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 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!

Don’t do it! New Year’s resolutions don’t work. But here is what you should do…

New years resolutions don’t work. Almost none of the resolutions being made tonight will actually be carried out. But all is not lost –  there are things you can do so you can make real change to your life this coming year.

There is a value to this dark time of year when it is possible to reflect on what has happened over the past 12 months and when we want to do for the next. However it is pretty clear that almost no New Year Resolutions actually succeed. As always there isn’t one simple reason for this. Although here is a pretty good one: you get carried away. You are partying, you are surrounded by people intent on having a good time, you maybe have a few drinks more than usual. This means you are in a very bad frame of mind to make a rational decision about anything still less what you are going to focus your energy on for the next year. The same result comes if you aren’t partying but sitting at home reflecting – even if you feel perfectly happy about the end of one year and beginning of a new on. This time of year can be joyful, exciting but also perhaps the darkness of the evenings in western Europe can be depressing (literally). So you are in the season of emotional swings and roundabouts.

On the other hand, 12 months is a pretty good length of time to make significant changes. It is long enough to do something that is lasting but not so long it doesn’t have to seem unmanageable. So I have a three step programme for you. Only three I hear you ask? Yes. That’s enough!

So, the first for now. Do this when ever you decide you are ready to set out what you really want to do this year. This is particularly useful you are feeling a bit down about the challenges of the past year but also can be helpful if you are feeling optimistic. I want you to get a piece of paper and draw a line down the middle (I have done this for you and you can download the form I have created for you attached to this blog). Across the top write these words:

Achievements and good things from 2017

and the left column put the header “work” and the right “personal”


Now I know that the natural thing is to put positive and negative things on one sheet. But we aren’t going to do this. We naturally dwell on negative more than positive so this stage of the exercise is to only list positive things. Seriously. Do it.


Nothing else for this step.


And no “but …”s or cynicism. Just the good things. Regardless of the year, I know that people can find some things that have been positive.

And I will shortly give you the second step.

And do let me know what you think…no resolutions

What to do over the holidays

As most of the western world winds down (up?) for Christmas, I guess the obvious holiday advice from a psychologist is to switch off completely and take a break. But actually that’s not quite what I am going to suggest because if I did, very few people would follow my advice. So rather than suggesting people do stuff they have no intention of doing, here is my advice for a great holiday.

  1. Finish off. Make sure you get all the really vital stuff done before you leave for the break. There is nothing quite so satisfying as leaving work and knowing you have done all that really needs to be done and now you can go home and relax. As in a previous blog, you won’t be able to finish absolutely everything but make sure you are happy with what is left over. The nagging doubt in the back of your mind if something important wasn’t quite finished will reduce the quality of your down time and you won’t relax. So take a really hard look at what you are working on, decide what MUST be done before you go home, and make absolutely sure it is done. Even if it isn’t quite as perfect as you might want. Just get it done.
  2. Say thank you. It is a good time to reflect on the year and what everyone has contributed. Take time to thank your team in person and be specific – what they have done really well and the challenges they have overcome. This is even more important for junior members of the team and your admin support.
  3. Work – holiday. Most advice is that working on holiday is a very bad idea. And it can be. But in my experience so many people do actually keep up with at least some work whilst knowing that this is not what they should be doing, there must be a reason for it. And I think there is a mix of fear and attachment. Fear that you might not actually be indispensable. Attachment because you invest a great deal into your work and want to make sure it is all going well. I add another – fear that on the first day back, the inbox will be huge. So I suggest the following work for holiday:
    • You can check email from time to time, but never when you could be with your children or loved ones.
    • You can read papers, but be prepared to be interrupted (and welcome these!)
    • Do not expose yourself to anything that might get you angry – especially things you can’t do anything about until you return.
    • Be careful if sending email that it doesn’t give the impression that you believe your team should also be working on holiday.
  4. Take a deep breath. Literally and metaphorically. You should do whatever it takes for you to re-boot yourself ready for the new year. If you can remove yourself from work completely, then do so. You will find a clear head is more creative, can see new solutions and spot where mistakes are being made.

But the basic advice remains: switching off is good. It’s not a holiday if you are working all the time. And holidays are good for productivity and health.


The fear of the new

I posted a selfie on Twitter last week from my last lecture of the term. I don’t usually do this but it was a special occasion; I am changing jobs and my new role doesn’t currently have me scheduled to deliver mainstream teaching. This may well change but, as it stands, after nearly 20 years that might well have been my last lecture. The significance of this is that I have built my career on being able to do certain things and (in all modesty) delivering engaging lectures has been something I have been known for all this time. And now I will not have this. So realising the change that is coming has left me in an unsettled frame of mind. I am very much looking forward to my new job, but part of me is looking back and taking stock.

I know this is natural and (mostly) healthy thing to do. We are creatures of habit and we like familiar things around us; we create our own little world at work consisting of the route to the office, people we greet in the morning, where we buy our coffee, the corridors we walk down. So even though we sometimes find that routine makes us bored, it is also comforting. When these routines are broken, it is unsettling, disturbing and can even trigger quite severe reactions.

On the other hand, we all change, all of the time. We learn new skills and hopefully get better at things through experience. More to the point, the role of the leader is to encourage change or else they probably aren’t really leading. But my current frame of mind has brought the reminder that when changes affect an individual, there is something very similar to a “fight or flight” response and I have remembered how uncomfortable this can be. For the person who has decided that a change is needed (the leader or manager), it is easy to forget the impact changes can have on those on whom it is imposed and leaders should remember this. It comes down to one of the absolute basics of great management – empathy. “What would this look like to the other person?”. It is not sympathy “poor things”, but a hard-headed analysis of how things appear from the other side of the desk which can then inform how you approach it. This is at the core of persuasion and influence.

