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Myth #2 – Geeks have no social skills

This is the second in a short series exploring workplace myths. Having started my career as a computer programmer, this one is close to my heart and I use the term geek affectionately. Geeks.jpgIT departments are, of course, Geek HQ, but similar stereotypes apply to other specialists. For example, how can you spot an outgoing auditor? They look at your shoes when they’re talking to you. So if you’re a bit of a geek, or you work with them, here’s an exploration of some of the stereotypes and misconceptions that lie behind this workplace myth.

1. All geeks are introverts

This just isn’t true. For starters, introversion/extroversion isn’t an either/or, it’s a continuum*. Most people are somewhere in the middle. It’s true that technical specialisms, which require a depth of concentration, tend to attract people who are more introverted. But that doesn’t mean all geeks are introverted and certainly not that they’re all extremely introverted.

*Despite it being a continuum, I’m now going to refer to introverts and extroverts, just because it’s easier.

2. All introverts are shy 

Some introverts are shy. So are some extroverts. The key difference is that introverts like quiet while extroverts crave stimulation. I’ve met some very socially confident introverts who are perfectly happy interacting with people, they just sometimes choose not to. Extroverts often mistakenly assume that if introverts just came out of their shell a bit, they’d see how much fun it is to be outgoing. Actually, many introverts are quite content where they are, but have to function in a world geared around extroverts.

Introverts often prefer to have a smaller number of close relationships rather than loads of acquaintances. If you’re a geek trying to build a professional network, you’re likely to be better off arranging to meet people on a one-to-one basis, than trying to work the room at those big events where you have to talk to loads of strangers while juggling a plate of canapes. Research suggests this strategy may actually be more successful – quality not quantity counts.

3. Extroverts are naturally more socially skilled

No one is born socially skilled. We all have to learn to get on with others. Because of their desire for more social contact, extroverts get more practice. But it doesn’t automatically follow that they’re better at it. As an extrovert, I know I’ve been guilty of all of the following:

  • Saying something out loud that really should have stayed inside my head
  • Talking over the end of someone’s sentence
  • Taking up too much air time
  • Mindlessly chattering in a place where people were trying to concentrate

Perhaps it’s not surprising that research suggests extroverts have slightly more difficult relationships with colleagues than introverts. Rather than introverts needing to become more like extroverts, there’s a lot that extroverts can learn from introverts. Take a look at Susan Cain’s work on the power of introverts for a different perspective.

4. Geeks only talk ‘Geek Speak’

Most jobs have some level of jargon – just look at how complicated it is to buy a coffee these days. But inevitably, specialist jobs have more of it and it’s more complex. While it’s entirely appropriate to talk to other geeks in the same language, it is important to learn how to translate it for the non-specialist. Some people are brilliant at this. For those that aren’t, it’s often a problem of being so immersed in a way of thinking that it’s hard to see it from the outside.

Here’s a useful checklist – whether you’re a specialist trying to explain something or a non-specialist trying to understand them:

  • Is the context clear? Do we both know what this is about?
  • Is there a concept to be explained here and if so, how clear is it? Analogies and diagrams often help.
  • How much jargon has been used and do we both understand it?
  • Is this the appropriate level of detail? Err on the side of too little; specialists have a tendency to go too far.

Incidentally, the place where communication is often hardest is with someone who knows a bit about it, e.g. a generalist accountant talking to a tax expert. There’s some shared jargon and it’s much easier to make (wrong) assumptions about how much someone knows, so take particular care here.

There are, sadly, some geeks who can’t be bothered to explain things clearly. It makes them feel smart to know stuff other people don’t understand and they don’t want to give that away. I’d say that strategy will backfire. As well as seeming unhelpful, people may assume that the geek is not capable distilling complex ideas into straightforward language. They could end up appearing less smart, not more.

5. They might ‘on the spectrum’

In the last decade or so, we’ve all become much more aware of autism. With that awareness has come whispered asides – “I reckon he’s on the spectrum”. It is likely that fields like IT and accountancy, with their emphasis on logic and order, will have a higher proportion of high functioning autistic people than average and they are likely to find social interaction a challenge. But they’re still likely to be a minority. I’m wary of amateur diagnosis. On the one hand, it seems to introduce a little more tolerance – “Oh that’s why they’re a bit odd; I’ll make allowances”. On the other hand, it creates distance, making the other person seem alien, someone with whom you can’t have a normal working relationship. I hope we get to a point where we value the many varied ways the human brain can be wired and adapt to work with people who see the world differently. But we’re not there yet, so I’d just say be wary of sticking labels on people. If you do need sound information about autism at work, the Autistic Society is a good place to start.

