April 29, 2016

Diversity is a Habit

It was a huge culture shock moving to Sydney from New York all those years ago. Five minutes on a street corner in New York sees more diversity of life than a year in Sydney. At the time I thought it was just weird.

Then something interesting happened at a very deep level. I got used to it. 

I started to notice when non-white people were in my line of sight. It occurred as difference.

In New York there were so many different types of people I didn't even pause. Now when I go back for a visit, it occurs as an explosion of difference.

This is exactly what happens at a brain level. 

Researchers have found that our experience of racial difference starts with an emotional reaction.

That response lessens as the diversity of our environment increases.  

I know in my case I felt relief - coming home again to normal.

But for people used to racially similar circumstances, it occurs as a threat.

That's a problem. 

We attribute our emotional response to external causes, not to the inner workings of our brain. You see someone different, feel a threat and think it's because of them. That's where racism begins.

As a default, we tend to prefer people who look like us, think like us and act like us. It's that feeling of settling in with someone who's "on the same page".  It feels good!

It's why diversity in organizations will continue to be an issue for some time.  The brain craves certainty and predictability which comes from what we know and who's like us.

Diversity requires us to feel uncomfortable, uncertain and maybe a little scared. 

It's about taking a chance on someone who is sometimes so radically different to who you think is right for the job but who brings change, innovation and disruption.

It's finding a way to balance out that gut instinct that pulls you towards safe with a new filter that looks for the right kind of difference. 

It's a conscious, deliberate re-wiring of your mental filters and that's hard work. You're fighting that inner voice craving sameness, security and comfort. 

The good news is, do this often enough and you'll find different is the new same.

For more information:

Allen J. Hart, Whalen, P.J., Shin, L.M., McInerney, S.C., Fischer, H., and Rauch, S.L. (2000). Differential response in the human amygdala to racial outgroup vs ingroup face stimuli. Neuroreport, 11 (11), 2351-2355.

Lieberman, M. D., Hariri, A., Jarcho, J.M., Eisenberger, and N.I., Bookheimer, S.Y. (2005). An fMRI Investigation of Race-Related Amygdala Activity in African-American and Caucasian American Individuals. Nature Neuroscience, 8 (6), 720-722. 

Olsson, A., Ebert, J.P., Banaji, M.R., and Phelps, E.A. (2005). The role of social groups in the persistence of learned fear. Science, 309, 785–787.

July 20, 2015

What if you didn't get upset?

I just spent two weeks with my youngest daughter running around New York - walking an average of 12 hours a day. We literally covered all areas save for the mid-town East side which is more or less just offices. We walked until we had no walk left in our legs.

Saturday night we went to see the musical, American in Paris on Broadway, and had a tough time getting back to our friend’s place in Jersey City. 

First the subway stopped four stations from our connection and announced that all service was ended. We then had to walk a few blocks in the pouring rain to find a cab to the connecting PATH train. By about 12:30am we were still waiting for the train. And waiting. And waiting. 

I expected to hear some complaints from my clearly exhausted teenager, but noticed that she was calm and accepting. At 15 that was pretty impressive. Especially since we started at about 7am. 

It reminded me of a great question to ponder. 

What if things could happen but you didn't get upset? 

What if you just didn’t let them get to you. I don’t mean that "fake it 'til you make it" where inside you are seething and outside look cool. I mean really just accepting of what is and what isn’t. 

If you think about what happens when you get upset, the impact is actually quite destructive. To you. Forget about anyone else. You are actually hurting yourself.

When we get upset, the rational part of the brain gives way to the emotional. We then tend to react more emotionally (often saying or doing something we later regret). We also tend to layer a negative filter over events and stop seeing the opportunities. This becomes embedded in our memory and all of a sudden the event is remembered in a negative light.
In our case, our wonderful day might have become the worst!
Continually getting upset threatens our long-term memories. Studies of people with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (whose neurobiology can look a lot like the stress profile of modern workers) have a reduced hippocampus, which is integral in the formation of long-term memories.
Constant stress dampens our immune system, can increase cholesterol, cause stomach issues and decrease fertility.  
The brain also creates habits and patterns. So, the more you react to situations by becoming upset, the more you get upset.
The more you react mindfully, and bring a calm and considered approach to situations, the more your brain will develop the habit to respond this way.

It's certainly worth pondering. When I started to question the nature of my upsets I noticed I had this thought “I have a right to be upset!” Or “I should be upset about this.” 

Then I started to ask why should I be upset? 

I couldn't actually come up with a reason beyond some emotional response. So, I started to play around with accepting instead of fighting the situations that I didn't like. In accepting what is, even if I didn't like it, I could find a better way to work with it, beyond reacting. 

This is not about becoming an emotionally vacant automaton. Sometimes we get upset for a reason. Consider though that if an upset sticks around for long, could it be that you are resisting what is? 

