Category Archives: Your personal and professional well-being

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.”

On the path to greater ease – knowing what you want

Alice:  Would you please tell me which way I ought to go from here?

The Cheshire Cat:  That depends a good deal on where you want to get to

 Lewis Carroll

Alice in Wonderland

I’ve been thrilled to get back to work this month – coaching at the Sunday coaching clinic in Harley Street as well as a raft of feedback sessions for participants on a High Potential development programme and their managers.  This is work I love – getting beyond symptoms to help people to identify and address core issues.

It happens that, in coaching, the most fundamental question often addresses clients’ core issues.  The question?  What do you want?  The issue?  Do people know what they really want?  Of course, this question gets dressed up in many ways.  It also applies in many areas.  And still, it applies.

As a leader, the question of what you want can be extra tough.  Not only do you need to find your own direction but also you need to find everyone else’s.  Because, make no mistake, everyone is looking to you for direction.

The challenge of knowing what you want

In saying this, there’s something I want to make clear to you.  If you find it difficult to know what you want, if you feel confused or anxious, frustrated, lost or even at a loss, you’re not alone.

Recently, for example, one client told me how angry he has been feeling for months on end.  Angry.  Out of sorts.  And he didn’t know why.  His situation is not uncommon and may even have some resonance for you.  You find yourself feeling strong emotions which sometimes take you by surprise and yet you can’t connect them to anything you recognise.  You know you’re experiencing strong emotions but you don’t know what you really want.

Why is it so difficult to know what you want?

Over the years, I’ve discovered that there are all sorts of reasons why people struggle to know what they really want.  It’s not that they never know what they want (though it might be). Still, there are challenges we all face when we try to answer the question “What do you want?”  I wonder if any of these apply to you?

You’re supposed to be the leader, and yet, somehow, you’re not in charge.  Remember that “go for growth” agenda you were working towards?  Just as your team members were really starting to make progress you hit a major barrier.  In the old days, it was a new emphasis on quality or a failure by your colleagues in manufacturing to respond to demand.  More recently it was a major world recession.  Perhaps now, it’s a new CEO with a new agenda or, worse still, with no agenda, so that you find yourself in a holding pattern whilst you wait to hear about his or her conclusions from yet another major review.  Any which way, just as you felt you were really making progress you found you were moving in the wrong direction.

Perhaps, though, the issue is not a change in direction from the top.  No.  In a world which emphasises selflessness, commitment to your employing organisation or some other form of looking after somebody else’s needs, you’re struggling to muster a kind of inner permission to attend to your own needs – openly, honestly and fully.  You’re feeling out of sorts and you know things aren’t working for you but you don’t know what you really want.  Your career direction is unclear.  You’re struggling in your relationship with your boss, your spouse or even your children.  And because you don’t know what you want, you can’t begin to make progress in the right direction.

Maybe, though, the thing you wanted turns out not to be the panacea you thought it was.  You got the promotion you have been working towards for years and still, you’re not happy.  Your partner agreed to the move you discussed for weeks and weeks on end but you find that what should have been an exciting adventure is at the cost of a frosty silence between you which leaves you feeling angry, anxious or dismayed.  Your boss has responded to requests you made and has followed through to make things happen and still, somehow, you feel uncomfortable and you know your needs are not being met.  The bottom line is this:  you thought you knew what you wanted but you weren’t happy when you got it.

Sometimes, it’s hard to reach agreement with your colleagues about a way forward for your organisation.  Equally, at times, it’s your own inner team which is not pulling in the same direction.  Some part of you is pushing for action, progress, results… and yet, in practice, you are not taking some of the actions you know are key to success.  You shout louder at the part of you that is saying no to those actions… and meet more and more resistance.  You know what you want and feel frustrated and angry – with yourself.

As much as you want to know what you want, you also need compassion for the not knowing.

The world in your hands

At the turn of the millennium, I was heavily involved for a while in developing leadership in schools.  As a member of a team of people accrediting trainers on a national leadership programme for serving headteachers, I sometimes felt I was meeting a whole generation of headteachers.

Many of them were weighed down by the number of directives from the government of the day.  They felt that their autonomy was slowly being removed – they were increasingly responsible for results and yet they had less and less choice about how to achieve them.

Not every headteacher felt that way.  I remember one who told me that, faced with a new government white paper he would take a look at what was coming his way.  “We’re told we’re being consulted,” he said, “but you know that what’s in the paper will ultimately be implemented”.  His response?  To think about how he could use new developments in government policy and legislation to serve his own agenda.

