You don’t have to be a yes-person …

… but you don’t have to be a naysayer.

What do you do when a manager suggests a project that you have reservations about?

As we’ve discussed in an earlier post, it’s important for managers to create a culture where their reports don’t feel that they have to be yes-people. When you are the report, it’s also important not to be a yes-person, both for the organisation’s success and for your own feeling of self-worth.

Recently, though, we were discussing with a colleague the importance of using judgement in this situation. Sometimes, in avoiding being a yes-person, it’s easy to fall into the trap of becoming a naysayer. Have a look at the differences in attitude that these responses suggest, and the likely reception you will get from your manager:

Yes-person Naysayer What about …
Yes! What’s the point of this? I’d like a better understanding of the business imperatives for this project.
 Yes! I don’t have time for this. Can we look at resourcing to ensure we meet these timeframes?
Yes! Senior management won’t like this. I have some suggestions for issues you’re likely to encounter in getting management approval.
Yes! I don’t know how to do this. Can you work with me to coach me through this?
Yes! That’s not how we do things here. I think you are likely to encounter some resistance from our accounting and risk departments because historically we have taken another approach to this, which I can give you more information on if you’d like.

Our colleague had recently been leading a project with some very resistant team members. It was difficult to give their concerns full weight, because of the negative way in which they expressed these concerns. She didn’t want or expect yes-people, but the nay-saying was both unhelpful and uninformative. Even when the proposal was to take on additional team members to help with the workload, she was met with the response, “A new team member will just make more work for me”.

Executive Coach Exchange team feedback
Can you recast negative feedback to be more useful and informative?

With responses more like those in the third column – and note, these are not all positive responses – our colleague would have been better placed to address the concerns and make the project work for the team members as well as for senior management.

Our colleague remembered an occasion when she was just starting out, when she was surprised to hear a senior manager strongly recommending someone for a challenging role, despite explicitly recognising that the candidate wasn’t qualified: “She doesn’t have the skills or experience for the job,” he said, “but she’s an energy-giver not an energy-taker, and she’ll bring enthusiasm to the team.”

Our colleague said that after her recent experience, while still not sharing the view that enthusiasm trumps ability, she could understand how a manager could reach the point of wanting to be surrounded by positivity.

When you need to raise concerns or give feedback to management, it’s worthwhile thinking about the result you want to achieve.  You can be honest and forthright without being negative. When you are purely negative, without any suggestions for overcoming the issue, it can be tempting for management to disregard your opinions. If you are prepared to put the time and thought into answers more like those in the third column, this can benefit everyone involved, including the organisation as a whole.

An executive coach can help junior managers reframe their feedback to achieve a more positive outcome, and can help senior managers create a culture where staff feel more able to express their concerns in an informative and helpful way.

What to do when you don’t get along with your boss or a team member

Marg Lennon, Executive Coach
Marg Lennon, Executive Coach

Often, although we judge ourselves by our intentions, we judge others by their actions. How can we slow down enough to try and understand the intention behind other people’s actions, particularly when they upset or annoy us?

Jennifer Garvey Berger and Keith Johnson, in their book “Simple Habits for Complex Times”, encourage us to take multiple perspectives and to remember that, whatever others do, they tend to do it because they think it’s the right thing to do. They ask us to remember that, in real life, each of us is the hero in our own story. No matter how challenging or difficult someone else’s behaviour may seem to us, the odds are quite good that they might see their behaviour as perfectly reasonable, even heroic.

If we can accept this view, then it might cause us to ask ourselves about their motivations and the rationale for their behaviour. We might ask, “What might be going on for them that I didn’t know about?” or “How am I making sense of this?” and even, “Could I possibly be wrong?” By constructing a number of potential stories to help widen our perspective, we may find we improve our problem-solving ability and our relationships.

