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Women and Conscious Leadership

Taken from the forthcoming spring ‘e-Organisations and People’ journal – For more information and to purchase a copy look here. This article asks whether the time is finally right for women to take on leadership roles without needing to give up their core values, needs and behaviours.  Evidence is put forward showing how essential it is to include women in leadership roles if we want to attain a sustainable future.  Lasy Lawless explores what might prevent that from happening.  She considers how much of this problem is self imposed and how much of it relates to gender politics in the workplace.  She asks each reader to do one thing to accelerate change.Keywords: Inequality, women in leadership, gender, prejudice, diversity and sustainability

My discovery of gender prejudice

I grew up on a farm in a large family in Ireland.  There was an equal number of boys and girls in my family.  This description probably conjures up a stereotypical image of simple country folk following strict catholic doctrines, women in the kitchen supporting men in the fields.  But that’s not what it was like.  My mother was the first female to study law at Cork University.  She experienced severe prejudice from male lecturers, who assumed she chose the subject to be the only female amongst men so that she could flirt with them.Despite being awarded a first class degree, she never got to work as a lawyer.  In those days the economic policy to address unemployment was that women gave up work when they got married.  Those women who did not go on to have children simply struggled to contribute and to live full lives. This background set the scene for my upbringing because in my home we never distinguished between male and female roles along traditional lines.  Boys cooked and girls worked on the farm – if that suited our strengths, rather than tasks that were assigned based on our gender. So natural was this to me that it wasn’t until I actually entered the workforce in 1980 that I discovered gender prejudice and I found it both shocking and stupefying.  It simply made no sense to me.

Slowly it dawned on me that although women were a core part of the workforce, they rarely ran companies, sat on boards or shared equally in rewards. Throughout my twenties I watched and learned just how agonisingly slowly systems of power change, irrespective of whether they are effective or satisfying.  I have oscillated between irritation with the system, rage at men and frustration with women themselves, each playing a contributory role in ensuring that change cannot be immediate. However, in the last ten years I think I can see the roots of a sea change.  I hope that when we look back at the noughties we will all be as shocked and stupefied as I was in the 1980s.

Conscious capitalism for gender equality?

And I believe that conscious capitalism is the movement that captures the attitudes and values that will make it possible for women to take their rightful place as equals in the business world.  I believe that gender equality requires three major shifts:  a new economic structure, the buy-in of men and women being more assertive. Conscious capitalism is that system.  I will try to address the other two conditions later in the article.Conscious Capitalism by Mackey, Sisodia and George (2013) identifies some key qualities of the conscious leader.’Conscious leaders abundantly display many of the qualities we most admire in exemplary human beings.  They usually find great joy and beauty in their work, and in the opportunity to serve, lead, and help shape a better future.  Since they are living their calling, they are authentic individuals who are eager to share their passion with others.  They are very dedicated to their work, which recharges and energises them instead of draining them.  Conscious leaders commonly have high analytical, emotional, spiritual and systems intelligence.  They also have an orientation toward servant leadership, high integrity and a great capacity for love and care. (Mackey, Sisodia & George 2013, p183). While so many of these qualities are gender neutral, others (love, care, emotional intelligence, sharing passion, servant leadership and helping shape a better future) are attributes frequently associated with women.  They might even be described as nurturing or maternal characteristics.

Because of the roles traditionally played by women – supporting partners, enabling children towards independence and reaching their potential, running households and finances, it could be said that women have been in training for leadership positions for thousands of years. ‘Conscious business’ is a way to describe organisations that operate within a conscious capitalist structure. Conscious businesses positively encourage women to embrace leadership roles outside of the home, but this is only the structure.  For real change to occur we need women to step into the roles and demonstrate our effectiveness in leading.

