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Month: December 2008

Lighten your personal burden for navigating 2009

A tumultuous year ends

So we come to December 31st, the arbitrary marker of one year ending and another beginning.  What a rough road the year has been.   The emperor’s clothes of the financial system has shocked us, as has our previous collective unwillingness to call what we all knew.  The generational baton has passed from Baby Boomers to Gen X with the gripping election of Barack Obama.  In other parts of the world, change has happened, and sometimes of equal significance, change has not happened.  It seems that where ever we live, we have reached a fork in the road, and we are unclear about what lies ahead or how to commit our energy.

Anxiety competing with optimism

So as we approach 2009, we have a nasty knawing feeling in our stomachs.  If I commit myself to optimism, we think privately, will pessimism turn out to be the better route?  Or, vice versa?

Together into the unknown

The reality is that this is a false dilemma and a false choice.  We don’t know what is on the road ahead and whether it is to be feared or not.  We don’t know if the roads will fork again, or even if the forks we see will rejoin themselves shortly.

All we can really do, is gather ourselves up, surround ourselves with people we like, and set off with a spring in our step.

What we need on the journey along an unknown road

  • to stick together, to remain within sight and sound of each other
  • to keep our resources safe and focus on navigating the road
  • to keep spirits up, lest we drift to that emotional place of bargaining with choices that aren’t real.

In organizations we know

For some of us, the journey ahead may not be quite so obviously into the unknownn.  We may be in a viable business that we own, or that employs us.  For you, I am happy to say, the most popular post on this blog on the last day of 2008,  is one I wrote when the recession seemed likely: a positive approach to HR in the recession.

I made three very similar points back in July about the role of the Human Resources team during recession.

  • Our own health. Our first priority is to ensure that the HR team has plenty of emotional R&R (rest & recreation).   Emotions are contagious and if we have low grade depression, we in HR will spread our low spirits like a forest fire!
  • Positive goals all round. Our overiding programme is to help each and every person in the organization develop explicit & positive goals and we stop, only, when everyone is brimming with enthusiasm for the year ahead.
  • Healthy leaders. The chief item in our contingency budget is a lot of time to nurture the emotional health of the leaders.  If they are not in good shape, they will be not detect opportunities and we are all sunk.

If you aren’t in HR, or don’t have an HR department, you may want to delegate one person to take charge of this brief.

Into a year of the unknown

For those of us facing the unknown, maybe our businesses are new or our careers are unstable, our work follows the same parallels.

  • We shape the collective. In hard times, we may be very tempted to go it alone.  And I include here whining about other people not helping us sufficiently.  If we imagine ourselves walking along a road, as confused as everyone else around us, this is the time to talk to others.  This is the time to take care to include everyone we meet.  This is the time to take time, and to spend precious resources, on little rituals that celebrate  the commonness of our journey, our guts, our gumption, our hope, and that we are on the road together.  We may be very reluctant to do this because budgets are tight and we feel resources are limited but this is the time.  This is the time to be clear about the collective in our own minds, and through our clarity, help others keep the wellbeing of us all in the front of their minds too.  I can make you this promise. The half-an-hour you spend today quietly thinking about who is around you on your journey into 2009 will bring you unparalleled dividends in the year ahead.
  • We cherish individualism. With the need to protect the collective, we might become overly demanding and even whiny about the responsibilities of others.   The collective depends not on what individuals give to it, but what it gives to individuals.  To be effective, a collective celebrates the strengths of its members, and makes room for people to have quiet time alone and with intimates to recover their breath and keep their own dreams alive.  How much empathy do we have for others around us?  Do we understand the shoes in which they walk? Importantly, are we leaving enough time in our day and our transactions to stop and listen and think and understand the people around us?  How could we make a quiet half-an-hour each day to slow down and cherish the people around us?
  • We trade tasks and lessen the burden. A burden shared is more than halved.  There can be a temptation to go it alone on the one hand, or to try to use people to do our work on the other and to become demanding and bossy.  Organizing is a little different.  We identify tasks that are important to the collective and we make sure everyone has a real and respected role to protect the well-being of the group. To extend the metaphor of an unknown road, we put the good map readers onto to reading the map, we put the active and restless to scouting ahead, we put the cooks on to cooking, and the story tellers onto entertainment.  Can we make time, once a week or once a month, to stop and think about what must be done, who is the natural person to do it, and what we will do for them while they are doing that for us?

