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Key ideas about People in Business

Give the Performance of Your Life Today…and Everyday

This round of award ceremonies is coming to a close. The Brits, the Oscars & Baftas are off to hibernate for a few months, and life returns to some semblance of normality for the rest of us.

But why should it? (dramatic pause).

‘Normal’ is a pseudonym for ‘dull’ or ‘boring’ or ‘just so-so’. It’s hardly inspiring.

Instead, I think we should be getting in shape to play our very own leading role in the performance of our company.

Work spaces are dramatic places.

  • They are alive with twists and turns and cliff-hangers.
  • They have a motley cast of characters: designers, directors, technicians, creatives; walk-ons, guest appearances, leading and supporting roles.
  • They buzz with the energy of egos rubbing up against each other.
  • They vibrate with the tension of unspoken thoughts and feelings, humming with rich sub-text.

The drama unfolds in fits and starts: one day it’s more like a soap opera; the next it starts to feel like a Danish thriller. It veers from sublime comedy to ridiculous whodunit in an instant.

So the stage is set for a great performance, and you are the person that can give it.

You don’t need to be given top-billing. You don’t need your name in lights (or on a door). You don’t need to prepare an acceptance speech or come over all emotional. You don’t even need to remember your lines because there isn’t a script.

Despite all this, you have the power to find a role that inspires you and then play it. By bringing all your strengths to bear, you can elevate your performance to levels that will inspire those around you.

So whilst the judges retire and the red carpets get their long-awaited beating, let’s get our act in gear. This time next year you could be …

whatever you want.


Best Intentions

I have a fundamental and perhaps misguided belief that people mostly act out of good intentions. It may only be my version of the truth, but I base it on many observations over many years.

Before you write me off as a hopeless romantic, let me explain.

It is a rarity to stumble across a situation where someone’s behaviour is driven by malicious intent. An intent which is so focused on deliberately undermining or hurting another person. People can often be mortified when it is brought to their attention that this has been the effect of their behaviour.

So terrorists aside (of which you may have the odd one in your organisation), most people I encounter take the actions they take because they believe a better outcome will be the result.

Much of this behaviour is unconscious. They behave in a way that feels right to them, but they may not be consciously aware of how they are behaving or even the effect their behaviour is having.

Our beliefs, feelings, experiences and values drive our behaviour. We may challenge back when these are threatened because we need to protect them. The primary intention, therefore, is not to kill off the alternative stance, but to protect our own. It is an important distinction. However, we may see that the only way to protect our own belief system and values is to attack and undermine the belief systems and values of others. This is a strategy whose starting point is the need to protect and preserve, not to destroy.


I was facilitating a small group through a role-playing exercise where, working with an actor, each person was required to concentrate on a particularly challenging conversation with an employee or colleague, and explore various ways that they might be able to handle it.

Jenny (not her real name) wanted to focus on a historical encounter which she felt dissatisfied with. It later transpired that the way she had handled this situation at the time was pretty much text-book stuff, but she did not feel this.

The skill of the actor coupled with Jenny’s willingness to revisit the situation, resulted in Jenny becoming very emotional. She raised her hand as a pre-agreed signal to say that she wanted to pause whilst she recovered her composure, regrouped and tried again.

At that point, two of her colleagues ‘leapt to her rescue’.

The result was that Jenny became more overcome, angry with herself, embarrassed and unable to continue.

What was going on here? It seems that the intentions of her colleagues were to protect Jenny from harm. They equated tears with unparalleled distress; regarded this as unfair and cruel; and felt obligated to intervene on Jenny’s behalf.

I reflected on the situation for days afterwards. Maybe the action taken by Jenny’s colleagues was more selfishly motivated rather than being driven by a need to protect her. Maybe they were embarrassed by the emotional display and sought to protect themselves from it.

It’s not uncommon for people to become emotional during role-play exercises, especially when working with an actor who adds an extra dimension of reality. Neither is it something to apologize for. It’s not a sign that it’s all gone horribly wrong.  Clearly, this view wasn’t shared by the two colleagues who intervened.

Bit by bit I started to form a picture of what might have happened.And then I was reminded of the Drama Triangle, a simple model from transactional analysis first espoused by Stephen Karpman.

What I believe was happening was that Jenny, in revisiting a difficult experience, had re-entered the non-resourceful state that she felt at the time. In short, she felt she was back there. And given that she has never accepted that she actually handled the situation extremely well, her negative feelings of her own incompetence started to overwhelm her.

Before Jenny had time to regroup, compose, and experiment with a different approach, her friends reaffirmed her Victim status by leaping to her rescue (rescuers, of course need someone to rescue). So Jenny became locked in the role of the Victim – someone who lacked resources to get out of the situation on her own, who felt small and helpless and needed someone to charge in and take over.

I do not believe that the intention of Jenny’s colleagues was to turn her into a Victim, or to lock her in a non-resourceful state. But that was the outcome. And as a result they have added to Jenny’s catalogue of remembered experiences which reaffirms the notion that she can’t cope, she is weak and vulnerable, she lacks capability to manage certain situations, and she needs rescuing. Is it any wonder that Jenny freely admits to lacking confidence?

What was missed in this situation was an opportunity for Jenny to re-enter her resourceful state and play with different ways of handling the situation. The opportunity to create a more positive memory bank was lost.

It’s also possible that Jenny may begin to resent the intervention of her colleagues. She may begin to feel persecuted by them, because they are confining her (deliberately or inadvertently) to a role she is not happy to play.

Her colleagues weren’t terrorists. They weren’t bad people. They were simply doing what we see people doing every day. And we’ve probably done something similar. But that doesn’t excuse it. And there are things we can do to stop it.

What can we do about it?

If you ever find yourself in a situation where you feel like a victim: look around and see if you can spot your persecutor and rescuer. They will be there and not too far away. In the scenario described, I suppose I was cast in the role of the Persecutor for allowing the situation to arise and not stopping it. I didn’t feel too good about that.

You see, Rescuers need a Victim and a Persecutor. Victims need someone to Persecute them and someone to Rescue them. Persecutors need a Victim. The three roles become locked in a revolving triangle, and all of the roles are operating out of a non-resourceful state.

Rescuers reinforce someone’s Victim-hood. It’s an unhappy consequence. And Rescuers place other people in Persecuting roles which, subsequently makes those people feel like they are themselves being persecuted. So they become the Victim and seek out a Rescuer. In this situation, I looked to the Actor for reassurance that I had done the right thing. I wanted confirmation or support. Am I in danger of becoming Jenny’s colleague’s Persecutor?

What’s the alternative? Good intentions did not on this occasion bring about a happy ending.

  1. First, take a moment to reflect on the role you have adopted or feel you have been placed in.
  2. Second, remind yourself that if you have cast yourself (or been cast) as a Victim, Rescuer or Persecutor, you have entered a non-resourceful state.
  3. Third, expect that if you are in a V, R or P role now, you will move at various times to any one of the other two roles in an unhappy rotation.
  4. Fourth, step out of the role, walk away from it.
  5. Fifth, take a rational look at the situation from all angles whilst constantly checking to see that you are not inadvertently still looking at it through the eyes of the V, R or P.

Breaking the cycle might take practice. It can be useful to have some rehearsed statements up your sleeve so that you can call on them when the time is right.

Here are some examples.

If you feel that you are being place in the Victim role: “Thank you for your help and concern. Right now I would like to see what I can do to resolve the situation for myself”

If you feel like stepping into the Rescuer role:  “I am feeling uncomfortable with this and want to intervene, but I believe that the person best placed to deal with this situation is the individual themselves.”

If you feel that you are being placed in the Persecutor role: “My interest must be to allow my colleague to regain his/her resourceful state if I am to avoid becoming a Victim myself.”

It’s not only other people who place us in these roles. We place ourselves in the Victim role by the demands we place on ourselves and some of the beliefs we have habitually held. And in so doing we make ourselves visible to Rescuers and Persecutors.

So the best way to avoid stepping into the self-perpetuating cycle of victim-hood is to remind ourselves that we are all extremely resourceful people and that we always have the capacity to find a solution. Solutions will not be found in V, R, P states but they will be found when we call upon all that is powerful and unique within us.

We all became victims at some point during Jenny’s ordeal. How much greater if we had raised our hand and signalled that this was not a role we wanted to play.

Memories Are Made of This…or are they?

