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Category Archives for Workplace culture

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A cautionary tale. When training goes wrong

This cautionary tale tells the story of Dawn, who worked for a large customer service organisation.  During one of those team building awaydays, they were asked to write some anonymous feedback for someone they worked with, who they wished didn’t behave the way they did.

Dawn wrote a lengthy letter, writing what she thought of Gemma, a younger manager she worked with.  Dawn thought Gemma was too abrasive, and not considerate enough of others in the team.  She didn’t hold back in the letter – after all, it was anonymous.

Only, it wasn’t.  The trainers pulled a sneaky trick on the delegates.  They were then asked to sit opposite the person for whom they had written this no holds barred feedback and read it out to them. My desktop won’t play along and let me post an emoji for this, but it would be the shocked one.  I was horrified for Dawn.

I cannot see what is to be gained from this.  I’m a big advocate of feedback.  It is one of the best ways of learning and improving relationships with others.  But there’s a right way and a wrong way to deliver it. This was definitely the wrong way. There are three obvious problems with the approach taken here.

What's the problem?

  1. The giver hasn’t prepared appropriately.  Dawn thought she was just being given the opportunity to vent, get things off her chest.  We’ve all done this in private, not expecting the other party to know what we’re saying.  If she’d known she would have to communicate her thoughts to Gemma, she may have written in a more constructive way.  She may, of course, have just felt it wasn’t worth the effort, or chickened out, and not stated the real problem. Which I guess is why the trainer thought it a good idea to lie about it being anonymous.
  2. Neither has the receiver – they may not be ready to learn from it. And if it’s just a list of complaints, things people don’t like about you, that’s really hard to listen to and not conducive to opening up a spirit of learning. I imagine that Gemma just became defensive. In fact, recent research on the brain confirms that negative feedback stimulates the 'fight or flight' response in us - even when we've asked for it. There's more about this response in this Harvard Business Review article by Buckingham and Goodall (see below also). 
  3. It is not focused on improving the working relationship between the two parties. This, of course, is the real issue I have with the approach. Surely the purpose of a team building awayday is to build good team working? This can only happen if there are good ​relationships. I asked Dawn what happened to her working relationship with Gemma after. (Oh, and just to make matters worse, Gemma had also shared what she thought of Dawn in the same way.) Unsurprisingly, things did not exactly improve between them.

Is there a better way?

Yes. Yes there is. 

At work

On a day to day, informal basis, make sure the only uninvited feedback you give is positive.  Make sure it is to help someone feel good. Make it as specific as you can. And genuine. And work related.  ​As often as you can, not just ‘good job on that presentation’ but ‘I can see you were really thorough in your research for that presentation, I can see how hard you worked.  I especially like the point about.....because.....’

If you’re invited to give feedback (by the actual person, not by a trainer who lies about it!) then you can give honest feedback about where they could improve. There’s still a sensitive way to do this though.  We’ve all heard of the sandwich technique. Sometimes known as the shit sandwich; quite possibly because it’s often uninvited feedback, and done in a clumsy fashion. ‘I’m saying something nice about you as a cover for the criticism I really want to give you, then I suppose I have to say something else nice.’ The nice things somehow don’t seem sincere.

But if you are asked to give feedback, keep to the same rules of making it specific and genuine.  And yes, you do need to find actual positives to share, even when you’re also delivering a point where someone can improve. You still need to ensure they feel good about your feedback, and you can only do this by being genuine about wanting to help them. The sandwich technique comes from a good place, and if you bear this in mind, that you want the person to feel good, then you can deliver feedback that will actually help.

In training

What I think this trainer should have done is acknowledge that the delegates may not have had the skills, or be in the right place with a working relationship, to deliver effective feedback on 'areas for improvement'.  The task then, was to help them gain the skills.  Or alternatively, spend some time on looking at why relationships may not be as good as they could be at that workplace. Maybe both.

