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In Troubled Times, People like to Talk

These are difficult times for people at home and at work. Anxiety levels are raised and levels of wellbeing and resilience are being truly tested.

When people are anxious, they like to talk. They find reassurance when they can connect with others and makes sense of their isolated experience. So, they try to find ways in which they can share and support each other. If they can do this effectively, they will manage to reduce their anxiety as well as fulfilling an overarching need to feel part of a broader community at work and a sense that they belong.

Many organizations are providing great tips on how to WFH and how to build resilience and wellbeing during this very difficult time. But what we find is that clients, even with all of that ‘knowhow’, still want to talk. No matter what the medium is, be it Zoom, Skype, TEAMS or the telephone. It is beholden therefore on organizations to provide ways for their people to feel supported and able to share.

We see our leaders playing a significant role in trying to remain close, albeit isolated, with their teams in an attempt to stay in touch with their concerns. But what we are finding is that the key differentiator that enables people to really open up at this time, is having a neutral qualified person to facilitate the dialogue.  

As organizational psychologists we are working closely with client organizations to provide that differentiator. We are providing safe spaces for:

·       Colleagues to talk about some of the challenges they are facing in their roles, explore ways to address and enable them to support and learn from one another, and

·       Confidential 1:1 sessions when there is something that individuals would like to discuss more privately

Regular short sessions are working very effectively at this time and can be set up at short notice and in an agile way with whatever platform suits your needs.  There has never been a more critical time to be able to provide a safe space for your staff to talk.

To inquire about how we could set up a suitable forum for you, contact us at

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Resilience: Leadership skills for our increasingly complex interconnected world

Interconnectedness and complexity

Covid 19 and more recent ‘Black Swan’ events bring home the complexity and interconnected nature of our reality. They shift our understanding of what is meant by interconnectedness and how this plays out. For example, between the public and private sectors; between governments globally; between national governments and their financial sectors, their health and other public services and their business community more generally. They invite us to consider a more enlightened approach and to look at the heart of what really matters in business.

The resulting crash in our stock market attests to the misnomer that business success can be measured solely in terms of continuous growth and bottom line. It is the time to speak openly about businesses role in terms of improving society by creating organisations that people want to work for, the people want to do business with and that people want to invest in for the longer term. In effect, to aspire to make this world a better place by reaching its fullest potential through the limitless possibilities of its people.

Fresh thinking and enlightenment

Fresh thinking is required if we are to respond to the challenges that increasing complexity and interconnectedness requires. It helps to invoke a biological perspective of organizations as organisms in search of sustenance co-existing in a symbiotic relationship with their environment. The ease with which sustenance can be won relates to how rich and abundant the resources are relative to the requirements or needs of the system. This relatedness, the one to the other, is then a living dynamic relatedness that is complex, changing and vital at all times.

A biological paradigm suggests that organizations, being shaped by their context, are an integral part of all co-creation. In our Enlightened Organization, you would therefore come to see that:

·      It’s purpose is unique and potentially limitless and often paradoxically more easily answered by listening in to the context and what might be required of it in the word;

·      It is not simply the sum of its outputs and perhaps has a broader purpose, which is to enable their context and the people operating within it to fulfil their potential in the world;

·      Barriers between competing elements within the business can be destroyed and replaced with a sense of common work to be done;

·      Diversity and inclusion bring challenges, conflict and debate all of which are critical resources within the organization;

·      Being intricately connected to the world around it would be best to follow a simple rule whereby you treat all stakeholders ( including, for example, customers, suppliers, competitors, governments and distributors) that you interact with as part of yourselves, and in seeking the best for all parties involved, then your organizations would benefit the most; and

·      That the real purpose of the organization is only achieved over time and that a longer-term perspective will create success in both the longer, as well as the shorter term.

ESG and transformation

ESG philosophies have, in part been nudging our thinking in this direction, advocating that we measure corporate legacy and impact by reference to ‘Environmental, Social and Governance’ factors. These philosophies have been gaining some traction within the European business community. At times, maybe, more by way of lip service than any new thinking. That is, prior to the arrival of Covid 19. For example, many of my clients were already setting targets to reduce corporate air travel or the printing of paper. But few were thinking of revolutionary alternatives that would enable this, such as holding all meetings via TEAMS or Zoom or requiring digital board/meeting packs. Covid has changed their thinking and capability overnight. And these clients have all been rising magnificently to the occasion.

So, we know that the business community does have the capability to transform. The question now is what else will be required for it to continue to do so in a way that meets the changing demands of its operating environment?

