Wool pulled over your eyes?

Wool pulled over your eyes?

The driver of the BMW had completed his job for the day. He had a signed contract for a lucrative piece of work and rather than race to the motorway he decided to take things easy, enjoy a beautiful summer’s day and the rolling Devon countryside. As he motored along the gentle lanes he noticed a passing place and decided to pull and enjoy the scenery. He stood at the gate and watched a shepherd working with his sheep.

The shepherd soon noticed him and came up to the gate to see what he wanted. He explained that he didn’t want anything he was just enjoying the day. However if he could tell the shepherd exactly how many sheep he had in his field right from where he was without entering the field could he have one of his sheep- a wager of sorts. The shepherd agreed and said he would come back in 20 minutes.

The driver set to work in the car and soon had a an image of the field on his laptop and with the clever software he had loaded the system calculated one hundred and fifty eight “bodies”- subtract one for the shepherd and the total sheep count was 157. He went confidently back to the gate.

“One hundred and fifty seven” he told the shepherd.

“Exactly right” replied the shepherd. “Choose your sheep”

The driver chose what he thought was a healthy looking sheep and the shepherd helped him load it into the boot of the car.

“Before you drive off,” said the shepherd, “if I can tell you exactly what you do for a living may I have that sheep back and a choice of one of your electrical devices?”  A sort of double or quits.

“Ok,” replied the driver- a bit of a betting man and he was having a good day.

“You are management consultant”

“How did you know that?”

“Well, you look like a management consultant, you came out here and used a lot of clever techniques to tell me what I knew already and charged me a sheep for it. On top of that, the sheep you have in your boot is a dog!”

Top Tips

  • Consultants can be valuable in helping you look objectively at your organisation, especially if you are too busy working in the organisation to do so. Are you?
  • Consultants can bring missing expertise and perspectives to the table. Where are your gaps?
  • It’s your job to ensure they deliver ‘value’ – so, what is value and how will you measure it?
  • Consultants need to gather information, but should you pay them simply for providing information you already know? Maybe, if that provides clarity (what exactly are the issues?) and certainty (how do we know that is true?) otherwise missing.
  • You should get a balanced outlook exposing both good and bad aspects of your organisation. Don’t shoot the messenger just because you don’t like the message.
  • You should get a range of costed options – it’s your organisation and thus your choice. They can help you make decisions but not make the decisions for you.
  • Consultants have to make a living as well so if you want to negotiate, then get into their shoes. They will be trying to get into yours!

T>alking – consultants who talk more than you, may be coming with pre-convictions about the issues you face, or lack skill to uncover the “real” cause of the symptoms. Initial conversations about your business, need consultants who are skilled in questioning and listening.

Reality – skilled consultants interrogate reality, to make sure that it is! In most organisations people don’t say what they mean or what needs saying, because they are too polite or believe nothing will change. Great ideas lurk in dark pools and take time to flush out to the surface.

Understanding – only when this is done should the consultant have an understanding as good, if not better than yours, of three things. What the issues are, which are priorities and how best to tackle them.

Strategy – a costed range of options falling from the above, and a recommendation for, at the very least, next steps. This should include success criteria and measures, review timing and alternatives.

Take Action –  implement actions within the strategy. “How” implementation is done is as or more important than “what” is implemented. Review success regularly and be prepared to tweak to get the desired results.

If you can’t trust the consultant, don’t – especially if they can’t tell the difference between a dog and sheep!

Up Up and Away

Up, Up and Away

A man in a hot air balloon realised he was lost. He reduced altitude and spotted a woman below. He descended a bit more and shouted

“Excuse me, can you help me? I promised a friend I would meet him an hour ago, but I don’t know where I am.”

The woman below replied, “You are in a hot air balloon hovering approximately 30 feet above ground level. You are between 40 and 41 degrees north latitude and between 59 and 60 west longitude.”

“You must be an engineer,” said the balloonist.

“I am,” replied the woman, “how did you know?”

“Well,” answered the balloonist, “everything you have told me is technically correct, but I have no idea what to make of your information, and the fact is that I’m still lost. Frankly you have not been much help so far.”

