Archives for category: Leadership

This year’s Oscars and the Best Picture mix-up gave me the perfect excuse to explore one of my favourite topics – how humans make mistakes and why we so often, fail to prevent them.

As everyone not currently living in a jungle without access to electronic media knows, the wrong movie was announced for best picture because the wrong envelope was given to presenter Warren Beatty.

It seems so simple – a distracted PwC representative (and who wouldn’t be in that environment) hands the wrong envelope to Warren Beatty. Simple human error, right? Shoot the perpetrator and move on… Yes and no.

When something like this happens, the media (and many of us) howl for someone’s head because – we collectively wonder – “How could they stuff up so badly?”

The more spectacular the mistake, the more vengeance that is demanded and despite living in the Internet age and considering ourselves socially evolved, many still want blood in some form when someone makes a mistake, commits a crime or causes an accident. (Just listen to the fans at a sports event when the umpire gets a decision wrong!)

The urge to punish, harks back to the beginning of human history and is demonstrated by the masses that until relatively recently in our history, would come out to witness witch burnings, beheadings or hangings, regardless of whether the ‘guilty’ person was in fact guilty.

The problem is that while vengeance or punishment might be satisfying and can have a damping effect on the intentional violation of rules, (although if it was really effective we would have no-one in prison) it is entirely ineffective in preventing mistakes.

Mistakes are a normal result of the limitations of human cognition. We all make mistakes. Mistakes come in many forms but essentially, are an unintended outcome from a specific action.

So can we prevent mistakes? No – and anyone who tells you otherwise, does not understand human cognitive limits and the behaviour that can follow.

It is quite simply impossible to create a mistake-free world, but we can do a pretty good job of preventing mistakes from having a negative outcome, by creating systems and processes that trap them. It is in this that PwC seems to have failed spectacularly. How?

For convenience, they had a system of duplicate envelopes with the details of the winners in each category and this allowed presenters to enter from different sides of the stage, presumably to make the flow on and off stage, more efficient.

However, this was such an obvious opportunity for error to creep in, it should have been held in check by a protective system – perhaps something as simple as disposal of the spare envelopes, following the announcement of each category. Had this happened, no amount of distraction would have caused the eventual chaos and embarrassment that occurred, and the PwC representatives would not have to be in hiding…

So, as we slowly put down the flaming torches and pitchforks, it might be helpful to work out where the human error sequence actually began. After all, this is the only way to prevent the same thing from happening again.

In reality there were numerous places where this error might have been trapped and embarrassment avoided – beginning with the design of the process for handing out the envelopes, the lack of a 2-person verification system as each category approached and finally the lack of an envelope disposal system, as each category was announced.

The person handing the envelopes to the presenter, was simply the last domino to fall. Laying all the blame at the feet of the PwC person handing out the cards may be convenient but will not solve the problem of a re-occurrence. The system needs to be changed.

This is where cries of derision usually erupt, objecting to ‘blaming the system’ for our own faults and yet this is an approach that can dramatically reduce mistakes which create negative outcomes and in fact, has transformed safety in many industries, beginning with aviation, which has become the safest form of transportation ever devised.

In aviation safety, the concept of ‘pilot error’ was retired long ago (although the media doggedly hangs onto it for effect) and instead, the entire environment in which mistakes occur is scrutinised, sometimes beginning as far back as the design of the aircraft. Aviation leads the world in the understanding of what we call Human Factors – the cognitive and behavioural weaknesses in humans, that lead to mistakes and in creating systems that trap errors before they cause harm. We proceed with the absolute certainty that humans are incredibly creative and will, inadvertently, find a way around whatever error prevention process we put in place, so we diligently work to create layered defences of processes, actions, double checks and warnings that keep us all safe in the air. Importantly, pilots and engineers are usually not punished for mistakes (as distinct from intentional violations) and are encouraged to self-report errors so that lessons can be learned.

How effective is this approach to preventing negative outcomes from mistakes?

In 2015 3.2 Billion people flew on the world’s airlines yet there was not a single loss of a jet airliner and no resulting deaths. In the same period 1.2 million people died on the world’s roads. That’s quite a contrast…

So next time you are tempted to unload on your favourite error-prone employee, ask yourself, “How much of this do I (or the organisation) own?” Then set about examining the whole picture, not just the hapless individual in your cross-hairs.

Advertisements

One of the more common phrases I have heard from managers struggling with what appears to be a failing employee, is “I will just have to manage them out.”

This idea has always puzzled me. What they are effectively saying is that they will have to go through the required steps of ‘performance management’ in order to get rid of this person. In other words, the decision is made, so now we just have to build a paper trail and get rid of them without getting into trouble.

With this singular change of mindset, we have moved from using coaching as a tool to gain improvement, to a hollow sham, required to terminate someone’s employment without getting sued.

