Thursday, 29 October 2009

Recognising the dirty tricks that trip you up!

I have just finished loading up a training sample on assertiveness to my LinkedIn page (that's free assertiveness training by the way). Having added a few tips in at the end I have decided to expand on these. Specifically for dealing effectively with what can put us off track when we are doing our level best to be assertive (and effective!). Without being specific, I have been tested many times, where asking for something to be done differently, and experienced the other person try at least some of these. I may even have used some myself in the dim and distant past! It wasn't pleasant, to be sure, but by being prepared and in recognising them as the strategies of more passive or aggressive people, we can rise above them and still achieve something constructive.

So what are the common dirty tricks played by others when we are trying to sort out a problem or just do our jobs?

Here are some of the more common ones:

- nagging (if I have to tell you one more time..)

- exaggerating (you're always / never ..)

- vague answers (this might be possible ..)

- blaming (it's your fault, if you hadn't..)

- unwanted advice (if I were you ..)

- undermining (you don't seem to be able to ..)

- boxing you in (well, what are you doing right now? Oh you're busy, well, in that case come to my place this evening ..)

- put-downs and insults (you're useless, what a loser, a hopeless case..)

The best and only way to handle these dirty tricks is to get really angry.. um no, that's not it! Don't get mad, get even and do the same back!! Not that either unfortunately. No, it's to confront it with logic. Here are some pretty good reality checkers to combat dirty tricks:

• Am I worse than others? (if so how much?)
• Is this the case all of the time? (if not, when?)
• Would most people agree with this? (who would disagree with this?)
• Is there evidence to the contrary? (what about times when ..)

Constantly striving to live up to your own or others' unattainable ideal will only make you feel inadequate, and get in the way of working towards your goals. Real success takes many forms and is never just about excelling at work, nor being the perfect parent, friend or lover. If, as a child, you were regularly criticised at home or at school, you may doubt your value as a human being and hold an exaggerated, overly negative perspective. Women in particular are vulnerable to a negative self-image because of media pressures on them to be perfect: have the perfect weight, perfect skin, perfect hair, career; be the perfect mother, cook, hostess, etc. It can be harder to recognise and deal with dirty tricks when you have been receiving them in one form or another for a long time!

If you recognise some of those dirty tricks as your own, then consider that this is far more an aggressive or passive, rather than assertive, style. It will likely wind up other people rather than build good relationships or get the job done. Kick start learning to think in more balanced ways by using these reality checkers on yourself and the assumptions that you make about others.

Constructive criticism is only useful when it aims to help you, not undermine you. To be constructive, it needs to be specific, rather than commenting about how you are in general. Recognise constructive criticism and use it to grow. Recognise dirty tricks and don't let them trip you up!

Tuesday, 20 October 2009

Can Emotionally Intelligent Leadership Be Learned?

The words "emotional" and "leader" together in the same breath could conjur up some pretty negative images, mostly because the word emotional is often used to describe someone overly emotional, and at least slightly out of control. The truth is that we all possess a range of emotions and knowing how these feel, what some of our triggers are for some of the less desirable ones, and being able to show appropriate emotion are all the attributes required of great leaders. This blog explores whether Emotional Intelligence (EI) can be learned or is it more an inate skill? Also, what sort of qualifications should we look for when wanting to hire a professional to assist in developing our EI?

Working With Emotional Intelligence
Daniel Goleman Ph.D, visiting Harvard lecturer, author, pyschologist and science journalist, has written extensively on the subject of EI starting in 1995 with his book, aptly entitled "Emotional Intelligence". He argues that emotional maturity is a more important factor than IQ for determining workplace success, ("Working with Emotional Intelligence", 1998). Goleman draws heavily on the landmark work of Salovey and Meyer, psychologists who previously defined EI as: “the ability to monitor one’s own and other’s emotions, to discriminate among them, and to use the information to guide one’s thinking and actions” (1990, p.189). Goleman is one in a long line of thinkers and writers who have proposed that we must first be able to empathise with others in order to help them and lead them. As early as around 300BC , Sun T'zu (if he existed) wrote in "The Art of War" that victory starts with empathy.