So what are the issues that women will have to address if they choose to step into leadership roles?  I think they fall into two main categories – things that women need to do for themselves, and things that men need to support us with.  Equality for women is happening slowly, but for change to happen quickly both genders need to collaborate.  The greatest hurdle is to raise general awareness of the challenges and of the amazing opportunity if we address the issues.  We need to take the conversations out from the feminists and futurists to every layperson. The major challenges we face are: women’s preference for collaboration over competition; scepticism about how their accomplishments will be reported by journalists/men; women’s fear of being humiliated by being judged on how they look rather on their accomplishments; young girls low aspirations based on their lack of belief that they will succeed; and ignorance by female graduates of the benefits of working in SMEs rather than in corporate cultures.

Collaboration vs competition

It would be easy to idealise women and to pretend that they completely avoid conflict or competition.  They don’t. But research shows that there are significant gender differences in frequency when entering into ‘winner-takes-all’ types of competition, and yet no significant gender gap in other types of competition.   Women are averse to entering competitive forums that result in a single winner walking away with the prize and the kudos, but women are equally competitive where the agenda results in rewards for the majority (Niederle, M., & Vesterlund, L. 2007). Conscious leaders believe that the most successful and sustainable results come from including the interests of all stakeholders – employees, investors, suppliers etc  rather than simply focusing on shareholders short term returns.  Conscious businesses need leaders who favour collaborative, empowering attitudes rather than ‘shareholders-take-all’ behaviours, and women compete as frequently and as successfully when these conditions exist.

Respect for the long-sightedness of how women compete needs to be applauded, rather than their aversion for winner-takes-all outcomes to be portrayed as a weakness.  After all, we have seen the outcome of pure capitalist attitudes – the majority lose while the minority continue on in a self-serving manner. I ran a workshop this week for “Women in Leadership” that included an hour of dialogue with three significant female leaders.  I was struck by their passion to share success and power, which was reflected in these three responses: “In the Green Party we spent a long time considering how to do leadership so that it was not something that we did to people, but something that we do with them.” Caroline Lucas (First Green MP). “When I got above the glass ceiling I threw the ladder down so that other women could climb it.” Polly Toynbee (Journalist for The Guardian). “I have never knowingly turned down any conversation with anyone who wanted to talk about their career development.” Penny Thompson CBE (CEO of Brighton & Hove Council). These responses were not constructed to gain PR advantage.  They were authentic responses embedded in answers to various questions on “Women In Leadership.” It demonstrates their natural preference for “power with” as opposed to “power over”.

Scepticism about the press

I am currently working with an amazing female MD running a successful international business. The company is a conscious business moving towards employee ownership.   A year ago I invited her to speak about the company’s culture at a business event but she found the idea horrifying.  Besides a fear of public speaking, which is a common fear for both genders, she just didn’t trust the media to get that the success of the company and its culture was down to her team and not to her alone. She was not going to risk her team feeling undervalued. Since then I have introduced her to books and articles on conscious capitalism and very, very gradually she is becoming hopeful that there is a growing appetite for change in how business is done.  We need to get more information about conscious business out to women so that they know there is a system that absolutely relies on the feminisation of business.  I believe that they will take the risks necessary to step out of the shadows if they have faith that something is changing.Caroline Lucas resigned as formal leader of the Green Party after four years because she “had benefited so much from the position and she wanted to pass on that opportunity to someone else in the party”.  She told us that the press could not accept this explanation and so instead they were creating stories about an affair or her mental health.  This is the type of personal assault and misinterpretation that women risk when we openly offer an alternative explanation for our motives than the winner-takes-all model.

