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Caution emotion at work: 2) anger (yours)

This is the second in a short series on emotion at work. Last month I tackled anxiety, this month I’m moving on to anger. IMG_2549I realised while writing this that there’s enough to say about handling your own anger at work to fill an article, so I’m saving other people’s anger til next time.

Anger tends to be the emotion we’re most wary of but in itself it’s perfectly healthy. It’s what we do with it that makes it scary. There are a number of unhelpful ways to handle anger and many of us have default settings, though they may vary between work and home, boss and team members and so on. See if you recognise yourself in any of these:

Erupting

Shouting, swearing, banging the table, there’s no mistaking the anger here. If you come from a culture – or a family – where having a right old ding dong is how you resolve difference then this may seem quite normal, but it isn’t for everyone. People who erupt with anger are not generally afraid of conflict but may not recognise how intimidating it is for others. You may think that, after a burst of anger, you put it behind you and move on, but others are likely to be more wary of you in future. If you’re a manager, people may hide bad news for fear of your reaction. And don’t kid yourself that being feared is the same as being respected – it really isn’t.

Sulking

Want people to know you’re angry but don’t really like confrontation? Why not sit glowering in the corner, occasionally tutting and rolling your eyes, while people try to coax you out of your bad mood? For added impact, keep ’em guessing about what’s wrong – “If I have to tell you, Darren, it just shows how little you understand”. Stereotypically this is seen as something women do, but I’ve seen men in high status positions play the same game – giving someone the cold shoulder because they didn’t realise they were supposed to hold the door open for him, for example. Being the moody one everyone tiptoes around is not going to make you popular, especially if you’re the boss.

Secretly seething

If sulking feels a bit confrontational for you, you may prefer to maintain a facade that everything’s fine, while secretly seething and being quietly uncooperative. People may sense that something is wrong but they can’t be sure. You seem to go along with things but then you’re not happy and stubbornly keep doing things your own way. You’ll show ’em not to mess you about – except that no one actually knows what you want and you just leave people confused and frustrated.

Swallowing it

If you’re really scared of conflict then feeling angry is likely to be swiftly followed by feeling anxious. If you’re angry, something is wrong, which means you might have to say something and that’s scary, so better to talk yourself out of it, swallow the anger and accept whatever it is that caused the anger in the first place. Of course, if you do this too often you may become a complete doormat, perpetually taken advantage of by others.

None of these is a sensible way to handle anger but I know I’m not alone in using them at times. So what should we be doing instead?

Here’s a five point plan:

1. Get a grip 

You have a right to be angry. You don’t have a right to behave badly (or certainly not without consequences). Separate your feelings from your behaviour and at least get your behaviour under control. If you can’t control yourself, try and remove yourself from the situation to calm down (a loo break maybe?). If you have to stay in the situation, slow right down. Pause before responding, unclench your jaw, unfold your arms, breathe slowly and deeply. Notice what’s happening in your body and try to relax the bits you’ve tensed.

2. Distinguish anger from anxiety

If you’re really practised at swallowing your anger, you may not even notice it’s there. You might go straight from ‘something’s wrong’ to anxiety. Ironically, many people who erupt with anger have the opposite issue – they’re actually quite fearful but anger feels more powerful and they use it to mask anxiety. I once saw a man violently attack a complete stranger on a train with the justification “What else was I supposed to do? He called me gay?”. I could only wonder at the level of fear this guy must have had about a) different sexuality and b) perceived loss of face to react with terrifying rage to such a trivial incident.

If you’re used to feeling angry, anxiety may be a new and uncomfortable emotion. The same is true the other way round. Try not to dismiss these unfamiliar feelings as they’ll help the next bit.

3. Get a reality check

Like all emotional reactions, you can see anger as data. It’s telling you that something is not as you think it should be. This is where a reality check is useful. Firstly, how accurate is your picture of the situation? How would it look from the other person’s perspective? What assumptions are you making about people’s motives, based on their behaviour? It’s very easy to misinterpret people’s actions, attributing ill-intent where none was intended.

Secondly, what does your anger tell you about your expectations of the world? If you’ve worked yourself into a spitting rage because that stupid intern brought you a macchiato with semi-skimmed milk when you made it perfectly clear you wanted skimmed, then your anger may be telling you something about your stress level, your reaction to caffeine or perhaps your astonishing sense of entitlement. What are you making it mean when the world doesn’t give you exactly what you want?

Conversely, if you normally swallow your anger, a reality check might convince you, for example, that your anger over someone taking the credit for your work is perfectly reasonable and that this time, enough is enough.

