Sunday, October 15, 2017

You are what you think

Apart from learning humility, golf can be a great window into the human condition. Some aspects of the game are a metaphor for life, with lessons that are generalizable to the grander scheme of things. Even to the point of preventing and managing mental health problems.

So, one of the interesting behaviours I’ve observed on the golf course is the power of the manner in which golfers talk to themselves during a round. I’m not suggesting they’re hearing voices or chatting to a goblin walking along next to them. We all talk to ourselves, mostly unconsciously, and what we are saying to ourselves is a big driver of how we behave (excuse the pun but I had to put it down-so to speak).

The most common example of the power of our self-talk is when that little white round thing starts doing odd things such as only going a few yards, slicing into trees or heading left into that huge pond. Missing a short put will do it, as will fluffing a short chip shot immediately after nailing a 200 metre 3-wood to within 5 metres of the green.

After a couple of errors that ruin maybe 2 or 3 holes, the self-talk becomes very evident. In the worst case scenario, it can happen after one bad shot. Often it is verbalised straight out with angry comments about ability, the course, the stupid game itself, how the handicap has been slipping lately. Sometimes people go within themselves, quiet. The shoulders droop and gone is the sunny disposition and expectations of something extraordinary. There is a spiral downward from there as the feelings lead to worse golf and so on. What’s interesting that golfers will repeat this formula even though it clearly doesn’t work.

On rare occasions I meet someone who talks to their self in a different way when things are going awry. The internal message is that, ‘I’ll make the best of this round’, ‘I can recover from this’, ‘I’ll at least have a few good holes’, ‘I’ll use this opportunity to practice some things I haven’t tried before’. Somehow, they manage to find something to be optimistic about.

And so it is with life off the fairways. What we say to ourselves about our experiences and how we feel determines our behaviour. It can determine whether we give in to that temptation when we are trying to change a habit, how we react to someone else’s comment or behaviour, what we decide to worry about, whether we decide to give in or to keep on trying, for example.

There is a technique psychologists use in therapy that involves being aware of our thoughts and then challenging them in a very active way. In doing so, we force ourselves to think differently, to have an internal conversation about the value of changing the thought. There are also a number of techniques that can be used to change emotions (contact me at if you’d like to know more).

Many of you would have heard of the act of mindfulness. This is the starting point and involves recognising our self-defeating behaviour and the thoughts that give birth to it and then challenging self. Being self-aware is essential to changing behaviour that is not working for us. The changing of patterns that are self-defeating but which we repeat over and over again.

So, if you are interested in changing a behaviour that is not working for you then be mindful, challenge those thoughts and replace them with thoughts that are more productive.

Monday, July 17, 2017

What we should learn from the shooting of Justine

The tragic shooting of Justine Ruszczyk by a police officer in Minneapolis is an example of the power of culture in determining behaviour in society, in organisations, groups and families.

For reasons of which I am not completely aware, I was looking through postings from people, mostly in the US, about the shooting. The most telling thing about them was the array of people thought to be at fault, including Justine herself. Media outlets have been in a similar frenzy of fault finding. We have police brutality, the inexperience of the officer, the government, that Justine must have been a criminal or behaving erratically, the opioid epidemic and so on.

What no-one raised was the American culture around violence. For me, that is the cause. The US of A has allowed a wild west mentality to fester to the point where violence has become the norm. Yes, some people are outraged when someone get’s shot but most are desensitised. With over 30,000 deaths per year due to firearms alone, not counting other means, this is a culture that accepts violence as normative. If it didn’t, then something would change. It is important to note that police, the very people who are asked to keep us safe, are also at huge risk and part of the shooting gallery.

America cannot build enough jails in which to put people. Drug use is seen as being a criminal, rather than a health problem. Huge numbers of people are in jail because of social problems and non-whites are massively over represented. America is a punitive culture.

I won’t bang on about this anymore because it is easy to do your own research. But there is a broader implication here.

Humans are good at simplifying complex problems by finding perpetrators, blaming, defining ‘us’ and ‘them’ and, even, making the victim part of the problem. Our plethora of ‘shock jocks’ and some parts of an increasingly lazy and politicised media assist us in our effort in dumbing down critical thought. Looking at the bigger causes of our ills takes much more effort and we are, mostly, unwilling to do that.

