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Back to work with a bang

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

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

1. What do I want to change?

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

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

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

2. What’s at stake?

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

3. Does it involve other people?

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

4. How do I give this priority? 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Back to school: zcool

Priorities: Peter Reed


Passing the baton – a succession-planning guide

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

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



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

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

Maximising business value

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

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

Selecting and developing successors

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

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

Legal, technical and business framework

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

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

Exit options

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

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

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

If you’d like to talk about the process side of succession planning, contact Peter:
I’d be very happy to talk to you about the people side of things:

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 Chris Griffith




Six pitfalls of family business leadership

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

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

1. Bottom-up leadership

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

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

2. Lopsided leadership

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

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

3. All aboard leadership teams

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

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

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

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

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

5. Vaguely agreeing 

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

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

6. The Super Leader

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

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

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Dragos Daniel Iliescu

Edgecumbe Consulting 

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


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

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

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

Does it matter?

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

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

1. Too much harmony

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

2. Vagueness

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

3. Keeping control of the meeting

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

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

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

4. Pretending we don’t have feelings

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

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

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

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

5. Tiptoeing around the fragile one

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

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

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

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Angry woman: kalavinka

Upset woman: Andrew Teman

Can I trust you? Well it depends…..

Trust you to do what exactly?

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

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

1. Intention – Will you do me any harm?

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

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

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

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

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

4. Competence – Will you do it properly?

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

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

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

In the eye of the beholder 

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

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

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

Self-fulfilling prophecy

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

What does this mean for teams?

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

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

If your team is grappling with issues of trust and you’d like a chat, do get in touch:

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What he needs is a damn good listening to….

How good a listener are you? listeningI was reminded of the importance of good listening recently while attending a talk by a coach who brings real focus and attention to her coaching. Her clients really do get a damn good listening to. I like to think that mine do too, but it made me reflect on the times when perhaps I don’t listen as well as I could. I think most of us could benefit from improving our listening skills, so with that in mind, here are seven scenarios to watch out for, when you really might not listen as well as you think you do.

1. When you already know what they’re going to say

Your partner is about to off on a familiar rant about their useless boss or your colleague is banging on about the IT system again and you’ve already tuned out. Perhaps it doesn’t matter, though it might if they realise. But maybe there’s something else going on. Maybe having a rant is their way of saying “I’m really stressed out”. In any case, zoning out and surreptitiously checking your phone does not make for a meaningful conversation.

2. When they’re in the wrong

A coaching client of mine, Sally, was trying to work out how to handle a member of her senior team, Dave, who was not behaving well in meetings. If things weren’t going his way, Dave had a tendency to sulk, rolling his eyes and huffing but not speaking up. The team was under pressure, Dave’s behaviour was getting worse and Sally was losing patience. She was tempted to read him the riot act, but instead she asked how things were going for him and really listened to what he had to say. Yes, Dave was still in the wrong, but there was more space for a proper, grown-up conversation about his behaviour and the impact it was having on the rest of the team.

3. When you’re waiting for your turn

Imagine you’re at a networking event and some woman is going on about how business psychology could stop you or your clients making a catastrophic hiring error*. Christmas party BobAre you listening or are you looking for a gap to start talking about your IT services/ insurance products/ tax consultancy or whatever? And as the speaker, are you listening to the responses you get back to gauge whether people are interested or are you just in broadcast mode? If your part of the conversation could be replaced by a pre-recording which is switched on and off at the appropriate moments (and some people’s really could be), you’re not listening properly.

*Apologies if you feel you have been on the receiving end of such a broadcast.

4. When you know the answer

Suppose someone comes to you with a problem and really quickly you can see exactly what they should do. You’re a helpful person, you want to give them the answer. Even if you manage to resist cutting in and telling them there and then, you probably stop listening once you’ve worked it out. There are a number of problems with this. They may not want a solution, just a sounding board or a bit of moral support while they figure it out for themselves. executivesIf you do this as a manager, you’ve just deprived someone of a learning opportunity. And, of course, your solution may not be appropriate for them. It may not even be right. The earlier in the conversation you stop listening, the more likely it is that you’ll jump to conclusions or miss nuances in the situation which make your idea less relevant.

5. When you want to prove yourself

As a coach, I can generally avoid giving someone the answer, but there’s another trap that I know I’m prone to falling into – the ‘let me prove my worth’ trap. Sometimes it doesn’t feel enough to just listen and ask a few prompting questions. Surely my role is to show just how well I’ve understood what’s going on, cleverly interpret it with the help of some psychological theory and present it back to you wrapped up with a big bow, so now you understand it better too. That’s what you’re getting for the fee, right? It’s not that there isn’t a place for this but it can get in the way of just listening. And if you start forming your interpretation too early, there’s a risk of screening out anything that doesn’t fit.

