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A leadership coaching journey – part 3

This is the final instalment of an exploration of one person’s leadership coaching experience. coachingThis is a real client, who kindly agreed to become a case study, with details changed to maintain his anonymity. “Andrew” was the newly appointed MD of an IT company employing around 150 people.  In the first instalment, I looked at coaching conversations related to Andrew’s working relationships. Last month I looked at delegation and team working. This month, I’ll be looking at Andrew’s plans for the business. In reality these conversations were intertwined and did not happen as neatly as this.

Returning to my go-to leadership model, it was clear that Andrew needed to focus his attention on the interpersonal domain and on establishing himself as a leader. But that didn’t mean that he could ignore the operational and strategic domains of leadership. Primary Colours Model

The Operational Bit

Andrew had inherited a business that was doing well operationally. They made a healthy profit and had secure, long-term contracts that, barring catastrophe, guaranteed a predictable revenue stream. Sure, he could see operational efficiencies to be made in some places but it didn’t seem that this was an area demanding a huge amount of his attention when he took over. That may sound blindingly obvious but deciding what to focus on is a leadership skill in its own right. A lot of leaders waste time doing the things that interest them or are in their comfort zone. I encouraged Andrew not to get too bogged down in tracking results but to ensure there was nothing that demanded immediate attention. 

What surprised Andrew when he dug a little deeper was that some contracts were making a loss. His predecessor, Tony, had kept tight control of the accounts. Not even the board was aware of the extent of the cross-subsidies. It seemed that Tony had believed that some markets were worth staying in, even if it cost money to do so. Andrew disagreed and started planning to either make these contracts profitable or exit them.

Back to the people bit

Although this was an operational issue, the interpersonal aspects loomed large. Andrew had already worked out that, under Tony’s management, he was the only senior manager who had any real autonomy. He was also the only one who managed his own budget. His colleagues didn’t know the financial position of contracts within their remit. Some of them were in for a nasty surprise.

Andrew didn’t see this any reflection on his colleagues. They weren’t responsible for the situation. He just wanted to present them with the facts. I reminded him that my assessment of him when he got the job had revealed that he was much more objective and robust about business matters than most people. How did he think those who took things more personally might feel when they discovered that their hard work and good service to clients had actually cost the business money? Andrew formulated a gentler, more sensitive approach to the situation as a result.

The strategic bit – where next?

Strategy was Andrew’s strong point; it would have been very easy for him to focus on this. He had loads of ideas about where he wanted to take the company. He was wise enough to recognise that this was not his immediate priority but he started to prepare ideas for 18 months’ time.

On one of our walks, we were discussing the power of a strong organisational narrative. I asked Andrew for his story of the company. “When we started out”, he said, “we were the disruptive technology of our day. We really shook things up in the industry. But then we got bigger and safer and we have contracts to deliver. We say we’re innovative but we’re not really. I want us to be disruptors again.” An analogy came to me; the company, I suggested, had started out as a punk band and morphed into stadium rockers. This resonated immediately with Andrew, a big music fan. I asked him to remind me of the timelines. The company started 25 years ago, but Andrew joined only 10 years ago. “You’re Ronnie Wood*”, I told him. Andrew was harking back to a golden era in which he played no part. How would it be if Mick Jagger retired, Ronnie Wood took over and tried to take the band back to its roots? We also discussed the fact that a lot of the staff had chosen to join a slick stadium rock band and might not be happy to find themselves part of a punk or blues band playing in dodgy bars. How could he recapture some of that spirit without seeming to take the organisation backwards?

What could I offer in the strategic domain?

I’m a psychologist not a strategy consultant; it wasn’t my job to tell Andrew whether his strategic ideas were sound. But I could ask the right questions. For some of my clients, acting as a sounding board for their ideas is a role I can usefully play. Andrew needed a bit of this but actually he was better off working through his ideas on his own. He wasn’t someone who needed to think out loud. Where I came in was to address his blind spot – helping him think through how his ideas would land with others. It’s the yellow bit in the Primary Colours® model: Creating Alignment. We looked at how he could shape a vision to sell to the board, the SLT and the rest of the staff. What was the compelling need for change? How might different key players respond to his ideas? When should he broach ideas and how well-formed should they be? How could he involve others in formulating his ideas?  It was a very different approach from his default of locking himself away and emerging some time later with a perfectly crafted plan.

Where did we end up?