So there you go – a few geeks may have real challenges with their social skills; many don’t. For those introverted types who lack confidence in their social skills, things may not be as bad as you think (I really do recommend Susan Cain’s book – most  introverts love a good book). And for those of us who are naturally more outgoing, it may be worth reflecting on the fact that, sometimes, we’re the problem. We can all improve our social skills. If you’d like some support to reflect on the way you relate to others, I’m just a click away:

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Irena Safarova




Myth #1 – Technical specialists make lousy managers

This is the first in a series on workplace myths, many of which are based on stereotypes – soft female leaders, socially awkward geeks, psychologists obsessed with feelings. TechnicianLike most stereotypes, there’s generally a grain of truth in them. There’s a reason we talk about German efficiency and Italian style, not the other way round. But stereotypes don’t apply in every case, as I discovered when using the Bavarian rail network this summer (couldn’t even manage a queue for a replacement bus service). It’s the same with workplace myths – something which has some value as a generality can be unhelpful when looking at an individual.

So let’s start with this old chestnut, which I hear all the time in IT, engineering, accountancy, law – never promote your best technical specialists; they make terrible managers. Why might this be true?

1. They can’t manage people

Actually this seems to be the key complaint about specialists. If someone has spent up to 10 years honing – and being rewarded for – their technical excellence, it shouldn’t be a surprise if they haven’t developed an entirely different set of skills the minute you promote them. People management skills need to be learnt. I’d suggest starting with delegation, as that’s often the first bit of management responsibility a specialist gets and one of the main places they go wrong.

It’s true that some people take to people management more naturally than others. But I sense an unspoken assumption that the greater your technical expertise, the less likely you are to have any social skills. This is such a pervasive myth that it’ll be the subject of a later article in this series. Suffice it to say for now, that really knowing your stuff doesn’t automatically mean you’re socially awkward. In my experience, this focus on people management obscures other issues which may hold technical specialists back, such as…

2. They may need structure

Although technical specialists work with complex subjects they often have quite a lot structure to guide their thinking. There may have been taught specific methodologies or have clear procedures or precedents to follow. This isn’t always the case when looking at issues managers deal with, particularly when it comes to strategic thinking. Some technical specialists will  be capable of working in a less structured environment and some will struggle.

3. They may over-emphasise precision

In many technical disciplines, precision is highly valued and rightly so. No one wants to entrust a nuclear power station to an engineer who says “oh that looks OK, give or take…” Often there’s a right answer, which takes skill, technical know-how and ingenuity to work out. Even when there isn’t one right answer, there’s generally a small range of possible answers and people can ‘show their workings’ to justify how they came to a particular conclusion.

This is absolutely not the case with many management decisions. Often managers have to work out the questions for themselves – “Should we develop a new product or invest more in our marketing?” – never mind the answers. There’ll be some information to analyse but the answer won’t just pop out at the end. You have to use your judgement. This takes some getting used to and is particularly difficult for people who fear criticism. If they can’t prove they did the right thing, how do they justify their decisions. In my experience, this is at least as big a hurdle as people management for technical experts moving to management roles.

4. They’re not actually interested

Many technical specialists go into their profession because they enjoy it. Being a systems developer, an engineer or a lawyer may be a huge part of their professional identity, one they may be reluctant to give up. And yet, in many organisations the only way to feel you’re progressing is to move into a management role. Many people find themselves on track for promotion without really thinking about whether it’s what they want. Then they keep getting too involved in the technical stuff because they find it more interesting or they’re unwilling or unable to engage with the messier, less clear cut management issues. Some technical experts can find great satisfaction in broadening their role to encompass responsibility for maintaining technical excellence, exploring trends in their field and developing the next generation of experts. But general management, responsibility for performance and for the commercial aspects of a business is often of little interest.

Undoubtedly some technical specialists overcome all these hurdles and become superb managers. Others don’t. There should be nothing wrong with pursuing a specialist career – one of depth rather than breadth. So if you’re thinking of preparing a specialist for a management role, first check whether they really want to do it. Then try and work out how comfortable they are (or could become) working with less structure and making decisions which require judgement. Then look at how you help them develop their people management skills. And if you’d like any help working any of that out, I’m happy to have a chat:

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Delegation – the art of self-management?

