as well as showing him the reality of my role as a manager.

How wrong I was.

With hindsight, I should have heeded that comment as a warning sign. After investing significantly in that young man with intensive training in the early weeks with us, he left soon afterwards for a better offer with his new qualifications, with no sense of obligation to those who had built into him.

I took several lessons from this, but what I want to explore here was his understanding of management.

What is Management?

I think management is an over-used word in the world of work.

We talk about financial management. Fair enough. We need to manage our resources. Asset management? Of course. Venue management? That makes sense as well.

But what about time management?

We live and work in time, so how can we manage it? That’s like asking a fish to do water management. Fish swim, yes. But they don’t control the water.

And how about human resource management and stakeholder management?

When we use the language of management, it is a small step to deluding ourselves that we can control others and as a manager that is what we are supposed to do. In doing so, we reduce human beings to resources, cogs in the machine,  or foot soldiers in the war effort. Choose your dehumanising metaphor. 

With stakeholder management, how would you like to be managed by someone who is in another team or even in another organisation? Which is why I prefer the term stakeholder engagement or, better still, people engagement.

If management is the ordering or control of something, then, without resorting to some form of tyranny over others, the only person I can only truly control the behaviour of is … me.

The only person you can and should control is yourself.

I can coach you. I can counsel you. I might try to persuade you. I might even model to you what I would like you to do. I could even rebuke you, argue with you, or withdraw from you; but I can’t truly manage you – unless I am a prison warden, the manager of an orphanage, or a tyrant. I can invite you to do things, but that is not essentially management. That is leadership, not management.

Deprivation of freedom is a kind of punishment. We call it imprisonment. That is what many managers seek to do.

Many subscribe to the economic transaction that if the employer pays them well enough, then the organisation ‘owns’ them for a big part of their life –– or all of it — until they are released.

Research has shown that children who learn to control themselves at an early age position themselves for success later on in life. However, quite a lot of parenting is for the convenience of the parent and enforces control.

When it comes to others around us, our colleagues, our team, line reports, we do well when we empower them and encourage them. See my post on releasing autonomy, for example. One of the leaders in my local church says,

We are not building a big church, but big people.

And there is plenty of evidence that they are succeeding, without controlling or manipulating people. People are becoming powerful in realising who they already are.

However, leading free people can be a bigger challenge than leading slaves. Being the master of a slave ship is so much easier. So many people revert to control.

The Damage of Managing People

So, when we coerce, control and dictate, we deny others their freedom and creative autonomy. When we override the wishes of others, we may get compliance, but we lose something greater and far more valuable.

We risk losing loyalty and a greater creative cohesion to a common cause. We risk losing the synergy that comes from other free individuals adding their creative fresh perspectives. When portfolio creators come together, usually something amazing and generous happens.

What About Self-Management?

I have come to realise that it is the only form of people management that is both defensible and appropriate – desirable even – is self-management. But more on that in another post.

What are your thoughts on this? Leave a comment below.

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Will you change your story?

I was with my teenage grandson walking along the Thames Southbank and we came upon the Globe Theatre, a wonderful re-creation of the original Elizabethan theatre that premiered many of the plays of Shakespeare, and we decided to take a guided tour.

Towards the end of our tour, the guide explained how in Shakespeare’s day there was a huge appetite — an industry in fact –- for plays, with something like 120 plays being performed in the Globe each year. I remarked that this was like the current phenomenon of major TV and network channels producing more series, in what seems like a veritable arms race between Netflix, Amazon, Apple TV, the BBC, HBO etc. And our guide agreed.

We love stories. There is something ingrained in every human that pays attention to a good story. For example, Jesus taught the public solely in stories, much to the frustration of the religious establishment of his day. 

Something in a recent podcast by Jeff Goins resonated with me deeply. It was his episode entitled Instead of Setting Goals, Tell a New Story. In brief, here are a few points Jeff makes:

  • At this time of year, maybe the best way to review things is not goal-setting – although there is nothing wrong with that.
  • Nor is it about setting new year resolutions[Note: I suspect if you have set them on January 1st, it is unlikely you are still keeping them all as you read this. Be honest! You’re not, are you?]
  • Instead, he explains that we are all living our story. 
  • Although it might feel uncomfortable, the turn of the year is a good time to look back on the year just gone, and consider what didn’t work, and what we might learn from that.
  • These lessons from last year’s experience might indicate that I need to change the story I am telling myself or living within.

