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The times they are a-changing – how did you go with your New Year resolutions?

A quick Google search reveals countless polls showing high failure rates for New Year resolutions. The actual percentages quoted vary but they all make grim reading.

Bob Dylan

If you’re still on track with yours, well done. If not what went wrong?

Making resolutions, like making any other change in your life will have a much better chance of success if you not only have a genuine desire to make the change but also a compelling reason to do so. And even when your intent is firmly set, you then need a specific plan to bring the change to fruition and the commitment to see it through. Oh, and having a support network in place can really make the difference when the going gets tough.

If you’re serious about making change in your professional or personal life, it’s helpful to stop thinking about ‘resolutions’ (which, lets be honest, can be tainted by alcohol induced bravado or guilt after that extra serve of Christmas pud!) and start thinking in the sober terms of goals and objectives.

The acronym ‘SMART’ (that is Specific, Measurable, Actionable, Results-orientated and Time bound) has been around for years but it’s a really useful little tool for making you think about exactly what it is you’re aiming to achieve.  A well articulated goal is the first step to making any change stick.

To explain what I mean by ‘well articulated’ I’ll share one of my New Year goals. As I’ve undoubtedly mentioned before I’m passionate about music, particularly composing and recording my own work. Last year I was disappointed with myself that I only wrote instrumental music rather than songs with lyrics. Not being a brilliant singer has been my perennial excuse but hey that never stopped Bob Dylan!

This year it’s going to be different, so I’ve set myself a goal around writing songs. Here it is…

“I will write and record a minimum of 4 songs (to at least a ‘demo’ standard) and post them on my MySpace music webpage by 31 March 2011.

Using the SMART tool to check my goal is clear…

  • It is Specific and Results-oriented – it says exactly what I’m going to do and achieve.
  • It is Measurable and Time bound – it’s quantifiable and there’s a firm deadline to it.
  • I know it’s a stretch but it is Achievable – I have a number of half completed songs that just need a concerted effort to complete with simple acoustic arrangements (Dylan’esque of course).

I’m motivated and committed. I have a reason (I need to work with words and melody to be a better musician) and I have support to keep me focused. Next step is to make the plan to make sure I’m aware of all the steps to hit my goal on time.  And of course making a public commitment works wonders on focusing me on the goal at hand!

It’s a well-worn cliché that change is never easy, but a clear goal is great start to get those times a-changing.


When it comes to listening big ears just aren’t enough

Chester (author's dog) attentively listening for signs of a snack

Can you remember a time when you had a conversation with a colleague and you left the room thinking one thing, but later discover that the other person took something completely different from the same conversation? (BTW my wife claims to have many examples involving me and conversations about jobs to be done around the house!)

Similarly, have you been talking to a colleague but sensed that they were not really listening?

Listening is a core skill to being effective at work. How good you are at listening has a big impact on the quality of your relationships with your boss, colleagues and your team. As well as avoiding misunderstandings, being a good listener enhances your ability to build new relationships, influence and lead others.

So where does listening go wrong?

The issue invariably lies with where our attention is when we’re listening.  We can only really listen to one thing at a time.

Our attention is either turned outward and on the person we’re talking to, or inward on our own thoughts and concerns. Whenever our attention turns in and we start thinking, judging, dismissing or leaping to conclusions about what’s being said rather than actually listening – that’s where the problem starts.

Despite being a ‘natural skill’ listening isn’t easy. The way we listen to others tends to be habitual, and like many habits it takes practice to change and improve. And to be honest, listening is something we could all be better at!

Active listening is the term given to a technique where you make a conscious decision to not only listen to the words being spoken but also to understand what is being said. This means you need to:

  • Give 100% of your attention – Keep comfortable eye contact, ignore environmental distractions, watch and listen for the non-verbal communication cues as well as the words.
  • Demonstrate you have heard – Provide your own non-verbal cues such as nodding, smiling and keeping an open and inviting posture. Also give small verbal cues such ‘yes’ or ‘okay’.
  • Feedback and reflect back what has been said – To make sure you’ve heard correctly, paraphrase and summarise what has been said and ask for confirmation that you have the message straight – even with the best intention our personal filters and assumptions can add distortions.
  • Clarify any areas of ambiguity – Questions such as ‘When you say … does this mean …’ can flush out where understanding may differ.