It seems to me that whilst many of his colleagues carried the weight of the world on their shoulders, he carried the world in the palm of his hands.

What the headteacher knew

I’m not sure he even reflected on it, but this headteacher knew, by his experience, how much easier life can be when you know what you want.  He knew his purpose as a headteacher was to serve a community of children.  He wanted to help them to reach a level of educational attainment that would support them in finding employment and in leading meaningful lives.  He wanted to build the sense of self-belief and the emotional intelligence they needed as a foundation for success.

Having this level of clarity about what he wanted in his role as a headteacher meant that Arthur (let’s call him Arthur) had a basis for making decisions.  If he felt that serving on xyz committee would support him in supporting the children in his care he would say yes – but he could, equally, say no.  If he spotted an opportunity to serve the children more effectively he would pursue it with vigour.  Faced with a new government paper he would – rather than feeling crushed by the weight of yet more legislation – ask “how can I position this to serve the children?”

Arthur’s vision was simple, and at the same time, it made life easier for others in the school, too.  Arthur constantly spoke about activities in the school in the light of this vision.  How would a new project support the school in serving the children?  What more could staff do to support the children?  Over the years, the school’s ongoing policies and practices – which were often seen as highly innovative – were designed to support the children.

This kind of clarity attracted like-minded people to serve on the school’s staff whilst repelling others.  It was hard to feel comfortable in the school if you didn’t share such a clear agenda.  It was a source of energy and engagement.  It was a source of ease.  It’s not that people didn’t work hard – they did.  But they had clarity, focus and direction.

On the path to knowing what you want

Arthur knew what he wanted and he’s not alone.  In business, as in the world of education and elsewhere, some people seem to have a clear and unfailing idea of what they want.

Many do not.

To be more precise, for most people, knowing what you want is a path of learning and exploration.  It requires skills.  It requires attention.  And because what we want in one moment may be different from what we want the next it requires presence.

This quality of presence helps us to understand both the big “what do I want?” and how our most fundamental vision can be manifest at particular moments in time.

As I draw to a close, I wonder, what do you want?  More precisely, I wonder, to what extent do you know what you want?  I invite you to take a moment to check in with yourself:

  • What mark out of ten would you give yourself for the clarity of your vision in your role as a leader?
  • What mark out of ten would you give yourself for your clarity of vision for your life as a whole?
  • What mark out of ten would you give yourself for how clearly you know what you want right now?

Perhaps, like Arthur, you know what you want.

But if you don’t, I invite you to bring compassion to your unknowing and to everything that comes with it.

And in case you don’t, I want to say that to learn to connect with what you really want is also to release struggle and to move towards greater ease.


From frustration to empowerment on the road to leadership

Recently, I was delighted to celebrate with a friend who has been waiting for some time for the right job opportunity to open up at his place of work.

It’s been a long wait.

He’s not alone.  Recently, I’ve noticed how many people I encounter who feel stuck in a rut as they try to open up their first opportunity to lead others.

You want to lead… but how do you secure your first leadership role?

Maybe you, too, have struggled on the road to leadership.  If you have, perhaps you’ve encountered some of the problems my clients are facing right now.  Perhaps, even, the memory alone is enough to make you wince.

Firstly, if your employer is up to scratch with modern methods of assessment and recruitment, they probably have a well-designed competency model and some ways to find out to what extent you have the competencies you need to lead others.

This is all very well, but as you seek to open up your first opportunity as a leader, this can leave you feeling concerned and anxious about the vicious circle that faces you.  How can you develop your competencies as a leader without having the opportunity to lead?  And how can you open up the opportunity to lead in a system which expects you to have the skills you need before you take on your first leadership post?  Already, you’re feeling frustrated.

Maybe, you’re working in an area where leadership roles are particularly hard to come by.  In one organisation I work for, for example, my clients in HR joke about just how senior they can become without ever having held a line management role.  But it’s a hollow joke.  It leaves people feeling very vulnerable when, already senior and highly visible, they suddenly become a line manager for the first time.

And you?  Maybe you’re working in a highly specialist area where teams are small and the opportunity to take on a line management – let alone leadership – role is rare.  You’re ready and eager, but you’re having to wait.

It doesn’t help that, in straitened times, the number of opportunities has reduced.  You have to wait longer for the next likely opportunity to open up.  You look around you and you realise that, well, everyone else is waiting, too.