So my point in this blog is a reminder to think about how everything you do will appear to the people concerned – especially when these appear to be minor changes to you.

When your boss is evil

Without doubt, the most important person in our work life is our boss. In fact, in reality it doesn’t really matter what they are like, the important thing is our relationship with them. I have spent a lot of time coaching people who struggle with their boss for all sorts of reasons and I have had my own struggles. I am absolutely certain that people will have struggled with me too! What starts out as a less than brilliant relationship can progress by degree to a point where you believe your boss is just evil. So what happens if this relationship has gone bad and it seems there is nothing you can do about it?

It is vital that you take responsibility for your relationship with your boss. You don’t have to agree with them all the time nor should you expect them to be nice to you all the time. But if you shrug your shoulders and say “It shouldn’t be up to me to…” or “He should take responsibility…” it really isn’t going to improve. So here are some tips:

1. When talking about your boss a sentence that includes the word “should” is unlikely to be helpful. For example “Well he should make sure he doesn’t have to ask at the last minute”. These may be factually accurate but they are unlikely to be helpful. Your boss may well leave things to the last minute and this affects you. However, if this has happened before, it is likely to happen again. Find other ways to account for this to make your life easier.

2. You are frustrated because your boss is frequently wrong – and this may be the case. However, there is a good chance that you are misunderstanding what her priorities are. You perhaps don’t know the big picture. Or maybe you are wrong. The reality is that actually it doesn’t matter. You cannot make your boss be righter. Or more correctly, make your boss think more like you.

3. Your boss doesn’t listen to your suggestions and this makes you feel devalued. The worst thing you can do is to carry on trying the same tactics. Try different approaches – is your timing right? Have you put yourself in his shoes to work out what his priorities are? What of approaches have worked – spreadsheets? Stories? Bold words? Who does have the bosses ear – and how has this happened?

The upshot of all these is essentially the same. You have a very limited ability to change the way your boss works. The only thing you have control over is what your reaction to it is. So focus on what you can control. Once you have made your views on a particular issue, let it go. Your boss will do what your boss will do. Your job is to find ways to deal with it.

Rites and rituals

It’s the time of year where me and my colleagues get dressed up in medieval costumes and participate in the ceremony to mark the graduation of our students. The photo accompanying this blog is of me with (now) former PhD student Dr Frank Watt. It’s kind of anachronistic in many ways as the style of robes pre-date most universities in the UK. And we only ever wear them on these occasions. And given how crazy the hats are, that is quite understandable. My own PhD ceremony at the University of Aberdeen was carried out entirely in Latin where the Deans struggled with reading their announcements (apart from the Head of Divinity who clearly spoke both Latin and Ancient Greek!). My service in the army left me rather jaded about parades and a northern grammar school education means I dislike pompousness. Attendance at the ceremony is voluntary and yet I always go. Why?

Being awarded a degree simply marks the end of a period of study. We do many things that come to a natural end and we don’t always put on a theatrical event to celebrate this. There is also a side-effect that is often surprising: even an achievement as significant as graduating can feel something of a let down. The euphoria of seeing that you have passed doesn’t last very long. There is really good research showing that achieving a major goal is extremely stressful as people are often left wondering “Is that it?” Or, “why on earth did I put myself through all that?”

I have found that there is a great deal of value to be had from having a moment where achievement is recognised. The reason for this is that it marks the ending of a particular chapter. It means that those graduating have, through participating in the ceremony, had to face up to the ending. And only when this has been properly faced up to can they move on to beginnings.

It does tend to be common that endings are not properly recognised – especially I think in the UK. When somebody leaves or is promoted or moves to a different part of the organisation, there should be some sort of marking of the ending so that the beginning will happen. We all fear change so perhaps we would rather pretend it isn’t happening. But if we have some sort of event that makes it explicit that a particular stage has ended, then there is more chance that we can move on.

Dealing with a nasty boss

The quality of your working life pivots on the quality of your relationship with your boss. All manner of challenges are manageable with the right boss. But also, everything else can be great about your job but with a bad boss, work won’t be a happy place. So what to do?

First of all you need to work out your sphere of influence. In other words, what can you change and what can you do nothing about. You are very unlikely to be able to make changes to your bosses behaviour because to change someone, you usually need a good relationship with them. Be wary of saying the following to yourself or out loud:

  • Why should I have to…
  • He really should
  • He shouldn’t

Because these are wishes not workable plans. Think about what YOU can do. If something in particular is upsetting, what changes can YOU make? Of course there are limits to what you can change but try to focus on the possibilities. So your boss behaves badly in meetings, what can you do about this? Do they behave better when certain people are there? Are there ways you might be able to get feedback to them? Can you change the agenda so the bad behaviour is less likely? Can you reduce the frequency of them? Can you alter the format?

Maybe the answer is no to all those questions, so find other ones. You do have more choices than you probably think you do. What you need to do is find what you can control and leverage that.

But the main point is that people find it difficult to change especially when it is deeply engrained habits. And they will only change if they want to. So if your boss doesn’t want to change – perhaps not acknowledging there is any need for them to change –  it isn’t going to happen. What you can control is yourself. So what are you going to do…

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)