Wet goals

I have just completed a course of swimming lessons which has meant I have improved my swimming for the first time since I left school. And this is a LONG time! At the end of the course, our teacher gave us a small piece of advice: always plan your swimming sessions. Don’t just turn up and start swimming. Have a plan for how many lengths you are going to do, what stroke, what you are practising. Otherwise you will almost certainly end up doing less than you want.

My response to this was to think of all the times I have taught motivation and the importance of goal setting. And how many people told me how useful it had been. And so I found (to my shame) thinking “I know ALL about this. There’s no need to tell me.”.

And then I remembered how I had just turned up to the pool on Tuesday without a plan and had ended up doing less training than I wanted even though I know how important it is to set goals and find ways to make yourself achieve them. Indeed, the reason I am swimming is that I have an event I want to take part in later in the year. So I had set the big goal (a 2.5K open water swim in July). I had then set another (sign up for swimming lessons even though this will make me feel rather uncomfortable). I had even downloaded an app to record the amount of swimming I was doing. But I had stopped there and missed a vitally important step. And my young swimming teacher had reminded me about this and I very nearly missed it.

I am by nature pretty scatty and resist formality (hence choosing to work as an academic I suspect!). But this means I need to remember to be planned and structured about things as it doesn’t come naturally.

I think this sort of thing happens quite a lot, so I wanted to pass on what I have learned here:

  1. Be watchful about complacency. Even when you are regarded as an expert, you need to make sure you are heeding the advice that you would give to others.
  2. Be planned. And if this doesn’t come naturally, remember to watch out for times when you revert to being unplanned.
  3. Surround yourself with people who compliment your skills. Easily the best way I have discovered of achieving this is first check your strengths using this tool.  And then have your team do the same. And think carefully about what that tells you about where your strengths as a group are, where you compliment each other. And where your blind spots might be.
  4. Ask yourself this question right now: what am I learning at the moment? It is a fundamental human motivation to feel we are getting somewhere, that we are growing. And if you aren’t – either at work or outside – then challenge yourself to learn something. Anything!

I have written about how to use strengths in this blog, and if you would like to discuss how I might be able to help your team, do get in touch.

Why most training courses fail

It’s become common for those with training budgets to be asked to justify spend in terms of Return on Investment (RoI). This is on the face of it quite reasonable as all organisations need to be sure that money is being spent wisely. And there are vast sums involved when taking training at a national level – UK government puts the figure at £45Bn or or average £1,700 for every single employee (the research with detailed figures is here). And yet academic research shows time and time again that it is really hard – if not practically impossible – to show exactly what return organisations get from that money. So I want to suggest why it is so hard to get an answer and then suggest what makes training work.

Cost of training

Imagine you have been just promoted and you are going to manage people for the first time. You have been managed all your working life so you have observed how it is done (and how it should not be done!) and this is your start point. But it is sensible for you to be given some training because your job has changed. In fact, employers are obliged to make sure staff have appropriate training for the tasks they are being asked to undertake. So you go on a course with other newly promoted managers. Typically this could be one or two days. You will be presented with ideas, given exercises and perhaps discuss issues with your peers. You might also reflect on your own management style and all in all be given some interesting ideas. This might seem to help you in your job as you have taken some time to think about your new role as manager.

So how do you measure how much monetary value the organisation is going to get from this course? Over time, perhaps you will manage your people better so that fewer of them become disenchanted and leave. There is a cost that can be placed on recruiting a new team member so there is a possibility there. But how can we be sure that someone staying is as a result of the training course? Also, how can we be sure that perhaps it was best that a particular person leaves as perhaps their replacement is more productive?

 

Valuable training

Returning to the example training course. At the end of the course, you return to work and find two days worth of work piled up and you have to spend your time catching up. There is no time to think further about applying the learning from the course and by the time a lull comes in the work, you have forgotten what you learned. And you may never see the people you were training with again.

This is a very common pattern and it becomes easy to see how learning is lost together with the RoI from the course. It is understandable that staff are released from productive work very reluctantly. But there are ways in which learning can translate from the training room to the workplace.

First, the training must involve the people around the individuals being trained. By this I mean the line manager should discuss what the training is for, what might be gained and how to embed the learning afterwards. The team should be involved through sharing the key points and reflecting on how the manager might be working differently from now on.

Second, the training must involve more than one visit to the training room. The time in between sessions is vital to allow for ideas to sink in, for further reflection to happen and for ideas to form.

