Some groups are more than the sum of their parts. They go beyond ‘performing’, beyond achieving financial targets, beyond balancing stakeholder needs.

Despite our best efforts to create perfect teams, a large number remain best on paper, an elite collection of IQs, track records, qualifications, agreeableness and inspiration, mostly as individuals. Others amalgamate to deliver profound impact. They appear to craft and refine a special type of relational capital, interacting with closeness, conflict and purpose. Reaching a ‘performing’ state is a not a desired end goal. There is always more. They coalesce to drive a larger agenda, running as thread between them, and only fully realised through their collective.

Relational capital, also known as social capital, is not built over-night. But it is increasingly badged as the secret sauce of transformative groups. So what is it? And are we already building it in our organisations?

Social capital refers to the functioning of social groups through interpersonal relationships. It is the shared sense of identity, understanding, norms, values, trust, cooperation and reciprocity within a group. It may seem that we already invest in building this kind of interaction with teams. Yet if we unpack what makes some groups exceptional at problem-solving and innovation, drawing on the work of Daniel Coyle, we note that highly successful groups are underwritten by efforts in three critical areas:

·      Building psychological safety

·      Being vulnerable (so that they can move to being invulnerable)

·      Having a purpose.

Are we explicitly tacking these kinds of issues in our work with teams? I would argue that in many ways, we are only touching the tip of the relational capital iceberg. It is certainly more fashionable to question, although we are still accepting and building the skills to do so, and the skills to speak up. Think of the continuum emerging from the radical candor of Kim Scott, moving right along to Ray Dalio’s radical truth and transparency. These are far from ‘the way things get done around here’ in most organizations, especially large legacy ones.

Margaret Heffernan insists that for good ideas and true innovation, human interaction is necessary, but it is not a measured, ‘objective’ roundtable debate of consensus seeking. Conflict and argument are essential, she notes, between motivated people who share bonds of loyalty and trust. Suddenly the ‘as is’ state starts to digress significantly from the ‘want to be’. Very few leaders intentionally create conflict and argument at work. In the face of conflict, most shy away or manage down. We do not trust much at work either. The gap seems big.

But investing in building relational or social capital as a ‘want to be’ state is likely to pay high dividends. At the most human level, as pressure intensifies, leaders and their teams are already fraying under the toxic pressure to deliver and to go beyond. Performing teams will need to go beyond, without burning out. Relational capital is the currency to shore up when chasing broader, transformative or game changing ambitions.

Thanks to the work of people such as Margaret Heffernan and Daniel Colye, we have a much richer understanding of the principles at play. The skills of highly successful groups are not predestined, they can be built, and many of them are ready to apply in our work with groups.

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‘Balance is becoming increasingly rare and perceivably impossible to achieve in today’s world. Despite technology making our lives easier, we appear to have far less time.’ – Richard Sutton

The highly energetic biological state of stress is an adaptation that has served us well. It has provided humans with possibilities to flourish through shifting and disruptive times. The intricate stress system with its delicate balance of hormones has protected us for the buffer up lessons in thriving from the Stress codelongest time. Short bouts of stress serve to strengthen and enhance our abilities, and provide us with remarkable openings to develop, invent and transform. Ironically, this same system of resilience and growth now poses a threat to our fullest functioning. How is this the case?

The stress axis works best when sporadically activated. Increasingly we are getting ‘stuck’ in the stress state, with potentially disastrous implications. Constant activation causes systemic exhaustion, promoting both disease and pain, and accelerating ageing. Prolonged stress has been shown to negatively impact our memory, focus, attention, cognitive potential and levels of motivation. It also destabilises our DNA, compromising our genetic integrity. This damage could impact future generations. Continued stress puts a final spoke in a constellation of already undesirable outcomes, and it is this: a compromised ability to deal with change. If you are stuck in your own cocktail of stress hormones, take heed: you’re choosing an injurious path for your physical, mental and future self.

The Whitehall studies, which evaluated over 28000 people over 40 years, showed a primary driver of stress to be the feeling of having no authority over decisions. A lack of control can increase risk of dying prematurely by a staggering 40%. Responsibility and high demands don’t seem to be the cause of stress, but injustice, lack of social support, isolation and effort-reward imbalance certainly do cause it.

Should stress be avoided at all costs? Certainly not, says stress resilience expert Richard Sutton. Stress is an essential part of activating our rich human potential for growth. But we should think more carefully about the choices we make, and how we increase the tools and skills at our disposal to buffer the adverse effects of stress. Armed with more knowledge, leaders and people-enablers in the workplace can start to unpick the impact they have on others.

