I was in Singapore with a client in December 2019. We were discussing her new team structure and the small but important shifts in behaviour that would be needed as the business evolved around her. I was also able to run a couple of gentle workshops to introduce ideas that would help her team make this transition a little more likely to succeed. For most of my short visit I was more reflective than usual about my good fortune to work with a brilliant leader and wonderful person, sharing, mentoring and learning together in a beautiful location, and in the kindest imaginable climate away from the middle of an English winter. As long as I live, the child inside me from a small town in Wiltshire will never quite believe that days like these are real.
On one of the evenings during my stay, the team had organised a social gathering which included attending a “Rage Room” where participants wearing overalls and safety goggles could let go of their passive-aggressive coping mechanisms to simply smash things up. Apparently, it is both fun and therapeutic, and I kind of understand why. The chance to beat seven bells out of an old TV while shouting the name of an irritating colleague, old boss or indeed an old partner, must be beneficial at some level.
Team building social gatherings for the people I work with however should be for the teams to enjoy and not for hosting hired help like me. At the end of a long day, I figure most teams will have had quite enough of my face and my words, so I prefer to leave them to their evening entertainment. Instead, I retire to find a view that I can recall on less good days, and linger there for a while with a cold beer to let my thoughts of gratitude settle quietly on my counted blessings.
The idea of a rage room however has stayed with me and in this part of our exhibition we will enter a metaphorical rage room where we can smash things up to our heart’s content. I invite you therefore to think of the things you would like to place in your rage room; please take your time and reflect well, for this is your moment of destructive redemption.
Once you have placed your frustrations with care, mindfully and deliberately don your imaginary overalls, pull your protective goggles over your eyes and adjust the straps as only an expert assassin would do. Enter gently a realm of quiet meditation to summon the memories you will now wreak honourable vengeance upon. Then peacefully select your weapon of mass destruction, allow the adrenalin to rise like mercury in a heatwave, and finally like a whirling Dervish assailed by angry wasps, thrash the living bejesus out of your well-placed bugbears, and release your long-held unvented anger – possibly, if you have the head-space, do so as if filmed in high-definition slow-motion to the soundtrack of Apocalypse Now.
So, what is in my rage room?
What follows is NOT by any means my definitive list, but for now I hope it will serve to encourage you to have a similar space in your exhibition, so that from time to time we can all rage against the machine together.
Annual objectives that are disconnected from the roles people have and that take months to be agreed not because of meaningful negotiation, but because of bureaucratic indifference. Objectives which are then forgotten until the year-end bonus becomes a relevant possibility. Now suddenly the long-neglected objectives materialise like visiting far flung relatives who you think might have won the lottery; time to be nice to them, even though we barely recognise them and have nothing in common with them. Objectives should inspire; they should be relevant and lived, and matter – supporting a common effort towards a common ambition, and allowing employers and employees to achieve together. They should, but God almighty they hardly ever do.
Smart phones. I know they are extraordinary devices. They are miracles of innovation, bringing a whole world of worlds together in the palms of our hands. But you also know that we have become their slaves. They have taken the light and shade of our days and made us stare at small illuminated screens, rather than wonder at the limitless world of colours we have all around us. Smart phones open up a world of knowledge and connection, but disconnect us from the moments when we could be together in person living experiences in real time, in real life.
I accept that you may feel it is a step too far to actually smash up your phone, but if I concede that this rage room choice should not be imposed upon you, will you at least put your phones away in meetings? A meeting should be a shared experience where we reflect together, discuss, learn and decide together. What disrespect we therefore show each other when we cannot be without our technological comfort blanket even for a few minutes of human interaction. Imagine for a moment that it was not a smart phone we brought into the meeting room but a small pot plant that we proceeded to examine, water and prune while others talked around us. The level of distraction is the same and the absurdity is just the same as well.
While on the subject of meetings, I also want to smash up those meetings that sit in our online diaries like multi-coloured roadblocks preventing us from going anywhere meaningful in our day. The phrase “back-to-back” should be properly replaced with “block-to-block.” Our working lives are not punctuated by meetings, but surrounded and trapped by them. A good meeting is an essential forum for good governance, decision-making, encouraging innovation, building consensus and sharing accountability. Yet far too many are limp, directionless and dull meanders around a half-remembered purpose where we all contrive to waste an equal amount of time together in conspiratorial ineptitude. Meetings fashioned from lazy thinking and the expediency of pressing a few buttons in the hopeless illusion of making progress. A meeting should be an event, not a shared brain-fade.
Another thing I want to smash-up are window-dressing wellbeing policies. Far too many colleagues are still punished by workplace cultures that undermine their mental health. Bullying, misogyny, bias and careless unkindness are everyday experiences enacted in plain sight. Our well-intended policies to prevent these things will not help if we do not address the behaviours, incentives and cultures that facilitate these things. Indeed, without addressing culture, the policies become the invisibility cloaks for casual leadership to disappear behind. Leaders must stand in front of the values they proclaim and show they are real, not stand behind them providing the cover for them to look the other way. A policy without action and leadership, is at best a field hospital in a war zone. We should want to stop the war, not just patch up the wounded.
Unkindness is the next thing I want to smash to smithereens. I just don’t get why anyone would be unkind. Leadership is such a privilege, and the privilege is to serve the needs of the people we lead. Power imbalances are hard to navigate, but it becomes impossible when we don’t care, when we are thoughtless about our decisions and actions, and when we elevate our needs above the needs of others. Unkindness is sometimes deliberate, but more often it is a product of neglect. The space between good intentions now overgrown with the stinging nettles of our indifference. The frustrating thing is that kindness is just so easy and requires no budget or resource or even a plan. It simply starts by being interested, in listening, encouraging, sharing and caring. We don’t need to go on some sort of Harvard inspired kindness masterclass – we are all born with the gift of kindness.
Sadly, however it seems to me that we too often put kindness on the shelf labelled “nice to do when all is well” and some leaders have conflated kindness with indulgence and lax standards. I’d like to smash that notion too. Do we get anywhere worthwhile, sustainably and joyfully by being unkind? Leadership can sometimes be really tough, and hard decisions make for hard choices which are not always good news for everyone; but kindness should still guide us to make those decisions the best they can be, and their consequences should always be considered, thought-through and caring. Leadership is the best vehicle we have for showing the power of kindness. Unkindness is to trash that potential and diminish everything and everyone around its insidious impact. Unkindness therefore will always be in my rage room.
Time now I think to shut the door and move on; we should not dwell too long in places that make us sad or frustrated, but I thank you for passing through and indulging my need to show you this space. Time now for something altogether more uplifting.
Take care. Paul xx
To be continued…