By necessity this involves deception, as the employee thinks they are getting help when in fact the leader is just ‘going through the motions’ towards a predetermined outcome. I have never understood how any business can justify this kind of behaviour and still claim to have a good leadership culture. It is utter nonsense and also completely unnecessary.

Over the years, when I have been asked to coach a manager struggling with this process, I have usually found that the reason they are stressed is that they know they have not offered the employee the kind of coaching or mentoring that they should have. Maybe they don’t have the skills or just haven’t prioritised it highly enough but now the pressure is on and they don’t know what to do.

I usually begin the session with a series of diagnostic questions. So Allison, let’s start with the records of their training, the coaching you have done, their probationary reports and annual reviews and see what we have.”

Awkward silence usually follows.

“Ahh, I think I have some diary notes somewhere.” Shuffle, shuffle. More silence”

And don’t think this only happens with small businesses. I have sat across the table from HR Directors at very large companies, asking the same questions, asking them to show me evidence of what policies applied and what was done to help the employee only to have the same result. Even large companies with outwardly good reputations and ‘values’ (brands you would know) struggle to have any kind of consistency in how they deal with their people.

Companies that use robust recruiting methods (behavioural profiling, job profiling and properly trained interviewers) start off on the right track but it has to be followed up. During the probation period which us usually 6 months, the ‘new hire’ needs regular coaching sessions with their leader to ensure they are on the right track and have all the support they need.

In Australia, a Learner Driver needs 100 hours of active mentoring in varied road conditions before being given a licence and even then, has restrictions on them for years afterwards yet some companies are happy to hand over a job to someone after a tour of the office and the tea room. Training will be offered if the job has a technical element but often it is just a case of ‘get on with the job’ and opportunities to shape the performance of the new person are lost. Importantly they are often left to interpret the workplace culture without any help, so it’s no wonder many struggle through their first year…

In most cases if the leader carries out effective and thorough probation coaching and mentoring, it will be clear if the person is not suited to the job, long before the company ‘owns’ them. It will also be clear to the employee and they may leave of their own accord, which is as it should be.

Effective leadership and coaching can also catch problems long before they become serious enough to consider ‘managing someone out. Most problems can be corrected and can even be prevented if we ask ourselves as leaders, “Could anyone else have made the same mistake or had the same problem?”  If the answer is yes, then we have a ‘system problem’ not an employee one and getting rid of this person won’t make any difference.

In any case, prevention is the always best option and that starts with effective leadership and coaching from Day 1, not just when the calendar pings and tells you it’s time for their annual review. (If you have to think about what to write at annual review time, it means you haven’t been paying attention.)

However, if you get to the point that you have offered the employee all the help and assistance there is available, have documented your efforts and their commitment to improve and their performance is still not satisfactory, you might find that again, they leave voluntarily but if not, you can let them go, knowing you have done everything you can.

As a bonus the steps you have gone through to help them, also take care of your obligations to offer assistance and support.

Importantly, your other employees will see this and know you are a person of integrity and that can only be good…

 

This well-known saying often attributed to French lawyer and politician Alexandre Auguste Ledru-Rollin, highlights the balancing act required of politicians in our society but the behaviour of some, begs the question;

Are they truly our representatives or do they dance to their own tune?

In a representative democracy, politicians are sent to parliament or congress to put forward the views and aspirations of the people who elected them but once there, they must make laws for all citizens and there is where the problems can begin.

In most countries, elections are only held every 3-4 years so there is an inevitable lag between voter intent and political action, yet in the 21st century, the mood of the public has never been more evident to those in power. There are polls almost daily that seek to take the temperature of the electorate and these have shown that in most Western nations, the broader public has consistently proven to be ahead of governments on key social and even geopolitical issues, so why it is that more than a few elected representatives seem to be actively pulling in the opposite direction?

The 2016 election ‘circus’ in the US was ample evidence of this phenomenon with some candidates putting enormous effort in to being as far from the ‘mainstream’ (i.e. rational thinking) as possible but it is also apparent in Australia at present, where polls indicate that an important civil rights issue due to be put before a national referendum will pass with a significant majority, yet a number of politicians have already announced they will vote against the proposal, even if the nation votes in favour of it.

In a country where voting is compulsory and participation is close to 100%, the intent of the people is rarely in doubt, so how does their personal agenda even warrant a mention?

Notwithstanding that post the next election these folks will likely be unemployed,  there is in their behaviour, a cautionary note for us all. The GFC has painfully brought home the lesson that when people are entrusted with our money or granted authority over us, we must actively take an interest in what they are doing and saying and if they seem to be acting in their own interests rather than ours, we must hold them accountable.

As the old Russian proverb goes: “Trust but verify”. To do otherwise is asking for trouble.

The message for leaders? Staying in touch with your customers and your people is critical. If you are not paying attention they may change direction and you will be left running after them, trying to figure out what went wrong…

 

Carrying out a ‘performance management’ (I prefer performance improvement) discussion can be one of the most challenging tasks a leader can undertake.

