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What next? Who knows? Living with uncertainty

So here we are, tentatively venturing back out into the world and wondering what life will be like. There is no shortage of commentators predicting the business, societal and political changes which will result from the pandemic. I am not one of them. What I want to look at is how we handle the level of uncertainty we are facing. Here are six observations.

1. Predictability vs uncertainty

One of the overlooked aspects of the pandemic is the weird juxtaposition of massive uncertainty alongside monotonous predictability. On the one hand, you know what your days are going to look like – Zoom calls, walk, dinner, Netflix. Repeat. Take away on Saturday to mix it up a bit. On the other hand, we don’t really know what life will be like in 6 weeks, 6 months, 6 years. Many of us are longing for some kind of change and simultaneously nervous about what the future may hold.

I don’t think we’re used to dealing with this level of boredom and dread at the same time. It’s one of the reasons why you may be finding the situation tougher than you expected. If that’s the case, I refer you back to last month’s blog on self-compassion.

2. This is multi-layered and complex

It is difficult to keep track of the many levels of uncertainty we face. Here are some:

  • The pandemic Will there be a second wave? When will there be a vaccine? How do we accurately assess risk?
  • Emotions What has three months of suspended animation done to our mental health, our relationships, our children? Are we becoming more compassionate or more judgemental?
  • Economy How bad will the inevitable recession be? Which regions and sectors will be worst hit? Where will the money go?
  • Workplace What will the socially distanced workplace be like? How much remote or flexible working will carry on? Is this the demise of the traditional office?
  • Politics Brexit hasn’t gone away and neither have the divisions in society exposed, exploited and amplified since the referendum. Will the pandemic draw us together or exacerbate those divisions?
  • Social change Will the collective pause cause us to reconsider what we value? Will the tension between generations grow in response to a crisis where the old are most likely to die and the young are most affected financially?
  • Geo-political factors Will countries work together to combat the virus or become more isolationist? Will there be shifts in alliances? Will economic instability push countries into civil unrest or war?
  • Technology/innovation Technology got us through this and is likely to be part of how we get out of it. What advances in technology might be accelerated by the crisis? What might we accept and then live to regret (e.g. surveillance technology)?
  • Environment Will the pandemic make us re-evaluate our relationship with the natural world?

These issues overlap in both predictable and unexpected ways. For example, we know that the pressure to kick start the economy by buying loads of stuff conflicts with the needs of the environment. It has been slightly surprising to find that responses to the pandemic have sometimes polarised along tribal lines aligned with the entirely unrelated issue of Brexit.

I don’t believe anyone can keep track of all these layers to create a cohesive comprehensive picture. That doesn’t mean that perspectives on individual aspects aren’t valid but there is always a bigger picture.

3. It’s OK to not know

Most of use like to feel that we know what is going on. Feeling ignorant or ill-informed can carry a sense of shame, particularly if you pride yourself on being knowledgeable. But when we’re in uncharted territory, it is difficult even to know what to pay attention to. I think it takes a certain wisdom to say “I don’t know”. It’s also worth considering what it is that you might ‘know’. There are facts, interpretations of facts and predictions. Only the first of these can be really known (and even then it’s frequently disputed). Interpretations and predictions are subjective. Don’t get over attached to them (yours or other people’s).

Not knowing can also be anxiety-provoking. If you find yourself overwhelmed by the uncertainty of it all, it can help to bring yourself back to the here and now. Can you take control of what happens today – or just in the next hour? Mindfulness exercises can be useful here.

4. Broader perspectives help

We all see the world through the particular filter of our own experience. I could talk about the pandemic through the lens of individual behaviour – tolerance for working from home, perceptions of risk, willingness to conform with regulations, levels of anxiety, etc. This is perfectly valid, but a very long way from the whole picture. Now more than ever, I’m interested in what economists, business investors, sociologists, historians and political thinkers have to say.

I’m also trying to be interested in the perspective of people with whom I profoundly disagree. I may not like Katie Hopkins’ opinions but I can’t pretend that her worldview doesn’t exist. The wider your perspective, the less likely you are to get stuck in a narrow groove of thinking, which could cause you to miss trends, threats and opportunities.

5. Chart a path but stay nimble

While it’s good to have a broad perspective, at some point you have to make decisions, whether that’s in your own life – how will you know when it’s safe to get on a plane? – or your business. This is particularly relevant for leaders who need to steer an organisation into the unknown.

Work out what you need to know to make a reasonably informed decision. List out your known knowns and your known unknowns (If you’ve broadened your perspective you may face fewer of Donald Rumsfeld’s famous unknown unknowns). Can you work with less information than normal? How many of the blanks can you fill in? For example, you probably already know your current financial position, you may be able to find out quite quickly how your staff feel about returning to the office, but you may need to wait to find out about trends in particular markets or the intentions of key clients. Document your assumptions and make a note of when you’re going to review them. It’s too easy for assumptions to morph into accepted orthodoxy if you don’t revisit them.

6. This may be your catalyst for change

The discussion so far has all been about responding to an uncertain world. But a world in flux is also an opportunity to create or accelerate change. Wars, pandemics and other major crises have historically been catalysts for change. When people have seen that normal life can be disrupted overnight, then other changes become easier to imagine. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that the Black Lives Matter movement has gained particular momentum now. Society is changing, why not shape that change?