As I explain in my work on stakeholder engagement – helping change leaders turn disinterest, apathy and sometimes downright hostility into favour, ownership and success – that storytelling is a key tool to getting and maintaining people’s attention.

There is an appetite for a good story deeply encoded in all of us.

Somehow, as we are growing up, we believe the lie from our peers – usually when we are trying to be adult – that we have grown out of stories. “Stories are for children, not for grownups.” 

What nonsense! 

So, what story am I telling myself?

Sometimes a major personal trauma helps us realise that we cannot or should not live the story we have been telling ourselves. A divorce leaves an at-home mum realising her life no longer revolves around the man who cheated on her. The widow realises that her sudden bereavement changes everything, so she gives herself permission to live another story. A loyal manager is told by his company that it has now decided to “let him go;” after his anger and his grief have abated somewhat, he realises that he now has a kind of freedom. He allows himself to live another story.

We do not need to wait for life to change our circumstances. We can change our story. Now.

Maybe we do each live out our own story.  We are the hero of our own story, as Jeff Goins pointed out. But perhaps that story isn’t the best version of us that we could live. Maybe we do need a better story. Maybe the Hero needs a bolder or different quest.

What do you think? Leave your comments. Tell me your story.

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Margin is a Change Issue

A few years ago, I was called in to consult for a large IT transformation programme in healthcare. It concerned a large teaching hospital over a number of sites across a major city. The change would be so radical to current working practices that the systems provider had even built a simulated ward where the people who worked in that hospital could experience the new system and appreciate how radically different work would be after this change.

In itself, this was a powerful visionary tool. Healthcare workers could try this simulation to experience for themselves how much better life would be for themselves and, as a consequence, for the patients they treated. It was using the principles of agile development, where you give the customer an early taste of what they could have so that they can make informed choices about the details of the new product. It acknowledged that people need to experience before they can engage proactively in what they want.

The programme was now entering a critical phase. There was barely a year before the hospital would be switched over to the new system.

You have a problem…

However, there was a problem. As I interviewed them, none of the leaders of this change in the hospital had ever visited this simulation.

As I dug deeper, I discovered that all of the leaders were chronically time-poor. Even without the change, for most of them, their other workloads were rising. Other than attending the monthly meeting on the programme, they had zero capacity to engage with the change, let alone make it a priority in their work. Few seemed to have any solutions to delegating out some of their work to create margin.

And as I probed, I discovered it got even worse. The people below these senior managers and clinical leads, the people who would be expected to learn and operate the new system – the clinicians, paramedics and administrators – had no hope of finding the time to make this change as well as running a busy hospital network.

I felt there was a kind of collective denial. It was as if everything was expected from the supplier and that at the switch over, everything should run smoothly without any involvement from them. Some of the more political members of the leadership team I suspected were expecting the change to fail, so they did not want to be associated with it too closely.

It was a car crash waiting to happen. The programme manager was frustrated with his inability to get through to his customers. It risked all the investment they had made in the programme to that point (three years in).

Lack of time margins add up

This is where time, energy and space margins for each of us as individuals cumulatively impact the margin an organisation has or doesn’t have for its own change and development.

We can plan the most elegant change, using the most progressive approaches, such as this ward simulation, but if the stakeholder receiving it does not have the margins needed for transitioning to the new, then at best it will falter, at worst fail.

So, the prerequisites for change in the organisation receiving the change are almost more important than how the change itself is planned and presented.

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Confident Boundaries

In our village, there lived a car mechanic called Don, who was also a friend. His workshop was in the next town and over time he had built a business of loyal customers who trusted him and came to him with all kinds of problems — like the time our daughter filled her petrol car with diesel and realised it on the motorway when it stalled…

When Don died, his funeral in the village church was packed. Don was very popular. One of the eulogies given that day told of a sign he had in the garage that I’d never noticed before. It read:

In effect, he was prepared to be flexible with his customers, but Don knew that he was not a miracle-worker. He was a genius at car repair and maintenance, but he would decline work if people expected too much of him.

Courage & Vulnerability

Facing the Fear of Losing Customers

What was behind this was the courage to face the fear of losing work, or of occasionally disappointing a customer who brought unrealistic expectations. His freedom lay in his courage to walk away from work if necessary.

