In her book ‘How to have a great day at work’ Caroline Webb suggests that a technique of improvisational comedy is a good way to give brain friendly feedback. ‘Yes, and….’ instead of ‘Yes, but…’ fosters collaboration and helps bring out the best in others.
Ever since I read this, I’ve been intrigued to learn more about improv. Facebook must have known this, because they kept telling me about a local course, starting soon. I signed up.
I mean, I love my books but some things you can’t learn from a book, you’ve got to get out in the real world, meet real new people and do new things. I thought this would be fun. A little bit out of my comfort zone – I once did a short stand up comedy course, ending with a showcase performance. That was a bit scary, but I rehearsed and knew my routine. Improv – well, that’s a whole different ball game, but I thought it would be fun, so what the hell?
It is not what I expected. I don’t know what I expected, but this wasn’t it. On our second meeting, we were asked to stare into someone’s eyes for two minutes and imagine their life. I knew next to nothing about these people. One guy (they are mostly guys, only one other woman, although the trainer is a young woman) the only thing I know about him is that he’d just been accepted onto a wimp to warrior MMA training programme. I don’t know what that is, but it sounds serious. Another guy, the only thing I knew about him is that he’s autistic and didn’t like the light in the room we were in. And the third guy, I know his name, but that’s about it. But then I eased into it a bit and started making stuff up. Which I think is what we were meant to do.
We also created a soundscape. For those of you who don’t know what that is – and again, I didn’t – it involves sitting in an outward facing circle, in the dark, with our eyes closed, making noises. Mostly copying other people’s noises, but occasionally dropping in a new one. Now, ask me to stand up in front of an audience to speak and I’m good to go. But you want me to sit in the dark, with my eyes closed, amongst strangers, and make funny noises? Seriously? Do I have to?
We also learned the ‘Yes, and…’ technique. Whatever someone said, you had to accept it and build on it. I got involved in drug smuggling in Colombia and found I had an alcohol problem on holiday in the Caribbean. I think there were drugs there too. (We’re new, not sure we had the right idea.)
You might be wondering why I’m telling you all this. Well, even though I’d started out with the knowledge that improv could foster collaboration at work and bring out the best in others I was nevertheless surprised at the life lessons in the first two classes. Here’s a few of the things I learned.
You don’t leave it to someone else, be proactive, participate and remember it’s always your turn. How useful is this at work? Ever work in one of those places (public sector is good at this) where people take the attitude ‘I’m not doing that, it’s not my job’? How much better would it be if everyone had everyone’s back, and just jumped in and did what’s necessary?
They may come out with something completely random or out of character – I mean, do you think I’d actually get involved in drug smuggling? But it’s been said, so work with it, and make the other person look good.
Imagine if everyone at your workplace used this principle, that they always had to make everyone else look good? There wouldn’t be problems of people taking credit for others’ ideas, because everyone would be focusing on making their managers, their team members and their colleagues look good. The level of collaboration would sky rocket, and so would productivity.
I discovered I have a problem letting things go. I’ve never considered myself a control freak. I’m usually the one suggesting other people let it go. Driving for example, and some idiot cuts in front, others get all worked up, honking and swearing at the other driver. I’m the one saying you’re only winding yourself up, let it go.
But when we start to take turns adding bits to a story, I was really frustrated if someone didn’t say what I thought they should. I did not like giving up the control to others or letting go of the outcome.
Autonomy at work is a key driver of motivation, so if you’re a manager finding it difficult to give up control, you’re stifling your team. Like me, you’re going to have to learn to let it go.
I found the exercises helped to develop empathy. Even though I was making it up, I felt empathy for the people whose eyes I sat staring into. And it also made me want to know more about them. It was good to develop some curiosity about someone else, especially if you’re the kind of person who doesn’t naturally consider things from someone else’s perspective. Putting yourself in someone else’s shoes at work would get rid of much conflict.