Last month, I discussed the dimensions of delegation, which prompted one reader to tell me that, for him, the hardest part of delegating is managing his own responses – Courage-anxietydealing with frustration and reining in his inner control freak, for example. I recognise from my years of coaching that this is something many people struggle with. So this month, I’m looking at what to do and, more importantly, how to manage yourself in various delegation situations. So what if…..

They just don’t get it

No matter how often you explain it, they just don’t seem to grasp what to do. Try asking them to talk you through it, so you can see where the gap in their understanding is. Or break it down into smaller chunks. Or you may just have to accept that you’ve delegated this task to the wrong person. Your task in managing yourself is to handle your frustration and be patient without being patronising. Imagine how you’d like to be treated if you were struggling with something. If you’re super smart and rarely struggle to understand things, treat the person with the sensitivity you’d want if you were learning something you can’t pick up quickly, like ballroom dancing or playing the clarinet.

They’re not getting on with it

There could be many reasons for this, so don’t make assumptions. Maybe it is a tedious task that they’re not motivated to do, but it could be that they don’t know where to start, so keep putting it off. Perhaps they’re a last minute person who pulls out all the stops just before a deadline or maybe they’re just juggling a lot of other priorities.

Find out what’s going on. Clarify the deadline and your priorities. Check whether they need any support, then leave them to it. The lack of activity may be particularly anxiety-provoking if you’re the kind of person who never leaves things to the last minute. But that’s your problem, you need to manage it. And really, you should see us deadline-driven people go when we need to! (It may soothe your nerves to give a deadline a day or so before you really need it).

They don’t do it your way

Or, as you may see it, they don’t do it properly. Be clear up front about any methods that have to be followed, for example if there’s a standard report format. But be honest with yourself about this. Does it really matter if they do it differently? Who knows, they might come up with a better way. If you struggle with this, then your job is to manage your inner control freak.  Many of my clients find it easier to let go of this degree of control if they focus on higher level issues. Once you realise that freeing up time means you can get involved in strategic decision making or winning new business, then the font size on a PowerPoint presentation may seem less important.

They get it wrong

People make mistakes. They’re only human. Maybe they missed something important or their conclusions are faulty or their sums don’t add up. The key thing here is to treat them like adults. Go through their work, highlight the good bits and show them how it could be improved. If you get frustrated easily, then your job is to keep control of yourself and resist the temptation to give them a good telling off. If you’re using a tone you would use with children, you’ve gone wrong.

Just as common as the frustrated manager, however, is the awkward one. If the thought of pointing out someone’s errors fills you with toe-curling embarrassment or gut-wrenching anxiety, there’s a risk you’ll tiptoe around it, without being clear about the problem. Or worse, quietly correct their work without telling them. If you’ve got to a position where you get to delegate, then it’s your job to have awkward conversations when necessary. You need to develop your capacity to give difficult feedback.

They’re perfectionists

People talk a lot about perfectionist managers who set unrealistic standards, but what if it’s the other way around? What if the person you delegate to spends waaaaaay too long on something, endlessly fussing over minor details. It helps to agree upfront how much of their time you expect them to spend on the task. But it’s also about setting expectations about what you want from them. Perfectionists are often anxious about being criticised for making mistakes. Part of your role is to help them see that there are penalties for overplaying their perfectionism and to show them what ‘good enough’ looks like. Obviously you then need to be careful not to send mixed messages by harshly criticising them if they make a mistake.

Everything’s fine

Wait, what?! Why have I included this? There’s nothing to manage here. Indeed, but some people can’t help doing it anyway. Energy-sapping, demotivating micro-management is a frequent complaint about bad bosses. Sure, do a little light monitoring, offer support, be encouraging. But if it’s all going swimmingly, get out of the way. Ask yourself what you should really be focusing on (probably something less operational or immediate), instead of interfering with people who are quite capable of doing the job without you.

They do it better than you

Well this is a shock. You knew they were good. You thought they were ready for whatever it was – important client meeting, writing a proposal for the board – you just didn’t expect them to be this good. You know what you need to do – congratulate them, praise the quality of their work. You probably know how you’re supposed to feel too – pleased, perhaps proud, if you had a role in their development. But what if you feel envious, threatened or insecure? That’s OK. You’re allowed to have those feelings. But you also have a responsibility to deal with them. They’re not the other person’s fault. Don’t be tempted to bring them down a peg or two to make yourself feel better.

