Episode 237 – People Stuff with Zoë Routh

Some days it feels like an emotional connection with the people who need to hear it. And those are good article days… it’s a great pleasure when people write back saying, Oh, that just hit the mark for me today. That was exactly what I needed to hear. Did you write it just for me? And I’m like, No, I wrote it for me, but I’m glad it helps you.

Zoë RouthZoë Routh has been writing all her life, but she still wrestles with imposter syndrome, titles, and days when it just feels like a chore. Luckily for us, she’s learned a lot of really useful stuff about how to deal with all of that, and she shares it generously in this week’s conversation, along with some insights on dealing with difficult people and what happens when we get outdoors.


Zoë’s site: https://www.zoerouth.com/

Zoë on Twitter: https://twitter.com/zoerouth

Alison on Twitter: https://twitter.com/bookstothesky

The Extraordinary Business Book Club on Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/groups/1447064765612358/

10-day Business Book Proposal Challenge January 2021: https://pi-q.learnworlds.com/course?courseid=proposal-challenge-jan-21

Virtual Writing Retreat wait list: https://alisonjones.lpages.co/virtual-writing-retreat/

FT/McKinsey Business Book of the Year 2020 shortlist: https://www.ft.com/content/e33dfe64-5eed-4f1a-87d7-04008bbee809

My K-day countdown for the National Literacy Trust: https://www.justgiving.com/fundraising/alison-jones1000

Alison Jones: I’m here today with Zoë Routh, who is one of Australia’s leading experts on people stuff and leadership. She helps leaders and teams overcome silos and turf wars to work better together. She’s worked with individuals and teams internationally and in Australia since 1987. From the wild rivers of Northern Ontario to the remote regions of Australia, Zoë has spent the last 30 years showing teams struggling with office politics and silos, how to work better together. And she’s the author of four books; Composure, how centered leaders make the biggest impact, Moments, leadership when it matters most and Loyalty, stop unwanted staff turnover, boost engagement, and build life advocates. And the fourth book People Stuff: Beyond personality problems – an advanced handbook for leadership came out in July, 2020.

So welcome to the show Zoë.

Zoe Routh: Oh, I’m so excited to be here to talk all things books. How cool is that?

Alison Jones: I know, we are just going to geek out about business books for about half an hour. How great is that? And the first geeky question I’m going to ask you is, you had that lovely kind of, you know, single word title thing, and then you came up with People Stuff. So talk me through the mood of your titles and how you pick your titles.

Zoe Routh: With a lot of help actually.

Alison Jones: It’s not easy, isn’t it?

Zoe Routh: No. So the genesis of the first book, I had no idea, I angsted over that first book so much. The one called Composure.

Alison Jones: How ironic.

Zoe Routh: I know, right. That’s why we teach what we most need to learn. And it was in conversation with my mentor, his name is Matt Church, he is the founder of Thought Leaders Business School.  I’ve been in that business school for, I don’t know, six years now. And, in my first year there, I was writing this book and I’m like, I don’t know what to call it, I know it’s important, help me. So he had a look at the key content of my book, the model that I’ve got there.

And he said, tell me about this, tell me about this. And then he just looked up and he said, Composure: How centred leaders make the biggest impact  and I’m like. Okay, that will do

Alison Jones: They so rarely come fully formed like that. That’s amazing.

Zoe Routh: Yep. So he was really helpful with that and he was helpful with the second book title,  Moments. So we were going on a theme, sort of one word with a subtitle. And Loyalty I worked on myself, thinking about what are the key benefits for the reader. And then this last one is a little bit different, People Stuff.

And the genesis of that title was again in conversation with Matt and the CEO of Thought Leaders Business School at the time, Peter Cook. So two of my mentors, and we’d spent half a day looking at my leadership practice and what I should be focusing on, how we should talk about positioning. And after three hours, we had come to decide that my positioning should be through the lens of perspective.

