Category Archives: Developing as a leader

Concerned about staff behaviour? Check your systems


My clients have been expressing some envy in recent days on conference calls and coaching calls knowing that, in the midst of a heatwave, I have been working from home.  I am indeed glad to be able to dress casually – no suit, no make-up – in my home office.

It’s also true that, for the solopreneur, life away from work can be an extension of life at work.  In the last few days I have been thinking – as a client, as a woman with a hobby (more about that later), as the manager of a home, as a service provider – about systems.

When your work descends into chaos

Have you ever found yourself – whether at work or at home – overwhelmed?

It could be that you have more e-mail correspondence than you know how to handle. Or you have an overwhelming amount of physical material – from stock to stationery, from filing to furniture – to organise.

Maybe the number of tasks that are piling up, waiting to be done later is slowly growing.  You know that “done later” increasingly means “won’t get done at all”.  It wouldn’t be so bad if it also meant, “will be filed, shredded, put in a place where they belong” rather than “will create clutter, chaos, confusion”.

It’s not just that you, or your team, or even your organisation, is not getting certain things done.  It’s not only that there are consequences for your business (unhappy clients, for example, or unpaid bills).

No.  In addition, your failure to address a growing problem begins the process of institutionalising an inefficiency, a failure of service, or some other problem for the longer term.  Over time, it also creates a built-in failure of thinking, innovation, problem solving as thinking descends into a fog as a result of the mess you’re in.

Ahem…  I know


It may surprise you to know that the sink in my garden is at the heart of several systems in my life and not all to do with gardening.

In the last eighteen months, for example, I have taken up a bit of a hobby – buying and selling china, ceramics, pottery… items of beauty. On eBay, I go under the name of arabesque1963 and, increasingly, I recognise that this gentle pastime – the occasional visit to Greenwich Auction House, mooching round the market at Lee Green, letting go of items that no longer please me in my home and replacing them with things that do – is (albeit on a small scale) a fully fledged business and presents the same challenges as any other business.

Now, I don’t want to turn this posting into a rave review of eBay, though I do have reason to be grateful for the work that has gone into supporting me as both buyer and seller at their end.  Only recently, for example, I received a parcel as a buyer in which three out of four items were broken.  The person who sold them to me was kind enough to refund the money I had spent but many aspects of their communication were wholly unsatisfactory, including the feedback they left on my profile.  I contacted eBay who took the view that yes, this was in breach of their trust and safety policies and removed it.

As a seller on eBay I have been evolving systems.  I have standard terms and conditions, for example, which I use to create each listing I make of new items for sale.  I am making a practice of including a rather beautiful mouse when I take photos of items for sale – this creates an identity for my eBay brand and attracts attention and comment.  (No, the mouse is not for sale).  I have a few places where I take these photos, including the garden sink.  I always include a thank you note which is often the subject of comment when buyers leave feedback.


Frankly, even after twelve years at the helm of Learning for Life Consulting, I have to say there’s no better education that I can think of in the art and science of business.  I know, for example, that I can make more profit when I buy large lots rather than individual items or that I can make better use of my time if I group items together to create an offering worth a certain amount of money.  I know, too, that if I were doing this to make a living I would need to think much less about my love of a good mooch and much more about income targets, how best to meet them and how best to maximise profit whilst minimising my investment of time.  (I’m guessing that I hardly need to point out that wrapping breakable items takes care and time).

Systems alert!  It’s easy to mistake a systems error for a failure by your team

My experience of eBay has reminded me of times in my business when things start to go wrong.

Right now, for example, I am grappling with a particular challenge – where to store items which have yet to be sold.  The truth is, I am buying more quickly than I am selling.  Where can I create enough space to store my stock so it’s not in the way?

In the meantime, well… it is in the way.

I remember a similar stage in running Learning for Life Consulting when I didn’t know where to find paperwork and client files, because I hadn’t yet created a storage system that worked.  And when I had created a storage system that worked, I still needed to use it – to put existing files in their rightful place, to keep them up to date, to create a new file for each new client.

It took me a while to clock something that businesses face every day – the risk of blaming staff for your failure to create a system, because what you see is the unhelpful behaviour rather than the absence of a system.  Worst still, it may be your clients, rather than you, who are complaining about the unhelpful behaviour of your staff.  Organisations are particularly vulnerable at times of change or growth or even when they face a problem and lack a system to deal promptly and effectively with client complaints.

Recently, I experienced this from the client end.  I was dealing with an organisation that provides services I have been used to buying over the years and I wasn’t happy.  The organisation was offering an attractive package… but failing to deliver.  I had to remind them of the promises they’d made me.  I asked about one small thing and was greeted with, well “what’s it got to do with me?”  I wasn’t impressed. It was enough to make me reflect on the standards I expected and to realise that, well, this small organisation is still muddling through at a time when they need to set clear standards and work out how they will deliver against those standards… every time.

It especially highlighted to me that they are trying to compete with some of the “big boys” in their industry but haven’t yet worked out what made those boys “big”.

What systems are you lacking in your organisation?

I am still working on a system that works for my eBay hobby and realising that, in the eyes of anyone who buys from me, it’s no hobby – I am providing a service and creating expectations.

What about you? I invite you to think about those areas of your business that – on a large or small scale – are chaotic.  In what corners of your business do you feel most frustrated with your staff?  What complaints do you most often hear from clients? These things are all clues that you need to look at your systems.

Under pressure – are you at risk of derailment as a leader?

Pressure pushing down on me

Pressing down on you, no man ask for

Under pressure that burns a building down

Splits a family in two

Puts people on the streets

Queen, Under Pressure

After roughly six years of blogging I am writing today for the first time in seven weeks – so much for writing at least one blog posting per week!

It’s been an intensive period.  I hope it means that our difficult economic climate is picking up a bit.  In my business, this means “delivery” – juggling client assignments, moving from one area of activity to another (coaching, leadership assessment, executive development…), travel (Stockholm, Munich, London…)

I am reminded of the insistent beat that underpins the song by Queen, Under Pressure.  It is powerful precisely because it mimics the heart under pressure, adrenalin-laden, without pause.  It’s a song that has often been in my mind in recent weeks.

Are you feeling the pressure?

If you’re taking time to read this article, you probably aren’t, right now, “under the cosh”.  At the same time, you’re probably all too familiar with feeling under pressure.

You know, too, that when times are tough – demanding or difficult, frantic or frightening, irritating or intense – you’re probably not at your best.  Whilst some people may claim to thrive under pressure, we all face kinds of pressure that we find hard.

You may even be thinking this:  that pressure is a way of life for you rather than a temporary event.  Or perhaps the pressure has been going on for so long that you’ve stopped noticing and you’re just getting on with it.

If it is, if you are, you may well be placing your health, your well-being and your performance (yes, your performance) at work at risk.

Coming off the rails

Morguefile steam train

As it happens, one of the things that has kept me busy in recent weeks has been working with a colleague to help upwards of 60 leaders understand their personal motives, values and behaviours – including the way they behave under pressure – using the Hogan suite of psychometric tests.

The thing is, we all have our own ways of feeling the pressure.

We all have our own ways of responding to the pressures we feel.

One of the reasons Hogan has established such a strong reputation at senior leadership levels is because these tests recognise that, under pressure, some of the behaviours that fuel our success can become strengths overplayed.

Suddenly, we’re at risk of derailment.

