How is performance-truth decided in your organisation?

Many of us work in roles where our performance cannot be represented by an objective measure that neatly sums us up, and yet many of our performance management systems demand we do just that.

A lot of what we do has a fuzzy impact, with ambiguous barely-detectable results; results that ripple over longer timelines than the yearly appraisal cycle. In some cases our impact might be negative in the short-term because we want to make a lasting change in the long-term: change curves go down before they go up.

This is especially true when learning new skills, because there are phases of incompetence you have to struggle through if you want to gain competence at something new.

Even without these complications it is difficult to judge the full range and quality of what our colleagues do. We might see them dealing with a difficult customer so skillfully that they make it look easy, so we under-value how much legwork they put in to achieve this level of performance and so we mentally tot it up as routine. Then we move on, only catching glimpses of other people because we’re busy with so much else, those glimpses being more memorable if they ping a bias (or heuristic) such as “confirmation” (it confirms what we thought anyway) or “effect” (we have an emotional response to it) – but these superficial glimpses don’t stop us jumping to subjective judgements and thinking we’re seeing the objective truth about someone’s performance.

If that so-called “performance truth” is decided by people “thinking fast” (Daniel Kahneman), and confirmed by hierarchy rather than expertise, then we’re in trouble.

To quote Ryan Holiday (from The Daily Stoic):

because our senses are often wrong, our emotions overly alarmed, our projections overly optimistic, we’re better off not rushing into conclusions about anything

And this doesn’t change when you get promoted.

Continue reading “How is performance-truth decided in your organisation?”

Longbow learning

There was a period in the Middle Ages where the English decided they should be ruling France as well as England.

They had a decent claim. Royal marriages were mainly about alliances and land grabs, but they came with consequences because if one line runs out of heirs, then what had looked like a useful marriage of convenience a couple of generations ago, suddenly becomes the senior surviving line and if that line is also the line of the Kings of England, then they have their own army and might want to pop across the Channel and do something about it.

Despite England being smaller, poorer and less-populated, they did just that and managed to rule large parts of their continental neighbour for the best part of a century.

How did this happen?

Continue reading “Longbow learning”

Some people bring happiness wherever they go, some people bring happiness whenever they go …

I worked with a boss who saw his role as to challenge people’s thinking.

He had a keen analytical mind and was world-class in wrong-spotting, he could unearth a gap in anyone’s thinking from a hundred paces, and tease out anything and everything we hadn’t thought through properly with a few clever questions.

Everything he touched got an intellectual kicking to check for road-worthiness, and he was rarely off base in his eternal quest to discover anything that might be wrong with everything we ever thought of.

It was a nightmare.

He probably saw his role as being a guardian of quality, an invaluable cog in the production machine, a well-respected thinker who people would joyfully seek out to test their ideas before daring to expose them to the wider world … but in truth he wasn’t illuminating us with the warm glow of comfort and joy he thought he was, he was casting a dark shadow of persnickety pessimism, deflating and demotivating with his pedantic challenges and “but the problem with that is …” response to almost anything we ever tried to do.

Maybe we were over-ambitious at times, certainly naïve, reaching for too much with our attempts to achieve as many as six impossible things before breakfast, but by the time he’d finished with us, we were just trying to get through the day.

Continue reading “Some people bring happiness wherever they go, some people bring happiness whenever they go …”

Humour is often about misunderstandings, so don’t complain if you’re misunderstood

Kentaro Kobayashi got fired from his job as Creative Director of the opening ceremony at the Tokyo Olympics for making an inappropriate joke in 1998.

That might seem rather harsh, he was a young comedian going for – in his words – “cheap laughs”, but the joke was about the holocaust, and if you are going to make racist jokes, you have to accept that that comes at a price.

He apologised: “It should never be the job of an entertainer to make people feel uncomfortable.”

I disagree.

I think comedians should make people feel uncomfortable but only if the people are deserving of it, which we all are sometimes (our hypocrisy should be exposed and mocked), but we should not be made to feel uncomfortable because of our ethnicity or gender or religion or whatever.

I aspire to be both an anti-racist person and a forgiving person, so I’m not quite sure where that leaves me in Kobayashi’s case, but I tend to be more willing to forgive mistakes if something has been learnt, and we all have a youth dotted with things we’d rather forget.

