Mindfulness, happiness and existentialism

This is my last post on talks from the EQ Summit last week. I wasn’t sure what to expect from Alan Wallace on this topic. What was meant to be a talk on mindfulness became talking about stress, challenging what we accept for ourselves, a challenge to the overload of information, and talking about our happiness. It was philosophical, existentialist and pretty expansive.

He started by talking about conative intelligence which he defined as this…


His ask is that we get wise to our desires, listen to them and really understand what are they for. That he explicitly calls out the need to consider one’s own and others wellbeing is really interesting to me. I understand this as accepting we all have desires and intentions. When we consider the impact of fulfilling those desires, does it actually help us be better?

In the realm of human attraction and relationships this makes sense to me. In the realm of addictive behaviour this also makes sense to me. And in the realm of destructive and harmful behaviour this also makes sense to me.

In relation to addiction he identified three broad areas where behaviour can become addictive…


This was pretty excellent. I completely get it. Alan made an excellent insight here. He talked about the card game Solitaire and called it one of the most pointless games that has been created. Yet people would rather play a pointless game than sit with their own thoughts. This is hardly a modern phenomenon and you can replace Solitaire with previous pastimes. But it’s interesting isn’t it? Are we so addicted to action and being busy in various ways, that we would rather do an activity which is non-productive than just sit alone with our thoughts?

He then went on to talk about the enigma of human existence as he sees it…


Which was another highly pertinent thinking point. It’s a great question and challenge to us as a people. If we’re smarter than we have ever been, with modern medicine and technology at our disposal, with ease of communication and travel like never before, and with creative and innovative endeavours that push what it means to be human, why aren’t we all feeling happier as a global community? Why are rates of depression, divorce, suicide, obesity and terrorism so high? What’s happening with people that they aren’t availing themselves of the multitude options for being better and are instead being subjected to or succumbing to behaviours and actions which are clearly harmful?

One of his final points was that we should all be seeking to find happiness in our lives. Both Albert Einstein and the Dalai Lama have expressed this in different ways…


He built on this by encouraging us to be mindful that happiness comes from both hedonic means and genuine means. He defined hedonic as by seeking stimuli for happiness. He defined genuine as that which we give others. Life isn’t about one more than the other. As described earlier, it’s about understanding your own desires better so that you’re more mindful and aware of how acting on these can affect your own and others wellbeing.

Myths and interesting facts about neuroscience and EQ

Myth no 1. If you’re right brained you’re more creative and if you’re left brained you’re more data led

There are well researched pieces into how the brain works. Essentially what it finds is that in patients where the brain was cut in the middle, they still had full capability for creative abilities and for tasks needing focus on data and information.

Myth no 2. We only use 10% of our brain

No. Just, no. The very make up of our brains means that it is made up of the sum of its parts. No one part works independently of another. Depending on the task or situation at hand, we use different parts of the brain.

Myth no 3. The female brain is different to the male brain

Although physically the size of brains will be different, the way they operate is no different.

I loved this session by Dr Geoff Bird at the EQ Summit. There was lots of good information and as above debunking of myths about neuroscience and the brain.

The human brain consumes about 60% of the body’s glucose and 30% of our calorie intake. When we are working hard on something, we need more glucose to help the brain function well. This doesn’t mean gorging on chocolate during the task, it just means ensure you’re well fed before embarking on a task of importance.

He went on to talk about empathy and how it starts in the brain. If you turn off pain receptors, you lose the ability to empathise with others because you lose the ability to know what you might be experiencing. I found this fascinating as I wonder how it relates to pain thresholds. If you have a lower pain threshold are you more likely to be empathetic than someone who doesn’t?
There is a condition called alexithymia which is the inability to know your own emotional state. This is common amongst 10% of people which raises interesting points to consider. Psychiatrists tend to see this when presented with patients who have experienced trauma in some way, but do not have the words to express how it’s affecting them. Is there a higher preponderance of people suffering alexithymia in those who have perceived levels of power? In those that don’t have these positions of power, how does this play out in the team? What’s the effect of their behaviour on those they interact with? Please be cautious in what I’ve written here on this condition, there’s clearly more to read on it and understand better.

