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Thursday, 24 November 2011

Just who's calling the shots?

Here's a scenario that I'd like you to consider... see if there's any part of it that you recognise:

There's a company (call it "A Ltd") that has decided that there are far too many meetings and that the meetings that do happen are prone to over running, they lack structure and often leave people feeling frustrated and deflated... and there's a training company (call it "H2 Training") that is invited by A Ltd to run some in-house "Effective Meetings" training, with an emphasis on chairing skills. (So far so good?)

During the morning session, the trainer (let's call her "Tina Halperin") asks the group of learners to consider the various reasons for having a meeting, and whether considering the time and expense of having people attend a face-to-face event, there might on reflection be some better alternatives. It was generally agreed that calling people into a room just to present them with information that they could receive via email, a newsletter or view on an intranet in their own time, seemed not to be a great idea - particularly given how busy people are. In a similar way, it was agreed that calling a team meeting to delegate out work to individuals when there's no requirement for collaboration or discussion is also not a great use of time, as it leaves others sitting observing conversations that are irrelevant to them. (With me so far?)

So, having decided that there are often more efficient ways to distribute information and to delegate tasks, leaving meetings for the creative, dynamic conversations that require collaboration and consensus, Tina asked the learners to think about how they could apply this principle in practice. (The idea being that it would reduce the number of meetings and shorten the meetings that do take place). That's where the problem came... "Oh no, we can't possibly send people information by email or post it on the intranet, because they don't read emails and they never look at the intranet!" and "Yes... but when we ask people to do something without having it witnessed by the whole team and put in writing in the minutes, they often don't bother doing it!"... so that's why A Ltd has continued to arrange countless meetings at great expense, leaving participants bored and frustrated, because people don't bother reading emails and don't do what they're asked unless threatened by the humiliation of having to be accountable at the next meeting? "Yes, that's right."

So... did you recognise anything in that scenario? I have a feeling you probably did, although I really hope that you will have been as surprised by it as me! It just seems completely nonsensical and convoluted to allow a culture to develop around the unprofessional behaviour of an unaccountable few. My questions are: Why aren't the managers within this (or any other organisation experiencing the same thing) willing, able or enabled to call people to account? And why don't people feel obliged to read internal emails in preparation for attending meetings with their colleagues, or obliged to take responsibility for completing tasks that they agree to?

My feelings are that it is a complex combination of increasing workloads, ineffective time/task management, information overload, lack of decisive performance management and lack of personal accountability. Put that lot together and it's a wonder that anything gets done! Thankfully lots of things do get done and there are hundreds of thousands of conscientious, efficient and effective people getting on and doing their best. I just hope that there are enough people out there to stop for a moment and question the logic behind certain habitual processes and methods, to make sure that they are done for the right reasons - not just as a work-around to compensate for the behaviour of the few unaccountable individuals who end up calling the shots.

Do let me know your thoughts on the matter!

Wednesday, 27 July 2011

Is "Presenteeism" a modern-day pandemic?

We have all heard of the term "Absenteeism" (used to describe the problems associated with employees being unnecessarily absent from work) but there's a new term on the block called: "Presenteeism". It may be a catchy term, but it’s more than just a gimmick.

Presenteeism is a complex issue. The most common use of the term is to highlight the problems caused by the growing number of people who feel compelled to turn up when they are actually too ill to work. It seems that the requirement for an unblemished sickness record has become more critical than the need for people to be fit for the job. Indeed, survey data from 39,000 UK workers presented by business psychology company Robertson Cooper, showed that a quarter of the people sampled struggle into work, despite feeling ill.

There are always going to be people who chance their luck and who 'play the system' at work. They'll know exactly how many days they can get away with taking off, and which ‘illnesses’ are relatively difficult to confirm (such as back pain and migraine). However, it is troubling if the minority have gradually been allowed to tarnish the rest of the workplace to the extent that those who are genuinely unfit for work are actually afraid they will lose their jobs if they ‘go off-sick'. So there's our modern-day dilemma: If you're genuinely not feeling well (through illness or stress) then you're both criticised for "taking a sickie" and criticised for dragging yourself into work. You just can't win!

Professor Ivan Robertson, managing director at Robertson Cooper, has said: "Presenteeism in the workplace has a number of causes, one of which is related to feelings of job insecurity. Recently, this is likely to have been inflamed as a result of the recession." The problem of presenteeism, it seems to me, is partly to do with job insecurity (as suggested by Prof. Robertson), but also to do with a fundamental lack of trust, honesty, accountability, and motivation in the workplace...

Where there's a general lack of trust between management and 'the workers', even the honest, hardworking employees find the decision to take a day off work extremely difficult. Any health or stress management expert will agree that being brave and keeping going until the weekend or until our next holiday is more often than not, a poor health choice. When we work through an illness we're not only jeopardising our own recovery and long-term health, but we're also potentially spreading germs to our colleagues and we are at higher risk of making costly mistakes.