And if you’re ever in a position where you’re asked to do this, here’s my advice; call the trainer out on it.  Ask them what the purpose is, what is the exercise meant to achieve? If they have an answer, but you don’t think the objective will be achieved, say so. And I'll be very surprised if they do have an effective answer.  Lead a mutiny and refuse to just read out a letter that you didn’t intend the other party to hear. Although, seriously, I hope team building has progressed past this kind of nonsense. To be fair, this did happen some time ago, and we’ve learned so much more about how people learn, how the brain responds to threatening situations, and how to foster good working relationships since then. 

As a counterpoint, I once went to a team building away day that did something like this far more effectively.  We were split into small groups, and had to do a round robin type of exercise.  We had puzzles to solve, one I remember was to build something in lego.  There were other types of practical tasks too.  After a given amount of time, we moved to the next table, and had to work on a different task.  I remember being really confused about what we should be doing, should we undo the previous team’s work and start again, or carry on where they left off?  The trainers refused to answer, telling us it was up to us.  By the end of the exercise, I’d twigged.  I realised the point was, we’re all supposed to be on the same team, we’re all working towards the same aims, our communication needed to improve so that we could build on what the previous group had done. Not undo it all and start again, destroying what they had achieved, wasting everyone’s time and the organisation's resources.

Many years later, this lesson remains imprinted on my brain.  This was before I understood about purpose at work.  Before I understood how fundamental it is to feel valued at work. At least before I understood it at an intellectual level, because those things had long been important to me on a visceral level.  But this is a  much better memory than being coerced into sharing some negative feedback to a antagonist at work.

Do we need feedback at all?

​Let’s take the concept of negative feedback and examine it a little more closely. I was going to conclude that feedback is good, but negative feedback should be handled carefully.  But then I remembered something I read just recently. In Nine Lies about Work, Buckingham and Goodall’s lie #5 is ‘people need feedback’.  Should we even give negative feedback at all?  Parenting guides talk about ignoring bad behaviour in your children and praise the good. (Easier said than done, I know!) Does this apply to the workplace too?

Looking back over workplace experiments and citing some research by Gallup, the engagement at work people, Buckingham and Goodall conclude that what people need is not feedback, but attention. The Gallup research found that the worst scenario for workplace engagement was where managers paid no attention whatsoever to their team.  Even negative feedback is attention, and this ​achieved forty times more effectiveness in engaging the team.  So it looks like a win.  But as the point of engagement is to achieve more effective performance, is this still the best way to get this result?  You might not be surprised to learn that positive feedback is more effective still, but you may be surprised to learn that it is thirty times more powerful again than negative feedback. 

Buckingham and Goodall also borrow from the research on personal relationships; it has been found that a happy marriage has a positive to negative ratio of between three to one or five to one – so for each negative experience, you need to give positive attention three to five times.  You can watch my review of Nine Lies about Work here.  If you want to explore these ideas further, or if you still need convincing of the merits, I highly recommend a read of the book. 

So what are the takeaways from this?

If you’re a manager and want to get the best out of your people, give them positive attention – catch them doing something right, and feed that back to them, help them see what was working. 

If you’re a team member and wish you got on better with colleagues and managers, give them some positive feedback.  As often as you can. It counts just as much whatever your place in the team.

If you’re a trainer, help your students to understand this concept.

If you'd like more ideas on how to be happier at work, you can get a free download here


What is your experience? Do you have any other tips for improving working relationships that have helped you? Let me know in the comments below.

Reference

Buckingham, Marcus and Goodall, Ashley, 2019 ​Nine Lies about Work, ​Harvard Business Review Press Boston, Massachusetts​​​

Support, positive intent

Can we find the postive intent?

What do we mean by positive intent?  I was reminded this week of the importance of belonging, and feeling like people have your back.  I said a few weeks back that the principles of improv include making sure your colleagues look good.  It embraces looking after them, making sure they are ok. It was a perfect chance to see this in action, because we did our first live performance this week, a showcase in front of family and friends.  Not a work situation, but I can see the parallels.