Third, include some activity in between sessions. Every one is busy so clearly it is difficult to find time. But the learning will only become habit if there is a chance to try something new in a supported way. Otherwise there is a tendency to revert back to normal behaviour and changes are first put off, and then never actually happen.

Fourth, create a network. When a small group spends intensive training days together, it is wasteful not to use the network for support after the course ends. This can be by as simple a device as a WhatsApp group or email. Sophisticated training might have a web resource to use such as Moodle. but it is easy to set this up – but will only happen with encouragement of the organisers.

Takeaways:

  1. Involve managers of the trainees before and after the course.
  2. Even if your budget is only for 2 days, separate these.
  3. Provide a small task between sessions – a question to answer or technique to try.
  4. Ask attendees to share examples of when ideas from the training made a difference.

 

In these ways, even if you can precisely measure the financial benefit to the organisation, attendees will be consciously aware of the changes they make to their work. And the benefits will become clear to all involved and a culture of learning begins…

 

Playing to your strengths

When you are trying to improve your abilities at work, you need to find what you are less good at and then work on that.

Actually, no. Recent research has turned this whole idea of personal development on its head showing that it is far more effective to focus on the things that we like doing the most – the things that energise us. And having done so, the work is finding ways to use these strengths to our advantage. Yes we have to acknowledge our weaker spots, but rather than work trying to make these weak spots into strengths (which really doesn’t work!) we should use the things we are best at to counter.

The trouble has been in the past that we are so much better at worrying about our weaknesses than working to our strengths. And yet psychologists have known for a very long time that because we really can’t change our personality it is really very hard to change the limiting things that stem from our personality. So it is far more effective to focus on what you are good at and use those skills to overcome the blind spots.

When I first heard about this approach, I was very sceptical. There is so much nonsense being peddled that tries to make us think that making major changes in our lives are easy. And in my experience these are never what they seem. So I needed to be persuaded. And I absolutely have been. Learning about strengths and becoming qualified to use the Strengthscope tools has completely changed my entire approach to learning and growth. Nowadays my approach to coaching is to establish what energises the client and then work on ways to leverage that. I have seen how this approach can transform working relationships and make people more effective – and happier – at work. Hyperbole? Put it this way, being brought up in a decaying mill town in the north of England means I am cynical by nature and 20 years as an academic makes me demand evidence.

There’s more about the instrument I use here but if you are interested in exploring how it could make a real difference to you and your organisation, do get in touch.

One small step…

Many of us are relaxing at this time of year, but for some there is a nagging feeling that we need to make some changes in our work life. Perhaps you might be worried that you aren’t doing as well as you might. Or that there are problems with managing some people in your team. Or perhaps your relationship with your boss isn’t great.

Whatever it is, I am 100% sure you are not alone. People face work challenges all the time and it has been my absolute joy to help people through them. The key is that we already know what we need to do. We often just need someone to help us realise this, and then work out how to follow through.

And so I am suggesting you take a small step. Nothing too scary. Nothing that commits you to too much. So, what do I suggest?

Regardless of what the work problem  you are worried about, I am pretty certain to have seen it before. I have been coaching all kinds of people for 20 years now in all sorts of jobs in organisations as different as global oil companies to small auto dealerships. From the Civil Service to banks. And I’d love to be able to help you through whatever your challenges are. Why not arrange for us to have a chat? I promise to listen and help you clarify in your own mind what the issues are and how you can start doing things differently this year. Oh, and this first 30 minute conversation is completely free with no obligations whatever. More details about my approach are here. You can contact me via this form.

Go on –  this small step could be your “giant leap” forward!

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Don’t switch off your email over Christmas

OK, that isn’t quite the advice I’m going to give but I wanted to counter all those experts on work life balance who tell you to switch off completely over the holidays. And I know personally of several who do nothing of the sort themselves! So have I got anything different to offer?

Maybe.

Yes we all need to take time out to recharge our batteries, reconnect with family and with life outside of work. And I totally endorse this. But one of the things that happens to me is that this down time sometimes is interrupted by an idea about work that pops into mind. I find that very often these thoughts can be really useful ones because you are removed from the day to day pressures and somehow your unconscious takes the opportunity to put something into your conscious mind. In this case, it is best to quickly jot it down and then leave it until you go back to work.

Another thing I find on holiday is worrying that the emails will be building up. Did I miss something? Did something urgent come up? Of course the answers are (a) unlikely and (b) probably not. And if it was really urgent, you would know about it. But if you want to put your mind at ease, you are licensed to check your email. Once a day. And if you have children, this really should be after they have gone to bed/jump-in/bowling. Or (even better) before anyone else is up.

