Tag Archives: emotional intelligence

Remembrance for times ahead

Recently, I posted on Facebook to express my concerns at the changing use of the poppy, once a symbol of remembrance for those who died in World Wars I and II.  I shared an article by Harry Leslie Smith and published by the Guardian in 2013, explaining why, aged 91, he had decided to wear the poppy of remembrance for the last time.  And a blog posting, whose author calls herself “stavvers”.  My sharing was met with some resistance.  One friend responded by highlighting the emergence of the white poppy, available to buy online.

This year, two great political shocks have made me focus with fresh eyes on Remembrance Day and on how I choose to remember.  On June 23, 2016, the British electorate voted by a narrow voter majority to leave the EU in an advisory referendum, unleashing a genie from the bottle whose consequences cannot yet be told.  Today, November 9th, 2016, the American people elected their 45th President of the United States of America, Donald J. Trump.  To say that I was shocked by the result of the UK’s “Brexit” referendum is not to exaggerate.  I have been less shocked by Trump’s election – Brexit prepared me to expect the unexpected.  After Brexit, there were jokes – which had the ring of truth – that Britons would have to relinquish a favourite pass time;  that of looking down on the Americans.  Today, I suspect that pass time may well find currency again.

But what do we make of it all?  And why am I talking of the Brexit and the US election in a post about Remembrance?

Groundhog Day and the cycle of history

If you’ve never watched the film Groundhog Day, now may well be the time.  In it, the film’s main character, played by actor Bill Murray, gets caught in a time warp, repeating the same day over and over again until he learns the essential lessons he needs in order to move on.

The act of remembrance was born of a deep desire to save future generations from repeating the mistakes of the past.  In Germany, there has been a focus on education with the aim of making sure that the country’s sons and daughters would never again make the mistakes of their Nazi forebears.  The European Union was also the child of this deep desire for peace.  No wonder then, as imperfect as the EU might be, there are many in Britain who wish to retain our membership.  No wonder that colleagues in Europe have responded with shock at how easily we have shown our willingness to jump from the EU ship.

In America, Trump’s candidacy has drawn comparisons with the rise of Nazism under Hitler’s leadership.  Trump’s campaign slogan “Make America Great Again” directly parallels Hitler’s 1930s vision for Germany’s return to prominence.  And both appealed – alongside Brexit – to sections of the electorate who felt despairing and down-trodden and saw little hope for the future.  Hitler, Brexit, Trump… they all gave hope to what, only today, Trump called his country’s “forgotten people”.

Perhaps our shock reflects a prevailing view, despite evidence to the contrary, that progress goes in a straight line.  It doesn’t.  The myth of progress-in-a-straight-line leads us, in business, to the view that only targets which show improvements (increased sales, improving efficiency, rises in profitability) are ever needed. The same myth of straight-line progress may well have fuelled hope in America that the first black US President might be succeeded by its first woman US President.  Instead, the presidency of the US’s first black president, widely regarded as someone who has combined dignity in office with a huge measure of compassion and humour, is followed by the coming presidency of yet one more white man of mature years and, this time, one who has been variously labelled as bigoted, misogynist, racist, xenophobic and more.  Many Americans are thrilled – but not all.  At least as many Americans are bewildered, anxious and afraid.

Is love even here?

For those people who have fought for progress over many years, it is tempting to fall into despair.  It’s hard to see how progress can come from steps which hark back to a forgotten and maybe even imagined “glorious” past.  The phrase “dark day” has graced my Facebook feed today and, more humourously, perhaps “electile dysfunction”.  For some, humour is a moment of relief when people can find no other way to find peace.

I am reminded and grateful for the question which is often asked by one of my mentors, the wonderful Mark Silver of Heart of Business:  is love even here?  It is a question which connects us to love which is, always, here.  And I think our hope of making progress – of moving beyond our political Groundhog Day – depends on it.

These are some of the things that strike me about our current circumstances (including many circumstances I have not even mentioned).

The Brexit campaign was a bitter battle as was the US election campaign.  Amongst my friends it played out with equal intensity on Facebook.

Both were characterised by lies and more lies in what some have described as a “post-truth” era.  In Brexit, the lies were clearly on both sides, with the media criticised for their light touch response to some unholy battle-bus whoppers.  In the US election campaign, pointing out Donald Trump’s personal brand of fabrication-despite-clear-evidence drew criticism of large-scale media bias.

Both were characterised – yes, both – by insulting and disparaging the opposition before, during and after the campaigns.  In Brexit, Leavers were “stupid” and “ignorant” and Remainers “just need to get over it”.  In the US election campaign Trump, together with his supporters,  was seen by opponents as an “idiot” and unworthy of anything but laughter and disdain.

But after the battle we are left both with the electoral result and with the needs – the raw, keenly felt and unmet needs – that drove people on both sides of the argument to vote as they did.  It seems to me that this is one of the deep lessons of Groundhog Day, just as it is one of the deep lessons of our current political era.  This is the lesson that we need to learn if ever we are to move beyond our current cycle of progress and resistance.

We are all one.  When we overlook the needs of one, we hinder the progress of all.

