Timely advice as we advance into the eye of the financial crisis
“Fleas dream of buying themselves a dog, and nobodies dream of escaping poverty: that, one magical day, good luck will suddenly rain down on them – will rain down in buckets.
But good luck doesn’t rain down, yesterday, today, tomorrow or ever.
Good luck doesn’t even fall in a fine drizzle, no matter how hard the nobodies summon it, even if their left hand is tickling, or if they begin the new day on their right foot, or start the new year with a change of brooms.
The nobodies: nobody’s children, owners of nothing. The nobodies: the no-ones, the nobodied, running like rabbits, dying through life, screwed every which way. Who are not, but could be.
Who don’t speak languages, but dialects. Who don’t have religions, but superstitions. Who don’t create art, but handicrafts. Who don’t have culture, but folklore. Who are not human beings, but human resources. Who do not have faces, but arms. Who do not have names, but numbers. Who do not appear in the history of the world, but in the crime reports of the local paper.
The nobodies, who are not worth the bullet that kills them.”
Eduardo Hughes Galeano, The Nobodies
“Institutions will try to preserve the problem to which they are the solution”
“I don’t believe in charity. I believe in solidarity. Charity is so vertical. It goes from the top to the bottom. Solidarity is horizontal. It respects the other person. I have a lot to learn from other people.”
Karl E Weick is one of the most profound psychological writers of all time but is a tough read. An expert on dangerous work environments, he wrote out advice for leaders after 9/11. His advice is relevant today and I’ve tried to render it below in simpler language and a more straightforward order.
Tragedy that leaves us confused and speechless
Karl E Weick writes about massive accidents where it is not quite clear what happened or whether it should have happened at all. The BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico is an example. The financial crash of 2008 is another. Though hardly having the same consequences, England’s dismal performance at the 2010 World Cup is in the same class of bewilderment. Let me try to explain.
We hate what we cannot explain
When the unexpected happens, we are at a loss to explain, and we hate that. We like to be able to explain. After a disaster, somewhat illogically, we have a strong impetus to explain. Explaining won’t help us clean up but it will help us feel in control again.
Leading during mass bewilderment
In these cases of mass bewilderment, a leader has a double task – sorting out the mess, which is task enough, and helping us get a grip on what has happened and stop panicking.
This is Weick’s advice for leaders when we are startled by tragedies and the unthinkable.
Our three tasks following a disaster
Accept that you are startled too and that you have three tasks:
to do the practical things that need to get done
to console those who are hurt and hurting and
to help people start to make sense even though little makes sense to you either.
Watch for the fight/flight response
Also accept that our initial reaction is to rely on what we know. We will use yesterday’s explanations and when those don’t make sense, we’ll use very simple ideas to feel in control. Basically we will run (flight) or we will blame (fight). We will take on the mantle of blamer or victim.
Once we start to think, we’ll over complicate solutions
As soon as we collectively realize that the problem is not going away, or that the people we blame cannot solve the problem anyway, we will start thinking. At this point, we are likely to swing from the oversimplified (blame or be a victim) to the other extreme and over-complicate the solution. Importantly, you need to remember that you are a member of your group and will share their ideas and its ways of thinking. So, you too will make this radical swing from fight/flight to overcomplicated! None of us are thinking clearly but over-complication is a good sign because we have moved away from “just wanting the problem to go away”.
Think aloud to model how to involve everyone in finding a way forward that we all support
Your role now as leader is to think aloud. I remember seeing a manual advising young officers in the Army not to think aloud. Weick says we should think aloud for two reasons. The rest of the group will think more clearly when they feel that we are all in this together and don’t have to worry if “it is just me”. We’ll realize that there are no experts, no answers, and no guarantees. And so we may as well pool our ideas, make a joint decision about what to do, take responsibility for collective actions.
