A Story of Control… “Chris & the Paperclip Training”

Chris was having an OK day, no big dramas, no staff issues, no complaints. Everything was going OK. Coming back from making tea, Chris was quietly chuckling. Sarah had been explaining how she and her team were being sent on a new training session. Sarah had explained the email came out this morning, and was compulsory training for some teams, even if they only ever worked in the office. Surely that was just a complete waste of time.

Chris had been on a similar course two years ago, and was adamant that it really was a waste of time. In fact, Chris remembered being quite vociferous at the time about what a complete waste of time it was. Still, there was no email for Chris’ team, so everything was alright.

As a newly promoted manager, the last thing Chris wanted to do was send the team to the training, there would moaning and groaning, something Chris really didn’t want to deal with, especially after only having the team for a couple of weeks. Having to stamp authority now wouldn’t be such a good thing.

Sitting down at the desk, Chris flicked on the computer. Tea had only taken a couple of minutes to make, and perhaps a ten or fifteen minute to chat with Sarah. The tea was lukewarm but good grief, how many emails could Chris receive in just those few minutes. Seventeen…that’s more than one a minute. People have nothing better….

Chris’s heart sank. OK, it wasn’t the end of the world…but it was a bit of a minor earthquake.

“Hiya Chris,

As you know, we are rolling out compulsory Health and Safety training for a number of teams, I think you were missed off the list this morning, sorry.

Anyway, can you make sure your team all attend the training next Tuesday, 0930 until 1230 in meeting room 2. Any problems, speak with Martin in L&D who is organising it.

Btw, I know you had training before, so you won’t need to go. Hope that suits.

Thanks Chris

                The Boss”

Immediate relief at not having to attend was quickly dispelled by the grief Chris knew was going to come. Tuesday was not a good day for the team to have training, especially something that they didn’t believe added value.

Having moaned about it in the past, largely to the same people Chris was about to send on the training, how was that going to go down?

Looking round the office, everyone was there. Chris added a comment to the email from The Boss, and was about to hit the send button. That was the cowards way out. Standing up, Chris spoke loudly enough so that everyone could hear. “Just so everyone knows, I’m rearranging our normal Tuesday meeting next week. Instead, from half nine to half twelve, we’ll be in meeting room 2 for some training. It’s compulsory, we all need to go.”

Chris wasn’t quite sure how it happened, but it looked like a default decision to also attend, even though it wasn’t necessary.

“What’s the training?” asked Paul. “The Preservation of Paper Clips in the office” replied Chris.

Chris was right about one thing, it certainly wasn’t a universally popular training session.

“Seriously, how to save paper-clips. I’m taking leave,” said Jenny. “I’m surprised we have to do it, I really am.”

Chris started to think quickly. Chris was exempt, but would attend anyway. Should that be divulged, would it say “Look how good I am, because I’m going anyway?” Could be good, but was it really necessary? No, just set an example. Chris really wanted the team to go, and participate fully. It was an early test of management skills to achieve this. Chris had a vision that the team would be the most professional in the organisation, and having Jenny avoid it would certainly not showcase the team in a good light. But then again, nor would Jenny, and others, sitting in the training with arms and legs crossed, looking bored. Neither would reflect well.

Chris thought for a moment. It would be easy to stamp authority here, after all, it was what Chris was now paid to do. It was a risk, but Chris’ mouth opened even without realising. “I’ll tell you what, this is what we’re going to do” said Chris.

“Jenny, you want leave and that’s fine, but you will need to go to one of the mop up sessions given it’s compulsory. If none of you want to go, that’s fine, and good luck avoiding the mop ups. Just so you know, I’ve been told I don’t need to go, but I am going because I want people to realise how professional we are. I’m not convinced the trainer will enjoy doing the training because they will know our views, I don’t envy their job. But they have a job to do, and that is to present and train. And I want us to do our jobs, and that is being professional. Our job as the audience is to listen, learn and participate where appropriate. After all, you never know when that very last paper-clip may come in handy. What else will we play with, unfold and twiddle with in one of my more boring meetings?” said Chris, with a wry smile.

Chris had spent some time with a mentor just prior to taking the promotion, and realised that being professional was important. In fact, Chris had written as much in the leadership philosophy document prepared with the mentor. Sometimes this meant doing things they didn’t want to. But Chris had also written “Focus on what you control.”

