Category Archives: Culture Change

The Consensus of Underperformance: How To Make Significant Improvements in Your Performance

About a year ago, I was watching Meat Loaf’s horrendous performance at the AFL Final in 2011. Being a huge fan of the Bat Out Of Hell album, I recoiled in horror as the Meat mercilessly butchered his own material in a voice that sounded like a drunken Seal barking into a bathtub. Honestly, he didn’t hit a single decent note in the entire performance, appearing to sing in some strange skeleton key that only made sense to him. Very sad.

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Being something of a frustrated musician myself (I’ve released 3 albums), I thought even I could do better than this tuneless travesty. Even I, possessed as I am of a reasonable but not exactly stunning set of pipes. In fact you could describe my vocal cords as the VW Golf of singing – they get the job done and have a certain amount of appeal, but you’d never call them stunning.

Nonetheless, I had a go at singing over Meat Loaf’s asthmatic honk and yes, I could do a better job. Hell, at least I was in tune and in time and I knew the words. But even if I could manage a marginally creditable performance and better the one delivered by the artist himself, you’d never call it outstanding. Far from it.

However, I derived a sense of satisfaction from my superior singing success. I felt good that I could render those songs better than a man with a voice that was about as functional and as tuneful as the Royal Albert Hall organ before its recent renovation.

It later dawned on me that this was no achievement at all. I was setting the bar low to say the least. What I was actually doing with my Meat Loaf singing challenge was trying to match or narrowly beat mediocrity. I wasn’t improving upon the way those songs are sung (under normal circumstances at least) and I wasn’t interpreting them in a unique and interesting way. I was just trying to sing them slightly better than average.

But I was proud of my mediocrity.

This scared me.

The Self-Esteem Problem

As followers of my blog will already know, I often talk about the effect of self-esteem on our behaviours and attitudes. Once again, let us consider the self-esteem problem.

As human beings, we are constantly engaged in a programme of self-esteem maintenance. We’re often unconscious of this phenomenon, but it affects at least 90% of our actions. We continually look for small pieces of evidence to support and enhance our self-esteem. In other words, we are continually trying to find new ways to feel good about ourselves.

What was I doing when I tried to sing those Meat Loaf songs? I wasn’t just trying to prove to myself that I could sing better than Meat Loaf – I was trying to make myself feel good about my singing abilities.

Now, the easiest way to feel good about your own abilities is to set the bar of comparison really, really low. This is what I did with my singing challenge. Start from a low base, then you will only need to expend a little effort to deliver better performance and you can make it considerably easier to feel good about yourself.

You may well relate to this. Perhaps you’ve compared your figure to that of someone who is out of shape, convincing yourself that you look great as a result. Maybe you’ve experienced a boost when you noticed that your neighbour only has a BMW 316i, while you have the 330D Luxury. Or possibly, you’ve gained some satisfaction in realising that your desk is just that little bit tidier than your colleague’s.

This behavioural trait dominates society. Its quite incredible to realise that people constantly make small comparisons between themselves and others within similar situations, looking for validation for their current level of performance in work, life or relationships. And yet people rarely try to make a leapfrog improvement in their own performance, or indeed their circumstances.

Comparing my vocal performance to Meat Loaf at his worst didn’t improve my singing abilities. It just made me feel better about my current level of singing performance.

The Consensus of Underperformance

Now think about your workplace. What is performance like within your team or even within your organisation as a whole? Does anybody ever really “stand out” as a a high performer?

Look closely and it is very likely that you will find that everyone performs to pretty much the same standard. Sure, there may be small differences here and there, but generally everyone will work to the same basic level. One of the reasons for this is that people reference each other’s performance and as I have said already, validate their own behaviour by using others as a benchmark. The effect of this is that they perform to the same basic standards – because everyone else is performing to those standards.

If it’s alright for Ben, it’s OK for me.

We justify our performance by observing that others perform no better than we do. This creates a cycle of the same performance repeated over and over with little to no change.

The end result of this is effectively a consensus of underperformance.

I remember some years ago working with a team who were underperforming. One day, I asked some of my colleagues to explain why they thought the team had underperformed for so many years. They said “we don’t really know, but we have noticed one thing which seems really odd”. Being the inquisitive guy I am (or nosy, according to my wife) I was intrigued to find out what that one thing was. This is what they said – “anybody who joins this team from outside always ends up acting and performing the same as the rest of us within three months”.

Once again, there was an unspoken consensus of underperformance. And everyone entering that team was quickly assimilated into it.