So whether it’s flexible working, equality of opportunity, social justice, environmentalism, ethical capitalism or whatever, if you have a change you want to see, seize your moment. Start talking about an alternative vision now, before people settle back into familiar grooves. Get ideas from others and seek unlikely allies. If you want inspiration on the latter, look at the improbable alliance between gay activists and the traditionally macho National Union of Mineworkers during the 1980s miners’ strike, which eventually led to union and Labour party backing for gay rights. (You could read about it but it’s far more fun to watch the incredibly uplifting film, Pride). Incidentally, if you flinch at either striking miners or gay activists, remember so did they. If you don’t flinch, substitute UKIP members for one of the parties and think again about your willingness to form unlikely alliances.

None of us really knows what is going to happen next. That’s a scary place to be, though at a profound level it is always true. I’m aiming to get through it by working out a broad direction of travel, keeping an open mind and seeking out other perspectives. I have thoughts and ideas about my bit of the picture, psychology and leadership. I’m always interested to talk to people who can give me a totally different perspective on the unfolding new reality. If that sounds like a conversation worth having, do get in touch:

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Looking after number one

My intention this month was to write about compassion. Boy and teddyLord knows we could all do with some of that right now. But then a post on LinkedIn caused me to rethink. It bemoaned the number of articles exhorting us to “Be Kind” when actually many people are at the end of their tether. Someone added in the comments “I can’t pour from an empty cup”.

I had planned to include a lot in this article about self-compassion but I’ve decided to make it the main focus. Now, depending on your personality and values, you may have a strong reaction to the idea of self-compassion. If you’re a tough-minded, JFDI person, you may be thinking…

Isn’t this all a bit self-indulgent?

No. Self-compassion is not the same as self-pity or self-indulgence. Being your own supportive friend is not the same as wallowing in your problems or sitting in your pyjamas watching Netflix and eating pizza. Research by the foremost psychologist in this area, Kristin Neff, suggests that self-compassion actually motivates people to take responsibility  If the language resonates more with you, you could see self-compassion as one element of resilience.

On the other hand, if you’re a caring, sharing type, you might be thinking…

Isn’t this all a bit selfish?

Again, no. Self-compassion actually reminds us of our shared humanity. You are a flawed human being who makes mistakes and doesn’t always live up to your potential – just like everyone else. It is easier to be compassionate towards others if you are also compassionate towards yourself. For example, research with psychotherapists found that those who were least compassionate to, and most critical of, themselves were the ones who were most hostile towards their clients.

What is self-compassion?

Kristin Neff identifies three elements of self-compassion:

Self-kindness vs. Self-judgement

Self-compassion entails being warm and understanding toward ourselves when we suffer, fail, or feel inadequate, rather than ignoring our pain or flagellating ourselves with self-criticism.

Common humanity vs. Isolation

Frustration at not having things exactly as we want is often accompanied by an irrational but pervasive sense of isolation – as if “I” were the only person suffering or making mistakes.  Self-compassion involves recognising that suffering and personal inadequacy are part of the shared human experience.

Mindfulness vs. Over-identification

Self-compassion requires taking a balanced approach to our negative emotions so that feelings are neither suppressed nor exaggerated.  It involves observing our negative thoughts and emotions with openness and clarity, without trying to suppress them or letting ourselves get swept away by them.

So with all that in mind, here are three tips for being compassionate to yourself in the current climate:

1. Accept that this is difficult

Everyone is affected by this, but clearly we’re not all affected equally. Some people are really suffering – ill, bereaved, facing financial ruin, trapped with an abuser*. So if your main problems are getting a supermarket delivery slot and coping with back-to-back Zoom calls, you might tell yourself you shouldn’t complain when others  have it so much harder.

But we have faced a collective psychological shock. Our normal way of life stopped almost overnight. We live with the constant background threat of an illness which could be so mild we don’t realise we have it or so severe it kills us. We need constant vigilance when outside in case anyone comes too close. We have been separated from all but our immediate households. The economic  impact will affect us for years. We have no idea when any of this will end. Living with this level of threat and uncertainty is draining.

These are the circumstances that push us to the extremes of our personalities. Those who rely on logic become more emotionally detached, while highly emotional people experience more mood swings. The cautious clash with the risk-takers. The sceptics get caught up in weird conspiracy theories. (Bill Gates is going to micro-chip everyone via vaccines. Wake up sheeple!)

A fellow psychologist contributed to this glorious article entitled “Why Is Everyone Being A Bit Of A D*** Right Now?“. It’s true. This crisis has brought out the best and the worst in us. Let yourself off the hook. You’re only human. Even world-renowned relationship therapist, Esther Perel, recently published an article about the joy of complaining. It’s a release valve. We cannot look on the bright side all the time.

*If you are really suffering, I am so sorry. I wish you well. Be gentle with yourself and I hope you get the support you need.

2. Lower your expectations

You may find that working from home makes you more productive. That’s great, but it’s not like that for everyone. Many people are stretched to their limits, particularly those trying to fit work around childcare and home schooling. All those video calls are exhausting, more tiring than a day in the office.  Don’t beat yourself up if you’re not as productive as usual. Does it really matter if your house is dusty?

If, like me, you have less work than normal, you may find it hard to keep motivating yourself without deadlines or structure. In theory this is my April blog post but it’s mid-May and I’m just finishing it. Some days my mojo is nowhere to be seen. I think this is normal. We’re living through a pandemic not attending a self-improvement retreat. I have no plans to emerge from this fluent in Mandarin. 

