The pearl in the oyster

Last week I wrote about the importance of getting the balance right between negative and positive interactions to maintain healthy relationships and to flourish. The concept of needing a certain level of negativity in life was mentioned, which can seem like a rather odd proposition. It’s certainly not a new
concept. Without the wicked stepmother, so many princesses would never find their prince (although I do wish fairy-tales would change the record sometimes!), without the “bad-guy” the “good-guy” wouldn’t triumph. The juxtaposition of good and evil, of positive and negative, is widely accepted. But leaving fairy-tales and extremes aside, how does the balance of positivity and negativity work in our lives?

I think this issue is neatly addressed in the animated movie “Inside out” (yes, I know it’s a kid’s film, but it’s brilliant!) where the main character, Joy, discovers to her surprise that sadness is a necessary part of life which ultimately enhances our experience of joy. As inconvenient as it is, sadness is a necessary part of the rich tapestry of a life well-lived. If you haven’t seen “Inside Out” I would suggest having a look! The portrayal of the inner dialogue going on in both the Mum and Dad’s brains at dinner is hilarious!

When faced with a negative situation or irritant, I try to remember the pearl analogy. Pearls are formed as a defense mechanism against an irritant, such as grit or sand. The oyster’s natural reaction is to cover up the irritant with layers of the same nacre substance that is used to create the shell. This eventually forms a pearl, a thing of beauty which would never have existed without initial irritation. This reaction is exploited by pearl farmers, who purposefully insert irritants to oysters to promote pearl formation. I’m not suggesting going out in search of irritants to insert in my life, but I will frequently seek out people who will provide the grit needed to initiate development of a pearl of an idea. Also, when I come across unwanted irritation or unwelcome grittiness, I try to remind myself that this may be starting point for something more meaningful and that it may serve as a useful prompt for reflection. If nothing else, you just need to have something to tell yourself on tough days.

Can you look back and identify sources of irritation which ultimately led to something better? Rather than trying to eliminate irritations from your life, are there other approaches you could use? Have you inadvertently ended up with some pearls?

The magic relationship ratio

Well, the concept of supportive challenge from last week didn’t seem to gain much traction! In fact, for the first time in my (short) blogging history there was almost radio silence from readers. I found this interesting and it led me to … reflect! 🙂 This time on the balance required between positivity and negativity.

Previously I have written about the importance of positivity and the importance of relationships and trust. John Gottman brings these two concepts neatly together by focusing on the importance of positive interactions in maintaining trusting relationships, though his magic relationship ratio. He proposes that a ratio of 5:1 positive:negative interactions is required to maintain positive relationships. That means that you need five positive interactions to counteract one negative interaction. Although this concept originated in analysis of marital relationships it has since been shown to be valid in lots of types of relationships, including those in the workplace. Maureen Gaffney, in her book Flourishing, refers to this as the Flourishing Ratio where she proposes that for every burst of irritability, every tense exchange, every negative thought and feeling of disappointment, there has to be five times as many positives.

This is a principle that I now try to bring to all aspects of my life… how I treat my family, how I interact with my colleagues and friends and, probably most importantly, how I talk to myself! I don’t always achieve it but I do find that conflict in relationships is much more easily resolved where there is a sufficient cushion of positivity.

Note the fact that the magic ratio isn’t 5:0. A certain amount of negativity is needed in the world. In fact Maureen Gaffney maintains that appropriate negativity has an important role to play in flourishing. Yet many of us shy away from it.  Sometimes, however, shying away isn’t an option.

With this in mind, I was reminded of a publication which I read a number of years ago in the International Journal of Pharmacy Practice entitled Who do you think you are? Pharmacists perceptions of their professional identities“. The researchers interviewed 43 pharmacists about how they perceived themselves in the context of their professional identities. It’s an interesting article and could lead to a whole raft of different blogs! But one particular point stood out for me which is related to this topic of the magic relationship ratio. One pharmacist, described their approach to difficult conversations as follows…

“a lot of the time you’re potentially going up to doctors and saying, you know ‘I disagree with what you’ve prescribed here’, you have to be able to put that across in a friendly way, without sounding like you’re constantly nagging them, otherwise you don’t have a very good relationship with them”

I agree with the idea that if you are must have this type of conversation, you should approach it in a friendly manner. However, as a pharmacist, if every interaction I have with a doctor is focused on telling him/her when they have made an error in prescribing, it’s unlikely to result in a positive relationship, no matter how nicely I phrase it! If I consider the magic relationship ratio, I need to have five positive interactions counteracting that negative one in order to maintain a good relationship. I never considered this when I practiced as a pharmacist. I contacted GP colleagues when there was a problem because a conversation was needed. I handled it as nicely as I could but, to be honest, I rarely, if ever,invested any thought into the importance of balancing those interactions with more separate, positively focused conversations. To be fair, my GP colleagues were always very professional and responded well but I do wonder now if I could have been more mindful of the relationships. With an increasing focus on inter-professional working in our healthcare systems, perhaps it is worth considering how we can achieve the magic relationship ratio across the resultant relationships.

 

Reflection time

 

Take a moment to consider your relationships with others. Do you always achieve the 5:1 ratio? Are there times when you’re not able to build up a cushion of positivity to counter the negative interactions? In these cases, is there anything you could you do to get closer to the magic relationship ratio?

 

Opposing views.

I am lucky to have a number of people in my life who provide me with a healthy balance of support and challenge. I meet lots of people who are willing to support me, which is lovely, but they often shy away from the edgy conversations. I also meet people who are willing to challenge, often in the adversarial sense of trying to ensure that their view dominates. Whilst I enjoy the debate and the challenge, these are often competitive types of interactions rather than ones designed to faciltate growth. It’s difficult to find people who are perpared to both support and challenge you in the interests of driving you to be a better version of yourself, so when you find them you should cherish them.