Fear of humiliation regarding personal appearances

Women fear the limelight of greatness because they risk being judged on their appearances rather than on their accomplishments.   68% of girls across all groups agree with the statement “ability”. At the workshop that I mentioned earlier, Penny Thompson told us that when a picture of her appeared in the paper after her appointment and announcing her amazing prior achievements she had to tolerate comments on her appearance such as suggesting she “use her huge salary to do something with her hair”. The most atrocious recent example of what women have to endure is captured here by the Financial Times about the first female prime minister of Australia: “Few politicians in a western democracy have endured such personal abuse as Gillard, whose three-year term as prime minister ended in June amid a welter of recrimination about the nature of Australian society and its treatment of women in top jobs”. (Parker, 2013)

But the Welsh-born lawyer did not go down without a fight. Gillard reflected on her role as the country’s first female prime minister: “I’ve been a little bit bemused by those colleagues in the newspapers who have admitted that I have suffered more pressure as a result of my gender than other PMs in the past but then concluded it had zero effect on my political position or the political position of the Labor party.” With tears in her eyes, she talked about what her term as prime minister might mean for other female leaders: “What I am absolutely confident of is it will be easier for the next woman, and the woman after that, and the woman after that, and I’m proud of that”. While this type of attack didn’t stop Penny Thompson or Julia Gillard from embracing leadership roles, not all women are resilient or brave enough to survive it.  Just as it is not every man who is brave enough to be a Nelson Mandela or Ghandi.  It takes a huge amount of self belief and faith in the underlying higher values for a person to put themselves consciously in these positions.  What we really need is the support of men, the press and all powerful thinking individuals everywhere to make this kind of ignorant behaviour a thing to be ashamed of.

Young girls’ aspirations

Women lack self belief in their ability to succeed in business.  Girls across every level of affluence are almost 10% less likely to believe they could start their own business than boys of a similar level of wealth.  (Click for link to survey results.) For me, this is the most depressing piece of research available.  When I compare this perception to how I described my beautifully, naive beliefs in my teens it feels tragic.  We need more female role models in all walks of life.  Change of this type has to begin at home. So if you are reading this article, make one little change – point people towards Guardian Women, attend an event to support women in leadership (there are loads of them), vote for female leaders, challenge the status quo in companies.

Corporate careers vs SME offers

Women do better in SMEs, and SMEs do better because of women.  The number of women on FTSE 100 boards has risen from 15% in 2012, to 17.3% in 2013 (Dr Sealy, 2013 – Link). Career breaks, bias and having babies certainly account for some of the shortfall but it cannot account for all of it and gender prejudice must account for at least some of it.  In contrast, recent research also found that 80 percent of family owned businesses are more gender balanced, having at least one female director and that this diversity meant that the companies were less likely to fail than companies with less diversity (Myers, 2013 – Link). The study highlighted the fact that family-orientated goals such as preserving unity, wealth and providing employment for family members may also contribute to their survival.  The team analysed data of over 700,000 medium and large private family and non-family firms with an annual sales turnover of at least £6.5 million, a balance sheet total of at least £3.26 million and at least 50 employees. This information is available to corporate boards but because they are so entrenched in traditional thinking and averse to taking risks they often appoint women as a token gesture and to appeal to corporate social measures rather than in the full understanding that they need to do this for their own survival.  We need this kind of thinking and behaviour to change.

Some hope

I think it is significant that although conscious business culture is only recently emerging as a solution to addressing the pitfalls of capitalism, and that democratic management and empowerment are being touted as the way to run successful businesses, it was an exceptional female political scientist – Mary Parker Follet – who wrote about it almost a century ago.   Her work was largely ignored by business writers, all men, until recently. “Follet was profoundly interested in society and how one could attain personal fulfilment while striving at the same time to create the well-ordered and just society.  The answer, she concluded, lay in democratic governance, an abiding belief that was to inform all her activities and become the goal that inspired her for the rest of her life”.  (?Graham 2003, p: ?)  In ‘Prophet of Management’ (2003), Pauline Graham explores the reasons that she was so ignored by her peers – was it a sign of the times or simply because she was a woman?   Like my mother, Caroline Lucas, Polly Toynbee, Penny Thompson and the female MD mentioned earlier,

Mary Parker Follet continued to say what was true for her despite being ignored or misinterpreted by her male peers.  It is remarkable how ahead of her times she was, and it is testimony to her message that approaching 60, and without any experience in the business world, she became a management thinker eagerly sought after by the business communities of both the United States and England.   Those business leaders, mostly men, were also ahead of their time.