Inate EI?
Goleman's most recent best-seller is "Social Intelligence: The New Science of Human Relationships" (2006). Goleman explores a person's individual attachment style, shaped as an infant, this having a critical impact on EI abilities in adulthood. Attachment styles are due in part to individual temperament and also largely shaped by social and parental influences in infancy and early childhood. "Our childhood leaves its stamp on our adult ardor nowhere more clearly than in our "attachment system" ... As we have seen, children who are well nurtured and feel their caretakers empathize with them become secure in their attachments, neither overly clingy nor pushing away. But those whose parents neglect their feelings and who feel ignored become avoidant, as though they have given up hope of achieving a caring connection. And children whose parents are ambivalent, unpredictably flipping from rage to tenderness, become anxious and insecure." So these attachment styles of anxious, secure and avoidant usually follow us into adulthood and impact upon our ability to be emotionally intelligent. The "secure" attachment style (centered and grounded) is the more effective of the three when it comes to EI. The two extremes of clinginess (anxious) and aloofness (avoidant), are large hurdles for some to overcome and in extreme cases, will likely not be overcome. The secure attachment style allows enjoyment of both intimacy and solitude. The anxious person as an adult might continue to be overly dependent upon others, try too hard to please others and not cope well alone; or even overcompensate by showing traits of arrogance and narcissism; while the avoidant person is unable to fully experience intimacy; has difficulty with empathy; does not allow others to get close; is probably much more of a loner; and does not demonstrate high levels of emotion, even where warranted. The secure person embraces both intimacy and solitude because he/she has little investment in self-protection or mistrust. Authentic emotional expression is fundamentally important to being a good leader; without the mixed messages that come from someone overly people-pleasing or emotionally redundant. In other words, when those around us see us over or under-reacting emotionally, they do not feel the same level of trust in our abilities to lead, and probably rightly so. It is clear then that those with an inate secure foundation, are more equipped for EI than others.

Security and Social Awareness
"Social awareness" is a key skill of the emotionally intelligent and encompasses abilities such as being a good judge of people, having developed an emotional literacy, generally holding a positive regard towards others and possessing a healthy "trust radius". These are fairly esoteric criteria and also internally determined to each and every one of us. Clearly if someone is preoccupied with protecting himself from the evil intentions of others then he will not be predisposed to being highly socially aware. The same applies to someone with a strong dependency upon others for self-worth. "For leadership positions, emotional intelligence abilities account for up to 85% of what sets outstanding managers apart from the average” – Daniel Goleman, Working with Emotional Intelligence (1998).

EI Assessments and Development
It is with this in mind that various EI assessment tools have been developed in order to determine the areas of improvement for our leaders; given very few people in the world are perfectly secure! These tools are available for pretty much anyone to administer, once undergoing a few days of EI training, usually under the broad label of "coaching". Of much more importance than administering the test and getting the EI result however is what can be done once the tests have been administered. Is this an area that will respond well to some training, coaching or is something altogether deeper and more psychotherapeutic needed?

Craig (identity changed) is a high ranking director working in an extremely dynamic and competitive industry in the city of London. Craig approached me on Harley St to work with him privately to achieve improved EI. He was finding that all his appraisals were coming back with the same feedback - Craig delivers extremely well on his deadlines and organisational objectives but his soft skills are below average. He is liked by his superiors but not by many of his subordinates. The area that most people would like Craig to improve on is being less arrogant and more empathic. During our first session together, Craig admitted that he found this feedback overwhelming. This is usually the case when feedback is about something that is fundamental to the person. How could he possibly adjust these habits of a lifetime, particularly when most of his reactions were unconscious, automatic and seemed to get the job done? This is a valid concern and if left unaddressed, the individual is caught between wanting to deliver against objectives and wanting to please others, resulting in neither being done, with stress mounting for the person in question. Craig needed safe ways to test letting go of some of his more competitive traits in order to rehearse more empathic ones, and so a plan was put in place for him to begin to gather new evidence to support new ways of behaving. Upon deeper exploration with Craig, we also uncovered that Craig was "predisposed" to being competitive, having been encouraged to do so from a very early age, beginning with competing to be heard in an extremely noisy household! Under the bold exterior, Craig also experienced high levels of anxiety and insecurity about himself in relation to others. He could attribute this to various factors such as growing up feeling like a square peg in a round hole at school, with parents who were themselves frequently shouting and stressed, and generally not receiving sufficient attention other than when achieving remarkable results.