3. Give yourself permission to feel

There are many things you might be feeling right now:

  • Gnawing anxiety about your financial future
  • Resentment about all the things you can no longer do
  • Profound sadness about all the suffering in the world
  • Anger at no one in particular because so much is out of your control
  • Disappointment over missed weddings, parties, holidays
  • Fear that you or your loved ones might die
  • Guilt that actually you’re having quite a nice time right now

All of these are fine (though I don’t think you need to feel guilty about being content). Often it’s not our feelings that cause us a problem, it’s the thoughts and judgements we wrap around them:

  • “I shouldn’t feel like this”
  • “I hate feeling like this. How can I make it stop?”
  • “I should pull myself together”
  • “If I give in to feeling like this, I’ll just wallow in it”

It seems common sense to pull away from your negative feelings but actually, research suggests that this can be bad for you. You’re denying your own reality, which can’t be psychologically healthy. Feelings are like weather; they come and they go. You don’t necessarily have to do anything with them. Instead of distracting yourself, try just noticing and labelling them – “I feel really irritated at the moment”, “I am very frightened”. Simply naming emotions tames them, as it gives you some distance from the experience. (That first link is a 4 minute video, here’s a longer read if you prefer).

So if you’re feeling fine right now, that’s great. We could all benefit from finding moments of joy and things to be grateful for. But if you’re not, let go of the judgement and just let yourself be. And if you’re a business leader and you’d value some support, do get in touch:

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Tristan Duplichain



Covid-19 leadership resources

This is not an ordinary blog post, it’s a space to collect resources that may be useful to leaders in this time of crisis. The first resource is the free Primary Colours Covid-19 Leadership Survival Guide which I have devised in conjunction with Edgecumbe Consulting Group who own the model. Primary Colours ModelThe aim of the guide is to give leaders a framework to think about where they focus their energy and attention during this crisis. However, it does not contain any specific advice, so I have drawn together links to trusted sources from a wide range of different professional disciplines.

I will add to this as I find more. Please feel free to add anything particularly useful you have found in the comments. Obviously things in the comment section shouldn’t be taken as an endorsement. I’ve also added opportunities to take part in research or data gathering surveys about the pandemic.


The best statement of leadership intent I’ve seen, found on LinkedIn from a company called Elsevier:

a close up of text on a white background

Leadership advice from teamwork guru Patrick Lencioni, best summed up as “Be exceedingly human”

Advice for leaders on how to be human without over-sharing from Harvard Business Review. You can undermine your team’s confidence in you if you’re emotionally incontinent.

Leadership advice from the Association for Business Psychology. I particularly like the suggestion to see each employee as an individual.

8 leadership recommendations from fellow business psychologist and leadership author, Richard Boston

Remote working

Advice for parents trying to work with children, including a free webinar, a Facebook group and the option to join a support group from leadership coach Blaire Palmer. Blaire also works with organisations on how they support parents through this.

Remote working tips, including managing remote teams, successful online meetings and legal and contractual issues from the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development.

Advice on avoiding Zoom fatigue from Katy Lindsay at Aptimore


Free, downloadable team survey from Edgecumbe to gauge how your team is coping with remote working. Can be used with any survey platform.

Useful one-page team wellbeing check-in tool to use in team meetings from Sarah Taylor at ThriveWise.


Thoughtful, in depth guides to coping with the pandemic from psychologist, Mark Adams. In particular, the one on helping people cope contains some really helpful advice on what to say and what not to say to someone who is suffering.

Useful one-page Covid well-being check in to use for yourself or in a one-to-one with someone else (e.g. a staff member) produced by Sarah Taylor for Edinburgh City Council.

The headspace app for guided meditations (initially free then a subscription)

Short videos on techniques for managing your well being, including breathing techniques, gratitude and self-talk from business psychologist, Kate Oliver.

A positive psychology approach from Appreciative Inquiry guru, Sarah Lewis.

Broad ranging advice from mental health charity, Mind.

Tailored on-line staff well being sessions, including yoga and mindfulness, from WeWell Consulting

5 Desk Stretches to ease the pain in neck, shoulders and back from WeWell Consulting

Business advice

Handy one-page business corona virus checklist from The Alternative Board.

Advice for businesses in distress from the Institute for Turnaround (this is their specialist area as a professional body)

Business toolkit from FRP Advisory (a specialist turnaround firm)

Expert accountancy advice from PKF-Francis Clark (a highly regarded firm in the South West – and one of my best clients!)

Family business considerations from Paul Butler of PKF-Francis Clark

Corona virus related employment law updates from specialist employment law firm Mitchell Law

Business toolkit and support from Business West(for S West based businesses, though some of the advice would be applicable across the country)

British Chamber of Commerce advice and support for business.

Future focus

Preparing the workforce for post-covid future from HRZone

Step-by-step guide to marketing through tough times from Bluegreen Learning

Three strategies for business post-pandemic from MIT Sloan Management Review

Contribute to research/surveys

Help medical researchers track the spread of the virus by tracking your symptoms daily, even when you’re well.

If you are a business in the South West, let Business West know how the pandemic is affecting your business to help build the national picture (I can’t find an equivalent UK wide, sorry) .

Gap Square, who normally help organisations track the gender pay gap, are creating a shared management insight dashboard, so businesses can monitor trends.

Take part in some psychological research about the impact of personality on remote working for MSc student Shaun Biggs’s dissertation and get a free personality profile.

