Report – a review of some of the big issues facing the non profit sector

There are a lot of changes afoot in the world of work, and the non profit sector isn’t protected from them. In fact, it can be even more volatile than the private sector in some ways.

I wrote some time ago about workplace culture, but now I want to take it wider and look at a bigger picture of trends affecting non profit sector workplaces. What else is going on in the world of work that can affect how much you enjoy your work and how effective your team are? This post aims to look at the wider picture. Workplace culture has an effect on employee engagement, and we’ll have a look at that, as well as trends in employment generally, like zero hours contracts, part time and self employed working, and what’s happening in the voluntary sector. We’ll briefly cover some recent studies into the future of work and productivity, and the changes that technology is likely to bring.

Employment trends

The government is celebrating highest levels of employment since records began in 1971, but in the meantime, many charities are all too well aware that levels of poverty, including in work poverty, are increasing problems. The level of employment masks a growth in part time work, zero hours contracts and self employment – much of which is low paid, or not really self employment such as delivery driving. The voluntary sector is a big employer of part time staff, a significant proportion of whom would like more hours, and the highest proportion of staff on temporary contracts, so high levels of uncertainty and instability. Many people in the sector know that they are trading better pay and long term prospects for making a difference in the world, but that doesn’t mean they won’t suffer the consequences of low pay and uncertain employment status.

Skills shortages are affecting all sectors, though information on the non profit sector specifically is hard to come by. Despite the recent election and the challenges of Brexit, there are a few government reports that address the issue of work. The recent Taylor review of modern working practices examines what constitutes good work, and BEIS issued a green paper, to be followed in due course with a white paper, on the UK industrial strategy. (References are provided in the full report, available to download.)

And what about technology? It's hard to say how much this will affect the non profit sector, or how, but what is certain is that there will be changes. Some jobs will go, and others will be created in their place, and those who can adapt, as always, will weather the storm best. Jobs that need the human touch won’t be taken on by AI or robotics though. The data input finance person will be replaced, but the finance director won’t. Fundraisers won’t be replaced. Care staff will still be needed.

Voluntary sector

Ever since the banking crisis in 2008, the sector has been suffering from the financial squeeze. Voluntary funding is recovering slowly, but still not up to pre recession levels. Earned income has been rising slowly, to some extent compensating for this. But charities are having to do more with less, with rising demand for services in the wake of a shrinking public sector. Local authorities are fast approaching the point where they can only just about meet their statutory obligations, according to one report, and there will be little or nothing left for other services, leaving the non profit sector to fill in the gaps.

At the same time, public trust in charities is declining, possibly because of the unfavourable press they’ve received. This has led to a change in the regulatory framework. Whilst still called self regulated, I find it a bit of a stretch when we’re subject to some of the same regulations as other organisations, plus charity law. There is now the new Fundraising Regulator to monitor our fundraising communications, and the advent of GDPR law that comes into effect next May.


All this has cost implications for organisations. Not just in the sense of running costs, overheads, but in the effects they have on the leadership and staff. Productivity drops when people feel overwhelmed and overworked and unappreciated. Since the recession, government and business thinkers have been puzzled by the drop in UK productivity. Equally, there are those who link productivity to motivation, employee engagement and other factors at work. I previously said my favourite definition of workplace culture is the by product of consistent behaviour, and if you have a team who feel overworked and underappreciated, I’ll wager you have a culture you don’t really want. You may even have stated aims that run counter to this, but stated aims mean nothing in the face of consistent behaviour.

Sickness absence continues to be a cost for organisations, and stress is the biggest cause of long term absence. Presenteeism (where people come to work even though they are ill) is reported to be rising. Staff turnover is difficult to quantify for the non profit sector as a whole, but the costs of fully trained and experienced staff leaving, recruitment and training to replace them are undeniable.