How does that play out with the people we seek to serve?

If we convince ourselves that we have to please this particular boss or that key client, then we have moved from being a valuable partner to a powerless slave who is bound to disappoint. Sadly, this often works against us as the boss or client sees the poor quality of our work, and their value in us declines.

Dealing with the Difficult

Do you have a BATNA?

In my Dealing with the Difficult ebook, I reference the concept of BATNA: Best Alternative to a Negotiated Agreement. We negotiate from strength when we don’t have to reach an agreement. Sometimes the best alternative is to walk away from the negotiating table.

When dealing with a client, new requirements can come up all the time. The power to say No is crucial in negotiating the best way forward. But it requires us to face our fears of disappointing that powerful boss or client.

It is often better to explain parameters of what you can do, before these requests come in, like lead times you need in order to provide something appropriate. No is sometimes saying, Your urgency is not my urgency. If you give me enough time, I can deliver what you want. If you don’t, I can’t.

Inner Boundaries First

Ordering Our Private World breeds Confidence first in Us and then in the Client

Ultimately, there are three stages to this:

  1. Clarifying our inner identity and our boundaries, before engaging with anyone. This prepares us to bring our best selves to work.
  2. Setting client expectations before we begin work. This makes sure there are no surprises.
  3. The moment of tension with a surprise shift in requirements and expectations from the client.

Stage 3 goes much better if we do 2 first. And by the same token, Stage 2 goes much better when we show up having done stage 1.

Most of us need to be more like my late friend, Don.

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“No, I don’t get it ….”

“No, I’m still not getting it …”

Can you run that by me one more time?

Have you heard someone say that to you recently?

Maybe not. 

Maybe they are thinking it. 

It requires someone to trust you, feel safe around you, confident enough to speak their mind, to be brave enough to say that they don’t get it. Maybe they are just faking it, and nod in agreement. Maybe you are from an oriental culture, saying I’m not getting it to someone is perceived as rude and a sign of disrespect. So, you continue assuming your job is done.

And then there is a deeper level of not getting it. This is where their brain says, Yes, I understand, but it is purely cognitive. They recognise the idea, they might remember the words, but do they understand it? Do they experience what you are saying, by meeting someone living it, for example, or practising it themselves? 

Cultural biases to getting it

How our culture can impede our deep understanding

Some eastern cultures can limit honest confirmation of someone understanding you. This has happened to me in India, and with people from China and Japan.  

But western cultures have a different problem. In the West, we have a linear, progressive, informational understanding of knowledge and wisdom. Compare this to the Hebrew mindset, for example. Truth and wisdom is something rather more circular, something we assimilate by returning to it again and again. Whereas in the West, we want something novel, some new information; so, going over the same ground repeatedly is a real challenge for us because most of us are impatient to move on. After all, time’s short.


Run that by me again

I have been reviewing some of the maps in my Leader’s Map Room and adding a new one from Robert Fritz on the dynamic tension that leaders should create. I say a new one, but I came across this particular map or model some thirty years ago. And the dynamic tension map is still not tired or out-of-date for me.

In this map, the leader needs to create tension by clarifying and communicating the current position and the desired outcome. I heard one very successful leader once say,

“I cast the vision until I think people are sick of hearing it … and then they are just about getting it.”

When we lead people in change, the bias to under-communicate is huge. We feel we have been understood, but we need to check.

A Sounding Board

Get a fool to replay it back

One way is to ask someone to replay what you said. 

A story, probably apocryphal but I love it, was when Napoleon was told about a man who had a severe social impediment, which was that whenever there was any ambiguity, this man would take the wrong interpretation. It would intensely annoy people around him. But to Bonaparte, this was a great gift, such that he employed this man to come on campaigns with him as an aide, so that whenever he wrote out a command to one of his marshals in the heat of battle, he would give it to “Napoleon’s Fool” first, to tell the Emperor what he thought it meant. If the “Fool” responded with the wrong interpretation, Napoleon would rewrite the command until it was crystal clear.

And what about us? How much of what we think we understand is still only a superficial, surface understanding? Sometimes, it is in adversity that we dig deep and grow in our understanding of deep truths. 