L'esprit de l'escalier

At times, I was a bit like a rabbit in the headlights.  I’m a little slow to catch onto ideas, so often I didn’t know how to react.  That French phrase, l’esprit de l’escalier, oh my goodness, how many of those have I had? When you think of the funny response on the way out.  But actually, there were also some that I had there and then, but wasn’t quick enough to jump in, and someone moved the action on. I found myself frustrated that I’d got a potentially funny story line, but lost the chance to use it.

Audience members amongst my friends said that a couple of the performers dominated.  There are some big personalities involved.  I also heard that one of the performers was upset about this, though I was not witness to the discussion they had.

I just wanted to share some of my feelings about the experience, and to examine my responses a bit more closely.

Belonging

There have been moments where I didn’t quite feel like I belonged.  I’m older than everyone else, and that doesn’t usually bother me.  Some friendships have been forged, meeting up at the weekend, sharing stories of dating and how that’s going. I’ve been married for donkey’s years and I’m a grandma, so obviously that social life is not for me. Some in jokes have developed amongst the lads, and I didn’t always feel included with those.

On the other hand, there were others who I really bonded with, and the tutor was always supportive and encouraging to those of us who were less confident in our ability to perform. I really liked a couple of the guys (I liked them all to be honest, even with the factors I just mentioned) and found them to be supportive too – I definitely felt that a couple of them went out of their way to help me.  There was only one other woman on the course, aside from the tutor, so we three were outnumbered by seven men.  Again, that wasn’t an issue, but I felt that the other woman also made an effort to include me, even though we are quite different personalities and she is much younger.

But then the actual performance brought up some issues.  Like I said, I was a rabbit in the headlights for much of the time. My dominant feeling afterwards was to be annoyed at myself for missing opportunities.  And then I felt bad too, because that meant I didn’t pick up on something someone else had said, even after he had taken a risk to say it. So in addition, I feel I let him down. I’m trying to be kind to myself and accept that this was the first time I’d done this live in front of an audience, but I’m still annoyed at myself.

Then others commented on the team dynamics, about people who dominated.  At first, I agreed with their perception, that a couple of people had kind of taken over.  There were times when someone rushed in, and I didn’t have the chance to take the direction I wanted to. 

I could have been annoyed about this, resenting how they took over.  But, using my developing empathy skills, let’s think about it from their point of view.  They may have been worried that the performance would go wrong, the story would get stuck.  They may have been worried that I would be stood on stage, in front of a live audience, and not know what to say, would freeze on stage.  I’d certainly frozen enough times in the weeks leading up to the show.

Positive intent

So instead of resenting them for not letting me go ahead, if I view their actions as having a positive intent, they were working to save me (and possibly one or two of the other participants) from the embarrassment of ‘dying’ on stage. Maybe they were doing what they thought was right to look after me.

I haven’t had the chance to debrief the show with them, so I have no idea what the other participants thought. I would really love to have the opportunity to talk to the guy who was upset about how it had gone.  I hope I’d be able to help him see that it wasn’t done deliberately to thwart him, but that the other person had their own concerns and was trying to help in the best way they knew how.

But if we continue with a work analogy, if someone behaves in a way that annoys you, can you reframe it, and think what their positive intent may have been?  Maybe they have anxieties of their own causing them to act in that way?  We’re going our separate ways now, but if it’s an ongoing working relationship, it’s worth the effort to look for the positive intent.  The choice is yours.  If you assume they’re out to get you, you’re building up negative feelings.  This obviously has a negative impact on you, but research consistently shows that negativity breeds negativity.  No-one likes sharing office space with a complainer.  If you assume they were trying to help you, you’ll be positively disposed towards them.  In return, they’ll like being around you, and continue to support you.

Team relationships

I get that I’ve not really made a central point here, probably because my own feelings are so entangled and it’s recent events, so I’m still trying to work it out.  We were effectively like a new team, so the relationships are also at the early stages.  It’s natural that we would get along more easily with some than others, and unavoidable I guess that there would be more than one grouping amongst us.