One of my fears with blogging is that I wind up in a self-perpetuating self-congratulatory cycle where I only hear from the people who like what I write. Everyone who has contacted me thus far has been quite complimentary and encouraging and I have been very grateful for that. However I’m not so naive to think that this means that everyone is positively disposed to what I’m doing. I am savvy enough to know that anyone who thinks it’s a pile of rubbish will simply ignore it and that most people will simply dismiss it as something that’s not doing a whole lot of harm but not necessarily doing a whole lot of good either. Therefore I was interested to seek out the views of someone who would give me their opinion straight up.

For me, one such person is a former boss of mine, Mary Rose Burke. This lady has taught me lots about myself and about the world more generally. She is independence and passion personified and is a brilliant role model for anyone trying to achieve a balance between family, work and life more generally. She lives her life authentically, thinks differently to most people I know and shares her insights generously. Therefore I was delighted to bump into her last week and was curious to know what she thought of my blogs.

Needless to say, Mary Rose didn’t disappoint. She provided some encouraging comments about some of the blogs before moving to a position of challenge. She queried the value of sharing self-reflection in such a public forum and whether it was really of any benefit to readers to be subjected to my internal musings. I was delighted to hear the counter position and asked if she would write a guest blog. It’s a testimony to Mary Rose’s patience with me that she obliged by writing a blog about why people shouldn’t write blogs! As she says herself, she’s a reluctant blogger. Her blog, here, raises some super questions, ones to which I don’t necessarily have appropriate answers. I agree with her view on the deeply personal nature of self-reflection and yet simultaneously also find myself agreeing with the likes of Brené Brown on the importance of vulnerability in our world. Yes, self-reflection ought to be a private affair, but I fear that we’ve made it so private that people don’t know how to go about it and don’t feel comfortable talking about it.

I’d love to hear your views. If you get a chance, read Mary Rose’s blog and lets have a proper debate about whether this blogging lark is of any value to anyone. Fear not, this is not going to turn into a match between two opposing views. Rather, it’s an opportunity to help shape my thinking on how I should approach blogging. Have I shared too much and ventured past the boundaries of appropriateness? Or is more vulnerability and open reflection what the world needs? Or is it an entirely irrelevant question in a world that has much more to worry about than what I think? Irrespective, I’m going to keep blogging because I find it a thoroughly enjoyable and relaxing thing to do…. but your views might influence what I choose to share.

Reflection time

Once again I find myself grateful for people like Mary Rose in my life, and fortunately I have quite a few of them around me. They keep me grounded whilst giving me wings. They pose the difficult questions from which so many others shy away. They challenge me to question what I’m doing without any expectation of compliance with their thinking.

Do you have people in your life who’ll challenge you supportively? If and when they do challenge, can you accept that challenge with a spirit of gratefulness or do you find yourself engaging in combat? Defending your position is a natural inclination but sometimes it’s useful to just listen and hear what’s being said. This touches on the topic introduced in last week’s blog (Teamwork: The importance of trust), where we introduced Patrick Lencioni’s hypothesis that fear of conflict can prevent teams from reaching their potential. A fear of conflict or an unwillingness to have challenging conversations stifles growth, creativity and trust. Willingness to voice, and hear, oppossing views enables growth and strengthens relationships. It’s a topic to which I have no doubt we’ll return, particularly in the context of team development.

In the meantime, thanks, Mary Rose, for your reluctant blog! And thanks in advance to those of you who take a moment to share your thoughts on the subject.

Teams: The importance of trust

26th May 2017

This week I had the privilege of working with colleagues in the School of Pharmacy in the Royal College of Surgeons, Ireland (RCSI), the Bill Gatton College of Pharmacy, East Tennessee State University and the Irish Institute of Pharmacy to explore the topic of inter-professional collaboration and team-based approaches to patient care. This involved a day-long masterclass in RCSI on Wednesday and a number of other “fringe events”. As part of the programme of fringe events, I found myself in the studios of Raidió na Life, hosting a podcast where pharmacy and medical practitioners from Ireland and America shared their reflections on the concept of team-based approaches to healthcare (You can hear the recording here). It was a great experience. It was my first time to host such an event, which was a learning experience in itself, but more importantly it resulted in a rich and meaningful discussion which I think will prompt lots of reflection on how we could improve healthcare delivery in Ireland. My thanks to Prof. Reid Blackwelder, Dr. Brian Cross, Dr. McKenzie Calhoun, Mr. Paddy Byrne and Dr. Kieran O’Driscoll for contributing so authentically to the discussion and for sharing their reflections and insights. I believe that more conversations like this, forward-looking and positively-framed, are needed in order to start changing the order of things.

Given that we were considering team-based approaches to healthcare delivery this week, it’s not surprising that the topic of teamwork featured strongly in our discussions. Anybody who knows me knows that I am passionate about this topic! In fact, a number of readers have been specifically asking if I could share reflections on teamwork as part of my blog. It’s impossible to distill my thoughts about teamwork and effective team leadership into one blog-post, so I propose to dip in and out of the topic over time, reflecting on different aspects of teamwork as they arise in my day-to-day life. In light of the discussions about teamwork over the last week, today seems like an opportune time to start that reflection.

I have had the privilege of working with some fantastic teams over my career to date and I am lucky enough to be currently part of one of the best teams in which I have ever worked. Like most people, I have also worked in quite dysfunctional teams. Therefore, it’s easy for me to reflect on what I think differentiates a good team from a not-so-good team. With a great team around you, the impossible becomes possible. It’s where the magic happens.