So what about the issues of 'accountability' and 'motivation'? To me, there's another more worrying form of presenteeism which is about those people who feel entitled to their pay packet, no matter how much effort they put in, or what results they achieve. It's simply about turning up to work and doing the bare minimum or not being caught falling short of the mark. I have concluded, both as a trainer/coach who hears hundreds of stories from managers and from front-line staff, as well as a discerning consumer, that this is an issue that's on the increase. How many times have you had an interaction with a service company, a shop or a business, and have been left feeling that the employee doesn't care at all about how you feel, what your experience has been, or whether or not you will remain a customer? And how many times have you been shocked by people in service roles, who see nothing wrong in chatting to each other whilst serving you, or in covering their own backs rather than offering you a little empathy? I don't think it's just me noticing it more as I get older! It really feels that increasing numbers of people simply don't care less anymore.

My answer to this is that we need to help people in these roles to care more. We need to stop rewarding people with a guaranteed salary just as long as they turn up. We need more constructive, proactive management that spells out the expectations and that shares the responsibility for creating and maintaining their team's motivation to a good job. Ultimately, we need managers to enable individuals to feel truly accountable for their own performance.

Can you imagine the uproar if everyone overnight only got paid what they were worth? Now there's a thought! Some people would probably end up having to reimburse their employers... This may be a crazy daydream by one disgruntled consumer, but as Professor Ivan Robertson suggests: "To prevent presenteeism, managers should reward people for the work they deliver, not the hours they put in. Investing in the health and wellbeing of workers pays dividends in terms of improved employee engagement and productivity. And it delivers considerable savings over and above those caused by driving down absenteeism." I couldn’t agree more, Professor Robertson!

So, have you got any examples of how presenteeism in any of its forms has affected you or your business? Or perhaps you recognise some of your own behaviour leaning towards presenteeism. I’d love to hear your stories. Why does presenteeism exist, and is it getting worse? And if you have any sensible suggestions about how to tackle it, do let me know!

Friday, 8 July 2011

Are you too polite to complain?

It's post-exam season here in the UK, so the teenagers are footloose and fancy free, without a care in the world, having a well-eared rest before they get their results...

Good for them I say, but for us commuters, there's a menace on the train lines: 'gangs (gaggles?) of yoofs' piling into the train carriages, weighed down with rucksacks, sleeping bags and 6-packs of larger - on their way to or from one or other of the plethora of music festivals... That's all well and good, but for those of us going about our daily commute, minding our own business (literally), the imposition of loud, not particularly entertaining banter, laughter and squeals is somewhat distracting and downright irritating. Unfortunately the UK trains are just not big enough to accommodate the influx of additional (unwashed) bodies. So what do you do (or have you done) about it? Nothing? Sit quietly fuming, counting the minutes down until your stop?

Yesterday I witnessed myself go through the initial dismay of "oh no, this ‘lovely-half-empty-post-rush-hour-train-that-I-chose- to-travel-into-London-on’ has been over-run with noisy teenagers"… to 10 minutes later, the utter irritation of: "How on earth can 6 people be so unaware of their surroundings, so disrespectful of other passengers right/desire for peace?"... And then I did something somewhat uncharacteristic - I actually decided to say something! "What?" I hear you say... "You mean you actually asked them to pipe down and they didn't stab you?!"

The reality is I made a quick assessment of the situation, decided that they were just ordinary, slightly hung-over young people on a day-trip together. They didn't look like a gang, or sound like a gang (not according to the stereotype in my mind, anyway). So I simply turned to one of the girls sitting next to me and calmly said (with a conscious disarming smile and non-confrontational body language): "I really don't want to be a party pooper, but would you mind keeping your voices down a little?" All 6 of them looked at me, somewhat shocked. I'm guessing because nobody has ever said anything like that before. After a couple of sarcastic comments in stage whispers to each other about having to communicate in sign language, or by passing notes, they continued their (somewhat banal) conversation at a much reduced, more tolerable volume and within 30 minutes they were all asleep! I caught the eyes of a few other passengers nearby, and they beamed at me. It felt like a 'take a bow' moment, but it was hardly an act of heroism. I simply overcame my British politeness, and put my respectful assertive communication skills into practice.

As I sat there, feeling quite pleased with myself (and sharing the fact on my Facebook status) a middle aged gentleman got onto the train and sat down next to me. He then proceeded to open a plastic bag and take out a strong smelling sandwich. Goodness knows what was in it, sardines and onions? Now this was really a tricky one. I know what it's like when you're that hungry, you've just got to eat. And sometimes you can't avoid eating on a train. But my goodness, please spare a thought for the people you inflict with ‘passive eating’! Did I say anything to him? No I didn't, I just slouched down in my seat and tried to breathe through my mouth and not my nose. It had already occurred to me that I might be a bossy control freak. One of my FB friends commented on my status update, likening me to "Victor(ia) Meldrew". I really didn't feel like proving the point by asking the man to take his sandwich elsewhere.