Many leaders avoid these altogether or try to palm them off onto HR.Some wait until the pain of non-performance is so great that it exceeds the discomfort of having the discussion.

The truth it that it doesn’t have to be that hard. Really…

So how can you reduce the discomfort?

Well first, let me repeat my suggested NAKED LEADERSHIP problem solving mantra:

When despite your best efforts, something goes wrong and someone screws up, the first question you need to ask is

“How much of this do I own?”

That’s right – you, the company and anyone with a degree of influence over what has gone wrong.

You must with excruciating fairness, thoroughly explore the procedures and processes, including recruitment and selection, the communication, timely feedback, measurement, coaching and training (all documented of course!) and anything else that you have a responsibility to provide, to see if it has gone awry.

If you don’t bother and you eventually fire the employee, anything missing in the above can be cause for an unfair dismissal case.

More importantly, this process can help identify if someone else is likely to have the same problem. if that is possible, then you have a system problem more than an employee one and ‘shooting’ this person is not going to change that.

If after reviewing these key areas, you come to the conclusion that you have done as much as you can to help your team member onto the right path and they are not performing, you need to find out why and that means a coaching meeting.

Now a key point: Never, Never get emotionally involved in the issue. It may affect you and even your own KPIs but it is essential that you ‘park’ this and that it remains an objective discussion about the problem not the person.

You must play the role of an Umpire and a Coach.

  • In any performance meeting your job is to gather as many available facts and evidence as you can and then treat it like a mystery or a puzzle: The mystery is: Why is this employee not performing as required?

This is an entirely different approach to going in and telling them to pick up their game or else!

If you attack they will fight back, or dodge the issue or cry or call the union or HR. That’s Humans 101.

Remaining calm and impartial can help people accept responsibility to self correct.

It is crucial that you ask ‘open’ questions and let them do most of the talking. This can be as simple as sitting down and factually laying out the areas of concern. Avoid any emotional statements or accusations.

Use neutral questioning language such as: “Jeff I wanted to talk to you because I have noticed that your last three reports have been submitted at least two days late and contained a number of errors (place the reports on the table for him to review) . I have looked over the performance requirements of your role and your training in this area (place these on the table for him as well) . Can you have a look and help me understand how this has come about?”

Do not speak again until he does. Allow as much time as it takes.The silence is a tool – avoid filling it with personal justification for talking to him. In other words Shut up…

Your whole purpose is to provide information and then have Jeff measure himself against his job description, work requirements and any instructions you have given him.

When he comments he may simply accept responsibility or may try to make excuses. Either way you need to ask him if there is any specific reason why this is happening. Remember we are trying to determine the cause, not pin the blame.

  • Avoiding unnecessary criticism or visible annoyance (including tone of voice) can get much better results.
  • Remember you are not doing anything to Jeff. You are simply holding him responsible for the work for which he is being paid.
  • It may take some practice to remain detached but it makes it a better process for everyone. The employee doesn’t feel like a naughty child and you don’t feel like an angry parent.

If you get emotionally involved, you are as the old saying goes “Making a Monkey for your own back”. Getting emotionally involved can cause you to say things that you will regret or be perceived as unprofessional or hostile. Not a good look.

After he has clearly seen the contrast between what is required and what he has been doing, ask:

“So Jeff, as I have pointed out, your work is important to our team and I really need to be able to rely on you. Can you tell me how you plan to get back on track?”

Get specifics and a commitment within a time frame that works for you.(You must allow a reasonable time to correct performance). You also need to offer any reasonable support to help him. That is not only a requirement under most workplace laws it is good business. replacing employees is expensive!

Remember it is not your job to do Jeff’s job, it is his.

You simply need to provide him with necessary resources and support so he can perform. If he consistently fails to perform you simply repeat the process but let him know that this cannot continue happening.

I have found this approach usually identifies problems and in the vast majority of cases, the employee accepts responsibility and self corrects. Most people want to do a good job but they also need to have an Umpire and Coach to keep them on track.

Playing this role is a lot less stressful than playing judge and executioner.

Remember a coach can still ‘bench’ or replace a player if necessary.

Hanging in our bathroom at home is a lovely framed Ken Duncan photograph that depicts a small wooden row-boat anchored in the still waters of a wide blue lake. The caption reads-“Silence is sometimes the best Answer’. I couldn’t agree more. (I have attached it below in case some of you are feeling stressed right now. Take a minute…breathe… and look at it…)

Recently, I have been participating in Linked-in conversation regarding how to deal with an ‘Insubordinate employee’ and as I was writing my response, that lovely image came to mind, so I offered some perspective to the group.

I thought it may be worth sharing this with my wider audience, in case it might be of use.

From the outset, the use of the term ‘Insubordinate’ irked me. It is an old military term and despite being ex-military myself, I find it smacks of oppressive thinking, low E.Q. and an inflexible mind.