Summary

Conscious business is a successful, sustainable way of addressing the failure of pure capitalism.  Conscious leaders require additional qualities that have been traditionally described as feminine.  Companies that have at least one female director significantly reduce the risk of business failure and conscious business culture was originally captured in the writings of a woman over 100 years ago.  So all of this bodes well for women who are ready to aim for leadership roles.  And having a more balanced mix of the genders across business leadership roles would appear to  lead to more sustainable success for everyone. It would seem that the time is ripe for women to share more equally in leading the world towards a better way to do business.  It is now up to women to embrace the moment and aim for greatness, for the good of everyone, rather than fearing the comments of small minded individuals.  It is also up to men to support women in the journey because it has finally become clear and evidenced based that this is the only intelligent choice for us all.

References

About the author

Lasy Lawless is passionate about change and transformation. She likes to combine this with pragmatism, strategy and business focus. Her approach is person-centred – which means, she expects and supports others to take their own, full responsibility.As a trained accountant, Lasy worked for Big Finish – a conglomerate of TV and film post production companies – at a time when that world was being radically changed by digital technology. As Group FD, after 10 years sitting in over a dozen boardrooms devising strategy, she realised that the old ways of doing things were finished. Traditional power structures no longer delivered.That’s, at least in part, why she re-trained as a psychotherapist. Lasy believes that understanding what motivates people, and how to create strong challenging relationships at all levels, is the single most critical success factor for any business. Lasy is one of the founding partners, with Pete Burden and Jamie Pyper of Conscious Business People, a consultancy a business consultancy helping leaders build 21st century business cultures. She can be contacted  via  http://www.linkedin.com/in/lasylawless.

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Conscious Leadership: The Challenges of Empowerment

Laziness is my primary motivator when empowering others. If a thing is worth doing, I believe it’s worth getting someone else to do it.

This, however, is not as self indulgent as it might seem. I know that as a leader one of the first things I need to learn is to let go and trust others to get on with it.

I have not always been very good at this. However, over the years I have learnt why my old, more controlling ‘I’ll do it for you’ ways don’t really work and why empowering others is essential.

First off, lets look at confidence. My mother’s “Let me do that for you darling” – while I’m performing some simple task like making a cup of tea – is probably meant as an act of kindness. How I actually feel it is: “I am an idiot that can’t be trusted to make tea, despite the years of apparent evidence to the contrary.”

This not only irritates me but it also kicks my confidence, as it’s a tacit implication that I’m incompetent. There’s a subtlety to it though because cognitively I know I’m not, however I still irrationally feel it at some level and feelings tend to beat thoughts.

Learning is another key benefit of empowerment. In today’s fast moving, customer-centric world it is essential that everybody learns, and learns fast. Best of all is when they are so confident and engaged they take responsibility and drive their own learning.

When it comes to learning new things Mum is very much of the school of “probably shouldn’t try as it’s likely to be too difficult”. For me this is less than ideal. When I’m learning, what I really want is lots of encouragement and belief, as this helps me push through the self doubt.

Challenge is also very important to us. Solving something like a crossword puzzle or winning a video game is all the evidence we really need for this. Overcoming challenges helps us grow our self belief (or confidence) and it usually gives us a little frisson of excitement, and a sense of deeper resilience.

So why is empowerment so important? In my quest for a work free life, it is fairly obvious that once I let someone do something little – like a task I have handed them – then I  can give them more and more responsibility – until ultimately they are acting more like a leader themselves.

Effective leaders actively offer responsibility by distributing leadership power among the people that need it, allowing leadership to occur where it is needed most, often in the front line of business.  Most importantly this helps get a lot more done. It’s also likely to help teams be happier, more engaged and show more initiative.

It’s also probably helpful to think of leadership more as how you enable others to do what they need to do and then get the hell out of the way.