4. Decide what you’re going to do

What if, instead of erupting, sulking, seething or pretending it’s not happening, you did something about it? Perhaps you could have a proper, grown-up conversation with the person you’re angry with. It takes courage, it may be awkward and uncomfortable but it is possible to be angry with dignity and in a respectful way. Something along the lines of “This happened, this is how I feel and what I’d like is..”, e.g. “I was expecting that report four days ago, I’m really frustrated that I’ve had to chase you twice. What I’d like is for us to agree a completion date and you stick to it”.

Of course this may not always be appropriate or possible, but work out what would be the most constructive course of action in the situation, even if it’s choosing to do nothing.

5. If necessary, let it go

If you choose to do nothing or there is nothing you can do, then let it go. “But, but, but”, you might say, “it’s still wrong, I’m still angry”. But if you’re not going to do anything about it, then the only person suffering if you carry this anger around is you. So make a conscious decision to let it go. Try not to keep going over it. Take it out on a punch bag. Write a really angry letter, then rip it to shreds or burn it (never, ever send it).

So there you go, four things to avoid and five things to try. Next time, just in time for Christmas, dealing with someone else’s anger at work.

If you’d like some support managing emotion in the workplace, I’d be happy to have a chat: caroline@carolinegourlay.co.uk

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Caution emotion at work: 1) anxiety

Wouldn’t it be great if work was a place of calm and rationality all the time? Somewhere where you didn’t have to deal with messy feelings – yours or anyone else’s. Christmas party 3In the not too distant future, when we’ve mostly been replaced by robots, that’ll probably be the case, but until then emotions will remain an integral part of work. They’re part of what makes us human. On the other hand, the regulation, and appropriate expression, of those emotions is what makes us mature humans. So with that in mind, I thought I’d do a short series on feelings at work, starting with that all-too-common workplace emotion – anxiety.

Obviously if you are chronically anxious, you might want to consider getting professional help for that. I’m thinking of those everyday work situations that cause anxiety – presentations, difficult conversations, rumours of job losses and so on. Whether you’re the anxious person or you’re working with someone who’s feeling anxious, here are some tips on managing it.

4 tips for managing your own anxiety

 

1. Stop hoping it’ll go away 

Many people try to deal with difficult situations using the trusty old ‘Try not to think about it’ method, which is rarely successful. Distracting yourself does have its place – when the situation is outside your control, such as waiting for the outcome of a job interview, you may as well focus on something else if you can. But if you’re putting off facing something that you know you’ll have to deal with eventually, then all you’re really doing is prolonging the agony.  It also robs you of valuable preparation time. It’s better to feel anxious while imagining yourself giving a presentation and rehearsing than to freeze on the day because you haven’t prepared properly.

2. Try and work out what’s really bothering you

Often we turn our anxieties about something specific into a more generic fear without realising it. FuzzyFor example, it’s not uncommon to feel nervous if asked to speak at a board meeting. But for one person this may be based on a fear of not being taken seriously and coming across as junior, whereas another person may be concerned that someone will be aggressive and give them a hard time. Getting clearer about the root of your of your anxiety, either by exploring it on your own or talking to someone else, enables you to develop strategies to deal with those particular concerns, so you’re better prepared.

3. Pay attention to your body

A key thing to recognise about anxiety is that it is largely a physical response to a perceived threat. When we’re anxious, we often spend a lot of time trying to quell or ignore physical sensations, such as sweaty palms or butterflies in the tummy. Or we notice them and panic, making it all worse. A more effective way to handle anxiety, which takes a bit of practice, is to be mindful: notice these sensations and let them be, without judging. So instead of “Oh no, I feel anxious. I hate feeling like this. How do I make it stop?”, see if you can replace it with “I notice there’s a fluttery feeling in my abdomen”, “I notice my breathing is shallow”. There’s no right or wrong in observing; you’re just seeing what’s there. It might also give you clues as to where you are tense so that you can start to relax.

4. Take a deep breath

In a situation where everything feels out of control, including your physical sensations, the one thing you may be able to control is your breath. Breath bubbleSlowing your breathing down will almost certainly help. Psychotherapist Alec Stansfield, who specialises in treating trauma survivors, recommends a technique called 7-11 breathing, though I have to say that if you can manage to breathe in for 7 seconds and out for 11 then I have to admire your lung capacity. In for 3 seconds and out for 5 may be an easier starting point.

4 tips for supporting an anxious person

1. Don’t dismiss their feelings

If you’re not prone to worry, it can be hard to understand people who get worked up over things which seem trivial to you. PANIC and ANXIEYBut that doesn’t make the feelings any less real to them. I once met a woman who was afraid of buttons. I didn’t understand it and neither did she, but it wouldn’t have helped to say “Oh calm down, it’s just a bit of plastic”. Anything which trivialises people’s feelings – “You’re making a fuss over nothing”, “Get a grip” – just makes it worse because now they have to worry about how they’re being perceived on top of whatever caused the original anxiety.