I have not found very many situations where a leader using a Socratic investigative method has not been able to determine that there is far more to the situation than someone simply saying ‘No.’  The word ‘Insubordination’ has no place in the modern business world.

The simple truth is that ‘normal’ people do not usually get up one day, dress for work and say to themselves “Today-I am going to get myself fired.” There is always a reason.

For many years as a leader, performance management arbitrator, lecturer and consultant, I have consistently applied the methodology of Aviation Human Factors Investigation in dealing with performance issues.

So what has that got to do with dealing with ‘Sonia the Serial Stuff-up’?  Well, it has to do with the ‘Why’.

Quite often after an aircraft accident, you will hear the term; ‘pilot error’ bandied about by uneducated commentators but in reality, it is never used in aviation investigations because we know that situations almost never arise out of a single event and unless you address all of the causal factors, you are likely to see the same thing happen again. It is this kind of thinking that had made aviation the safest widespread technological endeavour in human history.

As leaders, we sometimes have too little objectivity and let our emotions get away from us. In Naked Leadership® I coined a term known as DIS-connecting. (No I didn’t invent the concept of disconnecting your toaster before sticking a knife in it to retrieve an errant muffin – that is natural selection at work!) 

The DIS is short for Dynamic Internalised Separation and the key is that it is Dynamic. You must actively take time to divorce your emotions from any comment you might make in tense situations. There is a complex cascading biochemical reaction that occurs when we are under stress (i.e. an employee telling us to do physically impossible things with ourselves) and it inhibits rational thinking for both the manager and the team member.

So best to sit down with your team member and ask them to start at the beginning and tell you everything.

Naked Clue #2′ is Ask Questions and Shut Up and Listen” for a reason. It works… My favourite opener is to sit back and ask  

So Jenny-What’s up?

If they start babbling incoherently and defending their actions you can say: “Hang on a second – sit back and take a breath. No-one is getting shot today – I just want to find out what this is all about”.

It is amazing the relief you see on their faces and they then quite often feel obliged to be honest because you have treated them calmly and fairly. 

The more carefully crafted questions you ask and the longer you listen without speaking – the more you will find out. Any good detective or military interrogator knows this. In my case, even when I think they are finished speaking, I count to ten mentally, before saying anything. Usually the thoughtful silence will bring out more information. I repeat this until I can get to ten seconds without further comments and then I ask another open question related to the event.

If you are patient you will eventually find out what has caused this issue and then you can deal with the source of the problem, rather than chopping of the head of the person who happened to inadvertently bring it to you.

I have experienced very few situations where the person offering the inappropriate statement or action will not apologise at the end of the conversation and as a bonus; you have usually found that this situation affects more than one person, so you have an opportunity to benefit the whole department or company.

It takes much more time than shooting someone but the benefits far outweigh the costs…Image

In some organisations there seems to be a love-fest with saying things that mean nothing or using entirely the wrong words or phrases to describe what you want to do.

Add in the wide variety of corporate jargon and you can have a recipe for confusion and inaction.

Recently I saw an apt cartoon that read “Seriously, if I hear the word Strategic one more time I am going to hurl!”

I agree! What people misusing terms like this don’t realise, is the corporate cringe that accompanies it. (Slap forehead-Not again!)

Strategic is LONG term Structural planning, Tactical is SHORT term actionable. You don’t solve the problem of a photocopier out of paper by developing a team strategy… You just fix it…

Many years ago working in the US, I learned a game to play at management team meetings. (You may have a version you have used) each of the department managers would pick a several terms of jargon prior to the meeting and then as each one was used, it was subtly marked off the list. The first person to complete their list whispered ‘Bingo’.

It was a fun way to remain aware of ‘nothing’ words or phrases. Politicians are famous for speaking a lot and saying nothing but they are often left in the dust by corporate leaders.

I have, over the years, noted that the issuance of this kind of waffle has a direct relationship to distance from the front line – effectively the further from where the money is made, the more waffle. (I am thinking of calling it ‘Bentley’s theorem’)

Here are some gems I have heard in the past:

“Re-crystalising our objectives”:

Translation: What the hell do we do now?

 “Reinvigorating team synergy”:

Translation: “How do I stop you people fighting?”

 “Feedback is a gift”:                      

Translation: “I think your work is crap but I don’t have the moral courage to actually say that and then help you get better. By the way it’s not re-giftable so don’t you dare give any to me!“

And my favourite:

Paradigm shift: Defined by Urban Dictionary[1] as:

Has no real meaning, but people like to pretend it does.

E.g. “Now that I am the manager, we are going to experience a paradigm shift in the marketing department”

If you want to have fun in a meeting you can politely say: “I’m not really sure what that means – can you explain please?”

If they waffle again you can ask: “Can you help me with a way to explain that in plain language to my front-line people?”

This kind of language is often used to disguise the fact that the person speaking has no idea what to do or how to do it.