How can we manage our own stress footprints, and create better conditions for others at work?

  • Aim to give more control to those around us. This starts out hard at first, but rewards in multiple ways over the longer term as skills, experience and confidence build.
  • Support skills development (partly through experimenting with bullet point number one!)
  • Reward positive behaviours, this is more effective than reducing demands.
  • Allow for more participation in decision-making, practically. Think about the small ways in which you can start to signal and to do this.
  • Be fair, champion justice, call out antisocial behaviour. Facilitate mutual engagement.
  • Provide support where it is needed.

Showing compassion and support in and of itself is a worthwhile exercise in stress management. Caring for others and acts of charity elevate levels of oxytocin, which lowers fear responses, promotes calm, connectedness and optimism (as well as lowers blood pressure, protects our nervous and circulatory systems, and is a trigger for growth and repair in the body). Pro-social behaviour dramatically negates the negative impact of stress on health.

Creating buffers against stress is less complicated than trying to shift whole systems. We cannot control everything in our midst. But some relatively small changes can have a positive impact.

For more ideas, read The Stress Code, by Richard Sutton. It provides a deeper dive into the scientific research, as well as a repository of insights and tools that promote human thriving.

Follow Gaylin on Twitter: @gaylinjee

The more we compete, the less we gain. In business we call this the race to the bottom.

Chan Kim and Mauborgne popularised the term Red Oceans to indicate markets that are saturated markets, bloody with cutthroat competition. In Red Oceans, ‘match and beat’ strategies lead to competitive convergence where products and services are largely similar. Competing happens at best through marginal improvements in cost, quality, or both. Products become commoditised as competitors strive to outperform their each other and sustain a share of market. With many rivals competing for limited attention in crowded market spaces, prospects for growth are slim.

Blue Oceans are new market spaces. They are unknown, uncontested and thus naturally desirable. You move into Blue Oceans through following paths that are untested. A new hotel chain would compete in a Red Ocean (as there are already many successful hotel chains out there). When AirBnB was created, it played in a new Blue Ocean.

Doing more of the same becomes a formula that delivers diminishing returns. If you are copying the most successful companies you can think of, you are not learning from them, says Peter Thiel, author of  Zero to One. Shane Parrish, from Farnam Street Blog, reinforces the same message with his statement: “There simply is no formula for success. Giving up that notion might be the most helpful thing you can do today.”

Creativity is however, by its very nature, disturbing. Both at school and at work, we are conditioned to apply logic, solve puzzles, to find and give the right answer. We are less inducted into generating possibilities, ‘seeing’ the possible magic. We look for formulas that are ready to run and reliable. Yet as the pace of our world increases, exposure to unknowns amplify. And when situations are unfamiliar it is best to approach them as curious mysteries, rather than attempt to solve them as puzzles based on a logic that worked before. A new set of muscles must be built.


Paradoxically, humans by their very nature are designed to create, to make meaning. We are the only animals that can invent new things and better ways of making them. And yet the experience of work for most people is mired in tasks that machines can already complete much better than us – repetitive, monotonous tasks. In the future, increased automation can free us up for safer, interesting and more purposeful work. We will need to build and flex our creative muscles, rediscovering and refining our human contribution at work.

The good news is that we have plenty of tools at our disposal to explore the magic that humans bring. Take Lego® Serious Play® as one such method. It invokes the Flow states described by positive psychologist Mihály Csíkszentmihályi, known as being ‘in the zone’, a mental state of operation where a person is immersed in energized focus, full involvement and enjoyment in the process of an activity. Research shows that people who have experiencedthis state of mind report higher levels of productivity, creativity and happiness for up to three days after experiencing flow state. A facilitated Lego® Serious Play® session opens the mind to new ideas, helps to solve complex challenges, and secures alignment and commitment. By ensuring everyone participates and contributes, the quality of time spent together is measurably enhanced. It secures 100% participation (useful in our distracted age), breaks habitual thinking and sets constructive, insight-rich spaces for teams to model and align the present and the future.

Another tool is the The GC Index®, an organimetric that employs a strengths-based approach. It identifies and nourishes the naturally different inclinations for individual leaders to contribute at work. This instrument is scalable to whole organisations and provides a common language of innovation, mapping out the role everyone plays in game changing teams and outputs. There is no perfect leader within this model, but rather many leadership styles, offering diverse insights and co-ordinated action.