You could look beyond your own organisation, though if you’re like the friend I mentioned right at the top of this posting, you may know you’re working in an organisation you really enjoy – you don’t want to move.  Or maybe (do not pass go, do not collect £200.00) you realise that if you can’t persuade your current employer you can lead, you’ll have even more difficulty persuading a bunch of total strangers.

As time goes on, you become more frustrated.  As time goes on, you become more disheartened.

Thank heavens you don’t need a job as a leader to learn to lead

Yes, that’s right.

Thank heavens you don’t need a job as a leader to learn to lead.

More than anything, I’ve noticed that people feel most disempowered on the road to leadership when they believe they have to be in some kind of leadership role in order to learn to lead.

It isn’t true.

Meditations on a butternut squash


If you’re a regular reader, you may recognise this photo.  You may even recognise the heading – back in October I wrote a blog posting entitled Meditations on a butternut squash at a time when I was feeling particularly exhausted.

The thing is, I’m not really a gardener, or at least, I didn’t think I was.  Even so, I did something this spring which – in a modest way, at least – turned out quite well.

Firstly, I had the idea that if the butternut squash I buy from my local market grow from seed and contain seed, perhaps I could grow a plant from the seed inside of one of those butternut squash.  I started my experiment by harvesting the seed (so many of them!) from a squash I bought and laying them out on a small cardboard tray to dry.

Do you remember how cold it was last winter?  I didn’t start planting until late in the season – it was too cold, I knew I would be away just after Easter, and besides, I was planning a *ahem* fiftieth birthday party in April.  Still, after my birthday, I planted a few of the seeds and, when they had grown into plants and were a few inches high,  planted them in my garden.

The butternut squash in the photo is the result of this experiment.

Leadership – growing from seed

Leadership is not like a butternut squash and still… if you’re feeling frustrated on the road to your first leadership role, it’s worth remembering that leadership does develop over time rather than overnight.  It’s also worth remembering that you don’t need to be in a leadership role to develop your competency as a leader.

Talking to some of the people I have been working with of late who want to turn high potential into evidence they can lead, we’ve talked about three ways they can begin to develop as leaders without any hint of a leadership role in sight:

  • Use what opportunities you already have to develop as a leader:  If you’re good at delivering (it’s been your trade-mark, right?) you may be overlooking the opportunities to develop your leadership skills.  Remember that piece of work you did with your junior colleague when you had to dive in at the last minute and sort out the mess?  That happened because you didn’t stop to think, when you divvied out the work, what level of supervision you needed to give to help him (or her) so he could get the work right.  This is just one example of the kind of opportunity you may be overlooking;
  • Increase your opportunities to develop as a leader:  As long as leadership equals the next promotion in your mind, you’ll miss any number of opportunities to develop your leadership skills.  Perhaps you could ask for the opportunity to lead a particular piece of work or project team.  Perhaps you can take on the role of interim manager to cover someone else in absentia.  Perhaps there are opportunities outside work for you to take on leadership responsibilities.  (If ever you meet my cousin James, for example, you can ask him about his time as Chairman of the London Symphony Chorus.)  Sports clubs, charities and other ventures need leaders.
  • Learn from other leaders:  Of course, you are probably already learning about leadership (for better or for worse) from your line manager.  There are many more ways to learn about leadership from other leaders.  Look across your organisation, for example, as there anyone you admire as a leader?  Many mentors are chosen by the people they support because they embody the skills people want to develop.  There are, of course, biographies and autobiographies to read and films to watch.

Take a couple of minutes now – just two to five – and find yourself a piece of paper and a pencil (or your digital equivalent).  Start by listing any opportunities you already have and are overlooking to develop your leadership skills.  If you still have time, think about how you can increase your opportunity to develop as a leader.  And if all else fails, brainstorm ways you can learn from other leaders.

If you’re planning your development for the year ahead, you can use this five-minute brainstorm as the basis for a discussion with your line manager or even for drafting your developmental goals.

Leaders – made not born

As I draw to a close I find my long-standing resistance kicking in to the idea that leaders are born and not made.

What rubbish!

The recently-departed Nelson Mandela was 76 years old when he became South Africa’s first democratically elected president.  It’s not that this was his first leadership role – but he was, as president, a long time in the making!

My friend, recently, promoted, had to wait for a long time for the right role because, at his level of seniority, suitable opportunities are rare.  Still, I’ve watched him grow as a leader through a succession of roles in the fifteen years since I first assessed him on behalf of a client.

For you, too, your current challenges – with all their attendant frustrations – are just a beginning.  I wish you well.  Please stay tuned if you want to continue to learn.