In examining Craig's main complaint against him, that of being too arrogant, an underlying fear of incompetence emerged. This fear was something that drove Craig to excellence in almost everything he did. Again, this was one of the reasons that Craig had been promoted so quickly and was viewed as a bright, young star. He agreed that this was a main "pro" to him holding on to this fear. It was important however that we unearthed the "cons" of this fear and in doing so, it brought to light the fact that Craig's personal relationships as well as those with subordinates who relied upon Craig for guidance and knowledge generally suffered. He admitted to being more intent on achieving than listening, on teaching others how to do things his way rather than attempting to understand others' points of view (frequently putting other people's backs up!) as well as not being sufficiently tolerant with those less experienced than he. At worst, when Craig's fear of incompetence was fully activated, Craig found it extremely difficult to control his temper and unsurprisingly this really worked against him, both at home and at work. Craig and I worked on modifying his existing beliefs about what he needed to do to be truly successful, and not just in work. In order for these to become automatic, he needed to rehearse them in session, role-playing situations in order to then go out and practice them, and to receive fair and helpful feedback from those around him who support him. His underlying feelings of anxiety and insecurity reduced through balancing his views of what would make him a great boss as well as a husband and father; and importantly, practicing a set of relaxation and stress management techniques helped address when he was likely vulnerable to triggers. In working with hypnotherapy Craig modified his mental image - to that of someone more mature and empathic rather than arrogant and anxious, strengthening the links between positive outcomes and the traits of EI being rehearsed.

Having used these tools and worked with some fairly high-profile individuals with these sort of challenges, my opinion is that it is not an area that one should be expecting a coach with fairly limited psychological training to assist with, as areas such as the client's learned expectations about him/herself in relation to others; his/her abilities to trust others; and automatic, learned responses, particularly when under stress, need to be adapted. This requires a coach with a breadth of training and experience in psychotherapeutic methods as well as simply holding a coaching certificate and EI assessment certification. Exploring someone's inner world, their belief system and also modifying behaviours - perhaps overly passive or overly aggressive - which have in fact served the individual very well, are not changes to be attempted lightly nor can they be worked on superficially.

What Are The Qualifications Needed to Coach EI?
Modifying the areas of a person relating to their self-worth, attachment style and ability to trust and then rebuilding them in a way that does not threaten the individual's hard won successes; will not likely be achieved in just a few sessions, nor with a coach trained in applying goal theory (the standard coaching cetification which teaches coaches to hold the view that one must identify the goals and coach a client in accordance with them, in order to motivate the client to learn new skills) and a bit of NLP (neurolinguistic programming, a poorly validated and misused collection of behavioural techniques that make some quite extravagant claims to deliver swift behavioural modification). EI is a term to cover a variety of skills deriving from very fundamental beliefs that we hold about ourselves and the world as we have learned it to be, from our earliest moments onwards: it is not just about developing emotional self-control, nor in learning more about the skills of motivating and managing others. For a highly successful leader wishing to further develop their EI skills, psychotherapeutic experience in the EI Coach is essential, in my opinion. The case study of Craig sounds pretty straightforward but it is precisely the steps highlighted there that are the most problematic for a coach with insufficient training and experience: what are the predisposing factors to the problems being demonstrated - and how entrenched are they?; how can risk be managed in adapting some of the maladaptive behaviours that have served the individual very well, in the organisation that they operate?; what is a realistic improvement for this individual?; and even more importantly, how can tolerance to trial and error learning be improved, usually in someone used to learning new things and getting results extremely quickly? The skills required of a coach with this calibre of leader are complex, psychotherapeutic but also requiring strong organisational experience, particularly in appreciating the influence of the organisation and group on the individual. My advise to any leader seeking EI coaching is to avoid coaches who do not have an organisational development background coupled with formal training and experience in psychotherapy. Specifically find a coach trained in administering EI assessments and also Cognitive Behaviour Therapy (CBT), the most effective therapy for linking behaviour with emotional development. Without this blend of experience in handling the organisational influences as well as changing the individual ones, coaching could be highly damaging to a leader's chances of survival and improvement, particularly in the complicated environment that he or she likely exists.