Well, I should only speak for myself, although I am lucky to have grown up before everything was videoed and put on TikTok, so I can (and will) deny a lot of it.

As with Kobayashi, my use of humour has been a source of workplace blunders over the years.

Continue reading “Humour is often about misunderstandings, so don’t complain if you’re misunderstood”

Emotional Intelligence

Leaving Madrid was emotional.

I don’t normally get emotional. I feel human emotions, and have read that book “Emotional Intelligence”, so I know my stuff, but I don’t tend to get overwhelmed by my emotions and so it comes as a shock when I lose control … but then it’s not every day you drag your daughter from the loving embrace of her friends and boyfriend and take her to University.

For the past 18 years I have sacrificed almost everything I’ve got in order to try to provide sufficient predictable income that I can give my two daughters a good education and a decent crack at life.

That’s 18 long years of having little cash and – more importantly – little time or energy. I don’t begrudge them any of it, what’s life about if not to leave a positive legacy, ideally in the form of happy well-balanced non-racist decent human beings who, if one is lucky, like decent music and support Leeds United.

Continue reading “Emotional Intelligence”

Everyone needs to calm down

There’s a patch of waste land off the car park next to Madrid’s Chamartín station.

It’s an unceremonious back door to this major rail terminal, widely used by people who need to cut the massive corner to get to and from the northern end of the Castellana main street. It’s a rutted bare patch of mud, often filled with deep puddles and parked cars, and, until recently, a tiny shanty town of makeshift sheds.

I walked through, carrying my small case, and noticed for the first time that the area had been cleared. I often thought it odd that such a settlement had been tolerated by authorities not always known for their deep sympathy to those who live on the margins of society.

A policeman friend of mine once described the role of the police as “to control the people” and I thought how this attitude clashed with my own (British?) understanding of their role. A policeman came to speak at my school when I was a kid and his description always stuck with me: the police, he said, were there to protect the people. He didn’t say control the people. This is an important distinction, and leads to an important change of mindset.

I once pulled over on to the hard-shoulder of a busy motorway because the back door of my car wasn’t properly closed – within seconds the police had pulled up (actually the Civil Guard, but it’s the same principle) and a young officer jumped out his car, already shouting at me “Why have you stopped?!”

“Because the door was open,” I said, completely calm, because I knew I had done the right thing.

He must have known I had done the right thing too, but he was too high on his own petty power, unable to calm down because he saw his role as there to control me, not protect me, and so he couldn’t back out without losing face: “Well, get moving. Now!” he hollered unnecessarily, ordering me about like I were a new recruit on the parade ground (we were only one step away from him screaming in my face: “only two things pull over on the hard-shoulder because their back door isn’t closed properly, steers or queers, which are you, boy?”).

That was years ago and it still annoys me that I meekly got back in my car and didn’t challenge him on why he thought it was OK to shout in my face.

Perhaps it was the better decision to swallow my pride and move on, but it rankles.

Continue reading “Everyone needs to calm down”

Riding the Iron Poultry

After so long not travelling, and feeling nervous about failing a PCR test next week and not being able to fly, I edge out the house like a bear groggily emerging from hibernation.

I am under-dressed. How can I be leaving the house on a cross-country journey wearing shorts and a t-shirt and carrying nothing but a backpack? It just feels wrong.

I must have forgotten something nags the dark angel on my shoulder. I hate my anxiety, it does nothing other than make me check multiple times that I have got my tickets and packed my glasses, which I know I have, but there he goes, nagging away, and I just need to check again …

The first train is a commuter train, and so it’s uncomfortable, as commuter trains must be. As someone who grew up in Leeds, I am just grateful it’s a modern train and not a two-carriage converted diesel bus. At least here the trains are made out of trains.

It is surprisingly busy for a pandemic, but maybe everyday is like this and I just don’t know because I rarely use public transport these days, so different my life has become.

It doesn’t feel like the start of a journey. This may be the familiarity of the Cercanias trains that shuttle passengers in and out of the city, an experience now so mundane after doing it five times a week for a decade, that any glamour associated with train travel just doesn’t stick to these trains. Even a year-and-a-half of working from home doesn’t change that, it’s immediately familiar – and boring – as if I’d been there the day before.