I’d love to hear what challenges you face as your journey continues.

A compassionate welcome to 2014

Last week I found that a message from a friend (“Dot, we haven’t seen you since your birthday!”) triggered an overwhelm of emotions – some I hardly dared own in the quiet of my own heart, let alone share with my friend.

The first emotion was anger.  Didn’t you read the letter I sent you at Christmas?!  In it I shared, as tactfully as I could, the experience I had of supporting a friend in a suicidal episode (an experience I also referred to in my blog posting entitled Preventing employee suicide).  How could my friend – if she’d read my letter – admonish me for our lack of contact over recent months?

Sitting with the anger, I quickly realised that it masked a layer of guilt.  It wasn’t just guilt about my lack of contact with my friend – no.

I am feeling guilty about all sorts of things right now.

My most chaotic New Year ever…
The truth is, this year has been my most chaotic start to the New Year  – ever.

I haven’t yet written all my Christmas cards (yes really).

I haven’t yet opened all the Christmas cards that loved ones have sent to me (sadly, also true).

I haven’t yet bought Christmas presents for all my loved ones.

And it’s not just about Christmas.

Last week, I spent hours catching up on my first couple of days back at work – opening December’s unopened post, sending invoices for the work I did last month, bringing my diary up to date and more.

I also spent time every day washing clothes, and sheets and towels.  I now have a huge pile of ironing to contend with.

I can still see all sorts of carnage that needs sorting out throughout the house.  My office needs a good clear out.  In my dining room, I need to move a cupboard back into place that was treated for woodworm and put the contents back in place.  I have decided that one of my priorities in 2014 is to create storage for a new hobby – buying and selling china on a well-known *ahem* on-line trading facility.

And my diary is already tightly packed.  On Saturday, I took part in a singing Day as a member of the London Symphony Chorus.  I have a number of feedback sessions in the coming days with assessment candidates I interviewed last year.  I am working intensely in preparation for the launch of my new website.

The list goes on…

…And yours?
I wonder if you, too, have stumbled into 2014 in a way that is less than ideal.

Maybe you’ve enjoyed time with friends and family and, still, you missed some longed-for quiet time over the Christmas break.

Maybe you spent the last couple of months last year meeting tight end-of-year deadlines and you know you’ve failed to plan for 2014.

Maybe you know you’ve got too much on your plate but you can’t see what you can cut out of your schedule, unless it’s the things you put in precisely because you wanted more “life” in your “work/life balance”.

Maybe you have so much in your schedule for 2014 and you still need to catch up with the remnants of 2013.

You’ve started the New Year feeling tired and in need of a rest.  Or perhaps you’re confused about what you want in the year ahead.  Or maybe you feel overwhelmed with everything that lies ahead.

The pressures that come with stepping in to a New Year
One thing I have noticed about Christmas and the New Year, is a certain amount of pressure we put on ourselves at this time of the year.

I’ve noticed, for example, how some people struggle to give an honest account of the year just gone because they believe that, somehow, their year should have been better.  Their career (or their spouse’s or children’s) should have been more sparkling than, in fact, it was.  Perhaps their relationships or even the people in their lives (spouse, parents, children etc.) should have been better.  More challenging still, perhaps they, themselves, should somehow have been better.

There’s another challenge, too – the pressure to be happy.  In the UK, for example, happiness is a matter of government policy.  In July 2013 the BBC reported a small increase in happiness across the UK as measured by a UK-wide annual well-being survey.  The pressure is often closer to home.  Friends and family can be so keen to see their loved ones happy that they offer solutions, unbidden, when we share our problems and challenges or even criticise us for feeling anything other than happy.  This pressure carries the risk that we start to hide our emotions from ourselves and others or to respond to authentic emotion with criticism and self-punishment.

The gift of keeping it real
One person who argues for something different is psychologist and author Oliver James.  I was grateful over the holiday to hear him (on BBC Radio 4) arguing for emotional health rather than happiness as a goal worth aiming for.

What is emotional health?  James argued for being present in the moment to our emotions rather than prescriptive about what we should be feeling.  My own experience is that it is the way we feel about our feelings (based on judgements of what is or is not acceptable) rather than our feelings themselves (what some call our primary feelings) that causes us most distress.

More than this, I would add that our feelings are a valuable gauge;  a guide to needs that may or may not being met.  When we give space for our authentic feelings in the moment, we open up a space for our needs – to welcome them, to experience them and, at times, to meet them.