Perhaps you'd think that as a trainer of communication skills, particularly 'assertive communication' and 'influencing skills', I would have been in there, all guns blazing (not literally, I hope.) But actually, when you're sitting in a train, there's a strange unspoken protocol that we just shouldn't interfere with what other people are doing - even if it is antisocial. With my trainer hat on, I would say it's important for human beings to communicate and negotiate with each other to reach mutually acceptable outcomes... if we don't, then resentment really can and does build up and then the fall-out can be catastrophic. However, as an off-duty trainer I recognise that I am still often 'too polite' to say anything. And that's a good thing - I don't want to become a moaning 'grumpy old woman', interfering in other people's fun. But I do fantasize about a time when we human beings can naturally be a bit more respectful of each other, and to be able to politely remind those of their impact on us without fearing violence.

I'd love to hear from anyone who has tried with or without success to influence the behaviour of others - on a train, on the tube, in the cinema or in an open plan office...

Wednesday, 22 June 2011

How do you give feedback without causing offence?

When you think about it, "feedback" is a strange term isn't it? However, as a trainer and a coach I prefer to put all thoughts of reciprocal feeding aside and to focus on the extremely valuable tool that it can be...

The trouble with feedback is that unless it is used responsibly, sensitively and ethically, it can also be quite destructive - to the person on the receiving end and also to the on-going relationship. That's probably why so many people decide to opt out of giving feedback unless they're absolutely cornered to do so... and even then, they'll try to think up something bland and non-committal to say for fear of offending. At the other end of the spectrum, there are those people who just can't help themselves... putting others down, sharing their pearls of wisdom with: "Oh, you don't want to do it like that", or "If I were you...". Well you'll never be me, so what's your point actually?

All that aside, feedback that is well thought through and timely can be extremely valuable as a proactive method of sharing your experience, views, needs and preferences. Managers and Team Leaders who learn how to give feedback to their reports in a supportive and constructive manner are able to motivate and inspire performance improvement and achievement of challenging objectives. Failure to give feedback on performance issues not only does not tackle those things that can be the difference between success and failure of a task, but it can also lead to the continuing deterioration of performance. There's nothing quite so insulting to an employee to criticise or chastise them after months or years have gone by when you've never told them clearly what they were doing wrong. "But why didn't you tell me?" is a common cry of despair...

And feedback isn't only a management tool. It's a skill that everyone can benefit from improving and regularly using. Think of it as the ability to share your experience with people with whom you work. Is there a colleague who regularly inconveniences you? Is there someone whose support you appreciate, but you wish it were given in a slightly different way? Maybe there's one person who you really rely on and don't want them to stop what they're doing... Feedback enables you to communicate with them - to translate your thoughts into words and to positively influence how the people around you think and behave.

Then there's the person on the receiving end of the feedback. Let's spare a thought for them as after all, feedback is actually a two-way process - not just a broadcasting tool for manipulating others. (Well it shouldn't be!) Anyone who is conscientious about their job role, who strives towards excellence and who seeks continuous improvements will be delighted to receive feedback - indeed, they will make it their business to seek it out! The only proviso is that the feedback they are looking for must be honest, transparent and constructive. They're not looking to be manipulated with fake praise, or damned with feint praise. They would simply like to know a bit more about the impact of their actions and their approach - so they can make adjustments where necessary.

It's clear that although feedback can be extremely valuable, there's a variety of reasons that people often find it difficult to give. Here are a few guidelines that may help you to ensure that the feedback you give is constructive and supportive:

• Always ensure that the purpose of your feedback is to be genuinely helpful to the other person, as well as to yourself. It should never be used as a punishment.

• Before launching in with your observations, it is respectful to ask them if they have any areas of particular concern that they'd like your feedback on.

• Don’t say the first thing that comes into your head. Take some time to think about your comments to ensure that they're fair and balanced.

• Most people feel very vulnerable while receiving feedback and so will be very sensitive to your comments. Be aware of this when deciding what to say. It’s a good idea to think about how you would feel if the same comments were made about you.

• Speak directly to the person. If you're in a meeting, or with others, don’t talk about them to the group.

• Remember that your feedback is your view, so say ‘I...’ rather than ‘We...’ or ‘The team...’.

• Think about your non-verbal communication. Make eye contact and ensure that both your posture and your expression are non-threatening, relaxed and informal.

• Be honest but non-judgmental. For example, ‘I noticed that you interrupted the other person five times,’ rather than, ‘You were so full of your own opinions that you wouldn’t let the other person get a word in edgeways’.

