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Others’ Stories Matter Too

Yesterday I wrote about how we build stories about our identity around the events of our lives.

I received the following feedback from Morgan (name changed for anonymity) who is a subscriber to my blog:

“I love this. The counter-point is that since this lived experience and narrative shapes everyone, we need to be careful not to pre-judge others as we cannot know their experiences and the narrative they assign to them. To me, that is at the very heart of inclusion … recognising all of us have travelled a different path but respecting each other enough to be genuinely curious about how that has shaped us.”

Firstly, thank you, Morgan, for your feedback. It is gratefully received.

Secondly, I couldn’t agree more. When we communicate with others, it is essential to understand how they are hearing you. It’s no point talking to someone in a language they don’t understand. That is not communication.

Genuine dialogue, the two-way exchange of ideas, requires advanced empathy from both parties to understand how the lived experience of the other person impacts their perspective and, thus, their understanding of what is being said.

This might mean that when communicating with people from different backgrounds or with different experiences, how you say it is just as important as what you say. This is one of the components of the Paradox of Authentic Leadership.

For more background on how our experience shapes how we communicate, I recommend Hugh Mackay’s book Why Don’t People Listen?

Understand The Stories We Tell Ourselves About Ourselves.

This week I had the opportunity to see clients in the Western Sydney suburb of Emu Plains, the suburb where I spent my high school years and where my parents still live.

After finishing my work, I took the opportunity to walk home and spend a night with mum and dad. The walk was no more than two kilometres through a nature reserve and along roads with which I was very familiar.

As a teenager, my school mates and I would play cricket on those streets until it was so dark, we could barely see the ball. We’d play handball and ride our bikes along those streets as well. On the nature reserve, we’d practise our golf swings trying not to hit the ball into the creek at the end of my street.

All of this was over 30 years ago.

As I walked that familiar route, I noticed the trees had become taller, the bushland denser. Some houses were the same, others renovated or knocked down and rebuilt. The images of those high school years seemed clear to me.

I reflected on the good times and bad. On the whole, there were more positive memories. At one point, I thought how all those things that happened so long ago didn’t matter today. It was all in the past. A lot of those friends have moved on. We have all changed, grown and matured.

Then I thought about the stories that we tell ourselves. The events of our past form part of the narrative that shapes our identities. Those events do matter because we assign meaning to them, and that shapes how we relate to the world today.

And this is where our power lies. We have control of the meaning we assign to events. We get to write our own stories. We can, if we are conscious of how we do this, control our narrative.

In this way, we can allow our past to inform our future and not define it.

Is It Time To Take A Break?

I posted my daily blog later than usual yesterday. I usually have them drafted early and scheduled for publishing early each morning. This time I didn’t.

I had a draft and I wasn’t happy with it. There was something I didn’t like about it. It didn’t read well and I wasn’t sure I was going to get my message out the way I wanted to. No matter how I crafted, redrafted and moved words around the page (or in this page iPad screen) I couldn’t get it right.

I was resigned to the fact I was going to miss a day and while I wasn’t necessarily happy I didn’t know what else to do. I certainly wasn’t going to publish in its current format.

Then I slept on it. [1]

The next morning on the train I opened the draft again and there it was. The missing piece of the puzzle leapt into conscious awareness and I had the draft finished in about five minutes. I then set about publishing it to my blog.

I have heard it said Earnest Hemingway would finish writing each day mid sentence or paragraph. He would then come back to his work the next day and continue where he left off.[2] The benefit was his brain would continue to work on the piece of writing overnight outside of conscious awareness.[3]

David Rock in his book Your Brain At Work talks about the power of the non-conscious. He describes the benefits of stepping away from difficult problems, doing something unrelated while the non-conscious part of the brain continues to work ‘in the background’.

So, if you’ve been focused on a problem and don’t feel like you’ve been able to find a solution, consider taking a break. Perhaps the answer will come.

  1. Actually, I cooked dinner, watched two episodes of Game Of Thrones and then went to bed.
  2. There is a fact check opportunity here for anyone who can confirm or deny this please.
  3. I make no claims of being anywhere close to being as good a writer as Hemingway.