Brexit is said to have been won largely by sectors of the population whose economic needs are unmet, even by those who most benefitted from EU funding.  In the US, early analysis suggests that it is not the most economically disadvantaged who voted for Trump but the older, white, male vote that won Trump his victory.  The “disadvantaged white male” narrative clings on and perhaps there is still some truth in this – for which so much wealth concentrated in the hands of so few, most of the population feel keenly their disadvantages.  And because of this, there is action and reaction, momentum and resistance.

Until we find ways forward that honour and meet the needs of all, our Groundhog Day will continue.

Beyond “goodies” and “baddies”

It seems to me that one implication of this truth – I’d go so far as to call it as a universal law – is that we all need to let go of our habit of dividing the world into “goodies” and “baddies” and, instead, start to see each other as the human beings we all are.

Don’t get me wrong, this is not about rolling over and accepting every behaviour as okay.  No.  But it does require us to see the humanity of those whose views and actions concern us and to be curious.  We need to show curiosity about those people we define, somehow, as “other”.  What is motivating this support for a different candidate or point of view?  What deeper needs are being expressed?  And we need to afford them the same respect we would afford anyone whose views we agree with.  In the US election campaign, I was inspired by this example from Van Jones, author and – amongst other things – CNN contributor.

Equally, we need to be willing and able to see ourselves as the human beings we all are.  As much, for example, as we need to understand that some of the behaviours we find most repulsive in others spring from positive intentions, we need to understand that our own positive intentions give birth, at times, to some pretty ugly behaviours. This opens up the opportunity to reflect on and adjust our approach.  We also have the opportunity to be less judgemental of others when we recognise our own limitations.  These are not small things.

Until we can recognise, with compassion, our own limitations, we are stuck in our own personal Groundhog Day.  Our blind spots become those of our children.  Worse still, they become embedded in our culture, in our systems, in our laws.  We talk with horror of the Holocaust, for example, yet turn our back to the needs of those people displaced from Syria by famine and war or even supply arms to foreign powers so that they can perpetrate atrocities in distant lands.  We invade foreign lands and treat native peoples with brutality and yet fear the invasion of immigrants even to lands to which we were, ourselves, not only immigrants but violent invaders.

Creating narratives for future generations

In the aftermath of World War I and II our continuing acts of remembrance create a narrative for future generations, offering a storyline which may or may not expand their understanding.  For this reason, I choose to reflect on the prevailing narratives of our era and to choose my own.

For my own part, I feel concerned as the Royal British Legion, who have provided poppies for our act of remembrance for many years now, begin to talk of a new generation of veterans that need my support.  It worries me to read – on, of all things, its “Our Brand” page – “We want people to understand that the poppy is not just about Remembrance; it’s also about providing hope for the Armed Forces community of all ages, throughout the year.”  This is a message which dilutes the poppy as an act of remembrance and, by supporting more recent veterans, invites my moral and financial support for the UK’s continuing engagement in armed conflict.

I am not so naive as to think no time will come when others invade our shores.  I know that my taxes have been co-opted to fund action abroad.  Let my taxes also be co-opted to give due care to those who fight in conflicts, including those I do not support.  For my part, by my act of remembrance, I want to think ahead to a time in which we choose to engage with people as our brothers and sisters rather than to demonise them and overlook their humanity.

Today, Angela Merkel extended a cautious hand of welcome to Donald Trump:

“Whoever the American people elect as their president in free and fair elections, that has a significance far beyond the USA.  Germany and America are bound by their values: democracy, freedom, the respect for the law and the dignity of human beings, independent of their origin, skin color, religion, gender, sexual orientation or political position.  On the basis of these values I offer the future president of the United States, Donald Trump, close cooperation.”

For my part, I see Merkel’s words as a reminder of just how deeply the German people have chosen to reflect on their history.  Perhaps, too, Merkel offers an invitation both to voters in America and to observers around the world, to remember the dignity of human beings of all political persuasions.  It is a time to take stock, to treat each other with love and respect or at least, if caring for each other proves to be beyond what we can achieve right now, to take time to care for ourselves.

On the road to world (and office) peace

An act of remembrance at Birkenau
An act of remembrance at Birkenau

Hurt people hurt people. That’s how pain patterns gets passed on, generation after generation after generation. Break the chain today. Meet anger with sympathy, contempt with compassion, cruelty with kindness. Greet grimaces with smiles. Forgive and forget about finding fault. Love is the weapon of the future.

Yehuda Berg

It has been my tradition to mark Remembrance Day here on my blog. This year is no exception.

I want to start by mentioning an experience I had recently and by talking through the learning that has been unfolding for me in the days and weeks that have followed.

One Monday morning, a few weeks ago, I found a response amongst my e-mails to something I had said to a colleague.  It was clear from her response that my words had not landed well with her.

I wanted to reach out and open up the opportunity for connection, so I let her know that I was open to discussion if she wanted to talk things through.

She didn’t.

A few days later, I reached out again. I sent her a personal message and asked her how she was. We had some exchanges. I asked her if she wanted to talk things through.

She didn’t.

I wondered what to do next when the answer seemed to be nothing. I was not at peace.