Contributor: Our current featured member, Marg Lennon, is an executive coach who provides coaching, mentoring and leadership development consultancy services to clients across a variety of industries, including Health, Financial Services, Insurance, Pharmaceutical, Mining, Telecommunications, Education, Architecture, Medical Devices and Public Relations. Marg’s measured approach and insight coupled with her innate ability to build rapport readily enable her to help others minimise risks, operate more strategically and gain critical perspectives to make significant positive changes.

Workplace bullying – interview with Philip Carroll – part 2

Last week we interviewed Philip Carroll about workplace bullying. He talked about what it is – and isn’t

This week, Philip shares his insights on preventing workplace bullying.

Executive Coach Exchange bullying
St George & the Dragon, Bernt Notke, Storkyrkan, Stockholm. Photo: C Burrows

To begin, Philip said, the leader needs to model the behaviour he or she wants to see and then require every single person in the workplace – not just the managers – to model the same behaviour. Fundamentally, he told us, it’s an issue of respect.

A leader must create a good culture within their organisation and follow through on that culture, irrespective of the size of the organisation. Philip says that you can’t assume workplace bullying won’t happen, even in small organisations, because it happens in real life.

Philip believes that organisations of every size can and should address the issue of bullying, though this would be done in different ways. The essence is for the leader to create, model and promote good cultural values.

The next thing to do is to recruit to that culture. Philip noted in last week’s interview how much bullying can cost an organisation. It has also been found that, “A mistake in the recruitment process that leads to an early employee resignation or dismissal can cost an employer between half and two-thirds of the employee’s annual salary.” This means that an organisation needs to set their culture and ensure their recruitment process is robust enough to allow them to appoint people who will support and promote that culture.

Once you have done this, he says, you need to manage to the culture. A leader can do this by:

  • Developing a behavioural standards framework;
  • Communicating that framework to all the employees;
  • Demonstrating that the leader knows the framework applies equally to them;
  • Ensuring new staff are made aware of the organisation’s behavioural standards framework;
  • Making the behavioural standards framework part of the contract of employment; and
  • Embedding the behavioural standards framework as part of every employee’s day-to-day workplace experience.

Philip says the next step is early intervention. Leaders and their managers should watch out for warning signs, such as general behaviours which are not aligned to the cultural values of the organisation; or poor behaviour in stressful situations. Philip says you should act early without over-reacting. “I’m a big believer in early, appropriate and proportionate intervention.” He notes that this doesn’t have to be a manager; a peer who sees things starting to go wrong can simply ask, “Are you OK?”

However, despite everyone’s best efforts, workplace bullying may still occur. We asked Philip what people should do.

He told us it’s essential for every workplace to have a procedure for managing workplace bullying. For a small organisation, it might be a very simple document while for a large corporation, it could be a set of workplace policies and procedures. The important thing here is that it is fit for purpose. If someone is subject to or aware of bullying, these procedures should be the first things they refer to, in order to find out what to do and who to go to. They should form part of the behavioural standards framework.

The next step, he believes, is to seek advice from an appropriate source and this kind of information should be in the procedure. Philip says places people can look to for advice might include:

  • A designated complaints handler within the organisation;
  • A respected, experienced colleague;
  • A union representative;
  • A member of the organisation’s human resources staff; or
  • An external expert.

People then need to make a careful and informed decision about what to do based on that advice, because the next step is often a formal investigation.

Philip believes workplace bullying is a high enough order issue to form an integral part of an employment relationship, so that a breach of the relationship may lead to dismissal.

He believes that, fundamentally, the key to addressing workplace bullying is to prevent it in the first place and the link here is to leadership. A leader who sets the right cultural values and follows through with these is far more likely to act swiftly and appropriately when bullying does happen and to lead a harmonious workplace where bullying scarcely, if ever, occurs.

Philip spoke to Catherine Burrows, a Sydney-based executive coach and our current featured member.

Workplace bullying – interview with Philip Carroll – part 1

Philip Carroll is the Founder and Principal of Philip Carroll and Associates. He has over 19 years’ senior executive experience in large and complex government businesses. He is also an experienced Non-Executive Director and Chair within international, commercial and not for profit organisations. Philip has extensive experience in People and Culture, Workplace Reform and Industrial Relations. We asked him to talk to us about an important current issue – workplace bullying.

