Welcome to The Living Room!

Welcome to The Living Room!

I'm developing this blog to foster a warm community of people interested in ideas, art, science and practice around personal development and flourishing.

I work as an executive coach, and founded a company whose mission is helping people to find success at work in a way that provides satisfaction across all areas of their lives (you can check us out at www.madeleineshaw.com.au).

Leadership, learning, the wonderful brain/body connection, presence, influence, emotions, thinking, effectiveness, flow and FUN.

I want to know more, and do more!

The world is our living room so let's get living.

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

The Steady Chameleon

Do you recoil at the thought of the slippery leader - you know the one - she tells you exactly what she thinks you want to hear. She'll tell you the sky is green, if she thinks it'll get her whatever it is she wants.  And everyone knows it, and no-one likes it (or her). Or maybe he's the guy who "manages up" just enough to hide the lack of competence or empathy that's so obvious to his peers and reports.
No-one (ok - almost no-one) wants to be that person.  And yet, we also often hear what seems to be a conflicting message - that successful leaders adapt their style to the person they are with or the situation they are in. If that's true (and I believe it is):
How do you change AND stay the same?
Actually, most of us already do this. I don't act the same way in a coaching session, talking with a prospective client, buying groceries, cooking dinner, at a party. In fact, people who don't adapt in this way are the stuff of comedy - think of Robert de Niro behaving as though the whole world were a national security agency in Meet the Parents. More seriously, someone who insists on "just being myself" in exactly the same way in all situations is going to find themselves colliding with brick walls in their career and elsewhere in their life.
So why do so many of us resist changing within the sphere of work?
I have worked with several clients who accept that their "work" self shows up as different from their "home self" - but insist that having multiple work selves is fake - something distasteful that automatically takes them from hero to slippery-leader-zero.
There's a fascinating and useful HBR article on exactly this point: "Managing Authenticity: The paradox of great leadership".
(You can read the beginning of the article here but will need to be a subscriber or purchase a copy to read the lot.) They say:
Authenticity has often been thought of as the opposite of artifice - something that is straightforward, sincere and uncomplicated. But that conception of authenticity is not only simplistic, it is also wrongheaded. Managers who assume that their authenticity stems from an uncontrolled expression of their inner selves will never become authentic leaders. Great leaders understand that their reputation for authenticity needs to be painstakingly earned and carefully managed.
That's all well and good - but how? The authors of the article go into detail on this and it's well worth a look if you're interested.  In my coach training, I was shown a model which I found summed it up well. You want to look for the real part of yourself that overlaps with the role you're in at that moment (boss, friend, customer, sister) and the person you're interacting with. 

This model gave me permission to adapt AND still be my authentic self. I've since worked with this model with several clients, who find the same thing. Within work, we are constantly moving from role to role, and dealing with different people. To be effective, we need to access the part of our authentic self that is most appropriate at any given moment.
The skill is in being able to locate and access that part. To do that, you need to know and understand yourself, your role and the other person. "Just being myself", inflexibly, ignores the importance of these other 2 facets.
What about you? How do you adapt, and stay true to yourself? How do you develop the skills you need to find that overlap? What frameworks or ideas have you used to help you meet the needs of different people and roles?

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

How interesting are you?

When I was a child, my complaints of boredom to my mother were given short shrift. "Only boring people get bored", she'd reply. I remembered that recently, when I was re-reading Finding Flow: The Psychology of Engagement with Everyday Life (Masterminds Series) by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi. He devotes a whole chapter to exploring how being interested in something relates to having "flow" experiences - flow being those times when you are totally absorbed in what you are doing, when the challenge is high and you have the skills to match, when time seems to fly by without your having a sense of it.
You've probably experienced that hair-on-the-back-of-the-neck feeling when something captures your curiosity.  It's that feeling of being fascinated. You lose the sense of yourself and place all your energy and attention on the object of your fascination.  Csikszentmihalyi calls it "disinterested interest" - interest that's about something outside ourselves. He says:
Without disinterested interest, life is uninteresting. There is no room in it for wonder, novelty, surprise, for transcending the limits imposed by our fears and prejudices.
When we are in this state, we are more likely to experience our peak state, or flow.
There will always be things that we don't enjoy doing but, of necessity, have to do (say, taking the rubbish out or attending a tedious meeting - my personal favourite, the tedious meeting). Csikszentmihalyi suggests that if we train ourselves to pay close attention to things, we will begin to find them fascinating, and will want to pay them attention. We are more likely to find ourselves in flow. Finding something in these tasks to capture our genuine curiosity and attention means they can give us energy instead of draining it. The challenge is to make the initial effort this requires, when it can seem easier in the short term to switch off or avoid the task.
My guess is that someone who is fascinated in, and engaged by, the world around them is going to be a lot more interesting than someone who is unplugged, bored, switched off. So I suppose that means my mother was right - only boring people get bored! What do you think?

