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Giving it all away? Seven dimensions of delegation

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

1. Process

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

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

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

2. Standards

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

3. Decision making authority

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

4. Resource requirements

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

5. Progress monitoring

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

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

6. Accountability

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

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

7. Pressure

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

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

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

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

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

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

1. Leaders should embody their company’s culture

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

2. We all thrive in a co-operative workplace

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

3. The best hedge fund managers are probably psychopaths

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

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

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

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

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

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John Blower


Lopsided leadership – too much of a good thing?

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

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

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

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

The slave driver

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

The strategist

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

The planner

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

The Superhero 

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



The Messiah

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

The Cheerleader

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

The Social Worker

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

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

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

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Jeff Krause

Tim S

tec estromberg

Thomas Hawk

Ben Sutherland

Erik Drost

Andrew Teman 

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






The psychology of influence

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

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

1. Liking

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

2. Reciprocity 

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

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

3. Authority

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

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

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

4. Consensus 

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

5. Consistency

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

6. Scarcity

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

7. Fear of loss 

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

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

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

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

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

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William Warby

Why do people behave badly at work?

Imagine you see someone behaving badly at work – Angry man with laptopmaybe doing something ethically questionable or taking their anger out on the trainee or not pulling their weight in a crisis. If you’re like most people, you’ll attribute that behaviour to some aspect of their character – he’s dishonest, she’s aggressive, they’re lazy and so on – unless you know them and like them and then you’ll say it’s ‘out of character’. The basic idea that behaviour is driven by character remains though.

If it’s us behaving badly, however, it’s different. We’re not like that, there were mitigating factors, we’re not proud of it, obviously but, to quote the (highly-recommended) Netflix series Bloodline “We’re not bad people, we just did a bad thing”. The reality is that everyone’s behaviour is driven by a complex mix of factors that are not all to do with our individual personalities or even our conscious choices. In this article, I’ll look at four drivers of behaviour which are not to do with the individual.

1. The strength of the situation

In a strong situation, the situation itself dictates how people behave so there is little scope for individual differences to play out. For example, it doesn’t matter how introverted or extroverted you are, if you’re part of a theatre audience you’re likely to sit quietly and watch the performance. If you don’t, it’ll be made clear to you pretty quickly that your behaviour is unacceptable. In a weaker situation, like a random day in the office, the situation does not constrain behaviour in the same way, so there is more scope for other factors to influence behaviour. Some work situations, such as formal presentations, are stronger than others. Ironically, people often worry about bad behaviour in strong situations – “Will someone show me up in front of the Chairman” – where the risk is lower (though the stakes may be higher), but worry less about everyday situations where bad behaviour is more likely.

There is one caveat to that. I’m talking about overt bad behaviour. Unethical behaviour can take place in quite strong, formal situations. signing contract.jpgIf you’ve watched dramas like McMafia or The Night Manager you’ll know that people can use the trappings of formality, signing a contract printed on high quality paper with a Mont Blanc pen at a mahogany board table to agree an illegal arms sale or carve up drug-trafficking routes. It may lend the proceedings a degree of legitimacy, even though everyone knows the contract would be enforced with a baseball bat not a barrister.

2. The Environment

The environment affects us in ways we’re not even aware of. Being in nature – or even looking at it out of the window – makes us happier, more creative, kinder and enables us to recover more quickly from illness.  Simply having pot plants in the office has significant beneficial effects. And it’s not just the natural environment. Light levels, noise, temperature, colour and design features all have an imperceptible impact on us. People are cued to behave differently in a hushed, wood-panelled office with thick carpet and very traditional furniture compared with a bustling hipster co-working space with bean bags and a ping-pong table. One environment suggests formality, perhaps deference, the other doesn’t.

There’s a growing field of design to encourage certain types of behaviour – collaboration, creative thinking and so on. I know little about such wizardry but I do know from experimental evidence that you are more likely to drive a hard bargain in a negotiation if you are sitting on a hard chair. airport urinalOn a very practical note, Schiphol airport in Amsterdam has demonstrated that you can reduce the problem of wet floors in gents’ loos through the use of a strategically-placed picture of a fly on each urinal. Apparently, you guys like to aim at things.

