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Resilience, curiosity and belonging: The drivers of successful change.

12 January, 2021 | 51 min 38 sec
Podcast Host Anita Sands | Podcast Guest Alia Bojilova
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Brief Summary

In a world fraught with uncertainty, many leaders struggle to drive ambitious change agendas within their organizations. In the first of a four-part series takeover, Anita Sands speaks to Alia Bojilova, to explore how creating a culture of belonging, resilience and curiosity can help overcome the fear of transformation. If you are a business or tech leader, leading your teams through change, this is the podcast for you.


Highlights


  • Resilience allows us to ask the right questions at the right time; the sorts of things that would allow us to tap into the right kinds of capabilities that we have within ourselves, and to deploy them at exactly the time when the outcome of our actions could be most impactful.


  • As a leader, our job is to unpack and help stick along with individuals and think of what is in the way, what are we needing? What are we willing to give and what are we prepared to sacrifice in order to step into that space?


  • There is a connection between resilience and curiosity. [On being held hostage in Syria:] I might stand there in front of something that seems seemingly insurmountable and overwhelming. But if I look at it from a different perspective and from a different angle, perhaps I can find an opportunity in this.


  • Most of the time, when you try to change people's minds about something that really matters to them, all that you are doing is that you are delaying the inevitable. People, go back to what they want to believe. So what if we start off by first understanding what is our reason for wanting that change to occur?


  • How do we create belonging when we are working apart? We still have to have utmost trust and a shared frame of reference, which means that we understand what each other and how each other are going to support one another and how we are going to conduct each other to protect the best interest of the other.


  • What matters most in belonging is intimacy- and that's ability to disclose and to be a human with a fellow human so that they can understand that with you too, there's vulnerability and most importantly, low degrees of self-interest. 


  • Leaders tend to lean on high-performers during tough times, because they know that they can step up and they've got a lot to give. But those high performers also need some replenishment and a chance to breathe. This is an exercise in prioritization, that managers need to be more rigorous and ruthless with their priorities this year.


  • We have now come to a place where we are realizing organizations need to serve far deeper, broader purpose than we initially expected. People expect to go and work for a place where people care about them as more than just a worker. They expect us to care about them as a human being, about their mental health, about their community and what's going on in the world, outside the four walls of the business.

Podcast Transcript


Anita:

Hi, Alia. And thank you so much for joining me today. I can't tell you how honoured I am to have you join us here on the ThoughtWorks podcast.


Alia:

I'm thrilled to be with you, Anita. Thank you for having me


Anita:

Wonderful. Now of all the words that have been top of mind this year for people, resilience has certainly been near the top of the list and you, my friend are an expert in resilience. In fact, I think you're the only person I know who has a PhD in the topic of resilience. How did you manage to become one of the world's best experts on resilience, Alia? How does one find themselves heading down that career path?


Alia:

Well, here's the best news. I don't think anyone could ever fancy themselves an expert in resilience, it's one of these areas that every one of us has to be obsessively curious about. But I am a little bit biased, you see. So I'm a psychologist. I was a registered psychologist before I started working with the military and I spent six years of my life serving with NZSAS and the Counter Terrorist Tactics Group. And in that space, biased as it might be it's very difficult not to imagine yourself as being obsessed about resilience. I mean, when you think about it, if we understand it the right way, we formulate it the right way, Resilience is behind the sorts of things that allows us to ask the right questions at the right time, the sorts of things that would allow us to tap into the right kinds of capabilities that we have within ourselves, and to deploy them at exactly the time when the output or the outcome of our actions could be most impactful. So I can't think of anything more important than pondering on resilience and what a gift to also to be able to study it. Can you imagine?


Anita:

Oh, I mean, I'm so looking forward to digging into it with you, but what you've sort of said there is that we probably draw on our resilience on more occasions than we think. And more times other than very acute years such as this, when we all sort of felt, yes, we need to be resilient. Now, everybody listening today, Alia is probably in some sort of a leadership role in some organization or another, and generally speaking, trying to drive or lead change initiatives. And we've certainly heard from the folks that we've talked with throughout the ThoughtWorks network, that change is proving to be pretty difficult right now. And I was curious, well going back to resilience and so forth, why do you think change is harder during times of change, if that makes sense?


Alia:

So my best response to this and it's sort of an invitation to tango is, change is difficult in times of change because it absolutely needs to be. So when the tectonic shifts beneath our feet have shifted, every one of us has a scattered frame of reference. There are colliding perspectives, conflicting needs, countless priorities that suddenly crystallized at the forefront of our minds as being the sorts of things we have neglected that come screaming down our faces saying, "Hey, this is the time for you to pay attention to me." And most of us haven't had a script for that kind of life. Most of us spend most of our time contemplating, anticipating and designing lives in our minds that have never been proven to be guaranteed, but yet we work towards it.


