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Essential tool for Leaders to help teams during COVID19 and beyond: The Stockdale Paradox

By Clive Lloyd
Principal Consultant at GYST Consulting Pty Ltd
Developer of the Care Factor Program


Helping Your Team To Overcome Challenges Whilst Building a Culture of Responsibility and Accountability:

The Stockdale Paradox

A good deal of our coaching work with leaders is spent assisting them to effectively work through current issues (e.g., organisational change, increasing injury rates, declining morale etc.).  Furthermore, we then coach these leaders so they (in turn) can assist their teams to overcome their own perceived challenges.

The process we most frequently utilise in such sessions is a relatively simple one, yet - when facilitated well - it is extremely powerful for identifying clear, solution-focussed pathways while simultaneously creating a culture of accountability and responsibility within our teams.  This tool is the Stockdale Paradox.

Background – What is it?

Admiral James Stockdale was the highest-ranking naval officer to be held in the infamous “Hanoi Hilton” prison camp during the Vietnam War.

In captivity, Stockdale and his men were part of the so-called "Alcatraz" gang - American prisoners who were held in solitary confinement. They were tortured on many occasions, and the lights in their tiny cells were kept on 24 hours a day. They were forced to sleep in shackles, and endured such conditions for eight years.

Nevertheless, Stockdale approached such adversity with the mindset of an extraordinarily resilient leader. He accepted the “brutal facts” of his situation, and rather than moving into denial, pretence or avoidance, he focussed his energies on what he could control and influence, and did everything he could to lift the morale and prolong the lives of other prisoners.  Stockdale developed an innovative system to help his men deal with the torture they had to endure.

After Stockdale’s release and subsequent return to the USA, Stockdale met with psychologist Jim Collins and shared his perspectives on how he and his men had coped with such an incredible ordeal.

At one point in the interview, Collins asked Stockdale what was different about the men who didn’t make it out of the camp, and was surprised by Stockdale’s answer.  He said:

“ They were the ones who said, ‘We’re going to be out by Christmas.’ And Christmas would come, and Christmas would go. Then they’d say, ‘We’re going to be out by Easter.’ And Easter would come, and Easter would go. And then Thanksgiving, and then it would be Christmas again. And they died of a broken heart”. 

Stockdale then added:

“This is a very important lesson. You must never confuse faith that you will prevail in the end—which you can never afford to lose—with the discipline to confront the most brutal facts of your current reality, whatever they might be.”

Witnessing this philosophy of duality, Collins went on to describe it in his classic book “Good to Great“ as the “Stockdale Paradox”.

Here is the paradox: While Stockdale had an unshakeable faith that he and his men would prevail, he said that it was always the most optimistic of his fellow POWs who actually were the ones who failed to make it out alive.

What were the optimists missing? They failed to confront the most brutal facts – the reality of their situation - instead relying on avoidance, denial or wishful thinking.

Doctor Dennis Charnev, a psychiatrist specialising in new treatments for depression and anxiety, notes that the key survival mechanism for Stockdale and his fellow POWs was the ability to combine realism with optimism: 

The Stockdale Paradox really defines the optimism that is most important in becoming a resilient person and that is, when you're faced with a challenge or a trauma, you look at that challenge objectively. You might make the assessment, 'I'm in really big trouble.' You have a realistic assessment of what you're facing. On the other hand, you have the attitude and the confidence to say, 'But I will prevail. I'm in a tough spot, but I will prevail.' That is the optimism that relates to resilience. – Dr. Dennis Charnev (Psychiatrist) 

So what? - Using the Stockdale Paradox as Leaders

As leaders, we simply can’t afford to avoid our own “brutal facts”. If we want to create successful teams within a culture of accountability and responsibility, we need to not only remain optimistic, but also remain brutally honest, with a willingness to take action when things are not working in our teams.

If a leader ignores the challenges, he or she will appear aloof and out of touch. On the other hand, If the leader solely focuses on problems, they can create a culture of pessimism which can demoralise, demotivate, and undermine the effectiveness of the team.

What does this process look like?

In our experience, a “Stockdale Paradox” activity should be facilitated regularly to resolve challenges as they arise.  Moreover, when the activity becomes a regular aspect of a team’s timetable, the team becomes increasingly skilled at gaining the maximum benefit from the process.

The process does not have to be overly long, although naturally more complex challenges require more time to work through.

Generally, we’ll start with two large sheets of flip-chart paper on the wall. On the first sheet we’ll give the heading “Our Brutal Facts” (see below).

On this sheet, we record what the team identifies as current challenges.  The facilitator helps the team to get specific about the challenges, as the clearer the team can be, the more powerful the second part of the activity can be.

The second sheet of paper has the heading “Our chosen responses”.  The facilitator will then help the team to identify positive ways forward.  For this part of the process to be as useful as possible, it’s often valuable to teach (or remind) the team what they can control and/or influence (and what they can’t).

   This is usually done by moving through the circles of control, influence and concern model (see below).

 

 

 

The circle of concern may well align to some of the team’s perceived brutal facts (i.e., things they can’t control nor influence), nevertheless, as the model states, we can always control how we respond – and it is these consciously chosen responses that we record on sheet two.  The content from sheet two is then operationalised as an action plan (who, what, where, when, etc.).

This is not a difficult process, however, when facilitated well (and frequently) it has the potential to help your team to take responsibility for identifying solutions to challenges in “Above the Line” (internally-Locused) ways.

If you would like build this capability within your leadership team please contact us.

References

Collins, J. (2001). Good to Great: Why Some Companies Make the Leap and Others Don't. Harper Collins, New York

http://www.jimcollins.com/lab/brutalFacts/


Clive Lloyd is an Australian psychologist specialising in Psychological Safety, well-being and mentally- healthy workplaces. He is the director of GYST Consulting Pty Ltd, and developer of the acclaimed Care Factor Program.

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Miner
XSTRATA

"Clive is a highly motivated and dynamic trainer. He has a deep understanding of his subject and delivers a very powerful message in an incredibly short space of time. This is probably the best training session I have ever attended and I would highly recommend Clive and GYST Consulting."

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HIMA AUSTRALIA

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BMA

published on June 23, 2017

Clive Lloyd introducing the Care Factor program

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