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Can you be a nice leader?

A little while ago, someone sent me an article from the Havard Business Review about the dangers of hiring a nice CEO. Blog photo interviewI found I had quite a strong reaction just to the title. I know a number of nice, decent, successful CEOs, MDs and other leaders in senior positions and was primed to leap to their defence. Were they suggesting hiring a nasty CEO instead? (Spoiler alert – no they weren’t).


The dangers of hiring a nasty leader

The dangers of hiring a toxic leader are well-documented and, to my mind, outweigh the risks of being too nice. In fact, I wouldn’t dignify the ‘take no prisoners/rule by fear’ approach with the term leadership. Leadership implies that people willingly follow you. The best that the tyrant manager can hope for is grudging, resentful compliance. People don’t put themselves out for this kind of boss and anyone with marketable skills and a modicum of self-confidence (i.e. the type of people you want to keep) will look for alternative employment as soon as they can. So if nobody wants a nasty boss, what’s wrong with a nice one?

What do we mean by nice?

The dangers the HBR article highlighted about nice leaders were:

  • Being unable to say no and taking on too much
  • Finding it hard to give difficult feedback, so not addressing poor performance
  • Avoiding conflict and over-prioritising consensus and team harmony

These could all suggest someone who cares about people too much. The soft, caring manager who wants people to be happy and goes out of their way not to upset anyone. It’s a pattern you may recognise, in others or perhaps in yourself. I certainly see it in people I coach and in aspects of myself.

Who are we really concerned about?

But let’s look a little more closely, and more honestly, at what’s really going on here. Too often what is presented as a concern for others is actually a concern for ourselves Annoyed– a fear of not being liked or of people being angry with us. “I don’t want to upset people” often means “I don’t want people to be angry that I upset them”. Sometimes we care more about what people think of us than we genuinely care about the people themselves.

This idea about being too nice is not actually about an excess of empathy. It’s really about a lack of emotional robustness, something I’ve written about here before. Emotional robustness involves being able to maintain a positive sense of yourself and a calm emotional state, even when you’re not getting the response you want from others. Incidentally, don’t think that nasty managers are more emotionally robust than nice ones. They are often hugely concerned with how others see them, they just have a different priority. For them, it’s more important to be seen as powerful, shrewd and in control than to be liked. You only have to look at Donald Trump to see what happens when someone’s sense of himself as a powerful winner is threatened.

People-focused vs results-focused

A criticism often thrown at nice leaders is that they care more about people than results. They end up tolerating mediocrity because they don’t want to hurt people. This is actually the hallmark of leaders too afraid of what others think of them to tackle the things they know they should tackle. For me a good leader – whom I might easily call nice – is one who cares about people and cares about the performance of the organisation, but is less concerned with personal popularity (or indeed proving that they are number one). Popularity is often a bi-product of this kind of leadership, not a motivation for it.

Too good to be true?

It sounds like a tall order and this type of leadership does require a level of emotional maturity that not all of us achieve. But it does exist. Lots of people manage it some of the time and some people manage it a lot of the time. inspiring-speakerThe best example I ever met was a man I shall call Jim. Jim is an industry-leader in turning around failing manufacturing plants. He has a tried-and-tested way of doing this and his standards are exacting. People are left under no illusion that they will raise their game or there will be consequences. So far, he probably sounds like a demanding and not particularly nice leader. But Jim is also one of the warmest, most down-to-earth people you could hope to meet. In feedback from the shopfloor to management, he is described as “inspirational”. Trade unionists rally to his cause. People confide in him, even cry on his shoulder. His message, essentially, is “We can do this together”. People believe in him and begin to believe in – and expect more from – themselves. What he never focuses on is whether or not they like him. He’s just authentically himself, using his judgement to decide what he thinks is the right course of action, not the one with least resistance.

We can’t all aspire to be Jim, but we can try to be a bit more Jim-like.  You could start by being honest with yourself about your real motivation if you find yourself thinking “but I don’t want to upset him/her/them”. If you’re looking to grow as a leader and would like some support to develop your ‘inner Jim’, do get in touch:

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Annoyed: Bark

Inspiring speaker:  National Renewable Energy Lab


“Maybe you should see a psychologist”

“Maybe you should see a psychologist”. Has anyone ever suggested this to you? psychologistIf they did, would you see it as a positive suggestion or would you be affronted, as if they were implying that all was not right in your head? It’s tricky, isn’t it? A bit of a taboo subject.