Alia:

So when you have a tectonic shift of this nature, everyone of us ends up finding themselves in the same room, but in a different place in their minds. And so change absolutely has to be difficult because it requires us to tap into the sorts of things that we need to process, to absorb, to anticipate things effectively, as opposed to kind of bumble down a slippery slope towards something would have normally been able to afford to help keep more easily. So let's keep it being difficult.


Anita:

Okay. So that's a good starting point, I guess, for any leader or managers to say, "I have to manage my expectations a little bit differently right now." So Alia, if I'm correct in hearing what you said there, let's say I'm a leader. I have a team we're embarking upon an ambitious digital transformation. And what I have heard there is to say, okay, now my team has gone through the year that has been 2020 and that change and that disruption has affected each of them differently. And they've all inferred different things from what 2020 brought into their lives. So now, if I'm a leader at the beginning of 2021 looking forward, what you're saying is it right that we kind of need to level set again, as we sort of embark upon our change initiative for this year, or our goals or objectives for this coming year?


Alia:

Isn't it interesting that we tend to make things so much more complicated for ourselves, right? So I've noticed even myself thinking with our teams about, do we need to change the way we go about change? And it's layers and layers and layers of inferences that we draw about that. But the matter of the fact is that we all know, or each of us knows what each other need. We understand if we give ourselves the right degree of transparency sharing and the right degree of trust within our teams what's needed by our organization and our team overall. How ready we are for that is a different sort of question, but that doesn't take away the fact that willingness to embark on that change is the single most important question. So in the simplest reference point is, what do we need, what are we ready for? And what are we willing to commit ourselves to?


And these sorts of questions need to be asked a whole heap more simply than we allow ourselves to ask them. So, "Hey, we know that these are the things that we need, what's missing for you? What are you willing to give it? What do you need in order for you to be able to understand it a little differently? And most importantly, what stands on the way for you with that particular change?" Now, when we are dealing with experts and individuals who are deeply committed to the cause that we have all ascribed to, we all have little nigling bits on the back of our minds, things that our brands are reading is not quite ready to step into that space. So as a leader, our job is to unpack and help stick along with individuals and think of what is on the way, what are we needing? What are we willing to give and what are we prepared to sacrifice in order to step into that space?


Anita:

I guess, Alia, for a lot of our team members, particularly when you're looking at the future of a business that may be different and you're kind of going on that transformation journey. I guess what sits in the back of a lot of people's minds is fear, right? Fear, will my role be changed as a result of this? Fear, will I have the skillset to be part of this organization going forward? Fear, will this affect my compensation and my livelihood? So what is your thoughts whether it's from a psychology standpoint or all of the coaching that you do with CEOs and leaders around the world, how do you help them orientate towards those kinds of questions and to fear and anxiety as a kind of concept?


Alia:

So we have to have it, right? This is what makes us supposedly rational, planned, cognizant beings, that capacity for fear. But the biggest antidote to fear is curiosity. So what if we sit with that fear and instead of allowing it to wash over us, we give it a minute to kind of pull it apart, to understand the thing and go and see what this fear is designed to protect. Fear does some wonderful, wonderful things for us. But the most important thing that it does is that it signals to us there is something that matters that is running the risk of being compromised.


Now, what we are very, very good at, as busy humans is that we are very good at momentum, but when the platform on which we have been running has shifted, 10 drops down or 10 drops up. We're not particularly good at stopping that initial, that momentum and going, "Wait, wait, wait. What matters now? What about now? What about now?" What matters most now is the single most important question we need to ask ourselves. But what that takes is the discipline of curiosity, the ability to see yourself as separate to your fear, the ability to see yourself at a discipline to kind of think this year signals that there's something that matters. Now, my job is not to protect that something, but to understand how it might need to involve in order for me to see myself stronger than I was a minute ago.


Anita:

Right. Got it. I think then as a leader yourself, that's an exercise you need to go through yourself is to sort of address your own fears and pause and ask those questions you've just mentioned. But also then Alia, to kind of look at each member of my team and perhaps help them invoke this curiosity and help them sit with kind of their discomfort a little bit and be curious about it. And then I guess be curious enough to figure out a way to work through it. Now I know you are again, one of the world's foremost experts on the topic of curiosity enabled resilience. So and if I understand, and I know from your story which is one of the most fascinating elements of your fascinating life in entirety. But you came about your sort of interest or obsession and curiosity in a rather unusual way. Perhaps you'd share that story.


Alia:

So do you know interestingly, I went about my broader research of resilience because I wanted to figure out how individual and organizational resilience tango dance together, what is the impact of one to the other? But then at one stage in my career in 2012, I was sent to Syria to serve as a UN military observer. And part of my job or part of my personal mission was to step away from being a psychologist and spend some time being a normal officer. I don't know exactly what that means, but it felt important for me to step away from my craft and focus on my border function. And at the time Syria was, as you can imagine, a really complex, complex space. A team had gone through various different stages of crisis, layers and layers upon layers of it.