During the past week, and most notably in the podcast discussion, it is clear that strong relationships are important in teamwork. Whether you are working within a structured and clearly-defined team or you find yourself thrust into situations where you need to collaborate with others informally, relationships are considered a vital ingredient to good teamwork. In my opinion, this can be distilled down even further to one essential ingredient: trust. Without trust, the magic just can’t happen.

The Collins English dictionary states the following in defining trust: “If you trust someone, you believe that they are honest and sincere and will not deliberately do anything to harm you.” Upon reading such a definition, it makes complete sense that you need trust for a team to work well together. The absence of trust would suggest that there are concerns regarding honesty, sincerity or intentions. How could a team perform effectively, let alone flourish, in such an environment? How could any meaningful relationships be established?

The interesting thing about a really powerful team is that you don’t necessarily have to like everyone in the team in order to have trust. In my experience teams are most powerful when they are made up of people who are quite different to each other, each bringing something unique to the table. In a truly effective team there will be potentially opposing views of the world and there will be healthy tension between different perspectives on how things should be done. In a flourishing team there is room for this to happen. Where there is trust, no-one feels threatened.

Patrick Lencioni, author of The Five Dysfunctions of Team, positions trust as the foundation on which all great teams are built. He further differentiates between types of trust: predictive trust and vulnerability-based trust. Predictive trust is where you know someone long enough to be able to predict what they’ll do. You trust that you can anticipate their response to situations.  Whilst useful, this isn’t the type of trust that makes teams great. Vulnerability-based trust is, predictably enough, the trust that comes about when people on a team can be vulnerable with each other. When this type of trust is in place, people can ask for help, they can admit their wrong, they’re willing to provide feedback on potentially difficult issues and they’re willing to hear that type of feedback about themselves. Team members are willing to have conversations in a spirit of honesty, sincerity and good intention and are met, in-turn, with reciprocated honesty, sincerity and good intention. When people can be vulnerable, it changes the dynamics of a team completely, making it unstoppable.

Whilst everyone in a great team needs to be willing to be vulnerable, Lencioni maintains that the only way to achieve this is if the leader goes first. If the leader can’t be vulnerable, then the other team members are unlikely to trust that they can be so. Lencioni maintains that leaders have to be willing to show their vulnerability before others will trust that it is safe for them to show theirs. Leaders must be self-aware. They need to understand their strengths and how they use those strengths. They must be insightful about their short-comings and how they address these. They must be capable and willing to admit when they are wrong. They must be open to receiving uncomfortable feedback graciously, before their team will trust that they should do the same.

Once the conditions are set at a leadership level, all team members then have a responsibility to step up and pay their part in cultivating a culture of trust. This means that they too must have self-awareness, they too must have insight into their short-comings and they too must be prepared to put in the effort that is required to maintain a trusting environment. Everyone must believe that all team-mates are acting honestly, sincerely and with good intention. Once the trust is established, it provides a strong foundation for everything else.

Self-awareness is a tricky issue. It makes sense that people should understand themselves and their impact on others, but I often find it lacking. This is often where I focus on efforts when I work with teams, either leading, being part of or coaching them. Once people understand themselves they are better positioned to understand others and this helps to build a culture of respect and trust.  I also find it easier for trust to flourish when people are able to have fun together.

Whilst I agree with Lencioni that good leadership is a key ingredient, what about those situations where a clear leadership mandate does not rest with any one individual? In the example of team-based healthcare, where a range of different healthcare professionals may be required to form spontaneous teams to plan the best approach for a particular patient, who is responsible for setting the tone? My answer is that you can wait for someone to come in and set the tone or you can be proactive about playing your part in creating the right environment. This is where you get to see leadership qualities displayed irrespective of rank or whether the individuals concerned have a mandated leadership role. This is where the practicalities of “who is in charge?” become irrelevant and “what needs to be done?” becomes a unifying goal. Once we start asking the right question, everyone can contribute to the leadership of the group by playing their part in creating an environment which will enable the team to flourish. As my American colleagues would say, don’t wait for a memo to instruct you to start creating trust! Just step up and play your part!

Establishing trust, whilst important, is only the first step to creating a great team. There are a further four elements to Lencioni’s model, which proposes that a team will not function optimally if there is a fear of conflict, a lack of commitment, avoidance of accountability and inattention to results. Each of these topics fascinates me, particularly the one relating to the fear of conflict, and I am sure I’ll be reflecting on each of them in future blogs. I’m also interested in exploring the concept of vulnerability because I’ve had some fascinating conversations about this in the last few days and am anticipating a guest blog next week which might stimulate some interesting reflections in this regard! So I know we will re-visit the topic of teams in future blogs. In the meantime, if you want know more about Lencioni’s model of teamwork, take a look at The Five Dysfunctions of a Team.

 

Reflection time.

 

 

Are you part of a team? Teams can be found in the workplace, in sports, at home, in communities, in social circles … essentially anywhere you have groups of people working on something together.

Reflect on your team experiences. Think about a time when you have been part of a fabulous team (I am hoping that you have experienced this at some stage!). Compare this to a time when you worked in a poor team environment (I’m assuming most people have experienced this!). Reflect on the differences between these two in the context of trust. Does it hold true, in your experience, that there are low levels of trust in poorly performing teams?

If you are currently working within a team where there is a trusting environment, cherish it and make sure you play your part in keeping it that way. Don’t become complacent and assume trust will just flourish. Like anything worth having, it takes constant work and care to ensure that it is maintained. The effort is worth it when you are part of a team where great things happen.

If you work within a team where there is a lack of trust, it might be worth reflecting on what you could do to start nudging towards a more trusting atmosphere. I’d be interested in any reflections you have on how this can be achieved.