Give it try and let me know how you get on.

Find feedback a little uncomfortable to swallow?

Photo by Stuart Canham

Following on my last post (Got the performance review blues?) I thought I’d share a few thoughts on the related topic of giving constructive feedback.

Constructive feedback helps us to understand how we’re tracking in a particular role or task. It helps us to understand what is going well and what could be improved next time. Without feedback our capacity to learn, or influence team members’ learning, is slow.

However, in a work situation feedback conversations can be an uncomfortable experience, irrespective of whether you are giving or receiving the feedback. Managers frequently cite a fear of conflict and lack of appropriate skills when explaining their reluctance to engage and provide constructive feedback to team members.

Fortunately, there are some basic principles to help shape and guide constructive feedback conversations towards a positive outcome for all.

Constructive feedback conversations should:

  • Focus on behaviour not the individual. Feedback should always be referenced to something the person does or says not an aspect of their personality.
  • Be prompt. Provide feedback straightaway while the facts are fresh in everyone’s mind, but be mindful to choose a private, yet informal environment to have the conversation.
  • Be specific. Focus feedback on actual observation and explain precisely why the action or behavior is a problem. Be descriptive not judgmental.
  • Providing positive reinforcement of actions and behavior that are delivering results.
  • Encourage the sharing of ideas and explore alternatives rather than give advice. Help team members find a better way.

  • Be regular. The more frequently you have performance conversations the more likely they’ll become a natural and constructive aspect of day-to-day team relations.

Constructive feedback isn’t so hard to swallow is it?  So why not put it into practice and have that conversation today!

Got the performance review blues?

Ever had a disappointing performance review?

Did it come as a complete shock and surprise to you? You thought you were doing a great job but come discussion time the conversation didn’t go as expected.  I’m sure we’ve all been there at some point. It’s an utterly demoralising and de-motivating experience.

It’s also a largely avoidable experience.

To understand how to avoid it we first need to understand why it happens. Work is a complicated business these days – matrix reporting lines, multiple stakeholders and interests, competing priorities and ‘dealing with ambiguity’ are the norm rather than the exception. No wonder your own idea of what comprises a ‘great job’ may not match up to your boss’s view.

So is it possible to make sure that you and your boss (or bosses) have the same notion of what defines a job well done? Well hopefully yes!  And, as is so frequently the case, it comes down to communication.

To avoid the performance review blues all parties must have a common understanding of what a great job looks like. To get to this it’s down to you to ask …

“Boss, for you to give me a top rating performance review, what do you need to see from me?”

The more precisely you can get your boss to articulate this, the better understanding you’ll have of what a great job actually looks like. And you’ll have the same understanding as your boss. Don’t forget to document it and check-in regularly to ensure it hasn’t changed.

As I alluded to earlier, very few of us only have one person assessing our success at performance review time. Where other stakeholders are also involved you also need to have a similar conversation with them and feed this into your objectives and measures of success for the year too.

As a bonus, conversations like this should strengthen engagement with your stakeholders and also flush out any unrealistic expectations of what your job is about or able to deliver.

PS.  Bosses… don’t wait to be asked!

Communication – the secret sauce of engagement

Being a line manager isn’t easy

Not only do you need to excel in your specific area of expertise, there are typically a whole raft of other challenges and targets you are held to account for – all with limited time and resource.

In many organisations, an annual engagement survey to measure the extent to which employees are motivated to contribute can further add to the stress of managing a team.  No line manager wants to be labeled the ‘manager of a poorly engaged team’. And rightly so.

But a manager’s role is key to a productive team

While many factors impact on engagement scores (for example, how well the company is performing against competitors or how popular recently introduced policies and procedures are),  research consistently indicates that it is an employee’s direct manager that has the most influence over the contribution an employee makes. Engaged employees are more productive employees.

So how do you get a highly engaged team?

This is easier said than done particularly when many managers report feeling ill equipped with the skills required to have meaningful conversations and to inspire and motivate their teams.