This is valuable information for organisations at the point of recruitment.  It’s also valuable for you to know in your role as a leader.  Wouldn’t you want to know if you’re at risk of derailment as a leader?

Have you noticed how, under pressure, you have a particular way of responding?  Have you even wondered why you respond in that way?  (And why others don’t?)

We feel the pressure most when we face situations that are like those we struggled with when we were very young.  And when we do, we are most likely to use strategies, quite unconsciously, that we adopted at a very early stage in our lives.

Arthur, for example, lost his job as a senior manager because he failed to manage his own patterns of behaviour when he followed his old boss to a new organisation.  Arthur respected his boss highly and they had worked well together.  In his new organisation, though, he reported indirectly to his old boss via a new line manager whom he found difficult and for whom he had little respect.  His old boss urged him to treat his line manager with respect and to recognise his long-standing contribution to the organisation and his power – however ill-founded – within it.

Arthur’s resentment started to build.  He quietly gave priority to assignments from his old boss over the tasks delegated to him by his new line manager.  Others, including his line manager, noticed the delays.  One day, without warning, his line manager called him into the office and told him that his services were no longer required.

It didn’t have to be that way for Arthur.  It doesn’t have to be that way for you.

Bringing a mindful approach when you’re under pressure

More than anything else, two things trigger our sense of feeling under pressure.

Firstly, we feel the pressure when something we experience is at odds with our most deeply held values.

Take a moment to think about this.  When was the last time you felt deep, deep emotion – be it anger, or love, irritation, or gratitude?  What happened to trigger the emotion?  What need was met?  Or violated?

Secondly, we feel the pressure when our own underlying confidence or self esteem is such that we worry about our performance.

Notice how you felt when you last made a mistake, for example, or when you feared you might make a mistake.  How did you feel, too, about the possibility, under pressure, that your staff might make mistakes?

How did you respond to your feelings?

It’s easy to buy the story you have in such moments, the thoughts that are triggered when we feel under pressure and all the feelings that come with them.  This is, after all, what Daniel Goleman has called the Amygdala hijack, when the pressure of the situation triggers all sorts of responses in one of the oldest parts of our brain.

It’s harder, much harder, to simply say hello to our thoughts and feelings… to notice what’s kicking off inside us and to give empathy to those parts of ourselves that are triggered and active at a particular moment in time.  To do this, is to begin to develop our emotional intelligence as leaders.

It’s harder still to notice how, in some situations, we are not alone in feeling the pressure.  Two people, feeling the pressure, can both behave from a place of stress rather than from a place of mindfulness.

Paying attention to how you respond when you’re under pressure and noticing what things are most likely to trigger this response opens up the possibility of managing your response, avoiding a derailment and becoming more effective in your role as a leader.

(Oh!  And yes, life becomes less stressful and more enjoyable, too.)

After the storm

Arthur, frustrated by his new line manager, confused the map with the territory.   He thought his view of his new boss was objective and indisputable and maybe he was even right.

What he failed to notice was his own pattern of thinking and his habitual responses.  What he also missed was the opportunity to choose a different – and more effective – response.

As I sit and write, I can feel huge empathy for Arthur.  Most people, at senior level, are at risk of derailment as a leader, though the form this can take varies from person to person.  What’s more, the strategies we develop in childhood, as ineffective as they are, can be hard to spot and harder still to change.

We do, though, get to choose.  Do we want to be aware?  To catch our patterns in action and begin the process of changing them?  Or to we prefer to say “It’s just who I am”?

This, though, opens up a whole new area for exploration…

Maria Miller, the “map” and the “territory”

This posting written for Discuss HR where it was published last week.  I thought you might like to read it, too.

I don’t know about you, but Maria Miller wasn’t prominent in my thinking until the media pounced on her recent apology to the House of Commons.  I listened to her apology on the news and, without any background knowledge to guide my opinion, well… it sounded direct and sincere to me.

Others were not so easily satisfied.  Critics described it as “perfunctory”, “arrogant” and insulting”.  The gloves were off.

On the receiving end of others’ perceptions

If you’ve ever had any kind of feedback from your constituents, you’ll know it can be hard to square your own intentions with the way others see you.  This is true whether you’re a leader looking at a 360 degree feedback report, a senior executive looking at this year’s staff satisfaction survey or client feedback, an HR Director absorbing staff perceptions of your department or even someone who’s taking a pasting from the boss.

At times, for example, you just don’t recognise yourself in others’ descriptions of you.  Far from intending to (fill in the gap), your intentions were quite different from those described.  You thought you were giving clear direction to your team, for example, but they thought you were over-bearing and arrogant, failing to take account of the ideas of team members.  Or maybe you know you’ve implemented a sound response to last year’s client feedback and still there’s no change in this year’s feedback:  clients are so sure your company is taking three days to dispatch orders even though you know you’re only taking two.

It doesn’t help that so much feedback is couched in judgements, as Maria Miller has learnt.  Who gets to decide what constitutes “perfunctory”, “arrogant” and “insulting”?  It’s hard enough to know that others are unhappy with aspects of your performance.  It’s hard enough to know, even, that they have just cause.  Somehow, the use of judgement makes it all the more personal, as if somehow it’s you who are flawed.  Even if your intellect can see the difference between what you actually did and how others view it, you may still struggle emotionally under the full force of others’ feedback.

The map is not the territory

The map is not the territory
The map is not the territory

You may or may not know about the work of Alfred Korzybski, who was a Polish-American philosopher and scientist, born in 1879.  Korzybski made the case that our knowledge of the world is limited both by the human nervous system and by the limitations of language.  He saw dangers in confusing our perceptions of reality with reality itself, a concept which he neatly summarised in the phrase “the map is not the territory”.

I first came across this phrase in 2002 when I took a practitioner course in neuro-linguistic programming (also known as NLP).  Participants in the programme were introduced to this phrase as a useful presupposition and found it truly liberating.  “Oh!  I can stand back and ask myself if I’m confusing my map of the world with reality itself!”  Recognising the difference between their conclusions about colleagues or loved ones and what had actually happened helped people to clear up old misunderstandings, slights and hurts without even having to talk with the people with whom they most struggled.

Of course, recognising that the map is not the territory also freed some people from the weight of others’ perceptions of them and from a compulsion to please.  “Yes, my boss/colleagues/subordinates/parents/sibling (etc.) view me in a negative way but they’re confusing their judgements with reality itself.”  With this in mind, it seemed easier to hear others’ feedback and – at times – to dismiss it.

Over the years, I have seen many men and women in leadership roles grapple with this difference between map and territory when they have been on the receiving end of some kind of feedback.  It can soften the blow of negative feedback, for example, to realise that people’s perceptions of your leadership style may or may not be accurate.  But this is not where the story ends, as Maria M. can surely testify.

The perceptions others have of you (or of your department, or of your latest change management project) may be wholly inaccurate and still, they ARE perceptions.  In this lies both the challenge and the opportunity.  The fact that others’ perceptions are inaccurate does not mean there is no work for you to do.  No.  It simply means that the nature of your work is not to change the way you do what you do but to do something different about the way you communicate with others or even to choose to hang out somewhere new.  I’ve known talented people, for example, who have made great strides in their career after moving.  Why?  Because new colleagues form impressions based on current experiences so that their perceptions are not contaminated by history.

Managing your reputation

Is there somewhere where you need to manage your reputation or that of your department or organisation?  Is this even an idea that you feel comfortable to embrace?