As people start to grapple with understanding what happened, feed in resources for collective decision making
Once we begin working together to figure out what we are going to do and the price that we will pay collectively to solve our problems, the leader has the next task of feeding resources, not necessarily to solve the problem, but to help us figure out how to solve the problem.
Remember your role is to help the group think things out together
Above all else, the leader’s role is
to avoid personal paralysis
to ‘hold’ the confusions of others and let them know it is both OK
to reassure us that they we will come through this together and
to provide resources to keep the recovery moving.
Weick gives us a useful 7 point acronym to think about leadership in bad times and good. It’s rather aptly named SIR COPE
Sense is social
Sense isn’t there for the finding. We create sense. By talking to and with each other, we find out what meanings are possible and come to both shared understandings and agreements. We aren’t wasting time when we are chatting. We are working things out.
A wise leader encourage us to talk to each other.
Identity is remodeled
Our first reaction when we are shocked and confused is to run or fight – to be a “victim” or “fighter”.
When we mishandle our reactions to bad events, we can be locked into to these simple flight or fight reactions. We have a lot more to us, though. We are sounding boards, witnesses, source of support and resilience, information hubs, story-tellers, companions, care-givers and historians.
As we tell our stories from slighly different perspectives and for slightly different purposes, we move away from the simple roles of victim and fighter and develop an understanding of context that aids the explanations and understanding that allow us to move forward wisely and considerately.
We, and all the leaders in the group, will be helping people have these multi-level, yet slightly confused conversations that are essential to move forward to the essential state of overcomplicated confusion that we need before we can move on.
Retrospect provides a path to resilience
One of the oddest features of human thought is that we don’t know what we think until we hear what we say.
We begin to understand ourselves,when we hear what we say, when we hear the reactions of others, and when we hear the words they use when they are repeating our views.
Leaders help people talk their way into resilience by listening to the words people are saying and helping them find other words that connect with human strengths rather than with darkness and evil.
We repeat what they are saying so that they can see and hear themselves finding purpose and connection in an otherwise distressing situation.
Cues need to be considered and incorporated
We understand situations by creating a story from a handful of cues. And we look for cues that confirm our analysis.
Sadly, we ignore a great deal.
As a leader, we can help people incorporate more salient cues their stories and support them in those early moments when our stories get more complicated and more confusing.
By considering the facts and alternative explanations more fully, we will find a better solution and way forward than if we jump prematurely to an early conclusion.
Ongoing work on plausible stories aids recovery
Even once we have a reasonable sense of what has happened and what we are going to do together to move on, we will still have to check, update and even revise our sense of events as we take collective action.
As a leader, we shouldn’t rest on our laurels or allow other to languish in a half-finished story and the feeling, “Now we have it figured out.”
Recovery is about workable, plausible stories of what we face and what we can do. As we act, the situation will change again and we should take into account new inputs and new opportunities and new setbacks.
Part of the leader’s job is to keep summarizing how far we have come, what has happened, where we are at, how we feel now and the distance we have yet to travel.
Plausibility about what happened and what will happen is our goal
When the world appears to fall apart, we are desperate for an account of what happened. We are less interested in what is accurate than feeling a gaping void of meaning. We want a plausible account quickly.
That plausible account is not the end story though. It is only the first point from which we work to build the fuller story like a grain of sand in the oyster becomes a pearl.
A leaders helps people get that first story and then helps them revise it, enrich it, replace it.
Enactment allows us to think
Most of all, in inexplicable times, we have to keep moving.
Recovery lies not in thinking then doing, but in thinking while doing and in thinking by doing.
None of us has the answer. Instead, all we have going for us is the tactic of stumbling into explanations that work, and talking with others to see whether what we have stumbled into is in fact part of an answer.
As a leader, we help people keep moving and pay attention to everyone around them.
When people are animated, their actions are small experiments that help make sense of perilous times.
Wise leaders protect those constant little experiments that help us find wisdow in our dismaying situation.
Weick made clearer?
