Leading in Tough Times

Shipper paralyses . . .
Colin was madder than he had been in a very long time.

He’d spent the entire morning in the Shipping Department impressing everyone there with the urgency and importance of getting the Blue Valley shipment on the truck and away before 1pm today.

He had checked on progress every 30 minutes right up to noon and it was all on track as far as he could see. He’d been given several reassurances that it would leave on time before he’d left for a long-arranged lunch meeting on the other side of town.

It was now close to 2:30pm and he’d stopped by the Shipping area only to discover that the shipment in question was still sitting on the dock – incomplete! The truck had long since departed without it.

The answers to his searching questions had been astounding; no one assumed responsibility for the decision not to ship – it had all simply fallen between the floorboards. Two minor items had failed to arrive to complete the package and there’d been no person in the office who could solve the problem. So, by default, nothing happened when it should have done.

Colin called the shipping group together and, with tight jaw and direct eye contact, he’d queried the sequence of events. Yes, everyone had understood what was supposed to happen; yes, everyone was aware of the problem; no, since the regular supervisor wasn’t around, no one had realized that it was up to them to make the decision to ship; yes, all could see quite clearly now that the package should have been on the truck. It just didn’t happen.

Colin lost it, literally. "What’s the point of hiring idiots who can’t think for themselves?” he ranted. "I’d be better off with trained monkeys than you lot! Now, just so this doesn’t ever happen again, let’s work out the right procedure for dealing with issues like this one.”

To his chagrin and even deeper disappointment they came up blank; there was not one idea, not a single suggestion, as to how the situation could be handled more successfully in the future. They just sat there, looking back at him, their faces expressionless. Colin didn’t know whether to laugh or cry.

"You call yourselves Shippers?” he challenged, "Why, my eight-year-old son could do a better job than all of you combined. Why am I wasting my time?” He stormed out wondering if he ought to fire all four of them and start afresh.

What’s wrong with this picture . . .?
Business leaders who are ‘worth their salt’ know for a certainty that you cannot impress, motivate, direct, coach or otherwise influence any person effectively by using threats. It’s truly amazing that there are so many experienced managers who will still attempt to leverage response by resorting to threats anyway – both overt and covert.

We all recognize that people respond to threats in very distinctive ways and much related research has been conducted over recent years. Not one of the findings has endorsed the use of threatening or coercive strategies; in fact, they demonstrate conclusively that threats have precisely the opposite effect to that intended.

The research has shed much light on why people will not perform well under threat or duress and this is worth sharing. There’s a positive, highly constructive theme to the findings which can serve us well.

The Findings . . .
Firstly, there’s a direct and inverse relationship between the strength of an emotional response and the resources available for rational thought. In other words, the more emotional you are the less you, and possibly others involved, are able to think clearly.

Duh! We already knew that, right? Well it’s nice to have the evidence to support this piece of folk wisdom. What’s really fascinating about this though, the research shows that mental paralysis begins to take effect instantaneously and also imperceptibly but in a very, very big way.

A threat response which an individual is barely registering, and perhaps is completely unaware of, can reduce problem-solving capacities by as much as fifty percent, according to behavioural scientist Dr David Rock of Sydney, Australia. He describes his research findings at length in his book "Your Brain at Work”.

The brain is finely tuned – it has forever been our primary defence against all manner of life-threatening situations; it’s the old ‘fight or flight’ syndrome working. Any threat response has a significant impact, much more than we realize and it impacts us in two important ways.

Initially, it diverts all available resources to unusually acute focus and intense physical effort, in part by shrinking the blood supply to the pre-frontal cortex (site of rational thinking) - thereby reducing the vital oxygen and glucose required for brain functioning; note that the brain is an avaricious consumer of these resources even when things are going smoothly!

Next, it diminishes the threshold for registering subtle electrical signals while lowering electrochemical levels and this suppresses emotions generally; so, in effect, we’re less able to sense those hunches, instincts and intuitions upon which we depend for real insights and break-through ideas.

So, if we want people to solve problems we must eliminate or decrease threat responses substantially because even the tiniest suggestion of a threat will limit thinking abilities.

How tiny? Consider that being addressed by a person whom we consider to be more senior will reduce our rational capacities profoundly (the Boss effect). As leaders and managers, we need to work deliberately to counteract this syndrome - likely by inserting strong measures of safety and reward.

If we create positive rapport, we settle others’ fears and help them to relax so that we can reach them. I know this is something we’ve all recognized intuitively. David Rock offers some excellent ideas on how we, as managers, can do this better in his article "Managing with the Brain in Mind” – go to 
http://www.strategy-business.com/media/file/sb56_09306.pdf for your copy.

He also promotes the SCARF model which deals with all the things which are vitally important for the brain in social situations like coaching, mentoring, tutoring, instructing, and of course, leading situations. It is wonderful in its elegance in handling two related issues – how the brain handles threats/ rewards, which determines the full range of response, and in identifying the five domains within which the brain has concerns in social situations.

Coming to grips with how the brain handles threats / rewards is critical for both leadership and management success since it’s the key to creating the kinds of responses and relationships that affect contribution at foundational levels.

Fine tuning individual responsiveness through the five social domains of Status, Certainty, Autonomy, Relatedness and Fairness is the hallmark of the superior leader / manager. Let’s take a closer look.

SCARF in action . . .
Paying continuous attention to the five social domains (SCARF) in particular - is critically important. Imagine how it would feel if your sense of status or relative importance were to be threatened – if you felt you were going to look bad or lose face in a situation. How would you respond if outcomes were to become increasingly uncertain or if you sensed that your autonomy was being reduced?

What if others were perceived to be hostile or indifferent to your interests or if others were arraigned against you without just cause? You would likely feel that you’d have difficulty in doing your best, making your best effort or appearing in your best light, wouldn’t you?

Now, if your status were to be enhanced because your opinions were being sought or that your personal strengths, as opposed to your perceived weaknesses, were being factored into the equation, would you perhaps feel better, safer and more receptive?

If your boss used a solutions-centered approach and led you using non-judgmental questions, seeking your preferences and /or recommendations, would this encourage your sense of autonomy and perhaps increase your feelings of certainty?

Mind you, focusing on problems, which are usually in the past and therefore more certain, might be more attractive. However, having room to make your own choices could affect the balance here, as would an increase in relatedness by sharing the burden of responsibility with others.

The preferred leadership / managerial technique in any situation has to be centered on finding the right emphasis on rewards while eliminating or containing the elements of risk and threat – it’s highly dynamic and requires both careful thought and insightful application – a delicate balancing act.

However, just remembering to keep the five domains in mind and remaining alert to the impact that your leadership or coaching intervention is having as you proceed, will steer you along the right path.

You can access more details in David Rock’s article available at http://www.your-brain-at-work.com/files/NLJ_SCARFUS.pdf

I strongly recommend that you do – it will make a profound difference - in many aspects of your life!

Think about it!
I’d welcome your questions, comments and suggestions. We can all learn through dialogue and your viewpoints will undoubtedly gain more value when shared. Please contact me at david@andros.org