One way to find out is by asking yourself, do I know how people see me (or my department, organisation or other entity)?  And do they see me the way I want them to?  If you don’t know how your key constituents perceive you it’s time to find out.  If you don’t like the way others perceive you, it’s time to get curious – what perceptions do you want others to have?  And what can you do to change others’ perceptions?

First, though, if your name is Maria or if you’ve recently been on the receiving end of more feedback than you can easily handle, you may want to balance taking action to move forward with a good dose of compassion for the position you find yourself in right now.  It is the quality of compassion, as much as the quality of courage, that is going to see you through.

Taking disciplinary action? Don’t take the soft option

If you think that to bring empathy to your disciplinary process is to take the soft option, I want to show just how badly a lack of empathy can get you into trouble and invite you to bring both empathy and compassion when you exercise discipline – for yourself and for those you lead.

Is your heart sinking at the prospect of addressing some employee misdemeanour or incompetence?

It’s a rare leader who looks forward to a conversation with an employee about something that’s gone wrong.

You know the kind of thing.  Rules broken.  Poor performance.  Inappropriate behaviour.  Bad BO.  The list is long.

You know that something isn’t quite working.  You’ve taken time to monitor and observe.  Maybe you’ve asked others for the feedback – or received it whether you wanted to or not.

You’re concerned about the impact of your employee’s failings.  You can see the impact on the team, on your clients, maybe even on the reputation of your organisation.

Your heart is sinking.  You know it’s your job to have the conversation and you wish it weren’t.

When leaders get into a mess in taking disciplinary action

If you talk to the HR professionals in many organisations about times when things have gone wrong when it comes to exercising discipline – oh my!  They’ll roll their eyes!

They’ll tell you about the time they spent providing emotional support both to employees and to their managers.  Tea and tissues?  It may not be what they want to do and still, getting it wrong can leave everyone involved feeling emotionally exhausted and yearning for understanding.

They’ll tell you about the impact on employee morale.  Yes, there’s the morale of the two people most closely involved.  More than this, the impact of a poorly handled disciplinary process is rarely confined to the employee and his or her manager.  Team members provide emotional support.  Perhaps they get angry or upset or anxious for their own jobs.  The conversation that was designed to designed to address a particular issue stimulates all sorts of emotions for everyone involved.

Maybe the issue managers set out to address goes unresolved.  At best, the action taken just wasn’t effective.  At worst, it was so badly off kilter that the lawyers need to be brought in as well as HR to sort out the mess.  All this takes time and attention away from the broken rule, the poor performance, the inappropriate behaviour, the bad BO.   What’s more, you have a whole new set of issues to address.

What is it that goes so badly wrong?

Usually, colleagues in the HR department will point to just two things:

Firstly, they’ll tell you how they tried to give advice to the person concerned and how it wasn’t followed.  Often the advice is about an organisation’s disciplinary process.  If it’s well-designed it will help line managers both to meet legal requirements and to ensure that an employee feels that he or she has been handled fairly and even given support.

They may not say it, but behind the good advice about process there is often a second issue lurking undetected.  The issue?  A lack of empathy.

Creating a rehabilitation culture in our criminal institutions

Did I say criminal?  Yes, I did.

A few years ago, I was deeply touched when Dominic Barter told a story of some restorative justice work he had done in Brazil.  A baker, whose son had been shot and killed in the bakery, was so moved when he learnt of the killer’s experience of poverty and his intention only to steal a loaf of bread that he gave the killer a job as a way of making something good from the original crime.  This was possible because the baker was able to transcend his grief at the loss of his son and bring deep empathy and understanding for the man who had killed him.

More recently, the RSA advertised a talk by leading criminologist Professor Shadd Maruna entitled Creating a Rehabilitation Culture.  This is what they said about the talk on their website:

Numerous criminal justice observers have argued that offender rehabilitation does not come in a ‘programme’.

Although targeted treatment interventions can be helpful in promoting desistance from crime, these projects are too often undermined by an overarching punitive culture that stigmatises and labels the individuals that programmes are meant to be ‘correcting’.

In case you haven’t made the link yet, this is what – too often – goes wrong when leaders seek to address issues in the workplace.  A lack of empathy, coupled with labelling the very person from whom a leader wants change, sets the leader up for the hardest possible ride.  The downward spiral has begun.

Finding a place of empathy when taking disciplinary action

If you’re facing the prospect of holding a disciplinary conversation with a member of your staff, finding a place of empathy for him or her is an important part of your preparation.  So is finding a place of empathy for yourself.  Here two things you can do to get you started:

Firstly, take time to find a place of empathy for yourself.  Find a quiet place where you can be undisturbed.  Take a few moments to notice the thoughts and emotions you have when you think about this person and what they have done and without censoring yourself.  Pay particular attention to your emotions and get curious about what sits behind your feelings.  As a leader, you are best placed to handle a disciplinary conversation well when you are open to and accept the challenges this brings you and give time and space for your needs.

Take time, too, to find a place of empathy for the person with whom you need to talk.  Take a few moments to get curious.  What positive intentions does he or she bring, even when doing the things that aren’t working for you?  What hopes might he or she have for a conversation with you – whether or not s/he’s done something “wrong”?  (Some people ask themselves how they would like someone they love to be treated as a way of putting themselves in the shoes of their direct report).

Discipline yes – but not crime and punishment

Although targeted treatment interventions can be helpful in promoting desistance from crime, these projects are too often undermined by an overarching punitive culture that stigmatises and labels the individuals that programmes are meant to be ‘correcting’.

Targeted at the UK’s criminal justice system, I find these words from the RSA’s programme have a broader application.  How many of us are drawn to think ill of the person with whom we need to hold a disciplinary conversation – to stigmatise or label them?  And where else does this attitude show up in our life – with our spouse, perhaps, parents, children…  I’d like to say that it’s easy to avoid this place of judgement towards self or others and yet, in our culture, it isn’t.  It’s so easy to protect ourselves by putting others in the wrong.

It’s easy to start in this place of judgement and yet, it does not create ease.  Our judgement – of self and others – stimulates a great deal of resistance and this, in turn, creates conflict.  With empathy, we can put our concerns on the table freely and openly whilst building or maintaining our relationship with those we lead.  We can insist on certain standards in the workplace without putting people in the wrong.

Equally, with empathy, we can forgive ourselves – or each other – when our initial disciplinary conversation does not go according to plan.  And when we ask ourselves “where do I go from here?” empathy can help us to find a way forward which maximises the positive outcomes for everyone – yes, everyone – involved.

Office politics – a force for good

Really?  You must be joking!

If this is your response to office politics, this posting is for you.

If you loathe office politics, you’re not alone

Listen, I have to put my hand up, too – I’m not a great fan of office politics.

You know the kind of thing…

…You watch colleagues get promoted ahead of you who are all show and no substance.  You know how they do it.  You watch them cosy up to the people who make the decisions and you can see that it works.  Maybe you even want your own (overdue) promotion… but you can’t bring yourself to follow suit.

…You’ve seen how your colleagues lay claim to successes when the credit really should go to someone else.  You know that a radical game-changing idea has come from someone who has gone without acknowledgement or someone else has taken all the credit for the hard slog it took to bring an important project to a fruitful conclusion.  And still they take the credit.

…You watch your colleagues promote an idea around the business and you know – you just know – that the real agenda is tucked away from sight.  The lack of honesty on the part of the person doing the promoting, the naivety of your most senior colleagues in not seeing through the propaganda – well, you’re finding it hard to swallow.