Letting go of the illusion of control

A biological perspective helps us also to recognise a simple raw truth, that organizations do not hold any existential right to continue to exist. They need to adapt and work with their context if they are to survive. Covid 19 is certainly testing that reality for many businesses at this time. Margaret Wheatley, the scientist, provides some insight here on our heretofore illusion of continuous growth and control. She puts it thus:

‘Chaos’s role in emergence of the new order is so well know that it seems strange that Western culture has denied its parts so vehemently, In the dream of dominion overall all nature, we believed we could eliminate chaos from life. We believed there were straight lines to the top. If we set a goal or claimed a vision, we would get there, never looking back, never forced to descend into confusion and despair. This belief led us far from life, far from the processes by which newness is created. And it is only now, as modern life grows ever more turbulent and control slips away that we are willing again to contemplate chaos. Whether we explore it dynamics through new science or ancient myths, the lessons are important. The destruction created by chaos is necessary for the creation of anything new.

Adaptive leadership: the skills required

The significant themes emerging for organizations today are about interconnectedness and complexity. Each needs to differentiate their organization by reference to ESG philosophies or some other indicators of responsiveness and ‘Trust’. They can only ever succeed in this to the extent that they are led and managed accordingly. It follows that leaders and managers for the future need to be able to let go of the illusion of control, be fully present and authentic and develop their continuing capability to:

·      See more clearly the overall context in which they are operating;

·      Source and nurture the core purpose for their business;

·      Contain the anxiety and complexity for others;

·      Establish a culture of openness, dialogue and responsible behaviours;

·      Build collaborative relationships both within and beyond their industry sector because resilience can no longer be designed at the level of any individual business;

·      Engage the hearts and minds enabling strategies and the future to emerge;

·      Enable quality strategic conversation throughout every level of the business including the boardroom; and

·      Promote disagreement as an asset as well as being able to ask better and better questions. What could I know, should I know and that I don’t know ? Just what am I missing here ?

Leaders taking up their role

Covid 19 is a travesty. But perhaps within that a wake-up call for business leaders, inviting them to take up their role in helping to develop the enlightened and resilient organization. We are already seeing organisations adapt and deliver incredible transformations during these very challenging times. The invitation now is to consider what else will be required for it to continue to do so in a way that meets the emerging future/the new normal for your business.

Our work at Enlightened Organization’s focuses on helping leaders to

·      Become more fully conscious of the part you play in co-creating the whole;

·      Develop the skills outlined above; and 

·      Become more confident and accountable for what it is that you provide in your role.

What legacy do you want to leave behind for yourself, your organization and your wider community of stakeholders?

Articles Insight

Resilience, Covid 19 and how can we get through this at a personal level?

We are in the middle of a pandemic. Working hard, albeit at home, and as busy if not busier than before. The purpose of this Article is to stop for a moment to consider:

·      How we might be feeling in ourselves

·      How we might be performing/coping in our lives and at work and

·      What steps we could taking to become stronger and more resilient during this experience.

I have been holding ‘Resilience and Wellbeing Clinics’ for clients on Zoom and TEAMS since this pandemic took hold. The feelings that people have shared on these calls include loss; psychological fear about wellbeing; an existential crisis about purpose (questioning the value and meaning of the particular project or work that they are being asked to do and its significance when considered against the chaos in the world); real loneliness and isolation; lack of stimulation and missing the trips out into the world of work with colleagues; confused boundaries between work and home/family life; fear of one’s own disengagement socially and how this might set one back later when things return to ‘normal’; anxiety as parents in trying to achieve it all (the work, their burden of responsibility for the other members of their family, and trying to keep the family structures/meals/ family time and rhythms going); concern about certain members of the family, such as teenagers missing out socially or younger children falling behind in their schooling; and ultimately anxiety about the future. More recently, as the pandemic becomes more like BAU, there is a feeling of fatigue.

Perhaps some of these feelings resonate with you. Perhaps you have others to add. As an organizational psychologist I can tell you that this is very normal. Strong feelings are to be expected when faced with significant change, especially when this is imposed. Our personal experience of change is often described visually by reference to the model below. (Adapted from Kubler Ross).  

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The way forward

1       Emotional intelligence at the early stages

There are distinct phases in the Model, and it is useful if we can focus on the early stages first and see what is going on for us there, at the personal level.