• Talk about the specific behaviour rather than your personal opinion of them. For example: ‘No dates were set for the next meeting,’ rather than ‘You’re not very organised are you?’.

• Make sure that you comment on the good points as well as the development areas. It’s important that people are made aware of their strengths too.

• Avoid using a formulaic approach (such as the unfortunately named "s**t sandwich") It will only look false and manipulative.

• Don’t overload the person with a list of issues. Being given two or three areas to consider may be valuable; 15 is demoralizing and pointless.

• Don't avoid giving 'negative' feedback. It’s unfair to refuse help because you feel awkward about it.

• Remember that only poorly given feedback is negative.

• Make your remarks specific. For example, ‘You had a friendly approach’ is of little value. A better example would be, ‘You made good eye contact, had a friendly smile, and your posture was open and relaxed. All these things made me feel that you were looking forward to the interview’.

• Remember that feedback is something the other person has the right to consider. They should be free to consider it in context with other feedback they’ve received as well as with their own observations and views. They may or may not accept any or all of what you say.

• If you're in a position of authority, make sure you distinguish between your 'feedback' and your managerial 'instructions'. This way, the other person will be clear about what they need to act on, and what they are free to consider.

If you have any further ideas, thoughts or experiences about feedback-giving, do let me know!

Friday, 10 June 2011

How do you deal with difficult meeting or training participants?

There is a wide range of behaviours that even the most experienced meeting chairs, facilitators and trainers find difficult to deal with. Using an assertive communication style together with some specific techniques will help you to deal with most difficult people effectively – and the better you become, the fewer opportunities for disruption present themselves. Here are some useful guidelines for dealing with difficult people/behaviour during your meetings/training sessions:

Agree groundrules: If you can, invest a few minutes at the start of every session to agree and/or reiterate some groundrules that everyone is happy to abide by. That way, you get the added benefit of peer pressure and personal accountability which will help to curb some of the most common types of difficult behaviour - such as people talking over each other, interrupting or talking amongst themselves.

Improve the environment: It may be that part of the problem is with the venue - if it is too hot or too cold, people will become distracted and fidgety, and will lose concentration. If there are strong opinions and emotions are running high, this will only be exacerbated by a room that's too hot. The best temperature to aim for is just on the cool side of comfortable which will keep the majority of people alert. Equally, getting the seating right will encouraging effective communication. If there are individuals who are dominating, or who are getting into one-on-one disagreements, try asking people to swop seats and/or to work in different small groups, as this will change the dynamics.

Agree a purpose: Every meeting or training session requires an objective. Explain at the beginning why a meeting or a training session is the best way of achieving the outcome, and give an idea of how you will work with the group to achieve it. Aim to get group consensus on priorities for the session, or seek their commitment to pre-defined objectives. This will help you to identify and agree a common focus and direction, which you can refer back to if anyone goes off-topic, or loses sight of the overall purpose.

Use an agenda: This can serve as an effective means of keeping the meeting/session on course, and encouraging people to work within a time-frame and stick to the point. Circulating the agenda beforehand will help people to prepare and to think through their contributions or questions. Plan the structure of the meeting or training session by prioritising topics/agenda points so the most important/urgent are dealt with when people are most alert and motivated.

Never humiliate a difficult participant: Try to think of every participant as a ‘customer’, who deserves to be treated with respect. Also remember that the other people in the meeting/training session are likely to feel some sympathy for them, so you may find yourself alienated by the group if you behave in any way other than entirely respectful.

Don’t get into an argument: Although having a one-on-one tussle with an individual may entertain the others in the room, you run the risk of embarrassing them too. If you lose the argument or become too adversarial, you could also lose your credibility. Should the argument go on, the other participants are likely to become bored and irritated. Try to remain positive – don’t get pulled into a negative defence spiral. Instead focus on finding out more about their views by asking probing questions.

Don’t ignore them: The problem won’t usually go away on its own. Most difficult behaviour is exhibited as a result of an individual wanting to be heard or acknowledged. They are likely to ramp up the volume on their difficult behaviour unless and until it is/they are dealt with.

Try to understand them: If you can identify why they are being disruptive or difficult, you are more likely to be able to respond accordingly: If they want to be involved, give them a role such as making notes; if they feel they're not being listened to, use active listening techniques to give them a fair hearing; if they’re clashing with you, ask the other participants to comment on some of the specific points they're making - that way you'll open up the discussion to everyone.

Never lose your cool: If you feel that you are going to lose your temper or to show your frustration, try counting to ten and/or taking a break as soon as it is appropriate - so you can re-gather your thoughts and work out an effective strategy for dealing with them calmly.

Talk to them alone: Try finding an opportune moment, say at lunchtime or during a coffee break. Ask them politely whether there's anything specific that is troubling them that you can help with. Even the most obnoxious person will usually talk reasonably given the opportunity for a private chat.

