From Survival to Substance Mindset

Welcome to this episode of the Naked, Nurtured, Nudged podcast where I’m going to talk you through my thoughts on making the move from living with a survival mindset to one of substance.

In our first episode, I talked about how recent the new science of what it means to be human is and how we are in fact, quite hopeless as a species, because we have to exist in our socially sophisticated world and we have to navigate these very complex adaptive systems. But we have to do this with quite a primitive brain, and because of this, we get hijacked often, and we engage in not so useful. Human behaviour in those moments we’re showing up with, what I describe as a survival mindset ,where we operate from a place of fear and self preservation and self protection, as well as judgement and assumption.

Now, when we can masterfully shift to a place of exceptional self leadership and self regulation, we are showing up with what I call a substance mindset. Where we operate in ways that work with the human brain rather than against it, and where we remember that without the people our organisations simply can’t exist. The focus needs to shift to find ways to support the humans that we have in our workplaces and in our world to bring their best to work.

For me, this term substance means the ability to master being a primitive human in a socially sophisticated world, to have the self leadership, self regulation and strategies to avoid non useful focus, non useful emotional responses and non useful decision making.

So I’d like to talk you through some of the key shifts that I think we need to make in our organisations to allow us to be showing up more often with that substance mindset. So to begin this shift, I think we need to move from a focus on outcomes and results to focus on humans and what they need in order to be successful in reaching the outcomes, to look at what’s interfering with their human ability to deliver on the outcomes and to support them to develop the self awareness, to understand what they need to do in order to be at their best.

Research has shown that if we can focus on the how of getting to our desired outcomes, and that is focused on the people and the processes and the learning and the calculated risk taking, then the outcomes and results are more likely to be achieved. In particular, I think it’s important to look at the personal energy, the engagement and the motivation of each individual involved because if you don’t do that, there is this tendency of a sort of a passive aggressive resistance that can start to develop over time because people just don’t want to be there. I see well intentioned organisations and leaders who seek to meet these really lofty goals and targets through these carrot and stick motivations through money through bonuses through negative consequences for missing deadlines. But the impact of those is really in line with the outcomes that they seek.

Humans ultimately are more interested in feeling a sense of tribe of belonging, of being respected and valued for their work and their opinions and their ideas. And that’s where leaders need to build their skills and focus. It’s the little things that leaders need to learn about how humans really tick that can make a big difference, for example, the most motivating thing for the human brain is a clear sense of progress, and leaders who can effectively measure, highlight and acknowledge positive process at the team and the individual level will begin to start to really engage those people who are involved and get them moving along.

The next thing that we need to move to get from a survival to a substance mindset is to shift from a focus of getting it done to getting it right. And this is the concept that sometimes we need to slow down and reset to get our heads in order and our ducks in a row, and our process is working in order to then go fast to slow down, to go fast. And I’ve seen where this can really help to reduce the likelihood of future rework and the danger of going off on a tangent. And we love that, don’t we as humans going off on tangents and down rabbit holes and I see this as a key element in how we need to rewire our conversations and meetings and projects by making sure that we take the time to start and to finish them powerfully and making sure that we understand what the real issues are, what the real desired outcomes are, and spend our time solving the right problems. Because in my experience, I see a lot of action without a lot of real progress and a lot of time wasted working on the easy to find, but maybe incorrect problems.

We really do spend a lot of time working on the symptoms and not the real issues. And the question that needs to be asked is: Are we so addicted to doing that we have no time for thinking? Particularly if you’re in a leadership role. If that sort of higher level, higher horizon thinking isn’t being done, you can find yourself spending a lot of time on things that aren’t particularly productive, even though it feels busy.

So next on the list again in their shift from survival to substances, the need to move from cautious conversations, too candid conversations. Now I don’t really like the idea of the terminology around difficult conversations as a concept. For one thing, the use of the word difficult in conjunction with the word conversation negatively primes the brain’s perception of any upcoming conversation. Using such language can trigger the brain into what we call a threat state. And when we’re in that state two key things happen. Firstly, we will tend to see things through a negative lens, and secondly, our cognition will be working well below its capacity. We were looking for things to go wrong before we even got into the conversation. And when we’re in that conversation, we’re going to be much more easily triggered emotionally, once again shutting down our cognitive capacity. So neither of these two things is productive when you need to have those honest and candid conversations.

So you know to create an image with this, if you can imagine for a minute the spotlights on a theatre stage and when a red light is required, we need to put a red filter or lens in front of that light. And then everything is seen through that red, that red image, that red filter. And when a green light is required, the green filter is used sometimes even, you know, green and red making a purple filter. And all of that changes what we see on the stage, and it’s the same in our brain when someone is triggered emotionally through language or other threat creating events, you know, like, false imagining or catastrophising or maybe even the memory of a past experience with a situation or an individual. The resulting fear of a difficult conversation puts a red lens over what we see, and that conversation is not likely to go well.