Continue reading “Riding the Iron Poultry”

The Ferrol Express

I’ve driven this route dozens of times before.

I’ve driven it in winter, in summer, in the midst on heavy Easter traffic, and probably at every other time of year at some point over the last two decades. I’ve driven it in both of the crappy cars I’ve owned over the last 18 years, and before that I have driven it in countless different hire cars; once even in a rented van when I went there and back in the same day to collect some furniture. That was a long time ago when I was younger, I couldn’t do that now.

The start of the route is the same as the school run, so it’s not just familiar, it’s tedious. It reminds me of the very life-draining routines that smother me for eleven months of the year. The very routines I’m trying to get away from for the next two weeks. I console myself: when I take my daughter to school on sunny days like this, I imagine ignoring our exit and continuing on through the lengthy Guadarrama tunnel, turning our tiresome commute into an exciting adventure. On schooldays I don’t to do that, I do what I’m supposed to do and take the exit I’m supposed to take. I’m not asking for thanks for this selfless act, I’m just saying that the temptation is always there: take the exit for tedious routine, or continue straight for freedom and adventure … that’s the good thing about today, the fantasy gets real and I ignore the school exit and keep on going through the tunnel. As soon as I do, I start to feel the delicious buzz of the freedom of the road. I shout “road trip!” but my family ignore me, they know I am full of crap and they are right. It’s not a road trip, it’s a drive, and there’s a difference.

A “road trip” is about the journey, a “drive” is a functional activity that you need to do if you want to relocate your body and suitcases to a different place.

If I had my way, we’d take a few days inching north, taking the backroads, stopping along the way in different towns and villages and beauty spots … but I don’t have my own way (I never have my own way) and we peg it up the motorway as fast as we can.

Continue reading “The Ferrol Express”

Whatever can be misunderstood, will be misunderstood

It is an unfortunate truth that whatever can be misunderstood, will be misunderstood.

As inevitable as death and taxes, this Murphy’s Law of communication is especially true when the message is unwelcome. Whoever is in charge of sayings probably needs to change Bullock’s famous quote to include this:

’Tis impossible to be sure of any thing but Death and Taxes and Misunderstandings

Leaders – especially when trying to change something (because pretty much all change is unwelcome for at least some of the people some of the time) – must factor this into their thinking.

We must assume that, whether by genuine accident or convenient design, even our most-beautifully crafted and benevolent utterances will be misunderstood.

Continue reading “Whatever can be misunderstood, will be misunderstood”

Babyleaders: five types of immature leader

Leadership isn’t easy, it demands a level of self-awareness, self-control and maturity that not all of us are able to muster.

In my experience of working with humans, I have noticed that they have faults. If you are not in a leadership position, maybe these faults are no big deal, but as you rise in the hierarchy and your influence broadens, the impact of those faults is amplified and the probability of them doing harm grows exponentially.

So leaders need to be vigilant about which of their traits are helpful to their leadership role, and which aren’t!

There are many ways to get leadership wrong, and I have certainly been guilty of a few of them (and am certainly guilty of a few more that I’m unaware of – and some I am aware of, it’s a work in progress …). These are linked to many different things, such as personality traits that may mismatch the context of the moment (such as Asquith’s guiding chairmanship being unsuited to the decision-making demands of World War One – more here), or personality traits that just don’t suit leadership so well, or maybe just the leader not being mature enough because leadership is – like good wine – something that often gets better with age.

Here are five immature leader types I have spotted, sadly it’s not an exhaustive list:

Continue reading “Babyleaders: five types of immature leader”

Change management: simplifying change projects

I used to get asked to do “change management” on projects that were not change management projects.

This is annoying if, like me, you really love doing change management projects, and there are so few opportunities to do really proper change management like those you read about in change management books.

The projects I was asked to work on were often the very opposite of change management projects, they were projects designed to minimise change while something disruptive happened. They were business continuity projects with the aim of avoiding the impact of changes happening elsewhere.

The most common example I was involved in was an office relocation, where you want the impact of the move to have minimal impact on the operation. You might want to take advantage of an office move to improve some things about how you work together, but the point is that they are peripheral, you are not changing how people work in order to improve your Key Performance Indicators (KPIs), and therefore, although it’s a bit change-management-y, it isn’t really driving transformation of the organisation.