Recently,  I’ve had a few conversations with people who’ve said they think it would be helpful if their colleague/client/boss/friend talked to me but they don’t know quite how to broach the subject. Let’s be clear here, I’m talking about work-related issues. I’m neither a psychotherapist nor a clinical psychologist. I don’t delve deeply into people’s childhood trauma or diagnose mental health issues. But I, and lots of psychologists like me, often work with people grappling with issues such as:

  • Personality (or, perhaps, shadow side of personality) characteristics that are holding them back.
  • Behaviour that is causing problems with working relationships.
  • Childhood experiences that have left them less confident than they would like.
  • Personal or domestic crises that mean they are struggling to hold it all together at work.
  • The legacy of negative work experiences that have left them over-cautious and unable to fulfill their potential for fear of being slapped down again.
  • A move to a bigger job that makes them feel out of their depth but afraid of admitting that they don’t always know what they’re doing.

These are situations any of us could face and are part of normal working life. But they are in the territory of ‘stuff going on in your head’. They can be messy and embarrassing and people often don’t like talking about them. So, if you’re watching someone struggle with these kinds of things and genuinely want to help, how do you bring up this sensitive subject? Well here are a few pointers.

Problem? What problem?


Firstly, establish whether or not the person recognises that they may have a problem. You may have noticed that they’ve alienated half the office or that they look more tense and stressed out every time you see them, but that doesn’t guarantee they’ve admitted it to themselves.

Suggesting any kind of solution to someone who doesn’t know they have a problem is about as useful as trying to sell a lawnmower to a man with no garden. This is not the time to helpfully hand them the details of your favourite psychologist. As I discussed in a previous article, the aim at this stage is to get the person to be more open to the idea that all may not be well. What’s needed is a genuinely supportive approach with lots of open questions, lots of listening and maybe some gentle feedback. For example, “I can’t help noticing that you seem a bit stressed out at the moment. How’s everything going?” (Not, you notice, “Is everything ok?”. That kind of closed question gives people the option to just say “yeah fine” and the conversation stops dead).

I can handle it…


If the person does recognise there’s an issue but insists they can handle it on their own, well, maybe they’re right and it’s time to back off. broodingBut if you sense that, rather than actually handling it, they’re bottling stuff up and hoping it all goes away, then maybe some gentle encouragement may be appropriate.

Anything you can do to make talking things through with a professional seem like a normal, sensible thing to do, rather than an admission of weakness, will help. If you have ever used a psychologist, a coach or a counsellor yourself, then maybe share that with them. You don’t have to go into details but you might normalise it for the other person if you disclose that you once found it useful to get some perspective on stuff by talking it over with someone.

If you haven’t ever used a psychologist, then be careful not to inadvertently give the impression that you think it would be really useful for them, not that you’d ever need one yourself, heaven forbid, no, you’re totally sane, but they, well, they might need some extra help……. It’s all too easy to reinforce the message you’re trying to avoid.

The shrink will see you now…..


There are, of course, many excellent coaches out there who could help people address some of these issues. Seeing a ‘coach’ may be more acceptable for some people than seeing a ‘psychologist’. Like many business psychologists, I sometimes describe myself as a leadership or executive coach, because that’s part of what I do. But fundamentally, I’m a psychologist who coaches and I don’t want to pretend that the psychology isn’t there. A psychologist has a different educational background and theoretical framework to draw on and can generally work at a deeper level.

I’m aware, of course, of people’s reactions to psychologists. I do a lot of networking and when I introduce myself as a business psychologist, there is generally a pause while people rearrange their faces to neutral, in case they’re giving something away. shrinkI’m not po-faced about this; humour is a great way of making psychology (and psychologists) more accessible. In on-line discussions psychologists trade stories about how to answer the inevitable question “Are you reading my mind?”. My favourite is “Yes, but I’m afraid that under the Data Protection Act, I’m not allowed to reveal the results”. (Honestly, we’re not reading your minds. And there’s no couch).

If you’re suggesting to someone that they might want to see a psychologist, then humour might be a really appropriate way of lightening the tone. But don’t overdo it. I recall once standing in the middle of an open plan office about to go into a meeting room with a new client, when a former client from the same organisation popped up. “Ooh”, he declared in his broad Yorkshire accent, “you’re seeing the shrink. Has she made you cry yet?”. Perhaps not the best start.