3. Cultural norms 

Cultural norms let us know how things are done around here – what’s acceptable, what’s not and what you’ll get away with. I assume that in Texas it’s fairly unremarkable to take your gun to a business meeting, whereas here in Bath it would be considered rather a serious breach of etiquette. There isn’t a universal standard for what’s considered bad behaviour. That applies across company cultures as well as national cultures. Different types of bad behaviour may be encouraged, condoned or overlooked in cultures which are ‘dog eat dog’ competitive, ‘show no vulnerability’ macho or ‘it’s just banter’ laddish, to name just a few.

How your organisation views regulation or approaches questions around diversity will give people a sense of what they need to take seriously, what’s just lip service and what they can get away with. The reaction when things go wrong also gives people clues as to how they should behave. Do you all look embarrassed, pretend it didn’t happen and move on? Do you maturely analyse what went wrong in a blame-free way? Or is there a relentless witch hunt to find and punish the culprit? Bad behaviour can be simply a form of self-protection in some environments.

4. Group dynamics

Group dynamics involve the individual and may be shaped to some extent by a person’s characteristics, particularly if they are quite dominant or hold a powerful position in the group, but they can never be entirely determined by one person. For example, the dynamics will be different if there is just one dominant person in a group compared with if there are two, particularly if neither of them is the official group leader.ostracised Group dynamics vary and lead to different types of behaviour depending on where formal and informal power lies, how much trust there is between group members and how much they share values and goals. If you have two clear factions (within or between departments) people may behave badly towards the other lot, particularly if their ‘in group’ feels threatened.

Group dynamics and culture can interact to create conditions where bad behaviour may thrive. Imagine a very competitive, bottom-line driven culture, paying lip service to regulation with a few maverick rule-breakers at the top and a lot of people who don’t question authority lower down. Are these the conditions that led to the numerous financial mis-selling scandals of the last few years?

There are, of course, many drivers of behaviour that are entirely individual. Our personalities, values and motivation influence our behaviour, as does the shadow side of our personality (a particular driver for bad behaviour) and even our level of intelligence – people may behave badly if they don’t really understand the situation and jump to conclusions, as a quick look at Twitter will demonstrate. But you can’t take a person out of context and, if you have issues with people’s behaviour in your organisation, it’s worth looking at it more broadly than just a few bad apples. Sometimes you have a bad orchard.

If you’d like to talk about behaviour issues in your organisation, I’d be happy to have a chat:

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Gai Comans



Astrid Westvang

Why stress is a meaningless concept

Is your job stressful? Do you feel stressed right now? Or are some of your colleagues going through a stressful time? Tired despair, head on lap top - not used yetIf so, you and your organisation would be fairly typical of the modern workplace. So given that I’m a psychologist, you’re probably anticipating some tips on how to deal with workplace stress. Well, sorry to disappoint, but I actually want to suggest that the whole concept of stress is flawed to the point of being meaningless.

Obviously, I’m not denying that people sometimes have a tough time at work. So what’s wrong with describing that as ‘stress’? Well here are three reasons:

1. It’s a catch-all term

About 20 years ago, I conducted some research as part of my MSc, exploring what people meant when they said they had a satisfying day or stressful day.  I found that there were only two types of satisfying day:

• I got loads of good stuff done
• I faced a big challenge and overcame it

By contrast, there were so many variations of stressful days, that it was almost impossible to categorise them, beyond ‘something bad happened’. Compare these workplace scenarios, all of which could be described as stressful:

• Having much more work that you can possibly do in the time available

• Having a controlling boss who gives no praise and shouts if you make a mistake

• Being unable to save the life of someone in your care

• Being attacked or threatened by a member of the public

• Being ostracised by the rest of your team

• Giving an important presentation to a hostile audience

• Working in an environment that’s too hot/cold/noisy

• Being publicly humiliated or on the receiving end of unfair criticism

• Feeling out of your depth and incapable of doing what’s expected

• Working in a team that’s in constant conflict

• Trying to hold it together at work while facing a crisis in your personal life

These are all ‘stressful situations’ but they have little in common besides being unpleasant. You might argue that these are simply different causes of workplace stress but I think they’re more different than that.  The actual experiences are different. In some of these situations, you may be in shock, in others exhausted; some might leave you feeling profoundly sad, others anxious, angry, despondent, irritated, helpless or terrified. Perhaps it’s easier for people to say “I’m feeling stressed” than “I’m really scared” or “I’m so angry I don’t know what to do with myself” but doesn’t it muddy the water to treat these very different experiences as though they’re the same? Can one set of generic stress management techniques really cover it all?