And when it seems hopeless or too hard

And so what if we are new to a place, or in an unpleasant place, with no collective spirit and evil leadership?  I know this is hard.  I am a pseudo-refugee after all.  My advice is to take it step-by-step.

  • Think through what you need to go down the road, and understand that everyone else needs exactly what you need.
  • Talk to each person you meet and understand their journey.
  • Once you understand their strengths, ask them to trade with you what they do well and easily, with what you can do for them.
  • Set up the time when you will swap.
  • And continue adding people, all the time keeping the ‘swapping time’ positive, when you also celebrate collective well-being.

Lighten your personal burden for navigating 2009, as and when the opportunity arises, and through your needs, come to celebrate the journeys and strengths of others.

2009: A year of leadership?

In western ritual, we don’t have a year of  this or that.  Maybe this is the year of leadership?

In years like this, as we walk along an unknown road, we need leaders

  • who think through what needs to be done
  • who have the emotional energy to understand and celebrate the journeys that other people are taking
  • who form the collective as an umbrella
  • who delegate tasks to protect the collective
  • who keep commitment to the collective with a vibrant emotional space where we come to recharge rather than be depleted.

I’ll be interested in your stories as the year unfolds.  Here’s to a fun, happy and unexpectedly prosperous 2009!

UPDATE: For an HR Managers perspective on the Recession, I have written a summary on a new post.

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Relaxing into my New Year’s Resolutions!

Tomorrow is the last day of 2008 and most people will spend a little time day dreaming about what they would like to see happen in 2009.

The Press will remind us, it is a standard story (!), that most of us will not keep our resolutions.

Do you keep yours? I keep mine.  This is how I do it.

I set targets for the end of the year and write them down in a place that I am likely to stumble over in the second half.

For example,

By the end of 2009, I will take pleasure in exercise.


This gives me time to achieve the goal and allows for the stops, starts and false turns that are inevitable.


I am focusing on what I enjoy.

If I go out to play tennis, or take the stairs instead of the lift, then I tend to think about the part that was fun.  After a while, I associate the activities with fun and look forward to doing them.


And I write down the goal in a place, I don’t look every day but that i will find by accident months from now.

I usually write my resolution on the front inside cover of my diary.  At some time, I will probably use the calendar to plan something, or I will open the diary when I am hunting for my driver’s license number, or something like that.

The double surprise of finding my resolution and discovering that I have done something about it,  is enjoyable.   I begin to think of myself as someone who gets things done (eventually), and as someone who truly likes exericse (in this case).  It’s a good feeling.

And if you don’t have the energy to be willful, pop back here tomorrow and I’ll summarize a positive psychology approach to your new year review that is altogether more fun than this!


Mindfully in the recession

Exploration as holiday

Two days before Christmas, all the younger generation in our family are away, exploring new parts of the world, as we often do in early adulthood.  The “grand tour”, or what Kiwis call “OE”, is a venerated tradition to see the world and to cope with unfamiliarity and surprise.  Some people travel “to find themselves”.  Others are drawn by challenge & adventure.

Exploration as necessity

Real challenges, though, when there is no safety net, and lasting, damaging failure is possible, are altogether different.  We are often paralysed by fear, and we come to know too well the phrase ‘there is nothing to fear but fear itself’.  This really means, there is everything to fear, so much so that we cannot afford to indulge emotions that distract us from dealing with threat.

Am I suggesting that we “get hard”, or be Polyanna, and smile?

Julian Carron, a professor of theology at the University of Milan suggests we are all beggars and that to live our lives purposefully, in good times and bad, we must be conscious of our needs, aware of reality, and aware of our needs in our reality, whatever it is.

“The beggar has only one option: asking.”

“So the beggar is not the one who is most naive, but who is most realistic.  And, consequently, as we begin to defeat the confusion that surrounds and penetrates us, nothing can hinder us from become aware of ourselves in the the present moment.”

Like monsters in the dark, what is the unspoken need that panics you to name?

Is there not comfort in saying  “I ask for  .  .  .”?