If you’re trying to figure out how to broach a conversation like this with someone, I’m happy to talk it through with you. And if you’re grappling with issues at work, why wait for a concerned colleague to nudge you in the direction of help. I’m just a click away:

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Psychologist: Drew Leavy

Brooding: rippchenmitkraut66

Shrink:  Mike Renlund


Psychology snippets – four things you’ll be discussing at the water cooler

It’s August. You’re probably on holiday or wishing you were. In the press, this is the season where traditionally the quirkier stories get an airing, so I thought I’d do the same here. These are the four most interesting bits of psychological research or thinking that I’ve seen in the last few months:

1. How quickly should you answer emails?

It depends on your status, according to a piece of psychological research. Imagine you’re collaborating on a project and someone asks for ideas. laptopIf you don’t have much status in the group, e.g. you’re quite junior or inexperienced, you need to get in quickly, else your ideas will be dismissed. People seem to think you don’t care enough about the project. If you have high status, on the other hand, the longer you leave it, the more seriously people take your ideas. You’re so important that you must be really busy, so when you finally share your wisdom, it must be worth waiting for. Naturally, it doesn’t actually follow that the senior/experienced person’s ideas are any better than the new kid’s, regardless of when they’re delivered, but that’s how we seem to perceive them. No one said life was fair; I’m just the messenger.

2. Three jobs that don’t exist now but will within a decade

You probably won’t have missed the fact that robots are going to take over the workplace, as it’s been all over the papers. robotThe BBC website even features a useful app which will tell you the likelihood of your job being taken over by a robot (bank clerks and chartered accountants might want to consider retraining as speech therapists and psychologists).

But optimists point out that new jobs will emerge that we can’t imagine now. After all, 25 years ago we didn’t know what a web designer or a search engine optimisation specialist was, but now you’re as likely to meet them at a networking event as the more traditional professionals, like lawyers and accountants. So with the introduction of artificial intelligence into the work place, look out for these opportunities:

Robot personality designer – some of the first jobs likely to be taken over by robots are in customer service. They are already being used as hotel receptionists. But if a robot is going to represent a company’s brand, then what sort of personality should it have? Do you want ‘Good afternoon madam’ professionalism or ‘Hi there’ informality? Someone will have to design that.

Morality programmer – how do we ensure that robots will behave in a way that we deem ethically correct? If we violate the norms of society, we can be held to account, up to and including prosecution. But you can’t prosecute a robot, so someone will need to programme in codes of conduct or ensure a way of teaching the robot what is appropriate behaviour (“Save the baby, not the budgie, in an emergency”). Finally, a job crying out for philosophy graduates.

Robot – human facilitator – the future workplace will be all about collaboration between robots and humans. Robot and peopleBut that’s not just going to happen automatically. The technology is moving much more quickly than our ability to keep pace with it psychologically. There will be trust issues and resentment and our trademark British awkwardness – “What’s the etiquette here? Do I shake its hand?” Expect a plethora of training and facilitation consultants to help us get used to working in this brave new world.


3. The subliminal response that predicts your political tendencies.

If you read my Brexit blog, you’ll have come across this already, but I found it so fascinating I thought it worth repeating. Researchers can predict with 95% accuracy where you sit on the liberal-conservative spectrum (on social issues) based how strongly you react to something disgusting, like rotting meat or bodily waste.  The stronger your disgust reflex, the more conservative you tend to be. Liberals are less easily disgusted. Given that your disgust reflex is not really under your conscious control and may be hard-wired, it raises the possibility that your political leanings could have a genetic component. So much for free will.

4. Which is your best side, photographically?

Suppose you’re having a profile photo taken for Linked In or your corporate website, take a tip from a this psychological research and turn your left cheek to the camera. PortraitAs unlikely as it sounds, your left cheek is likely to be more attractive than your right one. We process emotion on the right side of our brains, which controls the left side of bodies, and apparently that means we display ever so slightly more emotion on the left, which people find more attractive. I’m not sure what happens if the emotion you’re displaying is boiling rage or withering contempt, so perhaps it would be best to get into a happy frame of mind before you’re ready for your close up.

Next month, the holidays will be over and it’ll be back to serious work-related stuff, but for now enjoy the tail end of summer.

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Lap top: Hillary

Robot: e-lame

Robot and people:  Moto “Club4AG” Miwa

Portrait: Chung Shao Tung


The age of female leadership?

Well isn’t this interesting – women are taking over the world. Merkel & MayWe have a female Prime Minister, the most powerful politician in Europe is a woman and I can’t be the only one fervently hoping that the next US president is a woman because the alternative is too ghastly to contemplate. But will things be any different? Do women bring different qualities to the job? Instinctively, it feels like they do, but is that true? 

Well the short answer is, we don’t really know. The research is somewhat contradictory and it’s a complex thing to assess. What is clear is that female leaders are perceived differently.

