Author Archive for carole – Page 3

Are You Burnt Out or Just Needing a Holiday?


You feel tired, you can’t wait for the pressure to reduce but are you really burnt out, or just in need of a break.

The distinction is important because burn-out is recognised by psychologists as a very particular condition, which is the result of the toxic combination of individuals who are driven in their work finding organisations which reward them for that over-commitment. Author of “Learning from Burnout” Tim Casserley ( who owns that he was burnt-out) draws a dramatic analogy between burn out and addiction.  The employee is addicted to work.  They get a high from pushing themselves hard, and from seeing that they are doing more, achieving more, competing harder than those around them.  And, then like all fixes, there is a come down.  Work becomes joyless and only doing more, competing harder will meet the need.

For a time it seems to work, the individual will report being able to work punishing hours, but while they are unaware of the impact on them, their brain is not.  The brain recognises the stress on the system, and kicks in the adrenal glands: the glands sitting on top of the kidneys which secrete the stress hormones adrenalin and cortisol.  To the adrenal glands, the message is that the individual needs to be prepared for fight or flight, so it releases hormones in order to raise the pulse, increase focus, send blood to the muscles, raise the blood sugar levels and prepare you for escaping or facing off immediate danger.  However, when the brain is sending the same message again and again, the adrenal glands become tired and less effective at secreting hormones.  As the supply of the emergency hormones reduces the individual starts to notice they are getting more and more tired, They may notice they are less resistant to colds and other bugs, they may notice that their blood pressure is low because they get dizzy at times, or that they need to boost their sugar levels regularly, but they do not connect this with how they are working.  The brain and body have lost sight of each other.

What they often do not notice, but others around them will, is that they are becoming less effective at what they are doing.  What they may register but suppress are feelings of low connection with their work .  What they experience but may not admit is that they feel disconnected from people.


Torben Friis

Anyone watching the last series of Borgen will have watched the gradual burn out of Torben Friis, the driven TV news producer, who sees his life fall apart, when the total commitment he has given to his work over his home life, is shown to be faulty when  a new young Head of Programmes challenges his capability.  Suddenly, his total commitment to the news department offers no reward, and he is left visibly shaken and stressed.   While he seeks an immediate fix in a clumsy affair with a member of his team, that affair in itself is an indicator of his disconnection to others. He has no sense of her emotional needs.  For him it is simply respite before going back into the fray again.


Many of us complain of being burnt out at times, but as Ayala  Pines, a researcher on burnout writes,

“In order to burn out, one has first to be on fire”. The Torbin Friis’s of the world continue fuelling the fire until it burns them out.  At that point they are faced by existential choices about how they want to live their lives going forward.  They are asked to confront issues they have avoided about purpose, about what success really means, about whether the price of success is worth it, and about the value which they put on themselves and relationships.

So if you think that you are in danger of burnout ask yourself these questions:

  • How much of my identity is tied to the work that I do?
  • How rewarded am I by what I do relative to the time I am giving to my work?
  • How often do I find it difficult to get out of bed because I feel exhausted even after a good night’s sleep?
  • What ways am I using to boost my energy levels, legal or illegal in order to keep going?
  • How connected do I feel to people who are key parts of my life?

Your answers may reveal that you are simply in need of a holiday, but if you find that there is a correlation between how much you are giving to your work, and how much it is depleting you, then it is time to take time out to create a space for personal rehab and renewal.





What’s Holding You Back?

maya-angelou-16x9Hearing of Maya Angelou’s death reminded me of a trip to Chicago 20 years ago. As I wandered along a main street, I saw a queue of people outside a bookshop. There was a sense of excitement about the crowd that drew me in. I squeezed through the mass, curious as to what was the attraction and found myself in front of Maya Angelou. I knew of her through “I Know How the Caged Birds Sing”, but what I did not appreciate until I came close to her was the love she generated, by dint of her personality. She was warm and welcoming to those who brought their books up to her. Her voice was loud, and where some book signings often have a sense of hushed reverence, this one had a sense of people united in a relationship with the author. Maya’s laughter rippled through the store, and it was contagious.
What had drawn people in was the knowledge that this woman had faced difficulties that would have crushed many of us, and yet in the words of her poem “And still I rise”. Born into poverty in Missouri, raised by a grandmother after her parents separated, raped at the age of 7 by her mother’s boyfriend, and turned mute for several years by the murder of her rapist by a relative, she emerged as one of the most influential women in American. The woman who spoke at Bill’s Clinton inauguration, who became a Professor of American Studies, who wrote books and appeared in films, who won Grammy awards for her reading of her poems was a woman who used her intellect, humanity and courage to rise beyond the conditions of her beginnings.