The woman below responded, “You must be in management.”

“I am” replied the balloonist but how did you know?”

“Well,” said the woman:

  1. you don’t know where you are
  2. you don’t know where you are going
  3. you have risen to where you are largely due to a lot of hot air
  4. you have made a promise which you have no idea how to keep
  5. you expect people “beneath” you to solve your problems

The fact is, you are in exactly the same position you were in before you met me but now, somehow, it’s my fault.”


Top Tips for Managers:

  • You need to know exactly where you are against key measures
  • you need to have a clear sense of direction with an end goal that everyone in your team understands and wants to achieve
  • only make promises you can deliver
  • engage your people to find a better solution – don’t dump the problem on them

As regards hot air- well you have control of that as well!




All generalisations are wrong

Several years ago, when I was an employee of a large blue chip company I was amongst a group of colleagues that were invited to a ‘fireside chat’ with a new head of department. Whilst he was sharing his thoughts with us he pointed out to us that ‘all generalisations are wrong’. In a moment of less than career enhancing excitement I pointed out that his statement was a generalisation and therefore must be wrong and consequently we all entered the paradox that he had created (with my help).

But as Robert Cialdini tells us (Influence, The Psychology of Persuasion) our brains are inherently lazy and have a tendency to go for the easy option – he calls it a “click/whirr” response. I believe that generalisations are part of this process. It is easier to lump groups together to make decisions rather than take the time to look at the individual pieces.

As an example, I have a close friend who sees himself as a socialist and has some very clear ideas about his values and beliefs, which are laudable. Sometimes, when we get together he gets into Banker bashing – all the fat cats, with their huge bonuses, ripping us all off. My background in financial services then leads me to stick up for the many tens of thousands of hard working branch and departmental staff who do care about their customers and try their best to provide an excellent service. However, it is easier to focus on the wrong doers and slag off the profession as a whole.

Of course, bankers are not alone. All journalists lie and cheat to get a good story, all politicians are more interested in fiddling their expenses rather than looking out for the interests of their constituents, all teachers are more interested in league tables than they are in educating our children, etc. Now there is a new kid on the block – the NHS. Because of the actions of a few, the NHS, which employs approx. 1.7 million people (the fifth largest employer in the world!), doesn’t care about any of its patients and their employees only begrudgingly provide a modicum of care if they have to and haven’t got anything better to do.

These bandwagons are very easy to jump upon. As we all know, behaviour breeds behaviour; so if we allow our beliefs (based on these generalisations) to influence our behaviour it will affect the relationships we have with these organisations/individuals and inevitably we will get the results that we deserve, which will in turn justify our beliefs. Put more briefly – life reciprocates our belief of it.

So, before we are swept away by these generalisations both in the wider world and in our own relationships (either in work or out of it) – stop and think. Am I acting/behaving based on what I know to be true about the INDIVIDUAL in front of me that I am dealing with or am I acting/behaving based on some generalist, received opinion of the masses. Make the right choice as you will have to live with the consequences of the results your interaction generates.

All generalisations are wrong!


Promises, promises……

I promise I will…………..

 Whilst this may look like a marriage vow of some sort, that is not the motivation for this blog, wonderful institution as that may be. I wonder just how many column inches in this country alone are written about things people promise to do around this time of the year and the reasons that they often end up failing, usually after a short period of time has elapsed.

So, here we are at the end of January – be honest – how are you doing?

This is a bumper time for gym membership, diet sign-ups, quitting programmes, self help books, exercise gear, year planners……….. But if things haven’t got off to the best start, or never started at all, never fear. Start again, but maybe with a few helpful hints to ensure more chance of success this time.

To begin with, it may be that this time of year, for you, is not a great point in the cycle to start making resolutions – so don’t, just because everyone else is. That won’t bring you success. Know how you work and work with that. But assuming you want to make a change/break an old habit/ start a new habit at some stage what should you do?