When questioned they will often say:

 ‘Let’s take this off-line and discuss after the meeting”

“Translation:  “I don’t know what it means, so I can’t explain it to you”

As a leader it is best to avoid any kind of jargon. If you can’t say it in plain language then don’t say it. You need you people to trust you so being straightforward, even if the news is bad, is the way to go.

While some good, in terms of behavioural awareness came out of the ‘self-help craze’, people who walk around spouting Guru talk are usually not acting on any of the principles they espouse or misunderstand them completely.

As the old saying goes-“Beware of the man on the street corner saying his prayers” because isn’t it funny how the most pious/conservative/rigid/judgemental people often turn out to be the most corrupt…

You don’t need to walk around using catch phrases, jargon, corporate affirmations or frothing company values.

People are smarter than you may think and you will get a reputation as someone to be ignored or parodied.

If you lead well and people trust you, they will absorb the company values (provided that they actually mean something and apply to everyone in their jobs).

Avoid talking about your philosophy or beliefs, instead incorporate them into your everyday behaviour.

That’s what being Naked is all about.

[1] http://www.urbandictionary.com/define.php?term=paradigm+shift

I was on one of the many  People/Business/HR forums I monitor  and came across a post asking how to deal with ‘insubordinate employees’. What a loaded question!

How could a Naked Leader not respond to that! Here is my little rant.Enjoy!

“Firstly – define insubordinate…  Just the use of this terminology indicates that the leader’s ego is engaged and not in a good way.

Far too many leaders get precious about feedback. If your people cannot be open and honest with you-even blunt-you have failed already.

One of my favourite quotes is attributed to Eleanor Roosevelt (but is actually much older than that): To paraphrase it- “No-one can insult you without your permission.”

If you are an effective, emotionally mature leader (or human) it will be almost impossible to be offended by anyone. The fact that you feel offended or see their behaviour as ‘insubordinate’ means that you have made the transaction about you – not the problem at hand.

Here’s a clue from Naked Leadership®: Leadership is not about you it is about them…

The term insubordinate means literally that you perceive that they are no longer ‘subordinate to you’ i.e. they have dared to address you as an equal. This smacks of insecurity and arrogance.

What I suggest to all of my clients and seminar attendees is that if one of your employees walks up to you and says: “You suck!” Or words to that effect, rather than getting all upset, you simply reply: ”Thanks for the feedback. Can you explain in exactly what way I suck?”

This has two immediate effects: it reflects back to the person what they have just said and disarms them because they are expecting a fight and it allows you to question them further to find out the source of their discontent. No normal person takes this kind of extreme (and almost certainly job threatening) action without a very good reason.

A good leader practices mental Aikido. They move out of the way of the attack and assess their adversary.

It has been my experience over quite a few decades as a leader and as a coach that if we engage the complainers rather than reacting to them, we might find that they are the only people willing to tell us the truth. I stress to my clients that they seek out what we here call the ‘whingers’ and find out what is bothering them. It is rarely without justification.

The aviation industry long ago learned to decrease as much as possible, the ‘power gradient’ between the Captain and the rest of the crew. A power gradient builds mistrust, fear of speaking up and creates an inability to determine a problem before is has negative effects. It can directly lead to accidents with catastrophic results.

A leader must have the ability to take all manner of feedback and dispassionately evaluate it. We have to be open to the idea that we can be wrong.

So the question is: If you are easily offended by employee comments-should you really be a leader? I would suggest that the answer is no.

If you take the time to Ask Questions and Shut up and Listen (Naked Clue #2)® you may find that there is key information in their discontent.

As a leader you have to be the Coach and the Umpire. You have to be emotionally Disconnected from any situation in order to make good judgements.

If people can trust you enough to be honest, even brutally so, you have an opportunity to fix whatever is wrong before it spreads the damage – in effect: to get out in front of the challenge and focus on prevention.

In other words… to Lead….

This personal extension of Descartes’ moment of illumination has begun to be more apparent to me as the years go by.

(Make yourself a coffee – this is going to be a long one)

Over the last decade, I have become more acutely aware that we are being conditioned to think less and less or at least, to avoid thinking critically and this enables all manner of injustice to be perpetuated with little outcry.

Case in point: At present in my state, the government has begun a ‘war on motorcycle gangs’ and has banned many such organisations from gathering together. Mind you, they don’t have to be gathering to commit a crime, just getting together.

This, according to some media, has widespread support in the community and clearly the government has ‘shown leadership’ by taking action to curb a crime wave initiated by these individuals.

As my personal motto is ‘Question everything’ I decided to explore for myself, what surely must be some significant justification for the government to pre-emptively remove the rights of some of its citizens. Surely the widespread fear of these rampaging violent criminals so frequently reported in the media, must validate all possible methods to keep us safe?

