Archive Monthly Archives: September 2015

Is it me?

Just recently, a friend of mine was having some difficulty in her working relationships, and wondered, was it her, or the others?  I have to confess to asking myself a similar question before now.  When you have repeated issues, the same or similar, in different work contexts, you do begin to wonder if it is your own behaviour that’s the issue.

Well, I think the answer is, yes and no.  I know that’s not necessarily very helpful, but let me explain, using some examples.

I’ve already mentioned some of the difficult working relationships I’ve had.  There was

  1. The office manager in the civil service who bullied me for months, if not a couple of years
  2. The charity project manager who micro managed and treated me like a 16 year old novice despite my twenty years work experience, when I was low in confidence
  3. The charity manager who gave me last minute projects that were complicated to do – in at least one instance something she was supposed to have done
  4. Losing a job after I pointed out the changes a charity needed to make; a complicated relationship with the trustees, but I was right about the changes, and the trustees agreed I was – apart from the fact that I thought I’d be involved in the changes, not fired

Not yet mentioned is a difficult relationship when I was the other side of the employee/charity trustee divide, as chair of trustees for a small, nearly broke, charity.  I could write a book on the issues I had to deal with there (one of these days, I might just do that). Financial, governance, operational difficulties, but underneath it all, was the running thread of the fact that at least two of the remaining three employees hated me and wanted me gone.

So no matter how easy it is to blame others for my difficulties, I have to consider how my own behaviour has contributed – is it me, after all?

One common thread is that in each of these scenarios, I couldn’t help but speak up.

I disagreed with the civil service manager on some of the decisions she wanted to take.  I didn’t understand that the charity manager needed to feel in control and as though she was in charge.  I didn’t understand that most of these women (and they were all women except the time I got fired) felt out of their depth and in need of an employee who would support them, not argue with them.  I didn’t understand that the employees when I was a trustee were afraid that they would lose their jobs because of the financial instability.

So I said what I thought, and didn’t put myself in my adversary’s shoes.  None of these people should have been my adversary.  We should all have been working together to achieve our organisations’ aims.

Startup Stock Photos

So is it me? Am I so difficult to work with? I have admitted to not liking being told what to do.

Back to yes and no.  I have to take responsibility for the way I behaved, and there are certainly times I could have acted with more sensitivity and understanding of the bigger picture, or the other side of the argument.  However, life is a learning journey, and I hope I know better now, learning from all these past experiences.

On the other hand, these people, with the exception of the last example, were all my managers, had all presumably more experience than me in some respect to earn their position.  It’s not unreasonable to expect managers to be good managers, to bring out the best in their staff. So in my view, it was them too.  More could have been done to respect my need for autonomy, more could have been done to use my knowledge and skills to further the aims of the organisation.

But a further, more crucial point, is that the organisations could have – in fact should have – done more to support those managers to be good people managers. In the civil service, I was transferred out, and probably no help, support or coaching given to the manager to improve her skills.  At the small charity project, no attempt was made to improve our working relationship, so I found another job and left. At the health charity, the trustees made me redundant, saying they had no need for my fundraising role, despite clearly still needing funds, and engaging a replacement trust fundraiser soon after. (And clinging to the belief that it was a ‘different’ job, as the one I was fired from was trust and corporate.)

So that brings me to workplace culture.  What is it about the culture that believes it is best to let go of someone trained, and with good knowledge and skills, and with a great deal of commitment to the organisation? Isn’t it said that an organisation’s greatest assets are its people? So why do so many organisations not behave in ways that look after those assets? I know I’ve spoken from my personal experience here, but I’m willing to bet you have come across the same thing.  If not personally, then you know someone who has.

I’ve gone on long enough, next time I’m going to look a little closer at the opposite side of the equation – firstly the time a manager surprised me by offering to deal with the situation properly , and secondly at the time when I was the employer, as a charity trustee.

In the meantime, please leave your comments below, I’d love to know what you think – do you agree the problem is at the organisational level? What experiences have you had with bullying behaviour at work?

Autonomy and management

I talked last time about Daniel Pink’s findings on motivation – autonomy, mastery and purpose.  I’m going to focus this time on one of these a little more – autonomy. I’m going to consider how autonomy depends on your manager’s working relationship with you and to illustrate this, I’m going to talk about some of the managers I’ve worked with.


More than twenty years ago, I was a newly promoted manager with a team of ten staff.  I went on the civil service two week management training course, but the things I’ve learned about managing people since then lead me to believe the course wasn’t much help to be honest.


However, I must have instinctively known that one of the important roles of a manager is to protect your team from pressure from above, because I spent a lot of time doing this.  Unsuccessfully, on the whole – I put this down to inexperience, but at the time, it was merely a source of stress.