The Importance of Boundaries

In his book Give And Take, Adam Grant describes three types of people [1]:

  • Givers: Those people who give with no thought of reward or reciprocity;
  • Matchers: Those who will only give if they feel they will get something back in return;
  • Takers: Those who take and do not give back.

Grant points out, according to his research, the style that is the least successful are the Givers. Takers can take advantage of Givers’ generosity. Givers may also burn themselves out by giving too much.

So, who are the most successful people?

Also Givers.

Givers thrive when the following conditions are met:

  • When they are sheltered from burnout;
  • They work in a culture where giving and asking for help are encouraged; and
  • The Takers have been weeded out.

I believe another important aspect is appropriate.


You cannot give to everyone.

It is still possible to give, with no thought of reward, within carefully defined and managed boundaries. Understand what you can achieve and what you can’t and realise that it’s vital to look after yourself if you want to be able to keep giving over the long term.

If you’re asked for something and you can’t help, be honest. Tell the person who’s asked you’re unable to help them. Then point them in the direction of someone who can. That way, at least you’re still giving in the best way possible.

[1] Grant points out that we all have Giving, Matching and Taking traits and will behave with a mix of the styles over the course of our lives. We do, however, have a predominant style that aligns with one of the three.

Do You Need Every Alert?

Today marks my first full day back at work after a relaxing two weeks of leave.  

While I was away, I turned off all my alerts for social media, email and other apps on my smart devices.  The only notifications I left on were for personal messages from friends and family.

Do you know what I discovered? 

I don’t need to be alerted every time someone tries to get in contact with me.

I also discovered that I could control my intake of data.  I can choose the times when I check my emails. I can choose the times I check my social media. I can choose the times I read and reply to emails.

I also discovered (or, perhaps, rediscovered) that no one gets upset if you don’t reply to their emails or messages straight away.

Over the last two weeks, I learned (or, perhaps, relearned) to use my smart device the way I want to use it rather than being reactive to it.

For more interesting thoughts on this topic, I recommend Digital Minimalism by Cal Newport.

Become a Chief Storytelling Officer.

For thousands of years, we have communicated with each other through stories. We’ve told stories about our history, our successes and our failures.

Leaders need to take on the role of storyteller. I think they should become the Chief Storytelling Officer.

As the Chief Storytelling Officer, the leader looks for real and valid stories connecting the work their people do with the higher purpose of the organisation. Why does this matter? Because one of the basic psychological needs that motivate humans to do great work is a sense of purpose. A feeling that what they are doing matters.

Adam Grant, the author of Give and Take and creator of the WorkLife podcast, describes a call centre in the United States. The call centre operators had the thankless task of making cold calls to seek donations to support disadvantaged students. Performance in the call centre was flat, and morale was low. As you can imagine, making multiple calls every day asking for money can be a difficult job psychologically, especially when the rejection rate is high.

Then the manager of the call centre had an idea. He found two of the disadvantaged students who had benefited from the fund and asked them to come into the call centre and meet with the phone operators. They revealed how they had received a good education and achieve success, all because of the money the operators had elicited from donors.

Performance and morale in the call centre improved when the operators could see what they were doing was making a difference.

Closer to home, I recently worked with a leader looking to motivate his team of data analysts. He embraced the role of Chief Storytelling Officer. He showed the team how the numbers they crunched formed the basis of a report that positively changed the way the company interacted with its customers. Showing those data analysts the results energised them for the next task.

Many people work for us, with us or around us that may not be able to make the connections between what they do and a more significant positive outcome. Often, this is because they are too close to their work and are unable to see the longer-term effects.

As leaders, we can provide people meaning to the work they do through real and valid stories and motivate them to perform at their best.

Yes. Competitors Can Collaborate.

Yesterday I wrote about the concept of competing with your own team.

Today, I want to take it one step further and talk about how competitors can collaborate.

As it happened, yesterday I listened to Andy Penn, CEO of Telstra, address the National Press Club.  He was discussing the future of the telecommunications industry in Australia.