Philip Carroll
Philip Carroll

To begin, we asked Philip to talk to us about what workplace bullying is. He told us that it is repeated, unreasonable and unwanted behaviour and that the concepts of its being both repeated and unreasonable are particularly important to the definition. Philip referred us to Safe Work Australia, which defines bullying in the following way:

“Workplace bullying is repeated and unreasonable behaviour directed towards a worker or group of workers that creates a risk to health and safety…because it may affect the mental and physical health of workers. … Bullying can take different forms including psychological, physical or even indirect — for example deliberately excluding someone from work-related activities.”

Philip said that while workplace bullying most commonly occurs when a more senior person bullies a less senior one, this is not always the case. Bullying can also occur between peers or when a less senior person bullies a more senior one, although he said the latter is much less common on account of the power imbalance which generally exists in this relationship. In Philip’s experience, freezing people out most commonly occurs between peers, while bullying by subordinates may take the form of vexatious complaints or aggressive attention-seeking behaviours. It’s important to remember these behaviours must be repeated and unreasonable to be bullying.

Philip does not believe that intention is critical to a definition of bullying, because the impact of abusive behaviour is the same, whether it is purposeful or not: “In my opinion, intent is a distraction,” he said.

We then asked him what bullying is not. He gave several examples of interactions between managers and their staff which may involve difficult conversations but which are not bullying. These include:

  • Setting someone’s KPIs and planning their work with them;
  • Discussing someone’s performance based on their established KPIs;
  • Discussing someone’s failure to meet their agreed KPIs or other targets; and
  • Raising an issue with someone.

Philip told us that all these activities are appropriate management activities, as long as they are undertaken in accordance with proper procedures.

He also said that while sexual harassment and discrimination may accompany or form part of bullying behaviours, they are not necessarily bullying. Rather, they are serious issues in their own right and are so serious that, unlike bullying, they do not need to be repeated behaviours. (We have added some links to sites where you can find out more about these important topics.)

We asked Philip to talk about the cost of bullying, from an organisational perspective. He mentioned:

  • Loss of productivity;
  • Loss of workers and the resulting cost of recruitment;
  • Legal costs;
  • Fines and other legal penalties; and
  • Payments to staff whose claims are accepted.

For example, Safe Work Australia reports a “…$22,600 median cost for accepted bullying and/or harassment claims in 2013-14”; while the Australian Human Rights Commission states, “A recent impact and cost assessment calculated that workplace bullying costs Australian employers between $6–$36 billion dollars every year when hidden and lost opportunity costs are considered.”

He then spoke about the impact on individuals, linking it back to Safe Work Australia, which says:

“Workplace bullying can seriously harm worker mental health with depression, psychological distress and emotional exhaustion common outcomes for bullied workers.”

Philip believes that workplace bullying can have a significant negative impact on an individual, the people around them and the whole organisation. He has himself been asked to investigate allegations of bullying and has noted the cost on everyone involved. He said, “If you get to the point of a formal investigation, everybody loses. That’s why I believe that prevention really is the key to addressing bullying.”

Philip spoke to Catherine Burrows. Next week, Philip talks to us about preventing bullying and what to do if occurs.

We’re on holidays

Executive Coach Exchange beachThis year we’ve seen some great discussions about the importance of time off. From this terrific response to a request for mental health leave to this examination of how constant availability damages productivity it’s been great to see focus on this issue.

And for those of us who like data, here is a data-driven case for annual leave.

With this in mind, we’ll be back in touch in February.

Narrating our colleagues positively

We recently came across this interesting article by Jane E Dutton and Julia Lee, “The Benefits of Saying Nice Things About Your Colleagues”.

The authors make a great case for positively “narrating” our colleagues, saying that “the stories we hear from others that highlight our unique contributions can help us find purpose in our relationships with our colleagues and our work”.