Chris didn’t control the team, certainly didn’t control the behaviour. Actually, if they wanted to have a moan in the office amongst themselves, then that was fine. But outside of the office, that was a different matter. Although Chris could control whether the team went as the manager, Chris wanted to influence the behaviour and attitude.

We don’t control much in life, and certainly don’t control other people. Don’t try because it will frustrate you and them. Adjusting attitudes and behaviours, inspiring people, is something we can influence. That means leading.

An old Roman philosopher named Epictetus taught us that,  when he said “The chief task in life is simply this: to identify and separate matters so that I can say clearly to myself which are externals not under my control, and which have to do with the choices I actually control.”

How to Prepare for Disappointment

Preparing to be disappointed by people you work with is key to staying calm, but also to developing them for the future. Let me explain why.

You know when you’ve been looking forward to something for ages, and yet it fails to live up to your expectations. The only programme I ever watch on TV is Game of Thrones (no spoilers included). Series 8 comes along, and I was a bit disappointed with episodes 1 and 2. As much as I wanted to be excited about the prospect, there was a part in the back of my mind that was preparing to be disappointed with episode 3. I wasn’t disappointed, it absolutely exceeded my expectations, and I enjoyed it all the more because of it.

You would have experienced the same (not necessarily Game of Thrones), whether it was a meal, a holiday, a film, any experience that just didn’t live up to your expectations. But it also works in reverse. Something you are not expecting much from blows you out of the water, and because you weren’t expecting much, it was all the sweeter.

Well that’s kind of life in general. And people are no different.

“When you wake up in the morning, tell yourself: the people I deal with today will be meddling, ungrateful, arrogant, dishonest, jealous, and surly,” said Marcus Aurelius

People will let us down by not meeting our expectations. On rare occasions, people will do it deliberately, but in my experience, these are rare indeed. We live in different times, and the knife in the back faced by Marcus Aurelius is very different to the metaphorical one we face in in our workplace.

There are a whole number of reasons that people don’t meet our expectations, which leaves us feeling disappointed.  How does that impact on our relationship with them as their manager or leader? It is very difficult to hide disappointment, which is sometimes useful, often not. We are faced with choices everyday, and most of the time they have not met your expectations because they have made choices which were different to the ones you wanted them to.

The choices they make may be that they didn’t prioritise learning how to do a certain piece of work you wanted, or that they’ve prioritised going for a drink with someone they care about instead of working on something you wanted, or prioritised dealing with an increasing workload instead of customer X. All valid reasons at the time that they could probably try and justify. We face the same choices for those who lead and manage us, so this is not a “I’m better” scenario, we all face choices…and we all screw up.

Now here’s an important point, the ability to disappoint doesn’t just go up a workplace hierarchy. It includes peers, but as leaders, it also flows downwards. It is inevitable that you would have disappointed someone who you lead. I bet you can think of this without too much difficulty. I bet you can also justify it. Well, you can justify it to yourself maybe, but can you justify it to the person you disappointed? You see, it works both ways.

Marcus Aurelius wrote the quote above at the very beginning of Book 2 of Meditations. At the end of the first paragraph, he also says how important it is we still work together, without feeling anger.

“To obstruct each other is unnatural. To feel anger at someone, to turn your back on him: these are unnatural.”

Preparing to be disappointed is not a negative. It allows you to plan for events if you are disappointed, and to mitigate risk. It allows you to deal with the other person with more sincerity, with a greater understanding of what choices they made to create the disappointment. It makes for a far healthier conversation so that you can help guide their priorities for next time, so that the work is done in the way you needed. It also allows us to understand choices we made when we disappoint someone else…AND…how to remedy it for next time.

How do you deal with disappointment when you feel people let you down? Get in touch and let me know.

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Leadership Philosophy v Leadership Model

Photo by Yeshi Kangrang on Unsplash

What do these people have in common?

Presidents Roosevelt, Obama, and Washington, actress Anna Kendrick, musician LLCoolJ, authors JK Rowling, Robert Greene, Nassim Nicholas Taleb, entrepreneurs Ray Dalio (Bridgewater Associates), Jack Dorsey (Twitter), Tim Ferriss, Ryan Holiday, finally Arnold Schwarzenegger, Derren Brown, Marcus Aurelius and Shakespeare.