Let’s start at the very beginning and follow some simple steps:-

1. Clarity:- “What exactly is it I want to do?” Be clear about the outcome and when you want to have achieved it. Stop! Is this realistic? Could you cut yourself some slack – reduce dependency over a longer period, lose less weight in that time – anything that heads towards where you ultimately want to be without killing yourself or making you really miserable along the way. You have just increased the chances of success and there can always be a further phase later – success breeds success.
2. Motivation:-
“Why am I doing this?” This is a key question often not thought through – “Why do I really want to do this?” Keep asking “why?” until you get the kernel of the thing that motivates you. “I want to run a marathon”. Why? “So I feel good about my achievement.” Why? “So I can prove X wrong who said I couldn’t do it.” Why is that important? ………… We may find motives that we may not like (not always). We may decide at this stage to rethink our objective, in the light of this. However, these real motivators are always there and can be your friend in achieving what you set out to do. How strong are the real motivators? Can you give them a score out of 10?
Also, try to think if you are an “away from” or a “towards” person – in other words should your goal be something to achieve or something to avoid. Your health regime may not be to become Lewis Smith, but simply to lose the love handles, as you do not like what you see when you look in the mirror. The former may be unrealistic for you as an outcome, depending on your starting position! Quitting smoking may be to avoid yellow fingers or lung cancer. Alternatively It may be the incentive (towards) of having more money and using to do X, or having more energy to do Y. Knowing which has the biggest pull enables you to choose the motivational “picture” to spur you on – a picture of the dress you want to wear, the finishing tape of the race you want to run, the trophy you want to win, (towards) or a picture of the love handles, yellow fingers, a cancerous lung, your family without you in it (away). Whatever it is you may want to have that picture mentally (or better still, have it physically) somewhere that regularly reminds you why you are putting in the effort.
3. Count the cost:- “What are the downsides of pursuing what I want to achieve?” Be realistic, as these are the things that will be used to rationalise giving up – “It is harder than I thought”, “It was taking longer than I imagined it might”, “The regime was too rigid and I can’t work like that”. What you want to understand is how much effort and how much time is required? To lose eight pounds in three months may be very different to losing 3 stone in a year, but it depends on your starting point and success history. Can you score the effort required out of 10? Can you score the time that would need to be invested similarly out of 10?
4. Calculate:- Before step 5 think through whether you really want to pay the price to achieve the goal – add the scores from step 3 together and divide by 2. If the result is greater than the score from step 2 it is highly unlikely that you will see it through, so don’t start. Change the objective, reduce the target and/or extend the time until the scores are more conducive to success. On the other hand if the score for motivation outweighs the scores for “cost/effort”, then you have a chance of success. These are only indicators of course, you can still fool yourself with optimistic scoring, if you want to!
5. Go public:- There is no doubt that a commitment made publicly carries more energy than one that is kept to yourself – we can all rationalise ourselves into giving up with our self respect still intact. But if we commit to something publicly we are “programmed” to work hard to be consistent with what we have said. Find a group of friends/strangers to help you. The latter may seem odd but strangers may be a stronger motivator than close friends; the latter know you and will be “kind” to you, meaning well of course. However, we don’t know that strangers will be “kind” in the same way, so there is a stronger pull here to keep us consistent. This is almost certainly why some people find attending group meetings really helps them to stay the course. If that is you, do it!
6. Praise:- Check progress regularly and celebrate success – no matter how small – it is all good. Try not to compare with others – celebrate your progress on your journey.
Taking some time to think through what you want to achieve and count the cost involved, will help turn a spur of the moment idea into something that can effect real change – at any time of the year. And remember that small changes have a big impact; our best wishes for a big impact in 2013.

“I promise I will think more about what I promise I will do.”


Shortly before Christmas it rained!

Shortly before Christmas it rained. Actually it rained pretty much for months before Christmas – or so it seemed. But I want to be specific about a particular day that it rained – December 22nd.

We were preparing for Christmas and New Year and had various people staying for parts of the holiday break. I don’t know why but I went into the spare room and noticed that we now had an internal water feature and not one that I had previously installed! Water was running down the walls and across the ceiling.

