I’m going to hazard a guess that you’ve seen managers who don't know how to manager, can’t motivate their staff. Maybe even worked for one. Hopefully haven’t been one, but sometimes, you know, that happens too - we can all learn to be better. Often, this is because of poor workplace culture – not always, there are cases of one off ineffective managers in good organisations, but in the main, the poor managers are a result of poor organisations in my opinion.
What if you’re unfortunate enough to find yourself working in one of the places with some of these managers? How do you deal with that? Can you change the culture by yourself, or does the culture come from the top? As a comment in a previous post asked, ‘Is this really the responsibility of the individual if they are a lone voice? … Is it the responsibility of the management, organisation or team to change the culture?’
As I’ve argued before, if you are a lone voice with no power or authority within a toxic work environment, then no, realistically, you’re not going to make a significant difference. Does this mean you shouldn’t try? If you’re stuck with the job, even for the time being, surely you want to make some effort to improve things?
I recently re-read Stephen Covey, 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, and one concept that was a bit of lightbulb moment for me was reading about circle of concern vs circle of influence. I realised I’d been getting all bent out of shape over things I couldn’t impact. Brexit, Donald Trump, austerity…my circles of concern. When it would be much more beneficial and impactful if I focussed on my circles of influence – where I could make a difference.
Let’s apply this to the toxic workplace. Can you change government policy and get them to make the right investment in your public sector service, so that it can properly serve the people it claims to serve? No. (Ok, my politics might be showing a bit here)
Can you change the strategic plan your managers and leaders are working towards? Mmm, maybe, a little, but unlikely. Depends what stage it’s at.
Can you change the targets your manager wants you to work towards? Again, maybe. Put together a good argument for why the targets are unrealistic, and a proposal for revised targets. If your manager has a little wiggle room, then you may be able to get them agreed. If the culture is very poor, maybe even that wouldn’t be successful. But give it a go – you won’t know unless you try.
Can you change your manager’s behaviour towards you? Not directly, you can’t make them change.
Can you change your behaviour towards your manager? Ah, there we have it. You can change your behaviour. You can change your response to your manager’s behaviour, and that in itself might result in a change of your manager’s behaviour.
Ditto your colleagues. You can’t make them change, but you can change your behaviour towards them, and their behaviour back might just change too.
Again, none of this is simple. If it was just as simple as deciding to change, and then doing it, we all would. But we’re creatures of habit, and changing habits is really hard. I mean, really, really hard. So let’s start with some simple things, and here’s an idea you can try out.
Give a cheerful greeting. Say a cheery good morning to everyone you meet as you arrive at work. If no-one does this at your workplace, people will be surprised at first. But persist. They’ll start to reply, and slowly it will alter the atmosphere slightly. When someone asks how are you (or that Brummie greeting of ‘alright?’, where you’re just meant to say ‘alright’ back) answer ‘Fantastic thanks!’ This is really fun to do, especially if your customary answer is ‘not too bad thanks’. People will want to know why you’re feeling fantastic, you’ll develop new connections with people you’ve not really spoken to before, and it will alter your own mood – it’s tricky to feel miserable or say ‘Fantastic!’ in a glum voice. Starting in these small ways will develop into a changed way you greet people generally, and you will make a difference.
The more you change your behaviour and responses to others, the more you will find your circle of influence grows.
Try this for a week, and let me know in the comments section how you get on. What difference has it made?
Want more tips like these? Download 7 things you can do to make work better today
World Mental Health day today then. It’s trending on Twitter under three different hashtags, several more on Instagram, Linked In has articles on it, people are posting memes on Facebook. I’ve also had emails on it, telling me what organisations are doing to raise awareness of mental health issues.
This is all very well, and I’m not saying it won’t help for people to be more aware and more sensitive to the issues surrounding mental illness.
But what really winds me up is organisations talking about what they’re doing to ‘raise awareness’, and what they’re not talking about is stress at work. How much is the workplace the cause of the mental health issues their people are experiencing? Are they working in poor conditions? Too much work leading to long hours? A culture that frowns upon anyone who leaves on time or doesn’t get in extra early? Having to take work home? A micromanager? A bully for a manager? Or management by absence?
I listened to the Birmingham Chamber of Commerce podcast today, with interviewees from two large organisations in Birmingham talking about what they’re doing about mental health. Apart from a mention that work addiction is an addiction too, there was nothing about the role the workplace plays in causing mental health issues. There was a lot of talk about raising awareness.