Breaking the Consensus

So what are you supposed to do about this? Should you do anything about this situation?

Well, imagine for one moment that everything you are able to achieve within your life is set to the same level as that of your neighbours. That is, you can only achieve as much as your neighbour financially. Assume for a moment that your neighbour is slightly worse off than you are now.

Would you voluntarily settle for this arrangement?

I imagine the answer would be a definite “no”.

To escape the limitations of setting your performance standards to the prevailing standards of others, you have to set the bar higher. You have to ask yourself “what can I do differently to make a bigger impact?”. In short, you need to become the disrupter.

So what do I mean by “the disrupter”? Well, I can tell you it’s not some hitherto unknown superhero that goes around butting into conversations. At least as far as I know. Let me explain what I mean.

It is incredibly common for situations to rumble along unchanged for extremely long periods of time, like a train on a straight piece of track that runs on and on forever. Without outside influence, they just continue indefinitely. To change their direction, something has to come along and disrupt them. For example, if someone puts an object in the path of the train, it may alter where it’s going. But unless that object is large enough to offset the momentum and mass of the train, then the rampaging locomotive will obliterate it and continue on its journey to oblivion. Make the object something with sufficient mass and energy to exceed that of the train and the 10:42 London Midland service to Same-As will change course pretty easily.

This is what I mean when I encourage you to become a “disrupter”. You see, mediocrity thrives on mediocrity. Disrupt the permanence of this mediocrity by dramatically improving your own performance and suddenly, the game is changed. The bar is raised. There is no longer a consensus of underperformance.

So here are four simple tips that will allow you to get started in improving your performance and becoming a disruptive but positive influence on your colleagues.

1. Don’t get dragged into negativity

Many workplaces are riddled with negativity – you’ll probably recognise this in your own situation. Constant negativity holds people back, restricts performance, keeps everything mediocre. Don’t allow yourself to be dragged into this destructive behaviour.

Adopt a positive mental attitude and and live it out in front of your colleagues. Be the one to find the upside in situations, rather than joining in the indulgent complaining about why things aren’t as good as they should be. Become a leader within your team by showing your colleagues how things could be better.

Look for the positives and lead others in identifying opportunities for the future.

2. Seek knowledge

It’s remarkable how many decisions are made on a daily basis within our workplaces with insufficient knowledge and a lack of facts. Avid readers of my blog will recognise that this is something I raise time and time again. It’s true to say that many people make little to no effort to improve their knowledge on a daily basis. The result is stagnation and of course, mediocrity.

Become interested in increasing your understanding and knowledge on a daily basis. Make sure that your decisions are informed, give yourself confidence in your own abilities by filling your mind with useful facts and other information. Ask questions and do your research. Keep learning.

Be the one with the most knowledge and use this to lead your colleagues towards better decisions and thus, better performance.

3. Get to the “why” of situations

Another unfortunate trait within our workplaces is a lack of understanding of why certain things are being carried out. Many people appear to bumble along carrying out tasks that they have little to no understanding of and for which they are unable to define a purpose. This is the natural compliment to mediocre performance because these individuals have little to no context for the work for carrying out and as such are unable to innovate or improve the work.

Make it your business to understand the purpose of the tasks you and your colleagues are carrying out on a daily basis. Ask the relevant questions that will help you to understand “why?”. Once you understand the purpose, articulate it to others and help them to appreciate it.

Understand the purpose of the work and use this understanding to help others see where you’re going and why.

4. Critically appraise your own performance

We’re often scared to reflect on our own performance. Commonly, if people don’t experience any negative consequences from their current level of performance, they assume all to be okay and carry on performing at the same level. This is not conducive to improvement, again it is a recipe for stagnation.

Adopt the habit of regularly appraising your own performance. Consider what you do well and look for opportunities to improve. Be prepared to look honestly at your negative areas and plan out how you might develop them. Do all of this from the perspective of a third party. Imagine yourself as someone else looking in on your performance and go from there. Where you find deficiencies, don’t allow yourself to be disheartened. This will only impact your self-esteem. Consider them as facts, as something impersonal and then you’ll be free to objectively determine how best to improve.

Become interested in your own performance and development and set an example to your colleagues along the way.

Back to Self-Esteem

Now before I finish this blog, I want to touch on self-esteem again. You may have spotted that there are some self esteem implications to becoming a disruptive influence within your team. Raising your head above the parapet and fighting for better performance where everyone else is satisfied with the status quo has its consequences.