Employee engagement is becoming a bit of a buzzword, but Gallup have been collecting figures on this for a decade, and their findings are remarkably consistent over this time; fully engaged staff are a minority. UK figures are not easy to find, and non profit sectors even thinner on the ground. If you’ve done a staff survey that may give you some indication about your organisation. But just measuring it and finding out if it’s low isn’t enough, what actions are you taking as a result of your findings? Engaged staff are committed to the purpose, enthusiastic advocates for your organisation, are more productive, stay longer and are less prone to sickness absence. What is it costing you to have staff who are not fully engaged? What is the cost of the actual culture being at odds with the culture you want to foster?


We live in interesting times, as the old saying goes. There are many challenges facing the non profit sector, and I’ve only really scratched the surface here, focusing on matters that will affect those employed in the sector.

With the challenges you’re facing – a difficult jobs market, skills shortages, rising demand for services, changes to the regulatory framework, technology, it makes sense to do what you can about the things you have some control over - overwork, stress, low productivity, absenteeism and high staff turnover. By making some changes to your leadership and management style, you can quickly increase engagement and notice the benefits of a better workplace.

I know from many years working in and with the non profit sector, it's full of people who are committed to doing their very best to make a difference in the world and help those with less.

By taking steps to make the workplace better, you're not just helping the people you work with, you're making a massive impact for the people your organisation serves too.

Want to know more? Download the Full Report

Seven mistakes managers make and how they affect your productivity

Lack of clarity

Your people don’t know what is expected of them, or why it is important. They don’t understand the purpose of their tasks, the mission, vision and values of the organisation. As a result, they are not meeting the organisation’s goals


You might be micromanaging because you’re a control freak, or possibly just because you are worried that your team don’t know how to do their work properly, or they won’t do it the way you want. As a result, no-one on the team wants to use their own initiative, creating more work for you instructing them.

Not investing

You don’t invest in your people, either with on the job coaching, or training and development programmes. You still expect them to get results though. This means that people stagnate, don’t develop and grow, and don’t become experts at what they do. They are either bored so not doing a good job, or bored so looking for something more worthy of their time.

Not communicating well

Communication is poor, with endless, pointless emails. No-one thinks of getting up and having a conversation to resolve problems, it’s all done on email. Which people don’t have time to read. Meetings are unproductive, seen as a waste of time, achieve no progress. People feel left out, they don’t know what they need to know (see lack of clarity).

Not showing appreciation

Everyone feels undervalued, so they won’t go the extra mile when it’s needed.

Lack of support

People don’t support each other – managers don’t support their team, colleagues don’t help others in the team. If someone is in difficulties, no-one offers to help. As a result, people feel overworked, overwhelmed, overloaded. People feel isolated, don’t feel as though they belong to team. Work doesn’t get done, and what is done is possibly not the most important things.

No trust

Managers don’t trust their staff to do their job properly, staff don’t trust that managers care about them, or are looking out for them. Trust is the really big one – it’s fundamental to how we work. And if it’s not there, it will take a long time to develop. But the results for your workplace are phenomenal.

Toxic workplaces

How do you recognise a toxic workplace?

If you’re in one, you’ll probably know. But just to put some definition on it, you will see some or all of the following

· Poor management

· Lack of autonomy – micro managers, lots of rules and regulations

· Blame culture – people afraid to make a mistake or own up to it, because of repercussions

· Bullying and harassment

· Bad working practices

· Work overload

· No recognition of effort

· Lack of trust

What effects does it have?

No-one enjoys coming to work. Morale and motivation are low, so productivity is low. More people are off sick because of work related stress. Or they come in to work when they are sick (presenteeism) so they’re not performing well, and maybe passing their germs onto the rest of you. Staff turnover is high, increasing costs of recruitment, leaving you to manage vacancies until you hire replacements. Which also increases stress on those remaining, and reduces your productivity again.