Finding focus in difficult times – a leadership challenge

If you’re a leader, how do you find focus at a time like this? It’s unlikely you’ve ever faced such a significant challenge. FuzzyYou may be in a front line organisation with staff in personal danger; you may be worried for the very survival of your business or you may be struggling to cope with unprecedented demand for your services.  Whatever the situation, this is not business as usual and it will be a test of your leadership.

A guiding framework

It is important at times like these to know where to focus your effort and attention. With that in mind, I have created a free guide for leaders, Primary Colours Modelbased on my go-to leadership model, the Primary Colours® leadership model, in collaboration with Edgecumbe Consulting Group who own the model.

The Primary Colours Covid-19 Leadership Survival Guide(downloadable here) is a comprehensive guide to help you step up to the mark, strike the right balance among the competing demands on your time and resources, and help your organisation not only survive, but thrive as the situation develops.

I’m starting to use it with my clients to help them find focus and target their effort appropriately. Some are overwhelmed with operational issues, like furloughing staff, managing cashflow and keeping core services running. Others are thinking through the best way to close down strategic projects so that they can be picked up quickly at a later date. A lucky few have the time and space to rethink their strategy. All are having to figure out how to take care of their people and themselves.

It’s not that there is an absolute right way to do any of these things – though clearly, from the high profile examples of business leaders being publicly vilified for the way they have treated staff or customers, there are definitely some wrong ways. You need to work out what’s right for you and your organisation.

Sources of advice

Because we cannot possibly know what is right for your organisation, the guide contains no specific advice. It simply highlights the questions you need to address. However, I recognise that if you’re pondering questions like ‘How can I connect with people on a human level rather than just about work?’ or ‘What can I do to maintain my mental focus?’ then it would be useful to have somewhere to turn. With that in mind, I’ve started to compile a list of links to support and advice from trusted sources covering everything from accountancy to meditation. That is contained in the blog post immediately following this one.

An unfolding situation

I sense that this crisis is coming at us in waves. We’ve had the initial shock and readjustment, followed by settling in to a new way of working. Along with that has come novelty, humour, frustration, the impossibility of working with toddlers and video conference fatigue.

A few client organisations, mainly in the South East, are hitting the next wave, which is coping when people go off sick. Here in the South West we don’t seem to be quite there yet, but it’s inevitable. Sadly, some organisations are likely to face another wave – the one where someone dies.  More optimistically, there may be a further wave of organisational (and, perhaps, societal) transformation as we come out of this. And along the way there will be wave after wave of emotions – yours and other people’s – optimism, boredom, frustration, anxiety, terror, grief, rage.

All of these require different leadership responses, which is why it’s important to keep reviewing what you’re doing. The Primary Colours® Covid-19 Leadership Survival Guide is designed to be used repeatedly, either on your own or as part of your leadership team meetings, to work out how to respond as the situation changes. If you have a coach, you could use it with them. However you do it, it is always worth putting the time aside to take stock.

If you would like further support, I’d be happy to have a chat:

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Why is teamwork so hard?

conflictHaving worked out what is and isn’t a team last month, this month I’m looking at why so many teams fail to work well together and what you can do to develop better team working.

The insecure leader

One of the first reasons teams fail is not recognising that they are – or should be – a team in the first place. This generally happens when a leader (in the loosest sense) manages relationships with their direct reports on a 1:1 basis. This may reflect personal preferences or a lack of understanding of how a team could function. But it’s often the hallmark of an insecure leader who doesn’t know how to harness the collective power of the group. They feel more in control if they keep everyone separate. Some leaders actively discourage dialogue and collaboration between staff for fear of what they might get up to without them.

The five dysfunctions

Even when a leader wants to create a good team, things get in the way. Patrick Lencioni, whose book The five dysfunctions of a team is one of my top recommended reads, has identified a pyramid of dysfunctional team characteristics:


Let’s pick those apart one by one.

1. Absence of trust

In a poorly functioning team, people don’t trust each other. They may not actively distrust each other, but they don’t feel comfortable enough to be vulnerable – to say something risky, admit a mistake or ask for help. In the absence of trust, people pretend they are invulnerable. In this context, good team work is almost impossible.

2. Fear of conflict

Notice that conflict itself is not a hallmark of a dysfunctional team, it’s fear of it that kills teamwork. People who don’t trust each other are unable to have robust debates about the things that matter. They shy away from difficult issues and maintain artificial harmony. As I’ve discussed here before, a well-functioning team is not necessarily harmonious. If you agree on everything, you either haven’t really thought through all the issues or you’re stuck in group think.

3. Lack of commitment

If conflict is avoided, issues don’t get properly aired. When team meetings are a predictably dull trudge through familiar agenda items, skirting around hot topics that might cause a flare up, nothing ever gets resolved. You end up with a vague, woolly consensus. Everyone can get behind it because they’re not really committing to anything tangible.

4. Avoidance of accountability

When there is no clear plan of action, team members have no way of holding each other to account. Someone may suspect that a colleague is not pulling his weight or that his work is not up to standard, but without an agreed plan, it’s not easy to say anything (except on the sly to someone at the coffee machine). Standards slip, mediocre performance is tolerated and the team leader is the only one holding anyone to account – and quite often, they don’t do it either.

5. Inattention to results

If the team hasn’t agreed what it was collectively trying to achieve and no one is  accountable for their performance on behalf of the team, people will naturally focus on their own objectives. Their career development, their department’s needs, their need for recognition will trump the needs of the team, not least because those needs aren’t clear. They may even compete with each other, rather than working towards common goals.