2. Be careful about reassurance

If you have some salient facts that you know will be reassuring, then go ahead. The knowledge that the really scary director won’t be on their interview panel may be all someone needs to feel better. But be wary of things you can’t guarantee – “Oh I’m sure there won’t be job losses” – and also be careful with emotional reassurance. “Don’t worry, I’m sure you’ll be fine” might sound supportive but how do you know? Rather than reassuring, this can come across as another way to dismiss someone’s feelings. If you can give real, specific feedback that puts a positive perspective – “that presentation you did last month was really professional” – then fine. But blanket reassurance is less helpful.

3. Don’t rescue them

If someone is really struggling, it can be tempting to rescue them – give the presentation to someone else, have the difficult conversation on their behalf. Occasionally, this may be appropriate – if they’re likely to screw up an important pitch to a client, for example. But people don’t develop unless they master things that make them anxious. Better to support them to overcome the anxiety than to take the source of it away.

4. Help them to prepare and explore

Tread carefully here, particularly if you don’t have any official role, like being the person’s manager or mentor. listeningAsking questions is more helpful than giving advice. “You seem a bit anxious, would it help to talk about it?” is a good start. If the answer is no, back off. If they’re happy to talk then, aim to help them figure out for themselves how to handle the situation. Useful questions include:

  • What are you most concerned about?
  • What would make you feel more in control of the situation?
  • What’s worked for you in the past in these situations – and what hasn’t?
  • How can I help?

If you have advice you think might be useful, ask whether they’d find it helpful if you shared what you did/would do in similar circumstances, rather than just handing it to them.

So there you go, a 4 x 4 on managing anxiety. Next time that big scary emotion – anger!

If you’d like some support managing emotion in the workplace, I’d be happy to have a chat: caroline@carolinegourlay.co.uk

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Back to work with a bang

So here we are in the last days of summer before we revert to ‘back to school’ normality next week. Back_to_school1I’ve written here before about the idea that for many of us September feels much more like New Year than January does. This is the time when we start afresh.

You may come back to work with renewed determination to do things differently, better. Or you may have had a brainwave while your mind was idling on a Mediterranean beach/windswept Cornish clifftop (delete as appropriate). At the very least, you may come back feeling refreshed and ready to look at things in a new way. So how do you ensure that those ideas and optimism don’t get lost as you start drowning in to-do lists and caught up in business as usual? Well here are five steps, in the form of questions, to keep you on track.

1. What do I want to change?

A vague intention to ‘be more productive’ will get you nowhere. Get as clear as you can on what it is you want to achieve or do differently. Talking it through with someone will probably help, as will some form of creative thinking process. It’s likely that whatever you’re trying to achieve will fall into into one of these three categories:

  • a goal, e.g. I want to increase sales by 20% a month, I want 500 new twitter followers by the end of September
  • a project, e.g. I want to redevelop the website, I need to create a new business unit
  • a habit, e.g. I want to exercise three times a week, I want to clear my desk every night.

It’s worth being clear which it is because they are managed differently.

2. What’s at stake?

Don’t just focus on what you want to achieve but why you want to achieve it. If you are clear about the beneficial outcomes of the change (and if you’re not, why on earth are you considering it?) it’s likely to be easier to stay motivated and maintain the momentum. Some kind of visual reminder can be useful.

3. Does it involve other people?

If you can’t achieve this alone or you need permission to do it, then your next step has to be to work out who you need to influence and how you’ll do it. This is most likely to be the case for a project, which might involve additional expenditure or a diversion of effort and resources. Even if you can achieve your goal on your own, it’s worth considering who else it affects. It’s all very well deciding you’ll unwind with 30 minutes mindfulness practice a day but if it coincides with your children’s bedtime, your partner may have something to say about it.

4. How do I give this priority? 

PriorityThe main thing that stops us from focusing on the bigger things we want to achieve is that life gets in the way. There are so many other things to get done. You need to actively give this new aspiration a higher priority. This may involve:

  • Nailing your colours to the mast. If you go public about your intentions then the fear of embarrassment may be enough to keep you on track.
  • Being clear about what you are not going to do, at least for now. If you’re going to fit in something else into the finite resource which is the 168 hours in a week, then something has to give.
  • Rewarding yourself. Planning little rewards if you reach your goal or stick to your habit for a set period may keep you on track.