We had experienced vehicle-borne IEDs. We had had vehicles hijacked with military observers in them. We operated on streets in cities that were peppered with improvised explosive device. But most importantly, there was this real crisis of trust and faith in what it is that we were doing there. We were observing extraordinary human suffering. Now, while some of our teams were crumbling and falling apart, others appear to develop a really strong bond with one another, and were able to achieve extraordinary things by simply being bonded together. Whilst I went there not to be a psychologist, in May 2013, myself and two others were taken hostage, which was half expected, but very sudden, and sort of unprecedented in many respects. Whilst the risking area was acute, the area we were taken from showed us that the hostage takers had lost any respect for the UN. The sort of space that we were in was no longer impenetrable, that they wanted to show us how little we meant and how vulnerable we were in a space that we felt we have almost omniscient influence.


So three of us were taken hostage unarmed by 38, heavily armed military militia members. And they were really explicit about the intent, right? They were fed up, they felt like we had let them down and they wanted to make what they call the bad video of us. So videos of decapitation were common in that particular time. And because of the time and phase of history in Syria, we had so many different warring parties that were clustering in the same area. We couldn't quite calculate who, which one of them was our enemy and which one was our friend. But three of us taken hostage, we were taken into the hot zone where we knew our fate was very much sealed. Or they ensured that we felt that way about it.


But along the way, what we realized is that little cracks were beginning to present on the kind of on the wall that was keeping us between where we were and our safety. And it dawns on me that if you stare at a surface long enough, you begin to notice these cracks. You're beginning to notice these openings. And that again is that by-product of curiosity. I might stand there in front of something that seems seemingly insurmountable and overwhelming. But if I look at it from a different perspective and from a different angle, perhaps I can find an opportunity in this. So this is the moment in which my study of resilience became very focused on the connection between resilience and curiosity.


Anita:

Were you consciously saying to yourself, I cannot be in fight-flight-freeze mode here. That's not going to help me. Instead I need to look for these little slivers of opportunity to, I guess, be curious as to what your captors intent was. Was that a conscious action on your part? Or were you defaulting back to something you had been trained to do? And I guess then if other people were in this situation, would they be able to invoke that kind of curiosity? I mean, it just seems to me to be a super human reaction on your part, not something normal mortals like myself could ever do.


Alia:

Well, do you know what's interesting is that training can only buy you a little bit of time, but if you are in the hands of someone who overpowers you, any amount of time is not enough. And the one thing that I do love about resilience and curiosity is that it's a property that we all have in abundance if we know how to tap into it. So one of the benefits that I did have of course, was my training, which did buy us time, but also my, I guess, self-curiosity. As a psychologist, I guess I'm skewed to think about things that way. But as a human being, what's really interesting to notice is the sort of responses we had here, fight-flight-freeze responses coming up on me. What is the signal that it's giving me? What is it suggesting I should be doing?


Now you have a choice. You can play dead, you can punch someone, you can bail out, but not every situation affords that kind of freedom, right? So the minute you notice some of these responses, one of the greatest questions that we can ask ourselves is well, wait a second, what matters now? I understand that this is pretty dire situation, but what could I do that is within my fingertips, that is within my emotional and cognitive control that can allow me to create this little moment of opening?


Now we have these in every single day of our lives in our daily interactions with people where we walk in and we already have assumed kind of picture of how this engagement is going to go. What if we pause? What if we recognize that some of these emotions that are stirred up in us is something that we brought to the mix? And what if we allow ourselves to create some openings within which we can notice that there are different ways in which we can engage with that person? My favorite question is what if we can allow ourselves the opportunity that we can find a common ground, even if it is with our worst adversary?


Anita:

Well, in your case, literally your worst adversary who wanted do you real harm. But if I take it back down to sort of a practical level for our listeners here, again, putting into the leadership context. So what I'm sort of extracting there, Alia is okay, I'm driving a change initiative. I know that not everybody is on board with my agenda or my ambitions or my objectives for this change initiative. How can I then leverage these techniques to influence people and to bring people kind of to a place where they would be on board with what we're endeavoring to do? And I guess it's not so much Alia, if I'm interpreting what you're saying correctly, it's not so much about changing their mind as it is about finding that space of commonality there that you do have, the things maybe that you do agree on.


And then you said something just there towards the end of your answer about perhaps a powerful starting point is your own starting point and thinking about how you might be able to tweak your thinking or open yourself up so that you're more willing to kind of engage with people in a way that sort of results in more alignment. Am I interpreting that the right way?


Alia:

Absolutely. And here is the bit that I love about the question that you put or the interpretation that you just gave us. So we oftentimes go about situations that are not quite fitting the criteria of life that we have with the expectation that we need to change people's minds. That is a really strange way of going about life. In some circumstances, sure you would want to kind of create a little bit of discourse in people so that they don't go about doing silly things. But most of the time, when you try to change people's minds about something that really matters to them, all that you are doing is that you are delaying the inevitable. People, go back to what they want to believe. They will find a way to resist the sort of proposition you have given them. Perhaps another day, perhaps another week later.