Turning it aroundTeamwork word

So how do you get around this, if you’re a leader trying to get your team working effectively? You have to start at the bottom of the pyramid and work on each layer in turn.

1. Build trust

Work on relationships first. When I work with teams, I always start here. Encourage your team to get to know each other as people. Role model the right behaviours. Reveal your own vulnerabilities, admit to mistakes, and don’t react badly if other people make themselves vulnerable by acknowledging mistakes or weaknesses. Apologise if you get things wrong, particularly in your handling of others. Be trustworthy.

2. Normalise conflict

Let people know you expect disagreement. Don’t overreact when people disagree with you; it’s not a sign of disrespect. Don’t close down discussions if they get heated. Remind people that this is a good sign of a team working well. Discourage personal attacks but keep exploring different perspectives until you have clarity. Make sure the quiet ones get their say too.

3. Commit to joint decisions

This absolutely not the same as compromise or consensus. It’s about hearing all sides and then agreeing on the right route for the organisation. Inevitably, some people (including, sometimes, the leader) will not get their way. Familiarise your team with this vital concept:

                               Disagree and commit

An example from outside work illustrates this best. Imagine a couple who cannot agree on whether or not to have a baby. There is no compromise, no half a baby, no part-time baby. The couple has to work through this. They either separate because they want incompatible things or one of them gets to the point of saying “I can live with this decision”. And then they have to get behind it 100% because the alternative would be terrible – one of them grudgingly agrees to have a child and then says “well this wasn’t MY idea” every time they face a difficult parenting issue. Or the other one agrees not to have a child and spends the next 20 years broodily, resentfully fondling baby booties and sighing.

Whichever way the decision goes you have to make your peace with it. The same applies at work. Even if you didn’t get your preferred outcome, you have to commit to that decision and get behind it as much as if it had been your idea.

4. Encourage people to hold each other to account

Be clear at the end of each meeting what you have agreed to do, what you have ruled out doing and who’s doing what, by when. Have clear agreed standards of both quality of work and acceptable behaviour. When the team knows what they’re aiming for and what good performance looks like, people are much more likely to do their bit and to pick others up on it if they don’t do theirs. It shouldn’t all get left to you as the team leader and the team should be willing to hold you to account too.

5. Keep a focus on collective results

If people are rewarded or praised for what they contribute to the overall results, then it will be easier for them to put aside their personal agendas for the greater good. Keep team results as the main focus of your meetings.

You can probably see how difficult it would be to try to start by focusing on results, without the preceding steps. It’s like trying to put the roof on before the foundations are in place. I’m not suggesting that any of this is easy. It takes a level of emotional maturity that I believe is a lifelong quest, particularly for leaders. But it is possible. If you’d like some support along the way, do get in touch:

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What is a team?

Does that sound like a daft question? TeamSurely everyone knows what a team is. But actually, it’s not as straightforward as you might think. For example, a group of people working for the same boss is not necessarily team, no matter how much the manager talks about “my team”. A team is a group of people working towards a shared objective. There is a high degree of inter-dependence and a need to make joint decisions. Team members are likely to have complementary skills.

So what?

OK interesting idea but why does it matter? Because it makes a difference to how you work together, how often you need to meet and what you do in those meetings. Let’s look at some different types of team/not team:

Supportive colleagues

One of the first jobs I had as a psychologist was outplacement coaching for people who had been made redundant. I was part of a ‘team’ of consultants, each working with our own clients, reporting to a managing consultant. We were not a team; we had no shared objectives and no inter-dependence. That didn’t mean we were completely isolated from each other. We supported each other with tricky situations and used each other as sounding boards. We had occasional meetings where we shared best practice, tips and techniques and any trends we’d noticed and got updates about what was happening in the business or the market.

What we didn’t do was review our individual performance or progress. That was done on a 1:1 basis with the managing consultant. It wouldn’t have been a good use of our time to discuss how many clients we’d seen, whether they’d got jobs and so on. And frankly it was none of anyone’s business if I was behind with my paperwork or Joe had had some poor feedback.

Competing chiefs 

On a bigger scale, the heads of business units, doing the same (or a very similar) thing in different geographic regions or different business sectors are also working in parallel, like the example above. Are they a team? It depends. In the worst case scenario, they actively compete. I once worked with a company where the guy who ran the business in Scotland would launch raiding parties across Hadrian’s wall, undercutting his colleague in the North of England to steal his clients. This is obviously the antithesis of teamwork. But even without this level of self-interested behaviour, business unit heads can (and may be encouraged to) compare their performance and attempt to out-do each other. ‘Team’ meetings in these circumstances seem almost pointless. What is there to discuss? People either hide or show off depending on how well they’re doing. While I can see some value in healthy competition, it doesn’t do much to generate the feeling that we’re all in it together.

Semi-autonomous leaders

There’s no reason why people working in parallel roles should become a team. I think people can work very effectively in a semi-autonomous way, provided they have an ongoing conversation about the limits of their autonomy. If you’re all doing similar things, when do you have to maintain a consistent line and when can you act autonomously? Can you pay your staff more if you’re in an area with a skills shortage? Can you use different technology? Do you offer customers different rates based on market conditions? What if the customer spans different regions?

There are no right answers to these questions but it saves a huge amount of hassle and resentment if you can get clarity around them. If you do make autonomous decisions be clear and transparent about the rationale for that, particularly if it’s likely to throw up issues of fairness. Team meetings in these circumstances are about identifying and responding to any kind of change – threats, opportunities, trends, diktats from on high. Can you do your own thing or act consistently? They’re also a useful place to share experience and learn from each other.