It was a difficult exercise to do, I totally get that this is a bit full on for work, and not everyone would be comfortable throwing themselves into this. But (ah damn, I said ‘but’!) if you can at least stop and consider someone else’s position before reacting, then working relationships will be smoother.
Are you a good listener? An active listener? Too often, we’re not fully listening to what someone else is saying, we’re waiting for our turn to speak.
Feeling heard is a powerful motivator. Disempowered people often feel that their concerns aren’t being heard, and at work this can lead to resentment, which in turn leads to low motivation, and then low productivity. Even just on a practical level, if you’re not listening to problems that others at work are experiencing, you’re also shutting off possible solutions
I’m not suggesting all workplaces introduce courses in improvisational comedy – though that could be fun – but it doesn’t hurt to borrow techniques that can improve your day at work.
What do you think? Is there a particular behaviour you could improve to make things better at work?
When Gallup created their poll into engagement at work, they added a question about whether you had a friend at work. Critics said it wasn't a useful question, but Gallup stood firm. Their poll consistently shows that having a friend at work is a good indicator of engaged employees.
In The Best Place to Work, Ron Friedman said the keys to lasting workplace relationships are proximity, familiarity, similarity and self disclosure. And our old friend reciprocity pops up again. Friedman quotes from the research
If you want two people to connect … factual exchanges aren’t enough. What you need is for people to reveal intimate information about themselves in a reciprocal fashion. Having one person talk and the other listen won’t get the job done, it will leave one person feeling exposed. …both partners need to self disclose.
Friedman also states that the more frequently colleagues talked about non work matters, the closer they tended to be.
But obviously trying to force this doesn’t work. Self disclosure has to be done naturally and over time. Setting up ‘team building’ days where everyone is expected to share experiences can alienate some people. I well remember being forced to stand in a circle for group singing, which I hated. I also remember the mother of my daughter’s friend blurting out to my mother in law she’d just come back from the marriage guidance counseller – within minutes of meeting my mom in law! I mean, I hardly knew the woman, it was oversharing to tell me.
That’s why shared activities can be useful. The after work drinks might be one way to do this, but isn’t always practical for everyone, if they have domestic or other commitments to get to. So what about a shared lunch? Or a walk during the lunch break. A friend told me that at one place she used to work, someone would get a quiz book, and they’d spend 15 minutes or so answering quiz questions. It wasn’t a pre planned thing, someone would just bring the book out. But you could have an inter team quiz scheduled. Make a small charge for charity and you’re helping someone out, so a double win. Don’t make it an inter team event, but say that all teams must have a mix of members from other departments, and you’re spreading the love even further. Another example I heard of is a group yoga session after work. If you have a suitable space, you could all chip in and pay for a group teacher.
If you’re the manager and you can find a small budget for one or more of these activities, it’s a great way to foster team spirit and wellbeing for not much outlay.
Even if you’re not the manager, and there’s no budget, you can initiate something. Make it something you like to do, and you’ll be more motivated to organise it on a regular basis. Don’t force it – if it’s something you enjoy, hopefully there will be others who enjoy the same activity. If one doesn’t work, try something else. Take ideas from other places you’ve worked, what worked there? Join in if someone else organises something – the support you offer will also help you to develop the relationship.Leave a comment below – what’s worked for you to help you create friendships at work?
The law of reciprocation is a strong social norm. We pay someone a compliment, they feel an obligation to make one in return. We give someone a small gift, they feel awkward about accepting it, and giving something in return helps them to accept. We help someone out, they want to help us in return.
One of my favourite fables crops up now and again in the personal development genre, and I’m going to share it again here. I can’t attribute it, because I don’t know where it originated, nor where I read it.
There was once a traveller, who came to a walled city. At the entrance to the city, there stood an old man, greeting everyone who approached. The traveller greeted the old man, and asked,
‘What are the people like in this city?’