As always, thanks for reading and I’m looking forward to some interesting exchanges over the coming week 🙂

And check here for the latest update from Cicely Roche, who is guest blogging about her Ontario trip!

You attract what you are

19th May 2017

This week I’m delighted to introduce our first guest blogger, Cicely Roche. I met Cicely, an esteemed pharmacy colleague, for coffee last week. During our conversation she mentioned that she was following my blog and that she was interested in figuring out how she might start blogging herself, particularly in light of an upcoming trip to Ontario which was bound to stimulate new learning. The problem was she didn’t have  anytime to figure out how to set it up in advance of her trip.

Naturally, given my interest in blogging, learning and pharmacy, I was delighted to hear this and suggested that she could start by blogging through reflections.ie as a guest blogger until she got herself set up. It would enable her to dip a toe in the blogging water without having to set anything up immediately. She was happy that this would get her started and I was happy to help her on her journey.

Therefore, I am delighted to introduce Cicely Roche as our first guest blogger and her blog can be read here. I’m looking forward to reading about her experiences in Ontario.

This interaction prompted me to reflect on the new types of conversations that I have been having with people since I started blogging. Some people have shared their interest in writing with me and have even sent me excerpts of their writing, which are always lovely to receive. Others have contacted me to discuss the topics about which I have written. A few have provided tips and suggestions and have pointed me in the direction of writing festivals and web-sites which could help me develop my writing skills. I’m now attracting conversations about topics I really adore and the ironic fact is that, quite often, I’m having these new conversations with people I have known for years but with whom these topics never arose. Some have even revealed other personas that they use for the purposes of writing. In all the time that I was thinking about blogging and dithering over whether it was a silly idea or not, I was surrounded by people who had similar interests and ideas. These people are connecting with me now that they see me acting in this space. This leads me to the idea that you attract what you are, not what you want.

Wouldn’t it be so much easier if you could simply attract what you want? Rather inconveniently the world around you reacts to who and what you are, not who and what you want to be. Ghandhi is often quoted as saying “Be the difference you want to see in the world”. Notwithstanding the fact that this is apparently not quite what he said (see here for the accurate quote), my reflection on the last week has led me to understand how true the sentiment is.

 

Reflection time

 

 

Is there anything you can learn by reflecting on this? Are there ways that you can proactively move closer to the things you want? My first blog, What’s stopping you?, might help you reflect on how you could do this. Whilst the first steps might be daunting it is very rewarding to see the universe respond! (without wishing to sound too philosophical!)

Finally, is blogging something that you would like to try? I’m delighted to help people get started if they’d like dip their toe in the water here. Just get in touch and let me know if you’d like to give it a shot. There’s always the option of writing under a pseudonym if that feels easier.

Ninjas and fairies … Does it matter what people think?

Last week I had an experience that prompted interesting reflection for me about the importance I attach to what other’s think of me. My little girl was invited to a fancy-dress birthday party for a 6-year-old friend.  Normally these parties involve a mix of girls who dress as princesses or fairies and boys who dress as superheroes or villains. My daughter has, thus far, shown no interest in princesses or fairies and has always joined the boys in the superhero camp. Sometimes its Spiderman, other times the Hulk. Last week she was a ninja.

When we arrived at the party we were greeted by a squealing sea of sparkly, excited princesses, including the mother of the party-girl! Unlike all previous parties, there were no boys. Suddenly this made my little ninja, dressed from head to toe in black and sparring imaginary adversaries, so much more conspicuous. The biggest of the fairies (the party-girl’s Mum!), to be fair, took this in her stride and was delighted to welcome a ninja to the party. The little ninja herself dived into the fairy sea with a nonchalant wave goodbye to me. I must admit, for all that I love her spunky, funky nature, in that moment as I left her I wished she liked princess dresses … not because I want her to be like everyone else but because I know that being different can be difficult.

I pride myself in swimming against the tide. I’m not that bothered by what people think of me … or at least that’s what I tell myself. Why then, did it bother me when I saw my little girl standing out from her counterparts? Why was my stomach churning and my mind constantly straying back to her for the next two hours while she partied and I fretted?

At the simplest level, it was probably just maternal instinct kicking in … a desire to protect my little girl. I imagined that maybe she might realise that she was different from her friends which might upset her or that the princesses might keep their distance from this scary little ninja. In truth it probably reminded me too much of times when I didn’t feel like I fit in and reignited old insecurities. I have always felt a bit like a square peg in a round hole and, whilst I’ve come to embrace my “squareness” as I’ve grown older, it was quite the inconvenience when I was younger.  I never felt particularly interested in the sorts of things in which other people seem interested. As a teenager, conversations between my peers about the latest pop sensation or hottest actor always left me baffled because it seemed at the time that it was a teenager’s job to care about those things and I just didn’t. From school to college to the workplace, I never quite felt like I fit in and, to be frank, I didn’t like that feeling. I wanted to be like everyone else who seemed normal so I wouldn’t feel so odd. Unlike my little ninja, I didn’t have the courage to be who I wanted to be. In fact, I’m not even sure I knew who I wanted to be. As a result, I spent most of my time trying to fit in and trying to be interested in things in which I wasn’t interested rather than figuring out what I did like for myself. Maybe that’s the way most people spend their early years. Maybe we all go around feeling out of place. Maybe some people are just better than others at looking like they know what they’re about. As I grew older I began to understand more about what drove me and to understand my purpose and that certainly made it easier to feel comfortable on occasions when I stuck out from the crowd. I have huge admiration for people who aren’t afraid to buck the trend or go against the grain in the interests of being themselves … like my little ninja.