A joined up team

A group of business unit leaders could become a fully functioning team if they committed to a collective goal. When it’s everyone’s responsibility to attain the goal then there’s more incentive to help each other out, perhaps sharing resources when one area is struggling and identifying joint initiatives. Team meetings in these circumstances are proper discussion forums for reporting on progress, holding each other to account and collectively solving problems. But you need to ensure that everyone understands that you’re working that way. If some of you think you’re a joined up team and some think they’re working semi-autonomously – or, worse, actively competing with you – you’re not going to get very far.

The senior leadership team

The SLT is generally made up of the people who hold P&L responsibility plus the heads of the various support functions – HR, Finance, Marketing and so on. Clearly these people are inter-dependent – they can’t do their jobs without each other – and they have complementary skills. This should be the powerhouse that drives the organisation forward but often it isn’t. One reason for that is the lack of a shared goal. Another is a tendency to mistake themselves for semi-autonomous leaders, as though they are running independent entities and just need to compare notes once in a while. But the Finance dept, for example, is entirely pointless without the rest of the organisation.

Senior team meetings should be a place where progress against shared objectives is reviewed, future plans are agreed and problems are worked on collectively. Too often, though, these meetings either don’t happen at all or they consist of a series of tedious status updates where no one really knows why they’re being told this information. At worst, they’re a chance for the head of the organisation to tell someone off in front of their peers, who cringe wondering who’ll be next. This is often the legacy of a leader who has never created a team, instead managing people on a one-to-one basis, even when they’re all in the same room.

So team or not team – not as clear cut as it sounds and there is the added complexity that many people belong to more than one team. A Finance Director, for example, is likely to be part of the SLT and lead the finance team and could be part of a special project team as well. Next time, I’ll look at what makes a team work well together and what are the predictable things that make teams fail. In the meantime, if you’d like some help working out whether the group of people you work with is a team or should be a team or not, let me know:

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Creative Sustainability

7 tips for making change that lasts

Resolution 2Last month, you may recall, I wrote about how to feel better about yourself if you hadn’t achieved all you wanted to as we approached the end of the year. This month, as we contemplate a new decade and you might want to do things differently, I’m looking at what psychology tells us about making changes that stick.

1. Focus on actions not outcomes

Many people set very high level resolutions for change – get fitter, be happier, have a better work/life balance – which fall by the wayside because they  have no tangible actions attached to them. I see this as akin to a business having a high level strategic objective – double revenue, develop an export market – but not putting anything in place to achieve it. They’re not likely to succeed and the research suggests the same is true for individuals. If you set a specific intention, “I’m going to do this on that day” and can picture yourself doing it, you are more likely to make progress.

2. Think in terms of habit formation

Much of the time when we’re trying to make personal change, we’re either creating new habits or breaking old ones. I’ve been very taken recently with Atomic Habits by James Clear, which has many good tips for creating new habits. One of his recommendations is to start so small that you can’t fail. If you want to get fit, for example, start with one press up a day and build from there. Get 1% better every day. So try 90 seconds of mindfulness or going home two minutes early when working late.

3. Limit your decision making

Some estimates suggest that we make around 35,000 decisions a day. Which socks? Toast or muesli? Shall I reply to that email right away? It’s exhausting just thinking about it. Many of the decisions we make are about what we should do next – open that email or make a coffee; get back to report writing or have look at Twitter? Our intentions for change get snagged in these shall I/shan’t I moments.

If at all possible, decide once. Make it a rule. This works best for changes that just require a shift in mindset and where you’re not likely to succumb to temptation. For example, a year ago I decided to stop buying new clothes for ecological reasons. I already own loads of clothes and I love scouting out second-hand and vintage gems. It’s been liberating. When I pass a shop with something eye-catching in the window, I no longer have to decide whether to go in. I keep walking (unless it’s a vintage shop and then I go nuts).

In a work context, you could create a rule that says “I always delegate this type of work to my team” or “No matter how much work, I go home by 6pm/keep my Sundays free”.

4. Create defaults

It’s not always possible to create hard and fast rules, so defaults can help. An example of where this is and isn’t working in my own life illustrates this. I say that “I try to run two or three times a week”. The word “try” lets me off the hook and “two or three times” is vague, so it’s not surprising then that I generally don’t run as often as I intend to. I almost always run on Sundays with my husband as we’ve made that a default. Something significant would have to happen to get in the way. But the rest of the week is up for grabs because my work schedule is unpredictable. I can see, however, that if I were to say “I run on Tuesdays and Fridays” then that could become a default and if work got in the way, I’d be looking to reschedule my ‘Tuesday run’. I’m going to give that a go.

In a work context, a default diary can help keep things on the radar that might otherwise slip; making Wednesday your networking and business development day, for example.

5. Don’t rely on willpower 

It’s tempting to think that your success depends on willpower and you need to just grit your teeth and get on with it. Obviously, it helps if you can keep yourself motivated but should you rely on it? The research is a bit mixed here. There’s a whole area of research on ‘ego depletion’ which sees willpower as a limited resource. If you’ve used it all up resisting chocolate, for example, you’ll find it harder to knuckle down and finish that report. More recent research has suggest that this may not be true. In fact, it may be that if you believe willpower is a limited resource, you’re more likely to run out of it.