And that was a really important word for me. And then literally in the last 10 minutes of the conversation, Matt said, ah, perspective is such a difficult word for people to wrestle with, it’s a big concept, you know, you work with really pragmatic, practical people in agriculture and construction, you know, and…  really what you do, you’re really all about people stuff. And  I got really irritated. I’m like, we just spent three hours talking about this and we’d all agreed on Perspective. And now you want me to… I was really resistant to it. I was like, argh, and then Pete was talking about it too.

And he’s like, yeah, you know, perspective is something… I can I understand that that’s important, but people stuff. Yeah. I get that, you know, I lead an organization and what’s the biggest challenge. It’s always the people stuff. I’m like, okay. And so the last 10 minutes of our three hour meeting was talking about people stuff and how I do team stuff and leadership stuff, and sort of,  like making it more accessible and less poncey, I guess.

Alison Jones: And do you know, that that’s exactly what you’ve achieved? Because if it were to be called Perspective, it wouldn’t communicate that at all. Also perspective is a very long word to get across a title on a book. You’d have to have a landscape book to accommodate that, which would really stick out on the shelf.

So there’s lots of good reasons, but it’s really interesting because it’s fascinating to hear that story behind it and I totally get where they’re coming from. It looks really friendly. You’ve got little stick people crawling all over it. You know, it looks kind of cartoony and accessible and fun: there’s nothing dumbed down about what’s inside, but you would pick it up and go, ‘Oh, this is, this feels like I could read it,’ which is important.

Zoe Routh: Well, I’m glad you could look at it and go, I can read this. You don’t want the opposite, but you know, it’s true though, like a lot of business books are really complex, heavy inaccessible texts, and you really have to slow down and digest them slowly and are not that comfortable to read. And even the imagery was Matt’s idea also.

So he’s, you know, he talked about like…

Alison Jones: This guy is great …

Zoe Routh: Oh, yeah, he was genius. He is genius. And so his idea is like, Oh, you could work with Lynne Cazaly who was another thought leader mentor. And because she does a lot of hand drawn stuff and he says that really, that would be a great accompaniment to this brand, you know, down to earth, practical, pragmatic, accessible.

I’m like, oh, my God. Great. So the next day I got home from the meeting, because it was in Melbourne and I was in Canberra and contacted Lynne and got her on board. And so she did a lot of branding imagery for me and for the book. And then I changed the titles of all my programs to leadership stuff, team stuff, people stuff, culture stuff, and, ta dah.

Alison Jones: It’s a great master class as well in integrating the book into the business. I mean, every single title that we’ve just talked about, it all comes out of that business conversation and where you’re focusing and who you’re working for. And, and then you feed the title of the book back into the business. It’s a lovely synergy. Isn’t it?

Zoe Routh: It is and, you know, it took six years to get there. Of wrestling with all sorts of different ideas of how I would put who I am and what I do out into the world. And, you know, I tried different things like boundless leadership was a theme for a little while and it just never kind of just pinged. But, so I think it’s okay.

Depending on where you’re up to as an author and as a business person, if you’re at the beginning stages and you want to get it just right, sometimes it takes a while to get there. And, yeah, so it was six years of wrestling get to this point. And it’s good now.

Alison Jones: It’s good and it all looks so effortless now, which is, yes, it’s very encouraging to hear people say things like that, isn’t it, when you are in the wrestling stage. One thing that I loved about your book as well was the four devils, which is elemental, isn’t it? And that’s the real physical kind of emotional responses that you have to people’s behaviour. So could you just talk through the four devils? Because I think they’re so clever.

Zoe Routh: Oh, well, thank you. The four devils of people stuff, and that’s sort of, that’s on the chapter which is all about perspective on others. And it kind of serves as a perspective on ourselves too, because as I unpack the four devils and whenever I explained in webcast and so forth, people are like, is this just about other people? Or can we see ourselves here too? I’m like, of course we see ourselves here. And you’re right, it is elemental. When I was thinking about people’s problematic behaviour and what triggers them, the metaphor, the analogy that came up for me was weather, you know, and how primal and basic it all is, when it comes to emotional turbulence.