As I think about this issue, I am reminded of the book The Chimp Paradox by Steve Peters. The book opens with a simplified explanation of brain function, focusing on the evolved, frontal (Human) brain functions and the more primitive, limbic (Chimp) brain functions and the remainder of the book provides guidance on how to reconcile the constant struggle between the Human and the Chimp. One of our primitive (Chimp) urges is to seek safety, which can usually be found in groups or troops. The best way to fit into a troop is to be as similar as possible to the other members of the troop, reducing the chance of rejection. So perhaps the desire to fit-in has its roots in a primitive urge?  Peters proposes that managing your impulsive and emotional Chimp as an adult will be one of the biggest factors in determining how successful you are in life. As I’ve grown older and discovered who I am, the anxiety associated with not fitting in has certainly eased. Maybe that’s how it happens for everyone? I look at the younger generations today who seem to have oodles of confidence and self-awareness and I am in awe. Are they really that confident? Or do lots of them feel like square pegs in round holes too and just do a much better job than I ever did in covering it up? It seems to me that there is a much greater acceptance of people being different these days. Being nerdy now appears to be cool. Young people don’t seem to be afraid to stand out from the crowd. As a society are we becoming more accepting of difference? Are my reactions to “being different” just remnants of an old-fashioned view of the world?

As for my little ninja, when I collected her from her party and tentatively asked her how it went I received an enthusiastic “Awesome Mum, very awesome”. Awesome indeed.

 

Time for reflection

 

This experience prompted me to reflect on how my reactions have changed as I’ve gotten older. I live a pretty conventional life …  but I like to think that I can be pretty unconventional when I want to be. I found great freedom when I stopped caring about trying to fit in with everyone else, but it certainly felt a bit uncomfortable in the beginning. It also prompted me to wonder if maybe there are times when I still shy away from being different? And most importantly, how do I make sure that my hang-ups don’t influence my little girl’s view of the world.

Are there times when you change your behaviour for the sake of fitting in? Sometimes this is a necessary part of maintaining harmonious relationships within the workplace or the home. But might there be times when you compromise too much for the sake of fitting in? Only you will know! And sometimes it doesn’t have to be one or the other. A ninja princess could be an interesting option!

 

Where is your attention?

21st April 2017

A few weeks ago I wrote about the topic of positivity. Quite a few readers wrote to me describing how the article had prompted them to realise that they had let their work persona (which required a degree of critique or negativity) spill into their personal life.

Firstly, thank you to those who contact me. It’s nice to know that the articles have prompted reflection…. which is the purpose of my writing.

Secondly, this prompted me to think about a model that I learnt about years ago when I worked in Boots.  All credit goes to Boots and their trainers for this concept. I have found it immensely helpful … not just in my own experience but also in coaching others. The model is simple but profound. When it was first presented to me it was in the format of an exercise which worked very effectively, so I thought it best to go straight to the heart of the matter and make this week’s blog more activity focused.

 

Reflection time

 

Think about a typical day of activity – whether that involves spending time at home, in the workplace or somewhere else. In particular, think about how you start the day. What are the things that are on your mind as you plan the day ahead? Write a list of the things on which you generally focus your attention. You might already do this by having a “To Do” list at the start of the day. If so, what does a general “To Do” list look like?

Now – Let’s look at your list and start categorising, using the diagram below, which you can print out to help visualise where your attention is focused.

Firstly, ask yourself: How many of the things on my list are about the things I have to do? Jobs that need to be completed? Issues that need to be resolved? Write these into the section marked It in the diagram above.

Secondly, ask yourself: How many of the things on my list are about the people around me? People I need to meet? Calls I must make? People with whom I work or engage? Write these into the section marked Us in the diagram above.

Finally, ask yourself: How many of the things on my list are about me? How I look after myself? How I plan to manage my own energy levels? How I maintain my motivation or interest? How I manage my emotions, particularly in the face of situations that may cause stress? Write these into the section marked Me in the diagram above.

Now, look at the balance between each of the three categories (Me, Us, It) that you have created. Where is the focus of your attention? When this concept was introduced to me, it was explained that we are at our best when we pay attention to all three aspects of our day. If you fail to pay enough attention to any one of the areas, you end up with an imbalance that makes life more difficult. Often people tend to focus largely on the It in their life (ie the jobs that need to be done), to the detriment of considering their own well-being or how they interact with the people around them.

If you have a good balance across all three areas, well done. Give yourself a pat on the back! If you end up with a skewed focus across the three areas there’s lots you can do to achieve a better balance. Some of the previous posts, such as What’s Stopping You?What’s your Purpose? and Are you Positive? can help you focus on the Me part of the model. As I continue blogging I will be touching on issues relating to the Us and It parts. Team-work is something that many of you have specifically asked me to write about and is something that I feel particularly strongly about, so I’m sure there will be plenty of blogs on that topic from me in future.

I haven’t been able to find an evidence-base for this model, so I can’t provide any links with information to support it. I normally shy away from writing without an evidence base. In this case however, the evidence I have is my own experience. I find this model extremely useful, both in keeping myself on the straight and narrow and in helping managers, colleagues and teams understand the importance of balancing their attention across all three areas. I don’t think we need to spend equal time in all three sections – I think however it is important to be mindful of achieving balance between your personal needs, the needs of your work and the needs of the people around you (your team!). People in new roles (and I include new mothers/fathers in this!), tend to focus largely on the tasks that need to be completed which is understandable when the tasks are new and require a lot of attention. This model provides a reminder to balance the tasks with the other important areas which require your attention.

I hope this provokes some thought and starts to address the specific requests that some of you have sent me. Feel free to share your thoughts in the comment section below, by email or via social media. I enjoy hearing from you, irrespective of the route.