Although this is obvious in theory it can be quite hard to get right in practice. If you’re a control freak, for example, not only are you likely to be killing off your team’s motivation and innovation but you are likely to need more than a little help overcoming this urge.

A good and challenging place to start is delegation, and to get good at that. The more you are able to do this the more you are getting closer to allowing others around you to lead.

Inexperienced or untrained managers are most at risk of sabotaging themselves and their attempts to delegate.

The problem is, even if you are a ninja level engineer with technical insight gifted seemingly from the gods, management requires a totally and utterly different skill set and will exercise very different personality traits and emotional muscles, including some you might not have developed yet.

Many organisations miss this obvious fact and expect people to just figure it out, without proper investment in management training or personal development.

Not knowing how to be effective as a manager (common in those newly promoted to management) and without any help from those around them, before long the freshly challenged become frustrated and revert to what they do know – in this case “engineering”. They then start interfering with the “engineering” people in their teams are trying to do – showing them how they are doing it wrong and how the new boss can do it better.

As I said above, the thing most likely to undermine my confidence, motivation and general goodwill is poorly veiled criticism over my shoulder. Every “suggestion”, implies that I’m doing something wrong and thus can’t be trusted to perform the simple thing in front of me. And so I disengage.

Psychologically, I’m in a “double bind”: I’m feeling things are wrong even though I can see my way is working or valid. So I stop trying – because I’m wrong either way. I’ll go and look at what my friends on Facebook are doing instead.

Challenge is also removed – if my manager does take over and do my work for me. I lose the opportunity to learn. And, of course, I now believe he thinks I’m an idiot, so trust between us is destroyed.

It is worst of all when this exists at the top of hierarchies. Perhaps we are genetically predisposed to look up the hierarchy for tips on how to behave. So if someone senior is guilty of micromanagement, this crime can infuse the organisation below them like an unwanted inheritance.

An antidote follows. Let’s imagine the team player we’re delegating to is called Bob and he reports to me. Here is a way to set up delegation, broadly in line with the approach espoused by the late Stephen Covey. This is a mechanism that should catch any possible derailment and put the task back on track.

Bigger picture: I help Bob understand where he and what he’s doing fits into the bigger picture. What the organisation he is part of is trying to achieve. This taps into Bob’s sense of purpose and connects the task he’s achieving with that broader purpose. The context also helps him understand the implications if he does not get it done.

Ownership: I give Bob total ownership of the task. It’s up to him to get it done. This is so he is clear that no one else is responsible for achieving the desired outcome. No one is going to pick up his toys or tie his shoelaces for him. The buck stops with him. Essentially this is an invitation for him to “step up to the plate” of responsibility.

Expectations and Results: I also make sure Bob is very clear about what kind of results are expected. This will be helped if Bob already understands the bigger picture. It’s even better to ask Bob to consider the position of the other stakeholders and figure out what a good outcome for all might be.

For example, Bob might decide he needs to finish the project on time with a high quality, technically robust solution, and on, or under, budget.

Booby Traps: If there are some big obvious pitfalls in front of Bob then it’s only fair to warn him of these in advance so he can try to avoid them.

Support: If Bob is experiencing any problems, is unclear or struggling with the task, or if the delivery of the project is in jeopardy, I make it clear I am available to support to him to get through it, or to re-agree expectations. But I definitely am not going to do it for him.

Mistakes: Bob will undoubtedly make plenty of mistakes, we all do. This will help him learn and become more resourceful and do his job better, especially if all “mistakes” as are treated as learning opportunities. Not with punishment or disapproval, but with encouragement and support.

Feedback: Feedback should be a gift not a weapon. If given as a gift your teams will grow, develop and make you look good. If used as a weapon then your groups will regress, be generally unhappy and perform badly – they will be fearful of taking risks or “getting it wrong”. This kills innovation, creativity and energy.