When we started the coaching, Andrew’s appointment was not universally popular. People feared he would be too tough and there were rumours of possible resignations. We ended the coaching, after six sessions over about eight months, with an informal 360-degree feedback exercise, involving board members, SLT and other colleagues and a few customers. To Andrew’s delight, he was widely described as approachable with a good sense of humour. Far from being feared, his direct reports’ main complaint was that they didn’t get enough of his time on a 1:1 basis. He was lauded for his clear commitment to the company; people believed he had the vision and ability to take it forward. Graham, the Chairman, who had been one of the doubters, said there was no question that Andrew was now seen as the leader of the business.  Whilst people could see he had great ideas, however, he came in for criticism for over-intellectualising. There was still work to do to translate his big picture, conceptual thinking into something more tangible.

The journey continues…

Like many clients, Andrew found that the completion of his initial coaching programme felt like the end of a chapter, rather than the closing of a whole book. We embarked on a new coaching adventure, consisting of quarterly reviews, using the Primary Colours® leadership model as a framework to figure out where he should focus his attention for the next quarter. He remains a joy to work with and I’d like to thank him again for allowing me to share this coaching experience publicly.

If you’re embarking on a new leadership role or you’re an established leader who’d like a sounding board, I’d be happy to have a chat:
caroline@carolinegourlay.co.uk

*For younger readers, Ronnie Wood joined the Rolling Stones in 1975, long after they had become established stadium rockers. And, yeah, I know the Stones were not punks but you could see them as the disruptive punks of their day.

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A leadership coaching journey – part 2

This is the second instalment of an exploration of one person’s leadership coaching experience. coachingThis is a real client, who kindly agreed to become a case study, with details changed to maintain his anonymity. “Andrew” was the newly appointed MD of an IT company employing around 150 people. Last month I looked at coaching conversations related to Andrew’s working relationships. This month I’m looking at delegation and team working. In reality these conversations were intertwined and did not happen as neatly as this.

Delegation – breaking a pattern

Delegation is a frequent topic in coaching, but in Andrew’s case the reasons were slightly different. This wasn’t the classic situation of a control freak manager struggling to let go. Although he had kept a fairly tight rein when was Ops Director, now that he’d stepped up to the top job Andrew couldn’t wait to let go of the detail and focus on the bigger picture. What surprised him was that, with the exception of Bob, his replacement as Ops Director, people didn’t jump at the chance to make their own decisions or take on greater responsibility. He came to realise quite quickly that his colleagues had not been given the level of autonomy that he had by Tony, the previous MD. Tony had conditioned people to talk through every decision with him.

Andrew had to break that pattern and change people’s perceptions of what they thought he’d want from them. We explored ways of doing that, like explicitly stating that he trusted them to get on with things and not attending certain client meetings unless they needed him to. It took time, but gradually things began to change.

A step too far?

But I also challenged Andrew about just how much autonomy he gave people. Firstly, we considered how this delegation style might look to his team. Was there a danger that his team might think he wasn’t interested in what they were doing or worse, that he didn’t understand it? People who are very detail-focused, like some of his team, might think that, unless he’d really gone into the minutiae, he wouldn’t really get it. Andrew is a smart, big picture thinker who can grasp the key issues quickly. We looked at ways that he could demonstrate that he was interested and understood the subject without masses of detail.

My second challenge was to get Andrew to consider why Tony had not given his colleagues the same level of autonomy that he had enjoyed. Andrew’s assessment at the time of his appointment had shown that he is a very trusting person, probably far more trusting than Tony had been. Was there a risk that he might give people too much leeway, only to find that they weren’t up to the task? In particular, I suggested he think about the degree to which people need structure to guide their thinking. Andrew’s assessment had shown that he operated very effectively in an unstructured environment, working through information without any guidelines and creating solutions from a blank sheet. It’s quite common for people who can do this to underestimate others’ need for some sort of structure – processes, systems, flowcharts etc – to guide their thinking, particularly when dealing with something unfamiliar. I introduced Andrew to the idea of dimensions of delegation, so that he could determine how and what to delegate in particular situations.

Creating a team

Why, I wondered, had it been a surprise to find that Tony had managed everyone else so differently? It turned out that Tony didn’t manage them as a team. Sure, they were called the Senior Management Team and they had some meetings but these were mostly briefings and progress updates. Tony had a group of direct reports whom he managed on a one-to-one basis. There was no sense of  collective responsibility for the success of the business. Andrew wanted to change all that.