Memory is a funny thing. You can rarely be sure about it. Recalling to mind an experience of the past is as much a work of creation as it is a reliable documentary activity. Perhaps more so.The point at which we remember something which, is of necessity after the event, we have other memories and experiences to load upon it. This changes however subtly, or even radically, our understanding of the original event.

Even writing stuff down to read at a later date doesn’t protect the integrity of the original event, because as soon as we read the description we are overlaying it with new perceptions from a later time.


Many arguments and disagreements at work are the result of two people remembering an event or an instruction differently. This is either because their understanding of the event was processed through their different receptors at the time and therefore interpreted differently; or because the act of remembering has skewed the way they recall the event.


In any case, holding out to have our version of the truth (our memory) accepted as the most reliable seems to be a pointless and provocative activity.


We try to get round this by putting everything in emails.  Hundreds of people get copied in to ensure a liberal smattering of our version of the truth. And we’ll dredge up those emails at a later date when something is in dispute or needs corroborating. It’s an evidence trail we leave like Hansel & Gretel’s breadcrumbs in the forest, which will lead us back to certainty.


Unfortunately, leaving the email trail is a misguided and wasteful strategy because even if it’s ever referred to again, it will be viewed from the perspective of a different time…that inevitably adds a different gloss.


Our justice system, which relies on witness statements given after an event, is easily hi-jacked by the fallibility of memory. I recently came face-to-face with a group of aggressive schoolboys who in very graphic and admirably creative terms described what they would like to do to my face and other parts of my body. But when I studied their mug-shots in the school files the next day, I couldn’t identify any of them.


This wasn’t a temporary lapse induced by trauma, or even a sign of my diminishing faculties. I would have been the same if I was twenty-something instead of forty-something. I couldn’t be sure: the memory wasn’t strong enough or accurate enough for me to be certain. Selecting a face from the mountain of mug-shots would have been tantamount to guesswork and led to a possible miscarriage of justice.


We take our memory for granted, and we rely on it to provide a photographic and filmic context for our lives. Yet, it is often little more than a faded sepia tint.


So the next time you get into a spat with a colleague about your understanding of what you think you agreed at some point in the past; or you fall out over your take on who said what and to who; try to remember that memory itself is a fabrication. It’s the breadcrumbs but not the loaf.


Make what you do in the moment count, but don’t expect to remember exactly what you did tomorrow.

Is Your Work Driving You to Distraction?

At a conservative estimate, I’d say that 95% of all mobile Apps are designed for fun and filling time. Most have no other function apart than that.

Extreme sports, bungee-jumping, sky-diving and a host of other high-octane activities have far less to do with keeping fit and healthy than they do with providing an adrenalin rush.

Social media for most people is less about keeping in touch and making friends, and more about feeling important and significant…and passing the time.

Gadgets, apart from emptying our pockets and bank-reserves quicker than a RBS Executive, are for many people just a way of bringing a bit of glamour and excitement to an otherwise dull day.

I’m not a Luddite. I’m not against all this technology and the fantastic things it allows us to do. And I’m really glad that thrills (whilst not cheap) are much more widely available today than I remember when I was younger.

What concerns me is the question: why is our work so dull, boring and unstimulating that we have such a craving for distraction which these things provide?


A quick dart into Marcus Buckingham‘s book, ‘Go Put Your Strengths to Work‘ quickly reveals an apparent universal truth that  less than 20% of people feel they are playing to their strengths for most of their time at work. When we play to our strengths we feel energised, focused, inquisitive, fulfilled. In short, we don’t feel bored! So 80% of us feel sufficiently bored (or stressed) by our work to need distractions. Lots of people find their work a misery. We need things to take our mind OFF our work. We feel the need to inject some life, energy, and excitement into our dull routines. We need to have FUN and we find it wherever we can.

Work just doesn’t do it for most people. And when people do appear to be having fun at work, I’ve seen managers and other colleagues start to get a little paranoid. “What do they know that I don’t?” It’s often frowned upon when there’s laughter in the office; when people make an attempt to brighten up their work space; or when staff get playful. Somehow, it seems to go against the grain.

But when did it become a bad thing to have fun at work? Who decreed that ‘work’ needed to be a drudge? Where did the idea surface that having a stifling work experience is as inevitable as death? How sad that so many of us need to compensate for our work by accessing a multitude of distractions that stop us thinking about it.

So managers get hung up on how long someone might be surfing the internet, or checking their Facebook page on their smartphone, or rifling through a holiday brochure at their desk.  They do this instead of asking: “why do they feel the need to do this whilst they are at work?” or “why is this so much more appealing than what we are paying them for?”

I’d like to propose a new mantra for work. It goes like this:

Work will be joyful

Work will be fun

We’ll want to do more

When our day is done!

What will this mean for all of us who work and all of those who manage workers? Maybe we’ll focus more on:

  • Outcomes – what people actually achieve
  • Productivity rather than presenteeism
  • Playing to Strengths
  • Getting the Culture right
  • Releasing Potential
  • Generating Trust
  • Creating appropriate Challenges
  • Building work streams that take full advantage of people’s Talents
  • Designing work environments that stimulate us rather than deflate us
  • Recognising and celebrating Successes
  • Giving people a break!
  • Having fun

This seems to be a far cry from what most of us experience…and that’s not a fun place to be! Which is why we need distractions.

I want my work to be a distraction. I want it to absorb me, impel me, nourish me, invigorate me, delight me. I don’t think I’m asking for too much. It’s asking for too little that has got us into the state we’re in.

Sticking it Where the Sun Don’t Shine

OK, I admit it. I’m frustrated!

Why aren’t things perfect? Why do people behave so badly? Why can’t I work for a company that really values and supports me instead of making my life difficult.! Aaarrrggghhhhhhh!!!!

Yes, some days it can get to you. We’re human and what we want or expect doesn’t always happen. I still get a shock every morning when I look in the mirror and realise I’m not 21 anymore!

But carrying  these frustrations around with me all day is a bit like dragging a suitcase full of books up 15 flights of stairs. And what’s worse, they are probably books I have no intention of reading!

Sometimes we get so preoccupied with the frustrations of life and work that we don’t allow any of the good stuff in.

We look at everything that is good through the lens of everything we are dissatisfied with. And it really doesn’t seem so good when you look at it like that.

I have occasionally had unwelcome guests staying in my home. Fortunately not for too long, and not very often. The last thing I want to do is invite them back, lock them in, and force them to follow me around all day. But that’s what it’s like when we let grudges, frustrations, disappointments and anger in. If we’re not careful, they can become like an evil conjoined twin.

I am not suggesting that these thoughts and feelings aren’t real or legitimate. But do they help? Do we need them all the time? Surely they make us less and less resourceful; less and less able to get on with things.

I propose that we write some of these frustrations down, fold the paper and put it in a dark dismal place for an hour or two at a time. If after this time you are missing it so much and desperately want to clutch it to your breast, fine. If not, leave it there,  rotting away bereft of the nutrients it needs to flourish.

Even if you take it back, at least you had 2 hours without it…and that’s got to be a healthy thing.

Why Don’t Managers Want to Manage Me?

Ask any manager what excites them about their role and it is unlikely that many will say “I just love managing people”

Managing budgets, managing projects & managing customers seem acceptable and even exhilarating on occasion. But managing staff and direct reports? Most managers would really rather not have to. Many would run a mile if they could. (Some do!) And others flatly refuse!

How often have you heard (or said) “I shouldn’t have to do this. Surely this is a job for HR”.

It’s as if the management of people is considered an unproductive and unnecessary distraction from the business of running a business.

Now I know I can be an awkward so-and-so. You see, I often change my mind. Sometimes I don’t feel well. Occasionally I need feedback. Once in a while I have a bright idea and I want someone not only to listen to it but actually do something with it. I like to know where I’m going, and I like to know that I will be supported when the going gets tough.

I might occasionally have a disagreement with a colleague and need some help resolving it. Every so often I want to be stretched and I’d like someone to facilitate this for me. And on rare occasions I actually feel so motivated that I do more than is asked of me or even good for me.
Why wouldn’t anyone want to manage me? Am I so dissimilar to the majority of the workforce? OK, so some will be less demanding and some will be more demanding. But I think my requests are reasonable and fairly representative of most people. So, why does this make me so terrifying to managers? Am I really such an ogre? I think I’m a pussy-cat!

Why Has Management Developed at all?