In the short term you may experience reduced self-esteem simply as a result of differentiating yourself from the herd. As I said earlier, people derive self esteem by justifying their own performance in relation to that of others. Attempting to do things differently means that you can no longer compare yourself to those around you as easily.

Go with it. Don’t allow short-term discomfort to prevent you from achieving long-term satisfaction.

In the long term your self esteem will go up considerably. As you become more interested in improving your performance and being a more positive influence on others, your self worth and self belief will increase. Over time, you will feel much better about yourself, you will feel more secure and you will be more fulfilled than you are now.

So give it some thought. Why not step away from the consensus of underperformance and become an example to those around you of why we need not settle for mediocrity in our workplaces.

Set the bar high and watch yourself accelerate towards greater and greater achievement – like a bat out of hell.

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John Hackett

Managing Director – Franklin-Hackett Ltd.

How To Deal With Envy In The Workplace

Do you envy your colleagues’ success?

Back in my younger days I attended a private boarding school for two years while I did my ‘A’ Levels. For an averagely talented young guy from a comprehensive school in Dudley, it was something of a culture shock.

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In the good old comprehensive, I was top of the class in a number of subjects. Each high grade and complimentary comment from the relevant teacher boosted my self esteem – gave me a feeling of being “better” than the other students. I wasn’t a popular kid, in fact I was probably on par with impetigo for social acceptance, and was more often than not the target for bullies who seemed to have collectively confused my head with a football. So I wasn’t walking around with a swollen head from excessive self-esteem, let’s just say that. But nonetheless, my apparent academic success allowed me to feel superior in at least one area. In these limited sets of circumstances, I was “OK” where most of my contemporaries were apparently “not OK”. In short, I was the academic achiever.

So when I moved to the poshest private boarding school since St. Posh’s Posh Academy opened in the Borough of Posh, I thought everything would be fantastic. After all, I came top in a number of subjects such as English, Music and Business Studies at my previous school – I was bound to fit in, right?

Eh, no. What I discovered upon joining was that the academic bar was considerably higher at the private school than it was at the comprehensive. In fact, it was like comparing the height of the Empire State Building to a small 10 storey tower block in Slough. Rather more steps.

Where I had previously been a high achiever, I was now distinctly average against my new peers. On the plus side, I fitted in socially and rather than being used as an item of gym equipment by the bullies, I was now popular. But academically, I was mediocre at best. What’s more, I only had two years in which to advance my skills just to match the base standard of the school at the time I joined.

This was a task equivalent to making a comb-over fashionable. It couldn’t really be done.

The result of this new set of circumstances was that I no longer felt “OK” about my academic ability. Everyone else was “OK” but I was “not OK”. Because I now felt “not OK” about my academic ability, I became envious of my contemporaries who appeared to be blessed with an innate ability to deliver high performance with little effort in areas where I seemed to require enormous effort for little performance. Bastards.

The more envious I became the more I saw myself as a victim of bad circumstances.

Now, my experiences are by no means unique and I expect my story is bringing back your own memories of similar situations from your school days. Like many of us, you’ve probably experienced situations such as mine where you find yourself coming up short in comparison with others – where you feel you’re not as good as you thought you were.

Situations where you feel “not OK” about yourself.

But just pause for a moment. I want you to consider how these situations affect your working life. Because it turns out that these situations are not unique to our academic careers – they are equally prevalent in the workplace.

The Comparison Problem

As human beings, we have all become conditioned to compare ourselves to other human beings. Throughout the course of a typical day we are continuously making micro-comparisons, be they physical, intellectual or situational. “Am I fatter than them?”, “Do they drive a better car than me?”, “Does my boss prefer Dave to me?”, “Is my report as good as Sharon’s?”, “Was that joke I just cracked as funny as the one Will told this morning?” etc, etc.

These are the things we human beings spend a lot of time thinking about. We are collectively obsessed with how we stack up against our contemporaries.

It turns out that this is an automatic internal mechanism, built into our brains and reinforced by social conditioning and experience. And it’s incredibly self-centred. In fact, it’s all about good old self-esteem.

We spend inordinate amounts of time trying to prop up our self-esteem, trying to make ourselves feel good about ourselves. This is because our self-esteem is often built on very poor foundations. Imagine going to the English Channel, building a pier out of flimsy materials in the middle of a storm and then running around trying to make adjustments in the structure to stop it falling down. Not terribly productive and likely to end in a bloody great mess. This is what we are doing all the time.

