[Article] Breaking the Mould

“How you do anything is how you do everything” – a popular point of view in the personal development arena over the past few years. It can be a useful way of gaining insight into the patterns that dominate your behaviour, but I’m convinced that we all have multiple patterns and there are always SOME things that we do differently from most of the rest of what we do. It’s all about context.

However, if we apply this idea to organisations, I believe it has greater validity. Having observed behaviour in hundreds of different organisations over the 20 years I’ve been working as a consultant, I’ve noticed one consistent pattern:

The core competence of an organisation generates its core culture.

I first noticed this when I was working on two large projects with contrasting organisations:

In the first organisation I was supporting Senior Managers in the introduction of a new appraisal and performance model. Managers complained that the staff kept finding fault with the new model and wanted to talk about fixing the problems they saw. No-one seemed prepared to live with an imperfect system.

In the second organisation, I was involved in coaching Department Heads following 360 appraisals. A new policy on working hours had just been introduced and the Heads often mentioned what a political issue it had become. They told me that the staff seemed convinced that it was paving the way for some other, more radical, change yet to be announced. People kept asking questions and seemed suspicious of the answers they were given.

Musing on this, I realised that the people in the two organisations were simply doing what they were best at doing.

Let me explain…

The first organisation was the Engineering division of a major airline. The people I was working with were Aircraft Engineers. What makes a great Aircraft Engineer? The ability to spot a problem and fix it, never accepting anything that doesn’t function correctly. (And this particular airline had, and still has, a safety record that is among the best in the world).

It’s not surprising then, is it, that the people who spend their working lives spotting potential problems on aircraft – and fixing them, approach other aspects of the job in the same way? What could go wrong with this appraisal and performance model? How can we make it work?

The second organisation is a world-famous media company. Most of the employees are journalists. What makes a great journalist? Someone who is prepared to dig for information? Someone who doesn’t take for granted that what you tell them is the whole story?

Small wonder that these employees were not taking the Managers’ word at face value!

Having noticed this, I started looking at other organisations and reviewing my past experiences:

I ran Time Management workshops for two different Fire Services. Why were they interested in time management? Because nearly everything in the organisation was done on a ‘fire-fighting’ basis!

I’ve done projects for several Local Authorities. There I’ve observed (and experienced) tremendous frustration at the time it takes to secure the authorisation to do something new. Everything has to be agreed – by Members, by Executives, by employees, by the public. The whole thing runs on the basis of consultation and democracy.

Are you still with me?  Or are you now thinking about YOUR organisation and its core competences?

There are two points to remember:

  1. The core competence of your organisation generates its core culture.
  2. Once you know that, you can start to break the mould. Awareness is everything.

[Article] What Makes a Great Question?

Part of the art of being a great listener is also being able to ask great questions. After all, it’s easier to listen attentively if the speaker is telling you what you want to know!

I could put questions in 3 categories:

  1. The information question
  2. The opinion question
  3. The coaching question

The information question is one that simply asks for facts. For example, ‘Where do you work?’ ‘Who is your boss?’ or ‘Where are you eating dinner tonight?’ This kind of thing may seem trivial, but it’s important to recognise that if you just want facts, you have to ask a straightforward question. It’s no good asking you if you like working with your boss if really I just want to know his or her name. The information question requests someone to retrieve information from memory, nothing more.

The opinion question is one that might take a bit of thought before it can be answered. I might ask, ‘What do you think is the best way to run a team meeting?’ or, ‘How much of your available budget are you prepared to invest in your team’s development?’ or, ‘Who is the most likely person to take over your role when you move on?’

An opinion question invites the other person to consider a range of information and conjecture about the big picture. Their answer is based in fact, but relies on their own subjective judgement as well. Most people will want to think a little before answering this type of question.

The coaching question is one that has an impact on the other person’s perception of a situation. Simply by asking the question, we open up new possibilities. An example of this might be, ‘What are you assuming is not possible, that might in fact be the answer?’ or, ‘How would you know if that was not true?’ or, ‘I know you can’t do that, but if you could do it, how long would it take?’

These are not just verbal gymnastics. This kind of question will actually change the other person’s perception. Sometimes it might make a huge difference, sometimes it will just be a subtle shift in mindset. Questions like these invite the other person to consider ideas that have not, until that moment, been a part of their thinking.

For that reason, a coaching question might require quite a lot of thought before an answer is possible.

