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A leadership coaching journey – part 1

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

The client

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

Why coaching?

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

Why me as a coach?

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

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

The starting point

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

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

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

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

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

The journey

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

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

Reviewing relationships

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

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

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

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

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

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Should work be fun?

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

What do we mean by ‘fun’?

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

Hush hush, whisper who dares

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

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

The fun-enforcers

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

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

Intrinsic fun

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

It’s all fun and games until…

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

1. Lack of diversity

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

2. Artificial harmony

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

3. Avoiding the dull stuff

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

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

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Myth #6: EQ is more important than IQ

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

What is emotional intelligence?

Emotional intelligence is the ability to:

a) recognise and appropriately handle your own emotions and

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

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

The measurement problem

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

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

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

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

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

How much emotion do you have to deal with?

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

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

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

What about intelligence?

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

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

It’s not either/or

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

So where does that leave the debate?

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

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

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

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Myth #5 – Perfectionism is an allowable weakness

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

Interviewer: “What are your weaknesses?”

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

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

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

What drives perfectionism?

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

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

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

Why is it a problem?

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

The impact on others

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

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

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

The gender gap?

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

Men: “I don’t suffer fools gladly”

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

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

Women: “That’s not really me”

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

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

The importance of kindness

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

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Myth #4 – Female leaders are more nurturing

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

What do we mean by ‘nurturing’?

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

So are women nicer than men?

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

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

Nature or nurture?

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

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

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

Are female leaders more nurturing? 

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

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

Is being a nurturing leader seen as a positive?

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

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

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

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

More nurturing than what?

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

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

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Myth #3 – Experienced professionals don’t need managing

This is the third in my series on workplace myths – those pervasive beliefs that contain a grain of truth but may not be as applicable as you think. Professional.jpgSome of you may be wondering why I’m considering this one as a myth at all. If you’ve suffered the horrors of a control freak micro-manager, you may long to be left alone to get on with the job. But for how long? When does that absence of management become a problem?

Research from a recent conference suggests that, eventually, Absent Leadership really gets people down. Absent leadership is where someone occupies a leadership role but doesn’t carry out the responsibilities. Incidentally, I’m now going to use the terms leader and manager interchangeably, which I suspect will infuriate some people. If it’s bothering you, substitute the word ‘boss’.

So what’s the problem with an absent leader?

Impact on the individual

In a survey asking what makes a leader ineffective, people complained about lack of praise, lack of constructive feedback, managers not making time for them, not getting to know them as people. Only one of the complaints was actively bad – taking credit for their work. All the others were about an absence of management activity. Sure there’s a balance to be struck between interference and autonomy. If you’re in doubt about how to strike that balance, have a look at this article on the dimensions of delegation. But management neglect is not going to be the answer.

Impact on the team/department

Management/leadership is not just about overseeing the work of individual staff members. It’s also about creating something greater than the sum of the parts. When a leader is absent, there’s a lack of co-ordination, important decisions get delayed, people don’t understand what direction they’re going in. It leaves a vacuum where political game playing thrives and conflict increases.

Impact on job satisfaction

A fascinating piece of research looked at the impact on people’s job satisfaction of different types of leadership. If you start working for a great boss, it has an immediate positive impact on your job satisfaction but after six months you take it for granted. Your job satisfaction after that is unrelated to your boss.

Start working for a tyrant and, unsurprisingly, it has an immediate negative impact on your job satisfaction, which is still there six months later. After two years, however, you get used to it (or leave). If you start working for an absent leader, on the other hand, it has no impact at all on your job satisfaction at first. After six months it starts to get to you and two years later it’s still having a negative effect. So this form of leadership is not benign neglect – it’s really harmful.

Why do people become absent leaders? 

There may be personality characteristics that predispose people to absent leadership. People who are strongly introverted and highly cautious, for example, may avoid difficult decisions and neglect the relationship building aspects of leadership. But often these are not the people who make it to leadership positions.

The most common type of absent leader I encounter is the individual contributor – the salesperson, lawyer, academic, engineer, accountant who’s promoted because of their specialist skills but doesn’t really want leadership responsibility. Their own work is more interesting, so that’s where they put most of their energy and attention. As I mentioned in the article on technical specialists as leaders, it’s really important to check that people going for leadership positions understand what’s required and actually want to do it.

There’s a lot of it about

Research seems to suggest that absent leadership is the most prevalent form of dysfunctional leadership. One of the reasons for this is that absent leaders cause no problems upwards. Organisations are more likely to deal with actively dysfunctional leaders as the problems are more visible and more likely to land them in an industrial tribunal. Absent leaders, on the other hand, may cause misery for years but be quietly ignored. In some cases, they may be highly valued by the organisation as individual contributors, e.g. some partners in professional services firms who bring in huge fees and add prestige to the firm, while neglecting those they are supposed to manage.

It’s really important for organisations to be clear about what they expect from their senior people and promote staff who have both the aptitude and the appetite to take on those responsibilities. If you’d like to talk through the implications of that for your organisation, I’m happy to have a chat: caroline@carolinegourlay.co.uk

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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: caroline@carolinegourlay.co.uk

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Irena Safarova