Unfortunately, it didn’t take very long to realise that this appears to be another case of A war on….(insert distraction of the month here)’  Yep – another ‘war on terror’ which turned out to be a tragic farce built on falsehoods which made the world a much less safe place.

Bur please don’t believe me, according to the state police’s own statistics[1] these ‘gang members’ account for .04% of the crime in the state.[2]

So let’s do a little thought experiment and use these numbers to look at an activity that these ‘violent criminals’ are most likely to be involved in.

According to official statistics, there were 5338 reported ‘violent acts’ (not convictions mind you) in 2011-12. Now applying the governments percentage of crimes carried out by ‘outlaw motorcycle gangs’ we can deduce that these individuals could accused of – wait for it – 2 violent acts’. That’s right 2.

Now of course this is a statistical average and a portion of total crime but even if we allowed 10 times this rate there would still only be 20. If we multiplied this rate by 100 there would still only be 200 alleged violent acts and even police admit that this is usually amongst clubs, not with the public. 

Even if this 100 times multiple was true, it would still be 200 alleged acts in a state population of 4.5 million. Yet the current government has cleverly manufactured a climate of fear where a citizen’s right to freedom of association can be removed based on who their friends are… Fear is a powerful logic anaesthetic.

Crime wave? It’s not even a ripple but someone wants you to believe it is… Why is that?

Was P.T Barnum right? Are suckers really born every minute? Unfortunately yes…

Why? Because as humans, we react much more quickly and with much more vigour to our emotions than to logic. It is part of our survival mechanism that evolved over aeons but in the 21st century should our emotions still be leading us by the nose, even subconsciously?

What’s the harm? I mean really – logic is such a party pooper, a spoiler, a wet blanket. It is the person who sits behind you in the theatre and whispers “Vader is Luke’s father” or “The kid sees dead people so Bruce Willis must be dead” or “Red John is….” (just kidding).

What’s wrong with reacting emotionally? Well nothing – if it is for entertainment or fun or love or kindness or any other of the wonderful experiences that allow us to fully experience the richness of life but what about when weighing up truth or falsehood? Or seeing though media hype (If it bleeds it leads) to realise that what is happening is wrong? What about when administering justice or ensuring fairness?

That’s when we have to take a cold shower – even more so when we hold leadership positions. Leaders have the leverage and opportunity to promote a personal agenda or demonstrate our dislike of someone if we choose. This is because employees are vulnerable and not all leaders are objective.

As an employee, when we go to work for a company we exchange certain freedoms for a salary. This is a normal contractual type of arrangement and of course is voluntary. If we don’t like it we can leave. However, the unseen leverage begins the moment we become reliant on the financial security that a job often provides. This ‘security’ quietly permeates all areas of our lives and relationships and over time, particularly if we have children or do not have a partner earning enough to support the whole family, begins to open a door through which all kinds of nasty things can enter.

If we didn’t ‘need’ our jobs, bullying would be almost non-existent. We could invoke the vernacular cry ‘take your job and shove it’ and walk out.

In the real world however, this is often not an option. Unscrupulous, immature or low EQ[3] leaders can use all kinds of methods to ‘control’ their employees, to their satisfaction. For example, if the leader prefers quiet, they can insist that all the team whisper or pass notes in order to communicate. Sound ridiculous? I know someone to whom this happened. Team morale plummets and work becomes like a prison. You hate it but you can’t escape.

If there is one who stands up or protests, the same leader/s can describe this person unfavourably to other leaders and generally poison the well. Pretty soon an environment is created that is emotionally hostile to this person and because a number of others now share this opinion (not based on experience but hearsay) it makes the environment intolerable and what would ordinarily be an outstanding employee leaves or becomes ill with stress.

That is why we leaders we have both a practical and moral duty to think critically and clearly about everything we hear and see, in order to remain objective.  We must remain, (as I have said for many years in Naked Leadership sessions) The Coach and the Umpire’ – in this case the Umpire function being critical.

If we are told unfavourable stories about an employee we are inheriting, it is tempting to accept these as ‘real’ experiences from another leader’s perspective and treat them as accurate because as humans we are wired to enjoy a gritty story or scandal otherwise those Kardashians would be unemployed!

As the great 20th century philosopher Henley once observed: “This year notoriety got all confused with fame” and this is because gossip strongly appeals to our emotions and feels ‘real’.

In reality though, I have found that the people spoken most unfavourably of by their former manager, inevitably turned out to be my best most productive team members when give a fair chance.

People described as ‘adversarial’ ‘unprofessional’ or ‘difficult’ usually turn out to be the thinkers who can add real value to the organisation by exposing the ‘dumb stuff’ or at the least prompting a fresh look at what we are doing and how. As I relay in Naked Leadership®, whether I am consulting to or working within an organisation, I will go to the ‘whiners/whingers/complainers’ first and ask them to tell me all of their issues.

Often they are the only ones with the courage or relative freedom (they don’t need the job) to do so.