6. When you don’t like the message

If you realise early on in a conversation that you are on different sides of an argument or someone is trying to tell you something, perhaps about your performance, that you really don’t want to hear, the tendency is to stop listening and prepare your rebuttal.Man talking intensely If you do listen, you may listen for the weak points in their argument, the flimsy evidence, the points where they contradict themselves, anything to bolster your case. If you’re a barrister in the middle of a trial, fair enough, that’s your job. If not, and you find yourself listening like Rumpole of the Bailey, it may be worth asking yourself why it’s so important to win this argument. What are you trying to prove? Are you interested in what the other person has to say? What do you want to achieve? Is this the best way of going about it?

7. When you don’t like the messenger

Sadly there are some people we rarely listen to at all. Think of the stereotypical reader of your least favourite newspaper and consider how likely you are to take note of their views on anything. I recently heard a fascinating interview with Bob Inglis, a Bible-belt conservative US politician, who changed his mind about climate change and lost his seat as a result. He acknowledged that all he knew about it previously was that it was Al Gore’s issue, a liberal cause, so naturally, reflexively, he was on the other side. His son convinced him to look at the science and he has since become a leading campaigner on the issue. But he’s still a traditional conservative, taking this message to other conservatives. They’re more likely to listen to him than to a bunch of tree-huggers, because he speaks their language. It almost certainly works the other way round, too. There will be things which liberal-minded people don’t hear because they are written in Daily Express-speak.

Listening to really understand someone else’s perspective is rarer than we realise and is something most of us would benefit from cultivating. I can’t claim to be the perfect listener, though I constantly challenge myself to do better, but if you fancy a chat about any of this, I’ll be all ears:

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Photo credits

Listening:  tv27

Networking : Rob Campbell

Explaining – Innovate 360

Arguing – Baltic Development Forum


Never discuss religion or politics

“Never discuss religion or politics”. This sage advice has been around for at least a century. But in these days of Brexit and Trump, politics seems harder and harder to avoid and religion has got wrapped up in it in a way it hasn’t been – or at least not in the UK – for decades. So what happens when people’s strongly held views on these subjects spill over into work? This month, I’ve teamed up with employment law barrister, Joanne Sefton of Menzies Law, to look at both the psychological and the legal aspects of politics and religion at work.

1. What is acceptable debate?

What the psychology says….

Imagine that you and a colleague disagree about whether to take a high risk business opportunity. There is goodwill between you and you both know that you have the best interests of the organisation at heart. Even if you don’t always manage it, you’ll probably try to have an open and good-natured discussion, aiming to understand each other’s perspective.Scolding

Now imagine you disagree about Brexit or immigration or any issue on which you hold strong views which reflect your values. The chances of you having a discussion like the one above are slim. We discuss difficult issues; we debate difficult politics. Even when things stay civilised, people generally aim to prove they’re right and the other side is wrong. What the psychology tells is us that the worst possible way to get someone to change their perspective is to tell them how wrong they are.

You may not even be trying to change each other’s minds. It’s not as though you have a joint decision to make. Maybe you just see it as banter, like you might have over rival football teams. But when you insult each other’s teams, you’re actually reinforcing your shared love of the game. When you banter about politics, you emphasise your differences. Once you start calling each other “liberal elite snowflakes” and “racist little Englanders”, you erode your working relationship.

What the law says…..

In legal terms, it’s important to make a distinction between debate which somehow involves ‘protected characteristics’ and that which doesn’t. Whilst rancour over a range of things from support for rival football teams to poor personal hygiene can cause real problems in a workplace, they rarely lend themselves to legal claims. The ‘protected characteristics’ recognised in law are age, disability, gender reassignment, marriage and civil partnership, pregnancy and maternity, sex, sexual orientation and – crucially in this context – religion and belief.

But what sort of ‘religion or belief’ will be protected? More esoteric examples include Wiccan witchcraft, climate change, veganism, the ‘higher purpose’ of public service broadcasting and belief in the sanctity of animal life (in the context of strong opposition to fox-hunting). All of these have either been judged to come within the scope of the regulations or used as examples in official guidance documents.

Of course, the fact that a discussion touches on a protected characteristic does not mean it is automatically discriminatory or unlawful. The fine line between a genuine exchange of views and the sort of critical interrogation which might amount to harassment is hard to draw in the abstract. That said, most of us would probably recognise it when we see it, and Employment Tribunal panels are actually pretty good at policing it.

2. What if you split into two sides?

Whether it’s a political issue like Brexit or a more tangible difference, such racial or religious divisions, it can feel very uncomfortable if your workplace starts to split into factions.

What the psychology says….

It’s not the fact that there’s difference that matters. Diversity of opinion and experience is generally good for organisations. Felix Spender, a soldier turned professional peacekeeper, has a 7-stage model of conflict, conflict-matrix_20170225which suggests that a little bit of conflict can be useful for stimulating ideas, competition and creativity. One key way to stop things escalating from constructive conflict to a cold war and beyond is to stop over-identifying with your side.