Maya Angelou was unique, but she modelled qualities which we can all aspire to. She achieved so much because as she said in her poem On Aging: “My life has been long, and believing that life loves the living of it, I have dared to try many things sometimes trembling, but daring still”.

What holds so many of us back is the fear of that trembling, which prevents the daring. Angelou challenges us to accept the trembling as the price of living a fulfilling life.

What We Can Learn From Stephen Sutton



The response to the death of Stephen Sutton has been profound.  The inspirational 19 year old, who with a diagnosis of terminal cancer, decided to use every day he had left to him to live to his mantra of “it’s not how long you live, it’s the experiences you have”  has been extraordinary.  We do not expect 19 year olds to die of cancer.  We do not expect 19 year olds to use their experience as a focus for raising millions of pounds.  We do not expect 19 year olds to face death head on.  We do not expect those things, not because he was 19, but because it is not how most people deal with impending death.


What Stephen did was to decide, if he could not have the life expectancy he expected, how could he create a purpose for his life?  He did it with such energy, positivity and humour that he became an irresistible  force: as signalled in the celebrities and politicians lining up to be associated with him.  More crucially, in the creation of the purpose, he made the process of his dying easier.


We know from all the research on resilience that it is the creation of purpose that gets people through the tough times. It is being able to decide that as difficult as a situation is, I can choose to create meaning from it.  It is seen in accounts of prisoners of war and concentration camp survivors.  It is seen in the stories of families who create campaigns  and charities, following the death of a family member.  It is seen in the accounts of children who decide that they will fight the odds and escape from challenging family backgrounds.  There is nothing more valuable than purpose.  It gives us a compass point for our actions.  It makes us persist when it would be easier to give up.  It makes people commit to doing work that is not financially rewarding but feeds their sense of purpose.


We react to Stephen Sutton’s story, because in his creation of purpose, he reminds us that if we have the luxury of more time for our living, we owe it to ourselves to live with purpose.


Living the Bell Curve: The Importance of Not Being Attached to Success or Failure

eat pray love

Recently I listened to Elizabeth Gilbert on TED talks.  Gilbert is the author of Eat, Pray, Love a book which gave her phenomenal success and which spawned a film of the same name. In the talk she spoke about the impact of the book on her life.  She had known she had wanted to write from childhood and had lived the life of a writer for many years i.e. little income and many rejections.  With each rejection she recovered by in her words ‘going home’.  Going home meant getting back to her desk and starting to write all over again.  In order to recover from rejection she went back to the thing which she loved best, and where she could be freed from her ego.  Once writing the rejection and the hurt that came with it disappeared because she was absorbed in her life’s passion.


Conversely, when she experienced success she saw the need for the same process.  Where rejection had pushed her to one end of the bell curve, success pushed her to the other.  Each were equally disabling.  As she saw herself being feted for one book which had caught the popular imagination, she felt as disoriented as when she only received brickbats. She needed to find herself back in the average zonal range of the bell curve, and in order to do that she needed to  “go home” ie to get back to writing and away from things which fed her ego.  By doing that she was freed up to deal with failure again.  When her next book ‘bombed’ in her words, she was able to deal with it, because her ego was not invested in being at the high end of the curve.  Her message to her audience is that regardless of success or failure, we need to know what ‘going home’ means to us, so that we ensure we can find our way there, whether things are going well or badly.  Going home may mean your family, your work, your beliefs, your partner, but whatever it is, it is important to recognise that living at the extremes is so much easier if you know where you need to head back to.