One aspect addressed was the issue of cybercrime. What resonated for me was when he talked about working with the industry, including his competitors, and the Government to combat this threat: 

“The only way to look at cyber is as a team. Large enterprises, small enterprises, medium business, Government, we all have shared platforms, common customers, and we’re all the target of the same attacks. We all, therefore, play a role in keeping Australian’s safe. It’s a shared accountability. It’s not a competition. If one party loses, we all lose. As the online landscape continues to expand, we cannot afford to operate in silos, and we must work together.”

– Andy Penn, National Press Club Address, 31 July 2019

There is any number of ways for competitors to work with one another.  They just need to find common ground, which is an essential first step. That requires us to look at our competitors as having something to contribute rather than as a foe to be vanquished.

Imagine what you could achieve if you were to work with your competitors towards a common goal.

Are You Competing With Your Own Team?

Competitive people have a desire to win. On the surface, you might not think there is anything wrong with that. But what if the person they are competing with is someone in the same company or organisation?

This happens more often than you realise.  

  • If there is a culture that recognises individual performance, there will be competitiveness;
  • If there are rewards or bonuses for getting higher sales figures, there will be competitiveness;
  • If the company promotes the person who gets the best results, there will be competitiveness.

The competitive person sits across the table from the people they are ‘competing with’ and says, “I need to be better than you.”  This approach promotes an adversarial relationship which may not encourage cooperation or collaboration.

The culture will have a part to play in this. The system may be set up to promote it. You may not be in a position to change the system.  You may not be able to have a significant impact on the culture. If, however, you find yourself thinking competitively, a simple mindset shift can help you move into a better space.

Rather than say, “I need to be better than you,” shift your frame of mind to, “What can I learn from you?”  This perspective will put you into a growth mindset rather than an adversarial one. It will offer you opportunities to work with your team rather than against one another, and it will promote relationship building rather than competition.

On Control … Again

Yesterday I wrote about control and influence. A few more thoughts on the subject …

Think about the unhappiest or angriest people you know.  What are they trying to control that they can’t?

In my experience, the unhappiest people of the world, (including me at one point), are those trying to control every aspect of their own and other people’s lives.  They are seeking certainty and predictability. They are looking for safety and security in their certainty.

The happiest people have let go and are more curious about their lives and the world in general. They understand the limits of what they can control, and the randomness of the world allows them to be surprised and amazed.

What are you controlling that you can’t?

What would be the impact on your life if you let go?

“Consider how hard it is to change yourself and you’ll understand what little chance you have of trying to change others.”

– Unknown

Control vs Influence

A myth I often dispel with clients is that we have control over people. We don’t. The only person we have limited control over is ourselves. We can control what we say and what we do. To a limited extent, we can control how we think.

We cannot, however, control others.

“But, I can control what my people do at work”, I hear you say.

No. That’s influence.

We can influence through punishment and reward. However, in his book Drive, Dan Pink discusses how the carrot and stick as a method of motivation is no longer viable. It works ok when people are doing routine, mundane and repetitive tasks, however, as soon as the job requires any type of cognitive effort, it becomes less effective.

People are capable of assessing whether they are motivated by the promise of reward or the fear of sanction. They then choose if they work or not. If the reward means nothing to them, or they don’t mind the consequences, they may decide not to complete the assigned work.

It’s their choice.

We can also influence through referent power the power that people believe we have through the position of our authority or the respect they have for us. Or, we can influence through our relationships. People will do things because they know us because we have built a relationship with them.

Again, it’s their choice.

If we want to get the most from people, we need to understand what motivates them. We all want to be treated like human beings so, spending some time understanding our people’s human motivations can help you build that relationship with them, and thus, your influence.

“It’s Time To Learn A Few New Jokes”

In 2012, the University of Melbourne Centre for Ethical Studies produced a report entitled Resilience: Women’s Fit Functioning and Growth at Work: Indicators and Predictors. At the time it was published as part of the Gender Equality Project.

The report aimed to:

“analyse indicators that are typically considered when assessing gender diversity strategies and then analyse the personal and organisational factors that predict these different outcomes.” [1]

The report is detailed, comprehensive and made five recommendations for improving gender equality in organisations.

Of these five recommendations, there was one that resonated for me quite strongly. Recommendation number 4 read as follows:

“Target low-level sexism through a range of strategies, such as a “no just joking” policy.”