Mild panic succumbed to action and after a few minutes of mopping and entering the loft to place appropriately positioned buckets, the situation was under control. However, what was the likelihood of getting this fixed this side of Christmas? And at what price?

I Facebooked my friends and asked for help in locating a reputable roofer. To cut this short – the roof was repaired on Christmas Eve at about 8.30am, and at a price I thought quite reasonable. Christmas and New Year was saved at the last minute……….

So, what is the point of this? Simply that the roof had been leaking for a while – a small patch of discoloured ceiling at the top of the chimney breast, indicated that there was a problem with the flashing above, but only when the wind blew the rain in a certain direction and if the rain was heavy enough. So it wasn’t a problem.

Or at least it wasn’t a problem I needed to tackle right now. So it was left until it became a crisis and I had to do something about it.

How many of us have things at work, at home or at leisure that are small, noticeable “stains”, but insufficient irritants for us to tackle right now? They can go on the “later” pile, because I am too busy now; it is not a priority; it will be OK – it has lasted this long like that; maybe it will just go away; I don’t know what to do about it; it is hassle to get help. There are probably reasons you can insert right here…………

The point is if I had fixed the problem before it became a crisis, I would not have an entire room to redecorate, rather than some touching in of the existing paintwork. Then there was also the emotional energy spent worrying over whether I could get it fixed to enable the room to be used for those staying with us (there was some “catastrophising” in action!).

So, why not take stock now of the things that you have accommodated, things that have now become part of the accepted norm to the extent that they go unnoticed, and tackle these things (some might actually be quite important), before they move into the urgent category and become crises?

Is it time to get that monkey off your back? If you think “what monkey” by the way, that may simply show how well adjusted the two of you have become! APP is good at helping businesses shift monkeys (and flush out elephants in the room too) – give us a call, even on Christmas Eve, before you have full blown zoo on your hands!


…and I will tell you something for nothing

I had a recent trip abroad to deliver a leadership training programme. I was sitting in the bar of the hotel having a quiet drink waiting for my co-trainer to join me and as usual found myself listening to a conversation on the table next to mine –be careful what you discuss in public areas, who knows who is listening in! It was another expat, like myself, talking to a couple of locals. The subject of the conversation was principally about himself, his company and how brilliant they are.

The two locals continued to smile and nod throughout the conversation which got louder and more animated the more local lager the expat consumed. From my position I could see the locals were giving each other that look –
you know the one, the one that says what a !@#~!? this bloke is. However, all the expat saw was a couple of gents enthralled by his discourse, obviously agreeing with all he said. This tacit agreement that was being demonstrated added to the confidence the lager was giving him. At the height of his speech a couple of interesting observations were made which started with the phrase, and I will tell you something for nothing. At the end of the evening the expat left full of himself and happy with the couple of converts he left behind in the bar. Whilst I didn’t understand the language the locals continued their conversation in, it was pretty obvious how they felt about the guy who just left the bar.

This started me thinking about how people communicate in general where the goal is to engage with team colleagues or customers. Some simple rules to consider;

  • When communicating, do you talk at or talk with people?
  • When trying to influence and/or engage with others it is better to make them the focus of the conversation
  • Nodding doesn’t always equate to agreement, check it out

…..and finally if someone tells you something for nothing, that is probably all it is worth.


Asking Questions About Asking Questions – Part 2

Our last blog on questions (ow.ly/c2tWg) looked at some common deficiencies and pitfalls and left you with a question – how do you think that you could improve your questioning skills right now? This rather assumes two things – that you are aware of how effective your current questioning habits are, and that you want to improve your skills in this area.

Most of us are quite unaware of how we do what we do most of the time, unless and until we get some feedback (which is simply information to help us become aware) – a whole other blog subject. Even then “wanting” to do something about it – weighing up the cost of the effort involved against the perceived benefit of changing – is crucial to anything actually taking place that is different from what we are comfortable with (our existing, well formed habit).