Thanks for reading!
Catriona

The Dunning-Kruger effect: When competence impacts on self-awareness.

Have you ever come across someone who clearly didn’t know what they were talking about but acted as if they were an expert? It can be frustrating, can’t it? I discovered the Dunning-Kruger effect years ago and it has helped me to keep my cool on such occasions.

Dunning and Kruger, two American psychologists, conducted a series of experiments exploring the issues of competence and self-awareness which led them to the following conclusions:

  • People with low levels of competence in an area tend to over-estimate their abilities in that area. This is, at least in part, due to the fact that their lack of competence actually hampers them from making an accurate assessment of their level of ability.
  • Conversely, people with high levels of competence in an area tend to underestimate their abilities.

You were probably already aware of one aspect of the Dunning-Kruger effect, even if you didn’t know it by name.  Adages such as “A little knowledge is a dangerous thing” or “Empty vessels make most noise” allude to the first part of their conclusion. What I find interesting is the second part; that people with high competence tend to underestimate their ability. Whilst people with low competence in a particular area don’t know enough to know that there is lots that they don’t know and therefore over-estimate their abilities, people with high competence know enough to know there is lots they don’t know and therefore consider that they know less than they actually do. Follow me?

A friend recounted to me earlier this week how she went into some of her exams in her undergraduate degree exuding calm and confidence, not because she was well prepared but rather because she actually hadn’t studied enough to realise how much she didn’t know about the topic. Meanwhile she observed that some of her very diligent classmates who had done much more study were much more stressed than she was. On reflection she recognises that it was probably partly due to the fact that they were aware that there was lots that they still didn’t know while she was comfortable in blissful ignorance!

Is there anything that can help people become more accurate in their self-assessment? Dunning and Kruger found that if people of low competence (who have an overly optimistic view of their abilities) are provided with appropriate education and feedback they become more realistic about their abilities. Once they understand a bit more about a topic, people are better placed to realise how little they know. And for the highly competent people? Once they gain some insight into how little the “incompetent” people know (for example by seeing themselves bench-marked against their less competent counterparts), they become more realistic about their own abilities. Feedback in both situations is the key to resolving the mistaken beliefs.

I mentioned earlier that this concept has helped me to keep my cool. How so? Well, I have frequent experiences of people who have little knowledge of a topic telling me how I should do things, be it in my work or parenting or just life in general. Before I understood the Dunning-Kruger effect this annoyed me if it was clear that someone didn’t have much understanding of the topic about which they were talking. Now I realise that it may be that they don’t know enough to know that they don’t know enough and they have simply overestimated their abilities!

 Reflection time

This weeks reflection is short and sweet.

Do you ever meet people who have overestimated their abilities? How do you react? Are there ways that you can help them to gain more insight? If there are, this will help them gain a better understanding of their abilities.

Conversely, do you ever meet people who are highly competent who underestimate their abilities? How do you react? Are there ways that you can help them to gain more insight? If there are, this will help them gain a better understanding of their abilities.

How about you? Are there areas where you are highly competent where you underestimate your own abilities? How could you gain a more accurate picture of your abilities?

And the last question, which is begging to be asked is this: are there areas where you over-estimate your abilities? But such a question is pointless. The very fact that you have over-estimated your ability will prevent you from seeing the error of your ways. As Dunning and Kruger put it, “people who are unskilled … suffer a dual burden: Not only do these people reach erroneous conclusions and make unfortunate choices, but their incompetence robs them of the metacognitive ability to realize it.”  So, if you have over-estimated your abilities, let’s hope someone you know reads this blog-post and will help you out!

What is your purpose?

7th April 2017

What is your purpose?  It’s a deep question which you will find either incredibly easy or difficult to answer, depending on how aware you are of yourself. I couldn’t answer this question for years… decades in fact. I only really started to understand my purpose in the past year or two. Before that my identity was tied to distinct roles in my life… Catriona the student, the pharmacist, the mother, the leader, the employee, the writer or the sailor. What got a bit confusing was that were slightly differing versions of me, depending on the role I was fulfilling at any given time. For example, as a pharmacist, I embraced detail and as a writer I preferred to think creatively; as a mother, I set a direction and as a student I took direction.

Which is the real me? The answer is I am all and I am none of the roles I fulfil. None are me in my entirety and I am none entirely. So, who am I? I now realise that there is a “me” which underpins everything. I have values which shape everything I do and there is a purpose to my life which gets expressed slightly differently in each of my roles. At this point in time I believe that my purpose is to be a catalyst for meaningful growth.  Maybe it will change as I do, but for now it is a purpose which threads through everything I do. The word “catalyst” anchors me to my chemistry and pharmacy background and nicely describes my affinity for precipitating or accelerating change. I like making things happen or helping to accelerate change that has already started. Not just any change. Change which results in growth.  More importantly, growth that I believe to be meaningful. I am interested in growth which results in a better world.

Once I am clear on my purpose, all the different manifestations of “me” make sense. Through parenting I am enabling growth of my children. Through my work, I facilitate growth of the team, of individuals and of my wider environment. Through writing, I hope to provide support to others in their growth; thus, the concept of Reflect to Prosper. Knowing my purpose makes it easier for me to decide what I should do. If I’m unsure about what direction to take, I ask myself which path is going to align with my purpose and values. This generally leads me to things that I enjoy because they are meaningful to me.