The problem of categorisation

In order to know how to respond to something, we have to recognise it and categorise it – ‘ah yes, I’ve seen one of these before; it’s like this’. Because it’s the norm, the category ‘male leader’ doesn’t narrow it down enough, so we subdivide it. Thus Jeremy Corbyn is the UK’s Bernie Sanders – elderly white lefties with non-mainstream ideas who’ve mobilised a lot of young people. The connection can be much more tenuous. For a while, Chuka Umunna was the British Barack Obama, presumably on the grounds that they’re both mixed race, cooler than the average politician and in possession of unfamiliar but reassuringly pronounceable names. 

For female leaders, the category is much smaller, so we can start recognising them from existing templates straightaway. So of course, inevitably, Theresa May is the new Margaret Thatcher, unless you want to be more contemporary, in which case she is Britain’s Angela Merkel. That’ll be the Angela Merkel who is Germany’s Maggie Thatcher. This isn’t about how Thatcherite they are in their politics. Even Nicola Sturgeon – someone at the opposite end of the political spectrum – has been compared with ThatcherIt’s a short cut. Female, (late) middle-aged, pastel-coloured suit, no-nonsense approach? Yeah, a bit like Thatcher.

We’re not gender blind

The concept of leadership style is so bound up with who we are as people that it cannot be disentangled from gender. I have no idea how Theresa May’s leadership style actually compares with that of Margaret Thatcher or Angela Merkel. She may operate in a way that is more similar to say, Michael Heseltine or Gordon Brown but I’m never going to find myself making that comparison. It just doesn’t compute (be clear, I’m talking about leadership style, not policies, here). 

Even if they said and did exactly the same things, I would probably perceive a male and a female leader differently. BlindfoldedI’d like to believe that that wasn’t true but I’ve read enough about unconscious bias to know that we take short cuts and are influenced by factors we are barely aware of, such as the pitch of someone’s voice. Behaviour that is seen as appropriately assertive in a man, may be perceived as ‘bossy’ (a word never used about any male over the age of 10) in a woman. Conversely, caring, empathetic behaviour, which is expected in women, may be seen as weak in a man. 

So given these differences in how men and women are perceived, it’s actually difficult to gauge whether men and women differ significantly in their leadership styles. There are, however, four things we can say with confidence about women as leaders, based on solid research in business and elsewhere.

1. Female leaders are more risk averse

And this may not always be a bad thing. 

Women seem to be less prone to over-confidence than men and more cautious in their approach to risk, particularly financial risk. This may have advantages for organisations, providing a counter-balance to more gung ho male leaders. There’s a possibility that testosterone may account for some of the difference between male and female risk tolerance, with psychologists suggesting that at least some of the financial crash could have been averted if the financial services sector had been less dominated by young men.

Of course, for women themselves, there’s a downside; their caution can hold them back in their careers. Caroline Arnold, who specialises in coaching up-and-coming women mid-career says that women are more likely to ensure that they can cover every aspect of a job description before applying for the job. As she points out, if you can already do every element of the job, it’s probably your current job. There’s no stretch, nothing to grow into. She’s constantly encouraging women to be bolder. 

2. Female leaders are necessary

This isn’t a political statement or a manifesto based on a desire for equality; it’s a pragmatic reality. Companies with a strong element of female leadership financially outperform those without it. That’s not one token non-exec, by the way. Team of Young Business ExecutivesIt’s three or more female board members or a female CEO and at least one other female director. These companies’ success is attributed to the fact that they are likely to be forward thinking and open to different perspectives.

There are also implications for corporate governance. Perhaps because of women’s tendency towards risk aversion, companies with more female leaders are less likely to be involved in scandals such as bribery, corruption, fraud or shareholder battles. Additionally, although they are less likely to take financial risk, women are more likely to take social risk, such as speaking up about something they disagree with.

3. Female leaders are as effective as men 

Or maybe even more so. A number of studies, looking at thousands of 360 degree feedback responses, have shown that female leaders tend to be rated more positively than their male colleagues, by everyone except themselves. Although some studies, suggest that this doesn’t apply in very masculine environments, such as the military, a study focused on business leaders found women were rated particularly strongly in traditionally male-dominated areas, such as IT, R&D and legal.

There are several suggestions for this. One is that women may have a more inclusive, collaborative leadership style that is more suited to the 21st-century work environment than the traditional command-and-control style, which it’s assumed comes more naturally to men. There’s mixed evidence on whether women leaders actually do behave differently, though.

Another factor is that, whilst a lot of very talented men make it to senior positions, 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 chaps, which skews the figures.