How do you feel when one of your colleagues closes a big deal? Or when a fellow co-worker is selected to undertake a prestigious secondment? Or when all the managers one level above you are given the opportunity to attend a training programme but you’re not?

Or when Debbie walks into the kitchen with a humungous coffee cup that’s twice the size of yours?

We should be pleased for our colleagues, right? But I’m willing to bet that many of us would want to throw Debbie’s stupid oversized poser mug out the nearest window.

These are the kind of situations that cause many of us to believe we are “not OK”. And going back to the pier metaphor – believing we’re “not OK” means that every one of these situations is an assault to our rickety self esteem in the same way as each wave breaks off another piece of the British Leyland pier. It’s a constant fight to stay standing.

Breaking The Cycle Of Envy

This cycle of self-esteem maintenance, which encourages comparison and then results in envy where the comparison is not favourable, makes working life far more difficult that it should be. This nonsense is simmering away under the surface in your office and your performance and quality of life is being affected by it. Do you want this to continue?

I suspect not. I mean, telling your manager that your poor performance in a task was the result of a drop in self-esteem caused by Debbie’s Bentley of coffee cups showing up in the kitchen is not going to cut it.

You can’t necessarily change this in others. But you can do something about it yourself. You can change the way you think.

Here’s how.

1. Look into others

We tend to look up to those we perceive as being more successful or more “OK” than ourselves. This is an inherently inferior position – similar to a child’s view of a parent. “I’m not OK, because he’s OK”.

Instead of seeing others as superior, luckier or more “OK” than you, think logically about what it is about them that you value. Ask questions such as:

  • What is it that I admire about them?
  • What have they done that I haven’t? How might I do that?
  • What are their strengths and weaknesses?
  • What barriers might they have in their work life?

When we use our mind in this way we turn off our emotional mode and engage our thinking mode. Rather than seeing someone as more successful than ourselves and reacting emotionally to that (i.e. I’m “not OK”), we begin to logically assess what lessons can be learned and how we might apply it to our own situations. We see into other people.

This brings me neatly on to the next tip.

2. Celebrate their success

We often see other people’s success as a kind of barrier to our own achievements, as though their being successful has closed off the route to our own success. This is particularly true in workplace environments.

However, you have a choice here. The reality is that other people’s success is a signpost demonstrating what is possible. Someone doing well within the workplace is immensely positive for you, because it shows what you might be able to achieve yourself.

Celebrate the success of others. After all, like you, they were probably “not OK” with themselves before they were successful. They’re just human beings, the same as you. So be pleased that they’re doing well and use that fact as motivation for your own success.

Which leads us to:

3. Give yourself a break

Like I said, we’re all human beings. Everyone has the same basic struggles as you. Just because someone else seems to be doing better, don’t assume that they didn’t have to overcome similar barriers to those you face. Don’t assume that because someone else looks “OK” that they don’t feel “not OK” in certain aspects of their lives.

It’s perfectly normal to be “not OK” about yourself. Which means that in actual fact, you are “OK”.

So give yourself a break.

4. Build your self-esteem on solid foundations

Remind yourself of your achievements, your good qualities, your skills. Take pride in who you are and what you already bring to the table, remembering that you can add to all of these things with hard work and endeavour.

There are things you can do which your colleagues cannot. There are things you have that they don’t. All too often, we forget our positives and focus on our deficiencies when comparing ourselves to others.

Build your self-esteem on what you have already accomplished and what you can already do and your metaphorical pier will stand up in any weather.

If only I had known this when I was at school. I would have realised that despite being academically behind my new colleagues at the oh-so-posh private school, I actually had talents in some areas that they didn’t. If I had looked into my fellow pupils and sought to understand how they had become so academically gifted, I would have had a strong chance of drastically improving my own academic skills.

Certainly would have been more productive than burning the school down. (Just kidding!)

I want to leave you with a great quote which sadly, I am unable to attribute as I can’t recall where I found it. If anyone does know who originated this, please let me know and I will add the appropriate credit.

Anyway, this is a quote that you should always remember:

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Worth remembering, I think.

So next time Debbie uses the entire contents of the kettle to fill her cavernous caffeine container, give her a break, huh?

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John Hackett

Managing Director, Franklin-Hackett Ltd.