Shock might have arisen when we saw images of the cruise ships not being able to dock or people dying in China. We could not fathom that such a thing was possible

Denial might have occurred when we deluded ourselves into thinking that the pandemic would remain in China or even Italy. That it could have no impact on us (UK/my place of work) and certainly not one for you or me. Or it might have come later, mid-March, when you were asked to work from home. Perhaps you thought, that’s fine. I can do that. It won’t change much. In fact, great, I will now have a shorter commute. Your friends and family might well have colluded in this belief system, that all was well and would stay the same. Even the weather colluded for a while in having some of us feel as if we were on a kind of home-holiday

Awareness is when reality hits home and the imposed change begins to mean something for us personally. We see that there is a cost to it for us. Maybe we risk losing our job or otherwise suffering financially; or miss our colleagues; or experience family members as interrupting our natural rhythm; we may worry about the lack of boundaries between work and home or feel demotivated, finding it harder to do the actual work. This is the phase when strong feelings kick in and we get triggered or overwhelmed by them. This awareness or reality check can come in waves over a period of time.   

It will be a very different experience for each one of us and depend very much on our own personal circumstances and family ecosystem. Nevertheless, the risk is that we stay stuck here, drained by our debilitating feelings and responding to life and work from that place. The only way to move on from this stage is paradoxically to be with it; to face up to these difficult and uncomfortable feelings and to gain insight into our responses. Are our behaviours reactive and based on fear (‘Fight’ or ‘Flight’) or do they reflect a real adult recognition of our needs ? If we can ‘feel the fear and do it anyway’ we will gain real freedom from our reactiveness. If we don’t, those feelings will likely be running the show and disable us from moving along the curve towards a new co-created future. 

Staying in tune with yourself in this way will enable you to move more easily into the next phase of the cycle, starting to build resilience in the face of a new normal. 

Exercise 1 My Now

Spend some time each day noticing the following:

·      How are you feeling?

·      Where is the feeling located in your body ? e.g. tight shoulders or fast heartbeat?

·      What is it exactly? Can you give it a name or a label?

·      Allow yourself to accept and let the feeling just be there as it is without trying to suppress or change it in any way

·      Ask yourself why you think this particular feeling is arising? Where has it come from?

·      Enquire into what it is that the feeling might be telling you about what you need right now

·      With this new knowledge and insight see what changes might be available in terms of a response

2       Optimism: Hope springs eternal in the human breast

At this stage you may be able to develop some optimism about what might be possible in the face of this situation. Ask yourself, what it is that you want for your life/family/work? How do you want to come out of this situation in 3, 6- or 9-months time? Why do you do this role at work/what motivates you about it? What would great look like for you personally and professionally after all of this? Covid 19 is not stopping you from dreaming about things that are practicable and possible; things that are within your sphere of your control. Have the courage to dream them now.

The effect of this dreaming or visioning will be to pull you in the direction of your future and a ‘better’ new normal; better because it is being shaped by what you want to have in it. This will then, in part, dissipate your feelings of loss and upset about the impact of Covid 19.

Exercise 2 Magic wand

Imagine you have a magic wand and that you can do almost anything with this wand. ‘Wave’ five things that you would like to have achieved by (September/December/insert your own time frame here). Suspend judgement or evaluation at this stage and just make them up. What do they look and feel like? Then assess and choose what specifically you would like to realise and write a detailed description/drawing/collage of your ideal outcomes

3       Structure: One small step at a time

You will already have seen the advantage of creating some structure in your day when working from home. Disciplined mealtimes and bedtimes for example. 

Being more intimate with your feelings and needs after completing Exercises 1 and 2 above, you can collaborate and ask others for what you want. But you can also do small things, just for you, that are nourishing and make you feel better about yourself, your work and your life. Small structured acts can go a long way towards replenishing us; time spent in the evening watching a Netflix series on your own, an evening walk with your partner, a longer bedtime story with your child, attending an art class online, re-engaging with your old piano pieces or learning to touch type. The list is endless.  

Experiment with different things and celebrate small successes along the way. This will bring you naturally from the left to the right side of the curve above, letting go of your pre-Covid-19 reality and enabling you to shape and manifest your new reality and future.

Exercise 3 What would give you more joy? 

·      What structures do you have in place at the moment? What’s missing, if anything?

·      What’s possible for you that would create more joy?

·      Taking your ‘Magic Wand’ Outcomes from Exercise 2 above

§ Working backwards, what steps did you take to realise your ideal outcomes?

§ Working forwards, what steps do you need to take now in order to get there?