So wind, water, earth, and fire. And I started mapping this out and I’m like, well, what happens when you combine, you know, earth and fire. I was like, well, that’s interesting. It’s kind of like when we have an earthquake and it causes fires and what happens when we combine fire and air, it’s like, oh, it’s like bush fires.

And so I did that kind of work first. I did a combination of the elements and had a look at what the natural storms are as a result of that. And then I mapped it against what happens with people’s behavior. And so we ended up with these four archetypes of poor behavior, which are the Firebug, the Storm Driver, the Water Bomber and the Ground Splitter.

So those are the archetypes but underneath it is what drives them or contributes to that. And there’s two axes and one of the axes is people’s inner world. So their beliefs and their emotions and those two, they act like polarities, I guess. They sort of inform each other. So what we believe creates emotions and our emotions that we experience creates beliefs. So, we draw conclusions from our emotional world, so they kind of feed each other and that kind of creates the weather pattern if you like, depending on what the other stimulus is into the environment. And the other axis, the vertical axis is how we express that inner world.

So whether we express it and communicate it verbally and outwardly, or whether we express it through our behaviour. And so when I played around with all this, it showed up in these four archetypes. So the Firebug is somebody who rants and rages and is angry and frustrated. The Storm Driver is similar in terms of the ranting side of things but they are emotional.

So you know, how you are in conversation with someone and they are so upset and they’re raging on about something. You don’t hear their argument because the emotion is just so in your face, so that’s like the Storm Driver. Whereas the Firebug is a little bit more  argumentative and resistant. So you understand clearly their position and feel their anger. But the Storm Driver, their emotion is the thing that hits you most. And the two archetypes  which aren’t verbally expressive, like the Firebug and the Storm Driver, are the Ground Splitter and the Water Bomber.

So the Water Bomber is very hurt and harried and they have trouble expressing verbally what’s going on for them. So we can end up being clammed up. That’s one version of the Water Bomber, or it can be like this cloud of despair and angst, not too fun to be around and we leave a wake behind us. Not great and very difficult to handle because they have a hard time saying what’s going on for them.

The Ground Splitter is a little bit different, in that they’re kind of seething with resentment and stress, and they go underground and they can default into silos that sort of, they feel overwhelmed, they can put the head down and just be stuck there. And if they’re really peeved, then they’ll do that things like white-anting and backbiting, and just stirring the pot behind the scene. So creating the earthquake tremors, if you like, in an organization or a team.

So that’s sort of where the four devils come out. And then in the book I unpack what are the triggers for all of these, and largely to sum up the triggers for some of this behaviour, sort of like what stirs up the weather. Could be a change in air pressure and heat and all that kind of stuff. In people really what triggers this poor stormy behavior is fear of loss.

And there’s a number of different losses that can trigger these kinds of behaviours .And the work of the neuroscientist David Rock, who’s an Australian neuroscientist, where he categorized these in an acronym called SCARF and I’ve mapped those into the model as well. So, you know, it’d be loss of power and autonomy is one of the triggers, loss of position, which is related to status and fairness, loss of place, which is our sense of belonging and inclusion and loss of performance, where we feel overwhelmed and stressed out because we can’t deliver.

So that’s the juiciness of the four devils unpacked for you.

Alison Jones: Brilliant, It’s so effective because at one level you’re going, Oh yes, I recognize so and so, you know, but on the other hand, I think when you have that kind of framework in your head, and then you meet somebody being an absolute pain, you  have a different response in your toolkit, don’t you? Because you can start being curious  about what’s  driving that and mapping that behaviour. So ‘That’s interesting and I wonder what’s causing that…’ and that takes the heat out of the thing. So even just the awareness changes, how you interact with people I think.

Zoe Routh: Oh, you nailed it, Alison that’s exactly my point of view and my perspective in the book, is that what looks like personality problems, is in fact something under the surface. And it could be these patterns, these emotional patterns and triggers and underneath all of that are the systems in a team or organization that are creating those fear of losses in the other instance.