Something catastrophic happens

If you’re unlucky, there may be a disaster because of something you delegated to someone else. If you’re lucky, no one dies. It can be worth reminding yourself of that to keep a sense of perspective.* But if they have lost a client or derailed a critical project, how do you handle it? Once you’ve put things right to whatever degree you can, I’d say you have two key tasks here: to extract whatever lessons you can, for you and the person you delegated to, and to manage your feelings. The former is harder if you can’t manage the latter.

In my book it’s OK to be angry – particularly if the person was careless, reckless or negligent – so long as it’s clean anger. “I am really angry/disappointed in you. I expected better” is clean. “You stupid, worthless idiot. What the hell were you thinking?” is not. They almost certainly feel terrible about it already and don’t need you adding to the criticism they’re heaping upon themselves. And if they’re not accepting responsibility, they’re more likely to get defensive if you go on the attack. You may have to process a lot of feelings to get through this situation. As the reader who prompted this article made clear, it goes with the territory.

When delegating, managing yourself is at least as important as managing the people you’re delegating to. If you’d like any support in thinking through how you do that, do get in touch:

*If someone has died, I’m very sorry you’re having to deal with this. You’re into a whole other level of collective responsibility and grief, which is beyond the scope of this blog. You might find this article or this one helpful.

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Steve Snodgrass


Giving it all away? Seven dimensions of delegation

Getting someone else to carry out tasks on your behalf is a key management skill and one that a lot of people struggle with.manager They micro-manage and interfere too much or they abdicate responsibility and leave people floundering. There’s no formula for good delegation – it depends on the task and the individual you’re delegating it to. But you may find it useful to think more carefully about what exactly you’re giving someone responsibility for in any given situation. I’ve come up with seven dimensions of delegation to help you work that out.

1. Process

Who decides how the task will be done – you or the person you’ve delegated to?  We all know the stereotype of the control freak manager who gives step-by-step instructions to ensure the task is completed precisely the way they would do it themselves. If one of the aims of delegation is to develop people, then this is clearly unhelpful.

But the opposite extreme can also be problematic. You might be the kind of person who loves to work out what you’re doing from a blank sheet, even (or, perhaps, especially) if it’s something you’ve never done before. If so, you may underestimate the extent to which others, including very capable, intelligent specialists in their field, need some sort of structure to guide their thinking. I’ve seen situations where a manager gives no guidance for fear of seeming patronising, only to find weeks later that the person has literally no idea where to start.

Working out how much explicit guidance the person needs is the first step in delegating effectively. If you’re not sure, asking how they plan to go about it is a good starting point.

2. Standards

Whose standards are they working to? Who decides what’s good enough? Obviously, I’m not suggesting you accept errors in calculations, red penfaulty logic or grammatical howlers – though it’s better if you don’t point them out by going through someone’s work with a red pen, as I’ve seen some managers do. But does it matter if a report is not worded they way you’d phrase it or a PowerPoint presentation isn’t as jazzy as you’d like? Maybe it does. Perhaps your organisation has specific standards for work – branded colours, particular fonts and so on. If so, be really clear about your expectations from the start. If not, can you let them do it their way? This one is particularly difficult for perfectionists.

3. Decision making authority

The more complex the task, the more decisions are likely to be involved. How much of that decision-making authority are you delegating? Supposing you ask a team member to organise a team away day. Do they choose the venue or recommend a shortlist? Who sets the agenda for the day, works out the timetable, picks the menu? Being clear about decision-making latitude at the outset avoids a lot of misunderstanding and resentment later.

4. Resource requirements

All tasks require some resources, even if it’s only the person’s time. If you’re in professional services or consultancy and monitor billable hours, you’ll know that’s a very important resource. MoneyOther resources may also be necessary, such as other people’s time, use of meeting rooms or equipment or actual money. Who decides what’s required for a task, you or the person you’re delegating to? Do they have an overall limit of money or time that they have to manage within or do you approve the resources required for each stage of the task? There is little more frustrating than being given a task without the resources to complete it, so make sure there is clarity around this. A loyal reader has pointed out that I should add timescale in here – regardless of how many hours or days the task is going to take, who decides when it’s got to be finished by?