§ Diary these activities now and stick with them

§ Celebrate your successes along the way

Articles Insight

Closeness, Optimism and Structure: Lessons from Shackleton for these threatening times

Leaders saving lives

Sir Ernest Shackleton has been called ‘The greatest leader that ever came on God’s earth, bar none’ for saving the lives of the twenty-seven men stranded with him on an Antarctic ice floe for almost two years. That was more than 100 years ago. His highly practical teachings are as relevant today as they were then. Perhaps even more especially now as we face an unprecedented brush with death (Covid 19) experiencing ongoing lockdown and facing a highly unpredictable future for all of our key stakeholders. 

How do we best lead in such complex dangerous times?  Perhaps, by leaning into some of Shackleton’s core principles, as outlined below. 

1       Closeness

Self-doubt about the goal or direction needed for a team or organization can be accompanied by the distancing of a leader from his/her people. This may be because:

·      The leader does not want to expose his/her weakness,

·      Time alone is needed in order to think,

·      The concerns of other people are not a priority-the situation is bad enough already!

·      Or he/she does not want their authority challenged.

Shackleton recognised each of these concerns but resisted the temptation to distance himself. Something that can become an easy default position for leaders today, in isolation. Instead he did the opposite, he became closer to his people by

·      Stripping away any hierarchical differences in the group

·      Creating regular informal sessions for the group to bond more closely together

·      Ensuring that each member of the crew spent time privately with him

·      Regularly taking people to one side to listen to concerns and ideas, and

·      Nipping problems in the bud before they escalated

He recognised the importance of the crew sticking together as one, in order to survive these months of uncertainly. Morale had to be high, and that was his responsibility. 

2       Optimism

Without doubt the chances of Shackleton achieving his original aims (reaching the South Pole) were lowering with each passing week. As the ship embedded in the ice, mere survival became the goal. Under such circumstances a weak leader may understandably give up and relinquish optimism. The self-fulfilling prophecy then playing out the prediction.

Other leaders can be prone to displaying exaggerated levels of optimism. When conditions look ominous or disastrous, they will assert that everything remains positive. This can be merely naïve enthusiasm, but the temptation is to promise outcomes which are

·      Too far ahead to engage people whose interests are (increasingly as they become more anxious) shorter term

·      Outside the control of the person making the promise

Shackleton maintained a balance throughout his crisis. Once committed to returning people home (their changed purpose now), he focussed only on short term objectives-often no further than the next hour or day-which he and his crew could control. He could do this because he knew the time frame of his colleague’s concerns; the result of achieving the intimacy discussed at 1 above.

His ability to model the way forward, in terms of how his people thought and felt, is one of his greatest attributes of leadership. He knew that he had to maintain optimism and would plan small rewards, meals, rests, and reviews in order to anticipate their emotional needs. While his air of optimism might have caused him considerable internal anguish, he concentrated only on actions which would achieve short terms successes, thereby building confidence and commitment

3       Structure

When a leader’s goal or direction becomes uncertain, there is a temptation to avoid the responsibilities of taking the helm. The reasons may include:

·      A reluctance to structure activities in the context of a clouded personal strategy

·      A fear of wasting resources in the short-term

·      A dread of appearing foolish later on

Shackleton knew that without structure, his crew would have more opportunities to lose faith in his leadership. Reduced to pessimism, they would eventually descend into madness during the months ahead of waiting and boredom. His answer was to provide rituals and activities, not only to occupy his men but to prepare them for forthcoming new strategies. For example:

·      Disciplined mealtimes and strict watches

·      Preparing boats and creating dog teams

·      Making tools and equipment; repairing tents and clothing

·      Hunting for food and maintaining informal entertainment

Shackleton avoided the problem of over-structuring by emphasising the informal rituals of play and entertainment and ensuring free time for all. Through this he took the time to anticipate and plan, in the knowledge that the creation of an able and disciplined crew could be prepared for any outcome.

Relevance for us as leaders today

Do you tend to rely on one of the three principles above at a cost to the other two?   

·      Preferring closeness while limiting optimism and structure, so we all go down as one?

·      Preferring optimism and limiting closeness and structure, so staying aloof from your people? or

·      Preferring structure and limiting closeness and optimism, staying disciplined but ignoring the concerns and reality of your team. 

Shackleton maintained a balance between all three principles and that is the essence of his success. Once his goal became clear and his personal focus returned, he had the foundations in place to surmount also impossible odds; a crew that was close optimistic and structured. He was heralded by his team as being “the greatest leader on Earth.”

What can you do this week?

Looking at his principles and actions above, what is one thing, even if small, that you could do to better lead your team during these unprecedented times?