“Just tell me what to do!” Communicating your certainty about uncertainty

We can easily understand that those who look to us for leadership want us to offer clarity, just as we ourselves seek it from our seniors. In years gone by practices such as ‘management by objectives’ were intended to help leaders describe outcomes in concrete language. Similarly we’ve expected that the leaders in the organisation will create strategy and communicate it clearly to the followers, who will then implement it. Such views still permeate much leadership thinking and literature, and in many situations they still offer value. And yet for many today these ideas feel like a relic of a bygone age; one that was more stable, simpler, slower-moving, with far fewer interconnections.

Writing brilliantly about how to lead in a VUCA (volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous) world, Jennifer Garvey-Berger and Keith Johnstone offer guidance for “communicating your certainty about uncertainty”. They helpfully draw on a case study in which the director of a cash-strapped Family and Children’s Services department must lead her team to reduce incidents of harm coming to children in the community. The breadth and complexity of the situation defies simple explanations or solutions. Much as her team would like her to provide a clear plan of action, (who wouldn’t?), this would be futile as she cannot possibly have the answers.

“Instead of tightening the reins and controlling what others do, leaders in this space need to loosen up and enable others to find a helpful path through the unknown. This means that not just the outcome of the strategy, but the process of building ideas together during complexity becomes a key shared resource.” (p. 149)

So instead of offering answers, leadership in complex times requires that we are clear about both the direction we’re headed, and the questions that we collectively must address. Rather than, “this is how we will reach our destination”, we need to communicate “this is what we need to understand more clearly …. in order to know how to get to our destination”. More than ever, leaders need to be challenging their people with the questions that will nurture new understanding; encouraging what Garvey-Berger and Johnstone call ‘safe-to-fail’ experiments that will stimulate new learning, while providing the necessary boundaries or ‘guide-rails’ to maintain focus and a sense of safety.

Such an approach also needs to be adopted in the context of performance management. Objective-setting should be used to measure progress in learning and understanding, and not simply used to describe outcomes – over which most of us have limited control anyway! For example I’m astonished at how many school teachers are only ever targeted on outcomes (“a certain number of children achieving a certain grade”), rather than on their own learning and experimentation with the effectiveness of different teaching strategies. Schools are one place we might expect an appetite for learning!

Perhaps it’s natural that we tend to resist the discomfort of this, of being asked to be part of the process of creating strategy, not simply executing it; of engaging with complexity and questions, rather than looking to others for answers. Indeed there is evidence that the brain actively avoids anything that may feel unclear, that we tend to block out any data we find confusing.

And yet most importantly, competitive advantage, whether in children’s services, education or in business, depends increasingly on the ability of leaders to help others to learn and experiment rather than simply execute. The challenge for leaders is to be able to resist the pressure of closing down on options too quickly, to maintain an approach characterised by curiosity, to clarify the questions that need to be addressed, to pay attention to the data, and then to help the organisation respond in the light of what is discovered.

Garvey-Berger, J and Johnstone, K (2015): Simple Habits for Complex Times; Stanford University Press
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Why many of us lack any ‘vision’ for our lives? Happy New Year!

I am currently reviewing a friend’s new book, and I was struck by the internal resistance I experienced while doing one particular exercise. He asks the reader a number of questions to help them to create a personal vision, including the following:

  • What do you want your overall lifestyle to be like in 3 – 5 years’ time?
  • What do you want your work and broader life to look and feel like in 3 – 5 years’ time?

I found myself wanting to move on and ignore the questions, or simply to pay lip service to them. What was going on? Surely somebody like me who asks other people questions like these for a living should have no difficulty with them? And yet I did.

While it’s natural for us to want our lives to be different, and to feel dissatisfied with our current lot, it’s curious how uncomfortable it can be taking time to create a clear picture of a desired future. Thinking about possible reasons why I (and I assume others) experience such a strong avoidance to creating a personal ‘vision’, I came up with the following:

  1. If I have a ‘vision’ of the future, I’ll have to do actually start doing things differently, change my ingrained behaviours, and in truth I really don’t want to do that!
  2. It’s very likely that in the first instance I won’t know how to achieve my vision. I’ll feel rather confused, which is a feeling I’d much rather avoid!
  3. If I start to think about having a different lifestyle … and then I fail to make progress towards it …. well, it would surely have been better not to have thought about it in the first place!