Executive Coach Exchange narratives gellinger pixabay
The authors of this interesting article make a strong case for positive narration of our colleagues.

They suggest four key opportunities to tell positive stories about our colleagues:

  • first impressions – introducing new team members in a way that builds connections as soon as they start in the team,
  • new projects – highlighting the value that each team member brings to a project in initial project team introductions,
  • when a colleague is undermined – using this opportunity to reinforce the colleague’s value in the organisation, and
  • endings and exits – creating meaning when a colleague resigns or is made redundant, by sharing positive stories about the colleague’s contribution.

The authors provide a particularly powerful example of using positive narration when a colleague is undermined, in the story of “Sasha” and “Svetlana”, two new managers who found it difficult to have their voices heard in a male-dominated work team. The article reports, “They decided to publicly support each other and others whose voices were often not heard. For example, when Svetlana proposed a new plan to reduce costs, Sasha followed up by repeating and elaborating on Svetlana’s idea, giving full credit to Svetlana. … These actions shifted the way each manager saw themselves …”

In relation to endings and exits, the authors explain that sharing positive stories can extend beyond the immediate team, to potential new workplaces for the former colleague. The authors give the example of “Sipho”, whose colleagues were encouraged to contribute positive stories about his contribution, and then found that this prompted and empowered them to recommend him to new employers.

As well as the practical support for the individual in a situation like this, the positive narrative approach can help to maintain a connection as the colleague moves to the next opportunity. The approach also mitigates some of the potential damage to relationships between the remaining team members, creating a better outcome overall for the team than can be the case when a departing colleague is ushered straight out the door.

We all have examples of the damage done by dismissive or negative stories about colleagues in the workplace. This article makes an excellent case for taking an intentional, positive approach to workplace narratives.


When to speak up – and when not to

How do you know when to speak up? How do you know when it’s better not to? What are the rules?

Photo: Dawn Arlotta

This is an issue many of our clients seem to wrestle with. It’s often difficult to speak up when you know something others don’t. Here is a step-by-step guide to speaking up.

  1. What’s the context?

The time that people find most difficult to speak up is in a meeting, especially when it’s the boss who has got something wrong. In this situation, ask yourself these questions:

  • How critical is it for me to speak?
  • Do I need to speak now?
  • What are the consequences if I don’t speak?

If you know something important that other people don’t, and the consequences are serious for others if you don’t tell them, you need to speak up.

However, you also need to judge the situation.  If you are about to tell your boss, in public, that they are mistaken, you need to use strong politeness markers.

Depending on the people involved and your personal style, you can signal that you are not being deliberately confrontational, aggressive or offensive with introductions like:

  • “I recently learned that …”
  • “You may already be aware that …”
  • “I’ve just received new/additional information on this issue”, or even
  • “Could you let us know your opinion on this opposing view?”

However, balance this with the fact that if it’s important enough to speak up, then you should try to ensure your message is delivered with confidence, and isn’t lost in too much deference.

  1. Is it essential you speak right now?

If it’s not urgent, find a time later to talk to the person who had the wrong information. Politely let them know you have been given different or perhaps more recent information. Offer to check which of you is correct and update the person later. Try to find out where the other person got their information and be prepared to be wrong.

  1. Is it important?

Sometimes someone is wrong but it’s not important. You need to use your judgement here. If there is no risk and no serious consequences, sometimes it’s best to let it go. Don’t let this become an excuse for never speaking up, however.

  1. Is it personal?

If someone has said something personal, it’s best wherever possible to talk to them later. You are the only person who can judge whether you need to speak to them and when. If you find it’s impeding your relationship, you should seriously consider speaking to them. You may be surprised at how often people are apologetic and upset to find their words were hurtful.

  1. Does it always have to be you?

Observe carefully how other people in the team act in these situations, especially more experienced team members. Are you the only one who ever speaks up? If so, ask yourself why no-one else is prepared to speak. Consider other ways to get your information across.