Thursday, October 14, 2010

3 steps to set your boundaries at work

If Meatloaf would do anything for love - but he wouldn't do that - what limits do you set for yourself at work?
We all have different boundaries - and we all need them. When you ignore your boundaries, you ignore your own limits.  This can work in the short term, but in the long term it can seriously affect your wellbeing. Mental, physical, emotional and spiritual health can all suffer when we are operating outside our limits.

So how do you manage your boundaries at work? There's no doubt it can be incredibly tough to do - especially if you work somewhere with a culture of constant crisis - where your late night/weekend/constant emailing/20-coffee-a-day habit is essential to the continued turning of the world! It can definitely seem essential to your continued employment. It's certainly very normal to want to play our part and meet expectations at work.

The question is how do we play our part at work AND maintain limits for our own health and wellbeing? The answer is different for everyone. Some of my clients thrive doing a few 80-hour weeks, so long as they get two or three weeks to recover afterwards.  Others need a more predictable pace. You'll get some clues as to what works for you if you follow this 3 step process.
1. Ask: when it works, what's working?
Think about 2 or 3 periods during which you felt highly energised at work, and that your limits were respected. Ask yourself these questions (write down or record the answers and study them if it helps).
  • What did these periods have in common?
  • How long did they last?
  • What came before and after these periods?
  • How many hours were you working?
  • How adequate were your resources vis-a-vis your workload?
  • What time were you arriving and going home?
  • Were you taking a lunch break and getting outside?
  • How was your exercise routine at that time?
  • Were you highly social or making time to work alone?
  • What activities were you engaged in outside of work (family, community, friends, hobbies)?
  • What was your inner voice saying - what was the ethical and moral framework around you?
  • What else is important?
2. Listen.
Take a look at your answers. Listen to what you've told yourself. If it helps with perspective, imagine showing them to a friend or coach and asking them: what themes and clues do you see here? What basic boundaries do you need to set from now on, to help you enjoy the levels of energy and wellbeing you experienced in the past?
Write them down. For example, they might be something like:
  • Arrive at work at 8.45 instead of 8.15, and use the time to do 30 minutes exercise each morning.
  • Take at least 20 minutes at lunch to walk alone outside for some quiet time.
  • Switch off the emails for 90 minutes each morning and afternoon.
  • Don't accept meetings on such-and-such a project.
Your boundaries need to be realistic for your role - and your role needs to be realistic for your boundaries. If it's essential to your wellbeing that you work from 9 am to 5 pm each day and never a minute more, that is a perfectly reasonable boundary - it's also possible that legal practice in a large firm might not be a role that leads to happiness for you.

3. Tell.
Often we feel like we can't state our own needs when dealing with other people. But this is a short term game. Maintaining appropriate boundaries - respectfully and responsibly - is an important part of building sustainable relationships.  
Most importantly: give yourself permission to say no. If taking on the new project will tip you over the edge, say so. If you need help learning to assert yourself in this way - that help exists. Seek it out.
Much as we might like others to read our minds, if we don't communicate our needs others won't know what they are.
Be flexible and prepared to negotiate - sometimes your boundaries will conflict with someone else's. When this happens you could
  1. Cave ("Of course, I'd love take over your project! You go out and have fun!") - and watch your wellbeing suffer.
  2. Be unmoving ("I never work between 12 and 1") and watch your career suffer.
  3. Negotiate  ("I can work late Tuesday if it's absolutely essential to the deal, but I'd be missing my class so what if I come in early on Wednesday instead?") and watch the conversation open up.
Just be sure that the negotiated deal respects your limits. If you are happy to cut a deal like this every so often - great! It's within your limits.  If it leaves you miserable and resentful - see step 1. 
What boundaries do you have at work and how do you keep to them?