Happy New Year
Last week, opening my heart to my feelings and to the needs that lay hidden beneath them, I noticed that, more than anything, I have a need for understanding from friends, family, even colleagues and clients, for the ongoing impact from having taken time to support my friend.  Taking time to understand my need also opened up the opportunity to ask for understanding.  I also caught myself in an interpretation (that my friend was intending to admonish me) and was able to honestly share my interpretation and ask, is that what you meant to do?  This was my way of keeping it real.

As I think of you, dear reader, I wish for you that you, too, step into 2014 with the gift of keeping it real.  I hope, for you, that you welcome whatever happens in your life in 2014, just as it is.  I hope for you that you find time and space for your authentic responses to the events in your life.  I hope that you release any pressure to create the perfect life or even to be perfect and, instead, that you welcome your life, just as it is.
Welcome to you.  Welcome to your emotions.  Welcome to 2014.

Dealing with challenging feelings: who is responsible for the way you feel?

“As I walked out the door toward the gate that would lead to my freedom,
I knew that if I didn’t leave my bitterness and hatred behind,
I would still be in prison”
Nelson Mandela
1918 – 2013

I have been super busy in the last four weeks with a trip to Munich for one client followed by a three-week intensive project to assess the graduates of a High Potential programme for another.  I completed the first draft of the last report and sent it off for peer review just hours before my sister-in-law, Judy, arrived from South Korea for the start of her Christmas tour of family and friends.  Today, I am pausing for breath.

During this period, we heard of the death of Nelson Mandela, on Thursday, December 5th, 2013.  Mandela’s death was not unexpected and still, it touched me deeply – he was truly an elder statesman of our age.

It is not surprising that, as well as giving news of Mandela’s death, of his funeral service and of his final burial at his home town of Qunu, journalists have been reflecting on Mandela’s life.  I have repeatedly seen extracts from the speech he made in 1964 at the dock, in what became known as the Rivonia Trial.  These words have been widely quoted:

“I have fought against white domination, and I have fought against black domination.  I have cherished the ideal of a democratic and free society in which all persons live together in harmony and with equal opportunities.  It is an ideal which I hope to live for and to achieve.  But if needs be, it is an ideal for which I am prepared to die.”

It happened that, at much the same time, I received a question from a client who was struggling to come to terms with his feelings about an experience he had had.  He wrote:

“I’ve been telling myself that other people are not responsible for the way I feel.  Yes, the things my manager did triggered a lot of anger, but only because of the thoughts I had at the time… I felt really concerned about staying in my job under such a manager and also afraid to leave my job in this difficult economy.  One of my colleagues has told me forcefully that my manager is responsible for my feelings – what he did was completely unacceptable.  I don’t know which way to turn…”

His next question made me think of Mandela:

“I’ve been wondering, is the whole business trying to ensure we don’t take a definite stance on where change comes from?  In other words, it’s not me or my boss who has to change… instead, let’s work out a way.  And when I attribute responsibility for my feelings to someone else, I’m at risk of taking the oomph out of my own effort?”

In the midst of grappling with this question, I have particularly been struck by the number of times journalists have reported that Mandela was “without bitterness” at the end of his 26 years of imprisonment.

Are you struggling to know who’s responsible for your feelings?
This posting is for you if you, too, are grappling with difficult feelings and don’t quite know who is responsible – or how to respond.

Perhaps someone has done something that has had significant – and negative – implications for you.  At work, for example, the failure of a colleague to deliver on his commitments means that you’ve let down a key client.  You can tell your manager that it was not your fault but even that puts you in difficulty – you don’t want to be someone who points the finger and besides, you know that your manager will hear no ill of this particular colleague.  This is, of course, just one example of experiences that might be stimulating pain, anger, frustration or anxiety at work.

It happens that I’m writing this posting in the final sprint towards Christmas when many people are grappling with issues within their family.  Maybe you find it difficult to spend time with your mother, father or sibling because they still do the thing you found so difficult as a child – be it the explosive temper, the lack of empathy, the competition with you or the coldness between them… whatever it is, as you come closer to spending time with them you feel the mounting anxiety, the anger, the frustration… who says they’re not responsible for the way you feel, given everything that’s happened over the years?

Without bitterness:  the ones who forgave
Mandela chose deliberately to let go of his feelings of bitterness and hatred.  He is not the only one.

Recently, I met a man whose daughter had been murdered and yet was entirely at peace with his loss.  When he spoke of his daughter it was with gratitude for the years they had had together rather than with any sense of anger towards his daughter’s murderer.