Finally, having set all this up, you now need to live by the rules you’ve created. Again this is  basically because “monkey see, monkey do”. Other people will do as you do, not as you say. Any ambiguity also creates “wriggle room” – space to allow people to wriggle out of their responsibility. However, if you are consistently well boundaried and do what you’ve said you will do, the opportunity for others to wriggle will be minimised.

Good luck!


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Relationships – how much do they really matter?

After reading the ‘Get Started’ page of this site I was struck by how much the point “providing a safe place for human development and growth” resonated with me.

It’s probably not surprising as I’ve spent the best part of my career in learning and development but what drew me in was the term ‘a safe place’ and I thought it would be interesting to explore this a little further.

I would argue that feeling safe is a fundamental condition for optimal learning and development as it allows individuals and teams to explore their potential and try different approaches without fear of reprisal.

One of the key roles for great mentors, coaches and teachers is to create a feeling of safety that allows others to step outside of their comfort zones and try something new in order to develop and grow.

Sometimes, I worry about the trend to continually justify and measure improvement at both the individual and organisational level as this measurement in itself can result in the safety net disappearing.

For example, I remember a French teacher from school who was a stern character and ruled her pupils through fear. At the beginning of each lesson she would pick on a student to stand up in front of the class and test them on the vocabulary homework she had set the week before. This fear of being publicly humiliated in front of your peers meant that most of the time we did our homework well and when it came to exam time she got her results with nearly all the class passing.

A good result you may think. But unfortunately I have spoken to my classmates over the years and she has left a dread for French in all of us and I don’t know of one of us that went on to study the subject at A level.

So, all in all, not much of a legacy for a teacher.

This memory, for me, reinforces the idea that building safe, trusting relationships is probably the most important part of encouraging development and leaving a great legacy for the future.

Claire is a learning and development professional and runs Hove-based Learning Consultancy Partnership.


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Chicken and Egg

Climb that wall

Business is a complex system. If you don’t believe me, notice how many times the words “chicken and egg” come up in board room conversations.

Shall we hire some new people? Yes, when the sales are there. But hold on, we can’t make the sales until we have the people. Let’s wait until we have the sales – then let’s hire the people. But hold on…

If you’re not familiar with systems theory, it suggests that we like to imagine things happening largely in linear and cause/effect kinds of ways. But that a better model is that many things we encounter in life, including business, are the result of circular feedback loops and conditions as well as causes. This makes things more unpredictable, and sometimes, leads to that ‘chicken and egg’ state.

So how might we break out of these loops? How do we resolve the impasse of hiring versus selling?

Firstly, be conscious of them.

Study how systems operate. Learn from experience the subtlety of emergent properties – how unexpected results emerge as the result of changes we sometimes unwittingly make to systems. Picture them, draw them, get a feel for them. Some systems theory seems mathematical but I always think of it as more as an art than a science.

And secondly, throw your hat over the wall. There’s a story I remember from long ago about George Washington. Apparently when he was a youth he and his friends (for some reason I imagine them in the top hats and tails) used to wander around the gardens near his home, looking to steal apples, cut down trees and generally make mischief.

Sometimes they’d come up to a wall. A really high, unclimbable, dangerous-looking wall.

That’s kind of ‘chicken and egg’ isn’t it? In front of it you’re stuck. You can’t resolve the impasse – you can’t go forward.

So what happened? Well, one of them would take off his hat and throw it over the wall. That did it.

You see then they were committed – they had to retrieve the hat, so that meant they had to climb the wall. They had to go forward. And they did.

By the way I have read several introductions to systems theory but by far the best in my opinion is the late Donella Meadows book: “Thinking in Systems“.


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Go for it

Confidence, and self-confidence, are very important issues in the organisations where I work.

Lack of confidence can lead to all kinds of problems: sometimes it can freeze us  – we find ourselves completely unable to enter new territory. A simple example: having the confidence to sell a new type of product or service to a new type of client.