Well, not just inexperience, but the fact that, after a while, my working relationship with my manager deteriorated, and she bullied me for a sustained period of time.


With the benefit of hindsight, she was probably under a lot of pressure herself to deliver. She had an office of 50 staff to manage, targets to meet, laws to enforce, public money to account for.  And had probably had as much effective training for this as I had.


I moved on.  Well, I wrote to HR and demanded to be moved ASAP.  They obliged, but as far as I know, did nothing to deal with the problematic management style.  Staff at this office had no autonomy because the manager’s style was to rule with fear and intimidation, and expect things to be done the way she wanted.


A couple of years later, I took voluntary redundancy from the civil service – one of the best decisions I ever made.  After a further bad experience in a job I wasn’t suited to, my confidence plummeted.  I took a part time, low paid, low skilled admin job with a charity project.  Seemed ok to start with, but one day, after I said something to a telecom engineer while he was fixing a telephone line, my manager told me it wasn’t my place to do this, she was the boss, I was just the paid help. Stunned, I didn’t understand why she would speak to me like that.  But after that, she picked holes constantly and micro managed.  I didn’t stand for it for long this time, and moved on again. No autonomy in the role, so I exercised it by leaving.  To a slightly better paid, but still part time role, and thus began my career in fundraising.  A couple of really good managers and a break to go full time at university later, and I’ve learned a lot.


Moving on, things changed and I found myself working for another manager.  This was a strange one – everyone liked this manager; so did I to start with, but towards the end of my time at that organisation I began to feel something wasn’t quite right.  I felt I’d been set up to fail a couple of times, but it wasn’t something I could exactly put my finger on.  Maybe I was just imagining it?  I’m still not 100% one way or the other.


I left, and worked for a small charity this time.  The head of fundraising was off sick for five months, and I had a difficult working relationship with some members of the board of trustees.  Whilst I had a good degree of autonomy in the day to day work, the support and appreciation wasn’t there, even though some trustees said it was.  It didn’t feel authentic.  Especially once I was made redundant unexpectedly.


So what does autonomy in the workplace look like? Let’s think about what the really good managers did.


  • They listened to my suggestions.  Even if they disagreed and overruled me, demonstrated that they were willing to consider my viewpoint. (Autonomy)
  • They thanked me for things, generally showed appreciation for my contribution
  • Gave me positive feedback on performance. I don’t ever remember being told off for mistakes; I’m sure I must have been, but obviously it was done in the right way. (Autonomy again – I was allowed to learn)
  • Gave me the opportunity to develop and grow in the roles, encouraging me to attend training and become a member of the professional body.



I’d love to hear your views – what does it mean to you to have autonomy in your workplace?


Loving your work?

A recent article in the Guardian [i] said that according to a Gallup poll, 87% of people hate their jobs.  87%!!  That’s outrageous!  I’ve long felt that wanting a job that you love and looking forward to going in to work on a Monday morning isn’t too much to ask, but it seems from that statistic that maybe it is.

Let’s look a little closer at the report. I’d have to modify the statement that 87% hate their jobs, because that isn’t quite what the survey measured. It measured employee engagement, and found that only 13% percent of employees throughout the world are fully engaged with their work.  And then says that employee engagement is the degree to which employees are involved in and enthusiastic about their work and workplace.  A little journalistic licence to leap from’ not enthusiastic’ to ‘hate’ I thought (and telling that the writer used to work in the public sector? But that’s just my observation, having been there and hated that too).  Nevertheless, some very useful points.  As Richard Branson observes, miserable people do miserable work.

So what’s the problem? Why are so many people not engaged at work? Ok, as this is my blog, I’m going to use a little licence myself and indulge in some pet theories. There may be references to research to back me up, but not necessarily.  I think much of the problem is because of

  • Poor organisational culture, which is a result of –
  • Poor leadership, which in turn results in –
  • Poor management skills, with little understanding of what motivates us

Employee engagement seem to be the new buzzwords, but I’m going to stick with motivation.  The two are closely related, and I’d argue that in most cases, if you’re motivated you’re engaged.

Daniel Pink, in his book, ‘Drive, the surprising truth about what motivates us’, says there are three important motivators.  Autonomy, mastery and purpose.  (Notice pay isn’t in there.)

Let’s take these in reverse order, starting with purpose.  Now, there are any number of business books out there saying start with the purpose – as well as Pink there’s Simon Sinek, ‘Start with Why’, and Isaiah Hankel, ‘Black Hole Focus’, are among my favourites, and most famously, Stephen Covey’s start with the end in mind – so I’d say that’s case proved.  Pink obviously goes into more detail about this and does provide some psychology research to support his point. I won’t regurgitate it here – I recommend the book.  But when you have a purpose to your work, a purpose that you believe is important, then you are engaged and motivated.