4. Female leaders are sometimes set up to fail

Ironically, given their propensity to be more risk averse, women are more likely to be given leadership positions when the situation is perilous and there is a high risk of failure. This is known as the ‘glass cliff’ effect – similar to the glass ceiling, but rather than being an invisible barrier, it’s an invisible career-killer. Women are more likely to be hung out to dry if it all goes wrong.

This makes the current political situation very interesting and also worrying. No one would argue that we’re living in a period of dull predictability. My fear is that we’ll look back in 5 years, at what might have been an uncomfortable time, forget the context and say ‘well we tried having women in charge and look how bad it was. Better let men take the reins back’.

Regardless of politics, I’m really hoping Theresa May is seen as successful for the sake of female leaders to come.


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May & Merkel: No 10

Blindfolded: marsmettn tallahassee



Us and them. How did it get so tribal?

I didn’t really want to write a BREXIT blog, but my blogging deadline was upon me and it really is the only subject in town. Everything else feels irrelevant. UKAnd surely psychology has something to say about the extraordinary circumstances we find ourselves in. In fact, psychology adds multiple perspectives, as these thoughtful analyses from the British Psychological Society demonstrate. I want to look at just one angle – how did it get so tribal and where do we go from here?

In with the in crowd

Though we often don’t like to admit it, humans are a tribal species. It’s part of what makes us so successful as social animals. One of the first things we decide about someone, within microseconds of meeting them, is “Are you in my in group?”. You might think that that means we are looking for significant differences, such as race or nationality, and to some extent that’s true. But it’s more nuanced than that. We could see two LA street gang members, for example, and not see much difference between them, whereas they would know from something like the brand of their trainers that they are sworn enemies. Similarly, they might see two middle-aged Brits in suits and assume they are in the same in-group because they are unaware of the distinctions between Blairites and Corbinistas or any of the multitude of tribes of the Conservative party. You could be outwardly very different but very much in my tribe or outwardly very similar and absolutely not.

Multiple in-groups

Of course, we don’t have only one in-group. We have multiple roles and in-groups which we move between depending on what we are doing at the time. Let’s suppose you are a proudly Cornish accountant, who supports Manchester United and belongs to the Liberal Democrats. It probably won’t matter to you where people come from or how they vote when watching a football match together and you won’t care which team people support when you’re at a political meeting. England fansEven people from our out-groups can join our in-groups in the right circumstances. Liverpool and Spurs fans, for example, would be in different in-groups when their teams play each other but would weep together during an England game.

We generally move between groups with relative ease. But not always. When our in-group is threatened, we identify with it – and defend it – more strongly. And research suggests that some people move between different groups and are more flexible in their identities than others, depending on their personality.

The personality dimension 

One of the five major dimensions of personality is openness to experience – the extent to which we seek out new experiences and new ideas, explore different ways of thinking and seeing the world and question the values we grew up with. Research suggests that those who are more open to experience tend to be socially liberal, those less open tend to be socially conservative.

People who are less open to experience tend to value loyalty to their in-group more strongly than do those who are more more open. For some people, loyalty is a deeply held value – “we must look after our own” – whereas for others it is over-ridden by, for example, a desire to treat everyone equally. When these two groups talk about fairness, they mean different things.

Disgusting voters

These differences are deep-set and may even be hard-wired. For reasons no one seems to quite understand, people’s openness appears to be linked to our natural and very visceral disgust reflex. DisgustWe all feel disgusted by things like bodily waste or rotting flesh but some feel it more than others. The stronger the response, the less open people seem to be. Researchers can predict with 95% accuracy where someone sits on the liberal-conservative spectrum based on the strength of their disgust reflex.

Even more surprisingly, people can be induced to respond, temporarily, in a more conservative way (e.g. when giving opinions on things like gay marriage) by being exposed to disgusting smells or images. And yes, politicians have started to use this. In the states, a Republican candidate sent out leaflets impregnated with the smell of rotting garbage showing pictures of his ‘stinkingly corrupt’ opponent.  In the Rwandan genocide, Hutu leaders called Tutsis cockroaches and, of course, the Nazis referred to Jews as vermin. This is why describing migrants and refugees as a swarm is so dangerous.

How does all this apply to BREXIT? 

The first thing I want to stress here, is that I am not talking about the motivations of every leave or remain voter, just broad trends. The demographic breakdown of votes makes it pretty clear that many of those who voted to leave the EU were people who – perhaps with very good reason – felt under threat. In general, leave voters seem to be less prosperous, more marginalised and feel more powerless than remain voters.