For me, there’s no such thing as a difficult conversation. There are simply conversations that we have to engage in and show up, willing to listen and to be listened to, and those things themselves are skills that need to be taught. I do find that listening is one of the most challenging things for most people in busy organisations truly listening in our conversations of substance program. One of my key outcomes is that participants cease to be afraid of conversations and cease to be seeing them as difficult that they will have the mindset and the tools and skillset to manage whatever happens. Because, let’s face it, conversations, as with projects, rarely go to plan. Eisenhower famously said ‘plans are useless, but planning is everything’. So yes, we need to plan for a conversation. But we can’t necessarily go in with a plan and expect that everything is going to fit into that nice plan. 

In this context, that means that we can have strategies in our conversation toolkit that can deal with them with most of the possible outcomes. We just can’t predict which ones are going to be needed in any particular conversation. So in terms of cautious conversations, I also see a hesitancy of well intentioned and caring people who are really cautious in how they approach conversations for fear of hurting another person’s feelings or damaging a relationship. Organisations need to help all their people, particularly their leaders, to understand how to respectfully engage in candid yet trust building conversations. And yes, that’s that’s actually possible. And I would suggest that the only way to do that is to help hold teams to co create their effective ways of working to understand and preempt, or sometimes we call it doing a pre mortem round. We’ve got to have a challenging conversation, what might go wrong and how we how we manage that, how we agree to manage that ahead of time and, you know, I see all the time people being sent on a half day or a one day program on how to have difficult conversations. I doubt that those work, they might give us a few nice ideas, but it’s not enough. 

We need to be looking at how to have a really powerful whole conversations that we can engage in, in really productive ways. So for all the things that I said, those difficult conversation programs will often have the opposite effect to what you’re looking for because traditional approaches simply don’t work for most humans. So, in essence, I think that we have lost the art of powerful conversation and we’ve forgotten that conversation in its powerful and professional form is an art and a skill that can and must be taught in organisations. There isn’t much that happens in an organisation that doesn’t involve a conversation or communication of some kind. 

Caution is about survival, and protection of self candid can feel tough, but it’s about bringing substance to professional conversations, professional relationships and to achieve those professional outcomes. So the next shift is one that refocuses people from collusion to collaboration. Having worked in both internal teams within large organisations and as an entrepreneur in my own business, I’ve been fascinated by the very odd reality that teams within one organisation often feel the need to compete with each other. Yet the genuine support that I received once I was in a business of my own and from my competitors no less was the complete opposite. 

Internal teams often operate from a scarcity mindset and external consultants, and I am generalising here, but the good ones understand that there’s enough work for everyone and that there are opportunities to collaborate on service offerings and to learn and leverage from each other and to refer and then receive reverse referrals when perhaps your expertise is not a fit. So this, of course, is also very trust building. So this did seem when I first left the corporate world completely counterintuitive to me.

But when you understand how humans are wired, it does make sense internally. Team members are being rewarded individually, and there is a limit to the bonus pool, right, so externally collaboration, even with your competitors, can bring added financial rewards. So when it comes to humans, you get the behaviour you reward some of the latest thinking around team performances that we might need to rethink the concept of high performing teams because in reality, when teams say we want to be the highest performing team in our organisation, that can come at a cost in terms of sharing information and resources and competing for bonuses, of course, and also competing for attention and results that are superior to other teams, not quite the ideal for us working as one team in an organisation. So instead, we’re now starting to talk about value creating teams. But of course, that’s a topic for another episode.

So the suggestion being posed is that high performing thinking could actually be survival thinking and not substance thinking. Mm, something to think about. So the next shift from survival to substance was for me, a key player in the 2000, and a global financial crisis, and it’s the shift from rationalisation to responsibility.

Now, by rationalisation, I mean our human ability to explain away our responsibility or actions, regardless of motivation, to make excuses and in the GFC, this manifested in two ways according to the research that’s been done since that time, and firstly The suggestion is that some of the people involved fell victim to that old brain monster called bias and in this case, confirmation bias, which is your brain’s ability to seek out only the information that confirms what it believes or wants to believe.

And secondly, what we call sunk cost bias, which is when the brain wrongly assesses the risk of continuing. Because so much has been invested so far. We see confirmation bias a lot in political discussions, and we see sunk cost bias, leading gamblers to make poor choices, to assume that the best way forward is to just keep going because inverted commas I’ve lost so much already. And of course, this can lead to many more losses or two, maybe not sharing some of the the issues with the bosses, regardless of the science.

People during the GFC chose to ignore those signs, chose to ignore the fact that things weren’t going well and to share them with anyone for fear of being in trouble. And in some cases, people simply turned a blind eye and rationalised that the situation had nothing to do with them all, of course, with quite catastrophic outcomes in more everyday circumstances.

Rationalisation sounds like this:

It wasn’t my fault they made me do it.

That wasn’t my intention or that’s not my job or my problem.

Now all of these responses, and I’m sure all of us have used them at some point, is our survival brain’s way of justifying our reticence to take responsibility for our actions. And, of course, that is our survival brain, saying We don’t want to get into trouble in a culture of substance. People are willing to take responsibility for all that is happening in their team in their organisation, the good and the bad, and engage in open and honest conversations that focus on a mutual ownership of the issue, therefore, feeling much safer and mutual accountability for performance and engagement.