So if I, or my clients, are to ever bring about change, it strikes me that an important first step is to take a few moments to acknowledge our (their) hesitation or reluctance. Our avoidance serves a purpose and should not be lightly dismissed. The chances are that if we ignore these uncomfortable emotional reactions, they will ‘go underground’ as it were and do even more to hijack our good intentions.

So at this time of New Year, I suggest we acknowledge our Old Friend, we notice how Avoidance has served its role well in protecting us from disappointment and discomfort. Let’s honour Avoidance’s role, and then thoughtfully and with great compassion for ourselves, get on with the task of developing our vision for a different future.

Happy New Year!

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Caught in behaviour that is hard to change

Conventional training holds out the promise of becoming more effective as a manager, leader and communicator. And yet it can fail to deliver long-term behavioural change if it ignores the hidden and seemingly ‘hard-wired’ patterns of thinking and feeling that run counter to the sought-after change. While many folks come to courses expressing a strong wish to improve their time-management or delegation skills for example, when it comes to it they often discover that it is just not that easy. The new skills make perfect sense, and yet applying them in practice is difficult, and it’s not clear to the individual why this is so.

These hidden patterns of thought and behaviour that run counter to change are described by Kegan and Lahey as competing commitments. By taking the time and care to unearth them, give them expression, and understand how they may have been of service in the past, it is possible to start gently shifting them, and creating the space for real change. However, if I ignore these opposing patterns, I am not only failing to serve the individual, I could even be accused of acting unethically, albeit while acting with some benevolence perhaps!

As an example I sometimes work with people with an expressed development need to provide greater authority and direction in their leadership. For some folks, the possibility of developing this is inhibited by what we could call a commitment, albeit a relatively hidden and emotionally-driven one, to be liked by their staff. With deeper exploration it may transpire that underneath their need to remain liked, is a ‘Big Assumption’ that if they were not liked they would in fact be a terrible person. With this hidden belief lurking in the shadows, it’s clear why they would avoid at all costs any behaviour that would put their being liked at risk. While they might be prepared to practice delivering a tough message to a colleague during a role-play on a training course, when it comes to putting it into practice for real, that’s another matter!

Don’t get me wrong; I’m not saying that skills training serves no useful purpose. It clearly does, especially in bringing a common understanding and experience to a large audience. What’s important is to be realistic about change and to allow for the fact that it may take deeper one-to-one coaching to bring about some lasting behavioural changes.

In his book Taming Your Gremlin, Rick Carson describes the so-called Zen Theory of Change. It’s a great description of the challenge of change – especially in relation to those development areas where people are struggling. While the language may sound esoteric, the idea expressed is essential for any of us engaged in developing people:quicksand 3

“I free myself, not by trying to free myself but by simply noticing how I am imprisoning myself in the very moment in which I am imprisoning myself”

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Can you be a leader who disorientates?


It is understandable that many leaders have a desire to be liked and to be acceptable. There’s no problem with that, so long as it doesn’t prevent them from being able to challenge their people, and as I will suggest here, from being able when necessary to actively disorientate them.

I was struck by an example from my local gym which is currently being refurbished. The weights room has stayed open, albeit with a new temporary entrance which has been opened up from an external corridor. A gym member entering through this new door yesterday was so surprised she released an involuntary cry of “ah, this is really weird!” She was entering the same old space, with the same old equipment; the only change was a new entrance, which completely disorientated her. She was seeing the familiar things from a completely new angle.

In a similar way organisations and people quickly settle into what can quickly feel like stable ways of being. Networks of relationships get established, ways of getting things done (or not) become habituated, and a sense of predictability and familiarity ensues. And like the surprised gym member, it can feel like an abrupt shock to the system when there is a change.

In a rapidly changing world where ‘fixed’ ways of seeing things and of functioning carry the risk of inertia and decay, leaders need to be able to actively and regularly disorientate their people. Without this it is very hard to generate the energy and the fresh ideas needed for renewal and adaptation. So how can leaders do this?

The primary tool is the humble question. Rational human thought (whilst awake at least) is generated largely in response to questions, of which we may or may not be conscious. Habitual thought is a response to habitual or unconscious questions. In my experience of business consulting, the question that drives most thought could be expressed as “what shall we (or I) do?” It’s usually a reactive question, asked for example in response to something that has arisen. The answers are generally limited to pre-existing understanding and possibilities for action.