So what if we start off by first understanding what is our reason for wanting that change to occur? And all of us have all of these different Excel spreadsheets running through our minds. It's budget, it's commitments, it's organizational focus, it's strategy, but it's not so much the thing that we're needing to change, but the way in which combining forces and combining perspectives can help us elevate that outcome to a much, much better level. So I'm less interested in the proposition of changing people's minds and more interested in the opportunities that can emerge when we combine forces. When we look into sources of discourse and understand what the origin of that is.


When we find a way within which we can fulfill each other's missions by merging these perspectives together and creating a platform within which we don't have to worry about changing people's minds. If we are privileged to lead people who are intelligent, capable, and talented, what we should be creating is the space for us to explore the obstacle on a way that the kind of the little barrier that has been created in their minds so has formed over time. Because in it, there is always gold.


Anita:

And also kind of a lot to be learned from taking the time to understand what people perceive the barriers to be. Now you said two things there, which one I think will resonate a lot with our leaders. When you said, if you don't do this, or you are just postponing the inevitable. And immediately what came into my mind Alia was this expression you would come up against a lot when you're leading a change agenda, which is 'this too shall pass,' mantra, right? So a lot of people sitting there in the organization going, "If I just bunker down, if I just kind of passively aggressively, go along with this, this too shall pass, and maybe she'll move on to another role or another organization, and I'll still be here next year, next month, next decade, whatever." So that's I mean, I love what you're doing because it's a real antidote to the, this too shall pass kind of mentality.


I remember an exercise once I led during the financial crisis, when we were trying to lead an ambitious change agenda, when literally it felt like the world was ending. And we did this exercise where we asked people to tell us about the barriers to innovation inside the organization. The list was very long. Let's just put it that way. And we threw it all up on a whiteboard. And then we asked them, we asked the team if they would tell us which ones were real barriers versus which ones were kind of manufactured by us, ourselves as a company, or were actually more imaginary barriers, right? So for example, they would say, okay, regulation is a barrier. And in some cases that is a real barrier. You can't do crazy things in this case in the banking sector.

Anita:

But another times they would talk about, well, we have a conservative culture. And when we started to peel back the layers on these barriers, there was an awful lot of gold to be found in why people thought these were barriers and how we could unpack them as a team and then find ways around them. So I think that's in essence what you're encouraging us to do here is to spend a little bit of time upfront unpacking people's, the sources of their thinking and the sources of these maybe kind of going in preconceived ideas. Right?


Alia:

Absolutely.


Anita:

Now let me just change tacks a little bit if I can, because I'm dying to ask you about a topic that I know you're very passionate about and as am I, which is the topic of belonging. But what I would love for you to share with people today, because I don't think this is intuitive to those of us who are in the corporate sector. But there's this relationship between belonging and high performance and the relationship between belonging and getting a team to really function at a high level.


So you could execute on this ambitious change agenda and why belonging is an intrinsic part of that process, because I'll be honest Alia, when we talk about belonging in the corporate world, it's normally something that's related to kind of diversity and inclusion. It's normally sort of more in the realm of a nice warm and fuzzy HR kind of a concept, but from what I've read of your work, belonging takes on a whole other order of magnitude in terms of its relevance and impact. So perhaps you could just share a little bit as you see it, the relationship between belonging and high-performing teams.


Alia:

Well, I cannot compute a way within which high-performance can ever be achieved without utmost sense of belonging. Now what that looks like beyond good-looking walls and comfortable cushy chairs in an office is very specific to every individual, right? But there is a huge amount of challenge in it, right? So belonging in order for it to support peak performance, in order for it to create and hold together high performing teams, requires some really specific things to be done right. Belonging is to teams, what gravity is to a cosmonaut. And I really want us to think about this little bit for a minute.


The minute we lose our sense of belonging, our minds are designed to drift away to some other place where we feel safe, accepted, understood, and useful. And so oftentimes within organizations, the sorts of things that we tend to do, the superficial stuff, the soft and cuddly fluffy stuff, it creates a temporary sense of relation and a temporary sense of a shared space, but it compromises the very essence of what innate sense of belonging for every human needs to bring. And this is the experience that I am trusted in that I trust this space, not just in a superficial sense, but at this place is one where I can contribute to my best.


And also one that is going to give me more than I'm willing to get. So it's a really interesting relationship that we have with that concept of belonging. In organizations, we asking people to give so much of themselves away and it's supposed to replace or fulfill the same needs that we gain in our family, in our community. So we have a lot to create, but the single most important factor is to what extent, and in what ways do we make it a no-brainer for every one of us, that this is a place that we can trust and a place where we feel trusted?


Anita:

Right. So trust is the pivotal word there. Okay. And Alia, can you help us unpack that a little bit? Because one of the things I hear increasingly from folks, and I know a lot of people listening will end up with teams that are maybe back in the office, maybe not, maybe in some kind of a hybrid environment. A lot of organizations have taken the learnings from 2020 and said, wow, we can widen the aperture in terms of talent that we go after and have it be all over the world. But therefore now we have teams that are separated kind of teams that are dislocated from each other, teams that are virtual.