2. Built-in ambiguity

Stress is a very slippery concept. Sometimes we say “I’m under a lot of stress” or “This is very stressful”, suggesting that stress is an external thing that has an impact on us. Other times, we say “I’m feeling stressed”, as though stress is our reaction to a situation. This might sound like an extremely pedantic distinction but it matters because it cuts to the heart of the question – whose responsibility is it? Is the situation too much to cope with or are you at fault for not being able to hack it?

There’s no straightforward answer to this. It’s a complex interaction of the situation and your capabilities and resilience. I know, for example, that I can feel excited and energised by the idea of having a meeting with a new client without having a clue what it’s going to be about.  For others, the lack of preparation would stymie them. On the other hand, if I were in a job where I was required to make constant quick decisions, I’d probably have a meltdown by lunchtime. Being clear about what’s really bothering you can make it easier to work out what’s reasonable, what you can and can’t do and what you might stretch to if you got a grip on your emotions.

Framing things in terms of stress, by contrast, maintains the ambiguity and can lead to people feeling guilty or inadequate for not coping. A coaching client I’ll call John, for example, managed a team who were doing fine. Then two new projects came in just as three of the team announced they were joining a competitor and were placed on immediate gardening leave. John battled valiantly to hold it all together but wondered whether to admit to his manager that he was feeling stressed. It’s not often a psychologist will tell you that your feelings aren’t that important, but, in this instance, it helped John to see that the conversation he needed to have with his manager was not about his feelings but about resourcing issues and priorities. Looking at it through the lens of stress had muddied the water and given him unrealistic expectations about coping, to the point where he was trying to work miracles.

3. Masking exploitation

Back in the first half of the 20th century, my grandfather cut coal with a shovel and loaded it on to ships at Cardiff docks. Coal trimmersIt was a very tough job. Conditions were harsh, pay was low and he was on the equivalent of a zero-hours contract, so had no financial security. I doubt he would have described himself as stressed and when we look back on those times we tend not to think in terms of stress either. Instead we talk about oppression, exploitation and unacceptable working conditions.

Fast-forward to today and that language seems somewhat archaic. It seems perfectly natural to talk about the stressful working conditions of, for example, unpaid interns working long hours to get a break in fashion or television, or gig-economy delivery drivers who don’t have time for a loo break. Framing these unacceptable work practices in terms of stress normalises them –  stress is just part of working life, isn’t it? Maybe they should just tough it out? Perhaps a bit of lavender oil on the dashboard would help those drivers relax a bit. No, sometimes you don’t need a stress management guru, you need an employment lawyer or a trade union.

So if not stress management, then what?

I take people’s well-being at work very seriously so you’d think that tackling stress would be high on my agenda. It’s true that I’m often called in when someone is ‘suffering from stress’. But if my response to that was a set of generic stress management techniques I’d be doing my clients a disservice. Sure it helps to take a break, clear your head, come to terms with your feelings. Most of us would benefit from more sleep and more exercise. Beyond that what you need is clarity. The way you manage your particular stressful situation given your unique personality, skill set and life circumstances is as individual as you are.

If you’d like some support working out what’s really going on in your stressful situation, I’d be happy to have a chat:

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Caution emotion at work: 4) envy

This is the final article in my series on emotion at work and this time I’m tackling the one that rarely gets talked about – envy, and its frequent companion, resentment. envy-colleagueWhereas feeling anxious or angry is seen as fairly normal at work, envy seems to be more of a shameful secret. After all, if you’re envious it means someone else has something you want but don’t have. It could be something tangible, like a promotion or a business trip to the States, or it might be someone’s characteristics – maybe they’re smarter, more attractive or more popular than you. Or even worse, all three. These are not things we feel comfortable acknowledging, as there’s a vulnerability there, and yet I suspect many workplaces are seething with envy. So here are five tips for handling your own envy, followed by some ideas on how to handle envious colleagues.