The old man didn't answer right away and asked the traveller,
‘What are they like where you are from?’
The traveller replied,
‘Oh, horrible! Everyone is miserable, no-one has got time to help anyone, they are all selfish!’
The old man replied,
‘That is how you will find the people in this city too’.
The next day, another traveller approached and greeted the old man. He too asked,
‘What are the people like in this city?’
Again the old man asked,
‘What are they like where you are from?’
This traveller replied,
‘Oh, I’m from a very friendly place, everyone helps their neighbour, they are very kind to visitors, and always have a smile for everyone they meet.’
The old man replied,
‘That is how you will find the people in this city too’.
This fable shows it’s not just tangible things we reciprocate, it applies just as much to how we act with people. If there’s a habit in your workplace of not helping each other, not giving positive feedback, then you may find your behaviour falling in with the norms. I once did this myself – I worked with a couple of people who were constantly complaining about not being appreciated by their managers, morale was low, that I eventually found myself joining in. This was a while ago, and although I recognised what was happening, I didn’t have the strategies to overcome it at the time. And unfortunately, after I left, I was remembered as complaining too much – a former manager said the one thing I should work on was being more positive.
It takes someone to break the mould. To do something good for someone. Give positive feedback to a colleague, help them out if they need it, or just take a basket of fruit in now and again for everyone to share. Once one person does it, then someone else will reciprocate. Before you know it more will join in, and the culture of the workplace will shift.
Be the one to instigate the change. It’s powerful.
If you want more tips like this, get the download, ‘Seven things you can do today to make work better’.
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
New 30 day challenge to change how you feel about work.
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Some studies have been reported in the HR press this week, I share my thoughts about a couple of statistics.
Links here to the reports mentioned
Last week's post told Jeanette's story, and showed how untrustworthy managers can cause problems.
Firstly, it does fall to this manager to be willing to look at his behaviour and determine to develop his skills and alter his approach. Or it falls to his managers to encourage him, or get rid of him. But let’s suppose he is willing to change. How can he develop the trust of his team?
Stephen Covey, in The Speed of Trust, says that it can be done, even though it is tougher to regain trust once lost.
There are four elements – two relate to character, two relate to competence, and all four rely on each other.
The four elements are
Let’s look at what each of these mean.
Doing the right thing – even if no-one is watching. Integrity is more than honesty, it’s also congruence, humility and courage. After Gandhi spoke for two hours without notes to the House of Commons, his secretary said ‘What Gandhi thinks, what he says, what he feels, are all the same.’ And it’s important to have the courage to do the right thing, even when it’s difficult.
We all make mistakes. But what’s important is our intent. If we believe that someone’s intent is to help, do good, then we will feel we can trust them. But if we don’t trust their intent, how can we trust them? Using the example above, if we think the manager’s intent in yelling at his junior staff member was to help them learn (alright, that’s a stretch, but if he was normally helpful, and this was out of character, then we might accept that the telling off was meant to help her not to do it again) and we would still have trust for the manager. But if we know the other stuff about him, we’ll believe the roasting will be to protect his own behind, and that he has no interest in actually helping his team member to develop and grow. And the mistrust is what will develop and grow.
Moving on to competence, we will not trust someone who we don’t think can do what we expect them to do. You might trust your GP for example. But if she then says you need open heart surgery, and she will do it for you, you’re unlikely to trust such a specialised procedure to a general practitioner with no experience in surgery.
What results have been delivered? Moving back to the manager (I should give him a name – maybe I’ll call him Ron – Ron Manager?) what results has he delivered? The job of a manager is to get the best out of his people. Probably to help retain expertise for his organisation, reduce stress and sickness absence. Ron is losing people left right and centre, there’s above average sickness absence, and those that stay don’t perform very well, motivation is at an all time low.
On the other hand, a manager who has a happy and productive team obviously has their trust, and equally important, trusts his team to carry out the organisation’s purpose without looking over their shoulder, and knows they will go above and beyond when it’s needed.