His first instinct was to what he always did when he had a big idea – write a  positioning paper and email it to people. It didn’t take him long to see that that was unlikely to work. I suggested that, if a positioning paper was at one end of a continuum, the other end would be to get people in a room with no agenda and ask “How shall we work together?” How far along that continuum did he want to go? Neither he nor the organisation was ready for a totally free-flowing discussion, so he decided to a prepare a presentation for the next management meeting. We talked through the main points, including the need to ask questions.

Things don’t go to plan

Andrew went away quite enthused, so I was surprised when he seemed despondent on a catch up call later in the month. He’d given his presentation and there had been a “tumbleweed moment”; no one had said anything or answered his questions. We unpicked what had happened and it became clear that he had presented some questions, with very little pause, rather than asking them. More “Here are some things I’d like us to talk about one day” than “What do you think about this?”.

Andrew persevered. At his next attempt, people were much more forthcoming. One person suggested that they weren’t a team at all. Others wanted to look at structures and processes. The idea of a team away day came from the team, not from Andrew, and he seized the opportunity. We had a long discussion about whether the focus of the away day should be the big picture stuff that Andrew wanted to look at or the more pragmatic review of structure and process that was on the team’s minds. Andrew decided to go with the team’s agenda and slip his ideas in where he could. I also helped him weigh up the pros and cons of using me as a facilitator – I had a lot of background but may not have been seen as neutral. He decided to use a third party and I helped him work out how to choose the right person. The away day was very successful and started the process of turning a group of people with the same boss into a team. They had some conversations that were long overdue.

Next month I’ll look at Andrew’s plans for the business itself and why I declared him the Ronnie Wood of his business.  In the meantime, if you’re embarking on a new leadership role or you’re an established leader who’d like a sounding board, I’d be happy to have a chat:
caroline@carolinegourlay.co.uk

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A leadership coaching journey – part 1

Leadership coaching is one of the key services I offer but it’s not easy to explain what it’s actually like. coachingSo over the next couple of months I’m going to tell the story of one person’s coaching journey to try to bring it to life. This is a real client, who has kindly given his permission (thanks “Andrew”). Whilst it reflects his experience, I’ve changed some of the details to maintain his anonymity.

The client

Andrew was the newly appointed MD of a medium-sized IT company employing around 150 people. He had recently taken over from Tony, who retired after several decades in charge. Although Tony had seen Andrew as his natural successor, it wasn’t a universally popular appointment. Graham, the non-exec chair, had reservations and some of Andrew’s colleagues, who would now be working for him, were alarmed at his appointment. They saw him as a tough micro-manager. With Tony gone, Andrew was without his closest ally and there were rumours of possible resignations.

Why coaching?

Although Tony and Graham recommended that he get some support to step up to the top job, Andrew wasn’t sure. He’d been preparing himself to take over and felt ready. Once he actually got the corner office, however, the reality of being responsible for the whole organisation and having no one to confide in really hit home. He liked the idea of one-to-one support, tailored to his needs.

Why me as a coach?

My involvement had actually started earlier. Although Andrew was the heir apparent, the company still went through a rigorous competitive process to be sure.  I carried out in-depth psychological assessments of Andrew and an external candidate ahead of his appointment.

For Andrew there were pros and cons to using me as a coach.  I already knew a lot about him, which gave us a good starting point for coaching. However, not all of the things I’d uncovered were positive. There would be nowhere for him to hide. But we’d developed a good rapport and Andrew was up for it, so we embarked on a six-month coaching adventure – monthly two-hour, face-to-face sessions and telephone contact in between.

The starting point

We had three sources of information to draw on when working out where to start:

  • my original assessment
  • feedback from Graham
  • Andrew’s view on how things were going

I’d identified that Andrew was very strong strategically – smart, forward-thinking and able to handle a high level of complexity. His weak point was the people side. He hated small talk and kept conversations quite business-like. He was also much more comfortable with conflict than his colleagues. He was never rude or insulting but he didn’t consider robust criticism to be something anyone should take personally. Unfortunately, they did.

Graham was prepared to give Andrew the benefit of the doubt but wanted to see him build good relationships with the board and senior colleagues and raise his profile externally.

To focus Andrew’s thoughts on what he wanted to achieve, I used my go-to leadership model. Primary Colours ModelBy describing the tasks of leadership, the Primary Colours model provides a kind of job description for leaders. I also use it to help clients work out what their priorities are right now. Left to his own devices, Andrew may have locked himself away and started working on a strategic plan. Instead he realised he needed to establish himself as a leader and work on his relationships.