So one of the key principles I have is that we need to dive deep and not surf. So rather than surf the waves of the emotions and the visible problems, we need to dive below all of that to see what are the contributing factors. And when we press pause and are curious, that allows us not to react. As you said to the behavior that we’re observing and yeah, and it just unplugs us from a reaction.

Alison Jones: Yes. And you know all about how people are at the extreme as well, because you’ve done outdoor leadership and I’m always fascinated by that.

 My husband’s an outdoor instructor and met in Chile and that kind of thing, you know, but that’s when you see people kind of at their elemental self, isn’t it. So I’d love to hear from you. How does that background in outdoor stuff, play into what you do in a nice safe office these days.

Zoe Routh: I don’t know how safe the office is sometimes. It can be as much of a jungle as the outdoors can be. So what I learnt… so I started off leading canoe trips in Ontario, in Canada, from the age of 17, worked at a summer camp and then started taking out trips when I was 19. And you’re right. It is elemental ,you’re in the elements.

And what I loved about that kind of experience in small groups is that we bonded through adversity. We bonded through the shared experience of adventure. And I think that principle of how we build trust and intimacy in a team, whether it’s in the outdoors or whether it’s in an office, is really about that shared experience.

You know, what are we bonding together, what are we rallying together to overcome, to contribute? And when we, as leaders, we need to formulate those experiences often, so we can galvanize the troops. And that’s why I  think offsites are really good because we have that intimacy and share connection piece.

When you throw groups or teams into an outdoor setting, as part of their development or team experience, what happens is that they’re taken out of their normal environment and they are tested. And there’s different ways that outdoor programs are constructed, have a different methodology. So my first experience doing the outdoors was canoe trips.

And it was very basic, you know, we’re going from here to here and it’s going to take a couple of weeks, and this is our route plan. And so the objective was learning how to coordinate our activities to get through the day. So it was, you know, who does what, who’s in charge, who can navigate, who can make decisions, all that kind of basic team engagement.

When I came to Australia and started working at Outward Bound, the outdoor experiences were more of a, crucible, I guess, for the teams. And so they were a bit more of a metaphoric container for the experience. So for example, at Outward Bound, we would do lots of different activities like bushwalking, rock climbing, rafting down rivers, and those experiences provided the opportunity to explore team dynamics. And sometimes we would do activities like painting and painting challenges or silly game kind of challenges. And it became less about the content of the experience and more about the process. And that really came home when I started, I did some work with Outback Initiatives, which is another outdoor experiential organization in Australia. And that was really about the metaphor of the activity. So there would be kind of like a treasure hunt or a problem solving, great adventure kind of race. And it didn’t matter what we did. You know, there’s one activity where you have to fish an information canister out of a lake and it’s late at night, like what is the importance of that?

And it was more about how we go about problem-solving the activity. And when you put people under a lot of pressure and uncertainty with vague conditions, with not much detail, then they tend to drop their façades and get to who they really are. And you can sort of see what levels of resilience are and how they behave towards one another under pressure. And that’s really important in the corporate world because too often people put on these façades and then explode. And so if we can get teams to just swipe away the social norms that they protect themselves with and have real conversations about what’s really bothering them, then we can just advance the dynamics and the maturity of the group more quickly.

The third way that outdoors supports team development is what I’ve started doing in my practice in the last couple years and that’s going into the outdoors as a way… it’s less of a crucible and more of a cradle, and the beautiful environment with all of its vistas and horizons allows us to reconnect with ourselves.

So deep, intimate reflection about who we are and what we are doing, and really connecting with each other. So it’s more of a nurturing kind of experience.

Alison Jones: And we’re back to perspective again, aren’t we.

Zoe Routh: Absolutely. And one of the things I really believe is that big views give big insights. And there’s actually some research around that too, is that when we look at a horizon, it changes our brainwaves into more of an alpha state, and that allows us to access different insights and just calm down our very overactive brain. So we can actually process and experience the world differently.