On the end of a coercive style

I knew my colleague was unhappy with something I’d said and I didn’t know what.  Equally, in  the course of our conversations, my correspondent said and did a number of things that I found difficult. I experienced them as attempting to control my behaviour – to coerce.

If ever you’ve been on the receiving end of someone else’s attempts to coerce you, you may know how challenging it can be.  Whereas some people make requests of you, the person who coerces does so from a place of believing he or she is right. You are told what you should do or should have done or, indeed, should not have done. Requests are made (or orders given) by implication. (Why ask “Would you mind doing…?” when you believe the other person ought to do something because it’s the right thing to do?)

You may also receive feedback from your correspondent to support his or her case. He or she uses labels, for example, to describe you or your behaviour. These are not used with the awareness that they are labels or constructs of the imagination. No, the speaker believes that they are an accurate description. Descriptions of behaviour are not neutral. The other person does not repeat the words that you said or accurately describe what you did. No, he or she tells you that you “spoke out of turn” or “deliberately crossed someone”. “You offended someone”. “You made a fool of yourself”. Anything that you did or said is lost in the midst of holding you responsible for somebody else’s response or beneath layers of judgement about whether or not you should have done what you did.

The fact that none of these descriptions accurately described what you said or did doesn’t matter to the person who is addressing you: his or her map is the territory. You may see that the other person has made assumptions and is treating them as if they were true. At the same time, the confidence of your correspondent that he or she is right is such that he or she has no reason to listen to anything you may have to say. Unless you can talk things through, it’s hard to correct misunderstandings.

How do you feel when this happens and especially when these behaviours are sustained (whether from time to time or on an ongoing basis)? For many people, they can trigger fear, anger, anxiety. Over time, they can undermine your confidence and make you question yourself. Perhaps you resist, asserting your right to choose your own behavour – and you do. You can even use some labels of your own to describe the person whose behaviour you have found so difficult.

Even so, it can be hard to feel at peace.

Good bye to bad rubbish

If you have read this far, you may think I am going to talk about the limitations of coercion. Regular readers already know I am a fan of research summed up by Daniel Goleman (in the article Leadership That Gets Results) which shows that when used inappropriately and excessively, the coercive style can have a negative impact on the way people experience their workplace and, in turn, on their productivity at work.

But no.

I promised to talk about my learnings in the midst of my experiences and this is what I am going to do.

I want to start with a path I chose not to take.

In the vernacular, there’s a phrase that is often used to describe one possible response when we are experiencing difficulties in our relationships with others: “say goodbye to bad rubbish”. This is the kind of phrase friends use to comfort loved ones after a relationship break-up, for example.

In the workplace, we may not have the option to walk away from a relationship and still, covertly, we say goodbye to bad rubbish by holding to our view that our colleague is out of line, has values that stink, is totally incompetent and more.

On a global scale, we look at our neighbours – neighbouring countries, religious groups and more – through the eyes of judgement and disbelief. This is the kind of disbelief that asks “How could they possibly do X?” without ever really seeking to know the answer. It may even be the kind of disbelief which asks this question of others whilst overlooking the times when we, too, have reacted in haste and, in doing so, have behaved in ways we would rather forget.

I am not saying that anyone should seek to make a best friend out of someone they find difficult. Men and women in abusive relationships are well advised to walk away. In organisations, we may want to work effectively with someone whose behaviour we loathe and still, to look after our own wellbeing. At the same time, as much as we want to gravitate towards and hang out with people whose company we enjoy, many times, we will encounter people whose behaviour we find difficult. Do we really want to walk away from them all?

On being human

Synchronicity is a wonderful thing. Just as I was grappling with my experiences, I decided to listen to a recorded conference call with Miki Kashtan (who is a trainer of some repute in the field of Nonviolent Communication) about collaboration in the workplace. I did not expect to take anything from her call which would help me with my colleague, but many things she spoke of landed with me.

Firstly, she described an instinct we have to withdraw when we encounter difficult behaviours. In this way, we protect ourselves from further harm. Even though I was only half listening to her as I did other things, I realised there was a message for me in this. I did want to withdraw and protect myself from more of the same. Yehuda Berg puts it this way: “Hurt people hurt people”. When we meet behaviours from people who are triggered, consciously or unconsciously, we want to protect ourselves from being hurt.

In her discussion, Miki pointed to something else. It can be easy, as we withdraw, to fall into judgement. It’s so easy that we do it without even realising that we are doing it. Their behaviour was difficult. It didn’t meet common professional standards. It clearly wasn’t rational. When we come from a place of wanting to protect ourselves, these judgements escalate a cycle of distance and mistrust so that the people whose behaviour we have found so difficult also want to step back and protect themselves.

This is the escalating cycle of pain to which Yehuda Berg refers and which is present in our most intimate relationships. And because I write this posting on Remembrance Day, I think it worth adding that the same pattern that causes us difficulty in our relationships with friends and family is also present in our relationships with our colleagues. And as much as it’s present in our relationships with colleagues, it is also present on a much larger scale in the relationships between nations or religious groups. If we follow this pattern, take the “goodbye to bad rubbish” approach, we can only look forward to conflict at the local and the global level.

It doesn’t have to be this way.

