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July 2013

How Success Turns to Failure

We all want to be successful, don’t we? There are certainly many benefits to it: prestige, status, power, money and more! Success we want but it is too easy to forget the old Chinese philosophy of Yin and Yang; that for every success we have there is likely to be a corresponding dark side, there are unforeseen and unintended consequences, and nothing is ever quite what it seems. Add to that the ultimate issues, as perhaps most brilliantly described in WB Yeats’ poem "What Then?" This poem describes achievement and success piled on each other stanza by stanza as like decade by decade of his life. And at the end of every stanza comes Plato’s ghost with the simple refrain: ‘what then?’ The final stanza runs:

The work is done,' grown old he thought,

'According to my boyish plan;

Let the fools rage, I swerved in naught,

Something to perfection brought';

But louder sang that ghost, 'What then?' 

Yet for all these existential questions we prefer success to living without it. For some people, not having success is inconceivable; it is their very raison d’etre. Why is it, then, that so often organizations in particular reach spectacular successes then fade and die? We have recently with the recession across the world and in the UK had a spate of household names, some organizations virtually a 100 years old, and yet who have ‘like chimney sweepers come to dust’. What are the key factors that are, as it were, the inherent dangers that turn the tide of prosperity backwards?

What I am about to say, six points, concerns organizations foremost, but anyone can see that these apply almost equally to the individual. Ask yourself – is this me, is this my organization? And if so what am I going to do about it!

First, successful practices that built the organization up are crying out to be codified, to be enshrined in writings, in policies and procedures and laws about ‘this is the way we do things here’. This has two potent adverse effects: first, it requires an army of people who are employed to produce, effectively, paperwork. This is pure cost, not revenue. But more significantly still: what were once informal procedures have now become rigid policies – creativity and innovation are thus inexorably driven out. Creativity itself, incidentally, becomes something to legislate for. When bodies become rigid, they become dead.

Second, with the increasing army of non-productive people working within the organization, the focus becomes more internally-driven, and external threats are ignored. A collective group-think emerges in which what is going on internally is clearly identified as more important than what is going on in the market.

This leads, then, to arrogance and complacency and a sense that competitive problems are only temporary and minor inconveniences rather than issues that need to be addressed strategically and coherently.

Arrogance produces its own rich fruit: complexity and an obsession with internal politics. A preservation of one’s own power becomes not only the primary objective of senior staff but of middle management. One of the most spectacular examples this occurred at the end of the Second World War – Hitler was dead, and defeat was imminent, and yet Hitler’s top echelon were still jostling for position, as if, as Germany faced Armageddon, that were important! But we see the same thing in organizations all over the world.

Fifth, a deep conservatism kicks in that is pre-eminently risk-averse; this is the antidote to entrepreneurialism and the creativity and energy so necessary to all great organizations and, for that matter, empires and civilizations. People begin to believe that taking risks is foolish and so they stand still, no progress is made; and the task of leadership is forgotten: to make remaining in the status quo appear to be more risky than venturing into the unknown.

Finally, new learning is disabled. For a start off, they already have – courtesy of the codification – incorporated all the learning they need into their rules and regs; there’s hardly space for new stuff. New insights are, then, bypassed and not incorporated into organizational memory. Without new learning organizations attempt to solve today’s problems with yesterday’s intelligence. Very large organizations have lots of resources but even they cannot do this for very long; for the competition who is learning is stealing their lunch and their nutrition and their best staff on a daily basis.

Thus it is that being successful is just the start; we need to think about how we are going to stay successful, and how we are going to avoid the six pitfalls that I have outlined. Do contact me to talk about this further.

How to Handle Difficult People - 5 Steps

There are in any organisations difficult situations which fall short of either grievance or disciplinary procedures against the staff who create the difficulties. Possibly all managers and senior managers can identify certain members of their organisation whom they find awkward, and whom they secretly dread having to deal with; it’s as if that particular person, or sometimes even small group of like-minded people, have identified the one Achilles’ heel of the manager, and continually jab at it.

Often the Achilles’ heel is quite simply emotional. For example, the manager who in the three years since his appointment has been given two substantial increases in funding over and above other departments, who has had re-furbished accommodation, who has been given more than their fair share of extra support, and so on - and yet who continually complains of under-resourcing and unfairness, and who is known to broadcast this fact and foment dissatisfaction. What irks is the ingratitude; and every time the senior manager encounters such a person, it is difficult to stifle the hostility that arises because the sense of ingratitude - as the nasal whining starts - immediately starts to foam to the surface! As has been truly observed: 90% of the frictions in daily life derive from tone of voice.