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Bright Spots

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Bright Spots

The Positive Deviants

A few years ago I read Switch: How to Change Things when Change is Hard by the Heath brothers. It remains one of my favourite books on the whole subject of change. 

One particular section has stayed with me: the idea of the bright spots, the positive deviants, as academics call them, who can model and lead a positive change.

The Heath brothers tell the story of how Jerry Sternin helped change a whole nation, Vietnam, thereby saving millions of lives. And he did this by working through those few who positively modelled the kind of behaviours he knew would be crucial. These positive outliers were a few Vietnamese mothers whose anomalous, counter-cultural behaviours helped save their children from malnutrition. It was through these mothers that he helped to promote a national cookery programme, almost village by village, that saw national child mortality rates plummet.

This chimed with so much of my research around the high-performers in programme and project management. These people led the way – or, at least, they showed the way. The more I learned about these high performers, the more it encouraged me to challenge the status quo of what it means to lead a change well, particularly in more formal project contexts.

It also encouraged me that the unusual practices of these extraordinary performers, their behaviours, their rituals and their thought processes, were habits within the reach of the rest of us. We could learn from their approaches. And with some resolve and focus, we could get the same results.

Positive Outliers

They do something right

I prefer to call this group Positive Outliers. They are positive models in that they show in practice what is truly a superior way to work and lead change. They are outliers in that their performance is not normal or usual.

This led me on a journey, making sense of this by writing and coaching, that resulted in publishing my first book, Practical People Engagement: Leading Change through the Power of Relationships (2013), about what the majority mistakenly call “stakeholder management” – became an instant success. It was adopted by an international accrediting body as their core reference for their stakeholder engagement qualification.

Then, three years ago, I brought out my second solo book, Leading Yourself: Succeeding from the Inside Out. This deals with what business schools call personal mastery, how leaders begin with themselves, their private internal world, and build in certain personal practices that come to have a huge pay-off.

Soul Journal

An Internal, Generative Conversation

However, there is more on this internal world that has been a huge benefit to me and my work, a habit that has affected all other areas of my life. And, as is often the way of these things, I was not the first to discover it.

But more on that in my next post.

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Thinking well enough of the other person

I remember when I had a role in a large corporate, years ago. I described a particular director to a colleague as difficult. They were surprised.

“Really? I know he is a bit gruff, but he really means well. Catch him in the right moment and he will listen to you.”

And so it was. I realised when I had thought about it later that I had made a case against this man on the basis of little or no evidence. And it hampered my ability to relate to him, as well as influence him.

There are opportunities to influence people that we may have closed down unwittingly because, in our own estimation, we have written them off. We have limited our expectancy of them in our own minds. “Oh, they are hopeless,” we think and say. 

And right there, we have created the real problem. 

In effect, we have projected onto that person (and this applies to a group as well) a stereotype that they are impervious to persuasion. In the process, we disempower ourselves. We make ourselves their victim. Our attitude is as if we have a mental map with a sign that says, “Change attempts do not work here.”

What if we were doing this differently? If we think the best of people first, then we are likely to see potential in them that they don’t even see in themselves. This approach positions us to inspire them and to lead them. Often leadership is first about calling out the best in people. 

We love leaders when they do that in us. 

In stakeholder engagement, we discuss the stakeholder engagement strategy. Yet, the most basic strategy stands or falls by the hope we bring to it. If we don’t expect a lot of the people involved, then it is likely to be a self-fulfilling prophecy. However, if we think the best of them, we set ourselves up for surprising success. 

What could you do change your view of that person or group?

Leave your comment below.

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Keeping People in Frustrated Incompetence

Photo by Ehimetalor Unuabona on Unsplash

As change leaders – and most of us are change leaders at some time or another – we can have quite a high appetite for change. When we lead a change, we look to persuade others around us to come along. Yet, what is the effect on our customers and our colleagues of a perceived endless series of changes?

In my previous article on the Matrix Body Farm, I considered how the valuable margin in our work to serve others can be eroded or removed altogether by the growing trend towards micro-control through targets. 

There is another unintentional effect that keeps people incompetent, and it is driven by those of us who are change leaders!

Now, we like to think of ourselves as the good guys, the people who change the world for the better. Sure, there may be pain in the journey, but ultimately we tell ourselves that are there to make our organisations better, that this pain we inflict is worth it. 

