When the going gets tough

Photo by Vince Alongi

Do you ever have those days, weeks or even months when everything needs to be done yesterday? The last couple of weeks have been exactly that for me. I am about to take a four week holiday from work to get married, so deadlines and demands on my time have been piling in, both professionally and personally. I care about both things, so the pressure I’ve put on myself to succeed at both organising a wedding and fulfilling all of my Postshift work has felt huge. And last week, when my mum came to stay, it all came to a head as we had a huge argument about her getting lost on the way to my flat. This was not my finest moment (I have since apologised!) and very unlike me to let something so minor get me so frustrated.

However, this then got me reflecting on what had happened to make me behave in such an uncharacteristic way. I had been put — or put myself — under a lot of pressure, and this stress had caused me to revert to deeply embedded behaviours that I had learned at a young age, growing up in a strongly opinionated, expressive and argumentative household. When the pressure is off, behaviour is easily controlled and there is the space in your brain to remember to be polite, helpful, considerate and all the other things that make parents proud. However, when things go wrong or the stakes are high, the defence mechanisms rise and it is almost as if your brain reverts to muscle memory in order to cope.

What is extremely interesting to me is that, whilst this is true at an individual level you can also see this happen time and again at an organisational level. When times are tough, targets are about to be missed or an unforeseen crisis has occurred generating reems of negative press, more often than not organisations will revert back to their most ingrained behaviours regardless of what shiny values or mission statements the organisation proclaims to have. When an organisations “pressure” mode of operating matches its stated values there is little to worry about. However, we all know that sadly most of the time that is not the case.

For me, how an organisation behaves under pressure is the true litmus test of their organisational culture and therefore, the true measure of success of any organisational behaviour change efforts. If an organisation extols the virtues of teamwork, can feel the heat and yet still keep working collaboratively, openly and with trust, then that is a truly embedded set of behaviours. But if that same organisation closes down communications and has conversations behind closed doors at the first sign of trouble, then the behaviour it aspires to hasn’t even begun to take root.

However, it is not all doom and gloom. On an individual level, pressure can, as with me, cause some questionable behaviour. But equally, it can also be the moment where you dig deep, to perform at your best and the same is true for organisations. The difference in the two outcomes I think comes down to two things:

  • Org Self-Awareness — Sadly for me, as an individual, this came slightly too late, but better late than never. Learning how to recognise undesirable behaviour, particularly if you are trying to change it, is half the battle. Whilst we can work on this as individuals, for organisations, a more effective level to develop this as a skill is at the team level. Building in simple, non-contentious mechanisms for teams to call each other out on “frowned-upon” behaviour is a way to create organisational structure around embedding behaviour change. This can be done through regular team fitness checks, that create space for the team to reflect on how they are performing and behaving in a safe and open environment, a method we have helped organisations successfully use in the past. When this is applied across multiple teams, this combines to develop self-awareness at the wider organisational level. The other half is then making a conscious decision to act in a different, more desired way. A good thing for change teams to consider with this half of the equation is finding the opportunities to create the path of least resistance for the desired behaviour. As we have learned from behavioural economics, humans will invariably opt for the easiest option and at no time is this more true than when you are under pressure. Make the behaviour you want to see in the organisation the easiest choice for someone, wherever you can.
  • Org Core Strength — Functional fitness is not just the latest craze in the gym. For the uninitiated, the functional fitness discipline emphasises the ability of muscles to work together to move in any way that life may require you to, simulating the kind of fitness we used to have as hunters and gatherers. A key tenet of this is working on your core strength, because in order for the rest of your muscles to grow in strength and ability, you must have a strong core as your foundation. I have found much the same to be true of organisations. To be an organisation that is able to adapt, evolve and respond to change it must have a core set of behaviours strongly embedded, that act as a foundation for any new behaviours it might need to develop now or in the future. This core set is usually some combination, or all, of the following and together they produce trust as an outcome:
  • Accountability — taking responsibility for your actions is the first step to being able to change them. Learning how to become self-aware is a key skill here.
  • Integrity — Sticking to your word and principles creates an environment of trust allowing the hard work of change to take place
  • Openness — In order to act with integrity and be accountable, you must be open and candid with your colleagues, which again supports building trust

If your organisation is lacking in this core set and has a complete absence of awareness, it will more often than not struggle in embedding any new behaviours, so these should be a key focus for starting any behaviour change initiatives. Taking the time and effort to do this when times are good, will then mean that when the going gets tough for organisations, as it does for all, it is able to dig deep and pull through with behaviours that enable it to learn and grow rather than retreat in defence, or worst-case scenario break altogether.

If you would like more information on team fitness checks or how to tackle cultivating core strength in your organisation please do get in touch.