Annie McKee, in ‘How to be happy at work’ talks about how important friendships are at work, and how organisations can foster a spirit of openness and trust that allows friendships to develop.  The improv course did everything it could to facilitate this.  How does your workplace do?

You can see my review of ‘How to be happy at work’ here.

man and woman talking in office

Why does empathy matter to working relationships?

Last time, I said that working relationships will be smoother if you stop and consider someone else’s position before reacting.  Easier said than done.  Have you ever wanted to react angrily at work to something someone said or did?  Have you given in to that temptation? How did it work out if you did?

What happens without empathy?

​My natural reaction can be a little hot headed in some situations.  I remember losing my temper with an employee when I was chair of trustees for a small charity.  She provoked me, but that’s not really a legitimate reason.  It was in front of other staff too, which made it an even worse mistake. If I’d tried harder to see things from her perspective – loss of funding meant the future of the charity, and with it her job, were at risk, she’d worked there for about 20 years, who was I to come in and start telling her what to do, what did I know? – maybe we wouldn’t have been in a position where she continually provoked me.  And maybe, even if she had, I’d have found it easier to remain calm.

Going back even further, I had a manager who bullied me for a long time.  I used to fantasise about standing in the doorway of her office gunning her down with a machine gun.  Someone said that was too fast an end to her, but for me it captured the explosive nature of my anger. And I’m not a violent person. This work situation took away my confidence for a long time, and I harboured ill feelings towards her for a long time too.  But as I’ve grown, learned more about what makes us happy, what makes us confident and powerful, I eventually started to see things from her point of view.  She was a manager of an office of 50 staff, responsible for reaching financial targets for law enforcement.  She was probably under pressure herself from senior management to achieve those targets. Who knows what stress she was feeling, but I never considered this back then.

A rebellious team leader, arguing with her over changes, backing the team against her, she reacted inappropriately by using intimidating tactics to get me to fall into line.  They didn’t work, resulting in a breakdown of our working relationship.  If I’d stopped to consider what she needed to achieve in running the office, shown some empathy for the pressures she was under, perhaps we’d have been an awesome team.  I think she had some things to learn about managing people, but I can’t escape responsibility for this situation.

Why does empathy matter?

I first came across empathy as an important skill in the workplace in Daniel Goleman’s article for the Harvard Business Review.  Originally published in 1996, it features in their 10 must reads published in 2011.[1]  Goleman’s article is aimed at leaders, but I believe we can all benefit from nurturing this critical life skill.

Back when he first wrote this, Goleman pointed out that empathy wasn’t seen as businesslike.  Now however, we see articles in Inc - Why Empathy Is the Most Important Skill You'll Ever Need to Succeed and Forbes - ​Think Empathy is a Soft Skill? Think Again. Why You Need Empathy For Success.  We get whole books devoted to helping us improve our emotional intelligence (EQ).[2]

How do you know if you are empathetic?

 

One way is to use a test, such as that in Bradberry and Greaves’ book, reference below.  Another is to ask people you trust to be honest with you.  If your working relationships are such that you cannot ask this question of anyone at work, or you believe that your team won’t feel safe enough to tell you, then you have a significant amount of learning to do.  But even if you do have trusted advisers, be prepared for surprises.  It can be difficult to know how we’re perceived by others unless we make the effort to find out, and it can be difficult to hear the answers.

And a third option – look inside yourself.  Do you feel you have empathy?  Do you feel you could improve?  On the whole, people would describe me as empathetic, but there are some situations where I don’t put myself effectively in the other person’s shoes.  I described a couple above, but they are ancient history now.  Last week at the improv course, I was acting as a mother pleading with her child to come home.  I missed a couple of things, and if that had been a real conversation, could have had serious implications. (I know it’s only pretend, but empathy and listening skills are central to good improv, as I said here.) I’m also pretty sure my husband would say I don’t see things from his point of view often enough.  

So it’s situational.  But good self awareness (one of the other components of EQ) will ensure that you know where your strengths and weaknesses are, and where you want to improve.

 

How can I learn empathy?

