I do a great deal of training that gives managers the skills to coach their staff which invariably relies on helping them ask appropriate questions. I spend a great deal of time trying to explain how people react to directive instruction, even if it comes in the form of a questions. E.g. Have you thought of….. It can lead people to become obstructive and create defensiveness. In other cases, individuals lose confidence because the ‘instruction’ is taken to indicate that they are not capable of achieving the task without this direction. Whereas when we engage people with the problem solving, they feel more valued and experience a sense of agency. This feeling of self-direction and agency is a great motivator and this weekend I saw a very graphic display of this very phenomena in action.
My 3 year old grandson had just been allowed to put the tablet in the dishwasher so his mother asked him to put the box of tablets back in the cupboard. The little boy looked up at his mother and refused. He continued to insist that ‘Mummy do’ that! She asked him again very nicely and politely to carry out her request, but the little boy was not for changing his mind, despite an ongoing debate. Sensing a potential tantrum brewing I turned and said, ‘where do they belong, do you know?’ The little boy immediately picked up the box and returned it to its rightful home. Drama averted. Interesting how early we can see these patterns of behavior and how important it can be to remember this approach to managing staff as well as 3 year olds!
When do you catch yourself asking directive questions?
How can you engage people more in the problem-solving process?
When do you need to ask more engaging questions?
As we move into the new decade many traditional new year resolutions will already have fallen by the wayside! Change is hard and despite our best intentions we can often find ourselves falling into old habits. Whether it be better eating, more exercise or getting home earlier, it can be difficult to maintain the momentum and enthusiasm because it seems that operating in a new way is often draining.
When we attempt change it can be helpful to consider two aspects. The first is the mindset we approach the change with. Do we really believe we can change, or are we routed in a belief that we are not up to the task. We often talk about the fixed or growth mindset. People with a growth mindset are generally more successful because they believe that change and growth are possible for everyone. One school even introduced a ‘not yet’ grade!
The second point is to set realistic aims or targets. To suddenly claim that you will have weekly 1:1 with all staff is likely to be unrealistic and when you fail to achieve that lofty aim it is easy to then give up on the whole idea. Set small steps and milestones that can demonstrate your progress. What would be a sign that you were moving in the right direction? It might be to see everyone once a quarter.
What change would you like to implement in the new year?
What is needed to help you believe it is possible for you?
What would be a realistic milestone that would indicate progress?
Here in the UK we are currently doing a post-mortem on the events of our recent general election. Neither of the main parties had a universally popular leader, but the failure of Labour to maintain long held loyalties came in for much scrutiny with Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership attracting particular attention. What is interesting is the analysis of Tom Blenkinsop who commented that ‘’It didn’t matter what the message was, they didn’t like the messenger’.
This highlights a very interesting facet of the leadership role. Unless you can get people to believe you are worth listening to, it won’t matter what you say. Building the right relationship has to come first, with people believing that the leader is on their side, speaks their language, understands their issues and is strong enough to lead. Even if people do not agree with everything they hear, they will follow the leader they think can lead them. They look for particular characteristics in their leaders which may be different to those they look for in their friends, peers or colleagues. Consider what image of leadership you need to portray to get people on board and ready to listen to the message.
This of course highlights another very interesting aspect of human psychology. That our values, ideas and principles stop us really listening to people we have already dismissed as irrelevant. We are all subject to these listening biases that can limit the real picture we form of a situation. Consider how often you have sat in a meeting and started to wander mentally into the world of your e-mails and future tasks, because you have already decided the speaker is not worth listening to. This may seem effective time use but can affect our understanding of situations and people.
When do you tend to dismiss the speaker as irrelevant?
When do you need to display strength in your leadership?
What do others need to see you do?
This month I have decided to bring to a close an event that I have been running almost monthly for many years. The event brings together a group of people with a common interest, but in recent times commitment has been patchy and it feels like the concept has become stale. For some time I had felt something had to change and it emerged that many of the group felt the same yet continued to support it out of loyalty and friendship. It feels like the end of an era but despite the sadness it is the right thing to do. Times change and we all need to move on.
Often we continue with things because we feel a commitment to others or because it is too much trouble to upset the status quo. In fact, much marketing and customer service policy is based on the ‘status-quo bias’ which is why the best offers are always to gain new customers rather than to retain existing ones. Most of us will just continue to accept the status quo and avoid making pro-active changes. In the organizational world, we face so much change that pro-actively initiating MORE change seems counter-intuitive. Yet we all have things we are involved with that may no longer have relevance, or need to change. Have the courage to review and stand back from those things.
What do you need to stop doing?
How will you make the change?
What is the first step?
This month I have been really unwell and despite being barely conscious, with a head full of cotton wool, I feel guilty if I am not at my desk doing useful work. I have been lucky that I have no pressing targets or events, yet still I cannot seem to take a day off. I know that I am not alone in this. I know many professionals who look after others far better than they do themselves.
Yet my research on resilience in leadership highlighted very clearly how important physical well-being is. Many tools and techniques are useful in building our personal resilience but if the body is physically exhausted, it is very hard to be resilient. It is not simply a question of powering through, because if the mind and the body disagree, the body will win! I know of one very senior executive who insisted he was fine despite everyone telling him the contrary. That was until he woke on the office floor surrounded by paramedics. The body had decided the only way to stop the depletion, was to shut down completely.
You do not need me to tell you how to keep your body healthy, the web is awash with advice on exercise, balanced diet, the value of sleep and the need for down time. But you will know what suits you and what your body needs. Look after your body, it is the only one you have!
When do you need to listen to your body more?
What does your body need in order to perform at its best?