Handling your own green-eyed monster

1. Acknowledge how you feel

Stop telling yourself you don’t feel jealous or you shouldn’t feel jealous. You’re human, it’s how you feel. As with the other emotions I’ve discussed, treat it as data and work out what it’s telling you. Accept that there’s a degree of vulnerability in being envious – you’re in a one-down position, something is missing in your life. It’s OK not to feel great about that.

2. Get a reality check

This is particularly important for those situations where someone else has got an opportunity, e.g. promotion, that you wanted. Something I’ve heard often is “They’ve just got the gift of the gab. I’m a better programmer/lawyer/accountant”. What’s missing here is a recognition that, once you reach a certain level, your technical or professional skill is not enough. To be successful in the role you need the inter-personal and influencing skills that you may be dismissing as just talk. This may be time to take stock and work out how you can develop these skills in yourself rather than seeing them as window dressing. On the other hand, if you genuinely come to the conclusion that no one gets on in your organisation unless they went to the right school or they play golf with the MD, then may I refer you back to the article about anger.

3. Accept that the world’s not fair

Don’t shoot the messenger but there will always be people who are more attractive, more successful, more popular, wealthier than you. There’s no point railing against it. Without wanting to sound like a cheesy motivational speaker, all you can do is aim to be the best version of you that you can be. Resist turning envy into resentment. The person who got that promotion you really wanted hasn’t done anything wrong. That colleague who’s smart and good looking is just lucky. Psychologists distinguish between benign envy and malicious envy; the former focuses on the thing you don’t have and how you might get it, the latter focuses on the person who’s got what you want and can lead you to want to bring them down a peg or two. Only malicious envy leads to schadenfreude.

4. Appreciate what you’ve got

There is sound evidence that actively appreciating and expressing gratitude for what we have makes us happier and even healthier. By all means strive for more, but don’t take for granted what you already have. No matter what your circumstances, you are almost certainly luckier than most of the people who have ever lived, simply by virtue of living in a prosperous country with access to antibiotics, reliable contraception, abundant food, central heating and modern dentistry. Envy comes from focusing too much on what’s missing. Shifting your focus to what’s not missing may lessen its sting.

5. Don’t judge your inside against someone else’s outside

You have unique access to your own shortcomings, your insecurities and anxieties, boredom and failures. You don’t always see other people’s, particularly in this social media age where people present all the fabulous bits of their lives – the holidays, the cocktails, the #feelingblessed moments – and pretend the rest doesn’t exist. For all you know that spectacularly successful colleague may be struggling to hold his marriage together. That beautiful, talented, charming new trainee may have an eating disorder. You can’t know everything that’s going on in other people’s lives or their heads. Don’t assume other people’s lives are golden if yours feels black and white.

Handling someone else’s envy

If someone envies you

If you get the sense that one of your colleagues envies you, you have to tread a fine line – don’t apologise, but don’t flaunt it. Suppose you’ve been given some amazing opportunity and they haven’t. There’s no reason for you to be embarrassed or apologetic but it pays to be sensitive about how – and how much – you talk about it when they’re around. If it feels appropriate, address the issue with them – “I think it might be awkward that I got this opportunity rather than you but I don’t want that to get in the way of us working together”. Obviously this only applies to something extrinsic – something given to you – not one of your intrinsic characteristics. There are no circumstances where “It seems a little awkward that I’m so much better looking than you” is going to be well-received.

If people envy you because your life seems to be so perfect, then showing a bit of genuine vulnerability can make you a more relatable human being. Admit you’re nervous about a presentation, ask for help with something.

If you’re the boss and there’s envy in the team

Try not to inadvertently create situations where envy and resentment might fester. It’s likely that you’ll like some of your staff more than others and that some will be superstars while others are plodders, but be careful how you distribute opportunity among the team. Things people might see as giving others an advantage include working on innovative projects, access to training or coaching, trips abroad, deputising for you, presenting to senior managers. Make sure your criteria for deciding who gets to do what are fair and transparent.  If you have a high-flyer in your team whom others envy, make sure you are appreciative of the contribution made by everyone else.

If you’d like some support managing emotion in the workplace, I’d be happy to have a chat:

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