I like managers. I think they have an important job to do. There’s a reasons why we’ve felt it necessary to have them.

  • Complexity. As organisations and societies grow and the work they do becomes more complex, we have found it necessary to put someone in charge.
  • Communication. As organisations expand, the need to control the flow of information has led to the creation of a management structure.
  • Decision making. This is generally better if it is owned by a small group of people. We’ve needed to create levels of authority with increasing powers to make decisions, and we’ve created managers to handle the largest ones.

So we can argue quite convincingly that management is a necessary tool that contributes to organisational success, on the whole. But it doesn’t explain why so many managers don’t like managing people (not just the awkward ones like me, but people in general). To do that, we have to look deeper.


“You want me to manage people? Are you serious?!”

I recently sent an article to a manager which covered the subject of how to manage poor attendance issues at work. The reply I received was this:

“The actual topic is much more in HR’s domain than mine and I try not to go there too much.”

What a sad indictment of our management capability. I haven’t yet figured out how it is possible for a general to win a battle if no-one turns up for duty.  So how can managers manage the delivery of projects without making sure that people turn up for work? Why do they think it’s not their job?

We should never have let it get this bad. Because now, when we ask them to do it, it feels like they’re being picked on. Now it feels punitive. Now it feels like someone is passing the buck. There are so many grievances being created that the change is faltering and slow and painful.


 A.     Poor Career Management

What do we do when we spot someone doing a job really well?

Some bright spark at some point in the past obviously thought, “I know, we’ll stop them doing what they’re good at and get them to do something they haven’t got a clue about. We’ll promote them. That’ll be a great way to show how much we value them.”

What’s more shocking is that this solution has stuck.

Many managers didn’t set out to become professional managers. They didn’t decide at an early age, “I really want to learn how to manage people like Tim Lambert, and make that my career”. They become managers only because they were technically gifted in some other skill area, and the only way their employers knew how to reward them was by offering them a new role.

This lack of imagination about the way we reward people for the contribution they make, has a lot to answer for. It seems we still haven’t found a good alternative to promoting them up and out of the skill set that we wish to reward them for.

What other way is there for us to get on? It seems we have no real alternative other than to buy in to the whole promotion thing.

So a skilful teacher seeks to better their career prospects by applying for headship posts. The result is that they are now no longer required to teach, but to manage those who do. It’s a different skill set so it’s no wonder that some of them haven’t got it.

The skills that got them to this heady position are not the skills that will enable them to be successful in it. So it’s tempting to devalue the people management function, or to try and pass it on to someone else such as heads of department or deputy heads.

The same happens within our commercial organisations. We make people who are technically brilliant manage other people who are technically OK, and we no longer require them to exercise their old technical skills. How mad is that!

People might want the trappings of success (the managerial title, the extra cash, the kudos) but they don’t necessarily want to take on board the messy baggage of people. They don’t want it, because some of them aren’t equipped for it, and it wasn’t part of their game plan.

B.     Unhealthy Dependence on Internal Specialists

 I love specialists and technical experts. If I was rich I’d have a whole team of them around me, all on retainers, who could take care of all the technical jobs that my hands and brain seem so incapable of handling.

I’d have a gardener to do the weeding, another to do the planting, and possibly another to do the designing (because they are all different skills): then I’d have a lighting expert to create the right ambience in my home; and an electrician to take care of my wiring and plug sockets.

I’d also have a decorator to keep the place looking ship-shape and fresh; a chef to prepare my meals (as long as they were low-fat); a fashion adviser/buyer to make sure I didn’t always look like a dog’s dinner; and someone to educate me on good music so that I didn’t have to constantly embarrass myself when people ask me, “What music do you like?” And if I needed a lobotomy, I’d go to a brain surgeon rather than try to dig around in there myself.

You see, all these things are things I am hopeless at. But I’m not rich, so I have to manage.

I have to buy my own flares and fluorescent shirts; I continue buying from the Easy Listening section at the music store; I decimate my plants at pruning time (when is that, by the way?); and I have a stack of light bulbs at home, none of which actually match the light fittings I have. I have yet to start digging around in my skull, though some might say I should give it a go.

How joyous to have a specialist available: it lets us off the hook. So, if it’s an IT issue, then the IT department should deal with it. If it’s a financial issue then the Finance Department should deal with it. And if it’s a people issue, that should go to Personnel. Great! Job done!

But it begs the question: what’s left?

Of course, we should allow people to play to their strengths, and where specialist expertise is required, we shouldn’t be afraid to access it, but the dependency on HR departments has got out of hand. It’s almost as ridiculous as saying, “I shouldn’t have to talk to my staff because I’m not the Head of Communications”

 This situation isn’t helped by the apparent need some specialists have to prove their worth and justify their position. They start creating complex models, systems and processes, and issuing them like diktats throughout the organisation, just because they can, or because they can’t see anyone else doing it.

This creates internal antagonisms, where managers and employees subsequently find themselves jumping through hoops trying to make a system work that seems not to bear any relation to their real world.

And it also reinforces the idea of the ‘specialist’ function. It gives reluctant managers some justification perhaps in saying, “It’s not my job to do this. I’m not the expert.”

There’s a bit of the chicken and the egg going on here. Specialists intervene by creating elaborate Appraisal Systems because they see that managers aren’t managing their people. But Managers aren’t managing their people because they’re not the ones who have historically designed the Appraisal System – so they don’t feel it belongs to them. Wow, what a conundrum.

It’s a situation that has got so bad in some companies that senior people have started to say, “enough is enough”, and they have tried to pass the responsibility for people right back to the manager.

But as companies have sought to devolve more and more HR accountabilities to front line managers, some managers have dug their heels in and put up a fight.

I don’t condone it, but let’s be fair: it’s not hard to see why. To them it’s the latest in a long-running trend of passing more and more down. It started with losing secretarial and admin support so now they spend more time typing and making travel arrangements.

Now they are being told they’ve got to do Return-to-Work interviews, Appraisal Interviews, Succession Planning, Disciplinary Handling, Training Needs Analysis, & Coaching.  “When am I going to find time to do any work?” they cry.

C.      Them & Us

We’ve switched them off by making their job almost impossible. We say we want collaborative management styles and employee engagement, but then we go and create organisation structures that make this nigh on impossible.

We’ve created so many barriers between managers and employees that it has encouraged some managers to retreat back to their positions of safety: back to their reliance on old technical skills. And for some it has resulted in very unhappy relationships between them and their people.

Some managers feel like they’ve been thrown into a lion’s den with their arms tied behind their back.

“Our people are our greatest asset”. I am your greatest asset. You keep telling me this. It’s a cliché, I know, but I’d like to believe it.

So why do I keep seeing evidence to the contrary?

  • I know management is a powerful and responsible position. But it can feel like hierarchies are created simply to satisfy a desire some people have for wielding power, and that doesn’t go down well with employees.
  • We’ve been narrow-minded in the way we appoint and support people in this critical role, and it’s left some employees believing they’re not valued. I am prepared to accept that a person’s value and importance might be measured by their span of control and their increased authority to make decisions, but the upshot of this can be that less value is placed on front-line staff, setting up an automatic barrier between a manager and a direct report.
  • Sometimes it’s clear that management is primarily intended as policing (which is a sad waste). This doesn’t make us feel great and it’s even more galling when the policing doesn’t actually happen!
  • It looks like we keep building more and more layers of management because we don’t trust the layer below. The result is a situation where everyone is covering their backs and no-one’s looking out for me.
  • We create management positions just because we can’t think of a better way to reward or keep valued employees. This doesn’t make for competent management.

Honesty is the Best Policy

  • We put people in management roles that can’t do the job. They don’t bring the requisite skills. I need a manager who brings patience, strong communication skills, great listening, sharp organising, fine judgment, a capacity to be firm and supportive, and who feels comfortable giving feedback. But this isn’t usually what I get. Instead I get great Engineers, Researchers, Analysts, Scientists.



There are times when I want to be managed. Not too closely, perhaps, and not all the time, but I definitely want someone to provide me with a rich and satisfying work experience.

For those of us who have had the benefit of a great manager, we know just how inspiring and positive it can be. But it’s too hit and miss, and it’s usually ‘miss’.

I believe there are ways to help managers manage me, and gain some mutual satisfaction from doing so.

First we need to put people firmly on the management agenda. If we don’t we may only really attract future managers who see this as a dispensable accountability.