Small change

It happened that, a little while before I had the experience I have described above, my friend and colleague, Tamara Laporte, had a hot date (okay, conducted an interview) with Byron Katie, author of the book Loving What Is. I’d been meaning to watch this interview and I knew that now was the time.

Part way through this interview, Tamara asked Byron Katie about an incident that had taken place in her life, when she found herself face to face with a young man with a gun. Her response in the moment blew me away: she was able to connect with what might be going on for this young man, without in any way losing her composure.

Byron Katie was able to respond with composure because she has worked extensively to catch her own thoughts, to question them and to turn them round. By transforming her thoughts – her “story”, if you like – she is able to transform her emotional experience both in the moment and across her life as a whole. She calls this process of enquiry “the work”.

You could say that Byron Katie’s work is the manifestation of Mahatma Gandhi’s often-repeated invitation to “be the change you want to see in the world”. This small change of focus can bring huge results. It was as a result of her extensive work prior to this experience and of her ability, in the moment, to do her own work that she came away from this experience alive.

The mother of all things I want to learn to do differently

Sometimes, lessons are humbling. Not least because, at times, we have to learn them again and again until they become second nature to us – or perhaps return us to our primary nature. As I sit here and reflect, I wonder what three things I would most like to do going forward.

Rupture and repair

The first thing I take from this experience is a reminder that, in any successful relationship, there is a process which another friend and colleague, Melanya Helene, calls “rupture and repair”.

This is not just what happens in our most difficult relationships.


Rupture and repair is what happens in our most intimate relationships. We experience some misunderstanding and draw away. But we also value the relationship enough to want to reconnect.  It is this desire to reconnect that motivates us to do what we need to do to overcome misunderstanding and repair our relationships.

Bringing this desire to overcome difficulties is also what allows us to transform our most difficult relationships into relationships of trust. In her densely-packed teleconference call, Miki Kashtan talks of spreading around goodwill when you most feel distrust. On a much greater scale, the process of truth and reconciliation in post-apartheid South Africa came from this intention to repair what was broken.

When rupture happens, in whatever form, on whatever scale, I choose to be open to repair.

You can’t change the others

My experience with my colleague reminded me of another essential truth: the work of repairing difficult relationships begins at home.

It begins at home because we can’t change the others, we can only change ourselves.

It begins at home because our instinct to pull away from difficult relationships, our lack of trust, is itself a barrier to creating positive and healthy relationships, because it causes us to behave in ways which compound the problem.

As long as our focus is on how things should be, for example, we will struggle to deal effectively with how things are. In her conference call, Miki Kashtan describes one thing as under-rated in our society, and I agree: that thing is mourning. She talks about how much we need to experience our grief, our sadness, our disappointment, that this is how the world is – to feel this crushing disappointment all the way. All the thinking we do about how things should be leads us to harden our hearts as a protection from everything we know, deep down, to be true. Mourning helps us to maintain an open heart and it is this open-hearted softness that keeps us open to the other, even when we find their behaviour most difficult.

Both Miki Kashtan and Byron Katie invite us to examine our thinking about the other person. Indeed, Byron Katie’s work is all about examining our thinking. How are we thinking of this other person? (Our friends, our colleagues, our neighbours at local or global level). The biggest story we have to catch is that because there is something we find difficult about this other person, they are somehow, fundamentally, not okay.

The more we can catch ourselves in the midst of this story and question the thoughts we are having, the more we open up new possibilities in our relationships with others. We begin to see that whilst we find some behaviours difficult, other behaviours support us in meeting our needs. This means we can express our appreciation for those behaviours that nurture us and this, in turn, begins to change our experience and the experience of the other.

So, my second choice is this.  I want to examine the stories I tell myself about myself and about others, especially when my attachment to that story is strong.

The healing power of empathy

The more we can catch our story, examine and transcend it, the more we can come to a story that opens up the possibility of a different forward path. This requires us to understand that, no matter how others behaved, they acted with positive intentions. Kashtan points to this: that the fact that someone behaved in ways we found difficult probably means that there is something we did or habitually do that they perceive as standing in the way of them fulfilling their needs. Empathy helps us to understand this and to connect with the other person and this opens up the possibility of a dialogue which, in turn, helps us to build a cycle of increasing empathy and mutual understanding.

It’s possible, too, that we need to meet our own experience with great empathy and understanding. Beneath the judgement of the other, for example, there is often a judgement of ourself or, at least, the fear that self-judgement may be justified. For yes, we, too, are human and react, at times, in ways we abhor. When we can bring self-empathy we can hold our positive intentions with great care and mourn, rather than condemn, our own behaviour. This leads us to greater honesty with ourselves, opens up the possibility of transforming our approach over time and, in addition, makes us more forgiving of others.

So, my third commitment is to recognise both my own and others’ need for empathy.  I want to bring empathy even to the most difficult of relationships.

Implications for world (and office) peace

Why does any of this matter?

There are those in my life who have encouraged me to step away from any relationships which might be described as abusive, toxic or bullying and I certainly do not seek them out. I’m sure Byron Katie didn’t go looking for the young man with the gun.

