Wednesday, 1 January 2014

Careful with that axe Eugene

Ways to rein in your inner Berserker

On these giants fell sometimes such a fury that they could not control themselves, but killed men or cattle, whatever came in their way and did not take care of itself. While this fury lasted they were afraid of nothing, but when it left them they were so powerless that they did not have half of their strength, and were as feeble as if they had just come out of bed from a sickness. This fury lasted about one day.
Saga of King Hrolf Kraki , written in Iceland late 1300s.

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This post has come about from a combination of sources: a great old Pink Floyd song title, a story I heard last week that prompted some reflective thinking, and one of the best and least-known models used in leadership coaching. Enjoy!
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Berserkers then and now

Berserkers had enormous impact in Dark Ages battles, on allies (... and cattle) as well as enemies. Anger or fury give enormous energy, and behaviour that has no regard whatever for third parties.
The berserker impulse is still out there. A coaching client recently summarised her CEO as having three behaviour modes: 'irritable, angry, and incandescent'. Sounds familiar? Even though a key leadership requisite is engaging positively with a broad range of people and situations, attention and tolerance spans can become short when the pressure is on.
So maybe we all have a berserker lurking inside, particularly when taking on a leadership role in stressful situations - which are the norm for leaders. Below are approaches which may help you spot and rein in this inner berserker, or maybe understand a colleague who tends this way.

A brief history of annoyance and what people do with it

Very few of us face the kind of life-threatening situations that anger and fury originally evolved to cope with. However we do face the modern equivalent, 'identity-threatening' scenarios, as never before:
  • disrespectful treatment: imposed change, stalled career movement, a pay freeze;
  • threat: imminent failure of your proposal, business position, or policy initiative;
  • unfairness and injustice: oppressive systems, culture or promotion prospects, most news on TV;
  • provocation or suspicion: online 'imps' and 'trolls', colleague game-playing;
  • all = difficulty adapting to a change in our situation, or in someone's attitude towards us.
The impact of anger on the individual over time is well-documented: your body is gearing up for a fight to survive a wrong that's been perpetrated against you. Chemicals like adrenaline and noradrenaline surge through the body.
People with the highest levels of anger have twice the risk of coronary artery disease and three times the risk of heart attack compared to subjects with lower levels of anger [source: Kam]. Chronic anger may be more dangerous than smoking or obesity in contributing to early death [source: Angier].
Expressing anger in reasonable ways can be healthy. The other ends of the continuum are problematic: explosive rage at others, harbouring suppressed rage, even anger turned inwards which may fester, leading to unhealthy coping behaviours such as self-harm, alcohol or substance misuse.
Having angry feelings isn't the problem, it's what you do about them and how you express it that matters. It varies by what's acceptable in the culture as well: Some Asian cultures may experience anger in a milder way and for a shorter time than Caucasian Europeans and Americans [source: Diong].
We don't have to scare off sabre- toothed tigers, defend our territory from invaders, protect our exclusive rights to our mate or demonstrate to others in our group that we are still worthy of respect - or do we? Apart from the sabre-toothed tiger, everything else is more or less still there.

IDEA 1: know what ticks you off and work on it

Used in coaching, Daniel Ofman's Core Qualities model is one of the most effective, simplest and at the same time least-known models for explaining what ticks you off in other people. It parallels the deep structure of Greek tragedy - the greatest strengths can bring with them some fatal flaws.

Core quality = a natural positive quality or strong point of the personality.

Pitfall = what too much of the core quality can lead to: when the strength becomes a weakness.

Challenge =  a compensating quality which balances the pitfall (it doesn't make sense to deny your own best strengths, does it).

Allergy = what too much of your challenge would lead to ... and the opposite to your own core quality. Understandably, when seen in others, it triggers a negative reaction.

So if a key strength or core quality is decisiveness, the pitfall might be the risk of browbeating others into action, your challenge is to develop patience, and when you see people exercising extreme patience it bugs the hell out of you.  More examples below, fill in the gaps:

Core Quality
(this is you all over)
(balance quality)
(you hate this)
more tolerant
more hands-off
successful employee
social climber
a bit more modest
total hermit crab
more balanced
completely cold
bon vivant
party animal

As with the legendary Hawthorne experiment (link), just knowing that you have an issue you need to work on, can be enough to start making progress on it. It's worth a try: without a 'working edge' to your ongoing development as a leader / person, it's very easy to get into deep ruts.

As a development challenge, outstanding leaders deliberately seek to broaden their range by engaging with people who are 'different', even those whose ways they find irritating. Difference after all generates far more potential than common ground (look what follow-the-herd behaviour did for Enron).

A mentoring programme I ran a few years back across the Scottish Government featured top level leaders who, after experiencing a couple of mentoring partnerships, consistently asked to start being matched for difference rather than similarity.

IDEA 2: spot, channel or change it

Classic 'anger management'. John McEnroe is the outstanding example of channeling aggression during his championship-winning years. In the words of George Plimpton in Esquire at the time, "He's the only player in the history of the game to go berserk and play better tennis". 

Channeled anger can be a catalyst for new behaviour, moving us out of old, self-defeating ruts.

It all depends on managing to take a mental time-out to identify the cause.

Then you can curious about what is generating this response in your life and put this information to good use.

Between stimulus and response there is a gap. By leaning to control your reactions and creating that gap, there's a much better chance of applying a bit of logic, replacing exaggerated and overly dramatic thoughts with more rational ones.

Origins of a low tolerance for frustration can include belief systems ("I should not have to be subjected to frustration, inconvenience, or annoyance"), family background (disruptive, chaotic, lots of outbursts), or cultural norms (it's all right to express other emotions but not anger ... so, we don't learn how to handle it or channel it constructively).

IDEA 3: cultivate the opposite qualities

This section is a bit Buddhist. A classic way to address the Five Hindrances (mental factors that hinder progress in meditation and in our daily lives) is to cultivate the opposite quality. So, in the case for example of ill will (vyapada), the advice is to do something kind and helpful. 

This works in other arenas: for example when faced with workplace cynicism and negativity, what better to do than focus on positivity? This develops what Al Siebert called the Survivor Personality (link) and over time, enhances long-term your resilience in the face of challenge.

So, having observed a tendency to annoyance, try doing something energising and positive. Even trying to do so will radically reduce your chances of becoming like one of those celebrities brought in to help present the 'Grumpy Old Men / Old Women' TV series.

Perhaps the ultimate expression of this was the Tibetan monk Palden Gyatso who was put in prison in 1959 for resisting China’s overthrow of Tibet’s government., released for brief periods for the next 33 years but spent most of that time in prison. Once asked what he most feared during that time, he replied that his biggest fear was losing compassion for his torturers. (link)

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And finally ... the title refers to another Pink Floyd song, published in 1969 (link) also featuring in the final scene of Michelangelo Antonioni's masterpiece "Zabriskie Point" (1970).

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