Then we should turn on the heat by:

  1. Being Honest. Tell new managers what is expected of them – clearly!s
  2. Keeping  people in roles where they can best utilise their skills
  3. Exploring  different ways of rewarding high performers other than promoting them
  4. Fishing for generalists – go looking for management capability which is unrelated to specialist technical skills
  5. Only creating management posts when there’s actually a management job to be done


1.      Stop stitching them up and start being honest with them.

The function of management is to manage, and since all management activities involve people somewhere along the line, it’s inescapable that managing people will be a significant element.

It might be hard to swallow, but it really can’t be negotiable.

  • You wouldn’t expect a Priest to say “I’m OK with everything, except I won’t preach”.
  • We wouldn’t accept it if a teacher said, “I’m happy to prepare the lesson plans, but I don’t want to teach”.
  • And we’d be a bit shocked if our plumber said, “I’ll fit your new bathroom, but I don’t do pipework!”

People management is an integral part of the management role. You can’t divorce the two and you can’t pick and choose. So:

  • Managers need to know this before they become managers.
  • They need to be equipped with some of the skills before they are appointed as managers.
  • They need to recognise that the added reimbursement which accompanies the promotion is commensurate with the size of the challenge.

Depriving managers of this information isn’t helping them. They go into the role blind as to what is expected and required of them. Sometimes, they accept promotion without realising that they have now got a management role, because this isn’t made explicit.

They become offended and defensive when they suddenly realise what the role apparently entails. They resist it. Or they do it badly.

This isn’t good for anyone, especially for people like me and all our various needs. Where am I going to get my feedback, my direction, my support, my challenge?

 2.      Keep Specialists in their specialist roles

 If we keep promoting specialists and technical experts into management roles, without properly assessing their management capability and desire, we may only succeed in creating more highly paid specialists.

Why don’t we leave them where they are, where they are happy and able to make the biggest contribution, (if they are performing well and there is a role for them and that’s where they want to be)?

Why penalise them by requesting that they no longer do the things they have developed a talent (and possibly a love) for? Why make giving up something you love a condition for success?

3.      Reward exceptional performers differently

A specialist will retain a vested interest in practicing or promoting their specialism. After all, it’s what they like and what they are good at. So we need to find other ways to reward them.

Expand their role, give them greater authority; let them work on bigger projects; use them as role-models; and if necessary, pay them more. But don’t automatically promote them into management if that isn’t what they want!

4.      Start Fishing for Generalists

The manager’s role is broad and complex. It has to be because it brings them into contact with complex characters like me. It draws on a diverse range of skills and involves many varied activities.

People have struggled to identify and define the full range of management competencies, skills and behaviours that are required of a truly successful manager. But one lesson we’ve learned (and generally agree on) is that Management is multi-dimensional, not singular. Because of this, it is hard.

I need my manager to be able to help and support me in ways that go far beyond what a specialist can do. I might need access to specialists as well, but I need my manager to fulfil a different function (or many different functions).

So if we are to find and appoint people who can do this, we perhaps shouldn’t be looking just in the Specialist pool for our management potential.

People who are very skilled at one thing are not automatically going to be great at another thing, like management. Some of the best tennis coaches in the world never achieved playing success. They know the game, and how to play it, but they can’t necessarily play it as well as they can help others play it. And some of the greatest players make the lousiest coaches!

So we need to cast our net wider than those specialists at the top of their game.

For management roles, we need to be looking for people who can flex and be responsive in ways that meet the varying needs of different situations.

We need to go fishing in a different recruitment pool, and promote the idea of being ‘generalist’ more vigorously.

This doesn’t mean that we want Jacks of all trades, who aren’t really very good at a lot of things. Managers need to be highly competent in a lot of areas. And they need sound knowledge of the areas they are managing in order to build skill and credibility in managing the activities and careers of specialists in their care.

People are demanding, so we need to demand something different from our managers to satisfy these demands. Our managers need to be well equipped to get the very best out of me and others like me.

5.      Create Management Roles Only When There is a Role for Management

If this means losing some people because you cannot satisfy their career aspirations that is a lower price to pay than making a job up for them.

Sometimes we create management roles that are best filled by administrators. We pay a premium for this whilst getting a less efficient service.

Sometimes we add management duties to a role that was never designed as a management role, just to justify an increased pay scale. But we still expect the person to do all the work they did before, plus the management stuff.

So when we are considering creating or filling a

management post, we need to:

  • be clearer about what we want from the role and why we think it is necessary
  • be wary of the less savoury reasons that lead to the creation of a management roles
  • consider the impact of creating a management post or a new tier of management
  • analyse carefully the value of the post before we appoint or think of appointing.

Basically, if there is another way to do it, try that first before creating a management post.

Ain’t No Stopping You, Now

Great managers are great! But not all managers are great, or even managers!

In future, when we create managers and management structures, the least we can do is pick the right ones, let them know what the role entails and give them the tools to do the job.

And if you are one of those lucky managers that gets to manage me, console yourself with the fact that life will never be dull!

How to Avoid a Vulture Culture…and Create a Culture of Construction

  • Do you work in an organisation that seems to feed on itself, picking over the bones of failure and blaming everyone else, rather than itself?
  • Do you sometimes find yourself wondering what it would be like to work freely without the fear of a hungry hoover hovering above, waiting for you to mess up?
  • Is your company so paralysed by indecision because no-one wants to stand up and raise their head above the parapet?

If so, you might be in the grip of a Vulture Culture.

Vulture Cultures are so damaging because the enemy is within, and not always easy to pinpoint. Slowly, over time, the organisation behaviour becomes one of back-biting, bullying, baiting, battling, and blame. People become afraid, always looking over their shoulder, always on the look-out for somewhere to hide. But it’s subtle and gradual, and the predator often isn’t spotted before it strikes.

Personally, I’ve got nothing against vultures – frankly, I think they’ve received a bad press. They might lack the cuddly fluffy feel of a kitten, but they do fulfil a fairly vital function in nature.

The trouble is, you really don’t want them hanging about your canteen, or getting too close to your business. Vultures are messy eaters, and it’s not a pretty sight seeing them hack away at a company carcass.

In times of recession, it is more important than ever to eradicate in-fighting and get your organisation pulling together constructively. Leave the Vulture Culture outside, cold and hungry. Whatever you do, don’t invite it in!

Our programme has helped to transform organisations and teams operating across Europe, the US and Asia Pac. It’s a simple enough remedy, (which is perhaps why so few people have tried it!), and it begins with looking at the way organisations make decisions.

The Science of Cultures

Science tells us that cultures, left to their own devices will   grow and develop organically, whether in the petri dish or in the boardroom. And not always in the direction we would wish.

The challenge lies in correctly identifying the negative culture, and then taking positive action to shape it so that it acts as a catalyst for growth rather than a vehicle for self-destruction.

And it really helps to identify where the culture is growing from – what combination of cells and elements are contributing to the way it cultivates and develops?

If you ask the question…

 “What are the biggest internal issues you face within your organisation?”

…you’ll get a variety of responses such as ‘communication’, or ‘politics’, or ‘blame culture’, or ‘we’re too risk-averse’, or ‘slowness to react’, or ‘lack of accountability’.

And it doesn’t take an Einstein to realise that all these responses have as their root cause something to do with weak and ineffective decision-making. It’s prime feeding ground for the vulture culture to flourish.

So what’s going to keep the Vulture Culture at bay, and how can you create an organisation culture that is exemplified by great decision making?

Bad decision-making feeds cultures that are highly damaging to the long-term prospects and short-term operation of any organisation.

Do you recognise any of the following cultures in your company organism?

The Culture of Atrophy – Where no-one makes any decision, because they think someone else should do

The Culture of Chaos – Where everyone tries to make a decision even though they don’t have a right to do so, and decisions have to be un-made or remade later

The Culture of Accord – Where no-one will make any decision until they have wrapped themselves in the security blanket of the widest possible consultation

The Culture of Caution – Where people are so afraid to get it wrong, that they brood for too long before taking any action, by which time their competitors have stolen a march on them and the opportunity has passed.

Of course, it’s possible that within any organisation, all of these Cultures are in evidence at any one time.  Collectively, they are the Vulture Culture.

Where people fundamentally lack any understanding of what authority they or their colleagues have to act or make decisions, the rot sets in.