Now these two businesses might be great places to work, but equally, they may be creating stress for their employees. If they’re not talking about it, chances are, nothing is being done about it. If their people have any of the issues I mentioned causing them stress at work, what are these organisations doing to address that problem? Are there genuine solutions available to them, and are they encouraged to take them up?
Birmingham Chamber also says that poor mental health and wellbeing is costing the West Midlands region more than £12 billion a year. The CIPD’s annual survey into health and wellbeing at work shows that stress is one of the top three causes of long term absences across all sectors, and the top cause of long term absence in the public and non-profit sectors. So it really doesn’t pay to ignore this issue.
One exception I did find on Twitter is Prof Sir Cary Cooper, speaking at the Mad World conference. He says that employers need to identify what could be damaging workers’ wellbeing, instead of looking for quick fixes like mindfulness at lunch. Prof Cooper is a professor of organisational psychology and health at MBS Manchester University, so has some authority to make these observations. Although it’s so obvious that if people are overworked for long periods of time, they’ll get stressed, and that will eventually result in sickness absence, I don’t understand why more employers don’t see this.
If you’re overworked and it’s having an effect on your mental health, I recommend you read How to do a great job and go home on time by Fergus O’Connell. It has some great strategies to deal with this problem. This book review tells you a little more about it.
You can also join my 30 day challenge to change how you feel about work.[WPMKTENGINECTA id=”20c659a041b84a93bf” align=”center” hastime=”false”]
O’Connell, Fergus 2005 How to do a great job and go home on time Pearson Education Limited, Harlow
I recently delivered a short session on personal branding for a group of young people, on a Fastlaners course run by Uprising. Uprising is a youth charity, and Fastlaners is a short course to help ambitious young people with their careers.
A little bit of a departure for me – while I’ve done plenty of sessions for groups of young people, I’d never done personal branding before. But hey – I could do that.
I found while I was preparing that there’s quite a lot of cross over with stuff I’ve done before, stuff I’d done in the recent series of #abookintwominutes, and things related to confidence and public speaking.
We’re hearing a lot about how millennials (I think they still count as millennials? What have we decided to name the people after millennials?) don’t want to work hard, don’t want to get off their phones, don’t have any loyalty to their employers. In short, they want it all their own way.
I don’t believe this is true. The young people in this group all want to get on in the world, they all want decent jobs. I don’t think they’re that different to most others in this respect. Oh, and I didn’t see one mobile phone in the session I delivered.
On the other hand, I believe setting their own terms is a good thing. Why would they have any loyalty to an employer who doesn’t care about them as employees?
A couple of issues I wasn’t expecting came up, and mainly at the end, when they started asking questions about my background. And I realised I’d missed some opportunities. So here's the advice I gave them, and some I wish I ‘d given them.
I was asked, how do you have enough confidence? We talked about things like, fake it till you make it. Some the group were quieter and said little, others were more vocal. Either is fine, it’s all about your personality.
There are two types of confidence. There is the inner confidence in yourself – maybe self esteem is more accurate. The knowledge that you are worth something and have something to offer. I hope all the young people in the group have this – well, all young people to be honest. If not, seek help. Read books on confidence, change your beliefs about yourself, get professional help such as counselling if necessary.
The second is dependent on the situation. I don’t like driving. I’m confident enough to drive a short way, or even further if it’s a route I know, but not confident to take the motorway to Manchester for example. More on this can be found in this earlier post
There are ways to look and sound more confident, even if you don’t feel it.
One young woman told me how she wanted to find work in fine art and illustration. She had earned a degree in this, and had some relevant voluntary work experience. However, she is looking for work in the retail sector, so she can get some actual work experience on her CV. Whilst I admire her pragmatism, it would be a real pity for her to not pursue her real desire. What I wish I’d suggested is – get out there. Even if you are working in retail, blog, vlog, Instagram, Pinterest, podcast, whatever social media works in your desired field, do something and get out there.
I recently read Crushing It by Gary Vaynerchuk, and he is a big advocate of using social medial for your personal brand, to raise profile. Do this, and when you’re ready to make the transition to your chosen field, you have some assets, a track record, instead of having a standing start. I recommend a read of Crushing It, it’s an uplifting book as well as practical.