If you’re interested in training that will help you to manage your self-esteem and get more from others, why not drop me a line at info@franklin-hackett.co.uk

Back to Work… or is it School? – The Origins Of Workplace Stress

It’s September 1st and everyone is back to work after a refreshing summer break. The business world is re-awakening from its slumber and getting ready to make the next step forward.

At the same time, children are returning to school with a collective groan. And perhaps, a good number of us are making similarly negative noises about returning to work. But why Screen Shot 2014-09-01 at 13.38.24would we do this? What is it about going back to work that makes us apprehensive and miserable?

Well, I’d like to mention one leading factor of the September Blues – office politics.

Ah yes – that pesky little phenomenon that we’re all used to, that we all tolerate on a day-to-day basis but nobody likes. The thought of returning to an environment full of poisonous political behaviour is enough to make most people wish for an epically disastrous unexpected weather event to relieve them of the need to go to work.

Office Politics

Ask most people about office politics and they are likely to tell you that they believe it is unavoidable – it’s just a natural result of putting people together in a room for sustained periods of time. And it is. But it doesn’t have to be.

For a moment, let’s take a step back. At this point I would like to ask you to think about your school days. What behaviours did you see going on at school? What kind of things did people do? What political games did people play?

Hopefully, your reflections will have reminded you that there is such a thing as school playground politics. And perhaps you might already be realising that there are striking similarities between the political behaviour you remember from your experiences of school and the dreaded phenomenon of office politics.

And the reason for this is simple. They are the same thing.

The reality is this –  most adults have not unlearned the destructive and childish behaviours and mindsets they left school with. Behaviours in the workplace such as victim mentality, blaming and persecution, consensus paralysis and past focus are all typical manifestations of these problems and are the things we experience as “office politics”.

The fact is that office politics is optional. The behaviour needed to create politics is chosen by people within the organisation. It may be a subconscious choice, but it’s a choice nonetheless and can therefore be changed. The problem is most grown adults don’t have a clue how to behave any differently. They’ve never been shown an alternative.

The unfortunate truth is most people behave like schoolchildren when you put them in an organisation. They’re going to of course, because being an employee within an organisation is really no different to being at school. You have a hierarchy, variable levels of intelligence, performance and popularity amongst the members, rules and regulations and a sense of duty – i.e. you are required to be there or else. If people haven’t learned alternative behaviours then they simply revert back to those they practiced at school, as fundamentally, the situation is the same. People revert to type under pressure.

Choosing Not To Engage

The good news is that you personally have a choice over this. Every one of us can change the way we behave as individuals. What we cannot do is change the behaviour of others – we can only influence it through our own actions. If you choose not to engage in office politics, then you create a circle of influence around you which helps to move others away from the destructive behaviour.

So what you must do is this:

1.) Read my blog article “You Are All Diseased”. This will show you the 4 main behaviours that create office politics and how to avoid them. You can find it here: https://franklinhackettltd.wordpress.com/2014/07/09/you-are-all-diseased/

2.) Check out the document “Office Politics 101”. This shows you how to recognise when political behaviours are taking place, based on the language people use. You can find it here: http://www.franklinhackett.co.uk/Resources/Office%20Politics%20101.pdf

3.) Observe your own behaviour and try to avoid falling into the negative behaviours I’ve described. Widen your antennae and become more aware of how other people are behaving. Use your alternative positive behaviours as a lever to influence their behaviour. Don’t get dragged down by the negativity – rise above it.

If you increase your awareness and become a positive role model you will make a difference – both to your personal happiness and emotional health and to the culture of your team and subsequently, the organisation itself.

Office politics is really just school playground antics souped up with shirts and ties. So bear this in mind as you return to work this week – do you want to go back to school or back to work?

I leave the choice to you.

Note: for help and advice on these issues, please feel free to contact me via email – info@franklinhackett.co.uk. 

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John Hackett

Managing Director, Franklin-Hackett Ltd.

You Are All Diseased – Coping With Organisational Politics

We’re a sick bunch, you know.

Did you realise that every second of every day, your body’s immune system is fighting off a multitude of infections? To function properly, your immune system must detect a wide variety of agents, known as pathogens, from viruses to parasitic worms, and distinguish them from the body’s own healthy tissue. Having done so, it can fight them off and prevent the body from being overcome by disease. Kind of useful, really.

medical reportMost of the time, you are completely unaware of this process taking place. Your immune system deals with the incoming assault and you are able to function normally. But every so often, you will succumb to some malady or another. This will go on for a short period of time, during which you will be aware that you are unwell, until your immune system gets on top of the problem and fights it off. It’s really rather amazing.