On to mastery, Pink suggests that engagement is a route to mastery.  Malcolm Gladwell’s 10,000 hours of practice to achieve mastery is often quoted.  10,000 hours until you’re happy at work seems like an unattainable target. That’s about 5 years of full time work at 37 hours a week, a long time not to be happy. I’d flip that on its head though.  It’s self evident that if you’re happy at work, you’re happy to stay and practice something for five years, until you do become a master at it.  And if you’re naturally quite good at something, you’re going to be happy practising, whereas if it’s something that doesn’t come naturally, you’re less likely to be motivated to learn it, and will therefore not achieve mastery.  So first, do something you enjoy, practice till you get really good, and you’ll enjoy it even more.  Whilst I don’t want to downplay the role of mastery in motivation and happiness, to me this is less difficult to achieve than autonomy and less fundamental than purpose.

Now let’s take a look at autonomy.  I think this is where most people are unhappy at work, and where many organisations go wrong.  Who hasn’t come across the control freak boss who micromanages to the point of desperation? (Theirs as well as yours probably.)  What about the boss who loses her temper, steals credit for your work, blocks every effort you make to improve things?  What about the bullying boss? Even well intentioned bosses can have poor people management skills leading to an unhappy team – maybe so afraid of conflict he never makes a decision. Or the boss who doesn’t give clear direction on what’s required, so the team are never sure what good results look like.  I read a Steve Jobs quote on twitter today (thanks David Tovey @PrincipledSell) which really sums this up.


A great CEO isn’t someone who knows how to carry out all the operations of the organisation, but one who hires talented people who know – talented sales people, talented HR managers, talented finance teams, talented production managers.  Talented people who share their vision, values and purpose. And then a) lets them get on with their jobs, and b) listens to their suggestions for improvement and innovations.

As someone who has always hated being told what to do or what to think, autonomy is right up there, I need no convincing of its importance in a motivated workforce.  Do you?

So that’s kind of my main pet theory really, good management leads to committed and engaged workers, poor management doesn’t.  The culture of the organisation comes from the top. What is accepted, what role models and behaviours are accepted, define the culture of the organisation. Token efforts at ’employee engagement’ such as away days or other team building programmes won’t work. They need to be ingrained in the culture of the organisation. Sinek tells how Southwest Airlines looks after employees first.  Happy employees mean happy customers, which in turn mean happy shareholders.  When employees trust that their employer will look after them, you don’t get the bad press that Amazon is suffering.

Moving away from businesses I have a pet theory about the public sector too. In the same way that the culture of businesses comes from the leadership, I believe that the culture of our public organisations comes from its leadership, our political masters.  In a climate of cutting expenditure, doing more for less, criticism and harsh targets, no amount ofc9e42240 desire to serve the public will survive that onslaught.  Managers under increasing pressure will put their teams under increasing pressure.  Autonomy? No.  Mastery? Probably not.  Purpose? To serve the public? Or serve the politicians?

As a former public sector employee myself and with friends who still work there, I know how demoralising it can be.  I really wish that the political masters would realise that most people want to do a job to the best of their ability; public sector workers are often motivated by the purpose (easy to accept for police, firefighters, nurses, teachers, not so obvious for civil servants and council staff perhaps, but I believe it to be true) of serving the public. But they are also individuals who need to fulfil that purpose, achieve mastery and have autonomy.

I’ll finish with some thoughts from Nic Marks of Happiness Works, also quoted in the Guardian article.  He says there are five things that will lead to engaged employees. I like these a lot, and can see how it would lead to a happy workplace. Do you think these create autonomy, mastery and purpose? I’d love to hear your views.


Connect with workers by fostering better relationships between employees and with customers. As part of this, think about enhancing collaborative spaces.

Be fair to your workers. Pay them fairly and ensure that they have a good work/life balance.

Empower your employees. Delegate more and ditch micromanagement.

Challenge your workers. Search for the “sweet spot” in which you stretch people without overloading them.

Inspire your workers by communicating the bigger picture of what you’re trying to achieve.

Further reading  

Stephen Covey. The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, Simon & Schuster Ltd

Malcolm Gladwell, Outliers: The Story of Success, Penguin

Isaiah Hankel PhD. Black Hole Focus. How intelligent people can create a powerful purpose for their lives, Capstone

Daniel H Pink. Drive. The Surprising Truth about what Motivates Us, Canongate

Simon Sinek. Start with Why. How Great Leaders Inspire Everyone to Take Action, Portfolio Penguin