What’s your place in it


Good news if you’re the boss. You can do something about it, because a workplace culture usually comes from the top. General Eisenhower said ‘Leadership is the art of getting someone else to do something you want done because he wants to do it.’ This is just as relevant (maybe even more so) in the corporate, business or public services worlds than in the military. Your role is to create the conditions for your team to want to do the work. Not be doing it begrudgingly or half hearted, afraid of the repercussions if they don’t, but to do it because they want to.


As an employee in a toxic workplace you probably just get the fallout of the toxicity like everyone else. You’re having to work under the conditions outlined above, overworked, deal with poor management, getting little or no recognition or appreciation for your effort. You hate the job – or you might like the work, but hate the conditions you’re having to work in. A friend of mine works in a primary school with children who have special needs. She loves helping the children, but hates the management structure of the school and how she is treated by them.


In toxic workplaces there are often cases of bullying, harassment, someone being picked on or getting an unfair workload, or getting all the worst jobs. Everyone else lets this go on, because they don’t want to be the next in line to be picked on. The type of manager who operates through autocratic behaviour creates fear by intimidating her employees, bullying anyone who dares to questions her actions.

How can you respond?

You’ve got three basic choices

· Confront the problematic behaviour

· Ignore it and hope to stay under the radar

· Quit

These all have pros and cons, and likely outcomes. If you’re in a small organisation, how you take this forward will differ from a large, bureaucratic organisation that has policies, procedures, an HR department, but you still have essentially the three main options

If you want to confront a bully or poor manager, your strategy will depend on many factors, like your work relationship, how bad it is, what support you have, how strong you feel and what outcomes you’re willing to accept.

Likewise, if you’re planning to ignore it and stay under the radar, you need to consider all these factors, and the effect it will have on your stress levels, your emotional response and the effects on your home and personal life.

And of course quitting will depend on your financial and personal circumstances as well as your potential for finding something else

Guide for leaders and managers

If you are a leader or manager, your role is to create the conditions for your team to want to do the work of the organisation. If you have poor working relationships with your team, there are steps you can take to improve matters, like being clearer on expectations, avoid overloading with work, recognise achievements and create an atmosphere of trust.

Find out more

For more detail on these strategies, download my ebook, ‘A guide to toxic workplaces’.

Can you tell me if I’m onto something?

Does your organisation want to...

  • Reduce sickness absence?
  • Reduce staff turnover?
  • Improve employee engagement?
  • Improve employee wellbeing?
  • Improve staff performance?
  • Improve productivity?
  • Increase profits?

I am about to launch an innovative consultation service so that organisations can identify what works well, and what they can do to improve the factors listed above. However, first I'd like to validate the concept, test the market and refine the service I intend to offer.

This is where you come in. I’m offering a limited number of complimentary consultations to charities, social enterprises, schools, SMEs and other organisations, so that I can test the market. If you have one or more of these problems, begin by filling in the survey below, and I'll be in touch.

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Culture – the by product of consistent behaviour

A friend of mine took up running during her lunch break. What’s strange about that you may ask? Getting some exercise is good for you as a general thing, and during the lunch break, could be a good way to give yourself more energy and vitality during the afternoon. Well, she’s not really the running type, and the reason she took it up? She hates her colleagues so much, she’d prefer running to get away from the office so she could spend less time with them.

My favourite definition of culture is that it is the by product of consistent behaviour.[1] So what is going on in that workplace, consistently, to make someone prefer to take up an exercise they wouldn’t ordinarily be motivated to do? And what is my friend’s behaviour, going out alone at lunchtime instead of socialising with colleagues, what is her behaviour saying to her peers and bosses? It’s likely she would have developed a better understanding of her colleagues, and they of her, if she’d invited them along; shared activities are one way to develop good workplace relationships.[2]

I’ve worked in offices where staff were managed through control and fear. I remember one manager who told me, with some pride in her voice, that everyone who she had assessed as underperforming at their annual appraisal had gone on to leave the organisation. It apparently didn’t occur to her to wonder why people who had previously been good at their jobs were now underperforming. Or consider whether she had some responsibility for that.