In the discussion of this recommendation [2], the paper highlights how low-level sexism through jokes makes women feel uncomfortable and that they do not belong or are not welcome.  When challenged, perpetrators of this behaviour would respond by saying they were “just joking” as if this made their behaviour acceptable because it was just a bit of fun with no harm intended.

The problem is there is harm committed.

Firstly, this kind of behaviour creates a “stereotype threat” which increases the potential for bias (perceived or real, conscious or non-conscious) in those making the jokes. 

Secondly, the study found, there are negative impacts on women’s health and retention. Retention is important because when women leave an organisation, they take away the unique skill sets they offer as individuals, and this impacts the capability of the organisation.

It would seem, on the surface, a straightforward idea to create a “no just joking policy”. The report recommends the simple act of an apology, when challenged, should be enough to resolve this behaviour at a low level before it escalates.

I will leave the final comment on this matter to the report writers:

“…the point needs to be made that the loss of one source of humour is not the death of humour. It merely indicates that it is time to learn a few new jokes.”

  1. Page 6
  2. Page 20

The Power Of A Simple System

In his book Deep Work, Cal Newport talks about Jerry Seinfeld’s simple system for getting work done. It involves putting a cross on the calendar each day he writes a joke and not placing a mark when he doesn’t. As Jerry tells it, once you get a row or two of crosses, you get to a point where you don’t want any blank spots on the calendar. So you keep writing jokes every day so you can keep your run of marks going.

This is how we can keep ourselves accountable.

I recently used this method to achieve my own goal. I wanted to go 100 days alcohol-free. On day one I started and put the number 1 in my calendar and then I put a box on where day 100 was. There was that box calling me to write 100 in it. I couldn’t let that box down. I had to do it.

And I did.

How can you use your calendar to keep you accountable?

On Busyness and Time Management

“Perfection is not when there is no more to add, but no more to take away.”

Antoine De Saint-Exupéry

“It is vain to do with more what can be done with less.”

William of Occam

“Simplify. Simplify”

Henry David Thoreau

“The nature of creativity is to make space for things to happen … We can drive it out with our busyness and plans.”

Iain McGilchrist

There has been an increase in commentary recently on the culture of ‘busyness’. Being busy is seen as a badge of honour. If I am not busy, then I must not be productive.

“How’s work?”
“It’s busy.”

“How are you?”
“I’m so busy?”

What if, however, being busy was another form of laziness? By being busy, we are potentially ignoring other parts of our lives that require attention. Our thoughts. Our emotions. Our health. Our relationships. Our wellbeing.

What else?

If you struggle with time management, start thinking about what you can cut from your day, week, month, year or life. Time management isn’t about finding ways to pack everything in. It’s about prioritising what’s important.

What Else Is Happening?

We’ve all got them. That one person or that group of people that we find difficult. [1]

I’ve written before about how people have a “right thing” and how taking others’ perspectives can help you understand motives.

What if we were to take it one step further?

Maintaining a curious mindset (check the voice in your head for tone) try to understand what is going on around the person with whom you are interacting.

Here are some questions that might help you do that (I am going to use a fictitious protagonist named Morgan here): [2]

  • Who is Morgan’s boss or manager? What pressures are they under that Morgan might be picking up on? How could that be informing Morgan’s behaviour or thinking?
  • What policies, procedures or legislation is Morgan using to inform his decision making? What effect might that be having on him?
  • Has Morgan dealt with a similar experience to the one we are discussing today? What happened last time? How is that informing Morgan’s thinking and behaviour?
  • What other influences are there on Morgan at the moment that could be impacting our conversation?

These questions are not exhaustive, but they do help you see some of the other forces of the system at play. As you take a step back and view different aspects of the system, test out your questions.

I encourage you to take a broader view of your difficult conversations, understand what else might be happening, and how that could be playing out in your interactions.

[1] Lately, I have moved away from the concept of “difficult people” to “people I find difficult.  It puts the onus back on me to develop my empathy and understand others better.

[2] You don’t have to ask these questions out loud. Asking the question about your “Morgan” primes you to see events and behaviours to help you answer the questions. Of course, nothing is stopping you from asking the questions out loud either.

What’s The Question?