I think it was in a book by Jesper Juul that I first saw the distinction made between self-confidence and self-esteem.

Self-esteem, the way I read it, is about how I feel about myself, regardless of my skills or abilities.

Self-confidence, by contrast, relates to my view of my skills, my abilities, and my behaviours. If I think I am good at things I do – then I am self-confident.

Following this approach I can, if my self-esteem is good enough, feel good about myself even if I am demonstrably rubbish at something. And if I unfreeze and take the necessary steps, then I’ll learn and build the skills I need – growing my self-confidence.

Children, of course, learn new skills like sponges, and only at a certain age start to worry about their skills and abilities. By the time we are adults, many of us seem to be depending on our skills and abilities to maintain our self-esteem.

So that’s the theory. But how can I ‘operationalise’ this? (I love that word). What can I actually do that will help me become more fearless and act as if I have high self-esteem, even when I have zero self-confidence in a certain domain?

Three things come to mind:

  • Tell the truth. Maybe I am the only one, but a lot of my fears and worries are fears of being ‘found out’. Fear leads to inaction. Without action I cannot develop the self-confidence I need. So to avoid ever being put in a position where I will be ‘found out’ I find it useful to always tell the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth.

When I was younger, if someone said something I didn’t understand I might try to bluff my way through it. You can imagine the results. Anxiety and tension that only escalates as the situation gets more complicated because of my failure to understand a key point. Then scurrying away afterwards to research what I didn’t know.

A big waste of time. Today, if I don’t know I’ll say. That way I can put my energy into doing whatever I should be doing (like really listening) instead of wasting time watching my back.

  • Work as a team. Drop the commonly held expectation that you are somehow ‘serving’ the other person, in the sense of being inferior to them. I do believe in one sense that we always serve others. But often the worst way to serve another is to act as if they have some kind of hold over us and to pander to their demands.

Much better to treat other people as peers. The easiest way to do this is to change the language you use. If someone asks you a question, don’t always jump to answer it. Instead, use language that assumes you are working together in a team. Say “we”. Say “that’s an interesting question, I wonder what the answer is. Shall we work it out together?”

  • And finally, stay in the moment. Handle what’s in front of you “one step at a time”. Stop planning ahead. A year. A month. A day. Even a few minutes.

Instead, focus on your breath. On your body. Tap into your emotion. Feel the earth (the seat) beneath your feet (bottom). Look around. Listen carefully. Extremely carefully – to what is being said. And what your body is saying.

And respond to that, what ever it is. Don’t worry about what might happen – in the future. Bring your focus back to the present and respond to that. OK, so you don’t know the answer. What does that feel like? What’s happening to the other person? When you have an answer, respond. Take the next step.

Rinse and repeat.


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The need to please

I have a strong need for acceptance.

Whenever I have done personality tests I have always been grateful for the kind psychologist’s desire to cast the most positive light on this aspect of my personality. Words like “introverted”, “extremely sensitive” and “would enjoy working one-on-one with others” could, of course, be written in a less positive way: that I fear rejection and have a deep-rooted need to please others.

But hold on. Rejection is something we all suffer from, isn’t it? And haven’t I heard it said that the sales person’s greatest skill is overcoming rejection? That confuses me a little because sales people always seem to me to be so focussed on their relationships – perhaps paradoxically they also have a very high need for acceptance, but show it differently from me?

My personally preferred route would be to avoid human contact a lot of the time, and avoid rejection at all costs.

But, in business, that isn’t always possible. And over the course of my working life I have probably done quite a lot of selling. Several things have made it possible for me.

Firstly, major bits of reframing. I see selling not as the activity of using my charm and personality to win someone over to my point of view. Rather I have learnt to see it as a qualification exercise: one where I simply ask questions to find out if this person desires whatever I have to sell.

I see selling as helping. After all that is how I sometimes experience being sold to. If I need something and a helpful salesperson gently guides me to the product I want, in the right size and the right colour; and gently removes my fears – about what I’ll do if I change my mind later, for example – I am a happy customer.