Ingratitude is one galling situation. But there are many others: the coterie within the staff  generally known as the ‘awkward squad’, the shirkers and the apathetic, Mr and Mrs Angry and the confrontational brigade, Mr and Ms Clever at Meetings and the well-known Lord and Lady Catch-you-outs, then the Sir Sam-the-withering-Remark; add the Timekeeper family, the Always-Construe-you-Wrong and the every-where-you-go Nit-Picks. And so on. Initially, one has patience to deal with them; but after a period of time their continual attitudes and negative contributions begin to wear. What, then, is to be done?

The first thing is to realise that conflict is endemic - that handling such situations is why you are a manager. Why would we need managers if people naturally co-operated and worked towards common goals effortlessly? Thus it is crucial that one sees conflict and difficult situations as the ground of opportunity for the exercise of management skills rather than as a ‘problem’. To say this is not to say that we are engaging in empty management semantics – ‘problems equals opportunities’, so problem solved? It is for each manager or boss to re-think their view of what is going on. It is essentially, then, to re-view.

Given that standing back for re-view, the second thing to do is to sharpen management skills. There are a number that we might consider (e.g. assertiveness, active listening, appraising, persuading etc.) but for now, I wish to focus on one skill which is pretty critical for successful outcomes with difficult people and which does incorporate many other skills: negotiation. One can, if one has developed negotiating skills, always reach a positive result - even if that result is only to know that something further, and more serious, must be done. Fundamentally, we are thinking here about negotiating with ‘difficult’ staff so that they become less difficult!

Roger Fisher (in his book, Getting to Yes) identified five useful processes in negotiation, and all together or any of these separately can be extremely powerful in dealing with difficult people.

First, he suggested, separate the person from the problem: in one sense the person is the problem, or rather, their perception is the problem. We need, then, to avoid taking comments personally and reacting to them. We need to withhold judgement and to attempt to stand in their shoes: if I were that difficult person .... what is it that is actually driving me? Do not retaliate, avoid head-on confrontation, listen actively and try to build a Yes-momentum into the conversation. The phrase ‘Yes-but’ is always negative, and so avoid it: try ‘Yes, however’ or ‘Yes, and’. Make sure you deal with feelings - yours and theirs.  These are probably at the root of the problem anyway - remember that the acknowledgement of emotion is incredibly powerful as a persuasive tool, and cannot be gainsaid. Who can deny your feelings? Thus, ‘I think you’re a male chauvinist (pig stated or implied)’ is not helpful, will irritate and provoke, and can be easily denied; ‘I feel that women (in the team) are not given the same chances’ is much more powerful, because who can deny that is how YOU feel? Be open, then, with your feelings, but do not make the problem a personal issue. Finally, ask open questions in order to dig deeply into the situation, and when you feel that you are being boxed in with counter-arguments, play for time: ‘Can I think about that and get back to you tomorrow?’ or ‘I need to consult X - can I get back?’

Second, identify common interests: working in an organisation together means you must have common commercial or professional interests at least. One rock bottom one is: we must do what is best for the customer or patient. Any employee who denied that would immediately be signaling that they are not in the right occupation or career. So managers need to explore and look for common commercial or professional interests - these motivate people and limit difficult attitudes. Equally, if we can identify common personal interests (so long as these do not supplant professional ones - thus creating a cosy Country Club effect) then the chances are we can really have a dynamic team. Of course, such personal common interests need to be real and not synthetic: developing a passion for football in order to suck up to an avid but difficult Liverpool supporter in your company is not going to endear you. From my own experience I well remember long ago, as a head of department, I seemed to be constantly in conflict at committee meetings with a member of another department, and it clearly seemed to be a question of ‘hate at first sight’. What curiously resolved this was the accidental discovery one day that we were both fans/nerds of the cult singer Scot Walker! Immediately as we exchanged tapes and chat, our professional relationship blossomed, and we liked each other. That discovery was accidental, but the message, perhaps, is to consider how much time is spent on relationship processes - if the organisation is so task-orientated (as, to be frank, so many are) that it has little time for processes, then difficult people are bound to be the corollary.