In the case of the train being delayed, while we were exhausted and wanted to just get home, we recognised that it was far more draining to fight what was then to just accept. 

I then spent my time and energy looking around the station. It was the newly opened PATH station at the World Trade Centre. The ceiling had been designed by Santiago Calitrava, one of my favourite engineer/architects. 

In not being upset I had a chance to enjoy a rare opportunity to see his work up close, with plenty of time to look around instead of barely glancing at it as we rush to catch a train. So, a problem became an opportunity. 

What opportunities could you take advantage of if you didn't spend your time and energy being upset? What is possible if you just accepted what is? 

It's certainly worth pondering.

May 12, 2015

You need to connect first to influence

As I was walking to my car late yesterday afternoon, I noticed a man in Martin Place shouting quotes from the bible. Walking back and forth, holding his bible high, he pleaded with us, commanded us, bellowed for us to listen to his message. His voice was cracking from his exertions, yet no one stopped to hear it. People just looked away, rushing past as quickly as they could. 

While extreme, this was by no means an isolated incident. We see variations of this theme all the time in work and life. People seeking to push their ideas or agenda onto others without checking first to see if the message is being received.

Humans are inherently social beings. If you want to be heard, you first need to connect. 

As neuroscientist Matt Lieberman illustrates in his book, Social, Why Our Brains are Wired to Connect, human beings need social connections. This is as important to our survival as our need for food and shelter. Social ties increase our happiness, health and well-being, while social rejection leads to a pain response in the brain.

But to connect, we need to actually slow down, even stop to make the effort. Our friend in Martin Place never stopped moving long enough to notice if anyone was listening. His voice will probably give out before he stops. 

When we are at rest, the brain activates a default network that is similar to the one we use for thinking about ourselves and other people. What is called "social thinking". In other words, when the brain takes time out of your busy day, it goes social and thinks about other people. 

For managers and leaders whose primary responsibility is to motivate and engage people, taking time out to engage in social thinking and connecting is even more critical. One catch - given how busy our days are, how can we find that time to connect?

It's actually not that difficult. It just requires being more aware of what you say and how you say it. To foster more connection before speaking, try these four steps. They will help you connect more and ensure your message is heard.

  1. STOP! Literally, stop moving long enough for your mind to slow down and step away from the action.
  2. Breathe. Take a few breaths to slow down your pulse and let your brain shift into that default mode.
  3. Look at the other person. Actually look them in the eyes and take a moment to connect with them. This isn't the same as getting weird and overly personal. Just simply look at them and connect.
  4. Consider what you want to say and then how they need to hear the message. How do you need to deliver the communication so that it leads to a positive and productive result for both of you?
By taking the time to connect and think about the other person, you'll find that your ability to be heard and influence others will increase - potentially dramatically, depending on how connected you've been up to now.

April 21, 2015

Bringing fairness to management

In 1994 I discovered the world of personal development and coaching and found a conversation that I wanted to engage in for the rest of my life.

I also knew that I wanted to create something that would help not just individuals, but teams and organizations to fulfill their potential. So, I started to listen and learn from others about what was at the source of individual and overall business performance.

Along the way I found a great partner who shared my philosophy and provided the missing links that helped us pull this all together into what has become AXISNeuroPerformance.

More than models and a performance management framework, AXIS is in many ways the mission we are most passionate about.

AXIS helps solve a common challenge faced by leaders and managers – how to enable people to bring their best to work everyday.

Think about this, no one at a job interview ever says, “Hire me and I’ll do my worst!” But often managers lose people along the way. Many more than you may realize. According to Gallup, worldwide engagement is a sad 13%.

If we consider that people want to do well and enthusiastically apply for jobs, what’s happening once they are hired?

Unfortunately, current performance management practices are found to actually reduce engagement and performance.

Current feedback and performance management practices more often than not leads to a person feeling social pain or rejection. This response lights up the same regions of the brain as when a person experiences physical pain. In other words, feedback hurts.

As well, when people are in a situation that they perceive to be unfair, it ignites a fear or threat response in the brain. Unfair situations also activate the same regions as when we experience disgust.

Which means that current performance management practices ignite experiences of fear, pain and disgust.

It’s no wonder that the most feared words in business are. “Will you step into my office?’

Neuroscience tells us that what people need is a safe, respectful environment that enables us to learn from mistakes, grow and achieve. Business needs humanity.

Unfortunately, while business is run by people, it manages as if they are machines.

Business needs to instead look to a way to bring a more mentalizing approach to how managers interact with their people. Managers need to wonder about what’s going on with their people beyond the immediate and obvious. Then engage in a collaborative learning conversation that drives insights to better performance.

Personal responsibility is paramount, but, we do not live or work in a vacuum. Our mental, physical, emotional and spiritual health and well-being is affected by both the people around us and our environment internal and external to ourselves and our workplace.