It’s a recipe for disaster but, fortunately there is a better recipe to follow.

By introducing the correct set of elements you will be able to create a stronger organisational compound.



When you feel the vultures circling overhead, don’t wait for the feasting to begin. Take positive action.

Here are five simple remedies that are taken from our programme. If allowed to permeate your organisation, they’ll begin to positively shape the way decisions are made, and make way for a new Culture of Construction.

Our 5 Top Titbits to Keep the Vulture Culture Away

1.       Develop & Articulate Decision-Making Rules that guide the way people and teams make their decisions. Don’t leave it to chance or assume that unspoken rules will do. See below for examples.

Some Decision Making Rules

Example 1:

Members of a team who are unable to attend a meeting mandate those members who can attend to make the decision on their behalf.

Example 2:

Non-attendees (who are part of the decision-making team) waive their right to challenge the decision after the event, as long as they have been given a chance to make their views known in advance.

Example 3:                                                         

Once decisions are made within the team, the WHOLE TEAM will stand by that decision and actively support its roll-out.


2.      Introduce a company-wide, systematic Decision-Making process. DARE to Decide’is a process we have developed that describes four stages in a sequence which, if followed, increases your chances of making good and courageous decisions

  • Diagnose  (Recognise that a decision is needed; work out who needs to be involved and who needs to take it; and be explicit  about your decision criteria).
  • Analyse (Gather just enough information; generate ideas and test them against your decision criteria before making your       choice).
  • Reveal (Communicate your decision and your reasons for making it to the people who will be affected by it).
  • Evaluate (Make sure you review and learn from the process and from the outcome).

3.      Be explicit about every employee’s authority to decide. This means, letting people know through their role profiles, job descriptions and performance management reviews, the boundaries of their decision making authority, and the point at which a decision needs to be referred elsewhere.

4.    Delegate routine decisionsIdentify what is a routine decision and formally authorise people to get on with it, so that they don’t feel they have to seek permission to take basic action.

 5.      Always schedule Learning Reviews. Take time to benefit from past experience and do this as a team, as a department, and as a company. Share the learning broadly rather than keeping it to yourself. Remember, that some of the greatest achievements have been as a result of initial failures, but only where reflection and learning takes place.


Nature abhors a vacuum, and cultures will propagate of their own accord in order to fill vacant space.

Ironically, it’s only by taking decisive and concerted action against poor decision-making that you’ll be able to create a Culture of Construction where:

  • People are clear about the level of authority, responsibility and accountability they wield;
  • Decisions are made at the right time by the right people in the right way with the right result;
  • Re-visiting old decisions becomes a thing of the past.

Vultures hover when they spot weakness. They know that when you’re on your knees, it’s time to start praying!

It’s your decision whether you want to become prey, or soar to new heights and by doing so, keep that Vulture Culture at bay.

Sightseeing – Developing Visionary Behaviour

What do you think of when you think of Visionaries?

They are special people with special qualities. They see the writing on the wall. They can  read between the lines and see connections and patterns that others might not see. That’s  why we call them Visionary.

Because of this, they can steer great change, allowing your organisation to get ahead of the  traffic.

 Who do you think of when you think of visionaries? Martin Luther King? Leonardo da Vinci?  Bill Gates?

It’s very tempting to think that Visionaries are some rare breed, a remarkable freak of  nature. We tend to assume that they are exceptional people whom we are only likely to  encounter once or twice in a generation. We might think of them (with grudging grace) as mavericks that play a vital role but need to be contained.

But it really isn’t helpful to think of visionaries in this way. In fact, it can be an excuse for other people not playing their full part in future-gazing and future-shaping.

I have a vision for Your Company.

It might be wild and fanciful. It might be some way down the road. But I believe that at some time in the future, being visionary won’t be an activity denied to the masses. It won’t be the preserve of ‘special’ people, or the power of the few?

I believe that one day all your people will be able to engage in visionary activities, because the benefits of doing so are just too great.

I think that it is highly likely, that your employees already have the visionary streak, but they haven’t yet allowed it free reign.

For now, they’re too comfortable and cosy in the cockpits of their company cars, surrounded by on-board computers and evermore elaborate gadgets that stop them having to think.

Maybe they are closet visionaries. They’re locked in the closet of the present, or even the past and they pay scant regard to the future.

And when they do think of the future they do so only within the narrow confines of their understanding of today. But this doesn’t mean they can’t be visionary, only that they haven’t been visionary so far. They haven’t come out of the closet.

I believe it’s a truism in personal development that the past does not dictate the future…unless we let it. If I am right, then just because we haven’t used our visionary gene before, doesn’t mean we don’t have it or that we can’t use it from now on.

So what’s stopping us? 

Who Put the Brakes On?

The trouble is that some of our corporate behaviours don’t encourage people to be visionary. In fact people can feel actively discouraged. Here’s what I see.

1. Back Seat Drivers. The message we tend to give out is that Visionaries are tolerated as a necessary evil, and the last thing we want to do is create a whole team of them. What on earth would we do if we had a whole team of da Vinci’s? There is a fear that if they outnumber us mere mortals within an organisation, they will permanently upset the status quo; they will always be competing for alternative realities; and they will become a destabilising influence.

So we like to keep them at arm’s length, in the back seat; and put a lid on anyone who starts having visions of a different future.

2.Head in the Clouds. Thinking activities don’t look like real work, so we don’t trust them. They are hard to measure so we don’t reward them. We often preside over (and create) a cult of tangibility where as long as people are moving, shuffling real objects, building something concrete, or exchanging precise information, they are considered to be working.

 But sitting quietly thinking is not considered the done thing. It appears as if they are slacking or shirking or zoning out. It’s hard to explain how this is adding value when they have a 30-item ‘to-do list’ in their in-tray, and 75 emails to open.

 3. Eyes on the Dashboard. Some organisations seem to spend so much time looking in rather than looking-out. Their fascination with gazing at their own dashboard means that they often fail to spot the approaching tornado looming on the horizon.

Too much insularity breeds content. We start to think of ourselves and our company as being at the centre of the universe. We get drawn in to believing that the company is a social infrastructure designed specifically to provide us with work. Energies are spent on internal workings and mechanisms, internal disputes and hiccups, internal practices and configurations, internal systems to manage the internal population.

But as we’re driving along, who’s looking out the window asking, “What are we really here for? Who are our customers? What’s the world like out there? What does it need from us? What are the trends? What’s our future?”

It doesn’t take the few creative visionaries to ask or answer these questions. Everyone can do it if we let them.

We need to make space within our companies so that everyone can become more inquisitive and visionary, if we are to have a fighting chance of managing and creating change more effectively.


We do like neat labels, don’t we? Life is so much easier if we define people (usually rather dismissively) as ‘The Dreamer’ or ‘The Analyst’, as if dreaming or being analytical is the only thing they do.People who have the capacity to be visionary (and exercise it) are not solely defined by this one characteristic.

Just because I have the capacity to identify a number of malt whiskies from a blind tasting, does not mean that I am simply a drunk. I am much more complex than that!

So, perhaps if we were to look at ‘Being Visionary’ from a behavioural competence perspective rather than as a description of a personality type, we might be able to uncover what it is, and stand a chance of replicating it…in each and every one of us.

Getting Hold of the Steering Wheel

So what’s it going to take to develop our innate but dormant visionary capability?

Here are five ideas to start with.

1.      Do the Mystery Tour

 If we don’t see it we don’t think about it. It’s a case of ‘Out of Sight, Out of Mind’.

And if we don’t think about it, we don’t go looking for it. We don’t even know if it’s there.

There is a danger that we might only see what we want to see, but if we don’t look, we won’t see it at all.

So first of all, we have to force ourselves to look. That means opening our minds to what we might discover and not being afraid of the mystery. Then we have to start dreaming a little.

In essence, we all need to become strategic tourists.

The world is a rich and varied place, and there are many lessons to be learned by extending our area of focus.

The most successful companies don’t just duck and dive, careering this way and that to contend with shocks and surprises. They try to reduce the number and scale of surprises.

They create their own future by:

  •  studying the landscape
  • observing the trends
  • remaining alert to subtle but significant patterns of social and commercial behaviour
  • and being prepared to look, even if they might not like what they see.

2.      Look at the Road Ahead 

When you’re driving along the motorway, you don’t fix your gaze on the car bonnet.

You look at the road ahead. This is the only way you can spot the dangers and warning signs in order to take controlled evasive action.