What’s more interesting is that even during these periods of ill health, you are able to continue to function relatively normally, even though you have disruptive symptoms that impair your functioning to varying degrees. But when the immune system breaks down or is unable to handle a particular disease, the body begins to malfunction and ultimately, without treatment, shuts down completely.

Organisational Immune System

It’s exactly the same in organisations. Every organisation is diseased to one degree or another, with an internal immune system fighting off the disease to a sufficient extent that the organisation continues to function, despite being sick. This is why you can experience life in an organisation as being dysfunctional and unpleasant for years and years, yet the organisation continues to operate, albeit poorly. The diseases in question arise in the form of behaviours – the little things people do every day that all add up. It turns out that there are a number of particularly persistent and destructive behaviours that afflict most organisations, impairing their functioning and hindering their ability to make progress.

The Four Behavioural Diseases

What I want to show you now is the 4 main diseases that affect organisations – the 4 main behaviours that rot its culture from the inside out, so you can identify their symptoms and take action to drive them out of your organisation.

And be warned, you may well be contributing to their spread yourself.

So here we go – welcome to my organisational autopsy report…

1. Blaming and Persecution

i.) Symptoms

A person makes a mistake at work and feels emotions of guilt, fear, anxiety and self-loathing. Their self-esteem drops as they wake up to the fact that they are responsible for this almighty cock-up. They become nervous as they wait to be found out and publicly humiliated by their colleagues and managers as a result of their mistake.

ii.) Cause

In most organisations, when a mistake is perceived to have been made, the default behaviour is not to identify the cause of the mistake in order to prevent repetition, but to find and humiliate the person responsible.

Blame is the aim and persecution is the tool used to deliver the message.

This rather dramatic ritual of hunting down and publicly vilifying the appropriate individual is incredibly common. The level of drama associated with it varies according the the culture of the organisation involved and the personal style of the person delivering the persecution. But the mindset behind the behaviour is the same – mistakes are the result of people, therefore blaming and persecuting the perpetrator is the best way to deal with them.

It also works in reverse. Individuals will often use blame and persecution to deflect attention away from themselves – covering up their own mistakes by attributing blame to someone else.

This continuous cycle of blaming other individuals and then persecuting them for their perceived faults creates a culture of fear, reducing every business situation to a personal mini-drama where preservation of self-esteem is the order of the day. Hardly a recipe for making progress in the development of a business or organisation, surely?

iii.) Treatment

The antidote to this particular disease is to normalise mistakes. Accepting that mistakes are inevitable and understanding their usefulness in gaining knowledge for the future renders it OK for people to make them. We all make mistakes, we know this to be one of the qualities of being human, so why not treat them as normal?

Focus not on the person who made the mistake, but on the circumstances that led to the mistake in the first place. What can be learned from what happened? What suggestions does the person involved have about what might work better next time? How can we move forward?

The key is not to beat up the person responsible, but to understand the facts of the situation and learn. This removes the personal element from the situation and allows an objective view of the facts to be achieved, making it easier for the organisation to move forward in a better position. Mistakes can be positive – allow people to make mistakes and you get innovation. Blame and persecute people for their mistakes and you get stagnation.

2. Victim Identity

i.) Symptoms

Members of the team justify their performance at work by identifying all the external factors that they believe to be outside their control and demonstrating how they have prevented them from making progress. Phrases such as “it’s not my fault”, “I would have done it but x happened”, “this decision is so unfair!” and “why is it always people at our level that get treated badly?” are heard on a regular basis.

ii.) Cause

Welcome to the world of Victim Identity. When you’re in this world, you believe that everything in your work life is controlled by others. – you are not responsible for your own circumstances. Victim Identity is an extremely common and pervasive mindset and it infests most organisations to one degree or another. It can be seen across all areas of an internal hierarchy, from the contact centre agent through to the senior director, and it rears its ugly head continuously, infecting conversations, decisions and behaviours.

Organisations are riddled with victims. The problem is, victims don’t believe they are responsible for taking action or making a change. They constantly complain about their job, but perversely won’t look for a new one. They think their boss is a cretin, but won’t have the relevant conversations to improve the relationship. They lament the external factors that prevent them from achieving their tasks, but do nothing to address them.

It’s important to understand that one of the reasons people adopt a Victim Identity is to protect their ego. By absolving themselves of all responsibility for their actions, they are able to direct blame for their circumstances on others. For this reason, frequently, victims will turn into persecutors.