If you would like to improve trust within your organisation, I’d recommend reading ‘The Speed of Trust' by Stephen Covey with Rebecca Merrill, see below for more details.You can also give me a call to talk about how Silvern Training can help you achieve a positive, dynamic workplace using our seven guiding principles of Pam Cast.
Call Lindsay on 0121 624 1957
Covey, Stephen M R and Merrill, Rebecca R 2006. The Speed of Trust. Free Press, a division of Simon & Schuster, Inc New York
Apparently, we love it more than we love a pay rise. (Ok, that assumes we’ve already got enough to live on, and I know that unfortunately there are too many people who can’t say that. I don’t think that’s right, and we should do something about that. But that’s not the problem I’m working on today.)
A 2012 study at Berkeley university found that while a pay rise briefly made us feel appreciated, a far better indication was the respect and admiration of our peers. We do love a pay rise – let’s be honest, even if you’re not mainly motivated by money, a bit more is usually good. However, the feel good factor soon wears off, and we get used to that extra income pretty quickly. According to that study though, we never get used to feeling the respect and admiration of our peers.
What happens if we don’t get respect and admiration? A friend of mine used to work as a teaching assistant, working with children who had special needs, to help them integrate into mainstream education. A worthwhile and rewarding job, you’d think. And she did love the children, and enjoyed helping them with their schooling. But the teachers in this particular school saw the job as low importance and she always felt that the head teacher didn’t value her contribution or that she was a useful member of the team. Unsurprisingly, she eventually left.
Failure, burnout, stress, no motivation – these are all symptoms when you don’t feel appreciated at work. They are common in jobs like call centre work, retail, low paid work. And of course results in lots of stress and high turnover of staff.
So let me turn this around – if you’re a manager, how often do you show your appreciation for your team? Do they feel respected and valued? How many of your team have the respect and admiration of the rest of the team?
You might think you’re too busy to show appreciation. But as a manager of staff, that’s a key element of your job. And yes, I understand you need that too. Which brings us to workplace culture. If you have a culture of ‘too busy’, stressful, no time, don’t care about people, then you get what you deserve – people who are too busy to do a good job, people who are too stressed to give their best, people who will leave as soon as something that looks better comes along.
Even call centres can have a culture of looking after their staff. The Admiral Group is regularly named as one of the best places to work. In his account of working part time at their Cardiff call centre, James Bloodworth says
‘…even dull jobs could be made bearable for the workforce without any real cost to employers. Working in the retentions department of a car insurance firm was as dull as I had expected it to be. Yet the company did make a serious effort to ensure that it was not the sort of workplace that, sat at home watching Coronation Street in the evening, you dreaded returning to the next day. It was tolerable, and most of the staff I spoke to seemed if not to enjoy it then at least not to find it too oppressive, even if I thought they should be paid more.’
Hired. Six months undercover in low-wage Britain, James Bloodworth (2018) Atlantic Books, London p1 185-6
The more valued we feel, the better we work. Those who regularly receive praise and thanks for a job well done are more likely to go the extra mile when it’s needed.
If you want to know how to change the culture in your workplace to one that fosters a culture of worth and appreciation, give me a call and we’ll talk about how Silvern Training can help.
Speak to Lindsay on 07976 816704
 Anderson, C et al ‘The Local-Ladder Effect: Social Status and Subjective Well-Being’, Psychological Science 23 (2012): 764-71. Quoted in Friedman, R 2014 The Best Place to Work Penguin Group New York
A quick Google search on what do employees complain about shows that communication crops up in most top 10s. An Inc article on how to make sure your employees never complain about you as a boss puts clearly communicating performance expectations at number 1. Another top 10 puts communication problems above not paid enough, job insecurity and a bad boss. A You Gov poll said that 94% of managers believe they are good listeners; only 65% of their staff agreed.