The stronger the loyalty to your in-group, the more alien the other lot become. And yet, inevitably, you will have things in common – a shared love of chess, rugby or Strictly Come Dancing; even a shared frustration with the IT system is start. You have to work with these people regardless. You can either see them as one-dimensional – “I can’t have anything in common with him; he reads the Daily Mail/Guardian/Sun” (delete according to prejudice) – or you can look for something, anything, which establishes a human connection.

What the law says…..

Employers have a broad right to impose disciplinary rules in their workplace and to expect instructions to be followed. Therefore, employers may choose to limit discussion more than the general law does, particularly in the run up to a tense event, such as the 2014 Scottish independence referendum or the Brexit referendum last June. Provided those rules don’t infringe general legal principles (for example, it would be discriminatory to try to silence only one side of the debate) employers are entitled to take disciplinary action against those who breach them. Of course, the more wide-ranging the proposed ‘ban’ is, the harder it is to actually enforce.

3. What if there’s just one person on the other side?

If you’re the only UKIP-voter in an office full of right-on hipsters or vice versa, you probably either have a lot of arguments or keep very quiet.

What the psychology says….

You may have a strong desire to stand up for what you believe in, particularly if it’s based on your religious beliefs or if you’re a liberal. ostracisedLiberals often feel that saying nothing in the face of sexist, racist or homophobic remarks makes them complicit. As a bleeding heart liberal, I completely get this. But, big but, I guarantee that the main outcome from a response such as “I find that offensive. It’s sexist/ racist/homophobic” will be to reinforce the difference – and the distance – between you. That may be exactly what you want, but you still have to work with these people. And if you want to change attitudes, it’s more likely to happen if people can identify with you. Turn yourself into an ‘out group’ and they’ll become more entrenched in their own in group. Eventually you may be ostracised and the psychology tells us that ostracism is even more damaging to people than bullying.

What the law says…..

‘Odd one out’ cases are perhaps even more likely to give rise to claims of bullying and harassment than ‘faction’ cases. In this blog from 2015 I drew a comparison between a woman who brought a case in 1975 after she was dismissed for sharing her views on the ‘permissive society’ with her more strait-laced colleagues and a current case involving Christian nursery worker dismissed (unfairly) for sharing her views on the sinfulness of homosexuality. In the first case, it was the ‘loose morals’ of the young employee which set her apart from her colleagues, forty years later it was the old-fashioned conservatism which was out of kilter with the prevailing mood in the workplace, but in each case the ‘odd one out’ paid with her job for having made her controversial views known.

It is rare, however, for conflicts to become disruptive enough for an employer to feel they have no choice but to dismiss. More commonly, the ‘odd one out’ becomes a victim of bullying (or perceived bullying). Although ‘bullying’ itself is not a term with legal meaning, the danger for an employer is that an employee who is singled out may have a discrimination claim for which the employer will most likely be liable. In addition, if the employee leaves as a result of bullying treatment then they could have a potentially valuable constructive unfair dismissal claim, even if the central issue is something which does not amount to a protected belief.

4. What if you all agree?

Suppose that everyone in your hipster design agency voted Remain and hates Trump. There’s no problem then about discussing the latest Trump-outrage or UKIP gaffe round the water cooler, surely?

What the psychology says….

Whilst it’s very bonding for a group to keep reinforcing their shared values, it can lead to group-thinkremainers. As Felix’s model suggests, without any kind of difference, it’s easy for complacency to set in. If you exist in a bubble, it can be difficult to consider alternative perspectives or even to recognise that they exist. Pre-referendum, a lot of online commentary from leavers suggested that opinion polls must be skewed because every single person they had spoken to was voting out. On the other side, I notice that the kind of liberals who live by the mantra ‘Never judge a man until you’ve walked a mile in his shoes’ seem reluctant to try on the sensible footwear of a Daily Express-reader. If you all think the same way and listen to no other perspectives, how can you be sure that you understand the views and needs of your customers, suppliers or service users?

What the law says…..

Whilst there is nothing against the law about everyone getting on, the problems that Caroline mentions can, when taken to extremes, lead to legal issues. Organisations which are perceived to be ‘closed’ – whether in terms of race, religion or social outlook can sometimes be targeted by applicants seeking a platform to make a claim, either for monetary gain, or to pursue their own agenda.

The other problem with a monolithic group culture is that it can lead to increasingly extreme comments being tolerated (inevitably in the name of ‘banter’). When looked at in the cold light of an Employment Tribunal that round-robin email saying describing all Trump voters in vitriolic and ‘colourful’ terms could become a serious embarrassment.

If you’ve found the employment law aspect of this blog interesting, you can find more of Joanne’s blogs here and be able to register to receive them.

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

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Photo credits

Scolding: Doug Tammany

Ostracised: Astrid Westvang 

Remainers: mazz_5