They may not mean to be difficult: Remember that people express themselves and their feelings differently, and learn and process information at different rates – sometimes it is easy to think that someone is being deliberately obtuse or pedantic just to be difficult, when in fact they are just in their natural style!

People have a right to their opinions: If you ask for feedback or for views and an individual seems to be hyper-critical or negative, accept their right to do so. If you can, turn it into a conversation rather than an argument. "What specifically do you disagree with?" "I’m interested to know why you think that" "What needs to happen/change for you to agree?"

And if all else fails…

Consider encouraging them to leave – If you believe that the person is going to undermine the outcome of the meeting/session, or to reduce other participants' opportunities to contribute or to learn, then this is always an option - it is unlikely that they are achieving anything positive by being there and continuing with their disruptive behaviour.

Have you ever been asked to leave a meeting, or have you invited someone to leave a training session? How do you deal with difficult or challenging behaviour from a meeting or training participant? We'd love to hear your experiences...

Wednesday, 8 June 2011

Is it time to kill-off the "Killer Question"?

When delivering training in sales, negotiation and influence, I’m often asked about the use of so-called “killer questions”. I first came across the term about 15 years ago and to be honest, I was a little puzzled by it. I’d heard of the “killer instinct” which I guess is a second-cousin of the “killer question”, but I never did get my head around why anyone would want to “kill” anything? Maybe I’m just not the aggressive type, but the bottom line is that it just doesn’t make sense to me to kill off anyone or anything that may come in useful at a later date!

Giving the “killer question” concept a second chance, I decided to look into it a bit further. Maybe it was just an unfortunate name for concept that’s actually quite useful? What I discovered quite quickly was that the “killer question” approach proposes a series of ‘off-the-peg’ questions that are so dynamic and powerful that you can pull them out and nail a deal in a flash… It sounded too good to be true, but still somewhat appealing to think that there could be a magic question that can get you the result you’re after.

Being a bit of a skeptic, and being trained not to take anything at face value, I began to consider the killer question premise in a little more detail… Firstly, if there really is an ultimate question that can be asked, how can the same question have the same brilliant effect in every situation? Surely an effective sales person, negotiator or influencer needs to be able to tailor their communication style and approach, and not just drag out a one-size-fits-all question? Asking killer questions also seemed to me to be extremely patronizing and disrespectful, as it assumes that the recipient/customer is too dim to realize that they’re being manipulated.

The reality is that the workplace is definitely becoming more pressurized. People are being asked to achieve more in less time. So the idea that we can push our way forward towards our own goals, ignoring the sensibilities, intelligence, needs and values of those around us is in a small way understandable. For anyone looking for quick and easy gimmicks, there are of course many sources of advice on the internet about how to use clever openers, killer questions, value propositions, and the latest genius closing techniques.

So how do you know if you or your colleagues are guilty of asking “killer questions”? Here are three of the most lethal/irritating that I’ve come across:

1. "What do you know about us/me/this project/proposal…?"

If the person you’re trying to influence/sell to/negotiate with is on the ball, they will immediately ask you if this is a test. Nobody likes to be put on the spot, so why would anyone want to risk potentially humiliating and alienating the person they wish to influence, right from the start? Perhaps it’s because they simply want to know what the person thinks of them, their idea or proposal before presenting their side. However, it would be good to remember that whether the person knows a lot, a little, or nothing at all about what you have to offer, nobody knows it as well as you – so it’s your job to tell them and not the other way around.

2. "What will it take to get you to agree/your business…?"

This is probably one of the most unimpressive “killer” questions, as it implies that you are so desperate for a sale or for agreement that you may be willing to do anything in order to close the deal! If you aren’t willing to do anything, then why ask that question? Instead, it would be far more constructive to use a more consultative process of discussion in order to uncover what the person actually needs/wants in a less confrontational/direct way.

3. "Can I call you next week/in two weeks/a month?"

This is another “killer” question that puts the other person on the spot. Firstly, what is so special about following up in 7, 14 or 30 days? It may be a good time-scale for you, but don’t assume that it is just as good for them, or that they even want you to follow-up on your conversation. Secondly, they may not want you to call them at all... So instead of dictating the follow up time-frame, you could ask if it would be helpful to get back in touch, and when would be the best time for them. At least that way you know you won’t be wasting your time or their time, or becoming an irritant to someone who just doesn’t feel able to say “no”.

Anyone who is a keen observer of human behaviour, and anyone who is an experienced business-person will tell you for nothing that investing in long-term relationships is so much more precious than the short-term gains of the smoke-and-mirror, and ‘bullish’ approaches. Surely effective sales, negotiation and influence involves engaging the other person in a meaningful dialogue about their wants, needs, and problems - and how your solutions/proposals might be of value to them. In a collaborative process, the other person is free to make their own considered decisions, and they will also take responsibility for the outcome of those decisions.

