There is a great deal written about how to create success, both for individuals, teams and organisations, but some of our experience suggests that success will come along quite easily if we can just avoid creating the circumstances for failure.
The first part of this is to acknowledge that we humans are emotional creatures. It has long been fashionable to resist this particular insight, especially in work type situations, where "being professional" is taken to mean suppressing emotions. Suppressing emotions is both unhealthy and unsuccessful as emotions will always leak out in some way. As a result of this fashion not enough of us are skilled at either understanding or regulating our own emotions or adequately reading the emotions of others.
Emotions are our body's way of communicating with our brain. 0.07 seconds after some stimulus our body is already reacting, producing hormones and sending messages to our heart and muscles. It takes at least 0.5 seconds for our brain to catch up - sometimes much longer, or never.
When we play tennis or react to a situation while driving, we do much of it with "pre-conscious" skill, our body uses muscle memory to deal with the situation before our brain has even registered something is happening.
These same processes take place when we walk into a meeting and realise we are un-prepared or that someone is blaming us for a mistake. Our body makes a decision about whether this is good or bad and floods our system with hormones accordingly - but not necessarily correctly.
This flood of hormones can then lead, after half a second, to a more conscious, if unintentional reaction. Our brain gets triggered and the collaborative, interdependent, trusting and vulnerable version of ourselves gets replaced by the independent, suspicious, competitive version of ourselves, or in extreme cases the dependent victim version.
This triggering happens moment by moment. In one conversation or meeting we can swing from interdependent to dependent and back again. However, our observations of multiple organisations under stress suggest that it can also be infectious and affect a whole organisation for a prolonged period of time.
What can happen when stress arrives is that a number of senior people might react badly, becoming blaming others and protecting their own status. Maybe they even sack people they believe to be the problem. The triggering quickly rampages across the organisation with normally interdependent and collaborative people quickly becoming independent and feeling they need to fight for status in order to be safe, or becoming dependent and just waiting for instructions from someone in authority.
The solution to this is twofold; we have to become aware that this is what is happening and develop our own emotional literacy, then we have to introduce new more helpful habits of thought and behaviour to replace the unhelpful habits.
Overall we call this shift - Reaction to Response.
We cannot immediately change the way our body reacts to a situation, but we can cultivate the habit of taking the time to consciously interrogate the reaction in order to understand it and respond to it intentionally rather than unintentionally.
It works like this - the moment we notice that our body is reacting in a potentially unhelpful way to a situation we pause - at a minimum take a deep breath to oxygenate your brain and take some time to think. If it is a stressful situation in a meeting - get or offer a glass of water, drop a pen, spill the water - anything that will buy your brain the time to catch up. Focus your attention on the outcome you actually want to achieve longer term, rather than short term self defence.
If the situation is being caused by someone else being emotional with you - deal with the emotion first. Rather than trying to use rational arguments to talk them down, work out what is upsetting or angering them and deal with that. This is really challenging, our programming that we don't do emotion at work is so strong that when someone does, we still try to deal with the situation rationally.
When we are trigged in this way we become a less mature version of ourselves, we become independent like a teenager, dependent like a child or selfish like a toddler. If we want to de-escalate a situation where someone is triggered, we need to deal with them where they are without being patronising and we also need to avoid being triggered ourselves. If they are triggered to being independent, we need to show that we are on the same side as them because they will see the world as being against them. If they are triggered to being dependent we need to help them have the confidence that they can solve the problem. If they are triggered to being selfish, we have to hold firm that other people matter.
One of the psychologies that often drives these dynamics is a bias known as "Fundamental Attribution Error". What this says is that we are far more likely to attribute errors in others, particularly those we are not close to, to character flaws than to circumstances. In other words we tend to associate failures with who someone is rather than how they are.
When we combine this with our continuous vulnerability to being triggered, it is easy to understand how we can come to see someone, who is frequently triggered by the culture at work, as being a fundamentally selfish character. Equally, if they notice us thinking that way, they are likely to see us as a fundamentally judgmental character. The reality in both cases is that this is how we are, not who we are.
To tie all of this into organisational performance. Organisations that enjoy sustained success are those where people are collaborative, creative, transparent and supportive - to the extent that they would challenge poor decisions or behaviour skillfully even if that meant challenging upwards.
In order to sustain that kind of culture leadership needs to role model those behaviours and intentionally create an environment with high levels of psychological safety. This means receiving feedback and bad news well, supporting people even when you find them a bit annoying and working explicitly with people on "state awareness" and "emotional regulation", so that people understand when they or others are triggered and know what to do about it.
As you may notice, this is a huge subject and distilling even a part of it down into 1000 words and still making it valuable is challenging. Typically we would take all of a two day workshop to teach the ideas outlined above in a way that enables people to create new habits and deliver sustained success.
Neil Crofts is a business consultant who has inspired and motivated hundreds of organisations and thousands of individuals to their highest potential. Neil has written four published books and numerous e-books. Neil is a facilitator, coach and consultant who inspires and motivates organisations to create and curate the kind of leadership and culture that lead to sustained success. Through global consultancy Holos, Neil helps some of the largest corporations in the world to optimise leadership and culture.
In previous lives Neil has raced cars, been self-employed, run a company and sold it, been employed by large companies, experienced growth and contraction at the heart of the dotcom boom, tried changing companies from the inside and from the outside as European Head of Strategy at internet consultancy/rock band Razorfish.
Specialities: Cultural Innovation and Authentic Leadership, especially familiar with finance, IT, transport, health and energy sectors