I need to make an important distinction.  Many of us experience victimisation at some point in our life but what is at issue here is the playing out of the victim role.  Everybody experiences challenges and barriers on a regular basis but it is how we choose to address those circumstances that determines what role we will play. People choose to be a victim – and an organisation full of voluntary victims is not a productive one.

iii.) Treatment

Since a Victim Identity is primarily a learned behaviour and not inborn, it is possible to change it. The key is to manage your response to the victim behaviour you are being presented with. These steps usually help in guiding a conversation with a person who has a Victim Identity:

  1. Establish clarity about the situation and show empathy for the person’s feelings. Phrases such as “I can see how you might feel that this project’s objectives make unfair demands on you, and at the same time it’s true to say that this is unlikely to change” can help to build rapport with the person while establishing that their responsibilities are their own. While you should empathise and validate their view remember not to sympathise – this just reaffirms the person’s view that they are a victim.
  2. Engage the person’s thoughts in solving the problem. Phrases such as “I’m just wondering what your thoughts are on how these objectives can be achieved in the time you have available” help to move the person towards considering their situation in a logical and rational manner, diffusing their emotional state. It’s important to be consistent in the message that the situation is not going to change – the person needs to use their mind to sort it out.
  3. Reinforce the person’s positive qualities. Reward their initiative and validate their positive behaviour.

3. Past Focus

i.) Symptoms

People make continuous references to events that occurred in the past or dispatch long tirades about the circumstances that led to the current situation. Phrases such as “Well what you have to remember is this situation came about because of x” and “We tried this 10 years ago and it didn’t work then” continually appear in meetings and conversations.

ii.) Cause

Oh, we love to bring up the past in our organisations, don’t we? Sit in any meeting in any organisation and you are sure to hear sentences similar to these pouring out like a leak from a sewage pipe. They direct thought towards what happened in the past, usually in a negative context and prevent intelligent discussion of what needs to happen for the organisation to move forward.

The reason behind this is the common mindset of Past Focus. The past focussed person brings up old issues from the past during a meeting or conversation, which diverts the discussion into old unresolved hurts and pain while avoiding the current issue. Doing this spreads the argument so thin with so many accusations and wastes so much time that the main problem does not get resolved.

Organisations have to move forward in order to survive in a changing world but Past Focus roots them to old situations that may not ever be repeated, helping to ensure that they are unable to deal with whatever the future might present.

iii.) Treatment

The obvious solution to this problem is to steer conversations to focus on the future. Usually, it’s helpful to ask the past-focussed person some intelligent questions designed to move their thinking to a future-based approach.

Questions such as “How is this relevant to the situation we’re in today?”, “What can we learn from the situation you’ve just described?”, “What do you think we should do now?”, “How will we manage this going forward?” will divert attention away from lamenting the past and towards understanding the future, while allowing room for lessons to be learned from previous experiences.

4. Consensus Paralysis

i.) Symptoms

Every decision involves continuous checking up and down the internal hierarchy. The main area of concern is ensuring that everyone is “happy” or “OK” with the decision or plan. Progress is slowed down further if any of the individuals involved express concern or dissatisfaction about the decision. The “what” of decision making is given more consideration and rated as more important than the “how”.

ii.) Cause

Organisations are obsessed with achieving consensus. Whether it’s through a fear of hurting people’s feelings, or a need to demonstrate “buy-in” to decisions, many organisations are now driven by a consensus culture. No decision can be made unless everyone agrees or has at least voiced their opinion. This leads to the insidious disease of Consensus Paralysis.

The result of this continuous checking for consensus up and down the hierarchy is a decision making process so slow that nothing really ever gets done. The obvious impact is that change and innovation within the organisation is stifled.

What’s more, Consensus Paralysis leads to apathy, cynicism and detachment within an organisation as people begin to realise that nothing ever changes.

But at least everyone is happy, right?

iii.) Treatment

Consensus Paralysis can be unlocked by realigning the focus of decision-making. The key is to move conversation away from the personal subjective into the rational objective. Often, when the facts of a situation are made clear, the logical solution is revealed. In many cases, personal preferences and emotional standpoints dissolve in the light of factual data.

This can be achieved by using a simple set of questions that focus people’s minds on the problem to be solved, as opposed to their personal position. These questions include:

    1. What are the facts of the situation?
    2. What options are open to us?
    3. What are the outcomes of these options?
    4. How will we manage the implications?
    5. What is the best option based on our understanding of the facts of the situation we face?