…Maybe you even listen to one of your colleague’s self propaganda and you wonder, “Does he really believe his description of himself or is it just the story he’s trying to sell around the business?”  You can’t believe how many people are taken in when you find it so easy to see the huge gap between the way your colleague describes himself and the way he behaves in practice.

You’re struggling with office politics, which fill you with loathing.  At the same time, you can see just how much politics plays a role in the every day life of your organisation.

A political epiphany

Over the years, and despite my own inherent suspicion of the office politicians, I’ve had the opportunity to observe how the ability to navigate office politics is an important skill as a leader in an organisation.  If you already have this skill, you probably haven’t read this far.  If you don’t have this skill, or you’re sceptical about the idea that politics can be a force for good, you probably need a bit of convincing.  For this reason, I want to share with you an example of one person’s “political epiphany” – it’s a simple story of one person who discovered that, after all, politics can be a force for good.

Sally (let’s call her Sally) was a talented graduate entrant in her company who liked to play with a straight bat.  As she rose to a junior management position, she became increasingly aware that she was working to a director who was poorly equipped for the role and she felt frustrated that her company did not seem to be addressing the issue.  She raised the issue with her colleagues in HR but got no joy and, after a while, realised that – whatever she thought of her senior management – she was beginning to get a reputation as a whinger.

Sally could have let the issue go.  However, she was particularly concerned about the impact of her director’s inadequacies on a project she felt really passionate about.  She decided to take the issue to her mentor.  Her mentor knew her preference for playing with a straight bat and asked her, “What’s most important to you?  Is it the inadequacies of your director and the failure of senior management to address them?  Or is it finding ways to make progress on your project?”  Initially, Sally found it hard to separate the two.

In her discussion with her mentor, Sally began to realise that there were, indeed, two forces at play.  On the one hand, she found it hard to accept what looked like inaction on the part of senior management who were failing to address something that was clearly a problem.  Her own values of openness and honesty were such that she struggled to accept the possibility that senior management preferred to work their way round the problem rather than to name it honestly.  On the other hand, she also recognised that it was the impact on the project that was most frustrating for her – at least for the time being.  With the help of her mentor, she began to see that whilst she had limited scope to address the short-comings of senior management, there were things she could do to move the project forward – if only she were more willing to play the political game.

In service of a larger cause

Years later, Sally pointed to this experience as the one that made her a total convert to office politics.

Because she was passionate about her project, she started to experience a real sense of achievement each time she did something to successfully circumnavigate the limitations of her line manager.  What’s more, because she realised she had gained the reputation for whingeing, she started to look for ways forward that could cause no offence.  She didn’t want anyone to think that the progress on her project was being achieved by side-lining her boss.

One thing made it possible for Sally to put aside her loathing of office politics – her passion for her project and what she knew it could do for her organisation.  With the help of her mentor, she began to see how she could use a political approach to move the project forward.  She began to see how, sometimes, you can’t achieve the things you feel most passionate about without becoming familiar with the political landscape, accepting it – and starting to find ways round the obstacles that are in your way.

Once she had this insight, Sally became a master politician – and started to enjoy it.  Having realised that she could use her political savvy in service of those things she found most worthwhile, she started to apply her creative thinking to this area of her work.

Finding your political epiphany

If you think I’m going to tell you how to navigate the politics of your office – or family, or local Am Dram society, whatever…  well, I’m about to disappoint you.  Instead, I’m going to invite you to go make yourself a cup of tea, or coffee, find a quite corner for 5 minutes and ask yourself this:

What are the things that really matter to you?  What areas of your life do you feel most passionate about?  And which of these are so important to you that you’re willing to let go of your revulsion for office politics and your views about how things ought to be and embrace things the way they are – in order to find ways to move towards the outcomes you most desire?

You may find your motivation at work – but you may not.  Perhaps there’s something away from your work place that you’re really fired up about right now.  It doesn’t matter where your political epiphany happens.  It just matters that it does.

Why?  Your political epiphany helps you to become much more effective in achieving results with ease.  What’s more, your political epiphany helps you to realise what matters most to you.

Whether you’ve had your political epiphany years ago or haven’t had it yet I’d love to read your comments on this subject via the comment box below.

Beyond struggle: doing what works

It’s widely held that the English, when some hapless foreigner doesn’t understand them, speak louder.  This is the cause of merriment because, quite clearly, it’s a strategy that doesn’t work.  The person who doesn’t understand English is unlikely to understand it any better for being shouted at.

Apparently, this strategy is not the sole preserve of the English.  I was recently talking to someone who, in China, had experienced something very similar as she travelled through more remote areas of the country.

Of course, it’s easy to laugh when someone else is doggedly pursuing  a strategy that doesn’t work.  It’s even easy to see when someone else is pursuing a strategy that doesn’t work.

It’s not so easy to notice our own worst endeavours.

The clue is in the struggle

Is there something you’re struggling with right now?  Something you’ve been struggling with for a while?  If there is, you’ll know how hard it can be.

Maybe you’ve taken action to address a situation that isn’t working for you.  You feel confident that the action you’ve taken is constructive, purposeful action and yet you feel no further forward.  You couldn’t believe the response you got, for example, and you don’t quite know where to go from here.

What sort of situations are we talking about here?

Perhaps you’re managing a member of staff who isn’t responding to your clear guidance about what’s expected, to your attempts to coach, even to the formal process you have recently put in place.

Perhaps you’ve made what you see as a compelling business case to the Board for a new venture, IT programme, HR initiative… whatever.  But you’ve come away without the approval you wanted and you don’t begin to know what to do next.  How could they turn down such a clear case and with such clear benefits for the business?

Perhaps your struggle is with yourself.  You know that your sedentary work lifestyle is not working for you.  You can see how you’re piling on the pounds.  You meant to go to the gym, to walk to work, to go running.  Maybe you even set yourself some clear ‘SMART’ targets… and still, you’re snacking on burgers or chocolate, drinking too much alcohol, and failing to do what you planned.

Whatever the area of struggle, you keep trying to move it forward… without success.  In whatever way you “shout at the foreigner”, you keep shouting louder.  You’re struggling and the struggle is not moving you forward.

Groundhog Day… and why we continue to do the things that don’t work

If ever you’ve watched the film Groundhog Day, you know what it is to struggle.  In this comedy, weatherman Phil Connors is assigned to cover a small-town assignment which he positively detests… Groundhog Day.  Trapped in a blizzard he has to stay in the very place he detests so much and wakes up the next morning to discover that it’s Groundhog Day all over again… and again… and again…

Groundhog Day is a comedy with a message – if you keep doing the same thing, you’ll keep getting the same results.  But there are reasons why we continue to do the thing that’s not working.  In my work with clients, three things seem to be most common:

…We think it ought to work.  John thought the figures in his business proposal were persuasive so, when his proposal was not met with approval by the board, he gave them more figures.  What John didn’t understand was that other people don’t all think the way he does – he failed to adjust his approach to meet the needs of his audience.

…We think it’s who we are.  This is one of the most common reasons why we continue to do what doesn’t work rather than to adjust our approach in order to do what works.  Frances, for example, was renowned in her workplace for her spiky manner.  She frequently met feedback by giving feedback of her own or by making a comment that seemed irrelevant to her colleagues.  “You’re not my slave?  No.  I know that.  I never said you were!”  Whenever her colleagues requested a change in her approach, Francis was quick to say, “Why should I change?  It’s just who I am.”