At the same time, there are times in our lives when we do have regular contact with someone whose behaviour we don’t enjoy. Perhaps their emotions are frequently triggered. Perhaps their behaviours are unpleasant. He may be a colleague. She may be a family member.

We can, of course, move jobs, change friends, walk away from family. But new jobs bring new people who may also behave at times in ways we don’t enjoy. And it’s my experience that people yearn for a sense of connection with their family members even whilst walking away from situations where they can find no possibility for that connection to occur.

On a much more global scale, condemning “the other”, whether we are talking about men and women of a different political persuasion, national identify or religious group brings us no closer to finding ways forward which support everyone in meeting their needs.

Our relationships at work require us to find ways to connect with the people we most fear or despise, to move beyond our fear and hatred and to come to a place of empathy and understanding.

From Hiroshima, an invitation to reflect on what we have done, as well as on what has been done to us.
From Hiroshima, an invitation to reflect on what we have done, as well as on what has been done to us.

On Remembrance Day I want to add that this, too, is what is required of us.  This requires us to understand that, in war, the most appalling acts are carried out with good intentions.  This requires us to recognise that “appalling acts” are not the unique preserve of enemy forces.  Looking into our own history, even our recent history, we find that our own countrymen and women have committed appalling acts.  We need to recognise that we, too, are capable – as much today as we ever were – of committing appalling acts.  Only when we can face this truth can we begin the long walk towards peace.

Hurt people hurt people.

I want to be one of the people who is no longer hurt. And when I feel hurt, I want to respond rather than react.

I offer thanks to my colleague, to Miki Kashtan, to Tamara Laporte and Byron Katie, to Melanya Helene and to many others who have provided the inspiration to write this posting and whose thinking has also informed the content.

Bringing heart to leadership in difficult times

I have been somewhat parochial in the last couple of weeks in my approach to the news.  On 10th February, the news reached me of the death of someone whose work has enriched my life immeasurably:  Marshall Rosenberg.  Marshall was the creator of an approach to communication which he called Compassionate or Nonviolent Communication, a passionate advocate for social change, a great teacher and author of a number of books, including his core text Nonviolent Communication:  A Language of Life.

New concert hall boost for London
New concert hall boost for London

Then, too, there has been a flurry of commentary about Sir Simon Rattle.  Journalists have been speculating for months now that Rattle, whose tenure with the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra is due to come to an end in 2018, will take up the post of Principal Conductor of the London Symphony Orchestra.  (This matters to me because, in my spare time, I sing with the London Symphony Chorus.)  Rattle has spoken openly about his belief that London lacks a world-class concert hall and some have speculated that he is holding out for a commitment to build this hall as a condition of taking up the post with the LSO.  It seems the politicians have been listening:  in recent days, there have been public statements from various politicians.

There has been wider news.  There was an attack on a café in Copenhagen, which was hosting a discussion about free speech.  Three teenage girls left the UK, apparently to travel to Syria, raising concerns about their safety.  British football fans were caught on camera in Paris, chanting their love of racism.  There have been discussions about the Greeks in Europe.  In the UK, election fever is starting to build.

In the UK, talk of deflation has been carefully framed and, largely, played down.  Still, talking to friends and family, and to clients in the privacy of my offices in Harley Street, I am repeatedly reminded of just how different the business environment is right now compared to ten years ago.  The possibility of a round of deflation is one more nail in the coffin of hope for many businesses.

Is your organisation struggling to weather difficult times?

Businesses continue to struggle:  yours, too, may be struggling.  It can be hard to lead in an organisation that’s grappling with change.

As a leader, you have to make decisions in the face of great uncertainty, when many things you used to rely on can no longer be taken for granted, such as year on year improvements in sales and in what you can charge your clients.

The decisions you make have an impact on large numbers of people, from staff in your own organisation, suppliers, their friends, family and communities.  This can leave you feeling torn, uncertain, though you try hard to maintain the calm authority your staff expect of you.

What’s more, you know your own employment is at risk and your prospects of career advancement are diminished.  At no other time have you given more, been more tested, with less opportunity for any kind of reward.

How do you weather such difficult times?

Turning the screw on under-performance

It can be easy to think, in difficult times, that you need to use more force to achieve results.

This was the approach that Sheldon took.

Sheldon was a sales manager in a time when sales were sluggish.  Under pressure from his own line manager, Sheldon shared targets with members of the sales team and spelled out the consequences of not achieving those targets.  The consequences for the company were significant, he said, and everyone’s jobs were at risk.

Sheldon piled the pressure on individual team members, too.  One team member was new and struggling.  This team member, Ash, had made a flying start on joining the team but his results had been patchy following a down-turn in the economy.  What’s more, he was finding it hard to balance his core work with his contribution to a new initiative in the team.

Sheldon kept a close eye on Ash, giving detailed feedback on every failing he could find.  Ash was frustrated and devastated when he was copied in to an e-mail from Sheldon to the company’s MD, highlighting a particular problem and attributing it to Ash.  If only his manager had checked the facts, he would have known the problem lay elsewhere.

The thing is, the more Sheldon gave feedback, the more Ash’s performance deteriorated.

With love, not fear

One of the articles I recommend most often to leaders and aspiring leaders is Daniel Goleman’s article Leadership That Gets Results.