The answer is they all share a heavy influence from the ancient philosophy of Stoicism, perhaps the world’s original personal development system. When we consider this list, it is easy to see the truth of this quote…

“It is undoubtedly people with such a mindset as the Stoics, who will become the captains of industry, the most honest politicians, the wisest and the wealthiest in this material world…” Dr Gary Bannister

So influential is Stoicism today, many personal development advisors have used it as a foundation, knowingly or otherwise such as Steven Covey’s “7 Habits”, or much of the material published by Tony Robbins. The goal was to develop a sense of tranquillity (mindfulness), through developing our own wisdom, courage and fairness amongst other things. The philosophy challenged our perception of life and what we control (the creators of Cognitive Based Therapy were open about using Stoicism as a basis for CBT). In other words, all the things important for being an inspiring leader.

The word Stoicism has connotations of having a stiff upper lip with no emotion. In fact, it’s just the opposite. It encourages feeling all emotions, it’s a joy of being human, but being able to respond to them appropriately…much the same as modern mindfulness techniques teach us.

There is a world of difference between being a self-declared Stoic, and using Stoicism as a philosophy. Not only does using the philosophy help us as individuals, it can absolutely develop leaders and create more healthy organisations. I know, because I have used it in policing, and so have all the people above. Ray Dalio for example, runs Bridgewater with some very Stoic principles, the company now handles a portfolio worth over $130 billion.

I used it to achieve some of our performance goals, and when it came to customer service from our CID department, we achieved the best performance nationally, because we used this philosophy.

“A theory or attitude that acts as a guiding principle for behaviour.” Oxford Dictionary

Life is messy, and is likely to carry on getting even messier with how our lives are changing in and out of the workplace. For these reasons I am not a great fan of leadership or management “models.” Yes they have their use and be incredibly useful, but does any model stand the test of life? This is why developing a philosophy, a set of guiding principals by which we can develop our behaviour, is so much more useful.

It is up to us to create our own philosophy. For me, I see little benefit completely reinventing that wheel when I believe there are some perfectly good philosophies out there. I have chosen Stoicism, and have the task of developing that happy co-existence between the reality of my life, how I want my life to be, and the guidance offered by a philosophy that has stood the test of time. fffff

Self-Help. Three Reasons Why it Doesn’t Work

Raj Eiamworakul

I’m going to delve into a potentially dangerous territory here and tell you why you are wasting your time on personal development and self-help books, but also let you know what you can do about it. It’s a shallow dive into this world, because otherwise I’m in danger of writing a book rather than a single post.

A bit of background first though. Flicking through various websites this week, I stumbled across a small article that suggested that the self-help or personal development genre was growing significantly in terms of book sales. The suggestion is that self-help books sales rose by 20% last year in the UK alone, with this link in the Business Telegraph suggesting that many men are the customers in a #MeToo society. This is in a backdrop of an industry that is already worth over $1billion in the U.S. alone. But does the self-help / personal development industry really help us, and does it help us as leaders?

  1. We don’t know the problem we are trying to solve

It’s a fact, like it or not, there are very few truly enlightened individuals. For many of us mere mortals, we have blind spots when it comes to assessing our own personalities. It is human nature to tell ourselves little lies to justify our actions or flaws. So for example, when we look for a solution to poor time management, the reason behind this is really because we procrastinate. So the real problem to solve is identifying the biggest reason we procrastinate (perhaps fear or perfectionism), rather than managing time. Or when we look for a book on dealing with stress, we perhaps don’t consider too deeply into why we suffer with stress in the first place, that often being what we control and what we don’t, and how to accept what we don’t control.

2. We are lazy

Well, maybe not lazy exactly, but we do try and find the quickest way to a remedy involving the least amount of work. This leads us to try and find the “Holy Grail”, the one book that is going to give us all the answers, in a way that isn’t going to cause us pain or discomfort. Most of us have a damn good idea of what we need to do, but spectacularly fail to do it. I bet you could name three things straight away that you know you should do more of, or do less of, but for some reason don’t do it. If self-help books really helped, your list would be far harder to write.