Does not compassion for yourself awake in you compassion for others, whoever they are, and whatever their circumstances?

UPDATE:  The message that is delivered again and again by poets, philosophers and priests is that we must be able to talk to ourselves about our vulnerabilities; and it is only when we do that we can calm down pay attention.  When we refuse to acknowledge our predicaments, we become very anxious and cannot think straight.  Oddly, when we have not choice but to confront the threats against us, we often calm done and start to deal with them.

UPDATE: For an HR Managers perspective on the Recession, I have written a summary on a new post.


No 1 Ladies Detective Agency

Map of Botswana
Image via Wikipedia

Have you read The No 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency?  Or did you see its premiere on BBC1 last Easter Sunday?

The No 1 Ladies Detective Agency is that – the first detective agency run by a woman – and its novelty is that this series of detective stories is set in contemporary Botswana.

The star of the series, Patience Ramotswe is a heroine, with a large heart, but she is no superwoman.   She is famously ‘traditionally built’ and has few pretensions.  She runs her detective agency on the basis of one “how to” book, and has no particularly skills.   She dislikes telephones, and drives with her handbrake on.

Jill Scott’s  plays Patience Ramotswe in the BBC series.  Ian Wylie quotes Scott’s description of her character:

“She believes in justice and she loves her country.   . . She’s a real woman who has experienced the loss of a child, being heartbroken with her first marriage, but decided that life is so much better, that there’s so much more than those particular heartaches.”

The series of books are written by Alexander McCall Snith and are available from a library or book shop near you!  Fabulous reading but do read them in order as the lives of the characters unfold.  No 1 Ladies . .  is the first in the series.

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Poetry of hope for hard times

Conduct your blooming in the noise and whip of the whirlwind.

Gwendolyn Brooks

One of the hardest concepts to grasp, I think, is that there is a time for everything under the sun.  But, are we supposed to enjoy tragedy?  Are we supposed to accept injustice?

Seasons at least come and go.  Some bad times are more protracted and we are trapped in waiting.  Some people are born into bad circumstances, or find themselves there with little possibility of exiting.

I really loathe the expression “glass half full”.   I think it often means “I’m alright Jack”, and when it does, it is aggressive.  It is denying someone the legitmacy of  their own experience.

That said, when it is our turn to be caught in bad situations, do we really want to wallow?

Understand the whirlwind

I’ve seen a lot of writing, here and there, that we are abandoning, at last, a Cartesian view of life – a dualism where we separate mind and body. In bad circumstances, though, I think we need dualism.  We need to see reality for what it is.  We need to say, this is reality as it is unfolding.  It is important to acknowledge reality in all it awfulness, to call it by what it is, and describe it, without any pretence to do otherwise, in its own terms.

It is also important to say that it frightens us, gives us anxiety attacks, humiliates us, and clouds our judgement.

What we must NOT do, is confuse it with ourselves.  We are not our reality.  We simply exist within the reality.

Poetry to mark our times

Obama has commissioned poet, Elizabeth Alexander,  to write a poem for the inauguration, and through the press coverage, introduced us to another American poet, Gwendolyn Brooks.  Her advice for people living in very difficult circumstances says it all.

“Conduct your blooming in the noise and whip of the whirlwind.”

I couldn’t see any copyright information on this page, so I have copied the poem below.  If I am in breach, please do tell me and I will respond immediately.   Thanks to George Hartley of Ohio University, more of  Gwendolyn Brooks poems can be found on the same page.  Her is the full poem.

The Second Sermon on the Warpland

Gwendolyn Brooks

For Walter Bradford


This is the urgency: Live!
and have your blooming in the noise of the whirlwind.


Salve salvage in the spin.
Endorse the splendor splashes;
stylize the flawed utility;
prop a malign or failing light–
but know the whirlwind is our commonwealth.
Not the easy man, who rides above them all,
not the jumbo brigand,
not the pet bird of poets, that sweetest sonnet,
shall straddle the whirlwind.
Nevertheless, live.


All about are the cold places,
all about are the pushmen and jeopardy, theft–
all about are the stormers and scramblers but
what must our Season be, which starts from Fear?
Live and go out.
Define and
medicate the whirlwind.


