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Leadership: No matter how good a swimmer you are, if you swim in toxic water, you will get sick!

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  • Leadership: No matter how good a swimmer you are, if you swim in toxic water, you will get sick!
Global HR - the grand tour - #ZigZagHR - leadership - HR EVENT

In Global’s Grand Tour senior managers meet high-profile professors and researchers from the top rated European Business schools. One of them, Derek Deasy from INSEAD, will talk in Brussels October 13th, about leading under pressure. An interview – that you won’t forget.

“The question for the leader is: how am I implicated in this person’s distress?”

“Healthy organisations allow meaning to be made, they are the ones that take a systematic understanding of disorder or distress. They are a community for sense-making or sense-building. On the other hand, the organisations that scapegoat the individual are more likely to lead to distortion, anguish and stress”, professor Derek Deasy tells us during our talk about his field of interest (leadership, resilience and burn-out). While most people and researchers look at the individual first when studying or dealing with stress, Deasy urges us to look at the organisation first:

“No matter how good a swimmer you are, if you swim in toxic water, you will get sick.”

Derek Deasy: “When there is an individual who is at the verge of a burn-out, the first question for a leader should be: what and where is the problem? And not: is the problem solely existing within the individual? Your first step in diagnosis sets the tone. So if I ask what’s wrong with this individual, I’m implicitly and almost explicitly stating the frame for the issue. What’s wrong with that person? Then it is an individual issue, then it is just his or her problem. If I ask: what are the factors that have brought about this expression, this feeling in the individual, then it’s an open arena. That’s a healthier way of looking at the problem.
Part of the challenge, part of the reason that organisations rather look at the individual, is a kind of self-protection, of course: if I put all the problems in the individual, then I don’t have to worry about it, then it’s not the organisation’s problem, it’s all about that person. What you’re simultaneously doing at that moment: building up a reserve of embarrassment or shame due to not taking your appropriate responsibility that will hit you at some point. So it’s better to claim your part in it at the start.
To do it differently takes courage, it takes time, and it takes commitment to have that other kind of conversations. But courage, time and commitment are things that we can’t often find when we’re under pressure. And humans don’t like thinking in general because it takes energy – that’s the way we are designed as humans…”

  • Organisations, or at least teams, should ask more painful questions to challenge and evaluate their (team)work?

Derek Deasy: “Leaders should simply ask everybody in a group: what is your part in this? They will meet resistance to their question. If the environment isn’t trustworthy enough for a meaningful reflection, you can see the work that leadership needs to do.

And a crisis always challenges the leadership culture. That’s the value of the crisis.

The question for the leader is: how am I implicated in this person’s distress? How does it hit me that this person is distressed?”

  • Wellbeing programmes and wellbeing actions usually focus on personal issues. So we have to reverse that? How? How can we implement the new battle cry: first fix the organisation?

Derek Deasy: “Some of the resistance that people meet, is: yes, this whole thing about wellbeing is very important, indeed, but we don’t want to pay extra for it. Wellbeing is great, but we aren’t going to invest more money in it. Perhaps we can use a sports-related metaphor to make it obvious: do you send out injured athletes to play the Cup Final? No, we give physical therapy and rehab, but we also think about injury prevention – and that prevention is really what we can call wellbeing…
Is that all this difficult? Don’t forget that it’s all about the conditions for performance and, really, that isn’t rocket science.

You just need to show who you are, you need to have the skills and the resources to do your work, and you need someone to help you develop in terms of mentoring, just to ensure you are resourced. It’s simple stuff, but part of the problem is just the taboo that surrounds it.”

  • Simple stuff, but how difficult to start and act differently…

Derek Deasy: “Yes, because of the stories we are let to believe. Some of these stories are: in order to be professional, you have to be this way. You have to be strong, you can do it! Don’t forget the absolute tyranny of positive psychology, it just drives me insane… Did you see Sheryl Sandberg and Adam Grant talking about resilience? (Editor’s note: in their book ‘Option’, Facebook’s COO Shery Sandberg and Wharton professor Psychology Adam Grant write ‘about building resilience and moving forward after life’s inevitable setbacks.’) That is at least a questionable message to give anyone. Their argument, in the end, is there’s always someone worse off. Of course there’s someone out there worse off, but you have to deal with your own relativity, your subjective experience of pain or loss.

Cognitive reframing can work in the short term, but developing resilience means learning with and through pain. Not denying it.