(I want to add that yes, sometimes it really isn’t who we are and yet… we are all subject to programming in childhood by our parents, teachers and other figures of authority.  Examining who we really are opens up opportunities to let go of redundant ideas and to find new and more effective ways of getting things done).

…We worry about how people might respond.  Ahmed had worked for ten years for the same boss when, quite suddenly, his boss’s behaviour towards him started to change.  His boss was losing his temper unexpectedly and with little or no explanation.  Ahmed felt uneasy about this dramatic shift in their relationship.  What he didn’t know was that his boss, for the first time in their history, was unhappy with Ahmed’s work.  At the same time, he was struggling to give Ahmed feedback for fear of offending him.

Doing what works

There’s a debate that comes up again and again and which, I confess, irritates me just a little – it’s the “are leaders born or made?” debate.  Who would ask of a world class violin player “is a virtuoso violinist born or made?”  Few people, if any, achieve excellence in their field without some combination of natural talent, learning and practice.

Leaders are no different.

Smart leaders constantly ask themselves what’s working and what’s not.  They beg, borrow and steal ideas – most tell stories of people they have learnt from.  Over time they come to understand the need to choose an approach that works in a given situation.  They get smart about what works – how to influence the board, how to engage staff, how to nurture potential in their highest performers… and their lowest.  The list goes on.

And you?  I invite you to check in with yourself – to what extent are you making choices based on your understanding of what actually works?  You can do this, for example, by giving yourself a mark out of ten against the following:

O equals “I don’t think at all about how well my approach is actually working and when I don’t get the response I want I get frustrated with people and wish they would change.”

5 equals “Sometimes I think about how best to approach a situation and sometimes I forget and just do what I’ve always done.”

10 equals “I make a habit of thinking about what works and what doesn’t.  When I don’t get the response I want I get excited – I like to think about what I can do differently based on the response I get from others.”

From the school of doing what works

In case you’re wondering what this looks like in practice, two stories have fallen into my lap recently from the school of doing what works.

One friend, frustrated by her teenage son’s refusal to put his socks into the wash, stopped picking them up.  He was quick to admonish her – “It takes no time at all to pick them up.”  She let the message sink in… if you want clean socks, you put them in the laundry basket.

Another friend became aware that a member of his team thought him lazy, because he always left promptly at the end of the day.  The same staff member was completely unaware that, most days, he arrived in the office at least an hour before any of  his colleagues.  Rather than face the issue head on, he started to make a habit of assigning her work as soon as he arrived in the morning.  He would drop an e-mail to her at 6.30 am saying “I’ll catch you when you reach the office but first, I want to give you the heads up…”  He would ask her to get things done by midday.  He asked one of his peers to keep her ears open – quite quickly, this particular team member stopped complaining about how lazy her manager was.

These friends both let go of what ought to be true and asked themselves what might just work in practice.

What strategies have you found that work?  I’d love to hear your stories.


Bringing care to times of conflict

In recent months I have found myself in the midst of a disagreement – a rather long, drawn out affair which started just when I was recovering from the experience of supporting a friend in crisis.

The experience has reminded me just how hard it can be to navigate conflict in the workplace, so that I’m going to try to talk about conflict today.

It all started with…

Have you ever found yourself, quite unexpectedly, in a situation of conflict at work?

Perhaps you did something, in good faith, which stimulated anxiety or anger in one of your colleagues.  If you’re lucky, the colleague is someone you know or someone who is skilled in handling his or her emotions constructively.  Perhaps, though, your colleague is someone you don’t know, so that you don’t have a track record of mutual respect to fall back on.  Or maybe he or she has a different track record – as someone who is prone to unexpected explosions, to trying to put people “in their place”, to… you get to write the list.

There are any number of things about your colleague’s behaviour that make the situation worse.  Firstly, in the midst of an explosion – maybe a full on amygdala hijack – your colleague absolutely believes his or her own story.  It’s not just that he or she is concerned that something might happen as a result of what you’ve done.  No.  The action you’ve taken is bound to lead to x, y, z…  If you’re not careful you, too, are at risk of getting swept up in a line of thinking which has not yet been closely examined.  Maybe, too, your colleague lacks the sense of perspective, after the fact, to examine his or her own thinking…  the case against you is proven before the facts have been gathered.  He or she may even do his very best to make sure that facts are obscured or kept out of view.

If you’re deeply unlucky, you may find that the person who is treating you in this way has a long history of similar outbursts which have, over time, been unchallenged.  Unless your organisation has a firm anti-bullying policy or a culture which is quick to address these behaviours in general or the behaviour of your particular colleague, they will continue.  What’s more, your colleague’s sense of righteousness will grow and, with it, the post-toddler temper tantrums.  In the mind of your colleague, you deserve to be treated in this way  – he or she is right, after all.

Hey, in really tough cases, your colleague may even be the boss.  Your boss.  Or the ultimate boss – the boss of all bosses, the CEO.

What’s more, whilst your colleague may not be skilled in handling his or her skills constructively, he does have other skills…

…He’s highly skilled in making unilateral decisions with no thought whatsoever for the impact on you…

…She’s hard to pin down.  When you ask a clear question or make a clear request, she has a way of ignoring them as if you had never asked…

…He’s highly selective when it comes to the facts, ignoring some, putting others forward repeatedly and vociferously, withholding some… hey!  Even distorting a few…

…She’s really strong on holding you to account for any mistakes (real or imagined) whilst being, of course, totally blameless…

What makes it hard?  Well, you, too, are human and may struggle with the emotional roller coaster that your conversations or correspondence stimulates in you – from fear to rage, anger to anxiety.  You may, even, have your own sense of self righteousness.  And if your colleague is also the boss, maybe even the ultimate boss, you may fear that your only options are to roll over and take the punches or to leave your job.

Tempting strategies that don’t hit the mark

Reflecting on my own experience in recent weeks, I’ve noticed that it’s tempting to follow certain routes.  They’re tempting – they really are tempting!

Outrage, disbelief and feeling hard done by.  Did that really just happen?!  I can’t believe that anyone would do that!  Don’t get me wrong, you feel what you feel.  The person did what they did.  It may well have been a crazy thing to do… in your map of the world.  However, nothing changes as a result of you feeling the outrage or knowing that every rule in the book has been broken – whether the real book of your organisation’s rules and procedures or the metaphorical book of what people do who are emotionally intelligent and effective in their roles.

Trying to prove you’re right.  When your sense of injustice is strong, the desire to put your case can be strong, as can your yearning to be heard and understood.  There is, though, no guarantee that you will be.  In the midst of panic or blind rage, your colleague is not in possession of the facts.  No, he or she can only relate to his own fears – the inner story of his or her imagination.  After the blind rage is over, he may still stick to the story he created when this whole thing kicked off.  Holding out for a fair hearing?  It may never happen.

Relying on policy or procedure.  You have a procedure in place that covers this kind of thing?  Maybe a grievance procedure or an anti-bullying procedure.  By all means use it and still, it may not work.  Especially if your colleague has a role in carrying out the procedure, there’s a risk that it may not be followed or that it will be followed in ways which simply confirm your colleague’s view of you.