I worked for a manager who kept all the information to himself, only sharing what he thought was necessary, and expected tasks to be completed how he wanted them done. Unsurprisingly, staff waited for approval before doing anything, and rarely showed initiative.

Sports Direct have come in for a lot of flak over their employment practices, but I’d like to pick out just one. Staff at their warehouse in Derbyshire are reported to be expected to submit to searches before and after leaving work to make sure they aren’t stealing the stock.[3] Trust comes up regularly as a key to good leadership, but why would an employee trust a leader who clearly doesn’t trust them? And if you’re judged untrustworthy, what are the chances you’ll try to live up to that expectation? Oh, and you’re not paid for the time you spent waiting to be searched. How likely is that employee to put themselves out for an employer who treats them with such disregard?

There is some good news though, it is possible to make changes for the better. A care home in Essex was one of the subjects of the scandal exposed by a Panorama programme, a couple of years ago, where elderly residents were routinely treated with abuse. Some staff were dismissed and prosecuted, but the new owners faced a major task to stamp out such behaviour. By adopting behaviours that model what good care is: the acronym KCR, meaning kindness, comfort and respect, was introduced in July 2014, the culture at the home has been transformed. “We said if we’re going to get everybody working in the same way and we’re going to really drive through … how we do things around here, unite everybody, we need to call it something,” “And it’s not just about how we treat the residents, it’s about how we treat each other as well.”[4]

But change is tricky. How do we change our consistent behaviour? Habits are hard to change. Research shows that it takes about two months to embed a new behaviour, and it’s best to only change one thing at a time. So what’s our motivation for making the effort?

There’s a growing awareness of the importance of workplace culture. There’s tons of research that shows people are more productive when they’re happy. When they’re not stressed. When they eat healthy food and get some exercise. When they see the bigger purpose of their work. When they have some mastery and autonomy over what they do. Not only are they more productive, but they are off sick less often, they are more likely to stay in their job.

So sure, change is tricky, but if you want your business to thrive, or even to survive, you will need to embrace it.

I’ll leave you with one final question – how is your behaviour impacting on your workplace, and is that creating the kind of culture you want?

Leave me a comment below, what changes do you think you could make?

[1] Fried, Jason and Hansson, David Heinemeier. 2010. Rework. Random House Group Limited, Chatham

[2] Friedman, Ron PhD, 2014. The Best Place to Work. The Art and Science of Creating an Extraordinary Workplace. Perigree, Penguin Group, New York

[3] https://www.theguardian.com/business/2015/dec/09/how-sports-direct-effectively-pays-below-minimum-wage-pay

[4] https://www.theguardian.com/social-care-network/2016/jun/09/care-home-tv-investigation-panorama-turned-around

Doctor examining a patient's x-ray anyone can make a mistake

Anyone can make a mistake

I was reading something recently about workplaces and working relationships, and was intrigued by this finding.[1] Apparently, some research was done about how many mistakes were made in a hospital. The research compared places where the people were comfortable, got along in the team, and all worked well together, with other places where there were not good working relationships.

The researchers were surprised to find that more mistakes were made in the hospitals where everyone got on well, not the ones with poor working relationships. This wasn’t what they expected to see.

Being good researchers, they investigated further to see why this might be.

What's going on?

I don’t know if you can see the answer coming, but the results weren’t so counterintuitive after all. It’s not that the good workplaces made more mistakes. It’s that they owned up to them. And, more importantly, learned from them.

Those places where people didn’t work well together, no-one wanted to own up to the mistakes. That’s quite frightening in a hospital don’t you think? It means possibly no-one is acting to put them right. If the mistakes are critical, or fatal – well, instead of getting help, the busy, stressed, incompetent, whatever adjective applies, worker, was probably trying to put it right by themselves. Or not, if they were indeed incompetent. Now, I’m not suggesting all healthcare workers who make mistakes like this are incompetent, most won’t be, but there’s bound to be some. But whatever the reason for the mistake, not owning up to it is costing people’s health and even lives. The lack of shared learning – how do we ensure this doesn’t happen again, is compounding the problem.