This is the fascinating thing I noticed when I worked in a hospital and with other teams that are working in emotionally demanding places: the things that bother us are subjective. How do you deal with that? It cannot be managed with a policy. Just acknowledge it, and find a way to talk about it. We have no idea what’s going to push us over the edge. So what we can do, is to be sure we all have a parachute when that happens. I had colleagues in the hospital who dealt with the most awful, the most horrible experiences and stories, and yet they were fine, and then they dealt with a case that seemed relatively straightforward, and they suddenly got knocked-out.
And then the work of leadership comes: how did that hurt you? What are your associations with the situation? How do you identify with it? What part of you got hurt there? Having the trust and the courage to be able to do that, is necessary if you want to lead a high performing team. You have to build up that trust and courage. You should do that for the whole organisation.”

  • Although we never saw as much attention for wellbeing at work as today, a lot of companies just goes on to high stress and burn out their workers, and especially their managers in a remarkably fast way. The way to the summit is a contest with a lot of drop-outs?

Derek Deasy: “People are, by design, messy. When we don’t allow that expression of our messiness and complexity in our work, then we become problematic.

If we can’t humanize business, things are going to become impossible.

Technically, what people do when they aim to keep their persona pristine is: they have such a narrow band of acceptable behaviour in their own minds, that any deviation from that small range can’t be tolerated by them. I always ask leaders: why do people follow you? It’s a challenging question, it’s one of my favourite questions as well, because it’s so hard for people to answer, and, painfully, it’s rarely accurate in terms of their vision of themselves, and what other people see them doing.”

  • And then people get confused?

Derek Deasy: “When we come across something that we find a bit confusing or distressing, we cannot express that in our work, because we have locked up ourselves in that small zone of thinking. Our range of acceptable expression isn’t large enough, and that’s our major problem. The other reason is that we don’t have any socially acceptable vocabulary for it. When people allow themselves to admit and to say that they feel stressed, they’re more likely to be already at risk of a burn-out. So when people do talk about it, leaders should just listen and reflect their understanding of what they heard.
But what do they really do? They rush to solutions too quickly as they cannot bear the discomfort. They don’t try to find out what’s really going wrong, they neglect the problem and just tell their team member to have a fine weekend or to take a few days off. Or go and walk, or go to the gym, or do this, or do that… The only thing they don’t do, is trying to make space for the real issue. In this strategy again the individual is told implicitly – you are the problem, or the problem is in you, not us, not the organisation.

One thing I notice: people prefer to manage their anxiety at work more through mindless activity than actually engaging their anxiety through self-reflection or in dialogue with a trusted colleague. And at the end of the day they feel worse, because they haven’t addressed their anxiety. The outcome is, as you might expect, more burn-out, it’s a real rite of passage to burn-out.

The worst thing that can happen, is that you change your mind and what does that mean to the story you’ve told yourself up till today?”

  • We fool ourselves because we follow the logic of the business instead of trying to address our emotions?

Derek Deasy: “Yes, it’s like an overinvestment in the persona at the price of the self. I want to be seen as a dominant man, the alpha man, and I don’t want to be seen as anxious, terrified,… What if I lose a sale? Where do these toxic emotions go? They’re toxic because they are unclaimed. The emotions themselves are not toxic, they are normal signals and sources of data about our world, but we try to neglect them and make them toxic.

When I don’t own my anxiety, I will give it to other people. We can fall in love at first sight or we can have an instant dislike of someone, but the idea that anxiety may be contagious, is not acceptable to many. But of course it is, we are interdependent social animals.

Our stories of heroism go: I am independent, I am a rock. But you are not. If you pretend so, you’re actually telling me you’re frightened of being dependent. Every system that people set up, is interdependent.
So the stories of heroic leadership are a complete set-up. And of course we buy it, because it seems attractive at the outside, although living it in the inside is a hell of social isolation.”

  • You’re main topic at The Grand Tour is leadership in contexts where vulnerability and threat are ever present. In times of a horrendous worldwide pandemic, that’s the context for every leader…

Derek Deasy: “Uncertainty has been high, most of our work connections were or even are still remote, so loneliness is more likely. Lots of structures that would have allowed to predict our lives has been reduced. There’s a book, I contributed to Leaders in Lockdown: Inside stories of Covid-19 and the new world of business (by Atholl Duncan, November 2020), that asks: how are we going to step out of this crisis?

In a couple of years we are going to come to make some sense of how life is like in 2020-2021, not so much now in the present. There might be some residual impact in terms of work-life balance, in terms of more resilient leadership, in terms of less travel, but at the same time, in my view, we will be doing just the same things as before.

My dear friend and colleague Gianpiero Petriglieri asked a pertinent question of leaders in one of his many thoughtful essays: how do you want to be remembered at a time when the world is paying attention? How do you want to be seen living your values at this moment in history? Are you a role-model for empathy, compassion, transparency and collaboration? In this book, Leena Nair, the Chief Human Resources Officer of Unilever, tells that Superman has left the building:

the Superman style of leadership just doesn’t show the way to success. Leaders have to learn to listen and admit that they no longer have all the answers.”