We may not be that bad at eliciting answers from people, but could we be better for our sake and theirs? The answer is almost certainly yes. So here are a few tips…………

Good questions are usually short. “Why is that?”, “How does that work?”, “Why do you say that?”, “What would make that better”, “How can I help?”.

It is best to leave them like that actually and let the other person reply or as Susan Scott puts it in her excellent “Fierce” books, “let the silence do the heavy lifting”. So why don’t we do that?

  • It doesn’t seem like we are doing much or contributing much to the conversation – (this can be driven by how we feel about ourselves and our “need” to contribute)
  • It leaves a silence while the person thinks, which is awkward and so we fill it – (the awkwardness is only in our heads and this can be about how confident we are about our own questioning skills and the “need” to contribute as above)
  • In doing this, I don’t get to let the interviewee know that I have either done my homework, have knowledge or have some answers to suggest – (this can be driven by how we feel really about ourselves and our “need” to contribute, or look “clever”)

What is the pattern that is emerging here?

Good questions are about the other person. The key to really good questions is that they are not about the interviewer at all. If I am secure in my skills and feel confident in what I am doing, then I am happy to take a “back seat” in the conversation or process. You will know when you have asked a really good question, as you will notice the act of thinking taking place – watch for the eyes to move away from eye contact as the search engine kicks in. This is good; so give the person space to think and provide an answer – don’t rush them, fill in the space, make suggestions or anything else. Wait – the answer will come.

Very often when I ask questions, I don’t need or want to know the answer; it is about the person that I am asking knowing the answer, by getting them to think it through.

Good questions provide answers that lead to the next question. Very often the best (i.e. that stimulate the most thinking) questions are those two or three into a conversation flow. These go deeper than, “behaviour” to what drives or causes that “behaviour”, for example. “Why do you think that?”, “What makes that happen?”, “What causes you to feel that way?”, “What is really going on?” – these are just a few……….Listening to the answers – rather than worrying about what to say next – is crucial. The next question is very often birthed in the answer to the last.

Good questions demonstrate interest in the other person. In any leadership or management role, questions are a powerful to way to create a feeling of value in the individuals within the team/group. The questions must be genuine (if they are not “emotional leakage” will give you away) and you must be prepared to listen to the reply. The next question, if based on the response that you have just heard, demonstrates listening, interest, value, concern – all great things to help you in your wider role.

Good questions circumvent “stock” answers and superficiality. One of the most frustrating responses you can elicit at times is “I don’t know”. I am not speaking about factual questions – “What is the mass of the sun?” – as it is perfectly possible that people will not know the answer to that question (which is fine, as they can find out or look it up). I am talking about questions to do with themselves, like those two paragraphs above.

Very often this answer is provided because people can’t be bothered to think it through or do know but don’t really want to admit the answer (to themselves, more than anything else). A great question – try it – to use when people respond with “I don’t know”, is to ask “If you did know, what do you think the answer would be?”. This works well in almost all cases and I have been astonished at how deeply people will think about their reply often coming up with a very thoughtful answer, sometimes surprising themselves.

It is almost as if their brain really cannot resist searching for the answer to such a deep and probing question.

What makes a skilled questioner? There are probably more than listed here, but these would be a great start:-

  • Genuine interest in the other person (this is about your mental preparation!)
  • Short concise questions – keep it simple
  • Listening to the answer
  • Personally secure enough to leave aside their need to show knowledge
  • Clarify what isn’t clear (rather than assume)

And finally……

Why would you want to improve your questioning skills?
How will you set about improving your questioning skills?
Where will you begin?
What do you think will be the hardest aspect to conquer?
When will you start the improving process?
Who will give you feedback?


Who are our customers? Part 2

You may remember my recent blog (if not please check it out http://ow.ly/c1fRd) regarding the differing treatment of customers by an airport car park service. In that I mentioned that there was another way to treat customers and this was evidenced in a recent trip to Casablanca. My experience there put me in mind of Michael McIntyre’s story about a bus journey (http://ow.ly/c1f6p)  but my journey involved a taxi driver not a bus driver.