Matthew Syed in his 2015 book, Black Box Thinking, puts this problem under the spotlight, together with our attitude to failure.  You can find out more about this book in my review, watch it here.

We all know the NHS is under extreme pressure, and allowing these kinds of workplace cultures to persist in such a crucial sector is madness in my opinion.

Are we ready to learn the lessons?

But there are lessons for us whatever our sector. Do we want people who take responsibility, own up to mistakes, work to rectify and learn for the future? Or are we happy to continue with teams who don’t get along, are afraid to step up and take responsibility, develop and grow?

How about your own workplace? Can people be honest and open about errors, or do they cover them up because of an environment of fear? What impact does that have on your organisation's effectiveness?  Start the discussion by leaving a comment below.

[1] Unfortunately, I can’t remember where I read this to cite the source. A check of my recent reading material hasn’t enabled me to find it – but if I do, I’ll come back and cite.

Edit: I still haven't come across where I originally read this, but just recently came across an account of it in Black Box Thinking by Matthew Syed.  The research is by Amy Edmondson from Harvard Business School. You can watch my review of Black Box Thinking here


Amy Edmondson, 'Learning from Mistakes is Easier Said than Done: Group and Organisation Influences on the Detections and Correction of Human Error', Journal of Applied Behavioural Science, 32, no 1 (1996), 5-28​​​

Matthew Syed, Black Box Thinking (2015) John Murray, London

Workplace culture – what is it and why is it so important?

Is it important? You may think it isn’t, but I want to show you why I think it is important. Before that though, some wider questions need to be addressed. What do we mean by workplace culture? How do we know if we like it, or if we want to change it? How do we go about making changes?

Let’s start with some definitions

At its simplest, culture is often described as ‘the way we do things around here’. Not sure which business or management book I got this from, but I’ve come across it a few times. But then, that’s not really enough to help us answer those other questions – how do we know we’re happy with the current culture, or how do we change it?

This I believe is a more useful definition

Culture is made up of the values, beliefs, underlying assumptions, attitudes, and behaviours shared by a group of people. Culture is the behaviour that results when a group arrives at a set of - generally unspoken and unwritten - rules for working together. [1]

This is then influenced by the organization’s founder, executives, and other managerial staff because of their role in decision making and strategic direction. [2]

Or more simply, Fried and Heinemeier Hansson, in their book Rework, describe it as the by product of consistent behaviour. The behaviour you want your team to demonstrate, that’s the behaviour you should adopt. [3]

There’s lots of evidence that a strong workplace culture is good for organisations, good for the bottom line, and good for the people who work there. If you need convincing of that, I’ll come back to it another time. But if you want to improve your workplace culture, how do you go about it?

How do I know if it's good or bad?

Any assessment of culture is subjective of course. But there are things an organisation can do to assess its culture.

The first step would be to do an audit of current culture. Whilst culture can be a reflection of the founder or senior management team, as I’ve already observed, it’s a complex issue. Much of it is – as stated above – unspoken and unwritten, and shows up in daily work practices. An audit can bring some of these practices into the daylight. An audit done well, surveying the organisation at all levels, will also highlight differences in what management believe the culture to be, opposed to what is actually going on in teams, what your culture is in reality, and whether there’s any correlation between them.

For example, where the pursuit of organisational goals is the common aim, (and I’d argue that this is the aim for all organisations) individual targets and performance are not the drivers. This is a key point, often overlooked. Many organisations then set sales people against each other, rewarding those who make the most sales, encouraging a competitive atmosphere, which of course is counter productive when you want everyone to work together.

Once you’ve identified your current culture, as an organisation you can begin to think about what you’d like to change.

What does good look like?