5. Progress monitoring

Of course, you will need to monitor progress but how often? To what extent can this person keep themselves on track without you checking up on them? What should determine the degree of monitoring vs self-management is the person’s ability and motivation to manage themselves, combined with the duration and nature of the task. Daily checking is likely to be OTT for a task that will take a month, for example, but maybe not if it’s high risk and mission critical.

In reality, what often dictates the degree of monitoring is the personality of the manager. At one extreme you have control freak micro-managers who spend so long checking up that they might as well do the task themselves (and frequently don’t delegate at all for precisely that reason). At the other extreme, I’ve known managers who don’t so much delegate as throw ideas out and hope someone picks them up. Often big picture thinkers, they forget the detail, follow up inconsistently and are surprised when, months later, nothing’s happened. In a working life of conflicting priorities, people are unlikely to focus on the thing no one is chasing.

6. Accountability

When you delegate work, the ultimate accountability still rests with you. But that doesn’t mean the person you delegated to is totally off the hook if things go wrong (or indeed that all of the credit is yours if everything is a success). I’ve seen managers approach this from both extremes. At one end, you have those who dodge accountability, pushing it all downwards. So, for example, imagine an MD quizzing an area manager about poor results. The director (the area manager’s boss) abdicates responsibility and metaphorically, and perhaps literally, sits with the MD, saying “yeah, why didn’t you achieve more”, rather than sitting with the area manager and accepting a share of responsibility for the poor results.

At the other extreme, I’ve known managers take a philosophical stance that says “the buck stops with me; if it went wrong, it must be my fault”. Whilst it’s admirable that they look at what they personally could have done differently, there’s a risk of infantalising people. How will people learn from their mistakes if their manager, like a kindly parent, makes it all better? I’m not suggesting draconian punishment for honest mistakes, but surely adults should be held accountable for their actions? For the manager, this seemingly noble act can be a way of avoiding difficult conversations about performance. The same is true of managers who quietly correct people’s work and don’t tell them.

7. Pressure

One of the reasons you delegate as a manager is because you have more work than you could possibly do on your own. This creates pressure. How much of that pressure do you push down? The obvious wrong answer is all of it. The manager who makes everyone stay late and then swans off at 5pm is not going to be popular. I expect these people exist, but what I encounter much more frequently is the opposite – the manager who is reluctant to pass on any of the pressure.

I need to tread carefully here because I don’t want to sound like I’m encouraging exploitation.shock stress.jpg I think work/life balance is important and no one should be constantly working long hours. But there are times when the pressure is on – ask a tax accountant in January or an IT person before a go-live date. What I often see is managers protecting their staff from this pressure. They either don’t give people extra work or they take it back and finish it themselves, often late at night, if people can’t meet the deadline. If, at a time of peak demand, you’re the only one working extra hard, something’s wrong with the distribution of work. You could even see it as unfair to your staff – if they’re ambitious people, wanting to progress, shouldn’t they get used to working under a degree of pressure? If you constantly shield them from it, they’ll get a hell of a shock when they go for promotion.

You could be getting delegation just right in some of these dimensions and missing the mark on others – giving the right amount of direction but being over-zealous with monitoring or being clear about decision-making latitude but not about resource requirements, for example.

If you’d like to explore the way you delegate, I’d be happy to have a chat:

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Think you understand the workplace? Five ways you’re probably wrong.

I like to keep up with psychology research. I feel it’s part of my responsibility as a practising psychologist to have at least some idea of the latest findings. What’s struck me recently is how often the research has confounded my thinking, suggesting something counter-intuitive. So here are five pieces of common sense, received wisdom about the workplace that recent psychological research suggests are wrong:

1. Leaders should embody their company’s culture

This is just obvious, isn’t it? What could be worse than having a leader who’s out of step with the culture of the organisation? Black leaderWell in terms of the performance of the organisation, having one who’s aligned with it can be worse. If your culture is already very results-focused and a competitive, there’s little for a task-focused leader to add.  The same is true with a people-focused leader in an organisation that values relationships. Culture substitutes for leadership. According to this study, leaders should bring what’s missing. The researchers did stress that they looked at only the broad dimension of task- vs people-focus and there are ways that someone could be too misaligned. I’d imagine that a total mismatch of purpose or values may be unhelpful. But the research does reinforce the idea I’ve talked about here before that leadership requires a balance of different skills.