I remember when I worked at a largish charity a few years ago, we did a quality audit, using the EFQM model, and one of the key areas where we fell short was on communication. My particular grievance was that I felt left out of too many conversations, I didn’t know everything that was going on. While this might well be a personality fault – perhaps I’m too nosey – but I felt that as a fundraiser, I needed to have a good understanding of what was going on across the organisation. I hated finding out that someone else was doing a funding bid and I didn’t know it was going on, or needed funding urgently for a project, but then I couldn’t get the information I needed to apply for appropriate funding.
At the same time, we had lots of meetings. I attended lots of meetings, even without the ones I complained about not being involved in. And then I hated sitting there listening to people talking at length about the problems they were having, or some meeting they’d had and had to give us a blow by blow account of who said what to whom. Just give me the headlines, dammit!
Of course, with hindsight, I can see that the organisation had good intent, but just needed to get smarter about how it shared information. Peter Drucker, in his seminal book Managing Oneself, describes people as readers or listeners. Some people like to read for information, others like to be told it, to get an oral report. I realise now that, whilst I love to talk, and developing my skills as a listener, I get too bored if I have to listen too long to something, especially if I’m not involved. Conversation – I love a good conversation, but meetings aren’t about conversation. Give me a written report that contains the information I need, please. Meetings should have a specific agenda, good discipline about sticking to it, but most of all be necessary to meet a defined purpose. There are other, more effective, ways to share information
Another complaint often heard about communication at work is too many emails. Some organisations have a tendency to send long emails, cc ing in anyone they think needs to be kept informed. One charity worker I spoke to said the bane of her life was long emails, where she had to spend ages reading through to check if there was anything she needed to know or needed to do, buried somewhere in the missive. Often there wasn’t. But sometimes there was, so she still had to read them. And another manager complained that people sent him an email to ask a question, rather than get up, walk to another desk, ask him the question, sort it out straight away. On the other hand, if you have a culture of always open, you’ll be constantly interrupted, so this can have its drawbacks too.
One of the most crucial, and underrated, communication skills is listening. 94% of managers believe they are good listeners. But only 65% of staff say their managers are good listeners. So it sounds as though a significant proportion of managers are deluding themselves. The You Gov poll asked what is the biggest mistake leaders make when working with others? 41% said inappropriate communication or poor listening. When asked to choose the top five from a list of potential missteps by leaders, 81% chose failing to listen or involve others.
Why is it important? If we go back to my experience of feeling left out, as well as paradoxically hating to waste time in meetings, this taps into some fundamental feelings about work. My sense of belonging, how engaged was I with the purpose of the organisation and my role in it, was I clear on what was expected of me? Was my contribution valued? With hindsight, I accept that it was, this organisation had so much good intent, but there were some things it could have done better. As well as communication, several staff complained that they didn’t feel appreciated. If they had communicated this better, motivation and morale would have been way higher.
It’s not easy, but the rewards are worth it. Sometimes, your staff won’t know what they need, like me simultaneously complaining about not being involved in meetings, and going to meetings that are a waste of time. Back then, if someone had taken the time to work out what my actual complaint was, and consider my preferred style of communication, the problem could have been resolved. However, throw in that other team members will have differing needs, and you see how complex this can get.
Here are five techniques that work, one of them, or a combination, may be right for you.
Whether you can improve your communication with a simple fix will depend on what your workplace culture is like at present. If you have generally good leaders and managers who are willing to work on their skills, then a few changes can make all the difference. However, if there are wider problems and the other Pam Cast principles are not an integral part of your culture, then the techniques above will be like putting a sticking plaster over a wound that needs stitches. If you’re afraid this is you, take the questionnaire now and see what your strengths and weaknesses are.[WPMKTENGINECTA id=”20c4f399329e401380″ align=”center” hastime=”false”]
 Murray, K 2017 People with purpose, Kogan Page, London p 186