5. Who – and what – can support me in this?

Sharing your aspirations with others can mean there are people around to support and encourage you. Even better is if you can buddy up with someone who has a similar goal. If you can share an activity, such as mindfulness practice, that’s really helpful for keeping you on track. But even where your goals are unrelated, reporting back to someone can be motivating. A friend and I, for example, have a weekly KUTA call (excuse the language, that’s Kick Up The Arse) where we hold each other to account for business development activity on our entirely separate businesses.

And don’t underestimate the value of apps, especially for habit formation. There are apps for fitness goals, learning a language, managing a to-do list and many others. They all seem to be based around the idea of positive reinforcement and, for some people, can be quite addictive in a benign way.

So in summary, work out what you want to achieve, how to fit it into your life and how to involve others. If you’d like some support thinking any of that through, I’d be happy to have a chat: caroline@carolinegourlay.co.uk

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Priorities: Peter Reed

Passing the baton – a succession-planning guide

How do you hand on a business you’ve spent years nurturing? This is a challenge facing many business owners as they eventually Succession circles jpgaccept that they cannot go on forever. This month I’ve teamed up with Peter Jenner, from William Battle Ltd, who specialises in business succession to compare his process-focused approach with my psychological perspective.

Peter has a model which aims to plot a course for successful succession, which he envisages as concentric circles radiating out like ripples from the centre, though obviously there’s overlap between them.

 

Aspirations

Peter says: Everything starts with aspirations – yours and those of your likely successors. What do you want for the business? What’s your legacy? How do you want to spend your time once you’ve handed the business over and how much money will you need to fund your lifestyle? How much control are you willing to hand over? If it’s a family business, there’s the added issue of whether your children actually want to take over the business and how you treat them all fairly – though not necessarily equally.

Caroline says: It’s very important to take time exploring and discussing your aspirations. This isn’t something to be rushed and may need several conversations and/or lots of quiet thinking time. Don’t duck the difficult conversations as unresolved issues are likely to come back to haunt you later.

Maximising business value

Peter says: The first thing you need to do is work out whether you have a business or just a job. MoneyIf the business is entirely dependent on a skill only you can perform or some knowledge that is locked in your head, then you have some serious work to do to create a business you can pass on. This part of the succession programme is maximising business value by being ‘better and different’ and creating the ‘money making machine’ that works without you, the business founder or owner. This part of the succession programme can have a dramatic impact on business profitability and sale value.

Caroline says: I’d echo Peter’s view that it’s important to get the business into as good a shape as possible and would add that good leadership is essential here. Previous articles on leadership may give you a way to think about this. If you’re a family business, last month’s blog on the six pitfalls of family business leadership may also give you some food for thought.

Selecting and developing successors

Peter says: This involves creating a ‘talent pool’ not just the selection of one or two people as successors but creating strategic and operational frameworks where the entire management team can be empowered to ‘be all that they can be’ through personal accountability and specific mentoring and support to deliver strategic business goals. This process linked with the creation of a meritocracy where appraisal, recognition and reward processes that are aligned and send consistent messages that support the succession process. Through this process there are often surprises and worthy successors become evident.

Caroline says:  There is so much I could say here as selecting and developing leaders is my bread and butter. SuccessorBut some top tips based on experience are:
• Start thinking about it much earlier than you think you need to. One of the most successful family business transitions I’ve been involved with took 5 years.
• Don’t be too quick to choose definite successors. Let the situation evolve. Try people out in different roles to see what suits them.
• Don’t pick a clone of yourself – the business may need a different type of leadership in the future. What made you successful up to now may not keep the organisation successful as it faces changes in technology, markets, political landscape and so on.
• Spend as much time preparing yourself as preparing your successors. It’s important to invest time and resources in developing the next generation but what about you? You face just as big a change as the people taking over from you, perhaps even bigger. For some business owners, there can be a loss of identity when they give up the role they’ve had for so long. Think about how you’ll adapt, not just how you’ll spend your time. This is particularly important if you intend staying involved with the business, e.g. as chairman. If you haven’t prepared yourself, then letting go of power can be quite uncomfortable, and you may be tempted to meddle.

Legal, technical and business framework

Peter says: These are all elements of the fourth concentric circle and are an essential element of the completed succession envelope. These include the need for wills, trusts, shareholders agreements, tax and financial advice. These all need to be tackled as one coherent solution and each expert must be facilitated to ensure maximum benefit.

Caroline says: Obviously the legal and technical stuff is way outside my area of expertise, though I have plenty of people in my network who can advise. What I will say is that this is another area to be careful to get right and to be transparent about. Perceived unfairness in this area can lead to grudges, mistrust and years of festering resentment, particularly in family businesses. It’s all too easy to spark the “you were always the favourite child/my bike was second hand, yours was new” type arguments.