The journey

I don’t want to give the impression that we started at point A and, through a carefully planned process, arrived at point Z. Coaching really isn’t like that.  Although we both prepared for the sessions, neither of us knew exactly what we’d discuss or where we’d end up. Conversation flowed between topics. This month I’m going to focus on our discussions about his relationships. In future articles, I’ll look at our coaching conversations around delegation and team building and his plans and ideas for the business. In reality these all happened in parallel and were inter-linked.

Some of the coaching sessions were literally a journey. People think more freely when walking, particularly in nature. Andrew jumped at my suggestion to try walking coaching and we found a lovely stretch of coastline to walk and talk on.

Reviewing relationships

The first thing Andrew realised was that he had to be more visible. He made a point of getting to know the non-execs better and spent more time out and about. But most new leaders would do that and he’d have figured it out for himself. Where I could help was to get him to think through each of his key relationships. I’ll use one particular direct report as an example.

Liz ran some of the major projects. Andrew’s relationship with her had always been a bit prickly. Reflecting on this, he concluded that it was to do with values. Andrew is a values-driven person; he wants to do good in the world – many of the company’s clients are in the voluntary sector – and it’s important that he works in an ethical way. Liz, by contrast, doesn’t really talk about values and had little to say about them when Andrew broached the subject. He concluded that Liz didn’t have any values and that, just maybe, she was a psychopath. Unsurprisingly, this rather coloured his view of her, in a way she was likely to have picked up.

Luckily I was able to offer an alternative hypothesis. I’ve never met Liz, but nothing he’d told me about her suggested she’d warrant a starring role in Killing Eve. What did seem likely was that practical, down-to-earth Liz was much more comfortable talking about concrete, tangible issues than airy fairy abstract concepts like values. It was easier for Andrew to translate his ideas, by providing concrete examples, than it was for Liz to move from concrete to abstract language, so Andrew started to change the way he talked to Liz. Once they were speaking the same language, it became easier for them to communicate. His perception of her shifted and she became less defensive. Gradually the relationship improved.

Andrew also chose to confide in his team about a problem in his personal life, which was impacting on his work. His father was diagnosed with dementia and Andrew sometimes needed to take time out in a crisis. He was surprised to discover that it was Liz (the one he thought had no values) who periodically popped her head round the door to ask how things were going with his Dad.

Next month we’ll see how changing his approach to delegation and to team work also improved his relationship with Liz and with other team members. In the meantime, if you’re embarking on a new leadership role or you’re an established leader who’d like a sounding board, I’d be happy to have a chat:
caroline@carolinegourlay.co.uk

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Should work be fun?

I nearly made this the last of my workplace myths series but couldn’t decide which was the more prevailing myth. 115 of 365 - Serious fun/Playful workOn the one hand, the prevalence of ping pong tables in office foyers suggests a contemporary expectation that work should be fun. On the other hand, I’ve met many a manager (often in finance, interestingly) who believes that, unless people are staring at a spreadsheet in total silence, they’re not really working. So who’s right? Well let’s start at the beginning:

What do we mean by ‘fun’?

I think what people are generally referring to is enjoying themselves at work with others, perhaps in a lively way. So this doesn’t include the quiet satisfaction of writing a good report or ticking everything off your to do list. Fun is a social thing.

Hush hush, whisper who dares

Let’s start with those managers who try to enforce silent concentration. They have a point, of course. If your job involves focused thought, then constant chatter is an unwelcome distraction. But I can’t think of a single job where the only requirement is to do focused thinking all day, every day. Pretty much all jobs, especially professional jobs, have an element of collaboration and team work which means that building relationships is a key element of just about everyone’s job. And how do you build relationships? By getting to know people. We work much more effectively with people we like and trust. That chit chat about football or what we did at the weekend bonds us.

Also, if you have people working for you and you don’t let them talk to each other, you don’t have a team. What you have is a group of people who happen to have the same boss. Part of a team leader’s responsibility is to foster relationships between team members, to create a cohesive team, not simply to have good relationships with each individual. So if I’m not on the side of the fun-sappers, what about the other side of the coin?

The fun-enforcers

For me, nothing encapsulated the awkwardness of enforced fun so perfectly as David Brent from The Office describing himself as a “chilled out entertainer”. Contrived fun is often anything but. The best fun at work is spontaneous. Those fun things that are planned are best if they come from the ground up. If the team wants to come to work in pyjamas for Red Nose Day, good luck to them. It’s unlikely to be popular as an edict from on high. And it should never, ever be compulsory.