Friday, 16 October 2009

Heading off Crisis At The Pass

Let's face it, relationships can be problematic at least some of the time. Sometimes other people's motivations and intentions are not clear and at other times, our own problems or motivations can cloud our abilities to come to the right conclusions. As I probably say in every other blog, it's useful to remember that it is impossible to expect that relationships be problem-free. In fact, problems and differences are healthy - less healthy is where these are ignored. That's when they grow extra heads, arms and legs! Here are my top 10 tips for reducing conflict, either at home or work.

A common path to conflict looks something like this (from low conflict to high conflict):

Discomfort - Incident - Misunderstandings - Tension - Crisis

Discomfort: This niggles more than shows up overtly. Things just don't feel right; it isn't necessarily that anything has been said, but there is a less safety or security felt on either or both sides. Think of a situation you have been in which escalated into a crisis or fall-out. It's likely that in hindsight you had picked up on this at a much earlier stage. Often people will say things like, "my instincts were telling me that this would happen"; "I've seen this coming for a while"; and so on.

Incident: An unsettling exchange occurs, without much real problem solving. This is sometimes just bickering but at times it suggests that bigger problems are being left unresolved. The incident can often be a sign that there is more to this than just this isolated incident. A throw away remark about one-half not doing the dishes with a return volley that this is just nagging is an example of my own that comes to mind! In the workplace it could be about just about anything, time-keeping, the way in which reports are written, how people interact in meetings, how emails are handled as a form of communication, and so on.

Misunderstandings: Motives and facts become confused or misinterpreted. Intentions are interpreted without checking that this is the case. There is little checking of what was heard versus what was intended. Take the bickering couple for example; rather than asking how the other feels (a stressful day contributing to dishes not being done? tiredness contributing to getting snappy at not having the dishes done?) each heads off to their separate corner to stew with the misinterpretation that clearly he/she doesn't respect me; listen to me; care about me - if they did, they would surely listen!

Tension: The relationship is becoming entangled with negative attitudes and more black:white opinions. Is the relationship becoming a regular source of worry or concern? Is the bickering increasing and even less problem-solving about what could be done about it?

Crisis: The relationship is buckling under the strain of misunderstandings and little to no cooperative problem solving. Are you dealing with a major event like a possible rupture in a relationship; leaving a job; violence or destructive acts?

So here are my top 10 tips for heading off crisis at the pass:

1. Address Conflict Early
The best time to fix problems is at the earliest stage. In times of crisis, positions have likely become very entrenched and people involved less disposed to feeling kindly to the other party. Becoming aware of conflict at the earlier stages of discomfort and minor incidents is a useful skill, and this involves recognising early how you are feeling. Feeling irritated at being told what to do but continuing to allow someone to talk to you in a way you dislike will not alleviate your irritation and likely polarise your positions even more.

2. Question Your Interpretations
If feelings of discomfort, irritation or upset are there, try to focus on them and figure out what intentions you are interpreting with the other person. Are these completely true and fact? Because you feel irritation is it true that this person is trying to annoy you? Would other people interpret them in the same way? What other factors personal to you are contributing to your interpretation? Separating another's behaviour from intention is a very important skill in managing conflict and reducing the likelihood of conflict. We can only read what we see, not necessarily what the other person(s) intend. Having empathy for another can be difficult when in a crisis but it is fundamentally important if the relationship is to be rescued.