 

Like all of the components of emotional intelligence, we can learn empathy, but it takes commitment and reflective practice.  Goleman himself says the process is not easy. The rewards, however, are worth the effort.  Not just better working relationships, but less stress and better personal relationships too. So what can you do? Practice, is the short answer.

​Develop your listening skills

The pretend situation I mentioned above, where I was pleading with a child to come home – humour me while I use that as an example. The situation was that my daughter (played by a thirty-ish guy from Barbados) had run away from home because Daddy didn’t love her because he wanted her to be a boy. I’m not sure what age she was meant to be, but in my head, around five years old.  I totally missed the point about Daddy wanting her to be a boy, and didn’t address this in my responses. How tragic would this be if a parent missed such a comment from their daughter, whatever age she was?  While we were playing this for laughs I’m sure this will have happened in reality, and was a stark reminder to me about picking up on things, even if they’re said in passing.  Often people reveal their true feelings subtly, or inadvertently. (I’m not suggesting my improv colleague was on that occasion though ? )

Reflective practice

Take some time out to consider an interaction that didn’t go how you wanted it to go.  Think about what that felt like for the other person.  Do you think they felt heard? Years ago, when I was in the civil service, and much was done in a bureaucratic way, I often said the managers I respected were those who let me put my point of view.  They didn’t have to accept it – if they acknowledged my point, but said they wanted something done differently regardless of my points, I would accept that – they were the boss, and I was happy to accept that sometimes they would make a decision I didn’t agree with.  And this was before I understood, or had even heard of, emotional intelligence.  The managers I rebelled against were the ones I felt didn’t listen. It’s important to acknowledge another viewpoint, even if you have reasons for not changing your stance.  If you can explain those reasons, so much the better.  For empathy to be effective, the other party has to feel your empathy.  It’s no good if you didn’t communicate it effectively.

Watch for hidden cues

Sometimes people say one thing, but don’t really feel it.  Learn to watch for incongruence, saying yes and shaking the head no, for example. It may not be in the gestures or facial expressions, it may be in the tone of voice.  Agreeing to something in a tone of voice that’s not very convincing, shows no enthusiasm. Pick up on these – ask what’s holding them back, what misgivings do they have?  Be prepared though, for people still not to give you the full information.  Sometimes they might not be fully aware themselves what the problem is, and sometimes they may not be ready to share it, or want to share it with you.  It’s all a work in progress though, as you develop your skill in communicating your empathy, others will grow to trust you more and be more ready to be honest with you.

Get a tailored report from Talent Smart 

If you buy the Bradberry and Greaves book, it includes a code for an online assessment, which gives you resources and advice for the skills you need to improve. (I have no affiliation to Talent Smart, just think it's a useful book.)

Get a coach 

Whilst you can ask a trusted friend or colleague to mentor you or give you honest feedback, and possibly even help you by picking up on times you could do better, there is no subsititute for coaching.

​So what will you do next?

​Let me know in the comments below - stating it gives it substance, and we can hold you accountable.

 

[1] Daniel Goleman. ‘What makes a leader?’ The Essentials, Harvard Business Review Press, Boston Massachusetts 2011

[2] Travis Bradberry and Jean Greaves. Emotional Intelligence 2.0, Talent Smart, San Diego 2009

People standing on pavement

What can improv teach us about work?

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.

It’s always your turn

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?

Make the other person look good

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.

Let it go

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.

Empathy

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.

Listening skills

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

Dance group teamwork

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?

Walking

How to make friends 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

​The Best Place to Work

​Ron Friedman

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?


Man looking grateful

What have you got to be grateful for?

​Gratitude is the healthiest emotion.  If you dwell on the negative, the brain reinforces those negative emotions.  The good news is that you can change how your brain thinks.

Have you ever said, 'That's how I am, I can't change'? Science used to believe this, with our limited knowledge of how the brain works.  We used to think that our personality was fixed, our characteristics were fixed. But research has come on in leaps and bounds over the last few years, and understanding of the brain has changed significantly.

