Monday, 3 October 2016

Dealing with difficult people starts with you

From time to time we all come across someone who we do not particularly get on with, find challenging or who simply rubs us up the wrong way. However, the first thing to establish for our own peace of mind is that actually such people are pretty far and few between. Think about how many people you know and what proportion of them you do not get on with? Most of us know hundreds and hundreds people but can probably count on one hand those with whom we have a poor or difficult relationship. Such analysis can be very helpful before we even consider how to better deal with that small handful. By recognising that we get on just fine with the vast majority of people that we know, then when it comes to meeting new people we should have very little concern regarding how we will get on and if we will be able to develop a good relationship. The odds are very much stacked in favour that they will be just the same as the large number of people that you already know.

So when we do meet a ‘difficult’ person what should we do? The answer is often not the one that necessarily sits most comfortably with us, but it does work most of the time. We need to take responsibility for why this person is being as they are and find what we can do to bring about a change.  When thinking about this be careful not to make it personal, assuming that it is somehow about your personality, how you act or tone. It can be the case sometimes, but more often than not it is as a result of misunderstand and miscommunication. Often the biggest cause of problems that in turn lead to challenging situations is that you, the other party or both have jumped to one or more wrong conclusions. 

The first thing is to listen very carefully to what the person is saying. Is there any truth in the view that they are expressing? Could they actually be correct or at least partially so? Thinking this through immediately enables you to take a softer approach with this person because you are able to recognise that they are not just be difficult for the sake of it, but rather have, or believe they have, a valid position. 

Next consider what it is that normally upsets people. The three predominant causes are;
·         Inability to take action – the feeling of powerlessness
·         The unfairness of a situation or process
·         Being misunderstood or not listened to

Ask yourself which one or more of the above might be causing the person to act the way they do. If you are in a position to help overcome what the person believes and/or perceives is happening then take it on yourself to find a cure. Once you are seen to be a solution rather than a problem, the degree of difficult will diminish dramatically. If you are not in a position to provide a solution to the problem, at least you can hopefully cut that individual a little more slack than you might have otherwise done, because you have a better understanding of how they feel.

Tuesday, 16 August 2016

Help your teams to look at problems differently

Often people somehow believe that their business roles are to make sure they do not have any problems at work – that is to fundamentally misunderstand the nature of most jobs! The very essence of most employment activity is to address and overcome problems, either those of the business, our clients or a combination thereof.  To attempt to somehow remove the existence of problems is to significantly limit or even extinguish the rational for what we do. A job role without problems (or at least challenges) is a role that will quickly change or evaporate.

Once we accept the need for problems, then we can start to look at them differently. As a manager, the quicker we can help team members appreciate this scenario, the more effective we can help them to be and allow them to see problems as a way to develop and enhance their capabilities.
At one of our clients we asked team members to complete a ‘Problem Log’. This meant simply noting down any time they believed a problem existed with a brief description of the issue, the date and the time. We asked them to do this over a period of two weeks and to leave space in the log to enter how each problem was resolved. At the end of two weeks we collected in the logs without entering into any discussion with the staff in regard to content. We did this to avoid anyone subsequently wishing to change what they had entered as a result of the passage of time. This is very important within the process of attempting to look at problems differently, because time has a huge impact on problems and problem solving.

We then analysed the logs, amalgamated the data to avoid identifying specific individuals and then meet as a group to review and discuss the findings. Across a team of twelve there was an average of 1.4 problems per person per day logged. Of the 168 problems logged only 38 had an entry showing that the problem had been resolved (22%). This should have meant in theory that there were 130 unresolved problems that by now would surely be causing chaos within the team. Of course this turned out not to be the case with the vast majority of the 130 problems, some 114 (88%), having been superseded by other activities, change of circumstances or the problem simply turning out not to have needed to be resolved, or put another way, not a problem in the first place. This organic resolution of problems without any specific involvement by the individual who entered it in the log was confirmed by the lack of entries showing how a problem had been resolved. The individual often did not know how the problem was resolved; it just went away as far as they were concerned! In fact when we asked for volunteers to discuss specific entries often they struggled to even remember the nature or detail of the problem they had previously identified.