3. Focus on Needs
Usually conflict arises where needs are not being met. These might be about money, or territory, or internal drives such as independence, autonomy, status, respect or self-esteem. Think about international conflicts such as Northern Ireland, Palestine or Iraq - they likely cover all of them. Aggression does nothing to address needs and usually just inflames them. Remember that offering solutions is not the same as uncovering needs and needs are usually not immediately apparent, otherwise the conflict or disagreement would not be happening. When asked what they need, some people reply with solutions that they think are needs, such as "I need him to ring me when he's going to be late”. The need is to know he is safe. There can be a variety of ways to meet that need. Phoning in when late is only one.

4. Keep it simple
If the need is quite complex, about "lifestyle" for example, then break it down in to smaller, more specific parts. This can be done by asking the person what this comprises; what are the most important parts that are not being addressed (prioritising); what it would mean to the person if they were met; how these parts can be met - what does that look like to the person?

5. Identify Common Ground
Disagreements and conflict can be overwhelming and suddenly it can appear as though nothing is working! Reminding each other of the things that are working well is crucial. In a crisis situation such as Palestine, some of you might be thinking "how on earth could that be possible?". Well, a creative Mediator would be equipped with some times where both sides have agreed to a cease-fire; where agreements have been made, even if adhered to only for a short-while; and importantly, where needs and concerns are common to both sides. These are the building blocks for conciliation and ultimately peace. If the examples really are too inadequate, then this can be part of the creative process - brainstorming around "what might common issues be?"; "how would you both like situation x to have been handled differently?"; "you both dislike the threat to your national security and trade"; etc. No matter how complex a crisis situation has become, there is always an opportunity for establishing some common ground.

6. Identify Consequences
If either or both parties are unwilling to find solutions once needs are on the table, painting the picture of what the future looks like will help focus each on finding new ways of thinking and behaving. Highlight the costs of not resolving this.

7. Wave a Magic Wand
If needs are still not clear, asking the question "if I could wave a magic wand, what would improve this for you" might do the trick in identifying more internal needs, such as respect or security.

8. New Perspectives, Assumptions and Insights
What hadn't been considered before? What now seems clearer? Rather than labelling the other as a bigheaded, MCP, might it be now something entirely different - a tired, confused and unintentionally annoying partner - a bit like you?! Accepting a broader perspective will diffuse tension and head off a crisis.

9. Dealing with Deeper Needs
Is there reluctance to express exactly what the less apparent needs are? In cases where someone has a hidden agenda, it might not always be possible to find a solution. If one party is not willing to share then a solution will not necessarily be found. Problems cannot always be solved in the first instance. Remember the other person might be getting more out of having the problem than in solving it e.g. having a high investment in being right; having the final say; taking the credit; financial gain in the form of performance bonuses; fearing making a commitment; etc. Consider ''stepping back'' emotionally, or even physically distancing yourself to more clearly see the part of the problem that belongs to the other person.Work towards your own resolution, knowing that you have done all that you can. This often involves some practical steps to be taken so consider what these are and how best you can prioritise them.

10. Respond not React
Remain centered and manage your emotions. Let some accusations, attacks, threats or ultimatums pass. Make it possible for the other party to back down without feeling small by reinforcing changed circumstances, making their change in position possible. This is particularly useful with teenagers where it is less likely that they have yet mastered this skill!

If you find that the crisis has gone too far, independent counselling and mediation provide a valuable, impartial resource. Find someone accredited as a mediator or counsellor and engage the other side in choosing this path. If there are already recurring incidences, do not wait.

Saturday, 3 October 2009

Reducing Stress At Work

A few days ago the press sadly ran the story of the 24th suicide, in 18 months, of a France Telecom worker; this being a 51 year old father of 2 who leapt to his death from a motorway overpass after leaving a note blaming “the atmosphere at work". In accordance with France Telecom's 3 year on-the-move programme, he had been moved to a different region and to work in a Call Centre renowned for high stress. Another possible contributing factor was that France Telecom had laid off 22,000 staff from 2006 - 2008 with many employees left feeling threatened. In being moved every 3 years, crucially there is less support available from colleagues or friends - regular moving simply alienates people, particularly during vulnerable times. The number of suicides at France Telecom, and in such a short space of time, is truly frightening and a serious indicator of how stress is able to distort someone's sense of self-worth and ability to reason rationally. To note, France Telecom suspended their 3-year move programme on the 29th September of this year.