Thirdly, generate options: once one has identified - through the kinds of negotiation outlined above - what the real problem is, then one moves towards a solution. It is a good idea never to leap to the first answer, but to consider widely. Brainstorming is a good technique for producing a number of options. The rules of brainstorming are well-known. One thing to bear in mind: when brainstorming with the difficult person, sit side by side, not facing each other - physically face the problem together, rather than facing each other.

Fourthly, establish criteria of fairness: one of the commonest, if not the most common, cause of difficult people is their perception, rightly or wrongly, of unfairness: they have been treated badly, their talents have not been appreciated, they have been overlooked. All leaders recognise this phenomenon and these people. Thus it is vital in dealing with the problem that fairness is at the heart of the solution. However, fairness means what it says: the fairness must not be at your expense, because that will create a worse situation than the difficulty you are currently encountering. So, insist on fairness, but be open to what it actually might be. No-one has a monopoly on fairness and this needs to be established by negotiation. Remember, if one cuts the pie, the other chooses the slice!

Finally, and most critically of all in my opinion and experience, be aware of what your BATNA is. Your BATNA? Yes, your Best Alternative To a Negotiated Settlement! This really is asking the question - if I don’t reach agreement with this difficult person, what happens? If I abandon agreement, what happens for me? What happens for that person? Basically, the person with the best BATNA has the most power.

Look at it from the manager’s point of view: say, my sales manager is entirely disaffected - and has a core of ‘friends’ on the staff who listen to her poison. She constantly tries to belittle me with ambiguous but sarcastic remarks at senior meetings. So, if the negotiation is successful, this will cease, and the sales manager will focus more of her efforts on her role and the sales figures. I, in turn, will feel more positive towards her. This will manifest itself in greater support and more resources, including emotional and career, from me; certainly a better reference; and certainly a consideration for internal promotion should the opportunity arise. But if the negotiation should fail, what then? Who has it worse? The sales manager is in a difficult position should the I, the boss, seek to fault find and undermine her position, but may be able to weather it; certainly, the sales manager is trapped in her role and may be able to make the jump without a reference and support, but that too is risky. But I, the boss, also, suffer: a weak sales manager, a damaging dispute that eventually others will hear of - how much credibility does the sales manager have with them? I could fire her, but how much would that cost, and in any case if I have done that three times already in the last year, how am I beginning to appear? In short, who has the better BATNA? All leaders ought to consider this in dealing with difficult staff. It is relatively easy to win  a battle through position power, but one’s credibility may seriously be damaged as a result.

This is a brief account of a very difficult area. Finally, using third parties is always a good idea in highly sensitive situations, so long as the third-party has the support of both parties. But that is another story …



How To Say Sorry - Really!

As we all know only too well, it is very easy to offend people, especially at work. It is not so easy to put that offence right, especially if the offence is justified and we have made a mistake. There are basically four options we have.

We can not say sorry at all! This makes the situation worse. Eventually people feel aggrieved and will take revenge at a time of their choosing. Or, we can say sorry but in a distant, remote, and indifferent manner – as if this were not important to us. This simply rubs salt in the wound and leads to even greater hostility. Thirdly, we can say sorry but in an emotional, over-concerned way which suggests that we/you are vulnerable. This often leads to your being victimized at some future date as your weakness is noted and exploited.

And finally, we can say sorry in the right way! How, then, do we say sorry in the right way? There are four key rules you need to bear in mind.

First, use a strong, calm and evenly paced voice. Avoid whimpering, pleading tones; say sorry just once. And if you have time, practise before offering the apology; control your breathing if necessary, for it is in the nervous rush of the breath that we reveal our anxiety.

Second, explain only what is necessary; do not be bounced into shaming and ‘explaining yourself’. Understand, and be clear, that certain reasons may have a right to remain private. Too many people feel that they have to provide causal explanations that justify their faux pas; the sort of thing you hear when they say they had a late night, or a problem with their spouse over breakfast – this always sounds weak.

Thirdly, acknowledge the feelings of those who might have been upset or annoyed. It may sound corny, but empathise with them. Say, ‘I know how you feel’ and make it seem as if you do. Offer to put right whatever you can.

Finally, indicate what this mistake has taught you: about yourself or about the way you work. From that you can explain what you will do differently to try to prevent a recurrence. This is all very convincing – and necessary. But in all this you need to demonstrate one other key element: you need to be sincere – this is vital is the apology is to be acceptable and accepted.