We see the effects of this all around us, whether it is regarding society, teams or organisations. Even consistent failures within any of these are blamed on individuals or events. Very rarely do we look at the system that has enabled the failure to occur.

Over many years I have been asked, countless times, to apply a ‘fix’ to the dilemmas of teams and organisations. This might be training, coaching or a strategic planning workshop. Most of the time this is the wrong ‘fix’. Rather, it is the culture that needs attention and that means change at and from the top of the food chain.

There is a rather poignant example from the history of treating childhood psychological problems. It took years for therapists to work out that they could use all sorts of clever treatments with children to fix their problems but then they would then send them back into a dysfunctional family situation that was a major part of the problem in the first place. A negative culture out trumps (small T) individual effort and resources anytime. So, family therapy was born. We’d bring the whole family into the room and work on them. Much harder, more complex but better outcomes.

I was once asked to do some change management training in a government department. In short, a particular group were seen to be having problems with an organisational change initiative. My involvement revealed that it had nothing to do with the attitude or skills of the group at all. Rather, it was a failure of the organisation as a whole to implement change effectively. Further, the change initiative was designed to create disharmony and stress for all involved. It was always going to fail. This was all borne of a culture that bordered on bullying and a disinterest in the well-being of people.

As for the US of A. I suspect it is too late to change their culture now. Like climate change, the tipping point may be past. At least I can’t see anything good happening for as long as they keep adopting simple solutions to complex problems.

Please don’t let this happen in your group, your organisation, your family.

Tuesday, July 11, 2017

Personal Power

After a short hiatus, ‘Reading Bumps and Entrails’ is back. Watch this space for fortnightly blogs about psychology, leadership, organisations and the odd foray into the fanciful.

According to Kerry O’Brien, Paul Keating (former Prime Minister of Australia) once famously said, ‘What’s the use of having power if you don’t use it?’

Recently, I’ve noticed, in my workshops, that people can get a bit squeamish when the issue of power comes up. Like eccentric Uncle Sirius, it is talked about in hushed tones: even a little embarrassment and perhaps best avoided. However, like Uncle Sirius, we know it’s there and exerting an influence on everything we do. And we might even use it ourselves, although we might not call it power.

I’d like to invite power into the room. An agenda item for discussion.

Power is a major psychological need. We all need power but to a varying degree. This is easy to test out. If you ask a room full of people whether or not they like to be micromanaged or constantly told what to do, the reaction is a resounding ‘No’. It makes sense. We like to have power over our personal circumstances. We like to control things that are important to us and that have an impact on our personal lives.

At the end of an invisible spectrum, there are those who have an almost pathological need for lots of power. We all sit somewhere on a need for power continuum. We are all different in the extent of our need.

For me, as an unreconstructed Darwinist, the need for power is immediately explicable. Power is essential to making sure our genes are both replicated and survive. How we obtain and exercise that power is a completely different issue, affected by many psychological factors that, I think, are fascinating to explore. I’m particularly interested in the pathological use of power but that’s another blog perhaps, at another time.

Once, in my dim past, I was involved in a collaborative project between a university at which I was working and the that State’s Department of Health. My co-director from health was on secondment from a job in which had been leading a large number of staff and an enormous research budget. There was just the two of us, initially, and ended up with a small staff of about thirteen. I once asked him if he missed the power that he had had in his previous role. He replied that, ‘If I need power then I’ll go and get it.’ This was a brilliant and thought provoking response that has stayed with me for well over 20 years.

Power is something we can use or relinquish, depending on circumstances. We enable people by using our power. We’ve all heard about leading from the rear, providing an environment in when people can exert their own power. As I mentioned above, some people don’t want very much power-just enough to be in control of their immediate circumstances. We can also use power to drive decisions about issues, perhaps highly value laden, that are difficult or uncomfortable.

Clearly, power can be negative. Our drive towards achieving our goals can lead us to diminish the power of others. This might affect personal relationships, a team, or a whole organisation. It can lead to poor decision-making and poor choices. It can destroy rather than build.

To the point of this discussion. I think we need to talk about power more. We need to be able to openly talk about how power is being used well and when it is being used poorly. I’d like to see conversations about power and how it is being used in relationships, teams and organisations as normal. Each of us needs to think about, and get feedback about, our own use of power. We need to learn how to use it well rather than badly.

This, rather than waiting for a complaint that ends up in court, relationship breakdown, team ineffectiveness and organisational distress.