But regardless of whether it’s limited or not, everyone’s willpower waxes and wanes. Trying to force yourself to do something is a surefire way of making it harder. It also gives you a reason to beat yourself up if you fail, which, as I discussed last month, isn’t helpful. Instead try the next suggestion…

6. Create a path of least resistance

As humans, we tend to run along default lines and follow the path of least resistance. Designing your world so that the path of least resistance leads you in the right direction means you’re less reliant on willpower. For example, if you arrange to meet a friend at the gym, you’re more likely to go so you don’t let them down. If your smartphone is out of reach, you’ll waste less time mindless scrolling through social media. Work out what you need to do and then how you can make it as easy as possible to do it. For example, if you struggle to fit in 1:1s with your team, schedule them in so you have to fit other work round them, not the other way around.

7. Have a plan for failure and temptation

It is inevitable that you will fail from time to time when trying to make changes, especially in deeply ingrained behaviour. Have a plan for what you’ll do in those circumstances. Two things to not do are a) be really really hard on yourself and b) give up altogether (“Now I’ve eaten that doughnut, what’s the point? I’ll never stick to this”).  Be kind to yourself, accept that you’re only human and work out what will make it easier to stick at it next time.

One way to do this is to work out what triggers the behaviour and have a plan to mitigate it. If you know, for example, that you’re likely to want to smoke after a stressful meeting, plan something else you’ll do to calm down after the meeting. The trigger may not be what you expect it to be. I am incredibly easily distracted and can lose huge chunks of time on line. I assumed it was triggered by boredom until I noticed that I’d spent a dull afternoon inputting expenses and sorting out my VAT return without once being lured away. When I observed myself more closely I realised that I get lured into the world wide wonderland not by boredom but by the slightest mental block. As soon as I’m momentarily stuck while writing, I seek distraction. I don’t think this is ever going to change so my workaround is to write everything of substance – reports, proposals, this article – on paper and then type it up. It seems like a waste of time but I know it prevents me from wasting even more time.

So there you go, it is possible to change and you may not need to grit your teeth to do it. If you’d like some support with changes you’re making at work, I’d be happy to have a chat:

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And so this is Christmas – and what have you done?

Another year over, a new one just begun.Santa dog I’ve been living with this song for weeks as the choir I sing with rehearses for Christmas. I don’t know about you but the line ‘another year over’ tends to leave me with a slight feeling of existential dread. It’s worse this year, as another decade is over and what have I done?

There are so many aspects of our lives to keep track of:

Career/business – did you meet your targets? Are you doing interesting work? Did you get promoted? Are you fulfilling your potential? Does your work have purpose?

Financial – did you earn enough? Save enough? Have you sorted out that pension yet?

Family/domestic – did you spend enough time with the people who matter most to you? Did you put things right when relationships went off track? Did you take your share of domestic responsibilities? Are those domestic projects (new kitchen, house move, big holiday) on track?

Health and well-being – did you do enough exercise? How’s your alcohol intake/step count/blood pressure? Are you eating healthily? Are you getting enough sleep? How’s that mindfulness practice going?

Pleasure – did you have enough fun? See people who make you happy? Spend enough time watching or playing sport, going to the theatre/concerts/circus/opera, reading books, listening to music or whatever else floats your boat? Have you got to the end of that Netflix series yet?

Community/activism – did you do enough for the causes that matter to you? Were you involved with your local community? How have you changed your lifestyle to help avert a climate catastrophe?

Personal development – Are you learning something new – a foreign language, musical instrument, dancing, cooking? Are you trying to manage some aspect of your life better – be tidier, control your temper, waste less time on social media? How’s it going?

I’m sure we all have times when we’re dissatisfied with some aspects of our lives and for some people or at some times, it can be more intense. So if you find that fleeting doubts about how well you’re doing creep in whilst you’re peeling sprouts, here are four tips to ward off existential angst.

1. Be kind to yourself

This is particularly important if you’ve had a bad year because of the stuff life throws at us from time to time – bereavement, illness, relationship breakdown, redundancy and so on. I hope next year is better for you.

But if simply looking at that list makes you feel overwhelmed or self-critical, be kind to yourself. (If you feel seriously depressed by it, talk to someone, get help). Sometimes people think that they’ll only achieve their goals if they keep up the pressure on themselves. If you have compassion for yourself, won’t you lose motivation and sit around eating ice-cream in your pyjamas in front of the TV? Actually, research by the foremost psychologist working in this area suggests the opposite. You wouldn’t encourage someone else to succeed by telling them they’re lazy, stupid and hopeless (if you do use this strategy, desist immediately; it doesn’t work). Why would you use it on yourself?

2. Be realistic

I’m not suggesting that you give up your ambitions or that you shouldn’t aim high. But honestly, you can’t have it all. No one can. One Silicon Valley author suggests picking three from this list and letting the other two fall by the way side: work, sleep, family, fitness, or friends. Let’s be honest, what she means is pick work and two of the others. She’s Randi Zuckerberg, who had a senior role in her brother Mark’s company – Facebook. She knows a thing or two about over-achieving at work. Most of us are not in that league and would probably like a bit more balance in our lives. Notice that hobbies, community, activism and personal development don’t even make her list of things to rule out. But the general principle still applies: you can’t fit everything in, so pick the things that matter most to you.

I’ve talked here before about the idea of 168 hours as your time budget for the week. That’s the limit of what you can spend. The trouble is that many of us think we have an unlimited overdraft. Surely there’ll be a bit more time from somewhere? Except there isn’t, which is why we can’t do everything.