If we look at an organisation’s performance over time (using the KPIs as the performance measure) then a successful organisation will probably be happily motoring around the amber/green lines most of the time.

The purpose of this type of “change management” (i.e. business continuity management) is to keep the Organisational Performance (OP) line as consistent as possible despite being buffeted about by disconnected external factors (i.e. disconnected from the KPIs, and so not central to the performance of the organisation).

Continue reading “Change management: simplifying change projects”

Three ideas for making the most of 70:20:10

A few years ago the L&D world was abuzz with the sound of people explaining that 70% of learning comes from experience, 20% from other people, and only 10% from formal learning events.

Thus the 70:20:10 model became the flavour of the month, and was used by Consultants everywhere to try to ram it into the stubborn heads of managers that a one-off tick-boxy training course is not a good way to help people get better at doing their jobs.

Like all things that are fashionable, it suffered the roller-coaster of fashion bias one minute, then anti-fashion bias the next, in turn exaggerating then obscuring the wisdom within the model.

Fashion Bias (noun, origin: just made it up): the tendency to overestimate the value of the latest thing because it is in fashion

Anti-Fashion Bias (noun, origin: just made this one up too): tendency to underestimate the value of the latest thing because it is in fashion

And lo, what had once been the answer to all L&D woes faded into the background to become yesterday’s news: a slightly awkward gimmicky sounding tool that people often took to mean that you should do a bit of job shadowing and watch a TED Talk once you’ve done the training course.

The problem with throwing out a model because it gets misunderstood and misused, and through familiarity ends up sounding a bit simplistic and old hat, is that one can accidentally also chuck out the good bits. I believe the metaphor to use here is the one about not throwing the baby out with the bathwater, but I’ve always thought that a rather dramatic and unfamiliar analogy: who hears that metaphor and thinks, “ah OK, now I understand thanks to my vast experience of accidentally throwing babies away“?

Continue reading “Three ideas for making the most of 70:20:10”

Delegation: the art of getting stuff done without being too annoying

The whole point of managing other people is so that we can be responsible for more than we can do.

This inevitably means that we have to ask other people to do things, and ensure that those things are done to the right quality standards, at the right time, and within the right budget, and all without being too annoying.

This creates a tension because although we can delegate the task to someone else, we cannot delegate the responsibility – so as much as we might want to empower people and leave them to it, we also need the task done properly … which is where things can go wrong …

… if we delegate but cling on, staying too involved, then we not only set off the Annoying Manager Alarm, but we undermine their confidence and motivation. They will be left feeling frustrated and bored, and will be less willing to take risks and make decisions because they will just be waiting for us to pile in with our big fat red pen anyway.

Over time they will become more and more detached, slowly morphing into robots that follow instructions rather than creative individuals who engage with their work …

… but if we do the opposite and delegate too much, walking away and leaving them to it, again the Annoying Manager Alarm jangles as we undermine their confidence and motivation. They will be left feeling abandoned, they will be frustrated and bored, our disappearing act creating the impression that the task is unimportant and unappreciated.

Over time they become more and more detached, taking less and less care as no one seems to be that bothered, slowly morphing into mediocre employees operating well below their abilities.

One way to bring the worst of both these options is what I call the Occasional Demon, the manager who mostly wants nothing to do with our tasks, only to pop up out the blue and tell us what we’re doing wrong. They are absent, then suddenly too involved, usually demonstrating little more than their ignorance.

Occasional Demons are a walking Annoying Manager Alarm.

So how do we hit the sweet spot and get the balance right?

Continue reading “Delegation: the art of getting stuff done without being too annoying”

Pale, male, and pissed off at being called stale

Today is my birthday and so, according to tradition, a higher number is now my age.

I am now unequivocally middle-aged, almost certainly closer to the grave than the cradle, but I don’t mind too much. I like being middle-aged, it suits my personality: being young was fun, for sure, but it was a chore compared to the don’t-mess-with-me-I’m-over-50 vibe that comes with the middle-age gig.

This is not just me making the best of the unavoidable march of time.