Why We Need to Get Back On the Horse When We Fall


falling off horse


As a 9 year old I walked to school past a house where a large boxer dog stood outside on guard. It barked loudly as I walked towards it, and when I crossed the road to escape  it would follow me. I came to be petrified of the dog, and eventually planned routes were I was guaranteed not to see him.   Was the dog dangerous? – Unlikely, but that experience conditioned into my brain the idea that dogs are to be avoided. A belief that stays with me as an adult.  But what if, when the dog barked the owner had come out of the house had held it by the collar and had invited me to come and say hello to him.  If they had told me how to stroke the dog and had explained that his bark was worse than his bite.  It is possible that over time I would have seen encountering the dog as one of the pleasures of walking to school.  More centrally, it would have stopped the development of a conditioned response in my brain. I would have had an unpleasant memory overlain with a new one that kept my brain open to the idea of dogs being fun.  I would have developed a flexibility in my responses.


It is that recognition that our brain quickly becomes conditioned if we allow an unpleasant memory to be reinforced  is behind the adage of the importance of getting back on the horse after a fall.


Neuroscience has now shown that recent memories are fragile. They are not embedded in our brains so they can be overridden by new ones.  The child who falls off the horse and remounts will put the fall in the context of a whole experience of the feelings and sensations of being out on a horse.  They will contextualize the fall as part of the event, but not the whole event.  Meanwhile the child who falls and does not remount will remember only the pain and may decide that horses are dangerous.


So, when we face fear and pain our brains are better served by us being willing to face the experiences, because by doing so we learn how to remain flexible in our responses, and in avoidance we condition our brain into thinking we cannot cope with difficulty.

Why Failure is No Reason for Giving Up



mo farah marathan

If you tuned into the TV coverage of the 2014 London Marathon you would have heard broadcaster Brendan Foster berating Mo Farah, before he had even finished the race.  His advice was that he  should give up on marathons and get back onto the track where he is indisputably the best in the world at 10,000 metres.  The reason for his advice: Farah in his first ever marathon came in 8th with a time of 2:08.21.  In Foster’s eyes Farah had failed.  Yet when Mo was interviewed minutes after he crossed the finishing line, his take on his performance was somewhat different.  Rather than seeing his result as a message to give up, his response was that doing less than he had hoped for was no reason for giving in, but rather a motivator to do better next time.  He immediately focused on what he had learnt from running the race,  that would help him in his next marathon.  For him the point at which he should stop running marathons was when he had established that he could succeed, not the point at which he was just beginning to learn how to run a 26 mile race.

 His response was a 21st century version of Thomas Edison’s reply to critics who lambasted him for the 1o,000 experiments it took to perfect a  functioning electric light bulb.  “I have not failed 10,000 times.  I have successfully found 10,000 ways that will not work. For Edison those 10,000 experiments were opportunities to learn, not humiliating failures.

The idea of failure is not one we are comfortable with as adults, and yet it is the only way in which we learn.  A baby
 could not learn to walk without being willing to fall over time and time again. Rock bands that last,  have stories of
dire performances on the way to success, in contrast to the short lived fame of those scooped from obscurity into
 instant stardom via TV   No comedian can succeed without the learning from dismal performances to unenthralled
 audiences.  It is only when we open up to the possibility of failing as a necessary stepping stone on the way
 to success, that we can succeed.


Stick or Slip: What’s Different When We Keep Our Promises to Ourselves?

What is it that makes us stick at something when the going gets tough, when at another time we may give up on exactly the same thing?  Think diets, smoking, exercise or a career goal.


I ask this questions because it is one I have been asking myself.  25 years ago working in a Business School, I could not have had better conditions for doing a PhD.  My fees were paid, I could study in work time, I had easy access to potential participants – but I gave up.  Roll forward and I have just finished a doctorate.  This time I paid my own fees, I did it whilst working fulltime, I gave up my weekends and holidays, and I had to find my own participants, and yet I got through.


The answer to my question is a simple one – I had purpose.