By focussing on what the best option is from a business perspective, based on objective facts, we can eliminate the need to achieve consensus from the individuals involved in the decision-making process. A clear business decision will automatically engender consensus.

Springer’s Hackett’s Final Thought

So I will leave you to mull over that fact that your organisation is diseased. The infection is spreading. It’s life may even be in danger. If this was a close friend or family member, would you stand back idly and watch them succumb to a treatable disease?

What are you going to do to help your organisation on the road to recovery?

It starts with you.

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John Hackett

Managing Director, Franklin-Hackett Ltd.

“On What Basis?”: The Dirty Question You Must Never Use at Work – How To Cut The Crap In Meetings

Being something of a serial Apple purchaser (I know, I know), about six months ago I decided I would rather like a brand new Mac Pro. As I am a frustrated musician, I could see this being the perfect purchase for my home studio. “It’s the choice of professional studios”, I said to myself. “It has limitless expandability”, I reasoned. “And it’s really cool”, I fantasised.

I went as far as to look at prices, even attempting to work out how I could fund one of Imagethese almighty beasts. Various web pages describing the Mac Pro were salivated at and numerous YouTube videos were watched with a sense of wonder and glee. This process continued in earnest until one day I happened to mention to my wife that I was considering buying one. Her question cut straight through several weeks of mental machinations – “On what basis do you want one of those? You already have a top of the range iMac”.

Perspective was suddenly achieved. I had everything I needed for my home studio setup in my existing kit. Why was I even considering replacing it with something way more powerful than I needed?

Alarmingly, I had never once asked myself that simple question – “On what basis?”.

In the business environment, we so often sit through meetings exploring various plans and ideas in great detail. What is absolutely staggering is that very rarely does anyone ask “On what basis are we doing this?”. If someone does dare to try out the question, they are often greeted with the same kind of response you get when you secretly build a brick wall across your neighbour’s front door during the night and they work out who did it the following morning. It’s not a popular question to ask in the middle of an intense meeting.

Why is this? Why do we so dislike being confronted with such a useful question in a business situation? Why don’t we use it more?

A key reason is that old human trait – attachment. It is common to all of us – when we have an idea of what we want to see happen, we often attach ourselves to a specific outcome. We emotionally invest in that outcome, it becomes meaningful to us and once that happens, attachment rules our behaviour.

You can test this. Find the guy in the office who is really excited about his potential purchase of a new BMW 3-Series and tell him there are better options in the market. You may get a similar look to what you experience when you pick up someone’s cup of coffee and pour it out of the window. He won’t thank you for it.

He is of course attached to the specific outcome he’s decided he wants – that particular model of car.

In the business environment, people often put forward ideas to which they have become attached. After all, it’s their idea, right? This is the result of an emotional decision-making process rather than a logical one. For more information on the background of how people use emotion in making decisions, take a look at my other blog post – “Why Batman is Relevant to Your Business”

So people in business decide on a particular outcome they want, they pick the means by which it will be achieved and they become attached to it. As a result they don’t question their own logic.

So what happens if you ask the question “On what basis?”. Well, it turns out that this question is one of those lovely phrases that is inherently logical. There is absolutely nothing emotional about it. If you introduce a logical phrase to the brain it resets your mind into a thinking state rather than a feeling state. Now, you may get an initial emotional reaction from someone who’s attached if you put this question to them, but once you get them engaged in processing the question they will quickly switch into logical thinking mode. This is where you want them, because at this point they are separated from their emotional attachment and engaged in solving the problem logically.

By doing this during meetings at work, you can quickly make a big impact on the quality of decision-making and corporate planning.

If you are in any doubt about the impact of a simple phrase, consider this. Would history have been different if someone at Decca Records in 1961 had asked “on what basis do you think guitar groups are on the way out?” after the decision to reject The Beatles? Could a lot of unnecessary cost and bad publicity have been avoided if back in 1985, someone at Coca-Cola had asked “on what basis do you think we need to change the flavour of our most popular drink?”. Would IBM’s fortunes be better today if back in the late 1980’s, someone had asked “on what basis do we think it’s a good idea to give all the rights to our PC operating software to Microsoft?”.

So why not try this out – ask yourself this question when you are planning to do something and also ask your colleagues. It may be a little tricky at first, but I am confident that the benefits will outweigh any short term discomfort.

And by the way, I still have my iMac.

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John Hackett

Managing Director – Franklin-Hackett Ltd.