2. We all thrive in a co-operative workplace

Who wouldn’t want to work in an environment where people are mutually supportive and team-oriented? High performers, that’s who. A high performer in any team can be seen as an inspiration or a threat. When they’re seen as a threat, they’re more likely to be on the receiving end of negative behaviour, such as belittling comments designed to bring them down a peg or two. Research suggests that in a highly co-operative environment, star performers are more likely to be seen as a threat and to be on the receiving end of harsh treatment. If we’re concerned about the group as a whole, we’re more likely to resent someone who shows the rest of us up.

3. The best hedge fund managers are probably psychopaths

At the other end of the spectrum from the highly co-operative workplace, we have the Wolf of Wall Street. Related imageWe all know the stereotype – superficially charming, competitive, ruthless, willing to take risks, not bothered about the impact of their decisions on anyone else. We may not like them but you’ve got to admit that your archetypal psychopath makes a great investor. Except it turns out they don’t. Research tracking the performance of hedge funds over a decade found those managed by people categorised (from video footage, so there are some caveats) as displaying psychopathic behaviour performed 15% worse than average. Those managed by people displaying considerable psychopathic behaviour performed 30% worse. The researchers suggest that good hedge fund management is quite collaborative, drawing creative ideas from others in the team and that the bullying management style of the psychopath stifles this.

4. Employees should always be encouraged to be good corporate citizens

No one likes a jobsworth. Organisations don’t want people who just do their jobs exactly as dictated in the job description and nothing more. They want people to help out their colleagues, to come up with ways to improve the organisation, to be good corporate citizens. What they’re looking for is discretionary effort – effort people choose to expend above and beyond what they’re required to expend. But what happens if the pressure to behave in this way becomes so great that it no longer feels like a choice? Well, surprisingly, people can then start to feel they’ve earned the right to act badly Petty theft, cheating and rudeness may increase if people feel compelled to do good works. As the research puts it, demanding we behave like saints risks turning us into sinners.

5. Open plan offices encourage face-to-face communication

While it’s known that a lot of people don’t really like open plan offices, open plan officeat least they have the advantage of making it easier for people to talk to each other. Except they don’t. Recent research looking at organisations which moved to open plan offices found that face-to-face interactions (tracked electronically) fell by over 70%. Email and instant messaging usage went up correspondingly. It is thought that having the rest of the office listening in was the biggest inhibitor. It’s unlikely the world is going to return to private office spaces any time soon but it seems important to have places available where people can go for a quiet chat, without that being frowned upon.

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John Blower


Lopsided leadership – too much of a good thing?

Play to your strengths – that’s good advice, right? Seesaw signWell generally, yes, it is. There’s a whole school of thought in HR and business psychology that says you’re much more likely to improve your performance if you keep developing something you’re already good at and use it more, than if you doggedly try and overcome some persistent weakness.

But that’s only half the story. What’s implicit in this idea is that somebody else,  someone who’s brilliant at the things you’re not so good at, will be providing a counterbalance. That sounds intuitively obvious, but when it comes to leadership, I’ve found that people often believe that the aspects of leadership that they are good at are what leadership is all about. They don’t notice the other bits exist. They may then recruit other leaders in their own image, creating an imbalance.

To use a football analogy, it would be like an excellent goal keeper recruiting ten other goalies – “Football is all about saving goals and we’re world class at it”. In this context it sounds ridiculous, but in leadership it’s quite common because people don’t understand the different tasks of leadership. This isn’t the same as functional roles – finance, sales, ops, HR and so on. Leadership itself has tasks. Within a senior team these are more likely to be distributed according to people’s personalities and strengths than their functional roles.

I’ve written here before Primary Colours Modelabout my go-to leadership model, the Primary Colours® Model of Leadership, which really nails the question of what leaders actually do (or should do). In an unbalanced team, some of these tasks get neglected. People focus on the bits of leadership that come naturally to them and describe it as their leadership style, as though it doesn’t matter that there are some things they’re just not doing. So what does it look like if you focus too much on just a few tasks of leadership? See if you recognise any of these characters:

The slave driver

Slave driverFor the slave driver leadership is all about delivering results. If results are down, they whip a bit harder. People must understand that they have to deliver. They may push themselves just as hard but that doesn’t make anyone else feel better. Of course results matter, but the slave driver achieves them at the expense of people, creating an undervalued and demotivated workforce. But that’s not the only  problem. The slave driver is likely to focus on the wrong thing. If results are down because they’re going in the wrong direction or their systems are hopeless or they’ve got the wrong skills in the team, then pushing people harder isn’t going to improve performance.