In his article, Goleman lays out research which identifies six different leadership styles and explains their impact on the performance of those being led.  This research suggests that the most effective leaders use a range of styles when managing their employees.  It also shows how the most effective leaders do this consciously, because they understand that they need to do what’s most effective in a given situation.

There’s more.

Goleman’s article (which he develops more fully in his book The New Leaders) shows that, over time, the use of four styles in particular is more likely to build a climate in which team members can perform.

There’s one thing that Goleman doesn’t mention in his article and that Sheldon didn’t know either.  Sheldon’s choice of leadership style was largely driven by fear.

Sheldon’s senior management were driven by fear of the consequences for the company of a whole if the sales team did not perform.  They passed their fear right on to Sheldon, together with the responsibility to find a way to increase sales.

Their approach intensified Sheldon’s fear and Sheldon lacked the skills to turn down the dial on his emotions in order to reflect on how best to handle the situation.  Like his own managers, Sheldon passed his fear right on.

Ash was already anxious when his performance started to drop and he didn’t know how to respond.  What’s more, he could see that an initiative in the sales team, designed to give better service to some of the company’s smaller client organisations, was asking members of the sales team, repeatedly, to be in two places at once.  He’d tried to give feedback to Sheldon but Sheldon seemed to be on a mission to prove to Ash that he was not up to much.

Ash was struggling to maintain his confidence and self esteem.

So was Sheldon.

So, too, were members of the senior management team.

About Marshall Rosenberg

On the day I heard that Marshall Rosenberg had died, I noticed my heart opening and the sensations in my body.  I knew it was not a day to bypass my experience but a day to take time out to be with everything that was in my heart, including the great sense of gratitude and the feelings of love.

Following the announcement of his death, colleagues at the Center for Nonviolent Communication (CNVC) set up a call for people to share their memories, to celebrate and mourn together.  Intended to last a few hours it went on for seven days.  A group set up on Facebook has become a living memorial to this towering giant of a man.

Early in his life, Rosenberg was struck by the various forms of violence he encountered growing up in Detroit.  He went on to study psychiatry and obtained a doctorate before going on to develop the approach to communication which has become known as Nonviolent Communication, with the aim of widely disseminating much-need communication skills.  During his life he worked widely around the world, bringing healing to many individual people and to troubled, often war-torn, communities.

It’s a testament to Rosenberg’s leadership that he set up a Center for Nonviolent Communication as a way to spread his approach and worked with many people around the world to share his skills.  He leaves behind many people who are themselves experienced in training others in NVC and in mediating conflict.

At the heart of his work, Rosenberg emphasised paying attention to feelings and needs so that we can find ways to meet our own needs whilst also respecting and contributing to the needs of others.  The disciplines of NVC – the process he described for communication – are especially powerful when they are rooted in love and in an intention, where there is fear, to find our way back to love.

I owe much to Marshall Rosenberg and to the approach he developed.  I am particularly grateful to the clarity of intention I have, as a result of studying with him and with others in the community, to live my life from a place of love.

Leadership with heart

This posting is, for now, my own testimonial to Marshall Rosenberg and an expression of my own love for and gratitude to him.

At the same time, I am aware of the power of love as an underpin to the kind of leadership Goleman describes in his article, Leadership That Gets Results.

Marshall advocated separating our observations from our judgements and Goleman highlights the need to step back and assess what is needed in each situation we face as a leader.

As a leader, Sheldon’s experience started to change when he learnt to notice his emotion and to bring care to his fears before choosing how to respond to each situation he faced.

The experience of his staff was also changed by this.

So, too, was their performance.

Marshall Rosenberg, 1934 – 2015.

Managing your boss

Portrait of Albert Einstein
Portrait of Albert Einstein



Insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results

Albert Einstein





In the last couple of years, I’ve enjoyed selling things on eBay.

In recent days, however, I’ve been grappling with a fair degree of frustration.  On Tuesday, I booked a courier to collect a parcel on Wednesday.

The courier didn’t come.

On Thursday I was out and left it with my neighbours.  I checked in with them on Thursday evening.

The courier hadn’t come.

Friday?  I was at home in the morning.

The courier didn’t come.

I had a meeting in the afternoon and left the parcel with my neighbours.  (Again.)  I collected the parcel from my neighbours on my way home.  The courier made his first attempt to collect soon after.  “Everybody’s complaining today,” he told me.  I knew I was not alone.

I was all the more frustrated because this has happened a number of times in recent weeks and my attempts to engage the company concerned have generally been met with an apology and a request that I deliver the parcel to them.

Are you working for your worst boss ever?

Working for a difficult boss is a subject that comes up repeatedly.  If you’re working for your worst boss ever, you may already recognise some parallels with my courier experience.

Your boss is the boss, right?  You expect him or her to do the things bosses do.

You expect your boss to clearly define what he or she wants of you.  He doesn’t.

You expect your boss to support you in shaping an agenda for your part of the business and to help you to gain support for important initiatives.  But you can’t get time in your boss’s diary or you face a wall when you put your ideas forward.

You expect your boss to organise herself to be effective.  You expect leadership from your boss.  But the last thing you get from your boss is good, sound leadership.