Relying on senior management.  I’m sorry to disappoint you.  It’s possible that bringing the matter to the attention of the very people who ought to be managing your colleague will help.  It’s possible, too, that your colleagues are as ground down as you are in the battle to uphold company policy, dignity (yours, theirs), good sense and whatever else you’re longing for.

Jumping ship.  It’s possible to just walk.  To find another job.  To move.  To say “Fuck you!”  Possible. Tempting.  There is, though, the risk that you are the loser when you choose to walk away.  It was your job – and you lost it.  How unjust was that!

Resorting to anger and hatred.  Don’t get me wrong, this strategy can be as juicy as they come.  You may even find all sorts of people lining up to join in.  Think his behaviour is outrageous?  So do I!  Wonder if she’s got issues from childhood?  What other explanation can there be?!  Think he ought to know better at his level of seniority?  For sure!  But this, though it may give you some relief, will not, ultimately help you to find peace.

Care changes everything

These strategies do not work and yet, in a way, they do… provided you can bring the quality of care to your situation as it unfolds.

In my own experience, I noticed how, from the beginning, I was able to notice my needs… a longing to be heard and understood, a longing for courtesy and consideration, a deep desire for the kind of collaborative approach which might address real concerns whilst leaving everybody’s dignity intact.  What I noticed – what I notice – is how, over time, touching base with my needs has brought a sense of peace, even when they are far from being met.  Even as I write, the very act of naming my needs is bringing a quality of tenderness to my heart.

As much as I have been making a stand for my own needs to be met, I know this is not enough.  At times, throughout this process, I have taken time to put myself in the shoes of everyone else involved.  I may think that my colleague has taken a hammer to crack a nut (and, what’s more, a nut that was already open).  Still, I recognise how much this has added to his or her workload and at a time when he or she is at full stretch.  I may think that a wider group of people should feel uncomfortable and step up in the role each one has taken on and, still, I can see how hard it is to address the very behaviours with which I, too, struggle.

With care, I have found a sense of peace and liberation.  It’s not that things have gone the way I hoped – not at all.  Still, at each point in the process, I have learnt more about the personalities involved.  That step didn’t give me the information I asked for, even though, clearly, I’ve made a legitimate request.  Still, I’ve taken action to care for my needs.  I’ve taken care to acknowledge the needs of others.  Over time, I’ve come to understand the issues.  I’ve come to know what’s mine – and what’s not mine.

And what are friends for?

I could not finish this posting without adding that friends, too, have played an important role.  In the moments when I’ve thought “has this really happened?”and “am I mad?” I have called on an inner circle of supportive friends.  They have brought humour to the situation.  They have confirmed that, yes, this is way off piste.  They have helped me to keep things simple as I work out each step of the way.  Above all, they have brought care.

It is this care that has made things all right, no matter which way things go.


Who’s managing who? Setting clear boundaries with your staff

In the classic way of London buses, I have been enjoying a flurry of clients recently who are grappling with the same issue.  In their relationship with their direct reports, who’s managing who?

Recently, for example, I found myself talking with a young manager about a member of his team.  Much older than him and more experienced in managing others, this particular member of staff would flare up with irritation from time to time.  Her young and inexperienced manager would watch this mini amygdala hijack unfold before his eyes and wonder quite how to respond.  How could he manage her in a way which left her feeling happy and which, at the same time, ensured she got the job done?

The thing is, over time, he realised that he had gone so far out of his way in his attempts to make her feel comfortable that his own needs of her, as a member of his team, were not being met.  His growing concern was this – have I let her become my boss?

When the tail starts wagging the dog

This young manager is not alone.  Maybe you have your own experience of managing someone who is not easily pleased.

Let’s be clear.  You know that you’re responsible for this thing called staff engagement.  Maybe you even have the annual survey to prove it.  You really get the message – your staff have a vital contribution to make to the success of your organisation and the way you choose to manage team members has a significant impact on their well-being and the quality of their contribution.  This is something you whole-heartedly buy into and endorse.

With luck, experience, skill and even the results of a few psychometric tests, you know that different members of your team have different styles and preferences.  You also recognise that each member of your team has a different level of experience in his or her job and maybe different aspirations.  You recognise you need to tailor your approach to get the best out of each member of your team.

Somewhere along the line, though, you’ve lost sight of the boundary between managing members of your team and letting them dictate to you.  Probably it happened slowly, subtly.  You look back and think, when did I agree to a slight change in John’s working hours?  I didn’t.  How did I let Mia define her role and responsibilities in ways which don’t work for me?  I didn’t.  When did I choose to make it my job to save Gina from herself – from the difficult emotions she experiences when she realises that her career didn’t turn out the way she hoped?  I don’t even know.

chez Nesbit

Over the years, I’ve had people live with me – in my flat in Lee High Road and, more recently, here in Albion Way.  First, I bought the flat with my friend Jenny and we lived together as co-owners of the home.  Cousin James lived with me for a while when he first came to London.  Cousin Mat lived with me when she did an internship for a while.  Then Nancy joined me… the list goes on.  Perhaps the briefest of stays was by a lovely German man and his son when they wanted to visit London.  They were introduced to me in the “friend of a friend” way that sometimes happens in life.  The longest stay was by a member of the family who lived with me for almost three and a half years before moving out just recently.  There’s nothing like living together to teach you a bit about boundaries.

I laugh when I think of my time sharing with Jenny as two young women early in our careers.  How could we be less suited?  I say this because Jenny has always had a personal temperature gauge which is permanently on “high” – I have photos of her in Norway in the snow in a summer skirt and with bare legs.  When Jenny moved out, the first thing I did was to install central heating.  Notwithstanding, I remember our time together as easy and comfortable and lots of fun.

Over time, welcoming people into my home has taught me a few things about what matters to me in my home.  It’s also taught me that what matters to me is not always important to others who live in the house.  Want to leave plates around for days on end?  This isn’t the home for you.  Not worried about how clean the bathroom is?  That doesn’t really work for me.

In truth, I’ve had to learn a few things about my own personal quirks – and own that, in my own home, I need to find people who can accommodate them.  Perhaps it is a bit OTT (OCD, even) but it matters to me that the soup spoons and dessert spoons are put away in their separate spaces in the top drawer in the kitchen.  And (please, don’t tell) I often reorganise the contents of the dishwasher in a way which meets my need for order as much as my desire to get as much in as possible.

The fundamental rule of the house

Over time, I’ve developed an agreement which sets out the terms on which lodgers live in the house.  Every time someone leaves I ask myself “what have I learnt that I want to incorporate into the agreement?”  Yes, there are “house rules”.  The most fundamental rule in the house, though, is that living together has to work for everyone.  My agreement says:

Successful sharing of the house will reflect our sensitivity to each others’ needs and our ability to speak openly about our needs and to find ways to meet them which work for every member of the household.  As part of your tenancy agreement, you agree to make time to talk about what’s working and what adjustments might be needed.

Now, I must concede, that in the early days of welcoming visitors, I knew this and yet… I didn’t.  I was like the young manager bending myself in knots trying to meet the needs of people living with me… at the expense of my own.

It’s taken time for me to realise that, as the home owner, I am the one constant in this house.  I need to be clear in my own heart about what does and doesn’t work for me because, ultimately, I need to find people who can feel comfortable living under my house rules so that I, too, can be comfortable.

A leader’s “house rules”

In truth, a leader is not so very different from a landlady.  In your role as a leader, you need to know what your own house rules are – and why.