I have come to appreciate that the best things in life: good conversation, good wine, good books, are not so available in the noisy discotheques of my youth where I anxiously tried to fit in and appear attractive to women. Now I can relax and enjoy the conversation, the wine and the books and not get all antsy about looking idiotic dancing to Mudhoney’s “Touch Me I’m Sick” at the Chocolate Factory.

This, according to the phrase coined by NASA administrator Daniel Goldin in 1992, makes me “pale, male, and stale”: a self-deprecating description cooked up by a middle-aged white man to make the point that filling your top jobs with middle-aged white men, year after year, is a myopic leadership strategy.

Goldin didn’t describe the individuals as “stale”, just the organisation’s leadership as a whole, but the “stale” tag has become a synonym for “middle-aged” when used in conjunction with “pale” (meaning white) and “male” (meaning man).

This is a bit annoying.

Continue reading “Pale, male, and pissed off at being called stale”

Equal treatment doesn’t always lead to equal outcomes

As a Leeds United fan, I was horrified to see a tweet by the club contributing to the online abuse directed at football pundit Karen Carney.

Carney had expressed the oft-repeated view that Leeds might not be able to keep going with their fast-paced game throughout the whole season.

She went on to opine that, in the previous season, the Covid-lockdown break had insulated the team from burnout by allowing them time to recharge their batteries and come back to the last ten games full of renewed vigour: “I actually think they got promoted because of Covid in terms of it giving them a bit of respite. I don’t know if they’d have got up if they didn’t have that break,” she said, with ex-Leeds striker Jimmy Floyd Hasselbaink nodding along beside her.

Continue reading “Equal treatment doesn’t always lead to equal outcomes”

Leadership isn’t about the leader, it’s about the ship

(This is the first in several posts about authentic leadership)

How can I be an authentic leader?

This is probably the question I get asked more than any other on leadership development programmes.

How can I adopt all these leadership behaviours you’re telling me about, act motivated when I feel deflated, pretend to support positions and decisions I don’t agree with, and at the same time call myself an “authentic” leader?

The thing is, it’s the wrong question to ask because “authenticity” isn’t the point.

Leaders who worry about being “authentic” are putting themselves in the centre and forgetting that leadership isn’t about them: leadership is about influencing and inspiring other people (other people who are our social equals and who shouldn’t have to put up with our crap) to do something.

The day you become a leader, it becomes about them

Jack Welch

Or to put it in a potentially brilliant (or potentially confusing) way: leadership isn’t about the leader, it’s about the ship.

So “authentic” is only good if it helps us influence and inspire others, it’s not necessarily good in itself.

In Venn diagram form:

This means that Person A is a poor leader despite being authentic.

They are unprofessional, quite possibly self-indulgent, and as they mistakenly seem to think we have to put with aspects of their “authentic self” which are unhelpful to leadership.

They are probably mistakenly thinking they are the star of the show and that leadership is all about them.

This approach might have some success when leading a cult, especially when backed up with a high level of competence (Steve Jobs maybe?), but it’s at best clumsy and exclusive (Donald Trump maybe?), most usually it’s ineffective and disrespectful.

Continue reading “Leadership isn’t about the leader, it’s about the ship”

Extreme meta-training: the importance of size

A good training session doesn’t just lump participants into groups willy-nilly, driven by nothing more than the group size and the facilitator’s ability to divide numbers in their head. Splitting participants into groups is a well-thought-through process of considering the objective of the activity and the dynamics needed to make it tick.

Here is an imagined example, a training session using different group sizes to discuss using different group sizes in training sessions: extreme meta-training!

Imagined Example

The facilitator says: Split into fours and discuss on a flip-chart the advantage of being in a group of four

Why is this better than a three or a pair?

Why is it usually better than a five or a six?

Rather than bore the crap out of each other by reading out your flip-charts to people who aren’t really listening, a more bearable alternative is:

Just tell us one thing – the thing you thought was most useful or interesting and let’s discuss it a bit … what do the other groups think?

Continue reading “Extreme meta-training: the importance of size”

Management essentials: three ways for managers to build trust

If you want to succeed as a manager, you need to build relationships of trust with your team.

