Sunday, April 29, 2012


I was talking to some coaches I know recently about their work in business and life coaching. They all felt that a large percentage of the value they give their clients is simply in being someone prepared to listen. They offer a neutral and impartial circumstance – where people can air their feelings, and explore issues. This process alone – being able to talk things out – may often be all that the person needs to find fresh perspective and insight. It’s a truth that psychologists and counsellors know well also.

Of course there’s a skill and experience that these professionals bring in being able to guide a person towards insight and next steps, but the fact remains that somehow in this world we’ve professionalised listening – and that some professionals have assumed roles that in other times or cultures may have been taken by family members or friends.

Being able to talk openly is essential to our well being. We all need the time and space to express and explore feelings, worries, concerns, aspirations, hopes and difficulties. To do so we need someone whom we can trust, someone who won’t react or bring their bias, and someone not directly involved in what it is we may want to talk about. It’s what friends should be for.

Being prepared to listen is one of the most important things friends can do for each other. So the advice for improving your work-life balance and reducing stress is don’t go it alone. Find a friend with whom you can talk things over.  Make sure to set an understanding first though about confidentiality and trust. It can be a mutual pact – a friend who is prepare to listen to your ramblings as you seek to find clarity and to whom you can offer the same in return.

Mission I'm Possible

A play on words perhaps, but how is it that some people think that the world abounds with possibilities and others look for barriers? Of course the law of probability will show that not everything is possible but there has to be something in the much quoted Henry Ford mantra “Whether you think you can or whether you think you can’t – you are right.”

Developing a can-do mindset can be a scary road for some people – “what if I fail?”, “what if I don’t have what it takes?”, “what if people laugh at me?” are commonly asked questions when people face challenges. The obvious reframe is that if you don’t give it a go, then you will never know! If “can’t do” becomes a repeated pattern of behaviour then you will continually spend your life within your comfort zone – and maybe worse, become stale, complacent and ultimately dissatisfied.

So how can you adopt a “have a go” attitude? Here are some ideas

1: Consciously challenge the voice in your head that urges caution – listen to it, is it keeping you safe or is it holding you back?

2: Look upon challenges as learning opportunities – so what if you don’t achieve perfection, at least you have learned something in the process. Every successful person has hit setbacks along the way

3: Realise that you have a choice – you can choose to have a go, or not. And in so doing, recognise that you are responsible for your own choices, no one else can make them for you

4: Take on the challenge with gusto! If you are going to have a go, then do so whole heartedly and give it 100%

As the American essayist Ralph Waldo Emerson says: "What lies behind us and what lies before us are tiny matters compared to what lies within us". So change the mindset of impossible to I’m possible. That small change could be so liberating.

Friday, April 27, 2012

Performance reviews - It's not just about what you say

Performance reviews are a management ritual that everyone dreads.

And now, according to Daniel Goleman (Emotional Intelligence author), brain science shows that the way in which that review gets delivered can directly impact an employee’s response and, consequently, their ability to do anything constructive with that feedback.

The neuroscientist, Richard Davidson at the University of Wisconsin, has found that when we’re in an upbeat, optimistic, I-can-handle-anything frame of mind, energized and enthusiastic about our goals, our brains turn up the activity in an area on the left side, just behind the forehead. That’s the brain state where we are at our best.

But when we’re feeling down, with low energy and zero motivation, even anxious, our brain has turned up the volume on the right side and that is the side where we are least productive and energised.

Performance feedback that focuses on what’s wrong with us puts this downer brain area on overdrive. We’re so preoccupied with the bad news (and our thoughts that this means we’ll be fired) that we just don’t have the energy or can’t focus on working at our best.

Not only that, but how you deliver the message has a huge impact on how it’s received. In one study, when people got positive performance feedback that was delivered in a negative, cold tone of voice, they came out of the session feeling down–despite the good news. Amazingly, when negative feedback came in a warm, positive tone of voice, they felt upbeat and energized.

Of course, any manager should be giving staff performance feedback as a matter of routine. But too many are poor at giving feedback. The problem here takes two forms: being hyper-critical and focusing only on what’s wrong without balancing it with what’s right, or undermining even positive feedback with a negative tone of voice.

In theory, well delivered performance feedback improves our performance, setting us on the right track. Such feedback is best given on the spot (not months later in a formal review), and with a sense of trust and openness between the giver and receiver.

One of the most effective feedback styles is:

When you do X (action) it has the impact of Y with the consequence of Z.

For instance,

When you habitually turn up late for meetings (action) it gives the impression that you don’t care about wasting the time of your colleagues (impact) and consequently they don’t want to work with you (consequence)

But now, according to Daniel Goleman and Davidson, you not only have to master giving feedback effectively, you also have to remember to try to deliver it in as positive, upbeat way as possible.

Monday, April 02, 2012

Leaving work behind

A skill that everyone needs to achieve successful work-life balance is to be able to fully switch off your mind from work when enjoying your hard earned family and leisure time. Having work issues and ideas play through your mind in the evenings and weekends is a common experience for many executives, so why does it happen and how can a person learn to mentally close the door on work when they leave the office?
The reason it happens is that our emotions like completions. Unfinished or unresolved business, strategic issues, business uncertainties and open issues by their very nature don’t complete in a day – and can create a symptom of overrun where a person finds it harder to switch-off.
Interestingly surveys report that amongst the most stress free professions are those where there is a definite opening and closing to a day’s work – like a machine tool engineer who sets up the machine to begin and closes down and cleans it at the end of the day. 
Good time- and self-management practices can emulate this closing-off process. Taking the time each day or week to note what you have achieved and completed not only gives a psychological boost, it also gives the satisfaction of completion that our emotional life needs. For open issues making a note of any progress and telling yourself you don’t need to think about them again until you return to work is also a vital self-training. Another practice that works well for many is to finish the week with an empty email inbox. You may have longer-term issues of course, but an empty inbox has a definite satisfaction. 
And lastly, for those that work at home – try not to leave work related papers and files out around the house or home office – every time you see them it will remind you of something!