  1. How can I avoid this situation in the first place?

If you are the subject matter expert, for example in HR, legal or finance, offer to find out the latest information in advance and prepare some notes for your boss for future meetings. A good boss will be glad of the offer of assistance and pleased with your initiative.

Speaking up needn’t be scary. If you learn when to speak and how to speak up politely but firmly, you will gain a reputation as a subject matter expert, a trusted authority and a good communicator.

Multi-tasking and busyness – just how efficient are you really?

Two opposing ideas are dominating the discourse about work and, indeed, about life too. The first applauds multi-tasking and admires people who seem able to do many things at once. The second tells people to live in the present. As Maya Angelou says, “Be present in all things and thankful for all things.”

Executive Coach Exchange multitasking catherine burrows
“I did things I did not understand for reasons I could not begin to explain just to be in motion, to be trying to do something …” – Dorothy Allison, Trash: Stories. Photo: Catherine Burrows

We read sensible, helpful articles which give people strategies to manage their emails efficiently, including by only looking at them a few times a day, and promoting the idea of not starting your day with emails but by “eating the frog” of your most difficult and important task.

Then we hear about people whose managers require them to respond to their emails instantly, and be logged onto instant messaging, at all hours. How can a person manage this without multitasking? And what is the cost?

Lisa Quast cites research which found only two per cent of the population are exceptional multi-taskers.

The implication of this, of course, is that the rest of us – 98% –  are not good multitaskers. This won’t surprise anyone who has sat behind someone texting at a green traffic light. In fact, David Strayer’s research showed, “Outside the lab…the multitasking deficit held steady. When Strayer and his colleagues observed fifty-six thousand drivers approaching an intersection, they found that those on their cell phones were more than twice as likely to fail to heed the stop signs,” as Maria Konnikova reports.

What about in the workplace? It turns out that multi-tasking can reduce productivity by as much as 40%.

David Sbarra has described how he trained himself to be less busy. He realised he had become “…a robot, programmed to obliterate my to-do list…” “addicted to busyness”. He decided that “To get more out of life — more meaning, more joie de vivre — I needed to start doing less and to become more conscious about my choices.”

His strategies were amazingly simple. He started by being outside and walking more. Next, he tried valuing idleness, left Facebook and got “serious about laughing more”. Finally, he focused on the value of friendships. While it’s a work in progress, he says the result is, “I am feeling better than I have in a long time — more deliberate in the choices I make, more connected to the people around me, and more energized for the demands of the day. The surprising irony here, for me at least, is that by doing less, I am getting way more out life.”

Working with an executive coach can help you to overcome mindless multitasking. A coach can help you identify those tasks you are doing from a sense of busyness rather than necessity. A coach can help you build strategies to focus on what’s important. Finally, if you need to have a difficult conversation with your manager about improving your productivity by not answering every email as soon as it is sent, an executive coach can help with this too.

Taming a toxic workplace

Executive Coach Exchange tiger gailrubin pixabayHere is a very useful and sensible article by Kate L. Harrison, referencing Anna Conrad’s work on ways to operate better in a toxic workplace environment. Ms Conrad has six suggestions.

  •  The first is to look inwards, to see whether you are yourself contributing to the situation.
  • The second is to separate the things you objectively know to be true from those you only believe to be the case.
  • The third is not to add to the toxicity by venting.
  • The fourth is to “remember it’s just a job”: Ms Conrad suggests people “Focus on the fun stuff and work and (not) …get too invested in the interpersonal dynamics.”
  • The fifth is to be an anthropologist and observe the situation, which will allow you to “step back from negativity.”
  • Finally, she recommends people learn from the experience.  Ms Conrad suggests a post mortem at the end of the week – brainstorm on what worked, what didn’t work, how to improve – and not who is at fault.

Ms Conrad makes the important distinction between being harassed, discriminated against or bullied, when she says people should seek help, for example from a senior manager or a lawyer, and what she calls “run-of-the-mill pettiness”. In the latter case, she feels a change of mindset can change how you react to the situation and improve your life at work.

Executive coach? Join us.