I can confidently say that in the vast majority of my experiences over the last decade and a half, it has turned out to be the leader, not the employee that is the problem

So how to deal with this and other issues where things that appear to be ‘facts’ are nothing more than distortions, myths, fabrications or simply lies?

Well personally, I rely on the cornerstone of the Naked philosophy which I nakedly adapted from Socrates. Ask questions then shut up and listen.

When someone uses a non-specific term like ‘adversarial’ ask them specifically how the employee demonstrates this. If the term ‘difficult’ or the like is used, again ask for a specific list of actions and situations so you can understand what is actually occurring.

Keep going until you have asked for detailed descriptions of every alleged behaviour. It will usually become clear after one or two questions that the leader is the problem and often they will suddenly have other things to do rather than stay and ply you with tales of miscreant employees.

Our world has changed. News has changed from reliable information into ‘infotainment’, the Internet both provides information for critical analysis and a platform for loonies and these days a whole range of media outlets can be owned by one person or corporation who decides to which viewpoint the journalists conform.

So do we give up or become hermits?

No. But rather than ranting at the perpetrators, when we feel our emotions being engaged unproductively we can snap out of it and ask ourselves:

”Why am I watching/listening to/accepting this crap?” Change the channel, stop reading that paper and practice being thoughtful about everything that is important.

Humans should have embedded in our DNA somewhere the impulse to question everything until we are comfortable that we have looked at all points of view, discerned what is accurate and what is not and made an informed judgement. (That’s why I don’t let my university students use Wiki as a reference!) Then keep an open mind and seek things that challenge your beliefs, so you examine them often.

A word of warning though; many people are comfortable living in denial or blissful/wilful ignorance or being complicit in injustice by ‘keeping their heads down’ and those leaders who use manipulation and oppression to rule, do not want you peeking behind the curtain to see the truth.

If you seek objectivity, honesty and fairness, you may have trouble finding a company you want to stay with.

Perhaps that is why most thought-leaders, philosopher/authors and creative champions (people like Godin, Pink, Gladwell, Ronson and others) work for themselves or only with other likeminded people and consult to companies in the hope that some of what they say may stir change for the better.

I am very grateful I have a beautiful and intelligent partner who seeks to understand people and their actions from a critical and objective viewpoint and also seeks to right wrongs.

Until I met her, I thought therefore I was lonely…


A long time ago, someone (almost certainly not Edmund Burke) said words to the effect that “All that is required for evil to prosper is for good men to do nothing.”

While this sentiment has probably been used to justify all kinds of horrors (as it is dependent on the definition of ‘evil’ in the minds of the initiators), there is much to be said for a thoughtful approach to this concept.

How many leaders have failed to challenge the clearly inappropriate behaviour of a more senior person due to fear about their own job security?

How many times have we rationalised away this obligation with a ‘nothing will change’ mental salve?

To be an effective leader you must embrace a certain amount of risk to yourself in order to ensure a safe and fair working environment for your team. It takes courage and a healthy dose of persistence but despite a degree of risk, it is almost always worth the effort.

As another another saying of uncertain parentage puts it; “Some days you get the bear and some days the bear gets you” but this should not stop us from trying to right a wrong or stop harmful behaviour. You can climb a tree or hide in a hole to avoid the bear but it will be uncomfortable, you can’t do it forever and it’s a bit hard to maintain the moral authority of a leader from the bottom of a pit.

I mention numerous times in NAKED LEADERSHIP®, the essential truth that as a leader, your job is not about you – it is about your team. If you won’t stand up to improper treatment of your people, who will?

This however, can be a personal and professional challenge because it requires us to be objective in an often emotional circumstance and that can take some doing… It is for this reason (and perhaps it is fitting as I write this on Remembrance Day) that we also consider how easy it is to portray people unfairly. Leaders and employees can demonise each other and often battle lines will be drawn, giving the grievance a life of its own. Work can become like trench warfare with each side dug in and mentally hardened to any thought of compromise.

This is why war is for the most part, predicated upon convincing the public at large that ‘those people over there’ are evil or ‘not like us’, so let’s get rid of them. The mob mentality must be energised and people’s thinking brought into line for our own internal ‘moral compass’ to be overcome.

Facts and reason must be avoided at all cost.

Yet conflict, whether in a relationship, at work or in world politics is often engineered to hide our own inadequacies, to divert attention from more important issues and deflect responsibility. A manager who is insecure, fearful or inept can lash out and look for ‘victims’ upon whom they can unload the blame for their own failings. They can quite deliberately set the conditions for failure in order to ‘get rid’ of someone they dislike. Often this person may be more skilled and capable than themselves. They can exaggerate the ‘threat’ posed by the employee in order to engage others’ emotions and give weight to their claims.

As thoughtful humans, Naked Leaders need sometimes to say: “This far and no further.” If we are not willing to take some heat to protect our people then we are not leading – we are merely administering resources.