I’m no scientist, but I’ve read many, many books on thinking, behaviour and habits.  I’ve often come across this idea of neuroplasticity – the idea that we can change the neural pathways in our brains. Jane Ransom, in her TEDx talk, says that exercising gratitude physically remaps the brain, reforms the subconscious mind.

You can watch the TEDx talk here

https://youtu.be/ewi0qlqrshE

To be effective it requires three elements

  • Emote
  • Extend
  • Exercise

Emote

Feel the emotion of being grateful, really connect with it

Extend

Extend your gratitude to the people in your life.  Family, friends, loved ones.  For the purposes of improving things at work, extend your gratitude to those who help you at work, a colleague you’ve become friends with, a manager who helped you get promoted, someone who’s helped you learn a new task….  Even a little thing, someone who made you a coffee today, or gave you a smile as you arrived.

Exercise

Like physical exercise strengthens our muscles, a gratitude exercise strengthens those new neural pathways.   Ransom suggests a minimum of two weeks; I think that for the benefits to remain, the exercise needs to be more ongoing.  However, it does seem that even two weeks can help you feel happier.  Maybe a couple of times a week once the pathways have been set up? But every day to start with.

Ransom gives some examples from her own life of how this has helped her.  Let me share a story about someone I‘m close to (no names to preserve the confidentiality).  She has long had a very negative attitude towards life.  Hated her job – or specifically the management and how they treated her. But was also quite negative in other areas of her life.  I persuaded her to start a gratitude journal, which she did, and kept up for a year writing three things every day.  I’ve noticed the difference in the way she encourages others to be less critical of themselves, and often makes supportive comments.  This is such a turnaround from the previous habit of commiserating with others, moaning about life.  They say misery loves company, and it so easy to fall into the trap of agreeing that life is unfair.  But focusing on what she’s grateful for has helped her to be less critical of others, less down about herself and happier in life.

Get a nice notebook.  ​Science has shown us that our brain engages differently if we write, so you'll get more benefit if you do this. No-one need see it, it's just for you.  Start writing down three things you’re grateful for at the end of each day.  Do this for the minimum of two weeks, but I’d encourage you to keep it up, even if only two or three times a week after the initial period.  

Let me know how this goes for you in the comments below.

Helping a colleague

Law of reciprocation

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’.

What do you do if your manager doesn’t know how to manage?

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​

Man working late

Stressed at work? #WorldMentalHealthDay

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.

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​O’Connell, Fergus 2005 ​How to do a great job and go home on time ​Pearson Education Limited, Harlow​​​

Very blurry picture I took with my phone of Gary Vee on stage

Whose life is it anyway?

​Who’s in control? Whose dream are you living?

Work hard, get a good job and you’ll be a success.  But now you feel you’ve bought into a lie. You work hard, but aren’t getting the rewards you deserve.

Entrepreneurship is a pretty big thing now, more and more people getting into it.  I know a few people who got into freelancing or became sole traders and entrepreneurs who went into it because they wanted more control over their lives, or at least working life.

But what if you do work for someone else?  Entrepreneurship is not your thing, for whatever reason.  And let’s face it, we can’t all be entrepreneurs – business owners need someone to join the payroll.

I spent two days at an event last week, for entrepreneurs.  Headline speaker was Gary Vaynerchuk, and there were several other speakers, most of whom were selling from the stage.  But there were some lessons in there that are just as valuable to employees as those running a business.  I’ve talked before about how autonomy at work is a key driver of motivation, and these seven lessons can help you take back control.

Seven lessons to help you take back control of your working life

The system lies to you. Education is to get you to conform.  It doesn’t teach you the right things

A few speakers talked about the education system, how kids are not taught how to be entrepreneurial.  They’re taught how to get a job.  Get good grades and work hard, and you’ll be successful.  A few discovered for themselves that’s not how it works.

I’m on board with the sentiment, though it did remind me a little of Hyde in That 70s Show, who was always complaining about ‘the man’.