People vary enormously in their seriousness, playfulness, self-consciousness and what they find funny. No one should be ostracised for not wanting to participate in something they find uncomfortable or which simply doesn’t interest them. This is doubly the case for anything outside work. Yes, it may be bonding for the team to go bowling after work, but some people’s commitments – from childcare, to elderly parents to studying – make this impossible.

Intrinsic fun

A lot of what I’ve talked about so far relates to fun that’s separate from the actual work you’re doing. If you’re really lucky and hit upon a combination of work you find interesting and people you like working with, then the work itself can be fun. It’s often a very good sign of a team working well together. If your team meetings are lively and good-humoured, it suggests a high level of engagement, whereas a dull trudge through a pointless agenda does not. The problem with this utopia, however, is the expectation that it should be like this all the time. What happens when it’s not?

It’s all fun and games until…

I think there are three risks to over-prioritising fun in a team:

1. Lack of diversity

When you have a fun team, it’s too tempting to keep recruiting people who fit in well, which means you can end up with a team that’s all very similar. This isn’t just about obvious forms of representation, though there are downsides to having, for example, a team full of privately-educated, white, middle-class men (How representative are they of their customers?). The problem is also about diversity of thinking. That quiet, cautious, serious-minded candidate may not be the life and soul of your meetings. He may even be a real downer on the whole team, but that doesn’t mean that he isn’t exactly what you need to bring a different perspective. There is a real danger of group think in a close-knit team.

2. Artificial harmony

If everyone’s getting on well and it’s all great fun, it may be difficult to say something you know will be unpopular. No one wants to kill the vibe, so differences are minimised, conflicts avoided. However, if you don’t air differences, you may make sub-optimal decisions or you may find that resentments fester and eventually it stops being fun anyway. Better to tackle the tricky stuff while you’re all getting along well rather than let that goodwill quietly erode.

3. Avoiding the dull stuff

If the work itself is fun, then what happens when you get to the mundane bits? Creative or visionary types can really struggle with this. They have a great time kicking around ideas but may get bored with the implementation. They might spend too long on the exciting, ideas generation bit and put off the detail, the admin, all the bits that would actually make it happen.

So there’s absolutely no reason that work shouldn’t be fun and a total absence of fun may be a sign of a disengaged team. But an over-emphasis on fun may not be what the organisation needs, even if it feels great. I feel rather middle-aged and British here, but I’d suggest everything in moderation. If you’re not sure you’ve got the balance right in your organisation, I’d be happy to have a chat: 
caroline@carolinegourlay.co.uk

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Myth #6: EQ is more important than IQ

In the latest in my series on workplace myths,Spock I’m turning my attention to emotional intelligence. There are numerous articles out there claiming that, not only is emotional intelligence important, but that, for career success, it’s more important than intelligence. But is it? Let’s go back to basics:

What is emotional intelligence?

Emotional intelligence is the ability to:

a) recognise and appropriately handle your own emotions and

b) tune into others’ emotions and respond with sensitivity.

These are clearly important attributes, but how do they compare with intelligence in predicting career success? To answer that, you’d have to be able to measure all three things and look at the relationship between them. Intelligence – or, more usually in a work setting, reasoning ability – is fairly easily measured. Career success is a bit harder to define but there are some things you could look at – level of seniority attained, financial or other results, 360 degree feedback. But how about emotional intelligence? Well this is where I have my first issue with the whole concept:

The measurement problem

Forgive me while I ride my hobby horse up and down the internet for a moment, but this has bugged me for years. Historically, there have been two types of work-based assessments:

  • aptitude tests, where there is a right answer and you can’t fake it
  • assessments of personality, motivation, values and so on, where there isn’t a right answer and the assessment relies on your self-reported answers.

You could fake a personality assessment (people do, sometimes there are measures built in to check) but there’s less incentive to do so because there isn’t a ‘right personality’.

EQ measures, which purport to measure emotional intelligence, seem to be trying to combine the two things. There is clearly a right answer – you probably want to present yourself as emotionally intelligent – and yet the answers are self-reported. It’s like trying to decide for yourself how intelligent you are. Even without faking, there is room for error. In my experience, people who are not very self-aware often seem to rate themselves quite highly, while those who are very self-aware can be self-critical and come out as having a lower EQ.