Alison Jones: So you can’t get much further from the mountain-top experience than sitting at your laptop, banging out a book. So tell me, what does writing look like for you? What does that do for you personally and professionally?

Zoe Routh: Woah. What does it do for me? Oh, I’ve always written. I mean, I studied English literature at university, so I’ve always been in love with stories and books and, I’ve always written as well. I remember in grade five or six, writing a story as an assignment  and having people respond to it. And that was kind of surprising to me. I’m like, Oh yeah, he thinks it’s funny. and I was delighted by that. I’m like, Oh, okay, cool. My writing has an impact. When I started my practice, my coaching and leadership practice in 2002,  I heard that the thing to do is to write a newsletter. So I’m like, okay, I’ll write a newsletter.

And I started writing just different insights and observations that I had way back then. That was yeah, 18 years ago now. So I’ve always had a regular practice of communicating with the written word.

What does it do for me? Some days are hard and feel like, Ugh, it’s a chore.

And some days it just, it feels like an emotional connection with the people who need to hear it. And those are good article days. So I feel like it’s a privilege to be able to serve others with insights and it’s a great pleasure when you actually get, you know, people write back saying, Oh, that just hit the mark for me today. That was exactly what I needed to hear. Did you write it just for me? And I was like, no, I wrote it for me, but I’m glad it helps you.

And the book writing, that’s a different story altogether. Yeah. The first book I had so much difficulty in getting started because of the imposter voice syndrome which was, I guess there was the fear of being seen and criticized, which is ironic because I’ve been writing for years and years and years publicly before that. But it seemed more serious to put your words into a book where once it’s out there, it’s out there and you don’t have control over it anymore.

But I guess, what happens when you write,  this is what happens for me anyways, when I write, I learn more, my thinking deepens, I get new insights as I write and connect, so it becomes a thinking process as much as it is as a creative process and with this fourth book, it was another experience altogether.

I did this fabulous writing course with Steven Kotler, who is a prolific author. He was a journalist and writing teacher by trade and he’s written a number of fantastic books. And now he runs the Flow Research Collective and he had this great course called Flow for Writers and was all about the neuroscience of flow and how you can apply that to your writing process.

So I’m like, cool. Well, I want to do a really good job on this new book, and I want to learn more about writing. I didn’t actually care about the flow part, to be honest, I just wanted to be in a writing course. So I started this course and then was blown away and delighted by the things that they talked about in terms of flow and how you can apply that to your writing practice.

And so I started applying some of those techniques. And when I sat down to write, I got into flow, which means I was completely immersed in the writing. And the words flew off the page and it felt like a delight to create and craft words together that created vivid imagery and great storytelling.

And so, yeah, it became a juicy, pleasurable, immersive experience that you got kind of get hooked on, which is the whole point of flow, right? It’s all like this, it’s a cocktail of biochemicals that are all feel good stuff where you get your best insights. And I did that course halfway through writing People Stuff.

And I know that going back through the book, I can tell the sections that were written in flow, and I can tell the ones that were not. Yeah the ones that are written in flow  they’re easier to read  and there’s less bumpiness in them and they feel less awkward. Or maybe I’m just remembering what it was like to write the ones that weren’t in flow.

Alison Jones: Yeah, because I always find when you grind out a paragraph or whether you just, you know, it flies off and it’s like it dropped down from heaven, you go back and read it a couple of weeks later and you can’t tell the difference.

Zoe Routh: Well, you hope the reader doesn’t tell the difference.

Well, I can’t tell the difference!

Yeah, I’ll have to think more about that. I guess I think it’s more important to think about how the reader experiences the book than necessarily how it was produced in the end. But in terms of the deliciousness of writing, I think I just feel called to it all the time.

Alison Jones: That’s a great phrase.

Zoe Routh: Well, it just, it feels like something I have to do. I can’t imagine not writing something. And I blog every week and I write articles for the book and all this kind of stuff, so there’s a lot of writing going on.