3. Don’t compare yourself to others

It’s human nature to compare yourself to others. When you’re not feeling great about what you’ve achieved, it’s very easy to look around and assume that everyone else is doing better than you. Actually there is a huge amount of confirmation bias involved in this. It’s unlikely that you’ll compare yourself with someone struggling to make it to Christmas on Universal Credit. No, you’ll look at social media posts of colleagues who’ve been promoted, friends whose lives seem to be non-stop cocktail parties or (for the more spiritually inclined) people who are just back from a meditation retreat in Nepal, and conclude that they’re doing life better than you.

Probably the single most useful thing you can do for your mental well-being is to stop comparing an insider’s view of your own life, in all its messy complexity, with an outsider’s view of someone else’s seemingly perfect life. If you do find yourself in the grip of envy, particularly at work, this article from my series on managing emotion in the workplace might help.

4. Celebrate the positives

If you’ve had a great year, celebrate. It saddens me when some of my clients brush aside their successes. “Sure I got that project in on time but I was just doing what was expected of me. It’s nothing to shout about”. Often these people combine a strong work ethic with a high level of modesty. These can be great attributes but if a reluctance to blow your own trumpet means you can’t even allow yourself to feel a warm glow of pride privately, you’re doing yourself no favours.

If you haven’t had such a great year, look for the things you can be proud of or grateful for. We’re hardwired to notice negative events because they’re threats. It takes conscious effort to to pay attention to the positives, but it’s worth it. It makes us happier. I recently heard a neuroscientist suggest that consciously focusing on something positive for 15 seconds, six times a day, can help you shift to a more positive mindset. If you think you can bear 90 seconds of happiness a day, give it a go.

So there you go, four ways of warding off end of year/decade existential angst. That doesn’t mean that you might not want to make changes next year, but you’re more likely to succeed if you start off feeling OK about yourself.

Next month, I’ll look at how to have more chance of making those changes stick. In the meantime, have a lovely Christmas and be sure to grab that opportunity to eat ice-cream in your pyjamas in front of the TV. Surely it’s what Boxing Day is for.

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The one thing that enhances your chances of career success

What makes some people more successful in their careers, particularly leadership careers, than others?
Business woman holding table
It’s tempting to answer that by considering the attributes of successful people. Generally, they are smart enough to handle the complexity inherent in a senior role and to make decisions whose ramifications may not be fully understood for five or ten years. They have good interpersonal skills. They have the resilience to deal with pressure and setbacks and to cope with having their judgement subject to constant scrutiny. They have the drive, energy, ambition and determination to get to the top.

But there’s another way of looking at the question. Rather than focusing on what characteristics you might need, consider what you can actually do to increase your chances of success.

The basics

There are lots of things you can do to progress your career. Start by getting really good at your job and promoting yourself (though not too much) so that others notice. You then have to develop a completely different set of skills to manage other people who do the job you spent all that time getting good at. These skills won’t just appear by accident, you’ll have to work at them. Broaden your horizons beyond your functional area and plug any knowledge gaps. Cultivate a broad network, develop political acumen and hone your influencing skills.

All of these are important. But as a psychologist, I’d say that there’s something else you can do to advance your career which is often overlooked.

How well do you know yourself?

Developing a realistic picture of yourself is one of the most important things you can do as you progress in your career. Man in mirrorRecognise and celebrate what you’re good at but acknowledge that no one is good at everything. Find out what your particular limitations are and figure out how you can work around them. Incidentally, if you’re thinking “no really I am good everything” then I’d suggest that your particular weak spot is over-confidence which has a number of associate risks, not least the way you are perceived by others.

Good leaders are often not well-rounded people. They may be spectacularly good at some aspects of leadership and barely average at others. Good leadership teams, on the other hand, cover all the bases. The trick is to find people who complement you, who excel at doing the bits you can’t – or can’t be bothered – to do well. But if you don’t acknowledge your limitations, how will you know who those people are? And if you get to the top with blind spots about your capability, who’s going to be brave enough to tell you?

I’ve seen plenty of senior people whose management style suits their own personal idiosyncrasies and who believe that their way is the right way. They then surround themselves with people who are just like them, creating collective blind spots and unbalanced teams. The nearer you get to the top, the more important it is that you know yourself well. There is even evidence that the level of self-awareness of an organisation’s leaders affects its financial performance.

How do you get a balanced view?

So how do you get a balanced view of yourself? Well you can start by taking a long hard look at your performance and appraising it as you would someone else’s. Are there areas where you’re letting yourself off the hook when you’d expect more from someone else?

It’s always useful to get feedback from others. The people most qualified to comment on your leadership style are the people you lead. Paradoxically, the leaders who most need feedback are the ones least likely to get it. No one wants to confront a tyrant. Get used to seeking feedback and dealing with it maturely early in your career and you’re less likely to become that tyrant.

Another way, of course, is to get an objective outside view. Using a range of state-of-the-art assessment methods, a business psychologist can not only help you identify your relative strengths and weaknesses but can show you how you compare to leaders across a range of industries and, indeed, across the world. If you’d like an independent perspective on your – or your team’s – leadership capabilities, I’d be more than happy to talk to you:

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A leadership coaching journey – part 3

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

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

The Operational Bit

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

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

Back to the people bit

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

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

The strategic bit – where next?

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

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

What could I offer in the strategic domain?

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

Where did we end up?

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

The journey continues…

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

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

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

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