If the future is a road, we need to have a strong sense of where it is going and what’s in the way.

We live in a time where the pace of change is incredibly fast. We’ve come a long way from the Model T Ford.

Today, we are not so much on a country lane as on a four-lane highway, in rush hour, with a contraflow system in place, emergency vehicles blue-lighting us, a spilt load ahead, speed cameras and wild deer crossing.

We’ve got things coming at us from all directions so we need to be alert. We can’t afford to fall asleep at the wheel. We have to expand our field of vision, check our rear-view mirror, look out for road signs, and check our fuel gauge and where we can next fill up. We do this in a car because we don’t want to end up as a crash statistic.

The world of business isn’t so different.

  •  We now live in a truly global economy – with all its threats and fragilities
  • There are new world powers emerging that have the capacity to destabilise current alliances and regimes
  • The world is changing geographically and meteorologically, borders are being redrawn & landscapes reshaped
  • As people, we have different (and some say more demanding) expectations and needs
  • Technological advances mean that we way we do business and communicate with each other is changing

Just as the driver makes use of all available instruments to help navigate this landscape, business leaders need to encourage their people to use the instruments available to them.

One such instrument is a PESTLE analysis. It offers a way of becoming alert to change (real or anticipated). By assessing the world outside from the perspectives of Political, Economic, Sociological, Technological, Legal & Environmental activity across the medium to long term, we can quickly identify changes that have the capacity to affect us.

I would go further by looking at philosophical changes which define the values, morals and ethics by which we feel it appropriate to conduct ourselves universally or nationally. It may have been considered fair-game for bakers to pad out bread with wood chippings in Victorian times, but these practices are frowned upon today. Who knows what we will consider acceptable at some point in the future.

This process clarifies the huge melting pot of change which we need to contend with. All of which, if we see it coming, we can divert, navigate, protect against and turn to our advantage.

A simple PESTLE analysis helps to answer some of those important questions I posed earlier:

  • What are we really here for?
  • Who are our customers?
  • What’s the world like out there?
  • What does it need from us?
  • What are the trends?
  • What’s our future?”

 Teams need to carry out activities like these regularly and together.

3.      Have a Clear Map

There’s the apocryphal story of JFK visiting NASA headquarters in the 1960’s. He stopped to talk to one of the Janitors and when he asked, “What do you do?” the Janitor replied. “I’m helping to put a man on the moon, sir”.

This man understood the context within which he was operating, and the important role he had to play. He knew why he was there and why what he did was so important. He knew where he fitted into the story. What vision. What great sense of purpose.

Companies must make their vision clear to their employees. And employees must be able to see where they fit. Feeling on the map is hugely liberating. Instead of getting bogged down in the mire and minutiae of our daily tasks (which on the face of it can sometimes seem irrelevant and menial), we start to see how our role actually shapes the route. This is what makes work so motivating.

4.      Give Yourself Room to Manoeuvre

Some companies recognise and value the power of visionary behaviour, dreaming, innovation, creativity, & thinking-time.  They prize it so highly that they make space for it within their work schedule.

Nokia offer an example of this. Teams of ‘Nokia-Creatives’ can often be seem wandering the corridors mulling over interesting ideas that might satisfy our ever-growing thirst for mobile technology. Being visionary is actively encouraged, expected and accommodated. Time is set aside for it, and it isn’t regarded as slacking.

Any company can do this. Setting aside dedicated time for these activities and making space to share the ideas and outputs in a genuinely open forum, can only be a positive thing if it is part of a balanced approach to work. We still need to look in the rear-view mirror and check the dashboard, but not at the expense of looking through the windscreen.

One company I work with built what it called a Creative Room. It was a comfortable place for people to go where they could sit, relax, think, discuss, play, dream, ponder and investigate. It was a place requiring no clear agenda other than to consider the future and how we can prepare for it or shape it. It was a space away from the hurly-burly of business-as-usual activities, interruptions and distractions.

But as pressure on office space increased, slowly the Creative Room became just another meeting room and the impetus was lost. These things only work if you are committed to them and prepared to see them through.

Of course, you don’t necessarily need a Creative Room. We can all be more creative and visionary if we are given the permission to be so. It’s often not the space, but the cultural expectation that counts.

5.      Plan Longer Journeys

Visionaries look not just one month or one year ahead, but five or ten years ahead.

Some look 50 or 100+ years ahead.

Their predictive accuracy might diminish the longer the timescale they look at, but they aren’t afraid to look.

And because they believe they can create their own reality, they draw the outline of the future that they then start to paint, even if they will never see the completed canvas.

So we need to look further ahead than we have become used to doing, and not be afraid to start a journey that we won’t be around long enough to complete or get the credit for starting.


Stimulating visionary behaviour means encouraging people to:

  • build plans for the long term, rather than always reacting to the present
  • recognise the context within which they work and the contribution they make to the final outcome
  • consider gradual evolution rather than rapid growth (which invariably stimulates a cycle of boom and bust)
  • keep their eyes open and on the road
  • force themselves to look

These are just some of the things that visionary people and far-sighted companies do.

And I believe that it’s what everyone will do, one day. Because without clear vision we will never see a brighter and better future.

Reforming the Refuseniks

  • Do you have employees whose faces are so long that if they had a goatee beard they’d be able to brush the floor without a stretch?
  • Are you currently in the grip of employees who can’t see the good in anything?
  • Are you being forced to spend your time at work with people who are so grumpy they’d give Victor Meldrew a run for his money?
  • Do you find yourself having to manage the world’s most unhelpful person?
  •  And do you have to suffer the constant whinging, moaning and mocking of employees who don’t support any idea unless it’s their own?

The really sad thing is that we go along with these people. We tolerate the office grouch, we side-line the misery-guts, and we try to avoid the complaining and cantankerous curmudgeon. But we don’t do much to stop them being so damn miserable.

Let’s be clear. I’m not talking about the person who has an occasional off-day. That would be all of us. And I’m not talking about the person who bravely points out that something is amiss. I’m talking about the person who appears to have made sulking their life’s work.

They seem to defy nature, having no positive electrons surging through them at all. They’ve turned being negative into an art-form.

I’ve met people who’ve worked for 30 years with the same company and have never had a good word to say about it. I’ve had to train some of them, but thankfully that brings us into contact for only a few hours. God only knows what it’s like putting up with them for 40 hours a week, every week, for 30 years!

Why have we tolerated it for so long? Why didn’t someone put them out of their misery and show them the door?


Do You Know This Person?

A consultant I know of calls these people ‘psychic vampires’. I really wish I’d thought of that, because it so perfectly describes the way they suck the life-blood out you with their incessant moaning and groaning.

We come into work on a Monday, fresh and excited after a great weekend. We can’t wait to tell some of our colleagues about it. But before we get to them we are confronted by the company complainer.

We spot him coming some way off, loping along the corridor with that hang-dog expression as if someone has just stolen his sweets and then told him he has two months to live.

We want to avoid him but we feel cornered. Turning around and going in the opposite direction would seem rude. Darting into the stair well might result in injury.

So we steer ourselves and offer a cheery “Good morning, Will”

“Is it?” he replies.

And straightaway, our fabulous weekend becomes a distant memory and the long week of work stretches ahead of us like a life sentence…in the company of Whinging Will. We stagger away, heading towards the kitchen hoping to find a sharp knife with which to slit our wrists.

There are lots of Whinging Will’s & Negative Norma’s. They make themselves very noticeable even if they try to hide. And they cast a very big cloud over us.

If your name is Will or Norma, don’t take offence unless this description is true of you. In which case, you should be offended. But you’d be offended anyway, wouldn’t you?

Fortunately for us there are usually many more Motivated Martins, Positive Peggys, Helpful Helens, and Willing Wilmas.

But one Whinging Will can be enough to bring down even the strongest constitution.


Most of us have a human need to fit in, to belong, to be part of a social group.  This shows itself as a tendency to play down to the lowest common denominator among our peers.

If someone is negative, we temper our natural positivity, fearing that it will offend them. If they are being judgemental, we might side-line our forgiving streak.

We adjust ourselves so that we don’t stand out too much: we start to adopt homogenous behaviours.

If we are surrounded by Whinging Will, Negative Norma and Curmudgeonly Curtis, it takes a very self-assured person to continue being upbeat, positive, lively and jolly.