You may be in a role where you’re working hard, but feel you’re not getting ​any reward for all that effort.  You’re working hard for someone else’s rewards.  It’s unfortunately happening a great deal at present.

The solution? Get your own education.  Learn on your own terms.  Several speakers said you’ve got to learn before you earn.  Essentially the same message as the establishment. But what resonates for me is that we should take responsibility for our own education, career, business, life.  You may not be taught critical thinking at school, but get out there and learn to do it, it’s an important life skill. And speaking of which….

Take responsibility

This is one of my favourites.  Take responsibility for your own actions.  One woman got the opportunity to ask Gary Vee a question. She admitted she hadn’t taken any action (brave of her!) but then said she was worried about what could go wrong, what should she do then?  Gary Vee’s response ‘Don’t worry about the future when you’re doing shit in the present.’ As someone who has difficulty with productivity at times, I can empathise with her question, but he’s absolutely right.  The responsibility to take action lies with ourselves.

If you’re in a horrible job, or have a bad manager, take responsibility for changing that.  But take a good hard look at your role here.  Is it really that bad, or are you causing at least part of the problem by your attitude to work?  How engaged are you at work?  Only 11% of employees in the UK are fully engaged.  If you increase your engagement, you can increase your success.  If you increase your happiness, you can increase your success. (Yes, that is the right way round.  You increase your happiness first, the success follows.) Let me know if you want to know how to do that, I can help you.

Fix your mindset.  Get rid of limiting beliefs

This is one reason we often get caught up in not taking action.  Actually, fix your mindset is probably the wrong way to say it, what we want is to have the right mindset; there’s a fixed mindset, or a growth mindset.  Growth is the one we want.

We lack the confidence to go out and succeed in the way we’d like to.  This is a part of the education you need to get for yourself.  If you don’t know how to do it, find out. A great place to start is by reading Mindset by Carol Dweck.  Or watch her TED talk if you don’t like reading. (It’s an excellent book though, I’d recommend giving it a try.)

The power of believing you can improve – Carol Dweck

Take action

Execute. Stop consuming, start producing. Knowledge isn’t power, knowledge plus action is power.  Be knowledgeable about your job, but ultimately, you have to produce the goods.

As a long suffering procrastinator, knowledge plus action makes so much sense.  Never forget there has to be action.  It’s only action that moves us forward, inaction leads to atrophy. (That might not be literally correct, I’m not a scientist.  But Prof Brian Cox said something similar I’m sure.)

If, like me, you’ve been afflicted with procrastination, take responsibility.  There are solutions that can help – I’ve been using them myself and am recovering.

Seize the day

Kind of like the last one, take action, sometimes you have to seize the day.  I’m so thankful I booked onto this event.  It was two days away from my business, travel expenses as well as the ticket expense, and two 4 am starts. But it was totally worth it.

Apart from the awesomeness of having seen Gary Vaynerchuk speak live on stage, I got so much more from this experience that I wasn’t expecting.  Sometimes, it’s worth just going with your gut and doing something, even if it doesn’t seem logical.

So if you just know you need to do something, just do it.

Get a coach or a mentor

What, you haven’t got one already? Just, get a coach. Or a mentor. Or both.

Look for the hidden lessons

Many thanks to Daniel Priestley, who was one of the speakers, for helping me to think more about the experience overall, and for the hidden lessons.  I learned some things about myself I wasn’t expecting to, and his comments made me learn some more.

I don’t want to come over all inspirational quote here, but those memes on Facebook that tell you people come into your life for a reason? And sometimes there’re there to bring you a lesson?  That’s how I feel about going to this event.   I know we can’t go through life analysing every little thing that happens, but it can be worthwhile to reflect on experiences from time to time.  The lessons may not be the ones you expected.

So if you’re having a tough time at work, would you like to

  • get your own education
  • take responsibility
  • change your mindset and get rid of limiting beliefs
  • take action
  • seize the day
  • find the hidden lessons?

Then join my 30 day challenge to change how you feel about work.  It starts next Monday.

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