I mentioned the Rules of Work by Richard Templar. There is a lot of practical advice in there on how to get on at work, but there were one or two bits I disagreed with. However, fitting in, learn the system and make the most of it is practical advice. Not in a cynical or dishonest way, but fitting in to the workplace culture is a must. If it’s a poor fit for you, do your best while you look for something else. You spend a big chunk of your life at work – if you don’t fit, it leads to a miserable existence. I know, I’ve been there.
I mentioned the job early in my career when I was bullied by a manager, and was asked how to deal with this. Not expecting the question, I don’t think I was very reassuring, and I hope I didn’t create fear around this. Whilst it can happen, it isn’t a certainty in everyone’s career. How to deal with it effectively? This is a lot easier if you have inner confidence (see 1 above).
If it happens – if someone makes aggressive or passive aggressive comments to you, the best way is to deal with it immediately. Let them know you understand what they’re doing, that you expect to be treated with respect and won't play mind games.
If things do get out of hand, go to your HR department or another manager for help. There are resources out there should you find yourself in this situation, and this earlier post gives more details.
Have a clear idea what’s important to you. What are your values, what does work mean for you? Your’re entitled to look for this. Yes, you have to play your part too, but being assertive and confident in what you want out of life and expecting to get it as a reward for everything you put in isn’t too much to ask.
We talked a lot about authenticity and integrity, and examining your values in this way can help you to bring your best self to work.
It was a pleasure to meet you all, and I wish you all the luck in the world in finding work you love. And if any of you do start a blog, vlog, podcast or something else, let me know, I’ll be delighted to share it on.
I was reading something recently about workplaces, and working relationships, and was intrigued by this finding. Apparently, some research was done about how many mistakes were made in a hospital, comparing 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.
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, and 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.
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.
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.
 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.
Having told you about three different instances about difficult relationships I had with bosses, I’m now going to look at a couple of different examples. Firstly I’ll look at a time the manager responded appropriately, and secondly I’ll look at the time I was the trustee and acting as a manager.
I mentioned in my last post that I worked for a manager (I’ll call her Rebecca, it will make the storytelling easier) who gave me some complex work at very short notice, and in at least one instance it was work she was supposed to have done. Now, maybe I had some paranoia about being bullied based on previous experience, but something didn’t feel quite right about this. I felt I was being set up to fail, but couldn’t quite put my finger on what was wrong.
In addition, I had enrolled on a PGCE course to teach post 16s. So I was working four days a week, at college one day a week, and somewhere in between I had to do 75 hours teaching practice each year for two years. It was hard work, harder than working full time with a young baby or studying full time for a degree while looking after my small son, probably the hardest thing, work wise, that I’ve ever done. Four months from the end of my two year course, work gave me an ultimatum. They wanted me to go full time and show my commitment to the organisation. The manager delivering this message was my manager’s manager (I’ll call her Jeanette), so I initially thought she was the bad guy. The choice then – give up the teacher training four months from qualifying, the hardest thing I’ve ever done, something I really wanted to achieve, or give up the job, which I no longer loved. Even though I had no job to go to, I decided the job had to go. I couldn’t quit the course so close to the end.
I handed in my resignation. The director of the development department, three levels up of boss, (I’ll call him David) spoke to me about it, and in the course of our discussion, I told him I wouldn’t be bullied into giving up my course. He immediately noticed the word, and said that if that was the case, he would have to investigate, and did I want that? Not in a threatening, ‘You don’t want that, do you?’ way, but in a sincere, concerned, ‘That’s not right and I can’t let that just pass’ way. He gave me time to consider it.
As I said, it was a strange situation, in that I felt Rebecca had set me up, I’d never had any problems with Jeanette until this, and I also felt that Rebecca had set Jeanette up to do this. But as Jeanette was delivering the message, and was the more senior manager, and I had absolutely no evidence against Rebecca, I decided not to pursue a complaint. If I’d been staying, maybe I’d have acted differently, at least being more on my guard in my interactions with Rebecca. But at the time, I still thought it might be paranoia on my part, and said that maybe I’d overreacted. I genuinely still don’t know about Rebecca, one way or the other. But my advice, even if it’s just a niggling doubt about someone’s motives, is keep a record of the times you’re unhappy about.
My overriding recollection of David though, is of a sensitive leader, willing to listen and act upon problems, even the most difficult ones, genuinely concerned about the wellbeing of staff as well as the operational requirements of the organisation.