Some colleagues and I were strolling around the city (against the advice of the local rep) trying to find a particular restaurant that, according to the reception at our hotel, wasn’t far away. Up to the next major road junction by the Hilton hotel and take ~~~~ street and the restaurant is on the left, simple. At present they are replacing the tram network in the city so large parts of the roads are building sites, the major road junction in the directions given by our hotel being a great example of this. Plenty of piles of rubble and fences stopping pedestrians wandering into dangerous places.

After about half an hour wandering around trying to find the street we were none the wiser but somewhat hungrier. We decided to pop into the Hilton hotel and ask directions. Unfortunately, they had not heard of the restaurant. So we were left standing outside the Hilton considering our options when we were approached by a rather tall local (the tall bit isn’t important). He mentioned that he was a taxi driver and asked us if he could help. We pointed out that we were looking for a particular restaurant but we knew it was just across the square (albeit one that was difficult to cross because of the rubble etc.) so that we wouldn’t need a taxi, just directions. Rather than try to sell us the idea of the taxi he walked to the curb and started pointing at one of several streets exiting the square and tried to describe the directions. At this point several of his compatriots joined in, trying to get us to get into their taxis.

When it was obvious we still hadn’t ‘got it’ our tall saviour said that he would walk us across the square, by a somewhat circuitous route due to the building works, and show us the relevant street. After we all congregated on the other side, having dodged many cars, taxis and bikes, our tall friend then pointed out the next part of the journey to us. He, obviously, picked up on the look on our faces and saw us for the idiots that we were and said that he would walk us to the next junction. This walking taxi ride continued in the same vein until we actually reached the restaurant we were looking for. At that point the ‘taxi driver’ mentioned that this actual restaurant whilst good was very ‘touristy’ and that if we were looking for better local food and atmosphere he knew of a better restaurant a few streets away. So we continued our ‘taxi ride’ for a further 15 minutes or so.

When we arrived at our new destination the taxi driver took us into the restaurant, introduced us to the owner and insisted that we should get great tables and great service. At this point he bade us goodnight and turned to leave.

So, how is that for customer service? The taxi driver went the extra mile, literally, on foot. He expected nothing from us yet he was prepared to help to his best ability. Unfortunately we left Casablanca the next day. If we had stayed and needed to get anywhere I know who we would have contacted to provide the transport. He would have loyal customers for as long as he needed them and not only that (much like I am doing now) I would be telling everyone I know to use his services. How do your people deal with those that are not your customers YET, do they drive them away or do they turn them into advocates. Do they help everyone to the best of their ability or do the minimum requirement to get by?

….oh, and our friend the taxi driver. Of course we didn’t let him leave. We paid him more than we would have if he had driven us there in his taxi and we paid for his meal with us. He was a very happy man. You see another important learning point is that if you provide exceptional service you can charge a high price for it AND people will not mind paying.


Asking Questions About Asking Questions

The ability to ask questions is a deceptively simple skill, and immensely powerful when executed correctly. Yet it remains a largely unused tool in both business and personal life. I never cease to be amazed at what asking a question will do; the impact is very obvious (more of this to follow) and, for the most part people are willing to answer with a degree of honesty and openness (more of this to follow, too).

So what is in a question? Stop for a moment before reading on and consider that question again. I am willing to wager that at some level the very posing of the question to you as you read began a thinking process. What can you find lurking back in the dark recesses of your memory banks that you might have learnt, read, heard or written about questions? Almost like a search engine, we are programmed to search for relevant information, rapidly honing and refining our search until we find something that might be an answer or at least help identify the answer.

What do questions do to us? Have you ever had one of those moments (of inspiration) where you have answered a question – maybe in a pub quiz or watching a TV quiz show – and have remarked to yourself, “How did I know that” or “I didn’t know I knew that”. It is quite probable that you have never required that dot of information previously, or forgotten exactly how it came to be lodged there at all; the questions triggers a trawl through the data-banks. It is almost like we can’t resist. We will think about the answer to a question – and in particular if it is personal – whether we want to or not. So, will questions always get you thinking?