But to be honest, almost everyone over-estimates how much they need to do this sort of thing. You should have planned to go on holiday so you will have brought everything to a close or handed it over before you finish work. And just think, if for some unfortunate reason you were taken unwell suddenly, the organisation would not collapse without you. And if you have managed your boss properly, you will not be expected to work while you are on holiday. Similarly with your team.

There is a bank account analogy for work stress: on a daily basis we are making withdrawals from the account. And when we relax, we make deposits into the account. So as long as we make more deposits than withdrawals, we can stay on an even keel. And the best way of making a deposit is to relax in the way you enjoy the most with the people you love. Simple as that really. Of course, more complicated in practice, but keep it in mind. Have you made too many withdrawals lately?

So I guess I am saying that this is not a work-life balance issue as such. It is more about how you run your work life in general. How confident you are that you are known for doing a good job. How well you have assembled a good team around you. How much of a strong network of like-minded people you have created around your projects. How you have managed your relationship with your boss. And if on reflection you are falling short in these key areas, I have some advice in these blogs. Or you could use the contact form here to have a chat about coaching.

And if you are taking time off, have a merry Christmas!

 

When you’re so worried about work…

Last week I was watching some video clips with my now 10 year old of him as a toddler. He was fascinated to see himself so small, acting silly and unable to talk properly. I was too. Until I realised the video was being filmed by my older son which meant I was in the background. And this was a supremely uncomfortable experience for me because I could just about make out what I was talking about. I was talking about the work challenges I was facing which were clearly vexing me at that time to the extent I wasn’t paying attention to my kids who were putting on quite a show for us. I was relating to a polite but incredibly bored group of relatives my current woes and who said what to whom and what I was going to have to do next week because of their nonsense.

I forced myself to listen to this and really focussed on trying to make out what I was saying. I was stressed out, anxious and presumably hoping that talking it through with my close family would help. Which is probably the right thing to do. And I could make out my face in the background of this poor quality video pinched with anxiety and tense. I look unhealthy and not at all well.

And here’s the thing. Even when I listened closely to what I was saying, I have absolutely no recollection of the events that had caused me to be so stressed.. My work world at the time that had made me ignore my kids, bore everyone around me and yet the events clearly resolved themselves in some way or other because there were obviously no long term consequences that I can recall. Apart to my health I guess and … well it wasn’t a happy experience to watch it.

Perhaps I should think about this more often. What would this apparently challenging set of circumstances look like in 6 months or a year or 5 years? It’s quite likely that even in a few days it is resolved and forgotten. Somehow we have to find a way to have confidence that things will be all right and that you and your colleagues will work your way through whatever has been thrown at you. And if you don’t? Well, in that highly unlikely event you’ll then have to work out what to do. Think about it. When you look back, how many times have you been in situations that worried you and that you couldn’t see a way out? And how many times did it work out OK? I guarantee it is usually nowhere near as bad as you feared and most of the time, it all works out fine. So, when you get stressed, try to remember those times you managed to find a way through. And reassure yourself that this is another of those times.

 

 

Real team working

So much nonsense talked and written about teams. A whole industry rose and (mercifully) disappeared to do with creating teams using outdoors activities. So often these totally missed the point about teams. It is something of an obsession of mine to cut through crap and find ways that people can work together in ways that are productive but also enhance the lives of people involved. The key thing is to find ways that are meaningful for the whole team so everyone contributes, everyone want the team to succeed beyond their own success.

So why the macho photo?

As a former soldier, I know about some aspects of this having lived it for nearly 10 years. Two things I learned early on were (1) the Royal Marines do teamwork better than anyone and (2) I was nowhere near tough enough to join them. But the fascinating thing to me is that being tough enough isn’t enough for the marines. What they are after is something else. Something to do with being thoughtful, genuinely working together and stretching everyone. This photo I believe encapsulates this perfectly. Just look at the group in the centre of the shot. They are attempting to run as a squad to break a record. Clearly the man in the middle was struggling and so the others immediately jumped in to help. And look at their facial expressions. It is about determination to get the whole team over the line. They aren’t judging the man who needs help and he is far from giving up.

Now of course very few of us work in places where we have to do this type of physical team activity. But …. look I don’t think I really have to join the dots. What if you worked in a team like this? How much could you all achieve together?