Once I understand my purpose it also helps me to make sense of the times in the past when I felt disillusioned. When a job feels like it’s draining your enthusiasm, you’ll often find that some aspect of the work or the environment is impinging on your values or is preventing you from aligning with your purpose. Einstein is widely credited with saying Everybody is a genius, but if you judge a fish by its ability to climb a tree, it will live it’s whole life believing that it is stupid”I believe that we all have a unique purpose in life. I also believe that, sadly, many of us never discover what that purpose is which means that, at best, we live lives where we don’t achieve our full potential and, at worst, we spend our lives believing that we’re stupid because we don’t quite fit where we are. Everyone is a genius at something but, too often, we never discover what that something is and we spend our lives feeling like something hasn’t quite clicked for us. To quote Les Brown …

The graveyard is the richest place on earth, because it is here that you will find all the hopes and dreams that were never fulfilled, the books that were never written, the songs that were never sung, the inventions that were never shared, the cures that were never discovered, all because someone was too afraid to take that first step, keep with the problem, or determined to carry our their dream.” 

Identifying your purpose may seem challenging. It took me quite a while to recognise the patterns and to identify an underlying theme. But it was worth the effort. I discovered a book in my local library called Brand You, by John Purkiss and David Royston Lee, which provides a nice structure which can help you figure it out.

When I gave a copy of the Brand You book to each of my work colleagues as a Christmas gift, I confessed that I had been considering buying a Nespresso coffee machine for the office before deciding that this, individual gift, would be more meaningful. One of my colleagues diplomatically offered to gather up all the copies of the book that I had given to the team as gifts and organise their return so that he could recoup the refund and buy the coffee machine instead. So maybe this approach isn’t everyone’s cup of tea…. or coffee!

 

Reflection time

 

Are you open to the idea that we all have a unique purpose? Or do you fundamentally disagree with the concept? Feel free to share your comments if you disagree. I’d be interested to hear your perspective.

If you are open to the idea that you have a unique purpose, do you understand yours? Does it guide you in deciding what is right for you? If so, perhaps you could share what helped you do identify this, through the comments section of this blog-post.

If you aren’t clear on your purpose, reflect on the questions listed below and see if you can identify patterns that might point you in the right direction. The questions raised here aren’t intended to be a comprehensive, step-by-step guide to identifying your purpose. Rather, they are prompts for reflection, designed to stimulate your thinking and to help you gather clues as you try to identify patterns.

  • Think back over your life and think about the times when you felt fulfilled. Think about what you were doing and what it was that made you feel that way. As a simple example, if you really enjoyed being involved in a musical performance, what it was specifically that you enjoyed about it. Was it the satisfaction of mastering a difficult piece of music? Or the enjoyment of being part of a bigger group? Or the thrill of performing alone? Or the fact that you were bringing joy to others? Or savouring the culmination of hours of practice and preparation.  The same activity can serve different purposes so try to identify specifically what it was that evoked fulfilment.
  • Think about activities that you love, or have loved, doing. A friend of mine asks “What makes your heart sing?” This may provide responses which are similar to those from the first question, but is likely to provide some additional clues. Don’t be afraid to delve deep into your past. Maybe there was something in your childhood that you adored doing but that got pushed to one side as you grew up.  What clues can you find here? Again, for each activity reflect on what it was specifically about that activity that brought you joy. For example, people who enjoy writing might do so for many different. One person may enjoy writing stories for the creative freedom, another for the purpose of creating interesting tales and others, like me, to help them explore particular themes.
  • Where does your attention go? Are there things that you daydream about? Things you imagine that one day you might do? Do you have a fantasy about what you’d do if you were free from commitments? Our dreams and fantasies can provide great insight into our secret ambitions.
  • Do you find yourself regularly being approached for a particular purpose? Do people seem to recognise a particular talent within you? For example, a calm head in a crises, an ability to rally the troops, your creativity? Sometimes people will approach you simply because you possess a particular skill-set but it may also be an indication of an inherent talent that others can see in you. Thinking about this can provide important clues.
  • Are there any areas in your life in which you receive consistent positive feedback? It’s important to listen to the feedback from the world around you. Sometimes other people are the key to helping us identify our purpose. Think about the compliments that you receive. Can you see any patterns?
  • In the course of your day-to-day life, can you identify the things that seem to suck your energy and the things that seem to energise you? Reflecting on this can help you gather clues.
  • Finally, are there any people with whom you can talk about this topic or your responses to the questions listed above? People you trust who might be able to see the patterns that you can’t? Sometimes the people around us can see our purpose far earlier than we can.

Once you have reflected on these questions, consider if you can identify any patterns? Is anything emerging that can help guide your thinking about your purpose. I would encourage you to mull over these questions over time. Think about them as you go about your day. Observe where your attention and energy goes. Over time its likely that your purpose will become clear. And once it does, my view is that this makes everything else clearer too.

Are you Positive?

30th March 2017

I have been very pleasantly surprised by the reaction to my first blog-post last week. Thousands of people have viewed it. Lots of people have contacted me, sharing similar thoughts and experiences. It has prompted numerous people to take action in areas in which they have been procrastinating. It has had a far more positive effect on others, and on me, than I could have imagined.

This prompts me to reflect on a concept that has long fascinated me… positive thinking. For two years, I let negative thinking drive my behaviour, fearful of starting a blog. I sent ripples of self-doubt out into the universe, which ricocheted back, reinforcing my thoughts and creating a vicious cycle of self-doubt. Once I managed to break free of this cycle and think positively, once I took a very deep breath and pressed “post now” on my blog, I turned negative thought into positive action. As I broadcast my first tentative ripple of positivity, which replaced previous wavelengths of negativity, it bounced back with reciprocated positivity, instigating a new, virtuous cycle. The interactions that I have had with readers in the past week have been wonderful, so much so that I regret not starting to blog two years ago when I first thought of it. I am so glad I took that first, scary step last week towards something I wanted to do. The response has encouraged me to continue being brave.