In my first attempt, I did not know why I was doing the doctorate – other than it was what my colleagues expected of me.  I was expected to approach it in a way which met with my boss’s approval, but which had little appeal to me.  I was uncertain of my focus, and as a consequence I was easily distracted into doing things which made a plausible case for not working on the research.

This time, I knew why I was doing it. I knew how I needed to do it in order for it to be motivating and valid for me.  I had a personal vision of what I wanted to do with the outcomes.  As a result my energy flowed easily towards the project.  There was no reason to procrastinate, every reason to keep going when the going got tough, and no difficulty in prioritising my activities.


So the learning is – if you want to move from I want to  . . . lose weight, get fitter, get promoted, change my career, be a better leader, then start by defining your purpose.  What is it you want by achieving your goal, because once you own that, the rest will follow.

Once you know why something is important to you, then you have started the process of succeeding.



How Resilient is Your Organisation?

It is easy to get so focused on your own area of interest that you forget to look up and around you to see how you connect with other perspectives.  That is what happened to me last week when I spoke at an event on individual resilience with colleagues from Achill Management.  Achill are experts in organisational resilience who are helping organisations working in the voluntary and social enterprise sectors to  future proof themselves.

It is comforting to see organisational resilience as a concern of large operations e.g. how would a hospital keep performing if a hurricane knocked out its electricity systems; how quickly can an organisation recover from fire or flood, how long before   a bank recovers from the failure of its IT systems, but resilience is perhaps even more relevant when your organisation is small.

What would happen if a key member of staff left?


How reliant are you on one or two clients?

How long could you keep going if you lost a key client?

What would happen if you were ill for an extended period?

What would happen if a break in took away key technology?

These are the sort of questions which small organisations often avoid asking themselves,but which risk the loss of their business if one or more disruptions hits them. According to the US Federal Emergency Management Agency 90% of businesses fail within two years after a major disaster.

 Jim Haywood, Director at Achill Management offered some key questions to help businesses (large and small) consider how they can resilience proof themselves.

  1. What are the 3 critical activities that you need to keep doing to ensure your success e.g. producing new products and services, marketing, thinking smarter than competitors (and which of those activities is most critical).
  2. What are the disruptions that could prevent you giving attention to those critical activities e.g. only focussing in the here and now, continuing doing things which keep you  busy but which are not business critical.
  3. How long could you keep going if you failed to focus on those critical activities?
  4. Which is most urgent for you to attend to right now, and what action can you take to prevent or mitigate your resilience being impacted

 Simple questions but ones which pull us up short on how willing we are to engage in considering what could derail our organisation.

For any organisation wanting to consider their own business’s resilience Achill Management have developed a nifty questionnaire, which takes only a few minutes and which gives you an immediate reading on the resilience of your organisation , and what you can do to increase it.

To complete the questionnaire follow the link:

Want to change your identity, change your story

Jo came to me with her story.  It was an engaging one.  She had given her all, had taken on jobs that no-one else wanted, had worked holidays as well as weekends and the outcome of the story was she felt exploited and overlooked.  While Jo wanted me to share in the unjustice of her experience, what I was listening for was different.  I was listening for the kind of story she was telling me, and from my position it was a Cinderella story.  She felt hard done by, she felt she was missing out and she was hoping that a Prince Charming – in the guise of a supportive manager would see her value and ensure she got the promotion she felt she deserved.


Cinderella stories are common, and it is not a gender issue. There are Cinderfellas out there too who feel that they are being badly treated, undervalued and overworked, and who hope for a rescuer who will see their true worth and make it OK for them.

Click to Play!

All of us create stories.  It is how we make meaning of our lives, but the danger is that we look to repeat the same story. We look for evidence in the situations we face that the same story is being played out, and over time it comes to shape our identity.  We become typecast, in the same way as Hollywood actors, but with less reward.  I have met many Cinderellas, but I have also met the solo warrior who is always fighting battles, the heroic rescuer who ensures that they take on the work of those they feel cannot cope, the maverick who always positions themselves outside the system, and the sacrificial parent who puts others needs before their own.  All of them feeling they have no other option.