These are two examples of work-based tools that enable humans to face the future in positive and creative ways. They are just the tip of the iceberg.

A robotic future working alongside machines will force us to learn how to be better at being human. Creativity will become a business-essential for securing the game changing outputs needed for a Fourth Industrial Revolution future. We need people in Flow at work, creating amazing things to make the shift from ‘compete’ to create, from Red to Blue Ocean. It is time to step out of the race to the bottom, as humans, as businesses, to move beyond the relentless clamber for competitive advantage and growth at all costs, suited and glamorized on countless cover pages of business magazines across the globe.

Are you ready to create?

Your life today is essentially the sum of your habits. What you repeatedly do (i.e. what you spend time thinking about and doing each day) ultimately forms the person you are, the things you believe, and the personality that you portray. – James Clear, Atomic Habits.


A significant chunk of our waking time is spent on autopilot, up to 45% according to Duke University research. In this state we are barely aware of the many, minute behaviours that make up each day.

There is good reason for this habitual repetition. Our brain, the ultra-efficient processor, is adept at saving energy. It would be impossible for the brain to plan, guide and monitor every action of every day. Rather, it focuses selectively (remember the selective attention test where you had to count the number of times players pass a ball? Watch a version of it here), defaulting to preferred and established pathways where possible, saving power for other needs. Default responses are activated by cues in the environment, initiated without intention and run to completion with minimal conscious control. We call them habits. They take around 90 days to establish and are notoriously difficult to shift.

Habits built on past experience may have been useful at some point, but not all of them are necessarily desirable. The Power of Habit: Why we do what we do and how to change by Charles Duhigg spent 120 weeks on various New York Times bestseller lists, suggesting that there is fair appetite for changing our less wanted habits.

Changing our habits

Habits work in a 3-step loop: cue, routine, reward. We can change our habits by changing the ‘routine’ part of the loop. Experimenting with identifying the cues, changing the routine and ascertaining whether we are still experiencing the same reward is the method proposed by Duhigg for changing a habit.

To give an example, Duhigg explains how he was in the habit of eating a chocolate biscuit each afternoon at around 3 o clock. He tried going for a walk instead of heading to the restaurant for the biscuit – changing the routine – but his craving for the sweet treat persisted. A little more experimentation with alternative routines led him to discover that a 5-10 minute chat with colleagues seemed to produce the same reward, that is, he had forgotten all about the chocolate biscuit. The ‘social interaction’ routine is replacing the ‘biscuit-eating’ routine. Over time this change of habit will stem a steady weight gain and leave a few more pennies in the pocket.

Getting started 

If you are struggling to get started, the trick according to habits expert James Clear is to start small, aim to improve one thing by one percent, do it in less than two minutes and do it again tomorrow.

The most critical habit to build, perhaps we can see it as a super-habit, is the habit of willpower. Willpower spills over into all aspects of life. It is strengthened by making conscious efforts: factor one activity into each day that requires a lot of discipline, delay gratification in small amounts.

Willpower is also positively impacted through preserving a degree of autonomy, where you have latitude to decide on and complete your own tasks. A lack of autonomy can be a profound stressor, as noted by Richard Sutton in his work “The Stress Code” (the likely topic of a future blog).

The sum of our autopilots

We hope for complex organizational challenges to be solved through a revised strategy, a new leadership mandate, a restructuring or the digital transformation. And yet it is the sum of all the little habits, the organisational autopilot, that makes the organisation what it is and directs what it achieves.

In a world where trust is reported as low – a condition negatively impacting relationships, engagement, voluntary effort, innovation, organisational alignment, stakeholder confidence and overall business results – raising our awareness of the autopilot, all those minute actions that build trust or deplete it, is a useful undertaking.

As leaders, we can go way beyond just ‘doing what we say we will do’. We can build the habits that build trust, and aim to change the ones that diminish it.

I have selected two (of a total of nine) habits that build trust, outlined by John Blakely:

  1. Go beyond the profit motive to deliver random acts of kindness to your stakeholders.
  2. Help others to deliver on their promises, through coaching and mentoring.


What do you repeatedly do, that makes you the leader you are? What can you do right now to establish habits that build trust?