The time
cracks into furious flower. Lifts its face
all unashamed. And sways in wicked grace.
Whose half-black hands assemble oranges
is tom-tom hearted
(goes in bearing oranges and boom).
And there are bells for orphans–
and red and shriek and sheen.
A garbageman is dignified
as any diplomat.
Big Bessie’s feet hurt like nobody’s business,
but she stands–bigly–under the unruly scrutiny, stands
in the wild weed.

In the wild weed
she is a citizen,
and is a moment of highest quality; admirable.

It is lonesome, yes. For we are the last of the loud.
Nevertheless, live.

Conduct your blooming in the noise and whip of the

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Be still

Learn to be quiet

Franz Kafka

You need not do anything.
Remain sitting at your table and listen.
You need not even listen, just wait.
You need not even wait,
just learn to be quiet, still and solitary.
And the world will freely offer itself to you unmasked.
It has no choice, it will roll in ecstasy at your feet.

Joseph Campbell

We must be willing to get rid of the life we planned, so as to have the life that is waiting for us.

The world is a match for us.  We are a match for the world.

It is all about finding the still point in your mind where commitment drops away.

P.S. Thanks to readers picking up the following post and it appearing in my side bar, I went back to what I had written 9 months ago.  This post on action and stillness has many useful links to the psychological and scientific literature.


Virgin, Martyr, Saint, Witch?

Boys can play too!

Who was it who said that there are no new stories in life, just stories retold in new circumstances?

Yet for each of us, our story is completely unique.  It is still unfolding and perpetually fascinating!

The circumstances of our busy lives of 2008 are different from the lives of our great-grand parents 100 years ago.  Our lives are less scripted.  We can shape them much as we please.

In large part, we write our stories, or at least our treatment of the circumstances that we can come across along the way.


The common stories of the central characters of a story, that is you and I, are called archetypes, I understand.

Woman often rail about the common stories in which we are cast.

One of my pleasures of the last year was discovering the works of Paulo Coelho, the Brazilian writer.   Last week I read The Witch of Portobello.  One of the supporting characters introduces her acquaintance with Athena, the main character, with these words.

We women, when we’re searching for a meaning to our lives or for the path of knowledge, always identify with one of four classic archetypes.

The Virgin (and I’m not speaking here of a sexual virgin) is the one whose search springs from her complete independence, and everything she learns is the fruit of her ability to face challenges alone.

The Martyr finds her way to self-knowledge through pain, surrender and suffering.

The Saint finds her true reason for living in unconditional love and in her ability to give without asking anything in return.

Finally, the Witch justifies her existence by going in search of complete and limitless pleasure.

Normally, a woman has to choose from one of these traditional feminine archetypes, but Athena was all four at once.

Which storyline resonates with you?

Are you torn between two story lines?  Which makes you feel relaxed?  Does knowing the four common story lines help resolve choices?



Is my salvation yours?

And who sat next to me?

Many years ago, I was flying from Harare to Johannesburg and I sat, by providence, next to Dr Shahidul Alam, who I was to discover is a very well known photographer and activist from Bangladesh.  In those days, email newsletters were quite the rage, and overtime of course, we have updated to blogs and RSS feeds.

I use Pageflakes as my feedreeder and I have a page for the feeds I check first thing in the morning, a page for UK blogs linked to my profession, another page for non-UK links in my profession, a page for venture capital, etc.  And I have a page for Evening where I feed blogs like Shahidul’s from Drik Gallery in Dhaka. Whether you like to be informed about events around the world, or whether you just like good photography, I recommend it.

Today, I stumbled upon an article about the 1971 generation, Bangladeshi men and women who were disappointed by the outcomes of Bangladesh’s Independence.  Dashed hopes are sadly quite common when we have worked long and hard for change.

Is your liberation, also mine?

Today’s post began with a quotation from an Aboriginal activist group from Australia.

If you have come to help me you are wasting your time. But if you have come because your liberation is bound up with mine, then let us work together.

It is attributed variously to Lila Watson and the Aboriginal Activist’s Group Queensland 1970’s

This is a sentiment I learned growing up in southern Africa with all its inherited problems.

When we are sufficiently well off, we often approach a conflict as if we have nothing to gain from its resolution.  Our patronising attitude is very irritating to the other side.  We may be surprised to find that what we think is good will on our part is generating  considerable contempt.  We may be shocked to hear that we are regarded less positively than people who are downright aggressive.