Exit options

Peter says: The default position in succession planning is to plan for a trade sale of the business even when you are planning for family succession or, for example, a management buy-out. ExitFinal values will differ dependent upon the selected exit option. A rule of thumb for business sale values are detailed below:

100% value from trade sale
90% value from a Management Buy-Out (MBO)
80% value from an Employee Buy-Out (EBO)

Caroline says:  I confess I was surprised by this being part of Peter’s model because it’s often the last resort option that no one wants to contemplate. But I can see the sense in it as it stops people getting complacent. It’s like having a house that’s always in tip top condition because you could put it on the market tomorrow and it would look great. And you never know what might happen that means that you do need to sell after all.

If you’d like to talk about the process side of succession planning, contact Peter: peter@williambattle.com
I’d be very happy to talk to you about the people side of things: caroline@carolinegourlay.co.uk

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Six pitfalls of family business leadership

First and foremost, family businesses are businesses. Family businessLike all organisations they require good leadership. In this article, I’d like to highlight some of the common pitfalls of family business leadership. But first, let’s recap what leadership involves. In a previous article, I talked about what leaders do based on a leadership model called the Primary Colours® Model. The model identifies the tasks of leadership, which fall into three domains – strategic, interpersonal and operational. Leaders need to work out where they are going, get all the relevant people aligned around that strategy and create some plans and processes to make it happen. Primary Colours ModelThey need to build and sustain key relationships and create strong teams in order to deliver results. And at some point, they have to stand back and work out where the organisation’s focus should be and maybe even let someone else take a lead. It’s implicit in the model that no one is going to be good at all of it, so sometimes it pays to let someone else take the reins.

So working from this model, I’ve identified six pitfalls of family business leadership.

1. Bottom-up leadership

Family businesses are often founded and run by people who really know what they’re doing and do it very well. They often value tradition and take account of what has gone before. Primary Colours Bottom UpThis makes them strong in the Operational domain of leadership. It also stands to reason that people who work with their relatives, tend to place a high value on relationships. But this can result in leadership from the bottom half of the model only. If no one is working in the strategic domain, there’s a risk you could end up with, for example, the friendliest, most efficient chain of DVD rental shops in the region. Right up to the point where you get wiped out by Netflix.

Actually bottom-up leadership is just the most common example of the second pitfall….

2. Lopsided leadership

Remember that no one is likely to be good at all of the tasks of leadership. If you’re all quite similar – and having the same genes and being brought up in the same household can make that quite likely – you’re all likely to be good at the same bits. Suppose your family are a self-disciplined, well-organised bunch, all colour-coded sock drawers and CDs in alphabetical order. It’s likely that you’ll all be good at Planning and Organising. So good, that you may over-emphasise planning, maybe creating a civil service-style bureaucracy to run a medium-sized enterprise. By contrast, if, in some unthinkable parallel universe, my brother and I were to run a business, we would inevitably create an organisation that prided itself on flying by the seat of its pants. We would probably start to see leadership as heroically averting a crisis at the very last minute –  a crisis that would never have arisen had we been more organised.

To avoid pitfalls 1 & 2 you need to recognise that those leadership tasks that you don’t like, or are not very good at, are still vital. If you’re not going to do them, then find someone who will. You may need to get someone with a different skill set on to your leadership team or perhaps use a non-exec director or a consultant to plug the gap.

3. All aboard leadership teams

In a non-family business, people tend to expand their leadership teams as the need arises – “We’re at a stage where we could do with a Marketing Director” type thing. This isn’t always the case in a family business. Imagine a family business owner with four children. Let’s say that the people he set the business up with are now retiring – FD, Ops Director and Sales & Marketing Director. Three of his children have been shadowing these directors, gaining the skills, knowledge and qualifications necessary to take over. But that leaves that pesky fourth child. What do you do with him? He wants his seat at the table, it’s only fair. Maybe he’s good with computers, so let’s make him IT Director, everyone’s happy, right?

The problem is that you probably don’t need an IT Director. If you hadn’t had that fourth child you might make do with an IT Manager or even outsource it. Your senior leadership team should be spending its time discussing the most important issues facing the business but you’ll have IT as an agenda item every month with the same priority as sales and finance. You might even invest more in IT and develop state of the art systems that you don’t really need.