This was all the more striking because so many parents of murdered children are quoted in the media as saying how the loss of their child has ruined their lives for ever.  Their message is clear, “This person did something which has ruined my life.”  Again and again, the implication is that this enduring sense of loss, anger and bitterness is the only option available to the bereaved.  The message is also, clearly, “you did that to me.”

And who can blame them?

At the same time, Mandela knew, when he finally left prison in 1990 that any feelings of bitterness and hatred he took with him would, in themselves, constitute a prison.  For this reason, he decided to leave them behind.
When we take responsibility for our feelings, then what?
Often, when people consider the option of taking responsibility for their own feelings, they have two main concerns.  Firstly, they have concerns about the other person – will they get away with it?  Will they do the same thing again and with a similar impact on other people?  At root, they’re concerned that taking responsibility for their own feelings lets the other person or people off the hook.  Secondly, clients can be concerned that when they let go of the idea that someone else is responsible for the way they feel, they let go of their power.
These two concerns are closely related …and entirely without foundation.
Let’s take the second concern first.  If you’re feeling anxious or frustrated at the prospect of spending time with your family at Christmas, it’s a sure sign that you don’t feel confident that your needs – whatever those needs might be – will be met.  Perhaps you know that you don’t find it easy to be around your mother-in-law when she seems to resent all the work that goes in to hosting a family gathering.  You may even have strong feelings about the fact that she chooses to host a family gathering at Christmas given that she finds it so stressful and given that you’ve repeatedly offered to host lunch yourself.
As long as you hold your mother-in-law responsible for your feelings, you’re thinking that it’s your mother-in-law who needs to make changes.
You may also be struggling to give due weight to your own needs… are you willing to say, “my needs matter” and to make choices that reflect this belief?  This is often an area of great struggle, because it comes with all sorts of fears.  In particular, there’s a fear that can come when we realise that taking responsibility for own feelings means making choices that other people may not support…
…the choice to say no to an invitation from a relative to join them for Christmas, knowing family members will struggle to accept your choice…
…the choice to share your concerns about your manager with, well, your manager – even though you have no way of knowing how he or she will respond…
…the choice to move away from grief and towards joy after the loss of a child, even though society at large finds it hard to accept that grief and joy can exist side by side…
…the choice to hurt someone’s feelings (because if they’re responsible for your feelings you must be responsible for theirs, right?) or – more challenging still – to act, knowing that someone will struggle with your actions, and knowing that whatever they believe, it is what they think about your choices and not your choices themselves, which causes such pain…
When we make these and other choices with a sincere desire to meet our own needs and a willingness to support others in meeting theirs we do, increasingly, feel the power that comes with owning our feelings.  Instead of “yes, I feel angry that you…” we start to own that “yes, I feel angry that I…”  “I feel angry that I said yes to the job he offered me, even though I knew he was unreliable”.  From this place we can learn to do something different next time.
But what about that other concern?  The concern that someone may do the same thing again and with a similar impact on other people?
The truth is they might.
…the Christmas hostess may still want to be hostess and still feel resentment about all the work involved…
…the manager, whatever his or her weaknesses, may do the same thing again and again, without learning…
. .the criminal may repeat an act of crime…
Over the years I have found that, when we have concerns about the acts of others, it’s because we care deeply for people’s well-being.
…We care deeply about our own well-being…
…We care about the well-being of people who do things that hurt themselves, or others…
…We care deeply about other people who may be treated in the way we were…
In each case, we can take action.  To do so is to stand in our own power.
We are not, though, some omnipotent god and we cannot guarantee any particular response.
Our power lies in recognising that yes, this did not (or does not) work for me.  My needs are not met.  I accept that this person did the best they know how.  I accept that, given the way I see things, I am bound to feel what I feel.  I accept it is for me to decide what I will do now.  I accept that I cannot guarantee any particular response.
And you?  What’s next for you?
From Mandela, through work, to Christmas and our loved ones, I have given examples of some of the things that challenge us most.  I wonder what’s next for you.
If you’re struggling with difficult emotions, here’s my invitation to you… notice them, welcome them, own them.  What’s the emotion?  What’s stimulating that emotion in you?  What need are you yearning to meet?
And insofar as you know that it’s for you (and for nobody else) to honour your need and to do what you can to meet it, what one thing would you like to do next?
Perhaps there’s something you can easily do that will give you much greater ease as the year draws to a close.  Perhaps this line of questions opens up something much bigger for you.
Either way, lovingly, gently, I leave the responsibility for your feelings with you.