Additionally, polling evidence shows that leave voters tend to be socially conservative. People who voted to leave were more likely to say that movements such as feminism, globalisation,  multi-culturalism and the green movement were forces for ill, whereas remain voters saw them as forces for good. Given that socially conservative people value loyalty it’s easy to see how, for some, the referendum could be framed as an opportunity to protect a threatened in-group.

In the murkier depths of the Daily Mail comment section, people who voted to remain are described as traitors and there are comments advocating the use of razor wire and machine guns at the Channel Tunnel to deter migrants. Clearly some people’s in-group must be defended at all costs.

World turned upside down

Remain voters, including me, woke up to find we were in an in-group we barely knew existed. As psychologist Dr Paul Redford from UWE writes in the BPS analysis, suddenly we are the ones with less power, less self-determination. We are the ones under threat. Perhaps there is a useful psychological lesson here, but it’s a painful way to learn it. As several psychologists have pointed out, we are working our way through the bereavement curve, with most currently sitting somewhere between denial and anger. From a psychological perspective, suggestions that we get over it and move on are about as useful as telling a depressed person to pull themselves together.

There is a huge amount of in-group solidarity going on, especially on social media. We look for allies, identify more strongly with each other and we have found our out-group. The stronger the in-group identification, the harder it is to identify with people in the out-group and the more they become ‘the other’. I know people who cannot bring themselves to speak to family members who voted out. I’m finding that I have a fairly visceral reaction to houses that still have a Leave poster in the window. And we’re the ones who are, on average, more likely to be open, more inclusive of people with different values.

We’re all on the side of ‘right’

No one believes they’re on the wrong side, in the wrong group. If they did, they’d change side. We generally like to believe we are good people. Even when we do bad things, we can excuse them if they are for the greater good, no matter how extreme. People don’t join ISIS because they’ve decided to be evil. They join because they identify so strongly with a cause, and their in-and out-groups have become so polarised, that they can justify their actions to themselves. Presumably the same is true of people who are currently shouting abuse at foreign-looking people and vandalising Polish cultural centres.

Tolerating the intolerant 

I’m not suggesting that we should tolerate abusive or criminal behaviour. But we really should be aware that behaviour is the only thing we can police. People can and will think whatever they like.

Coincidentally, I wrote last month about the difficulty of persuading people to change. I’d reiterate a key point from that blog here: the more confrontational you are, the more resistant the other person becomes and the less likely they are to change. ScoldingAs a psychologist, I can think of no circumstances where the ideal way to facilitate change would be to tell people – loudly, condescendingly, sarcastically – that they are stupid, ignorant, bigoted and wrong, particularly when they believe they have the moral high ground because they are demonstrating that highly-prized value (that we don’t really understand) in-group loyalty. They are looking after their own, which may even include us.

The more we turn staunchly anti-immigrant leavers into ‘the other’, the more we reinforce the division between us. And yet that is exactly what we are doing, on social media, on TV, in the pub, in the office. It feels great, it makes us more connected, it gives us some feeling of power in a powerless situation. It is exactly what ‘they’ do to their ‘others’.

Where do we go from here?

Somehow we need to get back to a more inclusive society, where people don’t define their in-groups in such narrow terms. As unlikely as it seems right now, only four years ago, much of the country joined together to cheer on a Somali-born, British Muslim called Mohamed. Mo FarahThe broad smile of Mo Farah, draped in the Union Jack, symbolised a different definition of ‘British’ and suggested that we can broaden the way that we think of our in-groups.

If we did it then, we can do it again. Unfortunately, it is likely to require some of the things we don’t have right now – strong, compassionate political leadership and a fair and honest media, for example. Perhaps as a tiny starting point, those of us who are naturally more open and inclusive could try to use that quality that we value so highly in ourselves and each other to stop characterising a significant chunk of British society as ‘the other’. If we want a more inclusive society, then they, too, are ‘us’.

I’m hoping next month to get back to normal and talk about work, but who knows where we’ll be by then.

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UK: Rareclass

England fans: Damien

Disgust:  Christoph Lenz

Scolding: Doug Tammany

Mo Farah: Jon Connell


You can lead a horse to water……

How do you persuade people to change? Stubborn horseMaybe you have a colleague or a client who stubbornly refuses to do the one thing that everyone else can see would be in their best interests – the overloaded manager who won’t delegate, the blundering leader who really needs coaching but sees it as a navel-gazing waste of time; the 60-something family business owner who really wants to hand the business on to his children “one day” but refuses to talk about succession planning.