Of course, we don’t want to keep on making mistakes we have to apologise for, and point four suggests that we are going to really and sincerely learn from our mistakes. To do that you might want to consider keeping a log of apologies you’ve made – and to chart the reactions and responses. In this way you really will learn from your mistakes as well as constantly being improving in terms of your performance. Make this a game you play with yourself. You’ll be amazed at your progress and how truly our mistakes can become our best teachers.

To Rhyme or Not to Rhyme?

Imagine that you were lost in a wilderness and had to find your way out. Fortunately, you have with you a number of things, or tools if you will. In the first instance you have a kitbag, which is itself useful. Within it are various articles: a bottle of water, a knife, fork and spoon, a map, lighter fuel, matches, a compass, a chocolate bar, some rope, scissors, a can opener, a wrap-up plastic mac, and a few more pieces too, like the watch on your wrist. The question I would ask you is simply this: would you, therefore, given that you are lost and are not sure where or how far the next safe port of call is, jettison any of these items or tools? Would you say, this item is irrelevant, and I don’t need it – I’ll never need it – get rid of it? And further, when you are safely back home and start writing of your experiences, will you be prescribing to other travellers in the wilderness: you must never take a bottle of water with you – it’s stupid, it’s cheating, it’s pointless? Or, argue having a map with you means that you are not really lost, so you are not really making a journey?

Sound somewhat fanciful? Not really, for this is precisely what happens in all areas of modern art, and especially poetry. We have three thousand years of tradition which has established a very useful toolkit in the armoury of poetry (and read the same for art and music). Techniques like metre and rhythm, using rhetorical devices such as onomatopoeia, metaphor, simile, allusion, anaphora and so on have been well established for millennia. And the reason for this is clear: these techniques, used judiciously, work! They create appropriate emotional (primarily) and intellectual effects in the listeners and readers of the work.

In English poetry rhyme is a special example of one such special effect. In fact rhyme is so ubiquitous that some less informed people seem to think that poetry is just that: rhymed couplets. But because some less informed people think erroneously about this topic does not invalidate its force. The truth is that rhyme is a massively powerful adjunct of poetry and this is demonstrated in two ways in the English speaking world: first, children universally love nursery rhymes, and such rhymes are a brilliant device for aiding memory and recall. But second, advertising itself regularly uses rhyme – why? Because it works. One only has to think of one of the most memorable ads of the last 40 years: "A Mars a day/Helps you work, rest and play." We get it and the message embeds itself in our consciousness.

Why, then, for heaven’s sake do we constantly get a stream of wannabe poets denigrating and banning rhyme, as if the use of rhyme were something no real poet would ever do? On the contrary, all significant poets have used it, and the very greatest poets do it a lot: Spenser, Shakespeare, Milton, Keats, Yeats – need I go on? Even the high apostle of free verse, TS Eliot, did quite a bit of it!

Of course, rhyming badly is not good. William McGonagall has become a by-word for bad poetry in which meaning has been wrenched by the necessity to find rhyme words. This in his case, however, has become comical – people still want to read him for the pleasure of the forced rhymes. And here’s the weird thing: I would predict more people read and enjoy McGonagall for all its incompetence (there is still a pleasure to be had in rhyme!) than ever read those stalwarts of serious ‘free verse’: the ‘Howl’ and the ‘Paterson’ and all this shapeless stuff that drones on in its own self-importance.

There is, as I discovered recently in a debate, a vociferous number of people for whom poetry is not poetry at all, but a political act. For them, ‘rhyme’ is some sort of bondage (and that of course has a creditable heritage in Milton’s eschewing rhyme in order to write Paradise Lost) and they need to be ‘free’ – to write whatever comes into their minds as it comes without any sense of form or structure or device or technique or tools. And the result, of course, is that they don’t write poetry at all, although they promote it as such. And they never improve. No verse is free, said TS Eliot, for the man (read ‘person’) who wants to do a good job. They just do not get – and cannot discipline themselves to study and practise – that the tools, the techniques are the very way we find our way out of the wilderness of emotional chaos (which is really their ‘freedom’) and get to the land of true meaning, which is our home.

