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!


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, 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 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?


Improving Performance – Take a Meerkat Moment

We are currently coming to the close of a large delivery program for a company that is trying to instill new company values into the management team and beyond. Part of this new initiative is to try to focus less on the “whats” and more on the “hows”; something that many companies are trying to achieve and intellectually this makes sense.

We all know the old clichés, when discussing our people – you know the ones ‘our most valuable asset’, ‘a leader cannot succeed without a team to lead’, ‘there is no I in team (….add one of you own here..). Unfortunately it appears that a lot of the leaders we meet see their job as having two distinct elements; one, their team and two, their day job. With ever increasing, stretching targets there seems to be a focus on short term results rather than developing the team that we need to deliver them. So the day job takes over and team/individual development takes a back seat for now. We can always do that tomorrow, next week, next month….Unfortunately we might be busy now BUT when will we not be busy?

Case in point, on the current contract we are involved with, we talk about Adair’s action centred leadership and the group are asked to split themselves across the three elements (Task, Team, Individual) based on where they spend most of their time. In this case, around 90-95% of the managers said they spent the vast majority of their time in the task area. Admittedly as leaders we must make sure that we achieve the goals set but sometimes this focus keeps our heads down in the undergrowth and we miss the opportunity to seek out better ways – ways that would ensure that we do not only achieve our task but exceed it.When this is discussed in the training room, everyone ‘gets it’. All admit that there needs to be a different focus, and this is easy when you are in a training room when someone is giving you the time to sit and think. Many of these sessions allow our delegates to have “Meerkat” moments for themselves where they lift their heads up out of the undergrowth and can make decisions that are right for them, right for their people and right for the organisation.

Unfortunately in the real world it is up to YOU to give yourself the time to think, there isn’t a trainer setting up a syndicate exercise for you. If you want a “Meerkat” moment for yourself, you need to lift your head up out of the undergrowth and see what is happening. Then once you are aware, take the time to think more about ‘it’; not just the symptoms but also the root cause. At that point Kipling’s serving men come into their own, ask yourself; what, why, when, how where and who.

We have thought of some potential questions for you. We invite you to visit our website ( and ‘take the test’, to consider the potential for improving performance in your organisation. Obviously, only do it if you have time!


Leadership – Strong or Weak?

Leadership - Strong or Weak

Jeff Randall writing in the Telegraph on April 30th ( beat me to it. The article is certainly engaging and looks at the need for a bit of “Di Matteo magic” or what he calls the personal touch at giant businesses like Barclays and Tesco to “drag them from the doldrums”.

I decided to wait until Chelsea had actually won something however, before commenting; Saturday’s fourth FA Cup win in six years was a “result” from all that improved Chelsea on-field performance. Working hard, trying, having better team spirit and morale are all great; but it is “results” that really count. That is certainly in football, and probably in most organisations that are trying to achieve something actually.

I had been watching with interest in these last few weeks, the growing form and confidence of the Chelsea Football team – so at odds with the form displayed before the 4th March 2012 departure of their former Manager, Andre Villas-Boas. Roberto Di Matteo was not an “unknown” – he is ex Chelsea player and was promoted from Assistant Manager to Interim Manager until the end of the season when AVB departed. However, it was the same squad of players, the same individuals, performing in the same stadium, at the business-end of three major competitions – Barclays Premiership, FA Cup and UEFA Champions League.

In the run up to AVB departing Chelsea had won one game in the previous seven; post his departure at the time of writing they have won 12 and drawn 4 of the last 18. They have won the FA Cup and will appear in The Champions League Final in Munich; just a few weeks back this was unthinkable. So what prompted this major turn-around?

There has been much debate about the role of Chelsea’s senior players. Just 10 days into the Interim Manager’s tenure was a second leg tie against Napoli in the Champions League which took place at Stamford Bridge. Chelsea 3-1 down from the away leg. It was a fantastic night of football and Chelsea eventually won 4-1 after extra time. There was much made of the role of John Terry (Chelsea captain and senior player), who was substituted early in extra time. A report at the time stated:- “This brings us to the most significant impression of all from the Napoli match. When players are substituted they join their team-mates on the bench and fret like the fans. Terry didn’t. He stood almost beside interim manager Roberto Di Matteo and bellowed instructions from the touchline, looking like nothing so much as an assistant boss. It was far beyond the brief of a player. You do not see this at any other major football club, and few minor ones. There’s a good reason for that – it blurs the lines of authority and is a recipe for disaster.” This article continued:- “The image Terry gave to the world with his touchline shouting and gesturing at Stamford Bridge last Wednesday evening was more than merely unfortunate. It gave the game away about how influential he believes he is to Chelsea FC. The answer is: Too much.”

The thinking then was that Di Matteo was weak, effectively allowing the senior players to run the team and tactics, evidenced by John Terry at this match, adopting a coaching role from the sidelines and standing in front of the Interim Manager.

My observation then and now is that Di Matteo allowing Terry to “lead” from the touchline does not necessarily mean that he is a “weak” leader? Leadership is not about doing it all, it is about harnessing all your resources to deliver the results that you want. Why not let Terry do off the pitch what he does on it? He is the team’s long-standing and natural leader; even without the title and armband that reads “captain”, he behaves no differently. Leading the team on the pitch is what he does; it is in him; he can do no other.

Rather, Di Matteo is clever in my view. Intelligently harnessing all the experience and know how around him, rather than allowing his own ego to dictate who knows best. Di Matteo appears quite secure in who he is and therefore unthreatened by those around him who might know better or have things to contribute. In handling himself in this way it is no surprise to me that the people in his team have responded well and have achieved unbelievable results against all odds.
This approach seems quite unusual in football, as if the key ability to manage people and get the best from them is somehow not required because it is “football”? However, it is also sadly lacking in non-football environments – where insecure leaders feel the need to be seen (and heard) to be leading, squash contribution, and actually reduce performance from what could be. They have the ideas, decide the strategy, drive change, communicate vision, set targets and establish standards.

To quote Lao Tzu – When the best leader’s work is done, the people say “we did it ourselves.” Now that would be one, very secure leader. So, how secure are you in your leadership role on a scale of 1 – 10? How do you know? How would those you lead rate you? What would it take to raise your score one notch? How about a leadership MOT check?