This again will depend upon the organisation and its aims. However, poor quality employment is associated with low wellbeing. Job design, involvement in decision making, managerial competence, bullying and harassment, status, all determine quality of work experience. Many employers think gym membership and insurance will contribute to wellbeing. In my view, they are outsourcing the solution, and are probably outsourcing the problem too. They are placing responsibility for wellbeing back with the individual, and take no responsibility for factors mentioned above.[4]

So a good culture then, how do we recognise this? There are clues you can spot. Do you have low rates of staff turnover and sickness absence? Is everyone happy in their work? Do your people look forward to the work week, or dread that Monday morning feeling? How do they speak about your company or organisation? Are you achieving your business aims and objectives?

If it's bad, how do I change it?

Your audit may have identified some gaps between what you would like the culture to be, against what is actually going on. It is important to work out how covert behaviours develop to help to implement change. Unless you identify the behaviour, how and why it developed you can't then work out how to change.

However, this is the really tough one. Defining what culture is might be tricky, assessing it can be complex, but just wait till you decide to change it; we’re on a whole new level of difficulty now. Leaders must be creators and promoters of the preferred culture. Of course, if leaders are the problem with bullying styles of management, they are indeed the creators and promoters of the culture. As with any conflict situation, it behoves us all, leaders included, to ask what are we doing to contribute to or cause the problem?

Barriers to change

Research has shown that organisations which have little or no commitment to equality and diversity, whose cultures encourage dominant groups to hold power, are more likely to have climates where harassment and bullying thrive. I think it is no accident that cases of poor employment practices and exploitation of workers are becoming more prevalent in the current political climate. The current government demonstrates little or no commitment to equality and diversity, and the culture encourages dominant groups – large corporations, media, public school educated elites – to hold power.

The other key barrier to change is that it is hard, really, really hard. And takes years rather than months. There are no quick fixes. If you succeed, it makes the work environment better, it makes work more satisfying for the people who work there, and ultimately makes the world a better place.

If you want a more in depth analysis of these issues, download the ebook, Workplace culture - what is it and why is it important?

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[1] (Susan M Heathfield, 2016)

[2] (Susan M Heathfield, 2016)

[3] (Fried, et al., 2010)

[4] (IoD 2006 p15-16)


Fried, Jason and Hansson, David Heinemeier. 2010. Rework. Chatham : Random House Group Limited, 2010. 9780091929787.

Susan M Heathfield. 2016. Culture: Your Environment for People at Work. About Money. [Online] 2016. [Cited: 2nd June 2016.] http://humanresources.about.com/od/organizationalculture/a/culture.htm.

Institute of Directors. 2006. Wellbeing at Work. London : Director Publications Ltd, 2006.

Don’t you just love new technology?

You might notice that there's a big gap since my last post. Some things have got in the way – Christmas, family issues, another work project…. But mainly, IT problems. IT takes me out of my comfort zone, but I really want to get to grips with making some videos, because I want to share some tips on confidence in public speaking with you. I could just write them, but a demonstration is more powerful. And what about my credibility as a speaker if I can't speak to you?

However, speaking on video is a whole different ball game than speaking to a live audience. Put me in front of a live audience, and I'm good to go, it holds no fear. Ask me to appear on camera, and suddenly I'm self conscious. Who am I talking to, it's just an inanimate object? And that's even before I've considered setting up the camera.

So I've bought a mount for the iPad, spent weeks practising into it, trying to get the camera angle right. Eventually reasonably satisfied that it looks passable, my next challenge is to edit. Cue 30 day free trial of Camtasia, recommended by a trusted friend and mentor. Downloaded that ok, but my videos won't upload (have I said that right?) to the Camtasia editor. Support said try converting your .mov files into MP4 format using Handbrake. Ok, managed to download Handbrake without further mishap, but it still doesn't upload the videos I've filmed. Downloaded one, the one I didn't want, but the three I do want seem to be invisible. Then the penny dropped, I've used a TelePromter app to film the videos I want to use, I guess that's the problem.