So over time, the mood of the team starts to change. Maybe people huddle in groups and have a quiet moan about Will. They might even have a laugh about him to start with; but gradually it starts to get to them. Gradually they start to behave and feel miserable themselves.

When you know you are going to have to work with these people, possibly for a long time, you have to find a way to make it bearable. One of the ways is to become more like them.

One refusenik is all it takes, and if no-one does anything about it, the refusenik rot spreads.



We know business is tough and work is hard. In lean times we’re always being asked to do more for less. So we’re all stretched and pressurised and probably doing the work of two people. That’s probably the norm these days.

Most people manage this with fortitude and positive commitment; and still find time to bring a smile to work, despite the demands on them.

But some people, irrespective of being under pressure, even during the good times, just can’t find it in themselves to make a positive contribution.

Take a moment to think about the people you have in your organisation.

Do a quick sort and see if you can distribute them roughly into each of the four employee groups described below: A, B, C & D. Base your assessment on the make-up of your company today. In particular, do you have any C’s or D’s?

 A: Willing & Able

B: Willing but Unable

C: Unwilling but Able

D: Unwilling and Unable

You shouldn’t really have anyone in C or D, because this is the home of Whinging Will and Negative Norma. But it’s shocking to discover that many companies have a liberal spread of them.


When these people went through the recruitment process in order to join the company, they probably presented themselves as quite positive and fired up.

They told us what great team players they were and how passionate they were about delivering results. They said they were up for change, highly motivated, great problem solvers and very accommodating.

And we believed them. That’s why we hired them.

The over time, things changed.

For the first week or more, everything went to plan. Then slowly they metamorphosed into this cross between a tantrum-toddler and a hormonal-teenager. They become the Incredible Sulk!

  • Now whenever we ask anything of them, they throw a wobbly. Even if it’s a totally reasonable request.
  •  Now, when we’re trying to improve something, they’re always the ones who say, “It’ll never work!”
  •  Now when we are all trying desperately to rebuild our companies from the ashes of the recession, they are the ones who drag us down.

Let’s look at how C & D people evolve within our companies.

Here’s a typical employee journey that you might recognise.

  1. Join Company (Employee B)
  2. Develop Skills (Employee A)
  3. Experience Change, Difficulty, Lack of Leadership or Stasis (Employee C)
  4. Give Up, Become Obstinate & Obsolete (Employee D)

But this isn’t inevitable. It could look like this:

  1. Join Company (Employee B)
  2. Develop Skills (Employee A)
  3. Role Changes (Employee B)
  4. Develop new skills & become competent (Employee A)
  5. Role Changes (Employee B)
  6. Develop new skills & become competent (Employee A)
  7. etc.

Here, our employee rises to each new challenge and overcomes it. It takes a mix of their own motivation with the right support mechanisms to make it happen this way.

To understand what’s been going on, we have to look at:

  • What turns some people from A or B into C or D? If they started out Willing and added Capability to this, why did they then become Unable and Unwilling?
  • What was the specific trigger that brought about the behaviour change, and could it have been avoided?
  • Are they ill, in which case why didn’t we spot it earlier?
  • Or were they just very clever at disguising their true selves for long enough to secure the role?

It’s bad enough that we might have been complicit in creating the situation in the first place. It’s even worse that we’ve given C’s and D’s unfettered freedom to drain our emotional well-being and productivity by not intervening.



You’ve got to identify whether you’ve got a genuine refusenik on your hands, or someone who is presenting themselves as one for some other reason.

Typically, there are three types of employee who can look very similar. They are:

  1.  The depressed & mentally ill
  2.  The person who has been switched off by what’s happened at work
  3.  The habitual moaner

Confusing these three can be disastrous, and trying to treat all three the same could only succeed in making matters worse.

Whilst the symptoms might present themselves in a similar way, the root cause and development of the symptoms can be different.

1.      Mental Illness or Depression?

Someone who has become mentally ill or depressed will probably have experienced a slow decline. Their behaviour might be erratic (some good days and some bad), and they could have been changing gradually over time.

People with mental illness can continue to function extremely well at work if they are given the right treatment. Offer support and counselling to get them through, use your occupational health services, and point them in the direction of their doctor.

It’s also possible that someone has experienced a fairly traumatic experience which has temporarily knocked them for six. If you know your employees well, it is likely you will be aware of these events. If this is the case, their behaviour might suddenly change. They need a break and understanding. They might need to talk it through. They will need compassion. They won’t need penalising.

2.      Ground Down?

People might have been ground down over the years by things the company or a manager has done to them.

They may have been made ill by the company expecting more, communicating less, failing to consider the impact of decisions on them, ignoring them, piling more and more seemingly useless bureaucratic tasks on them, taking away key resources, replacing good systems with fiendish ones…the list goes on.

This, if unchecked, can lead to serious depression in some people.

But they started out positive and committed, so their behaviour has changed over time, and we should be able to observe this change.

Other people might have a grievance which for various reasons they choose to air by sulking rather than addressing it through the formal or informal grievance procedures. If this is the case, you need to explore their grievance. Many are the result of simple misunderstandings; although some are legitimate complaints that need to be dealt with.

If you let it fester, it will grow out of all proportion over time and the way back may be almost impossible.

If you deal with it, the chances are the employee will become re-motivated. If they don’t, it’s possible you’re dealing with our third type of employee described below.

3.      A Habitual Moaner?

Sometimes people just slip into the role of being a moaner. They might not actually be unhappy. If anything, they probably enjoy behaving the way they do because they invariably get what they want: people leaving them alone; not having to take on accountability or responsibility; rarely being asked to do things. They’re not so much Whinging Will as Whinging Won’t.

They might have been very clever at disguising this behaviour when they came for the job interview, and they disguised it because they knew it was wrong. But it’s now become a habit.

They are not pathologically miserable: it’s just worked for them in the past and they haven’t been given a good enough reason to change.

Other people just develop bad habits from being around the wrong people for too long, or from never having been giving feedback.

They simply need to know what you’ve seen and how you feel about it. In many cases this is enough to correct their behaviour.


I propose three changes you need to make to improve the situation. Collectively they are our reasons to be Cheerful…One, Two, Three.


  1. Be vigilant & respond immediately
  2. Introduce robust recruitment screening methods
  3. Make unconstructive behaviour a gross misconduct offence

 1.      Vigilance & Quick Response

First, understand why someone is behaving the way they are.This will help to determine whether we have a medical case on our hands or simply a grouch.

  •  Keep a watchful eye on events and activities that might bring about a negative change in an employee’s state of mind and well-being.
  • Look closely at what you are doing that might be making people so unhappy that they lose all interest, motivation and commitment to the company.
  • When you are managing any change initiative that will have an impact on an employee, don’t assume that they will just get on with it and cope. Factor them into your equation and be ready to make the necessary support available.
  • Always be on the lookout for sudden changes in mood, but don’t overlook the slow, almost imperceptible decline that can happen with some people.
  • Then, when you spot the change intervene immediately.

Be sensitive in the way you respond, but find out what triggered the change, and let the employee know that you have spotted it.

You may have been partly responsible for the behaviour being demonstrated by the disgruntled employee. Recognise this and accept that you have a responsibility to create the conditions which will allow the employee to make a positive change. They also have a responsibility to respond appropriately.

2.      Recruitment

It’s hard to pretend you are something you’re not for long. You simply can’t keep it up. The mask begins to fade.

There’s a Viagra equivalent available to Whinging Will, but only if he’s seriously depressed (which, as we have shown, should always be considered a possibility).

If he is simply trying to present a more favourable image of himself because he knows that the real Stan wouldn’t get the job, you need to be much more robust in the way you put him through the recruitment process.

Somehow we have to weed out the serial complainers, malingerers and malcontents.

The best option we have is a multi-faceted assessment process like an Assessment Centre. The individual elements are typically insufficient to properly assess what a candidate is really like, but collectively (especially if they follow each other in quick succession) a fuller picture begins to emerge.

It’s surprising how few companies actually use well-constructed Assessment Centres as part of their recruitment process. Deterred by the upfront costs of setting them up, designing and administering them, many simply opt for an interview process supplemented by an almost useless reference check.

So our job applicant simply has to read any one of the hundreds of books with titles like “Perfect Answers to Interview Questions”, “How to Wow them at Your Job Interview”,  “What They Really Want to Hear”, or “Lie Your Way to Success” and then regurgitate any one of the model answers scripted for him/her. It’s relatively easy to fake.