I’ve seen it. I’ve helped organisations achieve it. And I have to tell you it is fantastic for all involved. So many other problems fall away – performance management, disciplinary, retention, stress, illness…. But don’t worry. If you want to know more about how to do this, I won’t make you run like this. Not unless that’s your job!

(thanks for the idea for this from a tweet by ex-Royal Stuart Elms @elmsy1664 . Photo from The Telegraph)

Changing the world, one nudge at a time.

As a psychologist I know only too well how people are driven by a complex interwoven set of drives, preferences and biases. And anyone who has tried to manage people knows how resistant to change human beings are. The leader is driven to improve, change and create and finds it frustrating when others are not driven in the same way. Some even go so far as to say it’s impossible to change other people – you can only change yourself (and that’s hard enough!). It is definitely true that changing someone’s behaviour fundamentally is not going to happen as the result of one initiative, project or intervention. But it happens best when it is done incrementally. And this is perfectly in tune with the underlying psychological research.

So what is Nudge all about? At the heart of it is one of the most well understood notions in psychology – reinforcement. This is where behaviour is monitored in some way and the ‘correct’ behaviour reinforced through reward. The other side of the coin would be to ‘punish’ the wrong behaviour although this is far less effective than positive reinforcement. This might sound underhand or even immoral but the technique is well understood and can be used in every workplace imaginable.

What is reward?

the main thing is that reward is not necessarily financial. Everyone needs to be appreciated and we all need to be certain that we are doing the right thing. I worked for a boss who was really very nice to me and always positive. but I was never quite sure I was doing the right thing. Was I focussed on the right projects? Was my style right? Was I doing enough? When I had my annual review, he said in so many words that I was doing very well and then was specific about what he liked about what I was doing and why. This was amazingly useful and I left that meeting on a high. But it would of course been so much better if he’d managed to do this earlier! I see my role now is to reinforce when he gives me this sort of feedback. Here’s a form of words:

” Thanks for that Dave. It is sometimes hard to know in the daily pressures of work whether we are putting out efforts in the right place so I really appreciate your telling me this so I know I am on the right track.”

Another example could be when I might not be focussed on the right thing and he tells me this. So I might respond:

“Dave, this is of course a bit difficult to hear because I am clearly not quite focussed on the right things. But it is so useful to have this feedback so I know what I need to change. I will work on this and perhaps I can check back with you to make sure it is now going the way you want it?”

So. Reinforcement is the first step. More of this another day!

New Year resolutions – part 2

So  you have spent a bit of time writing down what went well over the past year. Most people find it hard to only focus on the positives so it is useful to try to make yourself think in this way. Of course being self-critical has its place and we get better at things by finding out what we are less good at and working on these things. At least that’s what most people think.

Recently I have been struck by a movement in occupational psychology that turns that received wisdom around. The thing is, we know that personality is pretty stable over time and also that it is really very hard to change our fundamental personality. And with good reason – it would be  pretty depressing idea to think we could change who we are. It is frustrating when we see ourselves struggling in the same areas all the time. And this is another reason why new year resolutions don’t work. We tend to make resolutions to be less about changing habits and more like wishes to be someone else. So the strengths approach says we should acknowledge that fundamentally we are unlikely to be able to change ourselves all that much. So whilst we should do what we can to allow for our weaknesses, we probably aren’t going to be able to change these into strengths. When I took a strengths based test (there are several good ones but in my view this is the best strengthspartnership.com) and some follow up coaching, it was obvious that an important blind spot was my calendar. I was for ever arranging to be in two places at once or forgetting to do something. I have worked on this and whilst I still have the potential to do this, I have taken steps to make it less likely. At the same time I could see the sorts of thing I would be good at so I put effort into developing my career into those areas. I have seen this with my coachees many times. When we stop fretting so much about the stuff you can’t do well, real progress is possible. Make allowances, do a bit of work but don’t obsess about them. Focus more of your effort on acknowledging the things you do really well. Find ways to use these skills. Craft your job in such a way that you can bring these strengths to bear. If you are in a role where your strengths are not currently being highlighted, think about what you could do so they can be.

As with all questions of self-development, the onus is on you to make the changes. I am not pretending this will be easy, but very well worth the effort.

So, this is the second of my three blogs about new year resolutions. And again there is homework. Thinking about your list of things that went well last year, now add a further list of things you are really good at. Things like being organised, attention to detail, influencing people. That sort of thing. Again, don’t think at all about the stuff you aren’t good at. We will get to that in the next blog!