Alison Jones: You’re going to have to share one of these tips or techniques with us. If I always ask people for their best tip for a first time author who isn’t frankly, in flow and is perhaps grappling a little bit with their first book, what would be your best tip for them?

Zoe Routh: Oh, my goodness. Do I have to stop at one, I’ll try. And, first time author, yeah, I’d say the overarching tip is just park the gremlin on the side and, you know, read Steven Pressfield’s War of Art to help you with that. So it’s like, yeah, just park the critic on the side and keep writing. So there’s a bit of a mindset piece.

In terms of honing your craft, one of the tips I got from Steven Kotler is to read like a writer. And I think that is a really useful tip to pay attention to the language craft, the craft of language. So when you’re reading something, take note of the somatic effect that the writing has on you. Where do you feel the experience of reading the book in your body and then go back and read how the author did that, like how do they construct their sentences? What were the triggers that caused that emotional response? And it gives you a little bit more of an x-ray vision into the art of writing. And ever since I did that course, I have been just obsessed with how writers do stuff, because I think I paid more attention to that when I was studying English literature.

And then after I finished my degree, I couldn’t read a book for five years. Like, I was just so over books and then…

Alison Jones: It’s paralysing, isn’t it?

Zoe Routh: Oh my God, you get, because you spend doing your university degree analyzing how writers do things and it takes away the joy of reading. So it took me five years to get past that and then got back into the joy of reading and I’ve come full circle back to looking at how writers do the thing that they do, because I want to do it better as well. So that’s a little bit of mindset piece.

Another tip would be to help with the flow stuff. One of the things that helped me was I use my noise canceling headphones, and I play Brain FM. So Brain.fm is the website and it is, binaural beats to musical tones.

That kind of just helped me focus and it just hooks me into a different zone. And that has been really useful. It’s now a bit more of a trigger. So as soon as I put the headphones on and put the music on, I’m like I’m sucked in, on the page doing my writing thing. And I guess the other really important, from an ideas crafting point of view is I’d point you to Matt Church’s book called Think.

It’s a very small looking book and it is incredibly powerful because basically what it does it teaches you how to develop your ideas more fully and robustly. I don’t think that’s a word, but we’ll go with it, and it uses models to unpack and deepen your thinking. And it uses left brain and right brain techniques.

So facts, statistics and figures are the left brain. Things that back up your ideas, stories, metaphors, images are the right brain things that can help unpack the images. And this is an incredibly useful tool to help make your thinking better. So when I’m thinking about , when I’m reading some books and I’m loving the ideas, I’m like, Oh, they just needed to rinse this through a couple of models and it would have organized the thinking and the book a lot better.

So that’s Matt Church. You can get, he actually has this book for free in PDF form on his website, mattchurch.com. So that would be, those are my three key points, I guess.

Alison Jones: Well, you’ve done brilliantly because my next question was going to be, could you recommend us a book? And you just did, so you’ve put them together into one, so magnificent. Thank you.

So if people want to find out more about you, more about all of your books, where should they go?

Zoe Routh: Zoerouth.com  -Z O E R O U T H.com. if you want to listen to the dulcet tones of my lovely Canadian Australian voice, you can find me on my podcast, Zoe Routh Leadership Podcast on all of the different podcasting platforms and LinkedIn, I’m hanging out quite a lot on LinkedIn, so you can connect with me there too.

Alison Jones: Fantastic. And we didn’t even get to talk about podcasting actually. Maybe that’s another episode because that goes very beautifully with writing and thinking and all good stuff as well, doesn’t it, talking to people about your ideas?

Zoe Routh: Absolutely.

Alison Jones: Brilliant. So much fantastic stuff there about the topic of the book, but also about the writing of it.

And I’m fascinated by the idea of flow. I’m going to have to go and check out a lot of the resources that you’ve told me about today. Thank you so much for your time. It’s been fascinating.

Zoe Routh: Oh, thank you. Alison. I had such a pleasure talking with you.

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