You expect the boss to provide support and coaching to help you become more effective in your current role or prepare for your next role.  But all you get is criticism when you don’t do things his way.  (And how the hell are you supposed to know what his way is?  He certainly doesn’t tell you.)

Perhaps you try making requests of your boss or giving feedback.  He may agree with your assessment of the situation but nothing changes.  She may take offence at your feedback.

Over time, you feel more and more frustrated.  Perhaps you feel anxious.  Maybe, if your boss is super critical of you, you lose confidence.  Your performance starts to slide.  Or maybe you find yourself increasingly filling the gap.  Others approach you rather than seeking help from your manager.  Or you start to shape the agenda, to do the influencing, to make things happen.

What Ben knew

Recently, I met someone who had made quite an art out of working for difficult bosses.  I was intrigued to learn more.

The first thing he told me intrigued me most of all.

It hadn’t always been that way.

Early in his career, he had set out to change a difficult boss.  He was confident that his perceptions of his manager were correct and felt sure that if he only raised his concerns at more senior levels, something would be done to address the boss’s behaviour.

In a way, he told me, he got lucky.  His boss’s boss was sympathetic to his concerns.  At the same time, she also highlighted the risks of taking on someone who was so powerful within the organisation.  “You can’t change the others,” she told him.  “You can only change yourself.”

Ben (let’s call him Ben) became curious about the possibilities of what he could achieve by focusing on what he could do rather than focussing on how his boss should be different.

In his first experience, for example, he recognised that his manager had a lot of power in the organisation and a strong desire to look good.  Ben learned to make the most of his boss’s powerful position by working with him to develop initiatives that moved the organisation forward.  “Whatever his limitations” he told me, “I always treated him with the utmost respect.  I shared ideas with him and explored the implications with him.  Quite quickly, I realised I had to start small if I wanted to get him on board.  The effect was to create a pathway towards the next small initiative and the next one and the next one.  I gave credit to my boss whenever I could and, quite quickly, he started to take the credit for the way he had encouraged me.  Once this happened, he started to sing my praises around the organisation so that we both looked good.”

I asked him if this kind of strategy had always worked for him.

“No,” he told me.  “There are times when I look at a situation and ask myself what I can achieve by adjusting my own behaviour and what changes I can make.  In one job, I gave feedback to my boss and he acknowledged all the issues I raised with him – and then did nothing at all to address them.  After I’d had this conversation with him several times I thought hard about my next steps and decided that I needed to accept the situation or, if I couldn’t accept the situation, I needed to accept that I couldn’t accept the situation.   At that stage, I knew it was time for me to move on.”

Tolle2Ben had learnt something I still find difficult.  Eckhart Tolle summed it up like this:  “When you complain you make yourself a victim.  Leave the situation, change the situation or accept it.  All else is madness.”

You could also put it this way:  “When you expect your boss to manage you, you make yourself a victim.  You need to start managing your boss.  Accept that your boss is the way s/he is, do what you can to transform your relationship with your boss, or leave your boss.  All else is madness.”

What struck me about Ben was not that he turned a blind eye to the weaknesses and failings of his line managers.  No.  He was curious about his bosses’ strengths and weaknesses.

He did, though, give up the word “should”:  he stopped telling himself that his line manager should be doing all the things that good bosses do.

My experience with my courier was a reminder that, whatever views I might have about my courier and what they should be doing, they were not.

Making your peace with working for the worst boss ever

The courier should have turned up on Wednesday but it didn’t.

I have already tried to attract attention and get the help I needed.

I’ve used the on-line chat facility and talked to people in Mumbai.

I’ve tried tweeting the UK team.

I tried writing to the courier’s Head of Customer Service.


I got no reply.

Because the issues with this courier’s service have been repeated, I spoke to the Citizens Advice Bureau.

And then I looked hard at my courier’s standard Terms and Conditions.

I was surprised to discover that, as far as the courier is concerned, the service starts once their courier has collected the parcel.  (How weird is that?!)  What’s more, they take no responsibility for events beyond their control, including mechanical failure.  (In short, if the courier’s vehicle breaks down, they won’t collect.)

The thing is, I realised that my courier isn’t going to change.

I thought about the reasons I use this particular courier and I knew they still stand.  At their best, this courier provides a good standard of service at a price that suits my customers on eBay.

I decided to add a few words to my listings on eBay – my own Terms and Conditions – to alert my clients to the possibility of delay.

And, having done this, I felt at peace.

If you’re still waiting for your boss to change you’re doing what I do when I get cross when the courier doesn’t come.  Of course it’s logical to expect my courier to come on the day scheduled.  It’s what couriers do.

But all couriers are not equal and neither are all bosses.

Instead, you will be at your most effective – and peaceful – when you take a long hard look at the boss you have and ask yourself, “Where do I go from here?”

Please let me know how you get on.

Stepping into your power as a leader

Greenwich Park
Greenwich Park

If there’s one word that has people running for the hills in our culture, it’s the word “power”.

In the world of politics, one conspicuous example of this became evident in 2008, at the beginning of a major global economic crisis.

Europe looked to Germany to provide leadership.