The insights from this initiative became a desktop mantra for the team;
·         Problems are an integral part of our jobs
·         Do not ignore problems but don’t fixate on them either
·         Critical problems require urgent attention – most problems are not critical
·         Allow the time for problems to properly define themselves before acting
·         Look at problems as a way to learn and develop skills

Thursday, 21 July 2016

Helping to reduce the fear of business presentations

For those of us of a certain age, the USA comedy series Seinfeld holds a special place in our hearts. For many years in ran second to Friends in the US ratings, the only fundamental difference being that Seinfeld was much funnier. One particular episode stands out in my memory, when Jerry Seinfeld and friends were sadly attending a funeral. The subject of peoples’ greatest fears came up in conversation and specifically where death itself was ranked compared with having to speak in public. Sienfeld’s comment was something on the lines of “So what you are saying is that three out of four people in the church now would rather be in the casket that having to give the eulogy”.

This apparently jokey comment seems however to be based on fact. After flying, speaking in public comes in a strong second place ahead of spiders, the dark and yes even death. Until recently I had no idea that there was even a specific catch-all name for the physical sensations we go through before and during public speaking. It is called Glossophobia (from the Latin word Glossa meaning tongue) and it covers everything from dry mouth and weak voice to sweating and elevated blood pressure.
For some reason many people do not equate public speaking with business presentations, be they client facing or internal. However, I can assure you that the three out of four rule expressed by Jerry Sienfeld applies just as strongly. It is for this reason that when we start working with client staff looking at how we might improve presentation skills, we start by recounting the above story and then spend much of the first session helping them understand that they are not alone. Making sure they understand that it takes time to reduce the anxiety, increase confidence and eventually improve technique. Regularly we even need to make sure individuals are not in some way questioning their self-worth because of their concerns and anxieties.

Helping reduce anxiety with regard to presenting (although it is highly unlikely that any of us will totally eliminate it) is one of the key steps to improvement. All too often businesses send staff away on a ‘Presentation Skills’ course along with 30 other people — and guess what, three out of four of them hate the experience. They are being forced into doing something they do not want to do and often to be someone that the simply don’t want to be. The first major factor towards reducing anxiety is to work initially on a one-to-one basis with the coach, allowing a relaxed and personalised approach to develop. Early on in the process we spend time identifying the type of ‘presentation personality’ that already exist and look to nurture that, rather than trying to turn everyone into a ‘performer’. Helping people to understand there are many different presenting styles, all of which can be just as relevant and effective as each other helps relax the individual and provides the platform for reducing anxiety and improving technique.

Once the above foundation has been established, the focus is predominantly on the ‘Three Ps’ — Preparation, Practice and Performance. Get the first two Ps correct and the third will follow. From the second session on staff are presenting to the coach. By session five or six they are challenged to ‘fledge’ — jump out of the nest, and present to a few of their trusted colleagues. And within ten sessions? Well often we have set up meetings with the senior management team within the client and those that we have coached are actually excited (if not still a little nervous) to demonstrate their new skills and are subsequently putting themselves forward to deliver both internal and external presentations, to a standard most would never have dreamt they could.

Wednesday, 15 June 2016

Encourage staff to say “No” and see the benefits

It is amasing the levels of underperformance we see with staff that arises as a result of undue self-imposed pressure. The sense that many people have that they need to say yes to everything and that to pushback and suggest that they might not be able to do what they are being asked is a sign of incompetence or lack of commitment.

One of the first things to say about these types of individuals is that they are often the brightest and most committed of colleagues we could hope to have in a team. They want to do the best for the business, their manager and themselves. They also often have a tendency to set their own and others’ expectation at unrealistically high and often simply unachievable levels. But in a drive to achieve this they have a significant blind spot that can, if not addressed, cause major problems for both the business and the individual.  

As the individual takes on more and more, trying to work harder and harder, with longer and longer hours they start to create bottlenecks within the business. This is something which they often try to hide and workaround to the detriment of clients, colleagues and the overall business. Eventually something does not get done or gets missed and all too often the role and associated responsibilities become a blocker rather than an enabler to the business. At a personal level the damage can be much more significant. Work is only work at the end of the day, but health has to be paramount. Again too often we miss the tell tale signs of the person becoming more and more reclusive and non-communicative or going the other way and getting bad tempered and aggressive. Such actions are then followed by increasing time off and ill health.

The answer is for management to address the problems before they start and not necessarily immediately at the individual level (although this may often be needed) but rather by openly discussing the subject in team meetings and thereby setting the appropriate tone. This is not for one moment suggesting that we do not want staff to work hard and take personal responsibility for their own effectiveness, but rather to free them to do the best they possibly can by not creating the unnecessary self-imposed pressure. 

When we have been invited to help with such issues the most effective approach has been us to speak with a group on the subject initially. This tends to quickly eliminate those colleagues who do not recognise such tendencies within themselves (although Management should watch out for the occasions on which individuals hide their feelings) and allow those with concerns to voice them within the group, but more often provides the opportunity for them to ask for subsequent one-on-one support.