It can take a great deal of effort to draw business people away from the seeming directness and action-focus of such a question, to what can feel like less direct questions that open up underlying attitudes and perceptions. Yet this is exactly what leaders who disorientate do, through the conscious practice of asking ‘disorientating questions’. There are of course a vast and unlimited number of such questions, such as:

·         What does the current situation look like from that vantage point? And from that one?

·         What does this situation tell us about where we are strong / weak?

·         What is holding us back?

·         What would we do if we weren’t afraid?

·         What do each of the stakeholders want that they might not be telling us?

And what’s the evidence of a disorientating question? Ultimately of course that it results in fresh thinking. The immediate evidence however will probably sound rather more like this: “Huh!” (silence and thought); “now that’s a good question!”

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As a leader, do you construct or constrict?


Isn’t it remarkable how a single letter can make so much difference! (Thanks John for pointing this out.) The apparent randomness  of that single letter, either an ‘I’  or a u, can provide a valuable insight into the nature of human influence. 

In general as human beings, who are we most interested in? Of course it is ourselves. So if we want to positively influence someone, who do we need to show an interest in and to talk about? Clearly it is them.  And yet so much business communication revolves around me and I, rather than “you”.

For example, how many presentations have you heard  that begin along the lines of “I want to tell you about …”?  And yet a simple change  of focus from I to You can have a profound effect. When folks are learning to present, a good exercise is to try to remove the word “I” altogether. The results can be phenomenal. So instead of “I want to tell you …” we might get something like “You have expressed an interest in …” Not only does this provide a greater quality of recognition and motivation (most constructive!), it also forces the speaker to genuinely consider the interests and concerns of the listener, (also highly constructive!) 

None of this is to say that the effective leader does not reveal her own ideas, wants and beliefs. Far from it. The issue is rather that most of us habitually and when under pressure focus on “I”. Ultimately the effect on others is to constrict.

To focus on the “you” and to put ourselves in other folks’ shoes requires continual effort and practice. It rarely happens automatically, especially when leaders are under pressure and are feeling stressed. And yet this is when it is most required. A “you” focus demands preparation and mental poise.

As somebody put it, this may be simple, but it is certainly not easy.



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No; You Can’t Have It All!


How many of us actually believe that we can have it all? Successful careers, designer homes, charming families, fit and healthy bodies, exotic holidays, involvement in the community, and so the list goes on. The expectations many of us place on ourselves seem to pile ever higher as we get older, especially as we reach that stage in mid-life where both the younger and the older generation are leaning on us.

While we know in our hearts that something must give, we often kid ourselves into thinking that if only we try hard enough, somehow we will manage to have it all. We thus never confront the difficult decision that something must give way, and the price for avoiding such a decision is continued stress and frustration.

Writing in this month’s Harvard Business Review, Eric Sinoway throws down a powerful challenge, providing an important variation on the well-known ‘Wheel of Life’ exercise beloved of many life coaches. He invites the reader to consider the following seven areas: Family, Social/Community, Spiritual, Physical, Material, Avocational (hobbies), and Career. He first asks the reader in respect of each area: “Who do you want to be?” and “How much do you want it?”. Second and significantly, he asks “Given that you have a finite amount of time, energy and resources, how important is this dimension relative to the others?” Yes, you the reader are forced to rank these seven dimensions; forced to identify what matters most and what matters least. This is the vital step that many coaching exercises overlook. It is the step that acknowledges that you cannot have it all, and that you will need to choose!

If you are anything like me, answering Sinoway’s questions will be a challenge. And yet, the process of identifying as a ‘lower priority’ things that until now you have defended as enormously worthwhile and important, can be enormously liberating. Yes, the result may be that you have to make some phone calls you would rather not, such I have done this week, handing in my notice on various commitments and community involvements, but in my experience the benefits start to be felt immediately.

As the playwright Goethe put it, “things which matter most must never be at the mercy of things that matter least”

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Gain More Time and Energy by Giving it Away


Is it really true that it is "more blessed to give than receive"? And what is the significance of this for today’s busy hard-working professionals? In the time-poor, achievement-focussed lives that many of us lead, it can feel that there is very little scope for giving to others. Many of us feel we struggle to keep our own lives in order, let alone help others.

I am struck by two pieces of research in the Harvard Business Review on related themes. In this month’s issue Cassie Mogliner writes under the heading You’ll Feel Less Rushed If You Give Time Awayhttp://hbr.org/2012/09/youll-feel-less-rushed-if-you-give-time-away/ar/1. Cassie’s research demonstrates convincingly that people who are generous with their time and give it away to meet another person’s need not only feel happier, but they experience a sense of having more time and of being more effective themselves. Conversely, being absorbed with oneself tends to have opposite effects.