Perhaps you’ve tried all your best arguments, outlined the problem and painted a positive vision of change and got precisely nowhere. Now what? Well how about you stop trying so hard. This month I want to talk about a different way of tackling these kinds of situations, an approach with a proven track record and a solid research base behind it. It’s called Motivational Interviewing (MI) and comes from the unlikely world of drug and alcohol addiction. You may be sceptical that a treatment for addiction would have application in the business world, but if an approach is proven to be effective in supporting change in this rather extreme situation, why wouldn’t it work in supporting change in other areas?

Nag, nag, nag, nag, nag…..

Think about the last time someone tried to persuade you to change something that you weren’t bothered about changing. Maybe your nearest and dearest – or even your doctor – nag you about losing weight or doing more exercise. Or perhaps a colleague keeps helpfully explaining how much more efficient you could be if your desk wasn’t such a mess (I am very fortunate in this regard not to have colleagues). If you’re not interested, chances are that the more people go on about it, the more you’ll dig your heels in. You might comply for a bit to shut them up, but it will be grudging and is unlikely produce lasting change. MI is about working with people to change, not bludgeoning them into it.

A model of change

Let’s start by looking at a model of change outlined in the diagram below:

Cycle of change

In successful change, people move through a cycle from ‘pre-contemplation’ (or denial) through accepting that there might be an issue to implementing and maintaining a change. They may also fall off the wagon and go through the cycle again but the chances are it’ll be quicker. Looking at change using this model, there are two common mistakes people make when trying to persuade others to change.

Mistake 1 – go straight for solutions

The first mistake people make is to go straight in at the preparation or action stage when the person is still in denial (pre-contemplation). This is like giving details of the local Alcoholics Anonymous group to a man who believes he can handle eight pints a night and doesn’t have a problem, thank you very much. He’s unlikely to turn up to the next AA meeting.

It’s very easy to fall into this trap if your product or service is designed to solve the problem that you can see so clearly. If your coaching programme, training course, succession planning scheme or family business charter is a perfect fit for the problem, the temptation is to keep selling the benefits until the person sees sense. But unless they acknowledge there’s a problem, your perfect solution is a complete irrelevance. MI aims to engage with people where they are, rather than where you think they should be, and gently encourage them to the next stage in the cycle, for example from denial to contemplating the idea that maybe, just maybe, there’s an issue to address.

Mistake 2 – confrontation

This move from denial to contemplating the problem is where the second mistake can occur. Annoyed If you think about problem drinkers, you might imagine that the way to get them to admit there’s a problem is to confront them with the evidence – show them pictures of diseased livers and tell them stories about people who ended up on the street. Get in their faces and tell it like it is. A bit of tough love, it’s for their own good. They’ll thank you for it in the end. Except the research shows that they won’t. When studies look at the interaction between problem drinkers and their therapists, they find that the more confrontational the therapist, the more the client resists. And the more resistant the client is, the more they drink – even when followed up a whole year later. The same is likely to apply in other situations.

Roll with resistance

When someone is moving from pre-contemplation (denial) to contemplation of the problem, they experience a lot of ambivalence – “maybe I’ll do something, maybe I won’t”. If you argue the case for change, the only place left for the person to go is to argue the case for not changing. The MI approach encourages you to roll with resistance, acknowledging that the status quo has benefits and might suit the person.

“So it sounds like you really enjoy drinking eight pints a night”

“So this management style seems quite authentic for you”

“It seems really important for you to keep control of the company at the moment.”

You’re not agreeing with them, you’re just acknowledging their reality and leaving them space to explore their ambivalence because they’re not busy fighting with you.

Develop discrepancy

The key to helping people move on is to explore the discrepancy between where they say they want to be and where they are now. The aim is to get them to see for themselves that their current behaviour may not be leading them towards their goals, rather than spelling it out for them. This requires tremendous empathy. Questioning is better than telling, open questions are better than closed. Tone of voice can make a huge difference to how a question is received. Try this one out in your softest voice and then imagine it as asked by the most sneering barrister ever to grace a TV legal drama: “How well is your current way of working supporting your long term aims?”.  Avoid ‘why’ questions as they just put people on the defensive – “Why don’t you delegate more?” is more confrontational than “What stops you from delegating more?”

You still can’t make them drink….

Some of you may be getting a bit twitchy now, thinking this is all a bit soft and that, really, you need to keep the pressure on so the person realises just how important this change is. The question is, important to whom? It may be vital to you (especially if you want them to buy your solution), but unless it’s important to them, you’re wasting your time. One of the central principles of MI is that you can’t force anyone to change. Autonomous adults always have a choice. There may be consequences to those choices but the choice remains. Perhaps one of the most important steps we can take when trying to get someone to change is to recognise that and stop pretending that if we just try hard enough we can somehow force people to behave the way we want them to (even when we’re not looking!).

