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Interview: Adrian Furnham, Professor of Psychology, UCL

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13th Mar 2014
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Q: Can you outline what staff go through during times of upheaval and turbulence?

Those made redundant or even moved to a new position often experience a well known shock cycle.   There are many version of this stage-wise or cycle theory based on the death and dying literature.  There are different, but related concepts or stages such as:

  1. Shock stage: initial paralysis at hearing the bad news.
  2. Denial stage: trying to avoid the inevitable.
  3. Anger stage: Frustrated outpouring of bottled-up emotion.
  4. Bargaining stage: seeking in vain for a way out.
  5. Depression stage: final realisation of the inevitable.
  6. Testing stage: seeking realistic solutions
  7. Acceptance stage: finally finding the way forward

Others have opted for a simpler three point construction.

  1. Numbness: mechanical functioning and social insulation
  2. Disorganisation: intensely painful feelings of loss
  3. Reorganisation: re-entry into a more ‘normal’ social life

Put in an organisational context the U-Curve, shock cycle operates something like this.

  1. First they suffer a classic shock response. This may be accompanied by strong emotions, some positive others negative. The loss of routine, status and income soon impinges though some clearly enjoy the freedom that the change brings.  Many appear immobilised both physically and mentally. Others go into denial taking about easily finding another job. Some attempt to minimalise their trauma and grief…..for that is what it is. Many middle aged executives are quite unprepared for this experience and are surprised by their own reactions.
  2. Next there is the classic depression phase. This starts with pessimism and turns into lethargy. All the classic signs begin.  Some people become almost agoraphobic staying inside, sleeping a lot and vacantly watching television to pass the time. They seem to loose pride in their appearance, suddenly age and lose interest in friends. It’s partly associated with the same symptoms as reactive depression.  Initial inertia can become much more serious. Some relieve their state with drugs or alcohol which can lead to dependency. It’s grim, serious, but neither inevitable nor irrevocable.
  3. A third phase is a search for meaning although this process may occur right from the beginning. It’s about trying to understand what has happened to them but more importantly why. The question becomes how to explain and who to blame for what is usually seen to be a calamity. Blame often shifts from the organisations to social forces and then to self-blame. Some people take a highly fatalistic response to their situation which usually prolongs the depression.
  4. The fourth phase may involve a testing of a new life. This may mean the adoption of a new identity, new life-style and routine and the acquisition of new skills. Often the loss of a job can threaten family relationships and cause major problems. Paradoxically when people need social support most they may get it least. The younger, better educated, more sociable, and able the person the easiest it is for them to pull through the testing phase and reinvent themselves.
  5. The final phase is adaptation and adjustment some never reach this phase alas. Often those who have changed jobs and organisations or indeed whole careers fare better because they have had the experience before.  Whereas often they have done this voluntarily it is far less pleasing if it is ‘done to one.’

Q: You talk a lot on leadership derailment – can you explain what this is?

Leaders can fail for other reasons. It is important to make the distinction between incompetence and derailment.

Incompetent: synonymns include ineptitude, inability, inadequacy, incapacity, ineffectiveness, uselessness, insufficiency, ineptness, incompetency, unfitness, incapability, skill-lessness. In essence incompetence means an inability to perform; lacking some ability, capacity or qualification.

Nearly everyone has worked for an incompetent manager.  Some have never worked for anyone else!  Essentially the incompetent manager is lacking something: Most are simply over-promoted. Others are there because of favouritism or simply bad selection.

Derailment: This literally means coming off the tracks and is taken from railroad terminology. It refers to where an otherwise functional train, unexpectedly “comes off the rails” and is thus left stranded, unable to move, possibly blocking the line and potentially irreparable.

In management literature it has come to mean the demise of an otherwise successful business or political leader who seems to have too much of a good thing like self-confidence, boldness or courage. Indeed, it is for those characteristics that they were often chosen. However the strengths became weaknesses possibly because of the way they were overused or, in the first place, were compensatory

Q: What are your thoughts on brainstorming – useful tool or over-hyped fad?

Over-hyped. Evidence suggests that when it is most often used, it is actually ineffective.

Q: If you had to reduce the sum of human motivation to three factors, what would they be?

  • Need for Power
  • Need for Achievement
  • Need for Affiliation

Q: What’s the key to successful talent management in the 21st century?

Getting a better understanding on the meaning of talent: what it is, where it comes from. whether it can be changed?

Q: Is flexible working just another tool or is it indicative of a cultural shift in attitudes to work?

Very much so. Work is not a place you go to from 0900 -1700. It is something that can be done by many people, in very different settings and with very different reward structures. It is part of the cultural shift in attitudes to work but there are other factors as well.

Q: What will define the most successful leaders of 2020?

The same as ever. Being bright enough. Being resilient and hardworking. Understanding office politics and national politics. Acting with integrity. Being future-oriented

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