Who are the best people at asking questions? I guess we might all agree that politicians are the best at answering questions – or rather not answering questions – but does that mean that those who jobs are interviewing politicians and other people are good at this skill. Sadly not, it seems. Here is an example of what not to do http://ow.ly/c2lIA, if you can stick with it! I will mention no names, but I have noticed several traits in “professional” interviewers – why not see if you can spot these traits too?

Firstly, there seems to be a desire to ask and then try to answer the question posed – the question may actually be a good one – by providing a range of possible answers, usually prefaced by “is it……..” An example might be “What is the biggest issue facing the NHS? Is it a lack of willingness to change, the ageing population, being over-managed, Government cuts, or the Euro crisis?” What this does is to limit the possible answers to the selection provided – possibly showing how clever the interviewer is, or not if the answer is something they have not listed. The basis for the question being posed in the first place, almost certainly, is that the person who will answer has some knowledge or understanding; so let them select their answer as they see fit. See how many uses of “is it…..” you can find; they are all over the place. Why do you think that might be the case?

Secondly, it seems there is a real “need” for the questioner to demonstrate their knowledge – that they have done their homework. Questions in this mode are long and very convoluted, and often hidden within the lengthy diatribe or tacked pitifully on the end. Usually, in a radio or TV interview time is short and the fact that a significant amount is taken up with the interviewer demonstrating “knowledge”, is a waste of precious time. Let the “expert” do their stuff. What might be the downside of letting the expert do their stuff?

Thirdly there are questions that start with either “presumably”, “obviously”, “naturally” or some other word of similar ilk. These words will be followed by some statement which is either presumably true, obviously true or naturally the case; another preamble to the real question. If the matter is obvious it does not need stating; if it is a presumption then there is no need to presume as the interviewee can, from their knowledge, put that beyond doubt. Ask them. Why might people use these words so freely and inappropriately?

Fourthly, not asking a question at all, but making a statement and leaving a pause for comment. “Tough night for England………….”. This appears to be the laziest form of interviewing; not even bothering to form a question at all! What is the worst thing that might happen in this situation? Why doesn’t that happen every time?

How might asking questions be abused? Since questions are so powerful, they can be used in the wrong way – here is a really good case in point http://ow.ly/c2mcn. This is a great clip to demonstrate how it is possible with well crafted questions (notice these are all closed, requiring only a yes or no answer) to manoeuvre and manipulate your “victim”. Whilst clever (and it happens) it leaves those being questioned feeling like they have been corralled into a place that they would rather not. This technique is part of “influencing” – commitment and consistency – getting someone to make a public statement (even answering a “loaded” question) makes it very difficult for them to later act in a way that is inconsistent with their earlier statement.

This type of questioning is essentially adversarial – as you might find in court – designed not with the other person in mind, but rather with the making of or achieving a stated point of view.

A step further is interrogation, designed to elicit withheld information or confirm statements already made. Here questions will be fired quickly and possibly by different people, but essentially the questions are unconnected to each other –” Where were you last night?”, “How long have you been married?” , “Who do you work for?”, “Where were you brought up?” What time did you come home last night?” This is designed to confuse and get the victim to answer quickly without thinking – likely to be the truth – and answering similar questions over again in the process to look for inconsistencies in the story.

I would suggest that these forms of questioning are inappropriate in most cases that we will face whether at work or at home……….

How do we develop our questioning skills? As with any tool the antidote to non-use or wrong use is correct use – learning to use the tool skilful and appropriately in any given situation. Our next blog on “questions” will pick up the reigns from here and provide some top tips to improve your skills. Whilst you wait for that to arrive – how do you think that you could improve your questioning skills right now?


Managing Performance Management


Why is performance management generally undertaken so poorly? It never ceases to amaze me that something that should be a “force for good” in any organisation, is often seen as a chore (by both parties) and at worst a “stick” to beat up employees who are working and trying their hardest. It can look like the idea is to trick people into working their socks off all year, but by the virtue of PM (and something hidden in the small print of their many objectives), they end up with a “satisfactory” rating at best and not the monetary rewards they imagined.