Importantly however, there is no point ‘hurling yourself against the wire’ you will only remove from yourself, the ability to help your people. Over the years, I have learned (at some cost) to first, disengage my emotions and carefully and quietly gather and examine the evidence. Reportable incidents need to be verifiable or at least credible. (No sane person would go to war on the basis of dodgy information. Would they?)

You may be angry about what is occurring but to be effective, you cannot let this cloud your judgement. You MUST Disconnect because make no mistake: It takes planning, thoughtfulness and patience to defeat destructive people.

After verifying the evidence, my preference is always to approach the ‘offending person’ and ask a series of careful questions that will reveal their motivation and if appropriate, manoeuvre them into realising that what they are doing is having a negative impact on people and importantly, that it will stop them getting the results they need. In effect, I try to engage their ‘self-interest’ gene. If I receive a negative reaction and they don’t alter their behaviour, it’s time to move on to Plan B.

The key is to use the system effectively to escalate the concerns without appearing to be on a ‘mission’. You may be surprised how often things can be solved when a more senior person is informed. If this doesn’t work, at least more people know about the problem. Keep going up the line. If you do not follow the procedures, this can come back to bite you as you will be seen as unnecessarily adversarial.

If you persist, something will usually be done to correct the behaviour because it becomes too widely known for senior leaders to do nothing. They will appear weak if they sit on their hands.

Fixing problems most often can be achieved by using the system effectively. I have had some experience in winning HR battles on behalf of clients or friends by taking this route. In fact, we won-every time and a big part of it was doing the homework and knowing the rules/policies (often better than the HR people).

You can put the company in a position where they either act on their proclaimed values, policies or procedures or they don’t. If they don’t they can expose themselves to legal action, and they know this. It’s a bit like a game of chess. It takes patience and persistence but you and your people will most often be the victors without going to war…

And isn’t that a better way?

Well it looks like it is safe to blog again.

The Australian election is over and the US has managed to kick the can down the road again with the debt ceiling and budget.

In watching the spectacle facing our cousins in the U.S., it struck me how challenging is can be for a leader dealing with intransigence.

U.S. President Barack Obama, having convincingly defeated his opposition in the last election was faced with a far-right faction that had taken control of the Republican Party.

Republicans, seemingly hostage to its ‘Tea Party’ members whose spokespeople such as Congresswoman Michelle Bachman have perfected the non-sequitur, the logical fallacy and just plain bizarre behaviour (witness her patronising comments during a visit to Egypt) apparently sought to re-run the election they lost by imitating a 6 year old.

“I’m going to hold my breath until you say I won!” (and repeal Obamacare!)

Most moderate Republicans were aghast at this behaviour but seem to be able to do little about it.

In some ways, (ironically given their position on the political spectrum) this seemed to mirror the rabid Union organisations in 1970’s Britain who seemed to have a strike every other week because they could and never mind the damage.

As someone who lived and worked in the US for nearly a decade, I am somewhat familiar with the US political system but for most outsiders this behaviour was simply incomprehensible.

Despite some of the silliness in our own recent election, Australia really does have a benign system – mainly because it is compulsory to vote. In having this law, we basically marginalise the fringe elements while still allowing them a voice. It is simply not possible for an extreme faction like the Tea Party to function in our system in the same way as they do in the US. They would be drowned out by the majority of us who live more or less in the middle of the political scale.

So how is this leadership issue?

Well it was fascinating to me to watch President Obama stay out of this fight. Rather than giving the extremists legitimacy he basically ignored them and through his intermediaries, called their bluff.

Gutsy but it worked… After all he had a mandate from the electorate and more specifically, a mandate for the Affordable Care Act (known as Obamacare) which was front and centre during the election campaign.

The subsequent Government shutdown with all its consequences forced moderate Republicans to face their extreme elements and force a surrender to common sense. While in disarray, they now have a chance to rebuild the party as one that can work with the government to actually get things done.

As anyone who has read Naked Leadership knows, I advocate actively seeking common ground, parking your ego and working with people but sometimes after hard negotiation or solution seeking, and having come to a decision for your organisation, you have to stay the course.

Winston Churchill, a very conservative (and often wrong-headed) leader who did many things right in the crucial moments, once declared:

“Never give in, never give in; never, never, never, never — in nothing, great or small, large or petty — never give in –  Except to convictions of honour and good sense.”

Sometimes people forget that last bit.­

When faced with unreasonable intransigence, a Naked Leader will make an assessment as to the value of further negotiation, consider the overall good of the organisation, regardless of the personal or political cost – and do the right thing.

Doing the right thing can be the hardest course and can cost a leader much stress, anxiety and even their job – but it is always the right course.

We can attempt to rationalise away selling out to extremists but the damage we do to ourselves and the long term health of our organisation and its people is immense.

Sometime No means No and you must stand firm and hang on for the ride…

It is why you’re a leader…