The best questions can be identified very easily.  The best questions lead to silence…

[Article] Your Mindset Matters

When I first heard the word ‘mindset’ I cringed slightly.  I tend to like ‘proper’ use of English words and grammar.  I’m uncomfortable with the practice of adapting nouns into verbs – such as ‘gifting’ instead of ‘giving a gift’ – and I think it’s a bit sad that with the wealth of vocabulary available to us we’re constantly inventing new words to sum up the meaning of several.  I suppose it speeds up communication and makes it easier to send texts! ‘Mindset’ is a good example of this.  To me it’s shorthand for ‘values, beliefs, thought processes, attitude and emotional state’ so I have eventually accepted it as a useful addition to my repertoire.

Why does mindset matter? I think the case for monitoring your mindset is perfectly summed up in the well-known quote from Henry Ford:

“Whether you think you can or you think you can’t, you’re probably right”

When you know that you can do something, when you know you can succeed, the motivation to do it is so much greater then when you’re faced with a task you know you can’t do, or can’t deliver results with. That’s one reason why mindset is important.

There are others:
If your mindset is one of anticipating problems and difficulties, then you can waste a lot of time worrying about things that will probably never happen. (I realise that some people get paid to do that, but if risk management isn’t your job then I recommend you leave it to the professionals!)

If your mindset is one of blind optimism you may be in danger of inadequate planning or ignoring vital feedback.

If your mindset includes lack of confidence in the value of what you’re doing, you’ll probably do it less well than if you believe you’re contributing something worthwhile.

If you don’t believe it’s possible to achieve your goal, you might never make any progress towards it.

Need I go on? Every aspect of your thought process will affect your motivation, your ability and your focus on the task in hand. If you don’t manage your mindset, it’s almost impossible to manage anything else.

What do I mean by ‘managing your mindset’?  It’s basically the same as managing time, budget, people or projects.

  • Set goals and make plans – about your attitudes or focus
  • Monitor progress – how well do you maintain your focus, concentration or optimism?
  • Take action if you stray from the plan – shift your attention, change your emotional state or remove limiting beliefs
  • Minimise the effect of outside influences – make sure you have a recovery strategy for when someone disparages your idea or doubts your ability
  • Reward successes

This is a relatively minor task. It won’t take much time to check your mindset before you tackle a piece of work, but it could significantly enhance your experience of doing it, the quality of your results or the time it takes.

So here’s your challenge:

For one day only, check your mindset every time you pause during the day. Check your mindset before you start a task, begin a meeting, make a phone call or write an email. Ask yourself if it’s a good mindset for the activity and if not, change it by whatever means you have.

Monitor your results for the same day.

Let me know what happens…

…I think you’ll be delighted.

[Video] The Power of Opposites

Sometimes when you’re faced with situations where there’s something that feels uncomfortable or that’s going against the grain, it’s worth stopping and thinking about what you can learn from it. Because there’s always power in looking at the opposite of what you do…

[Article] Body language is important, isn’t it?

I first published this article in 2010 but the subject came up on the recent NLP Practitioner programme and I thought you might find this interesting.  I’ve only edited it slightly…

The Well-Known Figures

If you’ve done any training in communications, public speaking or presentations there’s a good chance that body language has been part of the programme.  For many years, like hundreds, if not thousands, of other trainers I’ve dutifully passed on the wisdom that our communication has three components – words, tone of voice and body language.  Like many others I’ve attributed the work in this field to Albert Mehrabian and quoted the figures of relative importance – body language 55%, tone of voice 38% and words 7%.

I’ve explained on numerous occasions that if a person is incongruent in their communication and their body language is giving a different message from the words, then we’ll believe the body language and not the words.  I’ve helped lots of people develop awareness of their body language and control their tone of voice to create a more effective overall message.

But do you know what I’d never done until relatively recently?  I’d never read Mehrabian’s original work!

The Shock

That changed when I was on a course with Christina Hall – Meta Master Trainer of NLP and an inspiration to me in her ability with language.  Christina shared her long-standing dissatisfaction with the 55-38-7 ‘rule’ and her eventual quest for the original research.

Are you sitting down?  When Christina gave me the original paper to read the title alone shocked and surprised me:

“Inference of attitudes from nonverbal communication in two channels”  Albert Mehrabian and Susan R. Ferris (Journal of Consulting Psychology 1967 Vol 31, No 3, 248-252)

The study investigated the degree of positive attitude inferred from either facial expression or tone of voice using – wait for it – a neutral word.  There was no investigation of the interaction of the words and nonverbal communication and the 55-38-7 split is suggested in the discussion at the end of the document, not derived from any experimental data.  The experimental data that is included in the paper was taken from trials with 17 female undergraduates.