If you’re grappling with change at work, either your own or someone else’s, and would like some support, do get in touch:

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Photo credits

Stubborn horse: Boston Public Library

Change model:

Confrontation: Bark


Tiny steps of astonishing bravery

How do you make progress with those day-to-day anxieties that hold you back in life and at work? I’m thinking of those fears that seem irrational when you try to explain them to others but which can exert a great hold over you. Tiny stepsMost of us have some niggling worries, but some people have more than their fair share to contend with, usually as a result of their upbringing.

Take Will, for example, a Finance Director in a large corporation. Outwardly he is very successful – smart, articulate and always on top of his subject. Inwardly, Will is incredibly anxious; he worries about everything and does way more work than is necessary just to be absolutely certain that he hasn’t missed anything. Meetings with his boss make him so anxious he has sleepless nights in anticipation of them. A bit of unpicking during coaching revealed that Will’s father was a top American lawyer and not what you’d call a touchy-feely parent. Dinner time was an opportunity for robust debate. If Will did well he was lavished with praise, if he did badly he was torn to shreds. Will quickly learned that preparation was key and there was no such thing as too much of it.

Still living in Dad’s shadow

Will chose a different profession and eventually moved continent to get out of his father’s orbit, but he still felt his influence. He played out exactly the same dynamic with his boss, even though his boss was nothing like his father. He was just a man in authority. Will could trace the link back perfectly because it didn’t happen when he had a female boss – his mother had been a much softer and more supportive presence.

This insight was useful but only the beginning; now he had to do something. This is where the tiny steps of incredible bravery come in. man & rocksI set Will a challenge – for his next meeting with his boss, he should think about the amount of preparation he would normally do, halve it, then halve it again and then go to the meeting having done just that much. For those of you who busk your way through meetings, this might sound like nothing. How hard can it be? For Will it was his own private Everest. It was difficult and anxiety-provoking, but he did it and survived. That made it a little bit easier to do it next time and so on.

Choose your anxiety

Many people think they’ll make progress once they’ve conquered their anxieties, but actually it doesn’t work like that. When facing these kinds of issues, we rarely get the choice of whether to be anxious or not, we just get to choose which anxiety we deal with. Let’s take another example to illustrate this.

Jim is an IT specialist, a real expert in his field. As well as doing his own work, Jim is often called on to solve technical problems for other people. Colleagues know that they can rely on him to do a brilliant job, they just can’t guarantee when he’ll do it. Jim knows this causes frustration for people. From the outside, it seems blindingly obvious that Jim should ask people when they need the work completed by and then try to manage these competing demands. From Jim’s perspective, however, this is very scary. What if someone says they need it before he thinks he can get it done? There may be a confrontation or he might have to get into a negotiation about deadlines. He might have to let one person down to satisfy someone else’s higher priority work.

Nothing in Jim’s background has equipped him to deal with this. He’s a rather shy introvert who prefers to keep his interactions brief and get back to his code. Various aspects of his upbringing and schooling have left him wary of confrontation and taught him that it’s safer to keep your head down. So from Jim’s point of view, it makes sense to agree to look at a problem ‘as soon as he can’, without giving any indication of when that might be. If he hasn’t promised, he can’t let you down, right? But that doesn’t mean he isn’t anxious. He dodges the immediate anxiety of having to negotiate a deadline, but instead faces a constant, low level gnawing anxiety that at any moment, someone might come along and demand to know when a piece of work is going to be finished.

Tiny steps to help you grow

You could say that by swapping a short-term spike in anxiety for a long-term, lower level of anxiety, he’s chosen a child-like fear (‘Is someone going to shout at me?’) over an adult one  Boy in business suit(‘Can I stand up for myself?’). Jim is still mulling this one over, but if he can master himself to tackle the adult anxiety rather than simply cope with the child-like one, it would be a huge step in his personal development. A huge step by taking a seemingly tiny step.

These steps can seem so tiny that the people involved can be horribly judgemental of themselves for seeing them as such hurdles. As Will said to me, “I’m 45 years old. I should be over this. I need to get a life”. But you don’t undo your formative years simply by wishing them away. And it is precisely by taking these tiny steps that you grow and get a life: your life, as you want it.

If you’re facing your own personal hurdles at work and would like some support to identify and take your tiny steps, do get in touch:

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

Rex Lam

© Gabrieleckert | Dreamstime Stock Photos &Stock Free Images

Dragos Daniel Iliescu