The second story concerns the time the shoe was on the other foot, and I was in the leadership role as a charity trustee. An ‘us and them’ situation developed, and we (I) never managed to overcome this and get to the point where we were all working as one towards the same aim. Again, it would be very easy to lay the blame at someone else’s door. There were several difficult relationships here, but I’m just going to focus on one, let’s say her name was Karen.
Initially, I got on well with Karen, but things became increasingly difficult between us. Our work styles were very different – Karen was efficient, and liked advance notice, clear instructions and boundaries, I was in a difficult situation where I didn’t always know the answers, couldn’t always give her the clear instructions, and I’m a last minute kind of woman. As chair of trustees, I should not really have been involved in operational management, but without an office manager, CEO or other manager in the office, had no alternative but to take on that role. Neither of us was afraid to speak up and say what we thought, but sometimes both of us did this inappropriately. I once lost my temper with her, in front of other staff; I felt provoked, but should not have reacted that way.
As our working relationship deteriorated, it got to a point where I always had to get another trustee to act as go between and convey information between Karen and me, which brought its own issues after I found out that at least one other trustee had been leaking confidential emails to the staff. In meetings, Karen would not engage in discussion with me, would avoid eye contact and address all her remarks to others. She would disagree with me constantly. I remember during one meeting, I had received an offer of help from a management consultant, put this to the other trustees and staff, and Karen said we didn’t need his help, should keep it in house. Another trustee backed her up. Next time, when training for new trustees was mentioned, but we couldn’t afford it, I offered to deliver some training. I am a trainer after all, and had been a trustee for about three years by now, and had been on governance training at my own expense. On this occasion, Karen’s view was that we shouldn’t keep it in house, we needed external training. Whether this was because it was me suggesting it or me delivering it or both, I don’t know, but I couldn’t help but smile at the contradiction.
I don’t want to beat myself up too much because of this failed relationship, because I was under a lot of other pressures at the time too. I didn’t get a great deal of support from the other trustees until the last nine months of my term, and the problems were numerous. However, I didn’t understand that the employees were afraid that they would lose their jobs because of the financial instability, or that they didn’t have faith in us as trustees that we could do what was necessary to save the organisation and their jobs.
In hindsight though, I now think that much of Karen’s behaviour towards me could be classed as bullying. I didn’t think of it as such at the time, but constant hostility, either ignoring me, disagreeing with me, no eye contact at meetings, even though I was chairing, excluding me from conversations, refusing to accept apologies or discuss what had happened with a view to resolving… sounds a lot like bullying. I am aware that I have to examine my own behaviour too, and I’m not sure if I can claim to be innocent of behaviour others might think of as bullying. I hope not, and it is difficult for me to be precise now. It’s more than twelve months later and I’m no longer in communication with Karen, though we did reconcile before I left.
I guess the moral of the second story is that often, a target of bullying doesn’t recognise it as such whilst it is going on. And it’s not just managers with formal authority who can bully, staff can bully managers too. So if you think something like this is going on for you, what can you do? Don’t be like me and let it go on for too long, take some action. I’m not going to pretend that taking action is easy though. Some resources that I’ve found really useful that could help you through this, firstly there is the classic by Andrea Adams, which first raised the issue of bullying at work back in the early 90s, still a useful read for targets of bullying. More recently, Aryanne Oade has written with some practical strategies, including how to deal with bullying staff. And if it’s academic research you’re interested in, I can recommend Workplace Bullying by Rayner, Hoel and Cooper; a good insight, although the research is out of date now. Full details of books below.
The other thing, though, is that these two examples confirm my view that the culture is the responsibility of the organisation. David reacted immediately to the suggestion of bullying, indicating it was not acceptable. At the charity, we did not have that culture of supportive relationships where we were all working towards the same aim, and the ‘us and them’ culture allowed unhelpful relationships to fester.
I’d love to hear your views – have you had to deal with similar situations?
Andrea Adams. Bullying. How to confront and overcome it, Virago
Aryanne Oade. 2015. Free Yourself from Workplace Bullying, Mint Hall Publishing
Charlotte Rayner, Helge Hoel and Cary L Cooper. 2002. Workplace Bullying. What we know, who is to blame, and what can we do? Taylor and Francis
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
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.
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?
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.
I’d love to hear your views – what does it mean to you to have autonomy in your workplace?