It’s much less easy to fake when they have to carry out a range of tasks over an extended period of time. Sooner or later the veneer will crack and it’s better to see what’s lurking beneath it before you decide to bring them into your company.

3.      Gross Misconduct

 Well it is gross isn’t it? It contaminates the company

But make sure you know what you’re looking for. You don’t want to stop people being constructively critical or challenging because these are vital activities that help teams make well-judged decisions, and deliver innovative solutions.

And you don’t want to penalise people who are feeling a bit down one day.

However, you do want to tackle the serial offenders who get the balance wrong. This is where their behaviour becomes destructive. It’s wrong when someone:

  •  always say “No”
  • always reminds us that “It’ll never work”
  • consistently undermines efforts to make progress
  • never chooses to participate
  • repeatedly bad-mouths the team and the company
  • refuses every request to help
  • constantly attacks positions without putting forward positive and viable alternatives
  • moans incessantly

So you have to define the type of behaviour that you consider unacceptable, in terms that everyone understands, and then communicate it clearly. It’s part of the contract between you the employer and them the employee.

I came across a company in Germany who introduced a ‘three strikes and you’re out’ policy for moaning and whinging. They just got fed up with a small group of people demoralising the rest of the workforce.

The disciplinary process exists as a vehicle to correct performance and behaviour. But it also provides a route to the door for those employees who refuse to play ball, and who threaten the stability of a company through inappropriate and unwelcome behaviour.


It’s hard to be motivated every day. Sometimes, we don’t like an idea. Occasionally, we are so overwhelmed by work that we feel the need to retreat. These are normal behaviours and we shouldn’t be afraid to show them at work. But the clue is in the word ‘occasionally’.

It’s much easier to handle an employee who has the odd off day because we know that the next day they’ll be back on again. We give them a bit of space, some support and encouragement, and they re-join the fold fairly quickly.

What’s not so easy is living with the knowledge that Whinging Will is going to come in every morning in exactly the same state as the day before. It doesn’t matter whether the workload is heavy or light; or deadlines are loose or tight. He’s simply out of love with the company, his colleagues, and his work.

Having eliminated mental illness as a primary cause, (or diagnosed and arranged for treatment of it); having considered your own role as a primary root cause of the behaviour; and having been clear about the type of behaviour you require as a condition of employment, you simply need to take action whenever you spot a breach.

Don’t be a refusenik yourselves. Respond & reform!


‘Lean’ shouldn’t mean ‘Mean’

Having recently viewed Tom Dyckhoff’s excellent ‘Secret life of Buildings’ on Channel 4 (UK) I’ve been reflecting on the number of work spaces I have visited as part of my consulting career.

I work with companies to help them find ways of developing their people, increasing their productivity, and creating a positive culture. And yet so many of the companies I work with ask their employees to function in bland, unappealing and soul-destroying environments.

What shocks me is how I have allowed myself to be fooled into thinking that a pot plant here or there, or a solitary piece of artwork on the wall is an adequate antidote to the blandness of open plan work spaces.

I’ve worked with the Highways Agency who, in one of their centres, had glass partitions with the image of trees embedded in them,  I must confess to being pleasantly surprised at the time by what I considered to be an innovative attempt made to ‘bring the outside in”. Of course, I only considered it innovative because every other building I had worked in made no attempt whatsoever to accommodate real people.

Most companies who want to do something about it feel hamstrung by the physical space they inherit (or lease) and are at a loss to know how they can adapt them (hence the pot plants!).

Three things strike me here:

1. Our quest for Lean working seems to be at odds with our basic psychology when it comes to minimalist office design

2. How have we reached a point where we design work spaces without taking into account what the space would need to look like to truly accommodate the psychological needs of workers?

3. How many other times have I allowed myself to be duped into accepting something is ‘good’ or ‘innovative’ or right  just because it is noticeably different to the norm?

Taking the last point first; I know I have been guilty of becoming transfixed by the big & bold new idea. It’s so new that I find it invigorating. That’s my nature and I am easily-led.

But this isn’t the worst thing I have to contend with about myself. It’s the more insidious, the trickle effect, where bit-by-bit I lower my standards without even realising because the change has been slow and incremental. It’s only much later when the veil is removed from our eyes that we see what we have become and what we have allowed to happen.

This was shockingly brought home to me when I visited Venezuela in the 1990’s. Seeing a seriously injured (and possibly dead) man lying in the middle of the freeway through Caracas, I urged my host to stop and offer some assistance. But people in Caracas have gradually become immune to death & suffering. Normal western rules no longer apply. “What if he has been placed there by people who want to steal your vehicle if you stop?”  “Who’s going to pay his medical (or burial) fees if you stop in a country that has no social health provision?” So over time, gradually, newcomers to Caracas adjust. I hadn’t adjusted, but my host had, and maybe I would have adjusted if I had remained in Venezuela for the long term. It’s amazing how we adapt to the environments around us when we know we have to live in them for the long-term.

Back to places of work, quickly! There’s usually much less bloodshed there.

My wife is a writer and works from home. We’re not stupid: why pay for office space when we already have 4 walls?

Her working pattern always varies (so no pattern, really!), but it consists of various elements and activities that look something like this.

  • Lying in bed, snuggled up with a duvet mulling over ideas and trying to resolve tricky plot and character issues.
  • Sitting in front of her computer, hammering out words on the keyboard.
  • Pacing around the house talking to agents, producers, editors, etc on the phone
  • Grabbing a bite to eat in the kitchen
  • Doing some research (using old fashioned books or the gloriously unregulated world wide web!)
  • Going for a walk to clear her head and allow ideas to coalesce in her brain
  • Spreading herself out on the living room floor or the dining table with reams of notes/ideas/articles

Now I’ve been around for quite a while but I have never yet seen a duvet in the workplace unless the workplace happens to belong to a duvet manufacturer!

I’ve heard of ‘duvet days’, but haven’t yet seen duvets and beds provided for employees so that they can fulfil their duties at work. (OK, so the Fire Service used to provide beds for the night-shift, but they are now expected to work through their shift, which is a novel idea!)

It sounds daft, but why shouldn’t the environment that my wife inhabits be replicated elsewhere? Her work isn’t that different to the work of many people who are based in offices. They also need to talk to people on the phone: they also need to think through thorny problems in order to arrive at sensible solutions; they also need to eat; they also need to type or access the internet. But their workplaces assume that they should be able to do all this in one place. Sitting at their desk in front of an electronic screen. How daft is that?

Why is it that our office and work spaces do not more closely resemble our home spaces? After all, we spend a sizable proportion of our time in them?

Who says that we shouldn’t have our own furniture, artifacts, colour-schemes and personal effects at work?

Who says that we should be tied to our desks?

Surely, there must be a way to challenge this?

Of course there are arguments against this, but I think most of them are are lazy arguments. They are the arguments that say, we need the space to work for everyone;  and we need order and simplicity in our workplace so clutter is bad. Fine, but I manage to live alongside other people with other tastes and we manage to knock along very well, thank you.  And I achieve order and simplicity in my home, even if my furnishings might not be to your taste. I have successfully managed my ‘clutter’ so that it doesn’t impede my work but adds colour, character and ambience. I work better as a result and people enjoy inhabiting the space.

Most of us leave our colourful homes in the morning, travel along colourful streets with colourful shop windows, only to arrive at our colourless workplace. The shock is almost too much. We feel the grey (or beige) descend upon us like a cloud of toxic waste. No wonder we don’t feel inspired, motivated, energised by work!

‘Lean’ was never meant to mean ‘mean’. We shouldn’t have to punish ourselves in return for having tidy workspaces. There’s ‘tidy’ and there’s ‘devoid of life’.

So I think we need to rethink our attitude to our work spaces. What do we need them to do for us? What do we need them to enable us to do? And then we need to create the space (or spaces) to fit the activities and the people that need to inhabit them.

  • If that means a winged-back chair or a mural with flying ducks, why on earth not?
  • If that means separate spaces for separate activities, why on earth not?
  • And if that means stretching our imagination (or simply applying the imagination we use in our own homes to our work spaces) why on earth not?

Let’s stop tolerating the bland: let’s be adventurous. If our work spaces don’t work for us: change them! And let’s not be afraid of allowing people to bring their strange and wonderful personalities to work.