The strategist

Chess playerThe strategist is much more cerebral than the slave driver and more future-focused. They’re less concerned about day-to-day trivia. For them, leadership is all about mapping the future, scanning the horizon for threats and opportunities, working out where the organisation will be in five or ten years’ time. This is a very important task of leadership but if no one’s ensuring results are delivered, there might not be a business in five years.

The planner

PlannerThe planner loves a good a system. For them leadership is about ensuring that things run smoothly. Processes, procedures, plans, guidelines, flowcharts – they’re all important to a well-run organisation. But there are two problems with an over-focus on planning and organising. Firstly, planners sometimes go off and design their processes in isolation, without enough thought for the people who’ll actually use them. They then meet resistance when they try to implement them. Secondly, they run the real risk of creating an overly bureaucratic organisation, that’s rigid and can’t respond easily to change.

The Superhero 

SupergirlThe superhero is there to save the day. For them leadership is all about tackling big problems and averting crises, often at the very last minute. Their cool head and clear sight under pressure may inspire awe, gratitude or loyalty. Who wouldn’t want a superhero? Well maybe there wouldn’t have been a crisis if they’d been more organised or had a clearer idea of where they were going. And how much do the people around the superhero grow and develop if Super Leader swoops in and rescues the situation every time?



The Messiah

Russell BrandFor the messiah, leadership is all about vision. Like the strategist, they’re future-focused, but they have a better understanding of the need to take people with them.  Often very charismatic, their message may be aimed more at the heart than the head. They may inspire devoted followers. This is a very powerful form of leadership, but where’s the detail? Who’s making sure the dull day-to-day stuff gets taken care of? Not the messiah, that’s for sure.

The Cheerleader

Cheerleader.jpgFor the cheerleader, leadership is all about motivation and team spirit. Surprisingly, they’re not dissimilar in some ways to the slave driver. Both are focused on results, but the cheerleader encourages people to achieve and celebrates success, rather than threatening punishment for failure. But they could find themselves Ra-Ra-Ra-ing at people who are going in the wrong direction or working with processes or plans that aren’t fit for purpose.

The Social Worker

Christmas party 3For the social worker, leadership is about looking after their team. They build great relationships, remember birthdays and pay attention to things going on in people’s personal lives to make sure they’re not under too much pressure. They believe that if you look after your staff and treat them well, they’ll reward you with good performance. Often they’re right. But it can be difficult for the social worker to hold people to account. Sometimes they infantalise their staff by protecting them from pressure from above or from the consequences of their mistakes. How do you grow future leaders if someone else always makes it all better for them?

With the possible exception of slave-driving, there’s nothing inherently wrong with any of these types of leadership. But not if that’s all you’ve got and they’re over-played. Leadership requires a balance of skills. Don’t ignore the ones that aren’t yours.

If you’d like to explore your strengths as a leader or those of your team, I’d be happy to have a chat:

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Colin Whittaker

Jeff Krause

Tim S

tec estromberg

Thomas Hawk

Ben Sutherland

Erik Drost

Andrew Teman 

The Primary Colours® Model is the intellectual property of Edgecumbe Consulting






The psychology of influence

I’m sure most of us would like to be more influential.  You probably won’t be surprised to hear that understanding a bit of psychology can help. men shaking handsUltimately, influence is all about decision-making. You want someone to decide to do what you want them to do. What psychological research tells us is that decision-making is such hard work that our brains take shortcuts. We don’t even notice it’s happening. Understanding those predictable shortcuts can help us influence decision making in others.

Dr. Robert Cialdini has identified six psychological levers of influence, which I’ll outline below, along with a seventh based on a the work of Nobel prize-winning psychologist Daniel Kahneman.

1. Liking

We are much more inclined to say yes to people we like. You can’t make people like you but you can increase the chances that they will. We tend to like people who are similar to us, who pay us compliments and who cooperate with us towards mutual goals. This needs to be genuine. You don’t want to become the kind of obsequious charmer who tries to sweet talk their way through life. We tend not to trust people like that. So look for real common ground. Be interested in people. Don’t be rude. If you want to be more influential, start by being nice.