Well, my wife and I were talking with some friends about the brutalising effects information systems can have on healthcare, when she recalled her time as a receptionist at a doctors’ practice. She is very much a people-focused administrator, so medical receptionist was a good match fit for her at the time. Yet, she said this:

Just when we were getting used to the new system, they changed it. And they kept changing it!

One of the oldest change management models — maps, I call them — comes from Kurt Lewin. It has stood the test of time because this map is simple, yet powerful. Here’s a video from my Leader’s Map Room

Lewin’s Map

When people say, “I just don’t know what is normal anymore,” and they keep on saying that over time, yes, they are incompetent, but maybe we have made them that way. And we keep them that way. Just when they are just about to discover the new normal, we come along with our next wave of change. 

Maybe when we keep changing things, we keep people in incompetence. They never have the opportunity to gain mastery.

It’s the refreeze of the Lewin Map, that is crucial. If we keep people from entering their own refreeze stage, it’s as if we are keeping them in liquid incompetence, a very uncomfortable place to live and work.

Check out the Leader’s Map Room for more of these maps.

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Are We Creating a Matrix Body Farm?

The best fiction is often a compelling allegory or parable of reality.

The best fiction is often a compelling allegory or parable of reality. In the movie The Matrix, we see our hero, Neo, becoming confused by strange aberrations to his normal dull existence, until one day he is confronted by a choice, to take the red pill and find out, or the blue pill and everything becomes usual and familiar again. Morpheus says to him,

This is your last chance. After this, there is no turning back. You take the blue pill – the story ends, you wake up in your bed and believe whatever you want to believe. You take the red pill – you stay in Wonderland and I show you how deep the rabbit-hole goes.”

The Matrix

Neo takes the red pill and the nightmare appears to begin. He sees reality, and it is shocking. He and other human beings being farmed for their energy, whilst unwittingly thinking they are living normal lives.

This is, I believe, a good parable of what we have done with some traditional management approaches. We have been reduced to parts of a machine. We feel we must follow the process to function and so be of value to the system. When we are no longer useful, we can be dispensed with and retired.

In a previous article, I explored the phenomenon in human relationships where positives attract; that is, where genuine positive regard for others is often a surprising means of influence. This is a strange phenomenon, where the physics of human relationships are the opposite of those in the material world.

If positives attract in human relationships, then the negatives ones drain.

Where scarcity is acute in organisations, the culture shifts towards task orientation and away from serving people. People in that organisation, begin to experience undue stress and it damages relationships around them. This erosion of relationships becomes particularly mission-critical in service organisations, where valuable clues are picked up by serving the customer well.

When the culture shifts in service organisations away from serving to meeting targets, relationships suffer.

Here in the UK, I see this in public sector schools, as well as in the state-funded National Health Service. The drive to maximise the use of these scarce resources by central government departments expresses itself in adding more exacting targets and micro-controls on the practitioner.

The public education systems seem to distract the focus of the teacher from helping their students. The teacher has increasing demands to satisfy operational targets. They seek to meet their external targets, write reports, and so on. They no longer have the time and energy margins to craft learning paths tailored for each child.

Highly-trained physicians can only give 10-minute surgery appointments, 20-minutes if you are depressed(!). Fewer and fewer general practitioners can bear the demands of working fulltime. Nurses who began their careers from some sense of wanting to care for the sick and vulnerable, now see themselves in a stressed system that exhausts them and makes them ill. Sick leave and vacancy rates rise as career lengths shorten.

The culture of many target-driven organisations becomes quite toxic.

Yet more policy measures only seem to remove more margin from relationships vital to healing. I see these aspects of fear and blame and they create a quite toxic culture. Like some autoimmune disease where cells start attacking other healthy cells, everybody loses out.

It’s time to find the positive outliers in these cultures, those people, who despite it all, still get exceptional results. We need to study them, find out what they are doing, and help them to support their colleagues in doing likewise. It’s time to question top-down performance mandates and look for exceptional excellent within our organisations before they are driven out as part of the by-product of our change initiatives.

It’s time to do something brave and unplug ourselves from the kind of body farm in the Matrix movie.

It’s time to do something brave and unplug ourselves from the Matrix body farm of target-driven excess.

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Discover & Practice the Seven Key Areas that All High Performers Share

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