I've also filmed part of the video on a Sony camera, and guess what? Camtasia can't deal with that format either - AVCHD. Or at least not easily, and I'll be honest, the help page on how to convert that file made no sense to me whatsoever.

I've given this up as a bad job, and will now be trying another editing software, a Sony one, that recognises AVCHD. Let's hope it can cope with the .mov files too, but it looks like I'll be filming them again without the Teleprompter. In the meantime, I heard a wonderful speaker, Lottie Hearn, on speaking on camera. Working through her book, Confidence on Camera, so hopefully I'll improve.

Finally, just to complete my IT woes, there's something wrong with my computer. Not sure if it's a virus or not, as it's only affecting my user account and no one else's. But the effect is that I can't access any of the programmes on my user account. All icons changed to Windows Media Player, and nothing will open. So my more IT savvy other half tried to sort it out. Now all the icons have changed to Microsoft Explorer, and still nothing will open.

I'm using another user account, and have accessed all my files, so not a complete disaster. However, I can't access my desktop Outlook account, with my emails, calendar and contacts. I know the files are there in a directory somewhere, but whilst I can easily find files I've saved in my own directories, finding the Outlook files is a bit beyond me.

Still, all is not lost. The emails will be on the server, right? All I need to do now is remember my password to my virginmedia account, and set up Outlook on my desktop again.

When did the preferred method change from POP3 to IMAP? Do you know what the difference is? I didn't, but I do now. POP3 downloads it to your desktop, and you don't have to concern yourself with the server again. IMAP downloads whatever is on your server to your desktop, every time you open Outlook. So in the six years I'd been using POP3 I'd not been on the server once, so every email I’d ever received was still on there. 34,697 of them – and rising. Now that I was on IMAP, my desktop downloaded every last one of them every time I opened the inbox. It took a while.

It took me two days to sort out the email mess and get it under control. But I still don't have access to my old diary or my contacts .

So, this sounds like a long list of excuses for why I've been silent on here (it is, let's be honest). But what are the takeaways? I guess

  • Sometimes stuff gets in the way, but it's important to get back to what you need to do
  • We have to get on and do stuff we’re not that good at and just do the best we can – overcoming challenges makes us stronger
  • We can't be good at everything – anyone want a job as my IT specialist?

Look out for my videos, I plan to make them available soon.

Confidence is a funny thing

Confidence is a funny thing.  It seems complicated and elusive.

But if we think about it, there are two main types of confidence.  There's the confidence we have in ourselves, that intrinsic self belief, or self esteem.  Lack of this confidence can seriously cripple us, make us feel we are not worthy of effort or time or even of being loved. I'm not an expert in psychology, so I'm not going to say too much about this.  I've got some theories, from reading numerous books, and from developing my own confidence over many years, but this isn't what I want to talk about today.

The other type is confidence to do a particular thing. Drive a car.  Cut hair if you're a hairdresser.  Balance the books if you're an accountant.  You weren't let loose on the road by yourself the first time you got behind the wheel.  You didn't start your level 2 NVQ in hairdressing by cutting hair on your first day, and you didn't turn in a full set of management accounts on the first day either.  These are all skills you had to learn.

And this is where confidence gets complicated.  You might be a bit nervous when you start to learn something new, but if it's something you always wanted to do, or something you've always had a natural flair for, then you're confident that you can master the skill.  You might have bad days, when you think it's too hard, but the motivation to succeed gives you the confidence to carry on.  But if it's something you believe is just too hard, or you think you don't have a natural ability, sometimes we let that lack of belief get in the way of doing something we really want to do.