And I keep getting asked about trust and how I think of trust in this kind of virtual context. How do you build it? How do you maintain it? So if trust is one of these prerequisites for feeling belonging and belonging is what unleashes you to do your best work, then can you just tell us a little bit about how do you think about trust and how do you think about trust in a distributed kind of a context?


Alia:

So, I mean this year has been an extraordinary experiment for all of humanity in so many ways, but one of the really instant reference that pops to mind when we are talking about how do we belong when we are apart? Is that sense that we get in some of our teams. So for example, a lot of our teams, particularly in the special forces are designed being trained to operate in such a way that we are able to trust and feel trusted, whether we are located with our team or whether we are somewhere operating as a single unit. And the reality is that some of these moments of separations could by design stretch in a course of weeks, months, or in some instances, even years. And we still have to have utmost trust. And here's the crux of it that we have a shared frame of reference, which means that we understand what each other and how each other are going to support one another and how we are going to conduct each other to protect the best interest of the other.


Anita:

So what you're saying Alia, if I'm a member of a special forces team and I get separated somehow from my unit, I fall back on, I have this level of trust that I can fall back on that I know how I should behave and what I should do as best I can in the context. And I know what the rest of my team members are going to be doing as well. And therefore that might come together at some point. But you're not wondering how it is that other people are behaving and going about their jobs around you. You trust that you know how that's working. And Alia, how do you develop that then particularly if you're bringing new people onto a team?


Alia:

And here's the bit that really does matter. The minute that sense of belonging falls by the wayside is when we begin to wonder about what is the other person's intent? Are they're doing the things that are saying they will be doing? What is the agenda? The minute the word agenda starts creeping into our minds, we begin to open up a script that has nothing to do with the task itself. And it has everything to do with assumptions about other people's values and behaviors.


When we start walking into these minefields, possibilities emerge that can be triggered by something that comes from 20 years ago. And we don't even logically understand what we feel particularly in terms of acute change, creates a huge scope vulnerability for us. And one of the things that we know is that this year has created one of the most severe experiences of loneliness and isolation obviously. Now in those times, when our ability to belong to a team has been violated by something that is beyond our control, the probability of some of these moments of doubt and kind of existing scripts that we feel we have overcome for these sorts of things to come streaming down our conscious mind, is overwhelming.


So how can we do it? We have things that we typically rely on in organizations in particular that we've formally build trust with. And that's, let me communicate my competence. Let me give you my credibility. Let me tell you who I know. And then you will trust my competence. Then we do things like reliability, right? Or predictability. So in that space, these are the sorts of things that we build when we have countless interactions with each other. And we know that on a certain day, you're going to show up and you're going to show up in this particular way. And I can trust that you're going to be consistent.


But the bits that matter most are intimacy and that's ability to disclose and to be a human with a fellow human so that they can understand that with you too, there's vulnerability and most importantly, low degrees of self-interest. So this is a formula that we've kind of developed over time by merging several different reference together, but competence, reliability, and intimacy kind of sit on top. It doesn't matter how good you are at these things. If there are little seepage of self-interest, if it comes through, our radars go off the charts, right. And this is cross-culturally, cross-contextually. So when we are apart, the two most important factors for us to keep in mind is the degree to which we allow intimacy to step into our conversations with others. This takes micro moments. Right?


Anita:

Right. And it has to be authentic intimacy. I mean, if I reflect Alia, on teams I've been on, I remember being on one team and there was one colleague. And I mean, all of the colleagues were what you described: competent and predictable. And they were very competent. They were very, very senior people. But on the intimacy thing, there was some I had a very open, transparent conversation with, and no matter how many difficulties were between my team or his team, we could always hash it out. We could always have the conversation. And I felt that, okay, he has my back, I have his back. And that kind of ripple down through our teams.


I then think about a different colleague where all of us felt, but I'll talk about my own personal experience. We felt that she was interested mostly in positioning herself and her team favorably in the eyes of the boss. And she skewed more towards doing stuff that would please him and get his seal of approval as opposed to stuff that maybe some of the rest of us needed in terms of operating as a team. And just as you were speaking then, I couldn't help but think about that was always in the back of my mind, you kind of almost ended up with this confirmation bias where you were looking for those words and actions that she was embarking upon that were skewing towards this is all about looking good in the boss's eyes. And you're right, It does interfere with your ability to work with somebody. So how do you move past that or move around it or work through it? How do you mitigate or mediate some of that, Alia?


Alia:

I feel like I'm quoting you here and I probably am, but obviously authentically, but then I want to edit my favorite phrase from you, which is, skillfully. Right? So the first thing to be done is even when there is self-interest that groups into the equation, there's a degree of transparency in degree of authenticity that we could sit with that little thing with. So we're even able to own that self-interest if we articulate what it is that this is serving for us, what is our goal? What is our personal vision and how this relationship is shaping in order to achieve it, then people are far better prepared to go along with whatever thing it is that you're doing, so long as they understand it. We all leak the truth. In times of stress and change, people are extra skeptical, doubly suspicious and very self-protective.