Our own workplaces in the UK are prone to stress, hopefully protected more than France Telecom's however, thanks to the UK Government's HSE Stress Management Standard and tools to help employers and employees work together to prevent excessive work-related stress (launched on 3rd November 2004).

The HSE defines stress as, 'An adverse reaction a person has to excessive pressures or other types of demands placed upon them' and says "Given an excess of pressure, stress can therefore happen to anyone, and should not be seen as a weakness. Instead, an individual needs to be helped to deal with these pressures." (Making the Stress Management Standards work: How to apply the Standards in your workplace, HSE). So what should employers do and how readily has there been uptake?

It entails an employer assessing roles for potential of stress - for example there is higher stress when working in a call centre versus working in a more autonomous role. It also requires employers assessing employees for vulnerability to stress. The HSE has developed an assessment tool which employers can use to assess the workplace for potential to stress. It is a 6-factor assessment, covering the primary stressors in the workplace, likely to adversely affect most people, as follows:

1. Demands - this includes issues such as workload, work patterns and the work environment.

2. Control - how much say the person has in the way they do their work.

3. Support - this includes the encouragement, sponsorship and resources provided by the organisation, line management and colleagues.

4. Relationships - this includes promoting positive working to avoid conflict and dealing with unacceptable behaviour.

5. Role - whether people understand their role within the organisation and whether the organisation ensures that they do not have conflicting roles.

6. Change - how organisational change (large or small) is managed and communicated in the organisation.

This is now accompanied by updated recommendations for management competencies to be assessed and improved in order to better manage the people who work for them, even if the environment is highly stressful. This requires employers and particularly HR professionals building a system for not only developing the skills amongst line managers; but also demonstrating that these skills have been evaluated and corrective actions taken or improvements made accordingly. Also, employers or HR departments must adequately possess these skills to begin with, before they can then pass them on or assess them in others. (This becomes even more challenging where the organisation has outsourced their HR function.)

The skills required of managers for managing stress are considered to be the skills that makes any manager competent (i.e. they are one and the same). These are skills that I have promoted and trained many in and I have to say, I am a more than a little pleased that this is being validated as invaluable for better management of stress, particularly at a time like now, where it is estimated that 1 in 6 employees on long-term absenteeism are suffering from chronic stress. Here is a summary of the competencies being outlined by the HSE, devised in collaboration with organisational psychologists for managers to show competence in:

1. Respectful and responsible: managing emotions and having integrity; having a considerate approach - must not be unpredictable in mood; pass on stress to employees; panic about deadlines; create unrealistic deadlines; give more negative than positive feedback; nor take suggestions about improvements as a personal attack.

2. Managing and communicating existing and future work - deals rationally with problems; deals with problems as soon as they arise; has a participative and delegating style - must not give too little direction to employees; be indecisive in making decisions.

3. Reasoning/managing difficult situations - acts as mediator in conflict situations; deals with squabbles before they become arguments - must not try to keep the peace rather than resolve issues; must not avoid addressing bullying.

4. Managing the individual within the team - speaks personally rather than uses email; is empathetic and sociable - must not simply assume rather than checking that employees are okay.

Empathy is fairly problematic for a stressed out manager however. Consider the definitions provided by the HSE:
  • encourages employee input in discussions
  • listens when employees ask for help
  • makes an effort to find out what motivates employees at work
  • tries to see team member’s point of view
  • takes an interest in team’s life outside work
  • regularly asks ‘how are you?’
  • treats all team members with equal importance
My colleagues and I are trained to assess the individual as well as the organisation, to provide an assessment in line with the HSE Management Standard, as well as providing the training and coaching some managers require in areas such as mediation skills and the soft skills such as listening, empathy and emotional self-control and stress reduction. Additionally, a wealth of information can be found at