So you are convinced that killer questions aren’t actually as wonderful as they’re meant to be. But what should you replace them with? Here are some alternative question formats that you might find useful in the process of uncovering needs:
  • What are the different ways that you...?
  • Can you recall a situation where...?
  • What would you do differently if...?
  • What's been your experience with...?
  • Whose opinion matters most about...?
  • What prevents you from...?
  • What three things stand in your way...?
  • What are the benefits you'd like to see as a result of...?
  • How are you avoiding...?
  • What trends are affecting the way you...?
  • What do you think is the best way to achieve...?
  • What are you missing out on by...?
  • How would you like… to describe...?
  • What would need to happen for you to feel...?
  • What would your three best customers say about...?
  • What are the most common questions that your customers ask when...?
  • In the past six months, how have you...?
  • What advice would you give to...?
  • What are you currently doing to reduce...?
  • What do you think makes the difference between...?

So next time a well-meaning but ill-informed colleague asks you to can share your “killer questions” with them, you know what to do: suggest that using a consultative approach might be more productive, and tell them that a killer question may well kill the deal, but it’s also likely to murder the on-going relationship!

Wednesday, 25 May 2011

Four ‘Secret’ Confidence Boosters

Beyonce Knowles and her alter ego Sasha FierceMost people in the public eye (sports stars, politicians, celebrities and even members of the royal family) will appear to have an inordinate amount of self-confidence. But as the ‘fly-on-the wall’ TV programmes have shown us in the past few years, many of them are just as insecure and fearful as us ordinary folk when their guards are down… So what is it that helps these high-profile people to keep looking shiny and confident when it matters? Apart from expensive clothes, make-up and accessories, they have all mastered a way of keeping their self-doubt in check…

Here are four ‘techniques’ that are frequently used by people who need to master the art of self-confidence:

1. Neuro Linguistic Programming (NLP)

Sometimes called "The Science of Excellence," NLP uses the patterns of success in the lives of many high-performing people to create a series of systems and practices that replace ‘limiting beliefs’ and consequential unwanted behaviours with self- confidence and the fulfilment of your natural talents. Apparently Heston Blumenthal uses NLP’s metaphor techniques to give him the ability to step away from distractions and go into an imaginary “Sweet Shop” where he can be free to be as creative as he wishes with new recipes… ‘Anchoring’ is another NLP technique that enables you to associate positive thought processes with a mental or physical link so you can conjure them up whenever needed. This might be simply tapping your fingers, holding your arms in a certain way or having a handkerchief infused with a particular essential oil or perfume - any physical link you can easily and accurately repeat to help get you into the desired ‘zone’.

2. Imitation

If you don’t have the time or inclination to practice the NLP confidence building technique, then you might try imitation. Derren Brown has shared the fact that he says to himself: “What would Andy do?” when he goes to a big party. (He’s referring to Andy Nyman, his writing partner who’s much more confident socially than Derren.)

To imitate a really confident person, you need to observe them doing whatever it is they do. Watch how they interact with others, listen to the words they use, look at their body language, and listen to how their voice sounds. Here are some tips:

• First impressions really do count - so adopt a strong, open and relaxed posture
• Breathe deeply and slowly – this will increase the amount of oxygen in your bloodstream, and will help to control your muscles to relax
• Smile – it’s a great way of showing that you’re relaxed, but don’t over-do it
• Make appropriate eye contact – again a sign of confidence if you can look a person in the eye. Remember to look away from time to time, otherwise you’ll just look scary!
• Speak clearly and with sufficient volume - remember what you're saying is worth hearing
• Don't take yourself too seriously, innocent humour can be a great rapport builder and can help to prevent conflict
• Let yourself be open to judgement from others – don’t worry what they’re thinking, just focus on what you’re trying to achieve

3. Visualisation and positive self-talk

This is a technique that Tiger Woods was taught to use from the age of 10. He mastered the art of visualising every shot – playing through the desired outcome, imagining everything in minute detail from the strength of his swing, to the resulting trajectory of the golf ball and exactly where he wanted it to land. The same is true of the downhill skiers who often rock back and forth with their eyes closed before they begin. They’re also mentally rehearsing what they’ll do all the way down the course, including how they’ll deal with any difficulties.

Studies in mental imagery have shown that you can actually train your mind to be confident. This is because the brain doesn’t distinguish between real and imaginary images. The same chemicals are released and the same electrical activity displays in the brain whether we are visualising something, or whether we are actually doing it. A repeated thought process can therefore become a deeply felt belief over time. So if you think about a particular outcome in a positive way often enough, you will begin to genuinely feel good about it, thus increasing your chance of success.
You might already tell yourself before taking on an onerous task: “I can do it” or maybe you listen to listen to loud or inspirational music to ‘hype yourself up’. This is about using visualisation and positive self-talk to raise your energy levels, improve your motivation and encourage the part of your personality that has confidence to come to the forefront.