When we talk about sleep deprivation, we often think that must mean a pattern of disrupted sleep. Actually, as little as 5 hours sleep for one night can be enough to leave you deprived. Geoff made an excellent point here and said if we wouldn’t drive long distances when tired, why would you make important decisions when tired? Of course there are all sorts of reasons why you would, and a plethora of justifications for the need for decisions to be made. The point is that when we’re tired we make poorer decisions.

This last point is probably the most interesting. When we are stressed, the hippocampus doesn’t work as effectively. The importance of this is that the hippocampus supports production of long term memories and in helping us to function well. When we are in a state of stress, and cortisol is produced, this prepares the body for the flight or fight response. The hippocampus cannot work effectively with cortisol present and has a direct impact on neurogenesis – the creation of new neurons. It is neurogenesis which supports the brain’s ability to learn new things. This insight presents a direct challenge to the old adage that a bit of stress can be the right condition for optimal performance.

My pre-frontal cortex has worked a fair amount in writing this post and I’m now in need of breakfast and feel like I’ve done my day’s work already.

Motivation, Dan Pink and EQ

Money is a motivator. It matters and it makes a difference. People want to be paid a fair wage for the work they do and they want to do a good job.

Last week at the EQ Summit, Dan Pink spoke about this topic he has delivered time and again. And time and again he repeats the same message. When a task is simple, doesn’t involve a lot of thinking power and is quite rudimentary, then pay can motivate. If you need envelopes stuffed, then pay by the envelope not by the hour. If you need strawberries picked, pay per strawberry or punnet, not by the hour. If you need data entry being completed, pay for each complete data set, not by the hour.

When the task becomes more complex, and this is purposefully vague, is when pay stops being a motivator. Why? Because we’re too drawn to the money and forget about the task. Humans are simple beings. When you mix simplicity with complexity you get confusion, incongruency and strange behaviour. His message was simple. Pay people a fair wage so that money isn’t as much of an issue as it could be and that people can focus on the work.

This really isn’t a message which has penetrated big business at all. Bonus schemes, pay brackets and pay ceilings are very accepted. There are few companies and organisations who don’t follow this model. The performance factors that determine bonus payments are normally about service delivery and less often about the relationships people genuinely build or about the positive impact on others.

Ok, let’s move on from there.

Dan gave some great examples of controlled studies where they wanted to see the impact of purpose on the output a person achieves. At a university, past students are often asked to donate back to the university to support the future education of present students. The people who ring and ask for these donations were split into three groups. Group 1 were given a standard letter to read about the job role. Group 2 were given a letter to read from previous students who carried out their role explaining why it was important for them. Group 3 were given a letter from students who benefited directly from these donations and helped them achieve career ambitions as a direct results. Group 2 clearly did better than Group 1, but the surprising result was Group 3 achieved 25% more donations than Group 1.

Go on, chew that over for a moment.

When we talk about purpose at work, and you have big corporate machines in place whose sole purpose is to make profit and pay out to shareholders, how are you going to help the workforce find their ultimate purpose? It’s most likely easier in health, care, education, public service, and charity/not for profit sectors. People are already there because they want to be, or see how they are affecting people’s daily lives positively. But in an oil shore rig or a media organisation or a bank? I’m not sure how people find their purpose in those environments.

When talking about autonomy, Dan started by talking about the design of management as a technology. Its purpose was to command and control the workforce and produce tangible results like building railways, manufacturing cars, running management accounts and the such likes. The challenge over time was that this technology didn’t keep up with the changing times. It has persisted and hung around like a bad odour that you can’t get rid of.

Now, I’m actually an advocate of management, but think the role of managers and the role of management has significantly changed and today doesn’t resemble half as much as what it used to look like.

What we haven’t done well in this space is to rethink how people are engaged and how managers are a vital role in this. When you ask someone what made a great manager, very few will explain it was the way they managed every part of your job role, that they never gave you feedback or that they made all the decisions so you didn’t have to. Linked to that are processes like performance reviews, recruitment and staff benefits. Very few companies are innovating in these spaces, and most are just iterating on variations that have hung around for the last 20-30 years if not more. Not helped by vendors in the market who aren’t pushing the boat on these agendas too.

In the panel session, I asked the question of how to sell the idea of EQ, motivation and empathy to senior managers who think this is happy clappy nonsense. Dan’s response was probably the best. He said first we need to be talking in terms of results and outputs, not the methodologies. That is, “we can increase donations/sales/other by X% by helping people see the impact of the work they do” is a more tangible argument than “there’s a lot of great research on motivation which we really need to pay attention to in engaging the workforce”. His second point was to go for small gains. If we can show the impact of small interventions it’s easier to prove how these things work rather than go for large scale wins.