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Power as autonomy

We are perhaps most familiar with a conceptualisation of power as influence, one of two types of power investigated in a 2016 study reported in the Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin. The power of influence expresses a desire to control others. It can also involve taking responsibility for others. A second type of power, power as autonomy,has little to do with others in the sense that this type of power is not a product of wanting to control others. Rather, it allows a person to ignore and resist the influence of others and thus to play a role in shaping individual destiny – it expresses the desire to be free. The researchers in the study found that people crave power not be the master of others, but to be the master of their own domains and to control their fates. An increase in power as autonomy seems to quench the thirst for more power. (An increase in power as influence does not have the same result.)

Generally, when people say they want power, what they really want is autonomy. And when they get that autonomy, they tend to stop wanting power.” – Julie Beck, in The Atlantic

These findings are fascinating within a digital context, where the battle to spend time ‘wisely’ is so real. Time spentonline is the metric that most designers chase – this is because more time spent online means more time to collect information about you, your behaviours, your preferences, and to experiment with different advertisements to increase their impact. The stickiness of platforms is thus purposefully designed in, with features such as push notifications drawing us back to platforms left only minutes ago. A mobile phone on a desk has been shown to decrease scores on cognitive tests. The mere presence of a smartphone reduces available cognitive capacity and impairs cognitive functioning, even though people feel they’re giving their full attention and focus to the task at hand. This applies when the phone is on silent and face down. One could argue this is power as influence at its best.

Our battle of ‘time well spent’ has a dark side, in that most of what gets captured about us is below our conscious awareness. You may have started to pick up on ads and YouTube content pushed to you that seem eerily congruent with aspects of your life that you do not recall explicitly sharing. There are two kinds of very profitable online ads. Contextual ads are based on content on a website. Search for a car, for example, and relevant ads pop up. These ads do not need to know or to have stored your personal data. Behavioural ads are the second type, and they are based on a personal profile that is compiled through your online activity, and even offline activity in some cases. They follow you around from website tomobile app based on your private information and they enable online discrimination, manipulation and the creation of filter bubbles. Our digital modi operandi provides fertile ground not only for the gathering of your life’s daily details but also for experimentation and ‘nudging’ your behaviour towards a desired outcome. The sophistication and pervasiveness of these influences makes them hard to ignore. If both kinds of ads are profitable, why does a ‘dark’ footprint of all your activity need to be stored? Is this an affront to your power as autonomy, your power to shape your own destiny and to feel free in your choices?

Tristan Harris, former ethicist at Google, thinks so. He is in the business of helping the tech industry to more consciously and ethically shape the human spirit and human potential.

‘By shaping the menus we pick from, technology hijacks the way we perceive our choices and replaces them with new ones. But the closer we pay attention to the options we’re given, the more we’ll notice when they don’t actually align with our true needs… Once you know how to push people’s buttons, you can play them like a piano.’ – Tristan Harris

A self-described expert on how technology hijacks our psychological vulnerabilities, Harris poses valid questions, such as, how often is tech interrupting you from what you really mean to be doing? Is tech, with all its pings and pop-ups, stealing time from you? And a personal favourite of mine, for the shift in thinking it provokes: “What does the future of technology look like when you’re designing for the deepest human values?”

New tools are available to us. Exploring their usefulness may help combat feelings of subjugation from the power of influence we are exposed to, and build our power of autonomy. One such tool is DuckDuckGo, a search engine that does not track activity and also allows the user to control how much of their activity gets shared. DuckDuckGo uses contextual advertising. CEO Gabriel Weinberg is devoted to protecting privacy amidst the rampant data framing prevalent online today. Companies are making money off of your private information online without your consent. The Internet should not feel so creepy.

The DuckDuckGo Mission: “Too many people believe that you simply can’t expect privacy on the Internet. We disagree and have made it our mission to set a new standard of trust online.”

We focus optimistically on everything that tech can do for us, and so we should. But as Harris notes, living moment to moment with the fear of missing something isn’t how we’re built to live. Technology could be helping to create more meaningful interaction. The metric of ‘time well spent’ is a radical departure from the metric of ‘time spent online’. We can ‘nudge’ this in the right direction.

For more on this topic, watch the Ted Talk “How better tech could protect us from distraction”, by Tristan Harris. Also read Gabriel Weinberg’s article “What if we all just sold non-creepy advertising?

This article first published on Talent Talks Africa.

Four types of purposeWith uncertainty comes a desire for something to believe in.  Managers are not loyal to a company, or a boss. They put their devotion and allegiance to those values they believe in and find satisfying. ‘Something to believe in’ is immune to fads, and provides hope for a future that has less clarity than most would like.