That's just a normal way for us to be. So how do we go around it, firstly, pause. Work out whether this game is even worth playing. Very few games in life are because we eventually get found out. So at what stage should we be able to kind of go, "Hey, wait, wait, wait, where am I going? What is this trajectory taking me to?" But if this is indeed your game, and this is indeed the flavor that you want to add to your life, then by all means, go ahead and be clear with it because there is no point creating a double dance. There is no point creating a second layer. We instantly calculate where resources are best invested and the best way in which we make that calculation across all humans, is in the foundation of trust.


No one goes about willingly tossing their innate talent in the direction of someone else. If they don't feel that someone is going to catch the ball and nurture it and take it in the direction that they'll anticipate. So let's pause a little more often and understand ourselves. And secondly, let's learn the habit of being more transparent around that intent. So every one of us has self-interest, how about we label it? How about we are clearer with it?


Anita:

So, okay. I got it. Well, first of all, I love that we all leak the truth. Ain't that true? Oh my gosh. But I also, I love what you were saying Alia, because what I was in my younger days, when I was less aware than I am now, I would have gotten into that dance. I would have said, "Well, if she's up to those shenanigans, I'm going to get off to them too. And I'm going to make sure my team are positioned as favorably in the eyes of the boss when it comes to bonus season." And that's where you get into corporate politics and all of that stuff that becomes the elements of a dysfunctional group, I guess, over time. Well I love that.


Alia, we looked at this past year or so, hopefully we're looking forward to better brighter days and it's been a grueling time to be a manager. It's been a grueling time for everybody. But I think managers in particular we often talk about leaders and maybe the CEO stands up and reignites everybody around the purpose of the company or he announces how the company's pivoting to respond to all things digital. And that's all great, but on a wet Wednesday morning as you, and I like to say, you get down to, this is me and my team and my manager, right? So if you're a manager of a team of whatever size, what are some of the things that you would encourage managers to do as we look kind of to the year ahead? And what might be some of the tips or tricks that you would advise managers to kind of think about to tee the team up for the best year possible?


Alia:

I'm sure there will be people listening to me who are rolling their eyes when they say that. But I do mean it. The first thing to be done is to focus on what would it look like for us to do a little bit less? We busy ourselves with thinking about how we are going to fill gaps that we sense feel and hear exist, how we are going to help enable other people. Now I think one of us has the capacity to feel enabled, to feel inspired, to feel triggered to engage with something meaningful. My first challenge to all of us would be is to try and stay out of the way a little bit more often. And most importantly, to pause long enough to sort ourselves out before we try to yank others into some kind of commitment zone. So particularly on the back of this year, one of the most important things for us to focus on is that self-awareness and that situational awareness that I'd like to brag about as well, every one of these significant and meaningful challenges starts with self-first.


That is our selection gate to success. That is the only way for us to meaningfully engage with our proposition. So focus in yourselves first in order for you to serve others well, to pay good enough attention to the sorts of nuances that are shifting in your context. We ourselves need to be firm feet on the ground: eyes, minds, hearts wide open, as I also like to say. And so what that really requires us to do is to start focusing less on the white noise, assumptions and hypothesis that we have been developing and more on the very core essence that we need to nurture within ourselves. And then begin to ask more questions, wonder more, create more space for that trust to form through curiosity and to create the conditions within which we can nurture mutual reliance with others through, like we said earlier, intimacy and lower degrees of self-interest. If we are rushing around trying to ignite deeper commitment in people who already feel depleted, it's very difficult for us to feel trusted. It's kind of tricky. We feel used in times like this.


Anita:

And I think particularly Alia for high performers, like managers and leaders tend to lean on high-performers during tough times. Because they know that they can step up and they've got a lot to give. But I'm guessing a lot of those high performers are also at a point where they're saying, we too need some love, right?


We too need some replenishment. We too need a chance to breathe. And Alia, if I could come back to that, so I guess you're saying this is an exercise in prioritization, that managers need to be more rigorous and ruthless with their priorities this year. If people are maybe going into the year with the tank, not entirely full of gas. What are some of the other things that that managers could be doing to create the optimal team environment for people?


Alia:

Well, environments tend to form themselves when there is a good enough reason for them to exist. And I'm not being too high level with this. What I'm referring to is how about we examine the sorts of things that hold us together in that team or in that space? High performers are obsessed with purpose, or they ought to be. Indeed, purpose is the bit that drives us to continue to commit our resources. So the first thing to be done again is once we know where we each other at reconnecting with that purpose, has that purpose evolved? Is it the same? Has it become redundant? One of the most dangerous things for us to do with high-performance or any kind of human is to not interrupt that sort of bias for action that we sometimes get committed to, that tendency to keep on rolling down the hill is fight feedback to the country, escalation of commitment. And many of us in our survival mode try to kind of perpetuate what's familiar as opposed to what's optimal.