…add the secret sauce – Communication

Improving manager capability through targeted improvement in communication skills is hugely beneficial, but good intent and an understanding of the basic communication needs of your team is a good place to start.

A framework for conversations with team members

Roger D’Aprix, a leading authority on business communication and author of Communicating for Change, devised an easy to understand model that provides a practical framework for managers to understand what conversations they need to be having with their team members.

Figure 1.  Manager communication model by Roger D’Aprix

The model identifies six ‘communication needs’. The first three focus on ‘individual’s needs’ (What’s my job? How am I doing? and Does anybody care?) that have to be met before the ‘organisational needs’ (How is my unit doing? and Where are we heading?) can be absorbed and only then is an employee finally ready to go above and beyond with How can I help?

I’ll be revisiting elements of this framework in more detail in future posts. But for the moment, planning for conversations with individuals and the team around these six broad headings is an excellent foundation for improving engagement and productivity.

So for a full flavoured, wholesome and satisfying engagement score… add lashings of secret sauce!!

Monsieur Hulot – a modern day leadership guru?

Leadership Guru?

The late Jacques Tati, French comic actor, film director and creator of the bumbling Monsieur Hulot, was a master of comedy, mime and, in my view, communication.

And the connection to leadership?

Well…in today’s business world a lot of effort goes into getting the words of any staff message from leadership right. Professional communicators may be called on to ‘wordsmith’ messages to capture the finer nuances of what is to be communicated.

While this approach is likely to result in a well articulated message, words only get you so far in getting your message across.

As a filmmaker Tati used minimal dialogue. He relied on tightly orchestrated visual jokes, facial expression and gestures to get his message across.

Academic studies consistently indicate that only a small proportion of communication is attributed to what is said, a far great proportion is attributed to non-verbal factors actions such as facial expressions, tone of voice, eye contact, touch, position and gestures.

What this means as a leader is that in addition to being precise with the words you’re saying, you need to be aware of what messages you are communicating non-verbally.

If your ‘words’ are saying one thing but all your non-verbal cues are saying something else, the effectiveness of your communication is compromised. And when push comes to shove, people tend to believe the non-verbal over the verbal.

The way you look, listen, move and react sends messages to your audience about how much you care about them and how well you’re listening. The non-verbal cues you send out will generate either a sense of interest and trust or fuel disinterest and mistrust.

Mastering non-verbal communication skills will help you be able to:

  • ‘Read’ others – understand how they feel about what it is you’re saying
  • Match your verbal and non-verbal messages to create trust and transparency with your audience, and
  • Respond with non verbal cues that demonstrate that you’re listening, understand and care.

So how do you use non-verbal communication successfully?

A quick internet search will identify many texts available to help you understand and identify the various aspects of non-verbal communication, but at its core, it requires a commitment to concentrate and be in the moment – to be aware of your own state and what is happening around you.

While Jacques Tati undoubtedly understood this, sadly the same can’t be said of Monsieur Hulot!

And what else?

And what else?’ is one of the most powerful phrases I know.

Simple as thought it appears, this phrase is central to unleashing potential and opening up your thinking to new pathways and options in life.

Once you personally are aware of a limiting situation or attitude, the longer the list of potential actions you can take to address it, the more choice and power you have over it. This little phrase is worth its weight in gold to help you.

When confronted with a problem or challenge, most of us can usually come up with a list of possible options to reach a solution. We often look to the past for inspiration or ask a more experienced colleague how they would act if placed in a similar situation.

While this approach may provide a workable solution, being ‘told’ the answer never has the same gravity or impact as coming to a realisation yourself. Others’ views and opinions come cheaply.

And this is where ‘And what else?’ comes in.

Once you think you have exhausted all your options, I challenge you to think up just a couple more. Being challenged to dig deeper forces you into creative space – the obvious and conventional routes are already covered. It’s time to throw away the rule book and ‘it’ll never work’ negative thoughts and just see what develops. You’ll be surprised!

Today’s world demands an innovative approach. How many times have you been told to ‘think outside the square’? But how?

Thinking ‘And what else?’ forces you outside the square – to stop and look afresh.

Try it.