4. “Don’t worry, you’ll pick it up” directorships

Curiously, no one ever appoints an unqualified Finance Director. The money’s too important for that. Confused womanBut all the others are up for grabs: “You’re good with people – why don’t you become HR Director?”; “You did an amazing job on that brochure, let’s make you Marketing Director. How hard can it be?” Well actually, quite hard. People work for years to get the skills, experience and qualifications necessary to take on those roles. There’s nothing wrong with developing family members to take on these roles but think of it this way – if you advertised the job and their CV came in, how seriously would you take it? How big is the gap and how will you bridge it?

Pitfalls 3 & 4 are both about tailoring the business to fit the family.  There are likely to be some compromises when assigning roles within a family business. It will depend to some extent on the size of the business: four of you working round the kitchen table is rather different from a mature family business employing several hundred people. But if you twist the business too far to accommodate the family, you are storing up problems for the future.

5. Vaguely agreeing 

Lots of leadership teams avoid conflict; most of us don’t like it much. But in family firms the consequences of falling out are much greater, so there’s more incentive to stay out of the difficult stuff. One way to do that is to keep things vague. “We want to grow the business” is a statement you’re unlikely to fall out over. The clearer you get about what that actually means and what your options are, the more scope there is to disagree. Vagueness can also be a consequences of bottom-up leadership – if you haven’t looked at strategy, you’re not going to be clear about where you’re going. But you can end up pulling in different directions – one of you developing new products or services, another exploring opportunities in a different region – because of a lack of clarity. Sometimes this muddle is resolved by someone (often Dad) declaring that “We all want the same thing”, which is code for “This is what I want and I haven’t heard anyone disagree with me”.

Avoid this pitfall by being clearer about your options and having those difficult conversations where you have to rule some things in or out.

6. The Super Leader

The Super Leader believes he (sorry, it’s usually a he) has to lead everything.Super leader Anyone involved with family businesses knows the stereotype of the founder who won’t let go, who stifles the development of the next generation and makes succession planning difficult. But there’s a different pitfall with Super Leaders which rarely gets attention. One of the characteristics of good leadership is knowing when to let someone else take charge, not because it’s good for their development, but because they’re better at that bit of leadership than you are. You could be 47 and planning to keep leading the business for the next 20 years, but if your 25 year old daughter is better at strategic planning than you, then let her take the lead on that. The business will be better for it.

Leadership is always a challenge and is inevitably more complicated when you add in family dynamics. If you’d like to talk about leadership in your family business or the family businesses you advise, do get in touch: caroline@carolinegourlay.co.uk.

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Five strategies for avoiding conflict – and why you should ditch them all

What do you think of when you hear the word ‘conflict’? I think for a lot of us, conflict conjures IMG_2549up a particularly bad Eastenders’ Christmas – raised voices, harsh words, fists flying, someone trying to calm things down by saying “Leave it Barry, he ain’t worth it”. In fact, many of us are so afraid of this kind of conflict that we are masters at staying away from it altogether. Brits are renowned for not really saying what we mean. Just think how many layers of meaning we can get into the word ‘fine’ – “No really, I’m fine”; “Fine, we’ll do it your way”.

I’m not saying there is never outward aggression at work, but in my experience, eye-rolling, tutting, awkward silences and desperate attempts to get back to a veneer of niceness are much more common.

Does it matter?

You may see it as an excellent British trait. Avoiding unpleasantness is a worthy goal, surely? If all you’re trying to do is avoid a row about politics with your uncle over Sunday lunch, then yes, you may be right. But if you’re trying to run an organisation with other people, then no. Avoiding conflict is a problem. Important issues get quietly ignored. Differences aren’t aired; resentments fester. And if you never really discuss the difficult stuff then you can’t make the right decisions for your business.

I’m not suggesting you should be aiming for a culture of hostile aggression. There are constructive ways of handling difficult issues. But a culture of conflict avoidance can be just as damaging as open warfare – it just feels more comfortable. So with that in mind, here are five common conflict avoidance strategies that you might want to stop using:

1. Too much harmony

Maybe you’re really, really lucky. You work with a group of like-minded people, you get along, you have fun, you all want what’s best for the business. You don’t have any conflict. What could possibly be wrong with that? Sounds idyllic. Well the chances of a group of people taking important business decisions and agreeing with each other over everything, every time are vanishingly small. So either you’re a bunch of clones, hired because you have the same mindset (or, in a family business, you share the same genes) or you’re all deferring to the group. Or both. You may not even know you’re doing it. Often it’s not a case of holding back your opinion, so much as not forming an opinion until you hear what everyone else has to say. If everyone’s doing that, you could end up with a lovely harmonious group, with a massive blind spot, blithely making terrible decisions. Like the harmonious group who designed the Challenger space shuttle which blew up just after take-off.