3. We don’t commit

Because of reason number two, we don’t fully commit to what we read. We skim read in search for the answer, rather than dissecting what we could be learning and then applying it to our own circumstances. A former colleague of mine embedded Covey’s Seven Habits into his career, and there is no doubt it helped him incredibly. It wasn’t Covey per se that helped, it was having a clear structure that he could work to.

You must linger among a limited number of master-thinkers, and digest their works, if you would derive ideas which shall win firm hold in your mind.” Seneca

The Solution

Perhaps I’m being a bit unfair, personal development or self-help books can absolutely help us. As with anything else is life, there are some fantastic books containing superb advice, yet there are others which are only fit for putting under wonky table legs. The real problem as to why they don’t help lies within us as individuals. We don’t use the books as we should, we don’t dive deeply, and don’t take on board and commit to the learning.

So pick a book, it doesn’t need to provide all the answers you are looking for, but dive deeply. Pull all the learning you can and apply it, use it. It will develop the learning and implementing habits we need, and you will soon find that you can begin to apply your learning on a far wider spectrum.

“All the information in the world is a waste of time unless we apply the learning.” Me!

Undermining Our Own Trustworthiness

Have you ever sat in a meeting and discussed someone who wasn’t present? I bet it wasn’t all stuff you would say to their face. I know I have, and I know I have said things I most certainly wouldn’t have said to their face. I think we probably all have, but surely in a safe environment, with peers we can trust, this is OK isn’t it?

No, no it’s not OK. It’s not OK if we want to inspire others. Sure, people don’t find out (most of the time), but it’s what happens to our own beliefs that is really damaging to our trustworthiness.

A key part of being an inspirational leader is that we can be trusted. There are many aspects of being trusted, but one part is whether we actually “feel” we can be trusted. We all like to think we can be, but way down deep, we have the ability to undermine ourselves.

Here’s a hint to help us not only be trusted more, but also to feel better about ourselves, and know we can be trusted. We don’t make, or allow to be made, disparaging remarks about someone not present, without challenging them. This doesn’t mean you can’t say negative things…sometimes these must be said, as long it is truthful in your own eyes. As that great source of wisdom once said, “If you ain’t got nothing nice to say, then don’t say nothing at all.” (Thumper quoting his mother in Bambi in case you didn’t know.)

Here’s how it works. Something is said in a meeting. It might be about someone’s sickness record and a flippant remark is made by another manager. It could be about someone’s suitability for a job, or a generally negative comment about attitude, behaviour or ability. The question is whether that is truthful? If it is, then does the individual know, have we discussed this with them to try and help them improve, or do we just let it go? (And no…I’m not going to quote Disney again!)

We have a choice to make here. Do we do nothing, or do we do something with the right intention. To do nothing calls into question our own integrity, and this makes us feel uncomfortable, even if we aren’t entirely clear why. It is a thought that can sit at the back of our mind until next time we meet that individual spoken of, at which point it starts gnawing at you because you know deep down, that you haven’t acted in that individuals’ best interests. You haven’t challenged the remark if it wasn’t accurate, you didn’t accept responsibility for working with the individual to address the issue behind the remark, in fact you’ve done nothing. Why this is such a big deal is because you know you have damaged your own integrity, your own trustworthiness. If you know this, how can someone else trust you?

Whether we are aware of it or not, it also engenders mistrust amongst your peers. Think about it, if a peer is happy to make a disparaging remark about someone behind their back, why wouldn’t they do the same about you? And if you don’t challenge, or if you accept their remark, why could they trust you to have their back if ever a comment is made about them? It may only be an awareness to your subconscious, but I guarantee it is still there…somewhere.

Trust is about being truthful in the best way we can. I accept it is only ever the truth “as we see it,” but it is the best truth we can have right there and then. People expect us as leaders to have their backs, no matter the discomfort it may cause us. Being trusted isn’t easy, it isn’t about telling people what they want to hear.

A question to leave on for you to consider. Who do you see as a leader? Who inspires you? Who do you choose to follow either in your organisation or on a wider scale? What would you want, what would you expect, from that leader if they were ever to discuss your career prospects with other people? Would you expect honesty even if it wasn’t pretty, or would you expect that leader to accept a negative view without challenge or without discussing with you so that you can put things right?

“To be trusted is a greater compliment than being loved.”

George MacDonald