If you peruse the business literature, or even just business posts on social media, you will eventually come across the phenomenon of “meeting bashing”.  It seems no-one likes a meeting and every commentator has a three, four or five-step process to address what they see as the downside.

I offer one step.

Frame the outcome of the meeting as a question that needs answering.

“In today’s meeting, we will seek to answer the following question: What / Who / How / When”?[i]

I once had a boss who was a great guy. He had a heart of gold and was always trying to do what was best for our stakeholders. The team loved him. He would, however, walk out of team meetings frustrated because there were very rarely any clear outcomes.

The problem was he always started the meeting with, “I want to talk about issue X”.

And so, we would discuss it. We would offer our opinions and our version of solutions. We would agree and disagree based on our perspectives. In the end, exasperated, the boss would say something like, “So what? What’s the decision?”

My sense always was, nice guy that he was, he was rarely clear on the question he was trying to answer. If he had, he would have been able to shape, guide and facilitate the discussion to answer that question. 

What’s the question you’re trying to answer? Understand that question and you may be able to make meetings useful. 

[i]And, very rarely, “Why?”

You Can’t Influence The Organisation

In his book, Sapiens, Yuval Noah Harari talks about how we, as human beings, have invented social constructs so that we can create order and certainty for ourselves.  We have called these social constructs ‘companies’ and ‘organisations’.  

The problem is that these ‘companies’ and ‘organisations’ don’t exist. Not physically. You can’t touch them. 

You can touch the buildings in which the people of those ‘companies’ work. Moreover, you can interact with the people that work for those ‘organisations’.

Physically, however, these ‘companies’ and ‘organisations’ only exist as inventions of our collective imagination.

This becomes a problem when people say things like:

  • “The organisation made a decision”; or
  • “I need to influence the company to …”.

No. The organisation did not make a decision. Someone who works for the organisation made a decision. That decision was made, by that person (or group of people), based on their interpretation of policy, culture and their relationship with the ‘organisation’. 

Also, because the company doesn’t make decisions, you cannot influence the company to do so.  Because individuals, or groups of individuals, make decisions, however, you can influence them.

So, if you’re having trouble influencing the organisation or company at the moment, give some thought to who the specific decision-makers are. They are the people you need to influence.

How you do that is a whole other story.

How to listen to feedback

Consider the following scenario …

A close colleague comes to you and asks for feedback. “Give it to me straight” they say.  So you do. Far from being grateful they get defensive. You can see it in their body language. You can hear it in their response of, “Yes, but …” or, “You don’t understand what else has been going on.”

How will you feel about giving your colleague feedback next time they ask?

My guess is that you will probably feel less like providing that support. 

Now, have you ever done that yourself? Be honest.

“Leaders who don’t listen will eventually be surrounded by people who have nothing to say.”

Andy Stanley

If you want to have a team with a voice you will need to give them one.  So, if you’re asking for feedback from those around you here are a few rules to consider:

  • Rule 1:  Shut up and listen.  You will be tempted to speak and defend yourself. After all, you are potentially getting information that conflicts with your sense of identity or your status. ‘Fight or flight’ or amygdala hijack will kick in. Prime yourself and stifle the impulse to open your mouth.
  • Rule 2: Break Rule 1 if, and only if, you’re going to ask a question.  It’s okay to ask questions to get clarifying information to help you understand what you’re hearing.  A rule of thumb is only to ask questions you don’t know the answers to.  Also, before asking the question, test it in your head. If it sounds like a genuinely curious question, then it’s okay to ask. If not, if it seems judgemental or condescending, revert to Rule 1.
  • Rule 3: Take notes to demonstrate to the other person you are taking their feedback seriously and will give you something to refer back to later.
  • Rule 4: Once the other person has finished, use the following script (or something similar): “Thank you. I appreciate you taking the time to provide this feedback. You have given me a lot to think about. Would it be ok to take a day or two to think about what you have said?  Maybe we could catch up in a few days if I have any further questions?”  Taking this pause will allow you to stifle the impulse to defend your position straight away and allow any emotions you are experiencing to settle.  You can then look at your notes with a more objective view later and make less subjective decisions about whether the feedback is valid or not.