How can you be kinder to yourself?
Over the weekend I was at a show where large volumes of small items are sold. On one particular stand a lady was browsing the shelves pulling a large trolley bag with the top open. The stall holder accosted her and said, ‘I just wanted to say that because you have that bag open like that, every stall holder will be watching you like a hawk’. The lady thanked her and promptly closed the bag.
Observing this I was struck by the interaction. The stall holder did not accuse her of being a thief but achieved her aim of getting the bag less accessible with no unpleasant accusations or a scene. This was done by using a form of words that was not confrontational, that implied she had the customers interests at heart, that gave the customer the benefit of the doubt, that allowed the customer to retain her dignity and that assumed the best of the customer.
It struck me that these principles are a helpful formula when trying to address a sensitive or difficult issue. When trying to decide what and how to say something it can be hard to find the right form of words, so people often say nothing at all. Yet the communication approach can become clearer if you use a respectful tone and assume:
Think of a recent example where you wanted to say something but were silenced by a fear of the potential reaction.
My husband was an avid player of cricket until age and broken bones persuaded him to retire from the pitch and take up scoring. That was until last week, when a shortage of players led to a plea to get him back on the field. He was overwhelmed by a sense of duty to the team but was concerned about the precedent it would set. I therefore asked him, if he agreed to play, what caveats he would set. He looked confused, and said, ‘If I play, I play?’
Yet setting no boundaries when under duress to play would very clearly lead to future requests. Surely better to set some boundaries to the expectation about where you might field or where you are prepared to bat in the order? At least if some caveats are outlined everyone knows the limitation of any future contribution and the precedent is contained.
A similar thing happens when someone is ‘acting up’ into a job or on probation for a new role. The person can be reluctant to set boundaries to what is expected of them because they feel under pressure to fulfill the expectation, no matter how extreme that expectation might turn out to be. I have seen someone be driven to resignation from a post because the expectations were unachievable, and they felt unable to set clear boundaries. While there is always a transition period and a challenging time when new and old roles run in parallel, it is vital that you set and deal with boundary issues early. Otherwise you end up feeling a sense of resentment and that you are being taken advantage of, and this is rarely a formula for role success. The saying goes ‘you get what you accept’.
Setting of boundaries need not be a negative conversation, it can take the form of a;
Just beware of others either testing or playing power games. Investigate requests and find out what makes them important, and set clear boundaries for anything you feel is unethical or inappropriate.
When have you failed to set boundaries and regretted it?
What did you learn from that experience?
Where do you need to set boundaries in your life now?
This week in the UK, Wimbledon has dominated the media, with a great deal of time devoted to Nick Kyrgios and his ungracious response after his tennis match with Nadal. For those of you who have no idea what this refers to, Nick attempted to hit Nadal with a ball and felt it was unnecessary to apologise because Nadal has a large number of trophies and ‘zillions in the bank’. No hint of jealously there!
Yet most agree that Kyrgios has the talent to be No. 1 if he showed the same dedication to his sport. But Kyrgios is at pains to explain that he likes a drink and cannot always be bothered to turn up to practice. Many interpret this as laziness or lack of commitment yet it provides a very easy excuse as to why he is NOT No. 1. For many it is easier to accept a failure that results from deciding not to take part, than to accept a failure that might result from inadequacy. At the moment he can enjoy the star status that he could be ‘the best’, but he cannot seem to engage with the work that would take him there. A psychologist might say that he fears not being able to reach the top and thus engages in this self-sabotage, rather than it being due to disinterest.
I am not in a position to know which explanation might be closer to the mark but it does highlight a pattern we see in many potential stars in organisations too. Those who fail to try to reach the top-flight not because they are not able, but because they cannot stand the thought of weaknesses being exposed and losing their reputation on the journey. The high performer who does not apply for the next promotion because of ‘family commitment’ or the young superstar who says he really can’t leave his current department to work on that high-profile project. Both might be trying to maintain their current star status, rather than risk potentially losing it.
The key for such situations is to understand what might be happening and to face the discomfort that the next level brings. Growth into new areas always brings the possibility of failure at that next level, but until you try, you will never know.
Who do you know that might fear failure so much that they fail to try at all?
What does that person need to understand and appreciate?
What do they need from you?
Over the past month there has been a consistent theme within the media that may have lessons for leaders in organizations; this theme revolves around our frequent failure to engage with others, especially those we feel may have different views to our own. We have the ability to ‘mute’ people we do not want to hear from and many now travel and sit at their desks plugged into their earphones rather than the surrounding activity. The individuals effectively sanction everything they hear. While many say this helps them concentrate, or that they do not want to engage with others, we have learnt this week that it is actually beneficial to well-being to engage with random strangers in conversation. This has resulted in the rail network offering a ‘chat carriage’ (carriage C, in case you are interested) to facilitate connections between willing parties.
Many years ago, when leading a large team I took to selecting a random empty desk every day as my work station, I was astonished at how much I learned: How many times I heard my team being coerced into work not on the schedule, how much new information I gathered and how many process improvements it led to.
Listening and engaging with a diverse population adds knowledge, richness and perspective in any role. Once we listen to only one voice, there is no challenge and a danger that we all develop more and more extreme views that leads to increased polarization. This is exactly the situation we face as our media consumption is increasingly driven by algorithms that seem to offer us ‘more of the same’. We risk a world where we all camp in our silos, convinced that we are right, and never opening the door to new ideas or opinions that could help us move forward.
When do you effectively ‘mute’ others, even if you are physically present and pretending to listen?
Who do you need to engage with to get a different perspective?
How can you open opportunities to more knowledge and information from others?