So we've got three things to be done now. And that's about as exhaustive as the list needs to be. Focus in yourself first, because otherwise as we know, you're of no use to anybody else. Ask out questions so you connect through intimacy. And thirdly, be brave enough to ask whether the why has become redundant and whether it needs to be elevated to captivate us in a different way. So let's mind that escalation of commitment, let's ensure that our desire to maintain a degree of familiarity, hasn't perpetuated our tango dance with something that we don't need to be a part of anymore.


Anita:

Alia, I can see that happening because I mean, I was talking to a company last weekend. So this is a high-performing company with a lot of type As attracted to work there. And her concern was like, nobody had taken vacation in 2020 and I get it there wasn't anywhere to go, so they didn't. But all of these people so when you were talking about escalation of commitment, these people were doubling down on work. But what you're saying is doubling down on work to what end? You have to take a time out and sort of reconnect them back to the purpose and the why, like why they're working so hard and towards what kind of shared purpose together. And maybe as you rightly say, because of everything of all the conditions that purpose has shifted slightly or needs to be renewed or refreshed.


And I think a lot of peoples, maybe the purpose hasn't shifted, but certainly the way in which they're going about it has a lot more digital in it. There is some digital in everything we do these days. So that makes complete sense, but I love what you're also saying to people is you have to pause and you have to start with yourself and you have to think about how you get your own feet underneath you and steady yourself in order to be able to be of use and service to the members of your team. Yeah. I love it. I love it. Now, Alia I know, let me just go back maybe on something more personal. So I know that aside from being a phenomenal military operator and a brilliant organizational psychologist and a coach around the world, you're also a wife. You're also a mom.


And I think we've looked at some of the data and it's shown that 2020 was a tough year, particularly in places say like the United States for working moms. And it's causing a lot of them to take a step back and say, "Can I keep going? Is it all worth it?" I know you too speak a lot to women in tech groups and various women's groups. So what are some of the things that you share as words of wisdom for women, for working moms, maybe working parents, of course in general?


Alia:

Well, it's an interesting thing you see, and I firmly believe that I'm the right person to ask this question, but I might be completely the wrong person to ask this question. Here is why. I've grown up with a belief. And I've had plenty of opportunities to firm that belief that we have women that is an opportunity to connect with purpose a little easier, and that we also have opportunities to achieve extraordinary outcomes a little differently. So I've always grown up with that kind of bias. To that end when the situation such as this year unpack, the colleagues and friends that I've observed stepping away from something that didn't really spin their wheels to begin with. To me, isn't necessarily a negative I'm stepping back, I'm stepping away. It's an act of I'm stepping up, and I'm being a little bit more disciplined because I know what matters.


So one of the things that I have been profoundly proud off is how many of my friends have kind of gone about this and said, "You know what? This year has taken a little bit more than I'm willing to give." And here are the sorts of things that this is now allowing me to crystallize, I don't have to defend an ego. I have my own well-being and my own purpose to protect. And that's the single most important thing. Now when it comes down to being a loving, caring, available parent, it's very difficult to choose political gaming or gossip down a corridor or poorly articulated purpose or escalation of commitment over your child. So it's one of those things that I think we are privileged with. And I hope more of us take the opportunity to take a stand to express and to be really uncompromising about the expectations that we have of what a workspace workplace, work purpose need to be in order for us to invest our energy into it.


Anita:

There's two things there that just resonated with me as a working mom. First of all, the thing you're pointing out, and maybe it's very obvious to you, but I don't know that a lot of us would think about it as obviously. But, is that this year has surfaced a lot of other things in our lives that are a high priority and maybe brought them more to the forefront of our minds. And if we choose to pay attention to those things, that's okay, that's actually maybe not a form of stepping back. That's actually a form of stepping up in a way that's more honest to yourself about what really matters and deciding to stay committed to those things. And then I just love this idea that women can achieve extraordinary outcomes in our own lives and as leaders in different ways.


And I think we certainly are seeing employees they needed more empathy from their leaders this year. And that's not to say that men cannot be empathetic leaders. In fact, some of the most empathetic leaders I've worked with and do work with are men. But there's something there Alia, in this post COVID environment. And I think maybe it goes along with the demographic shifts we were seeing towards more millennials in the workplace that they expect to go and work for a place where people care about them as more than just a worker who picks up a wage and does do some work, but they expect us to care about them as a human being. And they care if we care about their mental health and they care if we care about their community and what's going on in the world, outside the four walls of the business. So I think that that's there to stay or here to stay, I should say. And I think opens the aperture for sort of a broader bandwidth when it comes to leadership and management than we would have seen in sort of the industrial age.


That there's room for leaders who are empathetic and who are willing to show vulnerability. I don't know if you're picking that up in your conversations with various organizations.