The alternative takes a lot of courage.  Can we approach conflict resolution and negotiation without any preconditions, and in particular without commitment to being a senior partner?

It is amazing how often we refuse to engage if we are not guaranteed a superior position in advance.  It is also amazing how often we project this stance onto others when they are just calling us on our unwillingness to negotiate in good faith.

So many of the world’s intractable conflicts would be resolved in an instance if we could only get down from our high horse.  And this is true too, in business.

Examples in business

For example, think of the typical networking event when people introduce themselves.  There is little discussion of common goals.  I say what I do (hoping it sounds important).   Others listen, not for something they could do for me, but for something I can do for them, pretending all the while that they want to help me!  Such social contortions!

Imagine if the atmosphere were different and we could say openly, in the next year I want to achieve X?  How many of us would dare?  How many of us listen with and offer “I can help you from there to there” without trying to be important?  I have seen it done but it is so rare that it stands out!

Think too of the typical job advertisment looking for people who are ‘the best’.  And think of the tension that implies.  I want the best but I am recruiting from the open market.   I do not employ the best? Nor I am able to train them?  Ow!  I am really very dependent on the applicants for their skills but I cannot contenance admitting that!

Imagine again phrasing a job advertisment honestly.  This is what we want to achieve this year.  Who believes they can help us?  Please reply stating how we can help you in return.

So why do we get involved with this posturing?

The simple answer is that predicating everything on a pecking order is the central characteristic of  masculine cultures. Britain and most English-speaking countries are very masculine.  And when every one else is attending to the pecking order, to neglect it is dangerous.

Other cultures though, and to some extent the culture we have bred in our midst, Gen Y, are less attached to the pecking order culture.  They are often amazed at our shenanigans and they find our collegial skills somewhat lacking.

Towards an unexpectedly prosperous 2009?

Are we able to abandon the premise that some people are more important than others?  Are we able to abandon the act, that I am safe and OK, and this negotiation affects only your position and not mine?  Do we have the courage to define our future collectively?

It may be important during 2009.

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Poetry in HR?

Psychology and no poetry

I studied psychology and taught work psychology for many years.  I arrived in psychology from the physical sciences and found the hard core experimental and measurement approach quite familiar.  Indeed as a youngster, I might have fled had I been asked to deal with poetry.  Literature had been my worst subject at school by quite a long way and I simply lacked the frameworks for understanding what poetry offered.

Poetry in management theory

One of the pleasures of the school of positive organizational scholarship is that it embraces poetry.  Indeed, poetic language is one of the five original principles of appreciative inquiry.  Leading exponent, David Cooperrider, coins many a melodic expression, the best known being: the good, the true, the better and the possible.

Poetry in government

As he accepted his nomination for Secretary of Energy, I was delighted to see Nobel Prize winning physicist Stephen Chu quoting the words spoken by William Faulkner when he won his Nobel Prize in 1950.  Speaking to a world concerned about the ramifications of nuclear power and nuclear bombs, Faulkner said:

It is easy enough to say that man is immortal simply because he will endure: that when the last dingdong of doom has clanged and faded from the last worthless rock hanging tideless in the last red and dying evening, that even then there will still be one more sound: that of his puny inexhaustible voice, still talking.

I refuse to accept this. I believe that man will not merely endure: he will prevail.

He is immortal, not because he alone among creatures has an inexhaustible voice, but because he has a soul, a spirit capable of compassion and sacrifice and endurance.

The poet’s, the writer’s, duty is to write about these things.

It is his privilege to help man endure by lifting his heart, by reminding him of the courage and honor and hope and pride and compassion and pity and sacrifice which have been the glory of his past.

The poet’s voice need not merely be the record of man, it can be one of the props, the pillars to help him endure and prevail.

Poetry in business and HR?

If this is good enough for the Secretary for Energy and the White House, then it is good enough for factories, banks, shops and insurance brokers!

Do you employ a poet and an artist?  Do you think a style of HR that lifts hearts, reminds us of courage and honour and hope and pride and compassion and pity and sacrifice which have been the glory of our past and are the glory of our present and our future, together?

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