2. Vagueness

“We want to grow the business” is a statement you’re unlikely to fall out over. The clearer you get about what that actually means and what your options are, the more scope there is to disagree. Some teams seem to deliberately keep things vague to avoid getting into difficult territory. Others achieve the same aim accidentally by talking around things but not getting clarity on what’s been agreed. You end up all walking out of a meeting with a different understanding of what happens next and it may be months before you realise this. Getting into a habit of agreeing what you are – and, just as importantly, what you aren’t – going to do next is a good discipline. Don’t leave it to the last five minutes of a meeting, unless you want a very rushed and bewildered exchange of “But I thought….” and “That’s not really what I meant..”.

3. Keeping control of the meeting

If you chair a meeting, you may think your role is to keep control of it – stick to the agenda, make sure it doesn’t go off topic, make sure you keep to time, ensure no one dominates, etc. Yes you need to do these things. But keeping control is not an end in itself. Surely the aim is to have the most productive meeting you can have? It’s possible to have a perfectly controlled meeting that covers every agenda item and is a complete waste of time.

Imagine the scene: John’s had his arms crossed for the last half hour; Jane’s said nothing since her pet agenda item was covered and Graham rolls his eyes every time Emma speaks. The ‘agreement’ to each action point (though perhaps voiced in business-speak) ranges from a resigned “Yeah whatever” to a resentful “Fine. Have it your own way”. This is not a team raring to get out there and implement all the stuff they’ve just agreed. Don’t be surprised if next month there’s little progress.

There seems to be something about formal agendas that stifles creative discussion. I understand that they’re sometimes necessary but try not to become over-reliant on them. Surely the question should be “What do we want to get out of this meeting?” not “What is the list of stuff to discuss?”.

4. Pretending we don’t have feelings

Work is a very emotional place. We feel excited by opportunities, proud of our achievements, anxious about under-performing, hurt if our suggestions are discounted, angry at perceived injustice and so on. And yet, we often pretend that emotions aren’t, or shouldn’t, be there. So a discussion gets a bit heated and someone says “Now, now, let’s calm down and keep this professional”.

It takes courage to address the emotion in the room but it often diffuses it more effectively than ignoring it would, as it acknowledges how people seem to be feeling. Try:

  • “You seem quite passionate about this. What makes you feel so strongly about it?” with someone who’s clearly getting het up
  • “You don’t seem happy with the way the discussion is going. Tell us what’s going on for you.” with someone who’s quietly seething.

This is not to absolve individuals of responsibility for managing their emotions appropriately at work. But pretending those feelings don’t exist does no one any favours.

5. Tiptoeing around the fragile one

If you work for a tyrant, you know how to avoid conflict. You don’t say anything contentious for fear of incurring their wrath. And then, if you’ve got any sense, you look for another job. Christmas party 3

But just as tyrannical is the person who silences dissent by being too sensitive, too fragile to handle conflict. They may not know they’re doing it; they may be too wrapped up in their own uncomfortable emotions. But if they get upset every time someone disagrees with them or holds them to account, then eventually people stop doing it. The whole team dynamic can revolve around not upsetting them, which stifles debate. This is one of those situations where acknowledging and addressing the underlying emotions is really important (and, if I’m honest, where professional help may be needed).

More constructive ways of handling conflict require trust and emotional maturity. If you’re struggling with these issues in your team, I’d be happy to have a chat: caroline@carolinegourlay.co.uk.

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Angry woman: kalavinka

Upset woman: Andrew Teman

Can I trust you? Well it depends…..

Trust you to do what exactly?

I’ve been thinking a lot about trust lately, partly because I’ve been working with teams. managerTrust is the bedrock of team work, but the more I talk and read about it, the more I realise that we’re not always talking about the same thing. It’s not as straightforward as ‘I trust you or I don’t’. It’s not even about trusting some people more than others. What people rarely seem to discuss is what it is that we might trust people to do or not do.

Fundamentally, trust seems to boil down to the question, ‘In my interactions with you, will I suffer any adverse outcome?’. But these adverse outcomes vary not just in severity but also in nature. ‘You let me down by not delivering on time’ is a very different form of breach of trust from ‘You lied to me’. It’s not that one is worse than the other – you could have a trivial lie and a serious issue with late delivery or vice versa, but they seem to me to be quite different experiences. So with that in mind, I’ve identified five aspects of human interaction where questions of trust arise.

1. Intention – Will you do me any harm?

At the most basic, this is about threats to our safety and security – is it safe to walk down a dark alley with you? Are you trying to steal my valuables? Thankfully, most of us don’t face these kind of threats at work. But we do face threats to our emotional well-being and social standing. Will you laugh at my ideas? Will you shout at me if I own up to a mistake? Will you tell me I’m stupid if I admit I don’t understand something? Do you roll your eyes if I disagree with you?