Alia:

Absolutely. And I mean, we have a different sample that I spend most of my time with. Here in New Zealand, we can move around freely. We have the ability to connect with one another a lot more and for longer than the rest of the world. So we are very blessed in that regard, but what we are noticing across the board is that that ability to connect and most importantly, not just to connect to the fellow human, but also to be really transparent around why we are doing what we are doing. Not just beyond the spreadsheet or beyond the financial gain that we are going to make at the end of the year. But most of the adjacent benefits that we can create for others around us community, world, environment, equity, equality, and equity are incredibly important for our businesses here. Many of our businesses in New Zealand and serendipitously the other ones that are attracting and retaining the best of talents because they afford flexibility in a way that doesn't just it tick and flick to the Excel spreadsheet of hours work.


But in terms of true contribution, in terms of connection with community, in terms of bi-directional commitment between a business and between the environment within which this business operates. So what I'm trying to say here is I'm really grateful that we are moving in this direction. And we have now come to a place where we are realizing organizations need to serve far deeper, broader purpose than we initially expected. 


Anita:

You're absolutely right. And look, I can say Alia, from the boardroom right down, which is where I sort of gain most of my perspective, this is a real debate now. And you know it's a real debate whenever people are talking about stakeholder capitalism, not just shareholders. They're talking about all kinds of ESG types agendas, and this is definitely becoming more and more of a conversation. And I think a lot more institutional investors are now starting to look to companies to do some of the right things in this space. And I think we're starting to see certain CEOs go all the way out there and say, "Look, this is how I am going to lead this company. And I will make no apology for being a leader that cares about whether it's climate or society or other ESG related matters, diversity and inclusion, equality." Whatever it might be.


So I think it's refreshing. I mean, that gives me incredible hope and optimism that we have reset some assumptions here. And we have an opportunity to come back and I love Alia you've always said, resilience is not about bouncing back, but it's about bouncing forward. So we have a chance to bounce forward from all of this and come back and do things differently.


Now I'll wrap up Alia, maybe because I just want to ask you a question about New Zealand. I know it's a country you love, and let's be honest with you, the rest of us here across the world have looked at New Zealand this year with, I think, a high degree of envy in terms of how you managed the COVID pandemic. You think you've sort of an exceptional leader, certainly has garnered a lot of attention on the international stage. So from the inside out, what did it feel like to be a New Zealander and in New Zealand during this time? And when you think about all the things that New Zealand did well, what's your reflection on the experience?


Alia:

Isn't it incredible to watch the same things that I felt I'm studying in a little petri dish to observe these same factors supply at a macro level? I mean, New Zealand is an Island and by the way, you're all welcome to come anytime you want. We love visitors.


But the interesting thing about it is, is that the first thing I wanted to share is I took my five-year-old vaulting soon after we stepped out one of our lockdowns. And the most extraordinary experience was watching. I get goosebumps now, as I say it, the degree of solidarity, the degree of joy and the degree of connection that had formed amongst complete strangers. So you're walking down the street and once we weren't yet comfortable high-fiving each other. You could feel it from a distance.


We had each other's backs, whether we had met each other, whether we knew of one another, whether we previously cared about one another, we had each other's backs. And what had happened along the way is that through I guess it's not just our government. I mean, I'm a huge fan of Jacinda Ardern our prime minister, but also the collective lot really braced around the idea of every action each of us takes has an immediate and direct consequences on everybody else around me. And that's incredibly empowering. You get to see people from every walk of life, picking up that banner and moving forward without resistance, not just without resistance, you see, we didn't have to change them. We created a space within which that dialogue and that shared power could be formed by clearly explaining what the expectations and the threat is, trusting that each of us can process that intelligently and meaningfully.


And then creating that sense of we won't force you into anything, but just so you know, we all depend on each other. And that sense of solidarity is still around, still profound, still very palatable and allows us to celebrate so many things with such energy and commitment. It's remarkable.


Anita:

I remember you telling me that about your prime minister talking about a team of five million, basically saying that New Zealand was one team and you guys are pretty good at some teaming stuff. You've got your great rugby, you're all black. So I know when it comes to being a great team, a national team in New Zealand, you all kind of know what that looks like in a world-class way. So to think about it as a team of five million and everybody feeling a sense of accountability towards other people and sharing in that purpose, It is an incredible thing. And I think, unfortunately, Alia, not something we've seen everywhere else in the world. I think, unfortunately, in other places we've gotten to a point where it's so fractured. It's like, "You can't tell me I have to wear a mask because you're infringing on my rights, or you can't tell me I can or cannot go somewhere."


And I think that is a far more selfish, kind of a way to think about it. If that's the right word, is that I'm thinking about me as opposed to the way you framed that there was, my actions are what are going to make a difference to you and to the collective you around me. It's such a powerful framing. Well, my friend, I could talk to you as you know for two weeks, two days, two hours more, any number of times. But Alia, thank you so much for taking the time to join us here on the ThoughtWorks podcast. We are honored to have had you as a guest, and we hope you'll come back as a guest sometime in the future.


Alia:

Love it. Thank you so much. I actually appreciate it. Thank you Anita.


Anita:

Thank you.

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