And I have learnt to see the word “no“, or indeed any other word which signifies the conversation is not heading in my chosen direction, with great curiosity. “What on earth do they mean by that?”, I ask myself. “What are you really trying to say?”. I have built my curiosity muscle – and if I use it often the conversation may take another, sometimes quite unexpected turn.

Essential to all of these is reducing the emotional burden behind the thoughts. I am a fan of cognitive behavioural therapy and actually enjoy the process of trying to reframe my thinking around the harder areas of my life. But I know that if there is deep-seated emotion still sitting around in me while I try to see the world differently, reframing will have only limited success.

Awareness is, for me, the most powerful way to lessen that emotional burden. Gradually, over time, inch-by-inch I think I am becoming stronger, and more able to deal with my need for acceptance; and this seems well correlated with my growing awareness of it.

And finally to action: Testing my beliefs to destruction seems to give me the ultimate proof I need to make real progress. Each time I find myself in a sales situation, and I practice “helping”, I practice asking those questions, and I practice just sitting with those difficult feelings, I seem to get just a little bit stronger.

I break my old habits and I forge new, more appropriate ones. That’s how it seems to go for me. What about you?


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Elvis was right

This post is to celebrate the 10th anniversary of the Cluetrain Manifesto.

I listened recently to philosopher Peter Singer talking at the RSA. The talk was all about boundaries. At the end I must admit I thought “wasn’t that all just common sense?”.

It took a little time for the power of his words to settle in.

He spoke about the boundaries we create in our lives – between other people and ourselves, even between animals and ourselves. He linked three much discussed issues: global poverty, animal rights, and climate change together, pointing out that each was really about boundaries. Boundaries between us and others far away, us and animals, and us and future inhabitants of the earth.

His suggestion, as I understood it, is that sometimes these boundaries are false or over-estimated. And sometimes they turn into barriers. And that these barriers can cause us to act irrationally – for example, to fail to transfer even a small amount of our income to solve problems of poverty; to treat animals in sometimes appalling ways; and to continue to destroy the planet with obvious disregard for those who follow us.

Another potentially dangerous boundary, I’d suggest, and one that often becomes a barrier,  is the one between customers and companies.

When we allow it to become a barrier we create products and services that harm the planet. And we cut ourselves off from the value and joy we could be giving to each other through exchange,  innovation and commerce.

Thesis 29 of the Cluetrain Manifesto runs as follows: Elvis said it best: “We can’t go on together with suspicious minds.”

Surely, suspicious minds are at the root of the thinking that turns a boundary into a barrier?

We fear what we don’t know. We fear what might happen. We lack trust. And the truth is we often don’t take the steps needed to build that trust.

I am not sure that we can ever completely remove suspicion. It serves a biological purpose, I am fairly sure. But we can become more conscious of it. We can take actions to reduce it. To develop and grow its antidote: trust in others.

  • We can become more conscious of it by looking for examples of media, both old and new, that stereotype. We can challenge or avoid them.
  • We can watch the stereotyping, and labelling and judging behaviour, in ourselves. How often, when confronted by someone who says something we disagree with, do we label that person: “he’s a jerk”; “he’s stupid”; or, simply, “he’s weak”?
  • We can feel our fear – simply by focussing on an emotion, sometimes we can reduce it’s power.
  • We can challenge our beliefs. We can get out there and meet and talk to people. Even people we wouldn’t ordinarily talk to. To prove to ourselves how our stereotypes and suspicions are so often wrong.

It’s one of the great things about new media and the Internet – it has the potential to break down barriers between people, between creator and audience, and between customers and companies.

But to make that potential real we need to see more clearly, and to act, to take steps, to overcome our suspicion.

PS Next in the list is Kevin MacKenzie, at mack-musings.blogspot.com. You can see the full list of posts in celebration of the 10th anniversary of the Cluetrain Manifesto here.