When coaching with regard to avoiding self-imposed pressure we look to cover such areas as
·         How well do you understand your workload?
·         Find a way to realistically measure what needs to get done
·         Important vs. Urgent
·         Overloaded or procrastinating?
·         When given something extra to do, can you make a trade?
·         Asking for help is a sign of professionalism
·         Always better to say no than say yes and then not do something!

At one client with this approach we helped a middle manager to rethink and restructure their whole approach to how they managed their workload, the fundamental change being a genuine focus on prioritisation. This in turn led to a completely different visualisation by the manager of their To-Do List recognising the non-priority work for what it was, rather than looking at everything they thought they needed to do as a single huge mass. The end result after a few weeks of acclimatisation to the new way of working was that the manager took on more priority work and as such increased their productivity.

Saturday, 30 April 2016

A matter of life and death – and a big lesson

A very dear friend of Maggie (my better half) and I died in March of lung cancer. Charles Knevitt (check out Google for his Telegraph obituary) arrived in our lives in 1989, walking into our local, asking the then landlord who were the locals and introducing himself to those of us reclining at the bar. He had moved into a house within 100 yards of the pub and wanted to make himself known to those who he considered would be the most knowledgeable and influential people in the village!

We were somewhat taken aback, despite by that stage of the evening having consumed significantly more beer than my doctor has ever believed acceptable. Who on earth walks into a pub and announces that he would like to become a local? Well, I will tell you who – a natural. It was at Charles’ wake at his beloved Chelsea Arts Club that during the course of many wonderful speeches and subsequent conversations with complete strangers, other that the fact that they knew Charles, that I understood what made Charles different! He was happy to be Charles.

The vast majority of subjects I have covered in this blog relate (directly or indirectly) to having an ‘influence’. Making things happen in a way that will as a result, in business particularly, but also in life generally, have a positive result. Listening to the speeches at Charles’ wake (he wanted it called a party) I realised that we only knew one version of Charles. However, our version of Charles was him being 100% genuine in how he felt about and loved us. Yet most other people I met and talked with about Charles had a different, or at least a slightly different version. Charles being natural was being who we wanted him to be, that was his great strength. Being slightly different to everyone because everyone is different was why everyone liked Charles.

I have on many occasions talked about being a good listener – I need to add be a good adapter, make people comfortable with a version of you that suits them, as long as it is based on your true DNA,

Charles Knevitt, born August 10 1952, died March 15 2016

Tuesday, 15 March 2016

How about never, is never good for you?

The above question comes from a fantastic cartoon that has been around for years. The picture above the caption is of a senior business executive sat in his office and obviously exasperated at taking a call from what I always thought of as a tenacious sales person trying to make an appointment.

Anyone who has been in sales will recognise the regularity with which our target prospect clients find ways to put us off. At least the guy in the cartoon is being honest admitting that he never wants to see you, which is probably slightly better than “I will call you back if I need anything” or “Someone will contact you if we are interested”.

What did strike me recently about the cartoon was my assumption that the caller has something to do with Sales and why did I think that? Because of course it could be many other types of callers. Back in the day when mother-in-laws seem to be the unjust butt of so many jokes, it could be his wife asking when her mother could come to stay. Maybe a job offer from the competition which he is really enjoying turning down. Or even the chance to participate in a sky diving charity event?

The point is that I recognised “How about never, is never good for you?” because of how it had in some way affected me in the past, without even considering any potential alternative connotations.

As part of my coaching role I regularly encourage people to become better listeners, don’t jump to conclusions, make assumptions and always seek clarity – but all I could imagine was the poor sales person on the other end of the phone.

Better try again to practice what I preach!

Tuesday, 16 February 2016

To become a better listener start by clearing your mind

Make sure you are feeling as positive about the subject, the environment and the person who is talking to you as possible. Ask yourself if you are really ready to listen. Really listen and listen hard! How do you expect this conversation to go? Try to always keep an open mind. Put your assumptions aside, and listen for new or different information.

Don’t judge during the conversation and let the person finish. Even ask them to confirm they have covered everything they wanted to cover before you reply. Remind yourself that 99% of the time there is at least some element of truth in what anyone says and more often than not they really do believe in what they are saying, rather than our possible perception of them just being awkward or cantankerous.

Starting with a clear mind and even a neutral position on the subject being discussed will make you a much better listener and practically guarantees a better outcome.