The danger is that once we are caught by our own typecasting, it becomes difficult to see that there are behavioural choices: each identity traps the individual into believing that is how they have to be.

So, if you want to change your behaviour, start by changing your story.

Once Jo, decided she wanted to have control over her future rather than being a victim of it, she started negotiating about what she wanted in return for taking on work which she knew could help her build her career future.  Once she started acting as though she valued herself, others began to value her more.  Once she recognised that she could get what she wanted without hoping for a corporate Prince to provide it, the rewards started to flow towards her.


So ask yourself:

  • What story am I telling myself about my life?
  • What identity does that signal to others?
  • What behaviours does it lead me into?
  • What do I want to change in my story?
  • What would be a first behaviour that supported that new story?



Are You Thriving?


Beautiful young woman jumping on  a green meadow with a colored tissue


The word resilience has become so ubiquitous that it is like Humpty Dumpty in Alice in Wonderland, who argues that a word can mean whatever he wants it to mean.  So it is with one of the hot words of recent years.

In the last few weeks I have heard the reaction of villagers in Somerset to being flooded described as resilient: by which the reporter meant they were stoic rather than hysterical in the face of seeing their homes ruined.  I have heard a premier league football manager describe his team as resilient: by which he meant they fought back from a seemingly lost game.  I have heard the ability of a bank to quickly restore services after it was unable to process payments as resilient: by which was meant it had a strong back up system within its infrastructure.  So a word which originated as a description of plants which could adapt to changing environmental conditions has become hijacked to mean any numbers of different things:

  • The ability to keep going when things are tough
  • The ability to manage emotions at a time of difficulty
  • The ability to restore normality after disruption

It has now entered organisational life, often as a pseudonym for being able to handle stress.  What if however, rather than using the word resilience we used the word thriving.  Let me explain the difference.  Resilience is linked to the idea of recovering from a setback, of disruption to the norm, of one off events which derail an individual in their personal life, in their health or their career.  That is why many books on resilience talk of ‘bounce back’.  However, many people’s working lives are marked not by one off events, but by continuous demands, by relentless pressures, by never having enough time or enough resource.  The challenge is not how to bounce back, but how to keep going.


Rather than talking about resilience, some writers have suggested that it is more useful to look at how people continue to give a high level of performance regardless of the demands. In other words, how do they thrive?  To answer that question Mustafa Sarker and David Fletchers, researchers into resilience at Loughborough University interviewed 13 individuals at the top of their professions; in areas as diverse as policing, mountain climbing, accountancy, the media and politics to look for the common themes in how they managed to thrive when the demands were as high as the stakes.  They discovered that there were 6 recurring themes:

  • Proactive personalities.  They were hardwired to look at what they could do in the face of difficulty rather than being passive  recipients.
  • Experience and learning:  They actively looked at what they could learn from experiences and many of them engaged in reflective practices such as writing.
  • Control:  Even when the situation seemed outside of their control, they looked for what they could take control of, in particular they prioritised where their energy went.
  • Flexibility: They were able to adapt to situations and be willing to flex around the reality of what was, rather than holding onto what they thought the situation should be.
  • Balance and Perspective: They continued to do things outside of work, even when the pressure was high, because it enabled them to keep a sense of perspective.  Even in the face of difficulty at work, knowing they could still enjoy spending time playing sport, having a laugh with friends, or giving time to charitable causes, provided another lens with which to view their working life.  They did not talk of work life balance in a literal sense, but of finding a point of equilibrium that worked for them.
  • Perceived Social Support: They sought out supporters and mentors within their work setting, so that beyond the emotional support they could get from friends and families they had available to them people who they could talk things through with, who understood their context.

Sarker and Fletcher’s research is important because it is based on people who are ambitious, who seek out challenge, and who have had to find ways of managing themselves in order to deliver the results from which success comes.  They have thrived.

The question for readers of this blog then are:

  • How well are your thriving?
  • What can you take from those that do that would help you ensure you can deliver high performance in the face of high demands?