Germany had reason – frightening, historical reason – to hesitate to exercise its full power.

“Power” is a word which has so many negative connotations.

No surprise, then, that there’s a phenomenon I notice amongst some of my coaching clients.  You could call it walking away from your own power.

It’s easy to spot amongst the young and talented leaders I get to work with.  But it’s not confined to any age, gender, ethnicity or other group.

Are you walking away from your “power”?

You’re walking away from your own power if you have scope to take action and you’re not taking action.  This is as true in managing your life and career as it is in your role as a leader.

Of course, it sounds so simple but the reality of it – your experience of it – is far more complex.

It’s possible, for example, that you don’t even know how much power you have to take action.  You’re used to thinking of others as powerful, but you?  You just don’t see yourself in that way.

Maybe you lack the motivation to embrace the power you have.  Yes, you want to get things done and to a high standard.  But exercising power?  You think of yourself as a doer rather than as someone who can make things happen beyond the scope of anything you can do yourself.

The very idea of power may be daunting for you.  Maybe it involves giving yourself a level of permission you can barely conceive of at this stage in your life or career.  Maybe you’ve seen how others exercise their power and you know you don’t want to be like that.

Giving your power away

London's Shard
London’s Shard

One client (let’s call him Lewis) recently expressed his frustration at the decisions being made by his line manager and the impact of those decisions on his staff.  Wasn’t it obvious to his boss that the organisation’s plans were ill-conceived and would ultimately backfire?

Another client (let’s call her Maja) expressed her frustration that her organisation was doing so little to recognise her career aspirations.  Yes, she was being offered another job.  But she was painfully aware that it met the organisation’s needs much more than her own.

I asked both Lewis and Maja what conversations they were having with the boss about their concerns.

They weren’t.

They hadn’t realised that talking to the boss was even an option.

Faced with the option of talking to the boss, each one expressed concerns.

Lewis could see that his boss was heavily invested in the decision he thought was so ill-conceived.  He was probably right.  He thought that to raise his concerns would have little effect other than to irritate the boss.

Maja struggled to embrace her talents or to give herself permission to gave priority to her own preferences over those of the organisation.  In her heart of hearts, she was frustrated with her organisation precisely because she was looking to her employer to validate her need.

Lewis, Maja, were both giving their power away.

Your power to what?

What power did Lewis have?  What power did Maja have?  Each one had far more power than they realised.  At the same time, each one had a particular idea of power that got in the way.

Each one saw power as something you exercise when you know precisely what the outcome will be.

Lewis didn’t speak to his boss because the only reason he could see to do this, was to persuade his boss to change her mind.  He thought she wouldn’t change her mind so he didn’t exercise his power to talk.

Maja didn’t speak to her boss because she wasn’t confident her employers would support her career aspirations.  She thought that learning her employers had different plans for her than she had for herself would put her at a disadvantage.

Neither Lewis nor Maja understood that our power to take action does not guarantee a particular result.  Instead, it opens up a conversation.

At times, the conversation leads us towards an outcome we desire.  The boss sees the validity of our arguments and changes his or her decision.  Our employer expresses support for our career aspirations and starts to collaborate in finding the job we want.

What’s more, as well as leading us towards our desired outcomes, the conversation can lead to larger outcomes than we anticipated.  When the boss listens to our arguments and finds them valid, the relationship is changed.  We make a step – however large or small – towards a relationship of partnership with our line manager and our power to influence is increased.  Or, finding our employer supports us in our aspirations, we discover our true worth in the eyes of the organisation.  We also take a powerful step towards finding a role in which we can work to our strengths.

At times, the conversation does not deliver what we hoped for and still, it delivers.  Perhaps the boss remains blind to our concerns.  We feel frustrated at the boss’s lack of insight or the requirement placed on us to do something we have so little faith in.  Still, by having the conversation, we learn something about our boss or about our own ability (or lack of) to persuade.  Perhaps we learn how little our employer supports us in our own career aspirations.  At first, we feel thrown back, betrayed.  We may find it painful to realise that we need to look after our own interests in an organisation that isn’t invested in us.

In the short term, and especially when we first step into our power to hold the conversation, we may feel disappointed precisely by (as we see it) our lack of power.

Over time, though, if we continue to exercise our power, we discover that each time we do so, whilst the immediate outcome may or may not be what we wanted, we are better informed and have more choices than were open to us before we exercised our power.  We discover, too, that the world did not fall apart because we spoke up and didn’t get the outcome we were hoping for.  Increasingly, we feel empowered.

Embracing your power to make a positive difference

London City seen across the Thames
London City seen across the Thames

Whenever you walk away from your power, you walk away from your power to make a positive difference.  You do this, even when you are motivated by a desire to avoid the misuse of power.

You also walk away from your power to take small actions that make a big (and positive) difference.

Whilst Lewis may not succeed in persuading his boss to change her mind, to say no to holding a conversation could be to say no to being the one person speaking up on behalf of his team.

Whilst Maja may or may not get the response she wants, to say no to holding a conversation is to say no to seeking a way to fulfil her potential.  This, in turn, could mean failing to make her full contribution to others.

I wonder, what’s your relationship with power?

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.