4. Create an alter ego

This is a made-up persona who has all the characteristics that you’d like your confident, successful self to have. Your alter ego has no flaws. You may be afraid, but your persona can be fearless. The best way to use an alter ego is to give it a name. Beyonce Knowles the American recording artist, calls her alter ego “Sasha Fierce” who is a tough outspoken risk taker. Beyonce has openly admitted that she is naturally shy when she is offstage and that she created Sasha to give herself confidence when on stage and to showcase her “other” self.
English singer-songwriter Adele recently told Rolling Stone magazine, how she created her own alter ego “Sasha Carter” by combining Beyonce's Sasha Fierce with the name of Johnny Cash's wife, singer/actress June Carter: "I was about to meet Beyonce. I had a full-blown panic attack. Then she popped in looking gorgeous and said, 'You're amazing! When I listen to you I feel like I'm listening to God.' I went out on the balcony crying hysterically, and I said, 'What would Sasha Fierce do?'"

South African cricketer Andre Nel also has an alter ego called “Gunther” who has a reputation for snarling and sometimes foul-mouthed aggression. Andre explains that he decided his split personality merited two names after a conversation with one of South Africa's technical analysts. "One of our computer guys said I was a bit like those little guys in Germany who live half way up a mountain and have a lack of oxygen to the brain that makes them crazy. Sometimes that happens to me, it seems. Gunther seemed a good name for him. I talk to him on the way to my mark. Andre has to keep Gunther in line sometimes but the aggression is part of my armoury.”

We don’t all necessarily need alter egos to be wild and outspoken like Sasha Fierce, or aggressive like Gunther, but having a different aspect of our personality that we can bring out from time to time can help us out in lots of different situations. Obviously only alter egos that are used in a positive way are healthy – they shouldn’t be an excuse for outrageous or damaging behaviour!

So there you have it, there’s no real secret to self-confidence… the people we watch in the public eye aren’t that different from most of us when it comes to confidence. They’ve just found a technique that works for them that enables them to go out onto whatever stage it is (whether it’s on TV, in the House of Commons, at Glastonbury or at Old Trafford) and to perform to the best of their ability without being held back by nerves or limiting self-beliefs. Those same techniques are freely available for anyone to try, and can enhance your own performance, whether you’re delivering a presentation, going for a job interview or preparing for a difficult meeting.

Do let me know if you’ve tried any of the techniques, and how they worked for you…

Monday, 23 May 2011

Self-confidence... do you have what it takes?

It's all very well learning a trade, or enhancing one's knowledge, or adding skills to your CV... but it's arguable that self-confidence is the most important personal and professional asset that you can ever invest in.

Think about it - who is it that gets to take on the most interesting/challenging tasks and projects at work? Who is it who is taken notice of by people at all levels within their field? Who is it who is considered most favourably for promotions? Chances are, your answers will have one thing in common, and that's people with self-confidence. Whether we admire this trait or not (after all, who doesn't recoil when watching the arrogant young upstarts 'big themselves up' on "The Apprentice"?) - it is true to say that success in the workplace is becoming more and more about confident, live communication. Gone are the days when we could spend an hour carefully crafting a written response to a colleague or a customer. We are expected and required to choose the right words and deliver them in the right order to deliver maximum effect - there and then... In short, these days, it's self-confidence that helps you to get results and helps you to get noticed.

The trouble with self-confidence is that whilst it is a skill like any other that can be learnt, while you're still wearing the confidence 'L plates', you usually stick out like a sore thumb. I used to imagine I had a huge hologram floating above my head, with a flashing neon arrow pointing down at me, saying "she doesn't know what she's talking about!" Probably just imagining it created all manner of non-verbal clues for my highly observant colleagues and customers to spot. What I didn't realise until much later in my career was that I actually had the off switch to that sign all along. It wasn't about having to know everything about everything, or about being able to answer every single question with an A grade exam answer... no, it was simply about having faith in my own ability to share my knowledge, my opinions and my ideas (for what they were worth), and to contribute something valuable to the process of communication: I learnt to listen, to process and to facilitate discussions and problems in a way that harnessed everyone's views and experiences. As soon as I took the self-imposed spotlight off myself, and focused on helping to create dynamic interactions, the pressure lifted and the conversation began to flow

I'm often asked by my coaching clients: "supposing you lack confidence but you are worried about being perceived as a show-off or as arrogant... what then?" In short I usually say that the people who you know, or who you've come across who provide you with anti-role models are extremely useful. The fact that you don't want to become like them is a good start. If you take time to observe them in full flow, you will begin to identify what it is that makes them unpleasant or difficult to deal with. It may be something subtle like the way they look smug when they've got the better of someone, or it may be a more tangible thing, such as interrupting others or finishing their sentences for them. Work out exactly what it is they do or don't do and make a pact with yourself not to emulate it.