One high-profile example of this is the London 2012 Olympics and Paralympics. An incredible 8 million hours have been given by the volunteer Games-makers and Ambassadors. And those of us who have experienced them first-hand will have seen and no doubt been ‘blessed’ by their positive energy and enthusiasm. I can only imagine that come the end of this year, when they are looking back over what they have done, they will only feel that their lives were enriched by having given their time away.

Back in 2007, Tony Schwartz and Catherine McCarthy wrote a classic article under the heading ‘Manage your Energy not Your Time’. They demonstrated that one of the best ways to generate positive ‘emotional energy’ in oneself is by giving praise or affirmation to someone. (http://hbr.org/2007/10/manage-your-energy-not-your-time/ar/1) Yes; research backs up the claim that giving praise and offering recognition to others has a far more positive effect on one’s well-being than receiving it!

It is clear that each of these messages runs counter to the prevailing thrust of western culture. The easiest and least demanding thing for each of us to do is to hold onto our time for ourselves. And for most of us we’re more inclined to seek praise and recognition for ourselves than to look for ways of giving it. On the other hand it requires a conscious decision and an act of the will to give our limited time to someone in need, or to identify a meaningful way of giving somebody affirmation.

For anyone seeking to develop their leadership, yet short of time and energy, here then are two very practical things to start doing. Await the blessing!

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Know when your work is done!


How do you know when your work is done? For those of us who have unlimited possibilities for work and could do it 24/7 without ever finishing, it is a demand of good leadership to be able to stop, to switch off and to KNOW THAT YOUR WORK IS DONE! 

To attempt to manage their work and other commitments, most people keep some kind of ‘to do’ list? Yet sadly these often don’t deliver. This post considers the reason for this, and explores four things that what can be done about it.

The first problem is that most to-do lists grow ever longer as more items get added than get completed. Then some items just never acquire the sense of urgency and importance needed to be prioritised over other things. Yet they remain on the to-do list, forever reminding the individual of what they’ve not done, thus draining energy and generating feelings of failure. Eventually, recognising that the list isn’t working, many folks give up their attempts to keep a to-do list and the whole thing gets relegated to a file.

Such a list is in fact a ‘want to do’ list; an uncensored wish list of possibilities. As such, anyone comparing their actual daily accomplishments to the list is virtually destined for disappointment.

In summary four must-have requirements for success are:

1)      A master list showing all your major responsibilities, ideally limited to no more than twelve headings. For each heading list the routine tasks needed to fulfil that responsibility, then add any other activities or projects that are planned or underway. Categories of responsibilities that often get overlooked in such planning include personal development, non-work relationships, and ones’ own health! Such a list is not a to do list. Rather it offers a regular, say weekly opportunity to step back, assess one’s balance across these areas of work and personal life, and plan accordingly.

2)      A means of scheduling specific activities, transferring them from the master list and giving them a ‘home’, whether in a paper diary, MS Outlook, or smartphone app. There are plenty of apps out there and most seem to do a good job. The usual problem is not the tool, but the discipline of keeping it up to date. David Allen, writing in Getting Things Done, refers to such a schedule as a ‘commit to do’ list, distinguishing it from the ‘want to do’ list that many of us keep. The idea of giving everything a ‘home’ in the diary/planner is an important means of helping you to switch off and relax.

3)      Recognition of the tendency most of us have to fail to anticipate the unexpected demands that will disrupt our plans, and to be over-optimistic about how long activities will take. The fact many of us prefer to overlook is that we can only ‘commit to do’ something on a given day if we have a realistic understanding of how long it will take, and we have allowed time for the unexpected. Otherwise we are setting ourselves up for disappointment.

4)      The discipline to turn vaguely described actions into tangible outcomes, and at minimum a concrete first step. For example, the item “begin personal time management project” might be usefully translated to a first step of “create a list in Outlook of all my responsibilities and core activities”. Many things on to-do lists fail to get actioned because they are vague and unclear! Articulating the very first outcome that you need to achieve is a good place to start.

For most of us, the above will require one or more new decisions, and this will demand effort. The reward for putting effort into determining what we will commit to do, and then doing it, is the satisfaction of knowing that our work is done!




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Saying ‘no’ without damaging your reputation



A ‘no’ uttered from the deepest conviction is better than a ‘yes’ merely uttered to please, or worse, to avoid trouble” said Mahatma Gandhi. Following the previous post on the challenges of saying ‘no’, this entry considers how to develop the skill of saying ‘no’ in practice.