So there’s still two shifts I want to explore here, from survival to substance. The second last one is a shift from feedback to feed forward. You might have heard of Marshall Goldsmith. He’s a well known executive educator and coach, been around a long time, and he coined the term feed forward. The idea here is that there is little value in focusing obsessively on what happened in the past on who it is to blame. Or the why, from a human perspective that something happened apart from learning from it, understanding it, and that it is more productive to seek ideas on how to do things differently or better or more productively, going forward.

Now we know that when someone says to you, Can I give you some feedback? There’s usually a pretty strong fear reaction to that, even if we know the person well. And of course, as we know, fear shuts us down. Providing unsolicited feedback to someone, feedback that they didn’t want to ask for, can be truly counterproductive. Their brain is likely to resist that and to push back and rationalise. There’s that word again, leading to no significant change or performance value.

Now let me qualify this by saying, I’m not saying that feedback is bad. Feedback is normal and a necessary part of our growth in our development. But somehow we’ve managed to twist it to become something that none of us wants, and quite frankly, that’s a cultural issue. At the organisation level, a team leadership issue. At the team level, a self regulation and resilience issue. A self leadership issue at the individual level, all of which can be worked on and reversed. There is probably an entirely separate podcast around feedback, and that’s something I will do in the future, so I’ll leave any further detail to another time. But suffice to say that it’s best to offer some acknowledgement of what someone did well, as long as ideas for the future than it is to offer feedback. That’s more of a substance response that hopefully you will get What can I do better as opposed to a survival response, which is Don’t judge me.

And finally, we need to make the shift from a fixed mindset to a growth mindset. Now, this is a concept that was originally proposed by Dr Carol Dweck in the States through her work with children in education. But the concepts apply equally, if not more so, to adults and their mindset around their own potential. Saying things like ‘I can’t do this’ or ‘I’m not good at this’ or ‘this is too hard’ or ‘even here we go again’, is an indication of a fixed mindset.

It’s a mindset that says my ability and my potential, and this situation is fixed to what it is now, and no amount of effort is going to change that. That’s normal human behaviour. It just isn’t particularly useful in the organisational setting, and in times when we are dealing with fast paced change, saying I can’t do this yet or I’m working to get better at this or wow, this is challenging, but it’s really stretching me.

To learn new things is much more an indication of a growth mindset, a mindset that believes that with effort and focus, my ability and my potential will grow and improve. I’ll put the effort in, and there’ll be an impact. It’s important to note here that we don’t identify people as fixed or growth mindset. People, rather individuals will have a fixed or a growth mindset about a specific task or in a specific moment. For example, my son has a fixed mindset around maths prowess or lack thereof, but a growth mindset around his cricket ability and that potential. Some years ago, we began refocusing and correcting his language around the ‘I’m not good at maths’ language in the world of growth mindset, language like ‘Let’s run an experiment’ or ‘it’s okay, we haven’t figured it out yet’ help us to focus on the reality and the value of the learning and the growth journey that every one of us is on every single day of our lives and to embrace it.

Our Western culture has led us to a place where we feel that we have to be right. We have to be right all the time. We have to be right first time, and the problem with that is that without failure we don’t get creativity and we don’t get innovation. One fixed mindset that I often see in organisations is the expectation that the role of the leader is to have all the answers, to direct the energy and the actions of the team and to find the solutions on behalf of the team. And frankly, besides this simply just not being correct. I think it’s a huge contributor to feelings of exhaustion, overwhelm, struggle and even failure that many leaders experience today.

As I mentioned earlier, we live in this increasingly complex world and the simple linear way of managing people is no longer cutting the mustard, so to speak. We have to be able to show up in a different way. And we need the skills to be able to increase the level of thinking at all levels of our organisation and to help people take responsibility for what they’re being paid for.

In recent decades, we’ve been advocating the move from being a manager or a project manager of process and output to a leader of people. Now I think leaders need to take the next step and move to developing the skills necessary to remove the interference to great performance with every individual, to be able to coach and support their people, to enable them to bring their best, to connect people with the relevant information and experience, to get the job done and to facilitate insightful and creative thinking and problem solving within their teams, rather than feel like they have to solve all the problems themselves. When leaders do that it’s when they become the problem solver and we’re literally teaching our teams not to think.

So there it is the shift from working with a mindset and in a culture of survival to a mindset and a culture of substance. One that’s going to work much more productively for humans and allow us to spread the workload and work more productively together.

In our next episode, I’m going to build on this idea of substance and unpack what I think it means to move from being an amateur to a professional human. How do we really understand how to be good at this thing called being human so that we can bring our best? And I very much look forward to being with you again then.

So as we finalise this episode, I’d love you to take some time out to think about where you tend to show up in survival mode, and where bringing a little bit of substance into both your professional and personal life, and your conversations might start to make a difference to your daily experience. Until next time, be happy being human.

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