2. Reciprocity 

If you give me something, I’m likely to feel an obligation to give back. GiftIt’s why charities send a token gift, such as a pen, with their appeal letters. You may be sceptical that this works but research says otherwise. For example, if you give people a mint with their bill at the end of a meal tips increase by around 3%. Giving two mints more than quadruples that –  a 14% increase. Somewhat manipulatively, if the waiter provides one mint, then adds an extra mint “because you’ve been so nice”, tips go up by a staggering 23%, influenced not by what was given, but how it was given.

Don’t be too calculating about it – I think the waiter would only get away with that once. But think about how you can genuinely be generous to the person you’re trying to influence. Remember generosity isn’t just about gifts or buying lunch. You can give your time, you ideas or your support.

3. Authority

We’re take more notice of people who have authority because of their status or their qualifications and expertise. What’s interesting is that, even when we know we’re talking to an authority, we’re more influenced if we’re reminded of their credentials. People are more likely to comply with an exercise programme, for example, if the physiotherapist has their diploma on the wall.

Of course, it’s not always appropriate to tell people about your qualifications and experience. You may become less likeable if you blow your own trumpet too much. The good news is that you can increase your influence by getting someone else to do it for you, even when they have a vested interest. For example, an estate agent trained their reception staff to mention their colleagues’ credentials: “Lettings? Let me connect you with Sandra, who has over 15 years’ experience letting properties in this area.” The result? A 20% rise in appointments and a 15% increase in the number of signed contracts.

(Incidentally, my husband would like you to know that he’s married to a chartered psychologist with over 20 years’ experience.)

4. Consensus 

One of the shortcuts we take when faced with a decision is take account of what other people do in similar circumstances. KONICA MINOLTA DIGITAL CAMERAWe may not even realise we’re doing it. For example, we’re more likely to reuse the towels in a hotel if that little card says  “75% of our guests reuse their towels at some time during their stay, so please do so as well”, rather than simply asking us to reuse the towels.  We’re even more likely to do so if it says “75% percent of people who have stayed in this room have reused their towel.” Reuse rates go up by 26% and 33% respectively. I’m pretty sure the people concerned would have said they were unaffected by what the card said, but results show they were influenced without knowing it. So when you’re trying to influence someone, see if you can demonstrate that the outcome you want is what most people would do.

5. Consistency

Although it may not always be true, we like to think of ourselves as acting consistently: “I’m the sort of person who…….exercises regularly/cares about the environment/supports the arts” or whatever. So if you’re trying to influence someone, getting a small initial commitment makes it more likely you’ll get a larger commitment later. For example, people are four times more likely to agree to put  great big sign on their front lawn urging people to Drive Safely if, 10 days earlier, they’ve agreed to put a little postcard in their window saying the same thing. What’s the smallest step you can persuade someone to take towards the outcome you’re looking for?

6. Scarcity

“Only 40 tickets left”. “Final performance ever”. “Limited edition”. These phrases grab our attention because we want things that are in short supply. Fear of missing out is a strong driver. In a business context, it may seem more difficult to present something as scarce, but compare the difference between these two appeals: “We’re looking for 10 people to take part in the pilot project” or “The pilot project will be limited to just 10 people”.

7. Fear of loss 

It’s bold of me to suggest that the foremost psychologist researching influence missed a trick, but here goes.  Pound CoinsAn even stronger driver than fear of missing out is fear of losing what we already have. An example of my own flawed thinking demonstrates this. In the wake of the financial crash, VAT rates were reduced from 17.5% to 15% to stimulate the economy. I was highly sceptical that saving 25p on a ten pound bill could possibly make a difference. Fast forward a few years and it was announced that rates would be going back up to 17.5%. I decided immediately that we should replace our ageing fridge-freezer before the rate rise. Suddenly, losing that 25p (or multiples of them) was a big deal.

When you’re putting together a business case try re-framing potential savings as current losses. For example, the second of these statements is proven to be more effective:

“If you insulate your house, you could save 50p a day”

“If you fail to insulate your house, you will continue to lose 50p a day”

So there you go, seven psychological insights to increase your influence. If anything there persuades you to get in touch, you can contact me here:

If I didn’t send you this blog directly but you would like to sign up to receive these random psychological musings on a regular basis, please register here. Thanks for reading.

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William Warby