Without an accurate measure of EQ, I’m sceptical of research findings about it. And then there’s what we might call the baseline problem…

How much emotion do you have to deal with?

The extent to which people experience difficult emotions like frustration, anxiety, self-consciousness and hopelessness varies enormously. It’s one of the ‘Big 5’ factors of personality (rather starkly named ‘neuroticism’) and is determined by some combination of genetics, upbringing and life circumstances.

If you’re very lucky and had a secure start in life, you may not experience much emotional turmoil in your day-to-day life. If you’re unlucky and perhaps have a traumatic past, you may be hyper-vigilant, anxious and prone to mood swings a lot of the time. So who is more emotionally intelligent? The person with the sunny disposition who rarely experiences negative emotions or the highly reactive person, who has mostly learnt to cope with an onslaught of difficult feelings but still has the occasional wobble?

While it’s important for all of us to learn to handle our feelings, let’s not pretend that we all start from the same baseline.

What about intelligence?

People who are very attached to the idea that EQ trumps IQ seem to undervalue intelligence. This is a mistake. Intelligence is one of the biggest predictors of career success. One way of defining intelligence is the ability to make sense of increasingly complex information. In a work context, that may be technical complexity or strategic complexity (predicting industry trends, identifying long term threats and opportunities).

If the level of complexity inherent in a role exceeds someone’s ability to make sense of it, they will struggle. They may not recognise that they’re struggling – they might make poor decisions because they make wrong assumptions or over-simplify. On the other hand, they may be acutely aware of how hard they’re finding it and, perhaps, react emotionally.

It’s not either/or

In the EQ/IQ debate, it sometimes seems to be implied that you get one or the other. There’s a caricature of the highly intelligent person (often a man) who dwells resolutely, Spock-like in the land of logic, failing to understand emotion, their own or anyone else’s. Sure those people exist.  But so do many, many emotionally sensitive, highly intelligent people. And, of course, there are plenty of people who aren’t very bright, jump to conclusions and react impulsively and inappropriately. If you want to see that in action, just watch people get furious on social media having got the wrong end of the stick about something.

So where does that leave the debate?

I’m not underestimating the importance of emotional intelligence. I think that understanding and regulating your own emotions is one of the most important life skills, for your overall sanity and happiness, not just for career success. Empathy and emotional sensitivity to others makes you easier to live with and work with. You are also likely to be more influential if you understand how to win hearts as well as minds. (Be aware that there is a dark side to this – psychopaths know how to switch on emotional sensitivity when it’s useful to them).

In terms of career success, if you’re in a role where you can handle the level of complexity involved, then emotional intelligence is likely to play a decisive role in how successful you are – along with other non-IQ factors, such as your level of self-discipline. But if you’re totally out of your depth, your intellectual shortcomings are likely to be the thing that determines your success – or lack of it.

So does EQ trump IQ? As with many things in life, it depends. Don’t fall into the trap of over-simplifying it. If you’d to discuss the implications of that in your organisation, I’d be happy to have a chat: caroline@carolinegourlay.co.uk

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Myth #5 – Perfectionism is an allowable weakness

In the fifth of my series on workplace myths, perfectionismI’m turning my attention to perfectionism. I’m sure you’re all familiar with this hackneyed exchange:

Interviewer: “What are your weaknesses?”

Candidate: “Well sometimes I can get a bit perfectionist about my work”.

Job done. The candidate smiles inwardly knowing that a) what they really meant was “sometimes I’m just too damn good at my job” and b) it’s definitely seen as an allowable weakness.

In reality, that response deserves a follow up question, which rarely gets asked – “What strategies do you have in place to manage your perfectionism?” Because perfectionism can be a very serious weakness indeed. It’s one of the shadow side risk factors I look for when assessing candidates and I really want to know how well people can control it. But let’s go back to basics…

What drives perfectionism?

Essentially perfectionism is an anxiety-management strategy with two drivers. The first is the drive to be perfect in order to be seen as an acceptable human being. Making mistakes may lead to criticism or rejection, which is very scary. So, to avoid this fate, the perfectionist seeks to avoid ever doing anything wrong or submitting a piece of work which is not the very best it could possibly be. They may not even know what’s behind it; people internalise the judgements of parents, teachers, peers and society in general until it becomes second nature to check and double check and to tinker with small details.

The second driver is that the world is a messy and chaotic place, over which we have very little control (particularly right now. I’m writing this at the end of yet another week of Brexit indecision). This is anxiety-provoking, so it can be reassuring to have as much control as possible of things within your remit. The world may be falling apart, but if all your filing is in order, you may feel a little calmer.