The long road of EI

This week I’ll be sharing thoughts from the #eqsummit which was held by Roche Martin and Sheffield Business School. It’s rare I attend an event and enjoy every session of the day. It speaks to the high quality of the content in the programme.

The day’s focus on emotional intelligence probably lent itself well to covering topics that naturally go with it. Martyn Newman talked about the development of EI as a field, Dr Geoff Bird talked about neuroscience, Dan Pink spoke about motivation, Alan Wallace spoke about mindfulness, Eve Ekman gave insights into the purpose and development of emotions, and we had some excellent laughs with Magnus Lindkvist sharing insights into trends with a lot of wit.

We’re in an age where the workforce is rapidly and dramatically changing. Even those organisations where technology hasn’t caught up with modern requirements, they’re still advancing forwards. Everything around is changing from the tools for communication, to the way managers engage their staff, to the way services are designed, to the way engagement is a strong area of concern.

Ideas and evolved thinking take time to feed their way through to the majority. When you look at the diffusion of innovation model, it tells us there are certain hurdles before an idea becomes truly mainstream. EI has only really existed as a concept for about 30 years. Is it a wonder that more people haven’t heard about it? I would also posit that EI is still with the early majority. Not enough people know about it as a topic for it to be mainstream.

When technology is challenged with breaking into the billions of people who use it, and arguably more people have access to technology than they do education, you start to see that the challenge of spreading ideas is that much harder.

Add to that cultural complexities of displaying and expressing emotions. Add to that gender expectations of emotions and how boys and girls are meant to feel them and express them. Add to that different generations who grew up with different ways of dealing with your emotions.

EI is one of these concepts which taps into a lot about the human condition. It provides insights into how we understand emotions as things at all. It helps us understand how to regulate those emotions. It helps us understand what happens to our bodies when we experience an emotion.

I’m cautious to speak about EI as if it’s a cure to societal and workplace ills. No single theory or model can offer that.

What I see in EI is the potential to improve relationships. I see the way you can think of support for people and having empathy with them. I see that people interested in the human condition have a theory which can help them have a different set of discussions. I see the personal relevance it has for people to understand themselves better.

EI is on a long road of development and becoming part of the regular discussion for workplaces. It’s now a regular part of management and leadership programmes. The challenge of all programmes is that managers and leaders are time poor and are being exposed to lots of theories instead of focusing on certain areas. This naturally means our understanding of different topics is diluted.

The Time to Learn equation

Greater length of time spent learning + expert lead delivery = something valuable was learned.

Or some variation of that is the myth that most of us in L&D will never escape from.

I was looking at an infographic we created internally in sharing the success of our front line manager development programme. One of the things it clearly (and evidently proudly) states is that people received 65 hours worth of learning on the programme.

65 hours! That’s nearly two full working weeks of learning content.

27 hours of that learning content was off the shelf e-learning. Man. That’s just seriously painful. And it was mandatory too as part of the course! Really painful.

We’re in round two of this programme and we’ve shifted things dramatically on the e-learning front. We’ve bought a license to an authoring tool (Articulate Storyline) and we’re creating our own content for the programme outside of the statutory e-courses. We’re limiting ourselves to 20 minutes per e-course too. If we can’t deliver the content in that time, it’s back to the storyboard.

On our senior management development programme I’ve also taken that above equation and thrown it out the window. We’re providing a range of lengths for different learning content. So people have a mix of 2 hour masterclasses, 3 hour workshops or full day sessions. Again, for each of those lengths, it forces us to look at the content delivery and examine what needs to be included and why.

And of course, there’s the whole online element of learning with always on content. As I’ve admitted previously, this time round we’ve not touched that. But when you consider the complete range of learning content available either free or paid for, that learning equation just doesnt and can’t stack up.

Ultimately what this means is we’re looking more closely at the quality of learning. That’s always the single hardest argument to convince senior people in the business of and the single biggest win.

The problem with appreciation

There is a reserve, amongst us English types, that runs quite deep when it comes to appreciation of things and others. It’s almost seen as a weakness, and that is truly baffling.