Okay, so you're avoiding arrogance, but what do you replace it with? I'd suggest that in the same way, you look out for good examples of people who have a balance of self-confidence with humility. People who are comfortable in their own skins and who don't need to tread on other people's esteem to make themselves feel better or be heard. If you've never looked out for these sorts of people, or observed their behaviour, you're in for a treat! It's extremely heartening to watch someone calmly deal with challenging situations and people in a way which doesn't throw them, which moves things forward and which maintains goodwill on both sides. I'm always looking out for it - when I'm working in the various companies I visit to deliver training, when I'm watching TV, when I'm travelling or when I'm communicating with the various utilites on the telephone. And when I do find it, I usually try to make some sort of appreciative comment (without sounding patronising of course) as I think too few people realise just how important that sort of self-confidence really is

I'm sure most people would agree that the world is changing at a fast pace, and whether we like it or not, there's a greater focus on our personal brand. If we lack self-confidence, we have a weak brand that few people are interested in. If it's a pushy brand that we've created, then only certain people will be impressed. However, a confident, honest and likeable brand is one that the majority of people will come back to time and time again...

If you have any tips to share about how you have developed your self-confidence, I'd love to hear them!

Thursday, 3 March 2011

Is your team Emotionally Intelligent?

Some might argue that having team leaders with well developed Emotional Intelligence will automatically produce teams which function within an emotionally intelligent culture... Clearly the reverse is likely to be true: a team with a leader who is lacking in key EI competencies is likely to experience disharmony, lack of mutual trust, and difficulty in expressing true feelings and ideas for fear of being knocked back. However, does it go without saying that team leaders and managers who understand the critical nature of EI in the workplace, and who prioritise their own personal development in this area, automatically create an emotionally intelligent working environment? I'm not convinced that they do. And anyway, what exactly IS an emotionally intelligent working environment?

Here are my ideas on the sort of things you'll be able to spot in an 'Emotionally Intelligent Team':

1. There is genuine respect: Not everyone needs to be the best of friends, but there needs to be a genuine mutual respect between team members. How can you spot that this is the case? It's often seen in the way that team members challenge each others' approach or ideas during discussions and disagreements. Genuine respect is demonstrated when all parties make efforts not to undermine each others' self-esteem by using personal attacks - even as a method of self-defence. Seeking win-win solutions and encouraging input and ideas from everyone whenever appropriate/possible demonstrates true respect.

2. There is trust: Each member of the team needs to be able to trust that their colleagues are looking out for their best interests, and for the best interests of the team/organisation. Teams with high levels of trust will take risks with each others' ideas, and they will accept information and opinions from their colleagues without insisting on intense interrogation. Trusting team members need not be naively compliant, but they will appreciate and work with each others' expertise and experience as if it is their own.

3. Individuals work for the team good: Whilst it is human nature to protect one's own interests, self-serving behaviour can be extremely undermining of the collective effort. An emotionally intelligent team will find ways to balance the needs of the individuals within it, with the overall objectives of the team. Selfish behaviour will be self-regulated, within an under-pinning culture of collectivity. Individuals will also lend their support to their colleagues without hesitation or resentment, if it is in the best interests of the team.

4. There is a sense of team achievement: Team members will encourage and congratulate each others' achievements, rather than competing for praise or attention. Individuals will generously attribute their own successes to the collective work of the team. They will understand the important contribution others make to their achievements, and they will value the tangible and intangible benefits of simply being a part of that team.

5. Expectations are negotiated: Team members are successfully able to communicate and negotiate their expectations of each other. If there are no taboos, and minimal unspoken disagreements, there will be far less fuel for building resentment between individuals. You will be able to spot emotionally intelligent teams regularly checking out each others' expectations and doing all they can to ensure that they are as closely in alignment as possible.

6. Conflicts are managed effectively: A team that has no conflicts is not necessarily emotionally intelligent - it may be a sign that people are afraid to speak their mind, or that they are being ruled with a rod of iron! A certain amount of conflict is inevitable in all teams, as it is often at the heart of creativity. Therefore look out for whether team members are able to freely express their opposing ideas and frustrations, and whether they use problem-solving techniques to find win-win solutions wherever possible.

So... how does your own team measure up to these indicators of 'Team Emotional Intelligence'? If most or all of these factors are present, then it is likely that your team is dynamic, productive and successful - and that its members are pleased to be a part of it! It is rare that these things happen by chance though. There is usually a team leader or manager who has worked hard to create the environment in which these factors can be nurtured and maintained. And there are usually a number of team members (if not all) who are self-aware and who understand that being part of a winning team requires effort - sometimes having to behave in ways that is counter-intuitive for the benefit of the team...

Next time I'll share my ideas on how a team leader can foster higher levels of EI within their team.