When a person isn’t operating at their best, it isn’t enough to just look at them. I’ve seen poor performers shine when working for a great manager who believes in them and seen super stars brought to their knees by a toxic culture.

Traditional performance management frameworks and reviews, diagnostics and thinking all look to the individual for the whole picture. AXIS helps you widen your perspectives and get to the real source of performance. Then engage your people in a fair and collaborative dialogue that helps them learn, grow and achieve.

Fair and collaborative management practices increase people’s sense of connection, certainty and fairness, leading to more optimal levels of dopamine, oxytocin and other neurotransmitters critical to thinking and decision-making.

More than just a nice idea, bringing humanity and connection to the workplace will actually lead to improved performance, engagement and ultimately your bottom line.

It’s time for a new approach to management.

October 28, 2014

It's the size of your voice

The energy in the room at the 100 Women of Influence awards dinner last night was extraordinary, infecting and inspiring all of us.

I came in support of Henrietta Marrie, nominated for her influence of public policy through the United Nations. Henrietta has been an inspiration to me for her commitment to indigenous people building an economically independent future and a culture of leadership and success.

From the conversations on and off the stage, what hit me was the power of people's voices. Not the actual sounds coming out of their mouths, but their commitment  - expressed in a few words that tells the world what they are working to make happen. 

It's our voice, more than our abilities or intelligence, that determines how big an impact we can make. It's also how we view ourselves - the self talk we talk about our ability to be heard that can either limit or expand the difference we make.

In listening to Liz Broderick, overall 2014 Woman of Influence, what came through was how strong her voice is and how proud she is to shout it out loud. 

Liz's first words were "I have the best job in the world!" Then proceeded to share with us her commitment to women in leadership and gender equality. Her voice has become global in size, as her influence expands to match it.

More than simply being inspired, through listening to Liz, we all had the opportunity to see how we can express our own voice, be heard and make a difference.

It's what separates the leaders and those who do from those who simply dream. 

We all have within us a virtually unlimited potential to achieve. Of course that doesn't mean you're going to fly to the moon tomorrow, but it does mean that you can find within yourself what it is that you're here on this planet to contribute and then go make that happen. 

It doesn't guarantee an easy life, but it is a lot more interesting than trying to stay safe or satisfy petty desires and materialistic wants. 

Consider that the limit of your influence starts with how large and loud you are willing to have your voice be, and how much you believe in yourself and your ability to make a difference. 

The 100 Women of Influence, like Henrietta and Liz all have concerns, challenges and fears like everyone else. They stand out because they are willing to put that all aside and speak their voice, then take action to bring it to life.

I've been committed to and working towards empowering leaders and managers to build cultures of joy and excellence for years. Now through AXIS I have a vehicle to expand that future even more. 

You're going to be hearing a lot of shouting from now on...



September 24, 2014

Standing Still to Move Forward

We're running, always running somewhere to do something to get somewhere.

It's in our nature and woven into the fabric of our life.

But, we can be so busy handling the now, that the future never gets a moment's time.

Years ago, I was walking in the Berkshires of Massachusetts amongst the trees and had to stop. The stillness called to me to just listen to the wind through the trees and let my mind quiet down to nothing. I enjoyed that walk more than any other in a long time - being present to and appreciating the moment and nothing more.

Ironically, that's when the pieces of AXIS came together which are now the AXIS Neuroperformance Profile©.

In that moment of stillness, my mind could pull together disparate bits of ideas to gel into one that has become the future of my work.

In allowing my mind to be still, it could do what the mind does best when given space. It can create.

That's often when and where the best strategies and most innovative and creative thinking begins. Not at a desk, looking at a screen.

Get to the trees, the water, a park or anywhere where you can just stop and be still.

Sometimes stopping is the best way to move forward.

July 9, 2014

Congruence brings out genius

As member of the NSW Government Executive Coaching Panel,  I've been assessing and coaching senior executives across all government departments, assisting them to better service the people of our state. It's been a real privilege in so many ways.

At a recent workshop with senior leaders from the Maritime and Transport Authority I had another take on what that privilege really means and how the public's view of government workers can be so far from the reality. They also reminded me of how important it is to find our place in life as it brings out our natural genius within.

In clarifying their core purpose people really expressed their passion and commitment to make a difference as individuals and as a group. What really shone through was their creativity in helping make the government work better for people.  It was a perfect example of congruence in action and how talent is ignited when people work at something that's a natural fit for their values, talents and interests.

They showed me that even life jackets can be interesting as you find a creative way to engage people in using them to make boating safer. That even the small things we take for granted, like the fact that we no longer need stickers for our rego, are the result of someone caring about saving us time, effort and money. Their work is about small and large changes that make government more effective and efficient, and our lives safer and easier.

It's given me rare glimpse into a the world of unsung heroes that are one of thousands working for us who really do see public service as a privilege and an opportunity to serve and who are excited, engaged and committed. Very cool.