It’s easier to destroy things than it is to create things. Take love as an example. It takes time to fall in love, to cultivate that love, for it to be shared, to express it and to feel it. It can come undone so very quickly, though, and in much less time than it took for it to exist in the first place.

Architecture is a thing of wonder. People coming up with ideas of space and buildings and go out of their way to construct things of beauty which others can enjoy for various purposes. And in no time at all a wrecking ball can lay waste to someone’s idea.

Cooking is something I’ll never understand. I eat to survive and be sustained, nothing more nothing less. I enjoy well cooked food, but do not care one way or t’other about how it is necessarily cooked or with what care. Chefs and people who do care spend inordinate amounts of time producing food that matters for the pleasure of others. And a critic or a bad review can make you reconsider that choice.

Appreciation is hard because it goes quite deep into who we are.

For me to appreciate something, I have to be moved by it. I have to be moved by it enough that I want to express it. My expression of it is a symbol of the meaning it has to me.

Appreciation is about accepting others for who they are and what they produce. It’s blind to discrimination and is open to criticism. If I openly express my appreciation, that is only my perception. Others cannot hold that same opinion as they’ve not experienced it in the same way.

Appreciation is bordering with vulnerability. If I appreciate something in you, I recognise it’s something I value in you. I want to share that with you and that opens me up to hearing your reaction. Expressing your appreciation is no guarantee of reciprocity. The other person is under no obligation to respond kindly.

Appreciation is a sole act. It happens because you are of the opinion it is valuable to express it. It is almost, by definition, a selfless act. Expectation of a response is perhaps reasonable, but a folly in truth.

Appreciation is an exercise in self growth. When I take the time to appreciate something or someone, I take the time to understand what that means to me. I reflect and consider the impact on me. That thought process is powerful and helps me know me better, and helps others know their strengths.

We’re in an age where there is a lot of everything available to us. Our expectations of things, services, other people are almost unreasonable. When it really is that easy to stop using one service and picking up another in a day, why would you be loyal? It truly takes great service for it to be shared and expressed openly.

Which is a shame.

At work, there’s always a pressure to get things done. Managers have known for many a year that recognition of efforts and of others is an important way to engage with their teams. But most recognition efforts tend to be locally focused. That is, they tend not to get shouted about.

Which is a shame.

My ask is that we take that time to appreciate.

I’m holding an open workshop on 24th April in Birmingham on how to apply Positive Psychology to daily life. Full details here.

The art of the facilitator

At lunch yesterday with Jonathan Marshall, we were discussing face to face learning sessions and how these are evolving in their form. The art of the facilitator is moving from a place of trainertainment to a place of joint discovery.

As facilitators we’ve long known that it’s the discussion amongst the group that is the most powerful form of learning. People having proper dialogue with one another.

It is an art too. There’s no defined way of being able to facilitate well. It encompasses so much about the human condition. Listening well, probing questions, challenging opinions, voicing what’s being unsaid, developing thought. For most people these types of skills are a challenge to understand at all.

For facilitators we have to be mindful of so many factors too. What’s the context we’re in, who is in the room, who’s missing, what other agendas are at play, what are the pressure points, who’s directing behaviours, whose culture is being adhered to, where are beliefs coming from. These are all important factors, but not often taught. Not explicitly nor via instruction.

In the learning context, facilitation is moving towards a self-directed approach. Especially with technology enabling people to become savvy on topics in their own time, how do we facilitate highly effective learning sessions when the knowledge is already present in other forums?

Respecting the people we’re with to be able to own their problems, own their solutions, own their thinking, own their behaviours, these are all beliefs we as facilitators need to hold true. Otherwise all we’re doing is being lapdogs.

And there are many tools and techniques which support the facilitator to be effective. At the same time there are many communities of practise who keep this going with one another. Certainly I’m seeing more that independent facilitators are using social media to be able to connect with others and find new and better ways of working with each other and for clients.

Add to that the many growing theories of behaviour that are available to be understood better. Mindfulness. Positive Psychology. Neuroscience. Emotional Intelligence. 70:20:10. Time to Think. Vulnerability. What do we know of all these topics? What do they inform about the human condition? How can they help us facilitate better?

I learned a long while ago that facilitation takes time and it takes care. I’m a more confident facilitator today than I was yesterday. It’s a skill I hope to never lose. It’s a craft I deeply enjoy. It’s a way of working I find hugely enjoyable.