1.       You need a robust basis for saying ‘no’. Good intentions to spend more time on marketing, networking, family life, personal fitness  or whatever will rarely be sufficient. Of greater value are concrete commitments to specific and tangible activities. For one busy city lawyer this meant scheduling an evening pilates class once a week with a private instructor. The fact that her plan involved another person (the pilates instructor), a scheduled activity, and a financial outlay, all helped raise her level of commitment to her decision.

2.       Communicate your plans to others. Informing colleagues and clients of our existing commitments can influence their thinking positively, and potentially avoid the need to say ‘no’. Provided you give the message in a positive manner, putting the focus on when you will be available for them, rather than when you won’t, you can provide a strong example of personal organisation. This can also encourage in them an attitude of better preparation, for example giving them the chance to anticipate in advance ways in which they may need your involvement.

3.       When saying ‘no’, maintain a positive attitude towards the other person and find a way to demonstrate your desire to be of service. Sometimes this may mean suggesting an alternative solution. It’s helpful to think of ‘no’ in terms of ‘not now’ rather than ‘never’! With regard to maintaining a positive attitude …

4.       Do not direct your anger at the person asking you. If as Ghandi suggests you are in the habit of saying ‘yes’ to please others or to avoid trouble, you will have possibly accumulated feelings of being taken advantage of, along with suppressed anger. In truth you are responsible for your choices, and if the other person gets what they want by asking you, good for them! A student at the school I taught at in Kenya once asked me out of the blue to give him my camera. Catching myself feeling angry at his ‘impertinence’, I quickly adjusted my perspective as I realised that he had nothing to lose and everything to gain. He’d have been a fool not to try!

5.       Don’t assume that what they ask for is what they really need. The two are often very different. For example your client asks you to complete the draft contract by Thursday, yet in practice only needs information relating to costs. It’s often worth finding out what specifically is important to the client about the time-scale of their request.


It may seem like a small thing to say ‘yes’ when you really want to say ‘no’. Over time however, it generates a life of frustration and regrets. An Australian nurse named Bronnie Ware, who cared for people in the last 12 weeks of their lives, recorded the most often-discussed regrets. First on her list, “I wish I’d had the courage to live a life true to myself, not the life others expected of me.” Next on the list, “I wish I hadn’t worked so hard” and “I wish I’d had the courage to express my feelings.” (Read the Top 5 Regrets here).



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Saying “no”: a core leadership skill


The last blog post explored the importance for managers and leaders in having a ‘stop-doing’ list; a pre-requisite for anyone concerned with achieving greater personal effectiveness or organisational success. Closely related to getting good at stopping doing things is to become fluent at using the word ‘NO’!


A large number of people tell me that “in their world you can’t possibly say no”. When I think I can get away with it (and sometimes even when I can’t!), I like to tease them by saying that in my view they are already very good at saying “no”. Each time they say “yes” to another piece of work that will keep them in the office over the weekend or through the night, they are in effect saying “no” to time with their partners, families or personal lives. The point that many of us tend to overlook is that every “yes” is linked to a corresponding “no”. There is always a choice. Choosing one course of action prevents us from taking another.


Observing how someone spends their time over an extended period does, I believe, show us where their priorities lie. It tells us ultimately what they value most. While a partner in a law firm may say that her children are the most important thing in her life, if she works throughout her children’s early years and rarely sees them, her actions seem to tell a different story. Similarly many businesses claim that their people are their most important asset, yet their habit of pulling staff out of training events and cancelling their appraisals undermines such a claim.


Exploring these ideas with people often generates discomfort, plus some reluctance on their part to accept them. First it puts the responsibility for their lives squarely at their own door, forcing them to acknowledge the part they play in creating their circumstances. Second, it confronts them with the need to communicate a message that is likely to disappoint the other person. For many people this is profoundly uncomfortable. While they may justify their saying “yes” habit as “just wanting to be helpful”, deeper exploration often reveals a profound dis-ease with being anything other than compliant.


It is therefore reasonable to conclude that saying “no” is an essential means for both protecting what we value most, and for demonstrating to others in our organisation where our priorities lie. To put it simply, it is an core leadership skill; a skill that for most people demands real discipline and effort to use. For many people looking for a focus for their leadership development, this is a great place to start.   


Next time: how to say “no” without losing out


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