All this requires patience, study and craft. But all politics is too short-term for that – we want our freedom and we want it now: look at this scribble – it’s art! Right! We need to move on from this infantilism. Rhyme is not necessary for poetry; but rhyme is an amazingly powerful technique when used appropriately and properly, and understanding the various aspects of rhyme which are possible is itself an education. So let’s not be put down by these political activists proclaiming ‘freedom’ and who the while are wasting poetry with their wanton graffiti. Use rhyme when you want to – you know, it can sound so good!



Charisma and Position

If you ask yourself the question who is the most charismatic person – and so leader, for charismatic people always lead and influence – who ever lived, then I think any sane list is bound to contain somewhere in its top five the name Jesus Christ. There are many debateable and disputable aspects of Christ’s existence, and more especially the Church’s interpretation of his life. For example, we may dispute whether he was or is the Son of God, whether he rose from the dead literally or symbolically, or whether even he actually performed any miracles at all. Yes, we can – and people have – argued over all these things. But can one seriously argue that Jesus Christ was not charismatic – in fact, charismatic on a scarcely imaginable scale? The testimonies from witnesses of the time all speak of it; it was a most noticeable feature of his presence and his speaking. Further, and perhaps more importantly still, the effect of his charisma is evident in his mark on all subsequent history since.

And what is this charisma? Today we mean by it any personality who seems to be inspired and influential; the original meaning referred to a gift or grace of God manifesting itself through a person, so that they became irresistibly powerful. Either way, one curious anomaly about charisma is that part of its power seems to stem from the sense of authenticity that it conveys; this is curious in that the source of the power is not in the person them self, but runs through them – almost externally as it were, and yet is so part of them it seems entirely them!

This charismatic power is authentic, compelling and sincere; we see many examples of people pretending to be charismatic, but who are engaged with a box of rhetorical tricks, and the charisma is only superficial and ultimately deceptive. This latter situation we need to avoid, but at the same time we should all want to be charismatic because being inspired is better than not. For one thing, it feels so good, because charisma is really outside of time, and so one is only and really present when one is being charismatic. And being charismatic is precisely that: the energy, the power, the source is always there, and available to being, and we need to tap into it and not get lost along the way as so many do.

But we need to understand too that charisma has a deadly enemy, and this we find all too readily in the real world: position and position power. Position power is the role you acquire in life that gives you ‘power’. Being a mother or father is a position – albeit weakened in its significance in the West – that gives power. More specifically, we are all aware that the vicar, the doctor, the nurse, the teacher, the manager, the MD, the CEO and so on all have position power. Everywhere we go we find people in positions of power, and often using that power to curb us in some way. And position power seems to loathe charismatic power, and very rarely are the two fused in one. An historical example of someone who had both would be Alexander the Great. Indeed, the combination dangerously expresses itself via military tyrants.

But to return to Christ we find written about him the quite specific remit that he abjured position power and seems solely to have relied on charismatic power. This is shown in a number of ways: his refusal to accept the crown of kingship that the crowd offered him and resort to force; and also too, for the theologically minded, there is that wonderful passage in Philippians 2.6 in which it’s said that Christ did not regard equality with God a thing to be grasped, but instead "emptied Himself" and became a man, a servant. Put another way, Christ did not go around telling people what to do because he had a higher position than they; he eschewed that whole methodology – on which the rest of the world works.

Because, of course, we see what happens to the charismatic person. First, the highest authority condemns you, as Pontius Pilate condemned Christ. The lower authority has already condemned you of course: these were the Pharisees and the Scribes. They had positional power but also something extra, which Christ upset: expert power. To them was entrusted the law and its interpretation – how things should be done – and without being a pedant, Christ charismatically demolished their arguments.

Now here’s the really terrible thing: charismatic power meant even his own family tried to stop him, thought he was mad. So what about his disciples? Yep, they too also knew better, and it was to Peter that the most stinging rebuke of all was directed: "Get behind me Satan".

Charismatic power is like the wind – it blows where it wants to, and how it wants to; it has a source we do not know, and it convicts like a blast furnace. It destroys our comfort and our illusions about our little life – it asks for more. When Pericles spoke men applauded; when Demosthenes spoke, they marched. Who, then, was the charismatic one?

This is not something they teach us on an MBA course; this is not something with an easy agenda, yet for those with eyes to see, and ears to hear, there it is, available to each and every one of us, right now. So embrace it – and remember, those in position who won’t it and won’t like you! You are the agent of change when you are charismatic.