This is still a complicated rendition but Weick’s ideas are worth thinking through because frequently, it seems, we are in the middle of groups who’ve had the proverbial rug pulled out beneath them.
Obama seems to be a master of the group recovery process. I couldn’t help run Radio 5 commentary about our World Cup performance through this list. They make the Social level but don’t seem to go much further. We emote but don’t go very much further in developing a clear idea of what WE will do next. There is no call to action even and no demand for us to be out there supporting the team next time. No sense of action follows the phone-in periods.
I think we could still make a simpler acronym without closing what Weick is trying to say. Want to have a go?
Karl Weick, who is not widely quoted, mainly because he is a difficult read, has studied a range of organizations such as nuclear power stations, orchestras and forest fire fighters. Much of what we know about running large organizations, we have learned from him.
The disaster of the banking system, and the very high likelihood that it will sink UK if not the USA, should send us running to Karl Weick’s books for explanations.
This is what I have gleaned:
When our world gets turned upside down, we go into shock
In the current financial crisis, Zimbabweans, for example, who have seen a financial meltdown in their recent past, go about saying: yup, seen that before. They know what to do. Everyone else is thrown. Nothing makes sense.
We get into these situations not so much because we are dumb, but because we are lazy
Complicated situations, like nuclear power plants, derivative markets and hedge funds, and for that matter an English roundabout, require our full attention. We have to be ‘neurotic’ about ‘weak signals’. We need to notice when little things are wrong and check them out. We need to listen to each other because we all bring different expertise.
When we start sweeping rubbish under the carpet and deferring to the great and the good, then we are headed for trouble.
This aspect of organizational life is difficult to manage. Being neurotic about weak signals can just make us opinionated and boorish. The point about weak signals is attend to those on your own patch. I’ll give you an example. In mines and in hotels, when a manager sees a scrap of paper on the floor, they stop to pick it up. Then they find out how it got there and why it was left there. We don’t let it go because small things are indicative of system failure. As a psychologist, I always make a mental note when someone in an organization is agitated. There are dozens of possible causes. They may simply have remembered they forgot to get the milk and be making a mental plan of what to give the kids for breakfast – not earth shattering. But they could also be very uncomfortable about a decision at work or have a real crisis outside work and need some space to sort it out. I only cross them off my list of weak signals when I am sure they are OK.
We get out of confusing situations by acting.
We bring all our training, past experience and understanding to bear, but the truth is that we may not have experienced anything like this before or what worked in the past may be misleading.
Moreover the situation is evolving as we think and plan.
So we begin to act, we watch the consequences of our actions. We leap so that we can look.
Acting without knowing is terrifying. So wise organizations prepare people. We get them to rehearse likely scenarios. We also put them in situations where they don’t know everything. That’s why gap years and study abroad is so valuable. We learn to cope with our emotions when we don’t know what is happening!
What’s clear for a manager is that we must get people to act. Some act easily – perhaps too easily. Many are over cautious. The trick is to give people little things to do. When we administer psychological tests, for example, we don’t give a long explanation. We want people to act within 20 to 30 seconds. Wkeep things brief. Hello, I am . . . We will be here all morning doing some exercises. I’ll guide you through everything. Would you like to sit down here and write your name on the first bit of paper? And then we got straight into a 2 minute exercise which is designed to be easy, burn off some adrenaline, and give them a practical overview of what will follow. Their subsequent scores are much higher for reducing endless cogitation and allowing them to learn from action. Weick even cites a situation where an army unit in the mountains got “unlost” by following a map of another mountain range. A manger’s job is to get people to collect relevant information, act on it, collect more, act on it, etc.
I like the term collective mindfulness because it refers to a culture where all three points are incorporated.
We respond to weak signals and we build our attention to weak signals into the culture by modeling mindfulness and listening to every one.
We accept that surprises shock us and reduce our ability to act.
We get everyone up and about finding relevant information and sharing it.