  • So the pandemic can be seen as a kind of masterclass about how to lead during a crisis?

Derek Deasy: “In The Social Construction of Leadership, a very interesting academic article by Keith Grint (Warwick Business School, 2005), we have to consider wicked problems and tame problems.

When you’re in the middle of a crisis, first you need to understand what the crisis is about.

There is a quote from Michael Smurfit, a retired Irish businessman: If it’s not criminal and it’s not fatal, then it’s not serious. How can we find perspective?
In those moments of crisis we have to find out: what exactly is the crisis? Who is generating the crisis? What are the steps that leadership needs to take in order to make a wicked problem tame?

People have a tendency to adopt a more dogmatic approach to leadership during a crisis, when in fact a more open approach to leadership and a more questioning style is needed.

And of course people buy in to the dogmatic, because it is structured, it seems very clear. When our internal anxieties need containment, the structured and overstructured dogmatic approach offers a false sense of that containment. But when you jump into that dogmatic approach, you’re actually compromising the capacity of your team, you’re developing that problem into a timebomb by creating an illusion that will disappear.”

  • In this constantly fast changing VUCA world the problems of leadership and burn-out will only grow?

Derek Deasy: “Have we ever had a period in time where change wasn’t on top of the agenda? We’re constantly being told that things are changing, that things are changing faster and faster. Are they, really?

When I started my career I used a dictaphone and those tapes were typed up onto paper drafts… Just to say that things are changing in all eras, all the time, it has never been different.
The frequency of cultural change in companies is enormous as well, but what is really changing? Often nothing really is changing… And can we cope with that feeling?

What’s important, is the difference between tolerating change and engaging with change.

We’re telling ourselves that we are strong enough to get through this, we get the message of perseverance, but that’s not the question we should ask. The real question is: what’s the price of perseverance? What’s the price of only getting through this? What’s the price of tolerating? As opposed to the energy, the learning and the meaning that you get when you are whole heartedly engaged with the change. What is this change actually offering me and how is it threatening me? What’s the impact? Then we can talk. Whatever the answer, then it’s more likely we can embrace it rather than just getting through it, rather than just trying to appear strong…”

  • What’s the role of HR? Wat should HR (not) do?

Derek Deasy: “HR has the opportunity to bring the human into the room, to develop the business leaders’ capacity to see the value of having a broader range of conversations with their people. If HR can influence a context where people feel more like people, then the organisation is going to benefit. Most people want to go to work, most people see value and meaning in their work. So it’s all about working with these people and try to help them learn and develop.

If I was a HR business partner, I would ask myself, how can I make my partnership more meaningful? How can I support business leaders to integrate more collective sense making in their teams? How can I help business leaders pay attention to being a leader as opposed to doing leadership? How can I help leaders learn when they are either on the floor after a loss or indeed flying high after a success? People need permission to show up. Offer it.”

About Derek Deasy

Derek Deasy is Affiliate Professor of Organisational Behaviour at INSEAD (Fontainebleau, France). His research includes leadership development, wellbeing, burn-out, resilience, and the impact of emotionally demanding tasks on work groups. He works from a system-psychodynamics approach, he explores how teamwork, organisational structures and corporate cultures are affected by, and affect individuals’ experience at work.
Derek Deasy directs the Personal Leadership Programme too, as well as the INSEAD Coaching Certificate. And he works with companies and organisations in leadership development programmes. Het is a doctor of Clinical Psychology (Trinity College, Dublin).
Till December 2013 he was the director of a unit that cares for victims of child abuse at the Children’s University Hospital in Dublin, Ireland. “We did assessments and therapy for children when there was a suspicion of abuse. Working in child protection and dealing with victims is very challenging. That means that burn-out among the personnel and leaders is very frequent. We got the stress down by increasing meaning. We changed the culture of the way we worked.”
That’s where Derek Deasy’s interest in working and leading in a difficult environment really started: “I worked in that area for about 14 years. Very painful work, but also quite rewarding. There I got my ideas about resilience, trauma, but also about post-traumatic growth. All of those things align in an experience which is emotionally demanding.”
Now he sees the same risks of burn-out in a total different environment: “Here at INSEAD we have amazingly talented people in our classrooms. The biggest risk that they face is often that they will burn their talent in going too brightly and then accelerating their journey towards some sort of a crash. So we also try to educate them, as a colleague calls it: own your talent, don’t be possessed by it. See yourself, see your talent, see your working identity as an aspect of yourself, not your whole self.”

Prof. Derek Deasy zal binnenkort in België zijn voor een exclusieve sessie over Leading under pressure.
Meer info en inschrijven op www.globalmagevents.com

Text by Luc De Decker – chief editor #ZigZagHR

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