If they don’t trust you, nothing else matters: nothing you do will land right, the extra-mile won’t be run, the box won’t get thought outside of, no one will be saluting what you run up the flagpole … in short, creativity and motivation will drag sluggishly along the floor no matter how much cake you bring in on a Friday.

In fact, if our untrustworthy manager brought in cake on a Friday, what would you think?

You’d probably assume some sneaky ulterior motive, that they were trying to ingratiate themselves or bribe you with superficial treats … although obviously you’d still eat the cake, just to be polite.

If you’ve ever had a manager you didn’t trust, you won’t need much persuading on this point.

Saying you need trust in the team will seem like a statement of the blindingly obvious – and I’d agree with you, so imagine my surprise when someone once interrupted me to say:

We don’t have the luxury of building trusting relationships, we need people to get on with it and deliver

Someone on a management training course once (yes, seriously)

Hands up who wants to work for this person?

Thought not.

So, I am disappointed I need to do this, but I will start with three reasons why building trust is worthwhile, before going on to share three things you need to do to build trust in your teams.

Continue reading “Management essentials: three ways for managers to build trust”

Three ways to learn from experience (or how to deal with idiots)

If you are not willing to learn, no one can help you
If you’re determined to learn, no one can stop you

Zig Ziglar

I am assuming if you’re reading this, you like Ziglar’s quote above, and are already convinced of two things:

  • That being good at learning is an important skill; and
  • That you can learn new stuff, despite however many years you may have accumulated

On the first point, in our fast-changing world of immense complexity, the ability to capture the right learning from our experience is more and more important – and we don’t just learn from experience automatically; it’s a skill.

The difference between someone with ten years experience and someone who has one year’s experience ten times, is that the first person learnt from that experience.

The illiterate of the 21st century will not be those who cannot read and write, but those who cannot learn, unlearn, and relearn

Alvin Toffler

On the second point, it used to be thought that our abilities and talents were static after the age of about seven: this is the fixed mindset.

There is some truth to this, it gets harder to learn as you get older because the neural pathways are hewn more and more clearly into the grey matter, but research has shown that not only are our brains more plastic than previously thought, but that learning new stuff makes our brains even less fixed and more able to learn (the growth mindset)!

This means not only can we learn new tricks, but learning new tricks stops our brains from growing old!

The quickest way to become an old dog is to stop learning new tricks

John Rooney

I have written about the importance of a growth mindset here.

To build on those assumptions, I want to share three tools I find useful for being a better experiential learner.

Continue reading “Three ways to learn from experience (or how to deal with idiots)”

Lifelong learning: the ultimate anti-ageing technique

Oscar Wilde said youth was wasted on the young.

Or maybe it was George Bernard Shaw, I don’t know.

The point being that young people don’t take full advantage of all that youth offers, all too easily squandering it, supposing it will last forever.

Do we “older” people do the same?

Do we squander the wisdom that comes with age because we stop being willing to learn? Do we close our minds, lose our humility, and consider ourselves the finished article, unable to be improved upon?

If so, maybe it’s because of a fixed mindset.

Did you ever learn that your brain develops most during a critical period in childhood – before the age of seven – and then doesn’t change much after that?

I did.

I remember bits of my seventh birthday quite well. It was an important day in my calendar, but I didn’t realise just how important. Had I known that from that moment on my destiny would be hardwired into my brain like footsteps set in concrete, I might have taken it all a lot more seriously.

There is a photo of me wearing my brand new “I am 7” badge, in my tiny boxroom bedroom, surrounded by clutter and friends. I am smiling, I have thick National Health specs perched on my nose and a big gap in my front teeth, but I am a seven-year-old kid so I still look OK.

That cute little scamp had no idea that his personality was now fixed and the limits on his intelligence were now set. He was ignorant to the fact that from this point on learning would be much more difficult, every change a mental struggle.

At least that was the prevailing wisdom: we develop a “static brain” early in life that establishes the structure of the grey matter, and so defines (limits) our personality, talents, and abilities for evermore.

Fortunately for me, and to a lesser extent the rest of the human race, this bleak picture turned out to be incomplete. Around the time I was blowing out my seven candles and listening to my new Showaddywaddy elpee, neuroscientists were changing their views about the plasticity of the brain.

Continue reading “Lifelong learning: the ultimate anti-ageing technique”