Collective mindfulness increases belonging
What Weick doesn’t seem to say, but might have done, is that the feeling of inclusion and shared purpose will also release cognitive capacity. Just as we should never ignore weak signals, when we are in a good mood, it is easier to spot what does work and do more of it. When we belong, we don’t have to worry about finding a group which will be loyal to us.
In a complicated system, freeing up that cognitive space and doing more of what works might preempt disaster.
That’s me done for this Sunday.
I am relieved. We can manage our collective affairs. We can work effectively in a globalized, internet-connected world.
Attention to detail no matter its source!
Manage shock with action
Act to reveal information relevant to the common and valued purpose
P.S. As I looked for a mnenomic, I noticed that these are the same three factors modelled by Marcial Losada in business teams:
The eminent social scientist Karl Weick once said that social problems are often defined in ways that prevent us doing anything about them.
I have been watching the Zimbabwean elections closely. As facts emerge, I have been listing them on a “secondary” blog.
The situation in Zimbabwe is as dire any conflict in history. Can we move here? Can we move there? It seems the ultimate Catch 22. Whatever we do may create more damage.
I believe however that much of our hopelessness comes from our own representation of what is happening. Could we not, instead, look at difficult objective conditions that require resolution?
Today, people are starting close in, as the poet David Whyte would say.
Today, we are going to do something positive. Today we are going to say thank you. Today we are going to say we are with you. Today we are going to send emails to the President of Zambia who is the current chairman of SADC. Today, we are going to take 3 minutes to write a short, brief, courteous email saying,
Dear President Mwanawasa,
I write to thank you and the leaders of SADC sincerely for convening the extraordinary meeting concerning Zimbabwe and to extend my support and goodwill for a resolution that is satisfactory to all the people of Zimbabwe and her neighbours.
I am patching in a long excerpt of a post from Sokwanele that gives the email addresses of SADC. Zimbabwe for a positive future.
Zambian President Levy Mwanawasa has called an emergency meeting of the Southern African Development Community (SADC) to discuss the Zimbabwean presidential poll delay. This is the first move by Zimbabwe’s regional neighbours to intervene since the elections on 29th March 2008. President Mwanawasa is the current Chairman of the 14-nation South African Development Community. This is what he said yesterday:
I wish to take this opportunity to commend the people of Zimbabwe for the calm and peaceful manner in which the elections were conducted.
Similarly, I appeal to them to maintain the same spirit of calmness which they exhibited during the elections as they await the results of the presidential elections.
However, given developments immediately following the elections, I have decided, as Chair of the Southern African Development Community (SADC) to call an extraordinary summit on Saturday 12th April, 2008 to discuss ways and means of assisting the people of Zimbabwe with the current impasse as well as adopt a co-ordinated approach to the situation in that country.
Both President Morgan Tsvangirai and opposition leader Robert Mugabe will be attending the emergency meeting.
Support our democratically elected leader and take action.
What YOU can do
You can voice your feelings and SHOUT OUT for FREEDOM. Communicate with key SADC people attending the meeting.
Tell them that Zimbabweans have the right to live in a democratic, free and peaceful country. Tell them your personal experiences and why you want change. Make them understand what it is like to be in Zimbabwe today. Tell them we voted for change, we got change, and we want change now. Speak the TRUTH.
HOW you can do it
Email, fax or phone using the details provided below. Keep your messages real and honest but also short and to the point. Remember: thousands of us will be doing this so they will have a lot to read. Let’s make sure they can read and hear it all!
Be polite at all times. People don’t pay attention to angry messages (look at us: Mugabe has been angry with the people for many years now and we just ignored him and voted him out anyway). Anger does not work.
1. Call or fax or email the Zambian State House with a message for President Levy Mwanawasa:
Tel: +260 1 266147 or 262094
Fax: +260 1 266092
Send an email to Mr John Musukuma, Special Assistant to the President for Press and Public Relations: email@example.com