Interestingly, interwoven through the past weeks’ positive interactions have been threads of negativity. Words of caution from well-meaning friends and family have reverberated as echoes of my own previous negative thoughts. Now that I’ve stepped off a platform of negativity and onto the platform of positive thinking (described as the “Green Platform” by Declan Coyle) I can objectively see and hear the negativity and I can deal with it calmly. Now I observe it and respond positively, in an effort to dilute someone else’s negativity so that their sentiments bounce back to them in a slightly more positive way.  What sort of things do I mean?  Let me give you some examples…

Now that you’ve started to blog, you need to worry about identity theft” – My response: No more than I did before. There is already lots of my writing on the internet in the guise of my professional role.

“You need to be careful because the internet doesn’t forget… you can’t take what you say back” – My response: I WANT to leave an indelible mark on this world.  That’s something I welcome, not fear.  I’m happy to stand over everything I say and I welcome being held to account for it.  We need more of that in the world in my opinion.

“You could make yourself vulnerable” My Response: I know. That’s vulnerability of my own choosing.  Nobody is exploiting me here. I’m an adult, capable of deciding the level of exposure with which I can cope.  Have a look at Brené Brown’s work. Vulnerability isn’t bad. I would argue that we need more of that in the world too.

“You shouldn’t commit to writing a weekly blog. It will be too stressful and you’ll run out of things to say”. My response: Let’s see!

None of these comments were intended to be negative. They were offered as words of caution, uttered with the intention of keeping me safe. They were offered with good intention.  They are based in fear…. fear for my well-being… and I feel very lucky to have people who care for me in this way. This does, however, lead us to the crux of this weeks’ article. Many of us have been so conditioned to be cautious and to consider the pitfalls of life that we inadvertently and unconsciously stem the flow of positivity, sometimes in ourselves and sometimes in others. The words which were offered to me as friendly advice over the past week sometimes reflected a negative view of the world. They are reflections of the thoughts and feelings that previously prevented me from overcoming my own fears and which kept me stuck for two years.

I am not a naturally positive person. Whether by nature, nurture or other unknown forces, I have always tended towards quite a negative outlook. What’s more, this approach has worked well for me. It was particularly useful in my work as a pharmacist, where so much depends on identifying and managing risk. In pharmacy, thinking of all the things that could possibly go wrong is, ironically, a positive quality.  There isn’t much room for optimism. It has been proven that optimism is a wonderful quality if you’re a gambler and that it can be quite the hindrance if you are working in areas of quality or risk management.  The more pessimistic you are, the better you are likely to be at your job if you are in the business of managing quality or risk. So negativity has served me quite well professionally.  Personally too, a leaning towards negativity has always led me to consider the worst possible outcomes to situations and has, no doubt, led me to make some conservative and safe choices. Now, however, I choose positivity!

Too often, positive people are viewed as naive, overly optimistic people who need to be reminded of the risks, of which they seem oblivious. I am guilty of this myself. I recently underestimated a wonderfully positive work colleague who I presumed couldn’t see the risks around her. I misunderstood her positive outlook and took it upon myself to point out risks that I believed she couldn’t see. Fortunately she was incredibly patient with me and I have since learnt the error of my ways. It turns out that she does see the risks and the negativity around her but she chooses to project positivity in the face of it all.  She’s not naive….she’s wise and I aspire to being like her.

The trick, I find, to making negativity work for me is to confine it to the areas where it is helpful, such as risk reduction and risk management, and to counter-balance it with positivity in the rest of my life (I’m unintentionally back to the concept of balance, a theme of my first post). Like a battery, you need both positive and negative charges to work effectively. Achieving balance sounds easier than it is. Sadly, when one is well trained to identify and manage risk, it can be easy to slip into a somewhat negative outlook in other areas of life too.  I often remind pharmacists that “perfection is needed in dispensing but not in life”. I think it’s important to warn this highly educated and intelligent group of people not to be too hard on themselves.

Before I leave you with your reflection prompt, let me make one final, related, observation about the power of language. As George Lakoff nicely puts it in “Don’t Think of an Elephant”, language carries and evokes ideas.  I first came cross this idea in parenting where it was presented as “positive framing”. The idea is that rather than speaking about negative, unwanted behaviour, parents are encouraged to describe the positive behaviour that they would like to see from their children. For example, rather than say “don’t be naughty” parents are encouraged to say “lets see if you can show me your good behaviour”. Rather than foretelling catastrophe, for example “Don’t run out on the road.. you’ll get knocked down!”, parents are encouraged to instead focus on the actions that are desired, for example “Stay here beside me where you will be safe”. Lakoff describes an exercise that he carries out with cognitive science students where he directs them as follows; “Don’t think of an elephant”. He claims that he’s never found a student who is able to do this. As he puts it, “every word evokes a frame, which can be an image or other kind of knowledge. The word is defined relative to the frame. When we negate the frame, we evoke the frame.”  What a powerful idea. When you negate the frame (“don’t think of”), we evoke the frame (“an elephant”). The same happens with negative thoughts! And so we can unintentionally evoke negativity whilst intending to do quite the opposite.

Reflection time.

 

As your reflection exercise this week think about the ripples that you are creating in the world.  Are they ones of caution, fear or negativity? Or are they positive, optimistic and brave? Is it possible that your learnt behaviours, particularly in the areas of language, cause you to send unconscious, unintended negative vibes out into the world? Are you stopping yourself? Or more worryingly, are you stopping others? If so, start honing the habit of re-framing your negative thoughts or language. You never know, you might find your ripples bouncing back to you in an unexpected way.