There is nothing wrong with the paper – it’s the inference that has been made and perpetuated that’s way off the mark.

So how is it that generations of trainers have been quoting these figures as essential to the proper understanding of communication?

I can only assume that this is a great example of people (and lots of them) believing what they’ve been told because the person who told them was a) a trusted source and b) believed it themself.

So, my apologies if you’re one of the people to whom I have perpetuated this myth.  Now, let’s review what we actually know to be true…

The Truth

Body language is a key component of face-to-face communication.  Some languages rely more heavily on it than others to help convey nuances of meaning.  Native speakers of English tend to be less reliant on body language to convey meaning, because the richness of the language enables us to communicate very precisely.  Native speakers of languages with a less extensive vocabulary are often masterful in expressing themselves through tone, pitch, facial expression and eloquent gestures.

It is true, as well, that if someone says, ‘I’m looking forward to working with you’ and at the same time looks at the clock and doesn’t make eye-contact, most of us will assume that the words were not an expression of what the person was really thinking.  In other words, we will believe the body language rather than the words if the two are giving different messages.  This uses an instinctive understanding of body language that we all possess, but may not be consciously aware of.

In the same way, if someone were to say ‘I’m looking forward to working with you’ in a low monotone, with a slight sigh at the end, you probably wouldn’t believe it for a moment.  Again, if the tone of voice is communicating something different from the words, then we’ll tend to believe the tone of voice.

The Key

If the tone of voice and body language are congruent with the words, then the words will be believed.  This is why it’s so important to master the non-verbal aspects of communication as well as learning language patterns.  It’s at this point that what you say can become VERY influential.  Don’t ever let anyone tell you again that the words are ‘only 7% of the message’.  It’s simply not true.

As well as being aware of conflicting messages in words, tone and gesture, we have an instinctive understanding of the meaning of a whole range of body language.  However, that doesn’t mean that we always interpret it correctly.  Individual bits of body language should be interpreted in context, and not assumed to have a fixed meaning.

For example, lots of people have heard it said that if someone folds their arms across their chest, it’s a defensive gesture.  That can be true – especially if you see it happen at a point in the conversation when the person may have good reason to be defensive.  However, there can be lots of reason why someone might fold their arms.  They might be cold; they might be sitting on a chair that has no armrests; they might simply feel comfortable that way.

If you’re going to observe body language, observe the whole picture and look for 3-4 aspects of body language that all indicate the same thing.

So, with Brexit looming in the UK, and political leaders all over the world having reasons to be seen on TV, there’s lots of material for us to study.  If the policy discussions are beginning to bore you, try watching the body language – it’s fascinating!

[Article] Is there any difference between personal and professional development?

Having come to the end of a 20-day NLP Practitioner training recently I’ve been reflecting on the development of the individuals as they worked through the five-month journey. It’s a big commitment – the 20 days include some weekends as well as taking time out from work. This means that most people arrive determined to get all the benefit of the training that they can.

One thing that became clear to each person at different times was that although they had originally committed to the course for the business benefits, they also stood to gain a lot personally.

Occasionally, this can be a problem for someone – usually the budget-holder! If a company pays for an employee to undertake training, the company wants to be sure of ROI, naturally. That’s easy to see for a lot of technical training, but less so for people skills.

What I’ve noticed with NLP training is that lots of people come to it because they want to understand more about other people. They want to build more productive working relationships and maybe to help when someone is struggling.  They get the tools to do that.

And so much more…

The thing that surprises a lot of people when they come on the NLP Practitioner training is just how much they learn about themselves. One HR Director told me, “I’d done practically every personality test there is, plus team profiles and inventories of strengths and styles. I thought I knew myself. And then I did NLP Practitioner training…”

In the early stages of this new awareness, sometimes the most obvious benefits are not related to work: it could be an improvement in diet or exercise, it might be a better relationship with certain family members or the resolution of a long-standing conflict. It might be a shift of mindset that leads to more personal confidence or even the end of a phobia that has limited life in some way. Why is the employer paying for this?

It seems to me, that it’s natural to practise something new in an environment where it is safe to experiment. Workplaces don’t always offer that. If you have the tools to improve relationships, you’re going to start with the ones that are closest and most important. And what happens is that those results build confidence in the tools and confidence in self.

With that extra confidence, it’s easier to take the new skills into the workplace. The approach is more assured and the results are more closely observed. So the new Practitioner has developed as a person and also developed as a professional. Is there really any difference?

My feeling is that – especially at senior level – the only way to develop professionally is to focus on personal development. Your relationships at work will never be better than your relationship with yourself…