2. Integrity – Are you who you say you are? 

While we don’t like or trust those who may harm us, at least we know to avoid them if we can. Far more damaging are people who appear to be on our side, but aren’t. At the extreme, there can surely be no greater betrayal than discovering that your partner and fellow environmental activist, with whom you’ve shared not just a cause, but your life, is actually an undercover police officer sent to spy on you. In the workplace, it’s the snakes in suits, the smooth-talking political operators who gain people’s trust, then abuse it and lose it. I share my ideas with you and you pass them off as your own. You support a decision in a meeting and then undermine it afterwards. You talk publicly about the importance of work-life balance and then quietly label those who go home on time as ‘not career-focused’.

3. Reliability – Can I rely on you to do what you say?

If you say you’ll do something, will you do it? Do you show up on time? Do you hit your deadlines? Do some things slide off your to-do list never to be mentioned again? Do you keep people informed if you’re not going to be able to deliver? Do you forget stuff?

4. Competence – Will you do it properly?

This one comes up a lot when delegating, but can also be an issue between peers. Do you know what you’re doing? Do you understand the situation properly? Have you got the right skills? Are you sloppy about standards? Do you know how to use an apostrophe correctly?

5. Commitment – Are you as committed to this as I am?

Are we in this together? Will you bail out if the going gets tough and leave me to deal with the mess? Do you have split loyalties? If you belong to more than one team, which one has your primary allegiance if push comes to shove? In many senior management teams, people actually feel closer to the teams they lead, with whom they spend far more time, than to their peers, which can undermine the cohesiveness of the SMT.

In the eye of the beholder 

Of course, all these questions are from the perspective of the person giving – or not giving – their trust. But people vary enormously in their capacity to trust, regardless of what the other person does or doesn’t do. Some people approach the world open and unguarded, assuming most people are well-intentioned, until proven otherwise. Others are more sceptical, or even cynical, believing trust has to be earned. For an unlucky few, who’ve been through real trauma, especially in childhood, the world is such an unsafe place that they trust no one, are hyper-vigilant and approach all interactions in a very guarded way.

These different orientations towards trust play out in different ways in teams. Those who are fundamentally trusting are often pretty tolerant of people’s human foibles and failings. They might be annoyed if you don’t deliver on time or hurt by an angry outburst but the damage can usually be repaired. If you break their trust by being deceitful, however, they may be very hurt and feel doubly betrayed. They trusted you and that was a gift you abused. That damage may be very hard to repair without sincere remorse and efforts to make amends on the part of the trust breaker.

People who don’t trust easily, on the other hand, may feel angry if you’re deceitful but they didn’t expect any better so it doesn’t fundamentally change their perspective – ‘see, I told you you can’t trust anyone’. They’ll still deal with you, as warily as they ever did. Where their lack of trust plays out in teams is in misreading the intentions of basically decent colleagues, seeing ill-intent where there is none. From time to time we all inadvertently say and do things which hurt others. We also all have a tendency to put our own failings or poor behaviour down to circumstance but others’ behaviour down to character traits. So if a conversation gets heated and I lose my temper, I was under a lot of pressure and was provoked. If you do it, you’re a domineering bully. We all do this, but the tendency is probably more pronounced in mistrustful people. They may see hidden agendas and organisational politics which aren’t really there (I’m not suggesting they’re never there). Imaginative, mistrustful people make fantastic conspiracy theorists!

Self-fulfilling prophecy

Sadly, the research suggests that expecting social rejection can be a self-fulfilling prophecy. If you go into situations expecting that people won’t like you, your defensive behaviour means you’ll probably be right. It’s one of the reasons that lonely people tend to become more socially-isolated. Anxiety seems to play a part – anxious people have hair-trigger sensitivity to others’ facial expressions and jump to conclusions about how people are reacting to them.

What does this mean for teams?

If you’re the trusting type, you may need to be more considered and careful in some of your behaviour as your less trusting colleagues may be less forgiving of your human weaknesses than you are of theirs. You may also need to be alert to the fact that not everyone is as well-intentioned as you. Some people really are manipulative game players. Unfortunately, you may need to get them off your team in order to have a really high performing, cohesive unit.

If you’re a less trusting type, you may need to see if you can open up to others a little more and cut them a bit of slack. The better you get to know people, the more likely you are to relax around them and see that, even when they let you down, it was probably more cock-up than conspiracy.

If your team is grappling with issues of trust and you’d like a chat, do get in touch:  caroline@carolinegourlay.co.uk.

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