To work out your own house rules is not so much a “once in a lifetime” thing as an ongoing dance of self enquiry.  Perhaps, for example, you are managing someone who doesn’t like the level of supervision you want to give.  Perhaps, on close examination, you’ll find you are under-estimating his or her experience and capability in the role.  Perhaps you’ll find that your own need for detail is such that you are breathing down the necks of even the most competent of your staff members.  Over time, though, you need to work out what level of information you need from your staff to retain accountability for their work.  This is just one area in which you need to develop your own house rules.

If you’re struggling with boundaries with your staff, why not take a few minutes now to ask yourself what you expect of members of your team – no matter what?  And if you find that you’re struggling to maintain clear boundaries be gentle with yourself.  Just notice what you want to move towards – what rules you want to have in place – and let go of any judgements you may have about the fact that you have allowed something to go on for so long which, so clearly, isn’t working for you or the business.


It can be hard to say to a tenant, “if that’s what you want, this is no longer the house for you.”  It can be just as hard to say to a member of your team, “if this is what you want, you need to start thinking about finding another job.”

But you can’t begin to have the conversation if you don’t have clarity in your own mind about your own house rules.

Struggling with the way things are? Time to notice what is

I’m feeling angry.

Sometimes, life brings us the very lessons we most want to teach others …again and again and again.  It’s the Ground Hog day of the teacher’s own learning.  We get to take the learning with humility or we get to pretend.

Our students always find us out.

So, with timely synchronicity, this week I received the response to an appeal I put forward a few weeks ago as a reminder of just how hard it can be to notice how things are, accept them, and move on from there.  There was nothing in the response to my appeal that gave me any comfort that justice (natural or otherwise) has been done.

The challenge of accepting what is

Maybe you’re familiar with the challenge of accepting what is.

You know your boss has had all sorts of training that suggests that seeing the best in people or working collaboratively (or… or… or…) is more likely to get good results and still, your boss is managing you in ways which leave you feeling your work isn’t appreciated, that you’re liable to be punished for breaching rules you didn’t know existed (or, worse still, for breaching rules that you know don’t exist), that the give is all coming from you and the take is all coming from your boss.  Every time you think about your boss you chafe against an approach which ought to be different.

You think the way your (insert brother, sister, spouse, mother, father, friend, colleague, other) is behaving right now is outrageous.  You can dress up the language (‘ineffective’, ‘unhelpful’, ‘inappropriate’ or whatever) but, fundamentally, you’re finding it heard to accept somebody else’s choices and you think they should be choosing something different.  You feel angry, upset, disappointed, frustrated…

You’re managing a member of staff who, by now, should have mastered a certain skill or who lacks motivation.  Hey!  Worse still, maybe you’re managing a whole team of people who lack the motivation or the polish or the commitment you expect to see in your team.  You can’t believe your team member(s) could be so unprofessional.  Maybe, even, you can’t believe your predecessor in the job could have let things go on so long the way they are.

At home, you’ve asked your son – repeatedly – to tidy up his room and he keeps on saying yes… and doing no.  You can’t believe he’s being so uncooperative and still expecting you to (insert cook meals, pay for his violin classes, drive him from A to B, give out copious amounts of hugs and emotional support, other) as if everything’s working perfectly.

Whatever the reason, you’re struggling to accept something that isn’t the way you’d like it to be – often, with good reason.

Living with Radio 4

Now, I want to take a moment to talk about my life long relationship with BBC Radio Four.

Growing up, the radio was always on in the kitchen at Malt House Farm.  At least, at some stage the “wireless” was always on until it became a radio.  And it was always tuned to BBC Radio Four.  Woman’s Hour, Alistair Cooke’s Letter From America… The Archers was on at 7pm in the evening, again at 2pm the next day and again on Sunday mornings.  I marvel now at how I was able to do my homework to the background noise of BBC Radio Four.

More recently, though, I have had periods of abstinence.  In particular, I have chosen not to wake up to the theme of “who’s to blame?” which seems to prevail on the Today programme.  Does there always need to be someone to blame?

I mention this because it seems to me that the idea that something or someone should be different is culturally sanctioned in my own corner of the world.  So if, like me, you’re chafing right now at something or someone that really isn’t working for you, you’re only doing something that is widely accepted as an okay way to go about your life.

How though, might this play out over time?

In the land of “things ought to be different”

I remember hearing of one company director who was fundamentally opposed to the strategic direction his company was taking and campaigned vociferously to reverse a decision to go in a particular direction.  When his arguments fell on deaf ears, he shouted a little louder and a little louder, without ever stopping to take stock.  You only had to look at the composition of the board to realise that the decision was not going to change.  Meantime, he gained a reputation for being difficult to work with and lost the good will of his peers.

And what about the leader who pursued her childhood dream and achieved it, striving to prove her parents wrong (“Is that really you, dear?”) by working towards and gaining a senior leadership role.  On a leadership course, feedback from her staff suggested that she had a very limited range of leadership styles and that levels of satisfaction amongst her team members were low.  She felt angry and resentful – after all that she’d done for them!  Still, twenty years into her career, she was still trying to prove her parents wrong.

Recently a friend of mine who is a senior employment lawyer pointed to some of the injustices that staff face in the hands of their employers.  The trouble is, she said, even when companies are clearly in breach of the law, it’s hard to bring a case and expect to continue to work in the organisation that has got it wrong.  And there are other costs, too… the emotional toll, the time, the money, the risk to your relationships with loved ones as they worry about you at first and then get irritated with you for what you’ve put them through over time.

Noticing what is

Some of the most effective leaders have an ability to notice what is.

The company director who can survey the board and and get under the rhetoric of his or her colleagues to notice what the Finance Director gets most excited about or to identify the tiny incongruities between what the CEO says and what he or she does in practice, has information that can inform decisions and lead to a more effective approach.  Can’t get the FD on board?  Let me tell him about the impact this will have on profit margins and how… since this is clearly what is most important to him.  Sometimes, too, noticing that you have some fundamental differences with your colleagues is an invitation to notice what’s most important to you and to consider what changes you can make that will lead you towards a life that is aligned to your values.

If you’re unhappy in your job, noticing that you have achieved your childhood dream but that this has not given you the joy and satisfaction you thought it would, or rid you of your concern that your parents might not think well of you, or even given you staff who are happy and fulfilled in their work or performing well… this, too, opens up the opportunity to notice the yearnings of your heart.  What is it you really want?  Your parents’ approval?  And what does that tell you about what, with or without any particular response from your parents, you really want?  Acceptance… understanding… love…?

The person who is considering taking his or her employing organisation to court may indeed have been  wronged by his or her manager, company or organisation.  The law may have been broken.  His or her manager may indeed have broken company rules.  Natural justice may not have been served.  These are, though, things that have happened and cannot be changed.  For this person, too, there some fundamental needs have not been met… for understanding, consideration, respect…  to recognise these needs is, in itself, to honour them.  More than this, taking time to notice these needs and all the emotion that comes with a situation in which they have not been met or have even been violated, can guide an employee in what to look for when making requests of a current manager or seeking to work with a new employer.

Noticing what is is about being curious about other people – how does he tick?  What are her chief concerns?  It’s about noticing the politics of an organisation.  What are the official rules?  The culture?  What happens in practice?  Noticing what is is also about being curious about ourselves.  What thoughts are we having?  What emotions?  What is happening in our body?  Noticing, too, is about being curious about the information that we don’t yet have.  What understanding do team members have of the job they are expected to do?  Do they have clear job descriptions?  When were they last updated?  What about their performance reviews – what did their line manager say?  Each question opens up new avenues of enquiry and takes us from the world of assumption.  We may not like the information that emerges and still, we are more informed.