Performance Management is actually quite simple but can easily be complicated to the extent that it becomes unworkable and unpleasant – to be avoided by both reviewer and reviewed. The process can become stressful for all parties and lead to a break-down in working relationships, grievance procedures and litigation. Has anyone ever actually costed the process to see if it is worth doing in these circumstances?

I have been coaching someone recently – we will call him Bob – and as part of the conversations that we have had, Bob asked me to look at his Performance Plan for the current year to date, ahead of a review.

What immediately struck me about the plan was that there were 9 separate parts to the plan, with a number of objectives/targets under each part – around 20 targets in all. There were also a couple of stretch targets, which were actually just additional targets. Also, the objectives/targets were:

  • peppered with vague wording (see below)
  • not measurable
  • simply tasks to do
  • the only measurable target out of the 20 (% increase in an aspect) , had no indication of how much increase was required.

As a result Bob was having some difficulty preparing for the review and demonstrating his performance confidently. Much of his content (evidence of performance) was defensive and equally vague – and who could blame him?

So what about wording in these objectives/targets? Here are some of the words used in Bob’s plan objectives:-

  • Satisfactory and timely resolution…………..
  • Timely implementation…………..
  • Timely and accurate submission………..
  • Ensuring policies adhered to………..
  • Demonstrate adding value………….
  • Ensure………….are submitted in a timely manner.
  • Positive contribution in …………. meetings
  • Evidence of engaging with…………

The problem with all of these is they are:-

  • Not measurable. How much evidence do you need to provide to “demonstrate adding value” or “engagement”? How much is not enough? What counts as evidence?
  • Tasks . This is something that Bob has to do as part of his role (in the Job Description, if it is up to date?) and to include a task is a waste of an objective, as well as demonstrating a lack of understanding about what an objective/target is for. Also, Bob can either do the task (satisfactory) or not (fail) – there is no scope to exceed a task target.

What should we do then? Top tips include:-

1. Think about what the organisation is trying to achieve? Bob’s objectives should be consistent and congruent with the organisation/department/team. Bob should be able to see where his contribution fits with the bigger picture. That done Bob is more likely to be engaged – many staff don’t have this joined up view of how they contribute to the organisation in a meaningful way.

2. Avoid listing tasks. What Bob does is the task or activity (an input). What derives from that task or activity is the result or outcome (an output). So measure and focus on what you want Bob to achieve (the output) and leave him to decide (if he is experienced) on what he needs to do (the input). Bob is quite capable of doing that!

3. To get from input to output, ask yourself “if Bob did this task really well, what would be the result?” – keep asking that question until you decide upon result of all that activity and this will be your objective – more sales, less error time, better satisfaction scores, less waste, quicker delivery, less rejects, lower costs, deadline met……………

4. Too many targets will likely result in a lack of focus. Decide on the 4 – 8 critical things that you want the person to achieve or deliver. Those are then objectives to be written into the plan.

5. Every objective (what you want Bob to achieve) should be able to be measured. If it cannot be measured or isn’t being measured currently, you have two choices….

  • If it isn’t being measured, is it important? If not, don’t make it an objective.
  • If it is an important objective, start measuring it.

6. Less is more. Simple, measurable, achievements during a set time are often quite succinct and therefore quite clear. This also makes demonstrating performance simple and objective – Bob will know exactly where he is in terms of his performance at his review

7. Start with absolute clarity. At the beginning of the year or period:-

  • Construct and agree the objectives/targets
  • Construct and agree the measures

If this looks deceptively easy – it is and it should be. If Bob’s manager doesn’t really know what they want Bob to achieve for the team and the organisation, then Bob cannot really be held responsible for unstructured, unfocused performance. It just takes a little time and effort, and some different thinking…………

Going back to Bob’s review papers, I had 12 sheets of paper with writing on, but no idea from all that was before me how Bob had performed, and neither had he! What a waste of time and effort all round. Now multiply that time by the number of people in your organisation…………..What could you achieve with that additional time spent on the organisation’s objectives?