Giving feedback is challenging but receiving it is integral to our growth. Don’t switch off a potential source of valuable information by inadvertently telling people you’re not prepared to listen.

You can read more of my thoughts on feedback here

You can’t do everything.

“A wealth of information creates a poverty of attention.”

Herbert Simon

There are a lot of highly successful people out there that have achieved great things in their fields of endeavour. For each one, there is someone else who wants to interview and deconstruct them in order to unearth the key ingredients of success. 

As a result, there is a wealth of information available about how to be successful.

The problem is, if you were to do everything every successful person did, you would never get anything done.

Having been a connoisseur of many of these interviews and articles over the last few years, here are a few of the key themes you need to follow to be successful:

  • Wake early, so you’re up before your competitors.
  • Go to the gym as soon as you wake up.
  • Go for a walk at lunchtime.
  • Exercise before bed. (Or don’t exercise before bed)
  • Meditate twice a day for at least ten min/20 min/1 hour each time.
  • Write in your journal.
  • Write your blog.
  • Publish your podcast.
  • Eat a healthy breakfast.
  • Fast until lunchtime.
  • Fast for 2 or 4 days a week.
  • Get eight hours sleep a night.
  • Adopt biphasic sleep.
  • Get all your meetings done in the morning.
  • Spend the morning alone in your creative space.
  • Etc, etc, etc.
  • (Insert advice of your choice here.)

The point is, there is a lot of good information out there about the tactics that certain individuals use to be successful. What those people did was found techniques that worked specifically for them.

And you can do the same.

Listen and read widely to gain ideas that might work for you. Then try them. See how they go. If they don’t work, discard them and try something else. Keep going until you find something that works for you, then adopt it. Check in every now and then to make sure it still works and if it does, great. If not, change your approach.

What works for one person may not work for another.

What makes some successful, may not do the same for you.

Do you really need to say “need”?

The word ‘need’ comes up quite a lot in conversation with my clients.

When it does it is usually followed by the question, “What would happen if you didn’t meet that ‘need’?”

Most of the time, after some discussion, we discover there are consequences, and being aware of those consequences is an essential component of any decision-making process.

Meeting that specific ‘need’, however, is rarely a matter of life and death.

I am often curious as to the pressure that we put on ourselves by using the word ‘need’ unnecessarily.

What Does The System Reward?

For those who watched Insiders on Sunday, 14 Jul 19, you may have seen a brief discussion on Australian federal politicians’ Electoral Allowance.  This is an allowance of between $32k and $46k for sitting members of parliament to spend in their electorate as a discretionary fund.  There are a couple of key features of this fund, as highlighted in a Sydney Morning Herald report on 3 July 2019:

  • The allowance is paid directly into the bank accounts of the sitting members;
  • The sitting member is not required to declare how the fund is spent;
  • At the end of the financial year, any unused funds may be retained by the sitting member as additional taxable income;
  • In 2017, the two major parties blocked a move by one of the minor parties that would have required politicians concerned to prove how the money was spent.

The SMH article highlights concerns by some that this money is being misused.

I make no comment on whether the reports in the SMH are accurate and I want to outline there is no political bias here. I want to use the case-study above to talk about systems.

I suspect that when the electoral allowance was originally instituted it was done so with good intentions.  It was designed to allow money to be spent on areas in the electorate where a need was seen but where existing policy did not meet that need.

Culture, however, is built by what the system rewards, recognises or rejects.  In this case, there is a potential personal financial reward to the politicians concerned for not spending the money as it was intended; on the electorate.  The system has also rejected the need for accountability around how this money is spent. This means the system is potentially set up to build a culture where corruption is rewarded or, if not present, there is a perception that it is.

Other examples where the system creates second or third-order effects on the culture are:

  • When people are rewarded for higher sales figures over their colleagues a culture of completion may develop;
  • In a call centre, if the KPI is quick resolution times for callers, then there is an incentive to get customers off the phone quickly rather than a focus on resolving the problem properly;
  • A focus on people being at their desks for defined working hours, rather than focusing on getting the job done, may lead to demotivated employees;
  • Assigning funding to schools based on test performances may encourage teachers to the test rather than the curriculum.

What is your system rewarding, recognising or rejecting?