Monday, October 11, 2010

Toddlers, chimps and leaders

We were at a barbecue yesterday. The very pleasant afternoon was made all the more so because our 2 year old played happily and harmoniously with our friend's 3 year old for hours.  By contrast, when our daughter teams up with her other 2 year old buddies, the peace is shattered pretty regularly by power struggles and turf wars.

What was the difference yesterday? Hierarchy. She slotted right in behind the older child, who took on the role of leader.  They took turns and shared but any differences of opinion were settled (by the leader) before the conflict grew into a real dispute. Of course, had he abused his power I am sure it would have been just a matter of time before she rebelled.  As it happened, he was a generous and thoughtful kid who was happy to accommodate his younger friend and play nicely.

It got me thinking about how hierarchy plays out in the workplace.  Andrew O'Keeffe at Hardwired Humans draws fascinating lessons for humans from his observations of animal behaviour. He wrote a great newsletter on just this point, suggesting that hierarchy, status and power are natural and intuitive - so don't fight it, work with it. He also offers some tips for leaders in working with this power.

Although I'd like to think that the urban sophisticates of the modern workplace have moved beyond chimpanzee or toddler behaviour, I suspect that in fact we simply become a lot more subtle about it. The stories we tell ourselves and others might become more complex but at the core, the same forces seem to be driving us. When I was at university (not the pinnacle of urban sophistication that we believed it to be at the time!) I was involved with a very right-on political collective that ostensibly made decisions by consensus.  In fact, a small group of leaders made the decisions.  When these decisions went against the wishes of the majority of the group for long enough, there was a vote and the leaders' group was de-throned. I vividly recall their outrage!

There seems to be a level of discomfort with hierarchy - it resonates against our ideas of democracy and a fair go. What do you think? Should we be able to move beyond hierarchy in groups or is it something that can be worked with in the best interests of all?

Friday, October 8, 2010

Do you feel lucky, punk?

Fascinating Harvard Business Review post on what luck is, and how to make it work for you. The part about optimism is really interesting to me - ties in with my explorations of the importance and power of understanding your thinking. Here 'tis.
Lucky I found it!

Thursday, October 7, 2010

What are your strengths?

I've just come from a great session with a client where we were talking about how to use her strengths to improve her performance and results at work. We used Tom Rath's StrengthsFinder 2.0 to get a great Gallup report on her strengths and ideas for action. (No, I'm not affiliated with those guys but I use the tool a lot - and yes, if you buy it through my Amazon store - StrengthsFinder 2.0 - I get about 25 cents!)

Anyway, the theory is that if you multiply talent x investment (in time and energy), you get your results. According to Gallup's research, most people think they know what their strengths are, but actually don't.

So talking tennis, if you're Roger Federer, you are a 5 for talent and a 5 for effort, so you get a 25 for results.
If you've got Federer's talent but you only put in a 2 for effort, you get 5 x 2 = 10 (a waste of talent).
But if you're like me, you can put in a Federer-like effort but my 1 for talent means I get 1 x 5 = 5 (a waste of energy). Which explains why I don't play a lot of tennis.

It makes a lot of sense, then, to find out what our strengths are and play to them. My client this morning has incredible strengths in the areas of people skills and relationships.  She wants to grow her business and has been putting in a 5 for effort going for tenders where those skills don't really count for much.   Instead, she finds the work comes in when she has been in front of people, building relationships. Getting clear on her strengths let her build a business development plan that lets her spend a lot more time doing what she enjoys (and what works) and gives herself permission to spend a lot less time  slogging through data- and document-heavy tenders.

What about you? Are you playing to your strengths? Or are you depleting your mojo trying to force through your weaknesses?

Wednesday, October 6, 2010

Welcome - the first post

Hi - welcome to the first post for The Living Room.  

If you're reading this while it remains the ONLY post - thanks for being an early adopter!

Over the next days, weeks and months I'm going to be working hard to add lots of interesting resources and material to The Living Room. My big idea is to create a place where lots of people - including you - want to come to learn more about living well. 
What would get me to follow a blog like this? Well, my career is all about supporting people to develop ever more enjoyable and fulfilling lives. They do it by developing a more and more complex understanding of themselves and how they relate to the world around them.  It's also a path I'm always on myself. So I'd be looking for new ideas, new connections, resources, a place to ask questions, stretch my brain - but also to relax and have fun for a while.

So that's what I'm looking to build.  Come along with me! I'd love your contributions.