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breaking, bad is good

March 11, 2014

Different colured bunsen burner flames

Walter White did more than make chemistry “bad” in the best possible way, he demonstrated what we are capable of when faced with all the worst kinds of adversity.  So while the results, the human cost, of Walt’s achievements caused me to turn away about half way through the first season he is still a wonderful, fictionalised, example of what we all know – difficult situations, situations that we fear might break us, provide us with an opportunity to achieve things we never thought we were capable of.

Bad can be good for us.

Research supports this view.  Dr Terrance Fitzsimmons from the UQ Business School, in his Doctoral research on CEO appointments in Australia, found there are five things that the vast majority of the small number of female CEO’s have in common. One of them was that they had met and overcome a significant and traumatic life event before the age of 15.

Malcolm Gladwell explores the same theme in his book David & Goliath. He finds that the loss of a parent at an early age is a common experience for many who are successful in the political arena. Is your child struggling to read? Take heart in the fact that they share that life experience with the likes of Kerry Packer, Dick Smith, Stephen Spielberg and Lindsay Fox.  It is very much a case of the old adage “what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.”

So if dealing with the difficult makes it easier for us to succeed in the longer term why do we spend much of our lives avoiding the difficult? Why do we demand that everything be made easy, provided to us in 15 second sound bites or blog posts of 700 words or less? In one of his recent LinkedIn posts, author Daniel Goldman (Focus, Emotional Intelligence) was criticised in a number of comments because his post on working with untrustworthy people didn’t provide “the whole answer” and included multiple links to other material he suggested people read. The view seemed to be that Goldman was deliberately manipulating them to get them to read additional material – rather than seeing that it is a complex and difficult area that cannot be explained let alone solved in 700 words.  Stone, Patten, Heen and Fisher’s book Difficult Conversations: How to discuss what matters most runs considerably longer than that, and, while it is recognised for making significant and lasting contribution to the field I suspect the authors would be the first to tell you there is more to it than is contained in the book.

Why is that?

Because human beings are not simple. Our complexity makes the myriad responses we are capable of difficult to understand. It is how we respond to the difficult that is the key to determining whether we are harmed or strengthened by the roadblocks life puts in our way.

The evidence points to early success in dealing with the difficult breeding ongoing success and conversely, early failure leading to on-going failure. (Gladwell points out that prisoners are between two and three times more likely to have experienced the loss of a parent at an early age.)

But how does that help you?

Take just one of the challenges I am working on at the moment, the lack of women at Board, CEO and senior management levels in organisations world-wide. How can we increase an individual’s chance of success without taking what seems to be the logical but drastic step of depriving them of one or both parents at an early age?

The solution, I think, lies in developing the skills needed to respond effectively to difficult situations in organisations. That much is obvious. What is less obvious but more important (and more difficult) is providing the opportunity to practice those skills in meaningful ways. That means creating breakdowns for people to respond to – difficult, challenging and engaging work that has zero associated financial and reputational risk. It can be done. But as I am already over my 700 word limit, exactly how you can go about doing that will have to wait for another day.

If you would like a hint you could read other posts that I have written as my thinking around the solution has fermented:


If you would like me to come and share with you and your team the insights that come from the experiential learning environments that I create, make me an offer via the Contact Me page. If you enjoyed reading this or my other posts and you would like to read more, you can subscribe and receive them via email simply by putting your email address into the Email Subscription box just on the right of my blog home page. You will receive a confirmation email (which some systems will think is spam so keep an eye on your junk mail) that you need to acknowledge to complete the subscription process.

After you have subscribed, send this post on to your colleagues. Go on. You know at least one person who should read this post and three more who could use a bit of shaking up… seriously. Do it now – it isn’t difficult! You read this far so send it on! I promise they won’t judge you or think less of you if you do.

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