Public speaking is one of those things.  People tell themselves they're no good at public speaking, or that they don't have the confidence to do it.  Or both of those.  But public speaking is a skill, just like any other.  There are things to learn about what makes a good speaker.  Anyone who wants to can learn these things. Yes, some people are naturally better than others, just like some people are naturally better at playing the piano than others.  And while the one with the natural talent could be a professional musician, the keen learner can still deliver a perfectly good rendition. So the naturally talented speaker might make a living on stage as a keynote speaker, but anyone can deliver a message so that people will listen.

With the skill side sorted out, the confidence develops.  As Dale Carnegie said right at the outset of his seminal book, “the first thing for the beginner in public speaking is to speak[1]”.  Experience is the best teacher, and you can't learn to speak without practising. Much like playing the piano or driving a car – hours of practice make a difference.

But the funny thing about public speaking and confidence is, the more confident you become at speaking, the more confident you become as a person. Win-win.

I once read, but can’t remember where now, there are five realms of confidence

  • People – meeting new people, relationships
  • Things – mechanical things, gadgets
  • Information – learning new information
  • Places – getting to new places, comfortable going somewhere new
  • Activities – doing physical activities, biking, trekking, bungee jumping

Give me information, I want to learn.  Put me in a room full of people, I want to talk to them.  Ask me to fix the photocopier because the paper jammed, and I want someone else to do it.  I‘ve little confidence in my abilities to solve this problem (Luckily I have a son who’s a great fixer.) So think about where you have the most confidence, and where you have less. But don’t be afraid to just do something if you want to, because experience is the best teacher.

I'd love it if you would share how speaking has helped you develop confidence.  Please tell your story in the comments below.

[1] The Art of Public Speaking, Dale Carnegie. Wyatt North Publishing

How to get over fear of public speaking



Back in July I told the story of my first public speaking experience.  I hope that might have helped you to jump in the deep end yourself and give it a go.  But if not, how else do you get over that fear?


You might think that I don’t understand just how terrified you feel about speaking in front of an audience, because I did it so long ago and have learned that the experience is not that frightening after all.  And in respect of standing in front of an audience, you’d be right.  But there are other things that terrify me, but I still do them.  Why? Why would I put myself through something that scares me so much, why not just avoid the issue?


Well, let’s take a couple of examples.  Firstly, I don’t like driving.  Maybe I’m not terrified of driving, but it definitely makes me anxious.  I’d rather avoid it if I can, and usually travel by public transport as much as possible.  But there are times when the journey is such a pain by public transport.  To my dentist surgery for example.  It’s either two bus journeys and a fifteen minute walk, or one bus journey and two fifteen minute walks.  And then the same back.  Or it’s a ten minute drive.  Obviously, in this case, the pay off for taking the car far outweighs avoiding the drive. (Plus, I’m going to the dentist! I’d sooner avoid that too, but the payoff of keeping my teeth outweighs the trauma of going to the dentist).


Or another thing, I don’t like flying.  Should I give in to that fear and not go on holiday to Florida?  Or do I try to relax, not think about what could go wrong, get on the plane and enjoy some Florida sunshine in January?  I want the winter sun, the fun times with my family, so I get on the plane, even though I’m afraid.


So the upshot is, if the payoff is worth conquering your fear, you will do it.  So ask yourself, what is the payoff for getting over your fear of speaking? It could be

Whats in it for you

  • Getting a job – excelling at interviews
  • Being heard – having your views considered at work
  • Maybe even persuading someone to your point of view
  • Representing your organisation effectively at networking events
  • Improve your career prospects by standing out from the crowd
  • Improved confidence and self esteem
  • Having integrity and remaining true to your values


And really, if I can face my fear of planes crashing, you can face your fear of standing in front of an audience. After all, public speaking won’t kill you – and it’s a myth that people are more afraid of public speaking than dying.

Pretty, young woman using her mobile phone/speaking on the phone in a public area (shallow DOF; color toned image)

I’d love to hear how you’ve conquered that fear.  And if you still want to work on it, drop me a line so we can talk about how I could help. Lindsay.milner@silverntraining.com