Simon Sinek bases his work on the desire to believe in something. He popularised the Golden Circle formula, propelling him to leadership guru status almost overnight. His TED Talk “How Great Leaders Inspire Action” that explains how the Golden Circle works is sitting on 44.6 million views. Find your WHY (what you believe in, the reason you get up in the morning), Sinek urges businesses and leaders, and communicate that first. Then speak to the HOW and the WHAT. Most people start with the HOW or the WHAT and they allow these aspects to dominate. They miss valuable opportunities to reach others in a place that instinctively matters to them.

A reason to get up in the morning matters to humans. We strive to make sense of the world around us, and to attach meaning to it. A sense of purpose purpose anchors our efforts and focuses them, it gives significance to our collections of daily actions and entertainments as the months and years slip past us. In a changeable age, discovery and ‘ventilation’ of a purpose is a way of taking a measure of control over chaotic conditions. We trade the position of ‘disrupted’ for that of intentional ‘designer’ of our lives.

Finding the purpose and ventilating it is equally vital to enduring business success, says Nikos Mourkogiannis. Purpose is valuable in organisations as it makes employees feel that their work is worthwhile. Purpose keeps driving the company forward in times that are taxing and complex, providing a clear reference point to inform, guide and direct decision and action, and justifying the risks associated with innovation and the longer term payoffs. Purpose maintains energy levels. When a company loses energy, its most often down to a lack of purpose. The sum of all these parts combines precisely into competitive advantage. Not all companies have a purpose, assures Mourkogiannis, but the enduringly successful ones do.

In order for purpose to motivate and drive, it must have a moral dimension. Mourkogiannis puts forward four such sets of moral ideas for us to look at in our workplaces. Each is underpinned by a philosopher.

  1. Discovery “The New” I have freely chosen it.

Philosopher: Kierkegaard.

Companies: IBM, Sony, Intel, Virgin.

  1. Excellence “The Good” It constitutes fulfillment.

Philosopher: Aristotle

Companies: Apple, BMW, The Economist, Berkshire Hathaway.

  1. Altruism “The Helpful” It increases happiness.

Philosopher: Hume

Companies: Walmart, HP, Nordstrom.

  1. Heroicism “The Effective” It demonstrates achievement.

Philosopher: Nietzsche

Companies: Microsoft, Ford.

Every company will manifest its purpose differently. And a coherent alignment between purpose and strategy is impossible to copy. It appears that ‘believing in something’ may offer the advantage that organisations crave in uncertain times.

What does your business believe in?

Dive deeper into Purpose by reading “Purpose: The Starting Point of Great Companies“, by Nikos Mourkogiannis.


The world has never moved this quickly, yet it will never again move this slowly.  Exposure to unknowns will amplify. When situations are unfamiliar it may be best to approach them as curious mysteries, rather than attempt to solve them as puzzles based on a logic that worked before. Think about first principles, encourages Peter Thiel, author of Zero to One, rather than formulas. That’s how we find value in unexpected places. Every time we create something fresh and strange, we go from a ‘Zero’ to a ‘One’. The more we create, the more we thrive. But are we too tempted to copy, in place of invent?

Creativity is by its very nature disturbing, and yet humans are designed for creating and ‘making meaning’. We are the only animals that can invent new things and better ways of making them. The more we compete through ‘match and beat’, the less we gain. In business we call this the race to the bottom, where products become commoditized. Machines already perform most repetitive, monotonous and dangerous tasks much better than humans. They are set to take on a lot more. Machines may well free us humans up for safer, interesting and more purposeful work. It’s likely however that we’ve fallen out of touch – and may need to work quite hard at rediscovering and refining a human contribution. Both at school and at work, we are conditioned into applying logic, solving puzzles, finding the answer. We are less skilled in generating possibilities, ‘seeing’ the possible magic, not easily seen, or seen only by few. A formula-culture has also taken root. We look for the formula that is easy to apply, and sure to bring success.

If you are copying the most successful companies you can think of, you are not learning from them, says Thiel. Shane Parrish, from Farnam Street Blog, reinforces the same message with his statement: “There simply is no formula for success. Giving up that notion might be the most helpful thing you can do today.” It is time to step out of the race to the bottom, as humans, as businesses, to move beyond the relentless clamber for competitive advantage and growth at all costs, suited and glamorized on countless cover pages of business magazines across the globe. We can get better at exploring that magic we bring as humans – hard to define, hard to measure, hard to copy – and set it within a frame that has more meaning for us, one we can call generative rather than extractive.

By creating new technologies, humans can rewrite the plan of the world.