I have some perfectionist tendencies. I mostly have them under control but I’ve learnt to recognise when I’m in their grip. Usually it’s when I’m under pressure and have multiple priorities to juggle, but find myself obsessing about the background colour for a PowerPoint presentation or finding the perfect stock image to illustrate an article.

Why is it a problem?

Perfectionism causes all kinds of problems. I know when I’m in the grip of it, I lose sight of the bigger picture. There’s a huge risk of spending too long on something and being unproductive. I confess I’m a bit annoyed that the photo above has a black border that I didn’t notice when I downloaded it. I’m stopping myself from looking for another one, but it’s taking some willpower. It’s also very hard to prioritise if everything has to be done equally perfectly. Perfectionism goes hand-in-hand with self-criticism and, at the extreme, impacts on people’s mental health. It has been linked with depression, eating disorders and even suicide.

The impact on others

Problems with perfectionism go beyond the individual, particularly if you are a perfectionist manager and especially if you are quite emotionally volatile. An anxious, emotionally-reactive perfectionist has all the potential to become one of those control freak managers that no one wants to work for.

Some perfectionist managers anxiously fuss over details, getting in people’s way. Others quietly correct people’s work without even telling them. But some get frustrated and angry. They may not even recognise that they’re anxious.  But what drives that frustration if not fear of losing control and appearing vulnerable? Anger often masks anxiety. The combination of unrealistic expectations and emotional volatility is pretty potent – and not very pretty.

Managers with these tendencies generally know this but rationalise it away – the organisation demands high standards, they’re just making sure people meet them.  It’s good to stretch people out of their comfort zones. People won’t deliver if you don’t keep a close eye on them etc etc.

The gender gap?

I might be wrong here, but I sense a split in the way male and female managers explain away this kind of behaviour. I must stress that this is totally unscientific, based on personal observation and subject to my own internal biases. But here’s what I’ve observed:

Men: “I don’t suffer fools gladly”

This is often worn as a badge of honour and can sound quite positive, albeit in a challenging way. “I’m damn good at what I do, I set very high standards and I don’t suffer fools gladly. People know what to expect when they work for me”.

Try re-framing that as “I am openly contemptuous of people who don’t live up to my expectations” or “I will lose my temper, perhaps publicly, if you make a mistake”. It doesn’t sound quite so positive now. But it does sound powerful. Men I’ve met with these tendencies are aware that it would be better if they could control their tempers and rein in their control freak side but I don’t pick up a real sense of shame about it. For women, on the other hand, things are different.

Women: “That’s not really me”

I’m sure there are women who are quite happy to wear the ‘don’t suffer fools gladly’ badge. But we (all) have different expectations of women; we’re meant to be softer. But that same fear of not being in control of every tiny detail, of things not being 100% perfect, can cause perfectionist women to become hyper-critical and lash out in the same way as men do. They just seem to feel more guilty about it.

So I’ve encountered female managers looking for reassurance that their staff still like them after they’ve behaved incredibly badly. Or warning people that they will behave badly in the future: “I’m an absolute bitch in the run up to a deadline”. The subtext is “but look how nice I am now. This is the real me and I’m so nice that I’ll warn you that this other me, who’s really horrible, will show up sometimes. Sorry about that, but just remember, I’m really nice”. For me, this as akin to an abusive husband claiming that the real him is the one who loads the dishwasher and buys flowers, not the one who might hit you at any moment. That’s not how it feels on the receiving end.

The importance of kindness

The key difference between those who strive for excellence in a healthy way and those who succumb to unhealthy perfectionism is kindness, particularly self-compassion. If you can aim high but not become self-critical when you fall short, you’re more likely to succeed and to do so without sacrificing your mental health. You’re also likely to be more understanding when others fail to meet your standards. So if you’re wrestling with perfectionist tendencies, start by being kind to yourself and then remember to extend that kindness to others. And if you’d like some support managing your perfectionism, I’d be happy to have a chat: caroline@carolinegourlay.co.uk

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Cavale Doom

Myth #4 – Female leaders are more nurturing

This is the fourth in a series on workplace myths, Empowering female leaderthose pervasive beliefs that hold a grain of truth but might not be as widely applicable as we think. This one feels very 21st century to me. We’ve got used to seeing more women in leadership roles (until you get to the very top) and there’s a feeling that they bring something different to leadership, something perhaps more suited to the 21st century workplace. But is it true?