Sometimes, it starts with the emotion

I wonder if there’s any area in which you find yourself thinking that things ought to be different.  If there is, I invite you to notice…

…What is it that you feel so strongly about?  What do you feel?

…What thoughts are you having about the person or situation you’re struggling with?

…What do you know?  What do you not yet know?

…What can you do?  What is beyond your control or influence?

Yesterday, I tried hard to move quickly beyond the anger I feel about my own experiences in current months… and I did feel angry and upset.

It seemed important to notice what I know and what I don’t know… to find out who chaired the appeal, for example, who was at the meeting… and whether or not due process has been followed.  In the words of one friend –  “Aren’t appeals panels supposed to have discrete (i.e. no overlapping) membership with the original panel?”

Today I am just noticing my response to each new piece of information that comes my way.

I know I don’t want to feel angry for ever and still…

For now, that is how I feel.

Smoothing your path with compassionate collaboration

2013 was a challenging year for me personally and, if you’ve been reading my blog, you’ll know I made a somewhat chaotic start to 2014.  Exhausted, I have faced any number of new tests at a time when I feel my energies are depleted.

At work, in a state of exhaustion, I have faced inner struggle as my body tells me I need to rest and my inner Company Director tells me I need to crack on.  In need of space, I’ve found it hard to handle some of the challenges that face me personally and have had some difficult interactions with loved ones.

Only the other day, I missed signs that, triggered by something I’d said, a very dear friend was close to losing his temper with me – something he has never done in the quarter century we’ve known each other.

Conflict – a part of our human experience

It seems I am not alone.  Whether in the work place or at home, conflict – discord between ourselves and others or conflict within ourselves – is a regular part of the human experience.


In case you doubt it, I invite you to take a moment to notice what’s going on for you at this time.

Starting with yourself, are there any parts of you that are in conflict with each other?  Are you striving to move forward in some way and yet procrastinating?  Are there things on your “to do” list that, somehow, you are trying to avoid?  Have you set out your New Year vision for more exercise, healthier food, seeking a new job… and yet find that your actions belie your intentions.  If you recognise any example of this in your own life, you probably know just how much frustration, confusion, fear and other emotions you feel as part of this inner conflict.  It could even be that you feel strong emotions – fear, perhaps – about feeling those emotions.  You may even be trying hard to pretend that you’re “fine”.

Are you in conflict with anyone else, either in the way you are interacting with each other or in the way you are thinking of someone or feeling about them – be it a colleague (or colleagues), a friend, your partner or other family member?  Maybe you haven’t said anything and still, you’re fed up with the challenges you face when working with someone or some group of colleagues in your organisation.  Maybe you just can’t face going home once again to your teenage son’s sock pile, or to your partner’s admonitions that you’re late home – again.

Maybe you’ve even had a conversation with someone in the last ten days which was tense, angry, difficult.

On the path of most resistance

Recently, I was witness to an example of a conflict between a manager and one of his members of staff.

The manager, Greg, had found out that Jane, his staff member, had said no to a request from one of the organisation’s major clients.  It was her judgement that the company would struggle to meet the client’s requirements and, what’s more, to do so would be unprofitable.

The first she knew of any problems was when Greg sat her down and instructed her to make arrangements to meet the order – that day.  Jane knew that her team could not do that without letting down other clients and, what’s more, she was confused.  Why the instruction when she had a clear agreement with her boss to say no to any requests which would prove unprofitable to the organisation?  She asked for an explanation and was told Greg would get back to her following a meeting he was scheduled to attend.

This brief exchange left Jane feeling shocked and concerned.  She did, though, want to make clear that she wanted to find an outcome that worked for Greg and for her other clients.  She decided to drop him an e-mail to that effect and to let him know when she was available to talk about how they could fulfil existing orders and make room for this one.  She also included figures so that Greg could assess the profitability of this order.

She was shocked when Greg responded to say that he didn’t want to see her in the office for the rest of the week and would contact her by the end of the week to discuss any further disciplinary action.

Greg’s action put him squarely on the path of most resistance.  Rather than work with Jane, who had expressly told him she wanted to meet with him to find a way forward that worked for them both, he chose to work against her.

Fear – and the power of compassion

Greg didn’t know it, but he acted out of fear.

His great fear was that saying no to his largest client would damage a long-standing relationship.  And because it was Jane who had said no, when fear kicked in, he decided she was in the wrong and tried to exercise control.  Jane, who was more than willing to collaborate with Greg to find a way forward, was not happy to be suspended without good grounds.  Instead of holding a meeting to discuss a way forward that worked for everybody, Gregor’s action led to a lengthy process which consumed time and energy without actually working well for anybody.

In truth, we all have our inner Gregs and Janes.  The same kind of conflict occurs when we sponsor one part of ourselves at the expense of another.  Yes, we (that’s you and one part of you) think it’s a good idea to do do x – but goodness, how frustrating that one part of us is standing in the way!  What a stupid part!  It’s totally irrational!  Let’s push a little harder… push through…  The trouble is, whether we are dealing with inner conflict or conflict with some other person or group of people, this approach increases the struggle, the effort, the time needed to find an – often imperfect – way through.

In my work as a coach, I have found that struggle ends when compassionate collaboration starts.  In my conversations with clients, I invite them to notice what each part of them is really wanting.  As clients let go of judgement and start to really listen, they open up the possibility that parts of them that have been in conflict can begin to collaborate.  The question “which part of me is right?” gives way to a different question – “how can those different parts of me find ways to ensure all our needs are met?”

In her conversations with Greg, Jane recognised that he felt a great deal of fear.  She decided to stick up for her needs – but not at the expense of her manager’s.  She tried to understand his fears whilst also asking for revisions to the guidance he had given her previously, so that she could support him in managing the company’s relationship with a major client.  She also launched an appeal against the disciplinary action he had taken.

 Surprises on the road to ease

Sometimes, the choice to be present to everyone’s needs – to collaborate from a place of compassion – throws up solutions which surprise everyone concerned.  Jane could not know ahead of time, for example, whether her discussions with Greg would throw up new solutions or lead her to conclude that she didn’t want to work under such a regime.

In my own life, gaining clarity about my baseline requirements for working with one organisation recently led me to realise that yes, we want to work with each other but no, we don’t have the basis for any kind of agreement that would work for me.  I was surprised at just how relieved I felt as I leaned into this clarity and let go of trying to find a way to working together work.  I knew I would prefer to be on good terms than to work under an agreement that didn’t give me what I needed.

As I shared that, no, I wouldn’t work with this particular client, I let go of struggle and stepped into ease – and a new set of possibilities.  I was able to do this and to stay on good terms with a potential work partner because I gave full weight to my needs – and theirs.

It takes time and commitment to practise compassionate collaboration.  At the same time, to do so opens up ways to increase your effectiveness and create ease in your role as a leader and beyond.  I don’t want to understate the effort and discipline involved to develop in this area but I do want to offer you a first step:

I invite you to identify just one inner conflict or conflict with others and to get curious about what you need.  Get curious, too, about what others need.  And whether out loud or in your own heart start to say – to yourself, to others – “Hello.  I see you.  Your needs matter.”