What do we mean by ‘nurturing’?

I think a lot of things get wrapped up in the idea of the nurturing leader: concern for people’s well-being, supporting people’s development, getting to know staff as individuals, giving praise and encouragement, showing understanding about the other demands in people’s lives, being supportive when things go wrong and so on. You could probably sum it up in two words: being nice.

So are women nicer than men?

No, don’t be daft. When you put it as starkly as that, it sounds a bit ridiculous. Obviously there are many, many nice men in the world and plenty of women who aren’t particularly nice. But if I asked whether women are more caring, chances are you’d say yes, mostly they are. What this suggests is that we have different standards for what we (all collectively) expect from men and women to qualify as ‘nice’.

What the psychology says is that, on average, women are more agreeable than men. That is, we’re easier to get on with, more co-operative, less confrontational, more sympathetic. Of course, that doesn’t mean all women are more agreeable than all men. On average, men are taller than women, but some women are six foot tall and some men are under five foot five.

Nature or nurture?

There is almost certainly some biology in there. For example, as we know, men are driven by their hormones* and testosterone can make them go a bit crazy – aggressive, prone to take unnecessary risk, particularly if their masculinity is threatened, a bit less nice.

But clearly, nurture has a lot to do with it too. Women are socialised to consider others’ needs and, perhaps, put them above our own. If you want a simple, real world demonstration, watch people walking on a busy street and see who adjusts their path to get out of others’ way more often.

*Yeah, yeah, we’re all driven by hormones, of course. I’m just counteracting the dominant narrative that suggests women are governed by their biology, while men run on pure unadulterated logic.

Are female leaders more nurturing? 

Maybe. The evidence for whether men and women lead in different ways is mixed. Some studies suggest women  leaders may be more nurturing, others that people simply perceive them differently. An analysis of masses of 360 degree feedback data, found that women leaders were rated more highly than male leaders by everyone except themselves.  And yes, they were rated as more nurturing and supportive, but interestingly the biggest differences were in areas such as taking initiative, acting with integrity and driving for results. In other words, women weren’t leading in a different way, they were just better at it all round.

Before we get too carried away about women as super-leaders, it’s worth bearing in mind that the data gets rather skewed. A lot of very talented men make it to senior positions, but so do rather a lot of average ones. It’s rare, however, for an average woman to make it that far. So the data is comparing a smaller number of highly talented women with a larger number of both talented and fairly average men.

Is being a nurturing leader seen as a positive?

Yes but… On the one hand, 21st century leadership is all about empowerment, inclusion, bringing people with you. We seem to be moving away from old style, command-and-control leadership where a powerful authority figure tells you what to do and you do it. Millennials won’t put up with that sort of thing, we’re told. (Although let’s be honest here, this applies mostly in nice workplaces, where nice people do nice jobs. There’s plenty of command-and-control in a Sports Direct warehouse).

This supportive leadership style seems to play to what are seen as women’s strengths (whether they actually are or not). I’ve always been slightly suspicious of this narrative, even when it’s well-meaning. If 21st century leadership requires skills that women are seen has excelling at, why are we not over-represented in senior positions?

Obviously there’s a complex mix of reasons, but I think it’s partly because, in the end, all that fluffy empowerment stuff is still seen as a ‘nice to have’ (even if research suggests it isn’t). The real work is still seen as being elsewhere – the vision and strategy, the tough commercial negotiation, the cut and thrust of business. And these, wrongly, are still seen as male domains.

There is a real risk of side-lining women. A nurturing female leader, who takes care of the people back at the ranch, is less threatening to the status quo than a powerful female leader, who takes the organisation forward out in the world.

More nurturing than what?

I deliberately left the title of this article vague. I suspect most people would take it to mean women are more nurturing than men. But it could mean women are more nurturing than they are strategic or analytical or business-oriented. I don’t think we even notice it, but when we talk about nurturing female leaders we imply that women’s primary contribution as leaders is to be nurturing and empowering. Sometimes it will be, but often it won’t. Some women’s key contribution will be strategic vision. Some will be fantastic at turning a vision into an actionable plan. Others may have a relentless focus on continuous improvement. As I’ve discussed here many times before, leadership requires a blend of different contributions and no one is good at all of them. It does women and men a disservice to assume that women will handle the people-y bits.

If you’d like to talk about the mix of leadership in your organisation, I’m happy to have a chat: caroline@carolinegourlay.co.uk

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