Mind your language!

Does swearing make us more credible? According to some recent research in Holland, this may be true. The researchers asked students to read a fictional account of a statement made by a suspect burglar during a police interview. Students who read the version in which the suspect swore rated his statement as more believable than those who read a version that was identical in every respect but with the swearwords removed.
However, the research seems flawed to me. To remove the swearwords, but otherwise leave it intact would inevitably change the way it is perceived. I wonder whether it might have been a fairer comparison had the swear words been replaced by other adjectives, especially emotive ones.
Surely it depends on the context and your audience. The use of expletives can, of course add to a statement’s impact, but would that make it acceptable or effective in a business presentation. I doubt it.
Swearing certainly has a negative impact on some people, especially when used excessively – I have observed people who missed much of the message because they were so offended by the unnecessary use of profanities. This is partly a cultural phenomenon, with older people more likely to be upset by coarse language. Swearing is more common in younger people, but also may depend on where you are from.
I know in my military career, swearing was quite commonplace, but also selective. It was used extensively when at work, largely irrespective of rank, but significantly reduced when in social situations, especially when women were present. With women more widely integrated in the forces, I wonder how this has changed and fear that they have come to accept and adopt the swearing, as seems to be the case in factory environments.
I once heard a quote that said something like: “Swearing is a means by which the inarticulate gain a feeling of eloquence.” I do swear, but try to limit it, especially in business situations. To me it seems unprofessional and unnecessary. As in my quote, if I want to emphasise something, I should be able to find more appropriate and expressive words, which will not cause offence or detract from the message. Did Martin Luther King, Kennedy, Churchill or any other great orator resort to swearing. Certainly not. We might not expect eloquence and may understand emotional outbursts from sports men and women in the heat of competition, but nor should we have to accept foul language. In business, we may want to encourage and express passion and commitment, but should be able to do so without offending our audience.

Incidentally, personality research suggests that people who swear more, not surprisingly, score higher on traits such as extraversion, dominance, and hostility.

And finally… According to a disturbing news report today, a British tourist on holiday in Dubai was arrested for swearing. He was later ´badly beaten up´ to the point of being unconscious, slammed against a concrete wall, refused food, water, and a lawyer, and then his body was stuffed into a body bag while being removed from the facility.

All Change – From Snowdon to the Amazon

 I am again talking about change and how it affects us. I remember being horrified that Jaguar had produced a diesel variant, and then an estate version – that is not a Jaguar, I screamed! This week I read that they have laid a tarmac path to the summit of Mount Snowdon in Wales, to make it more accessible, why, why, why? Then again, there is already a railway up there and you can still do it the hard way if you want to (I know I do!)

Much is written about change and our reactions to it. I have been working recently with Royal Mail, who are undergoing a huge amount of change, some would say not before time. Much of the focus on the workshops was on debating and preparing for how people would react to change with considerable emphasis on those who would resist and even attempt  to forestall the new ways of working. Of course not everyone is against change, indeed, many of the managers we were working with were positive and even excited about the opportunities that the changes promise. They also reported that many of their people, including union representatives were supportive of the changes.

This does not, of course mean that these champions and advocates are

 immune to the emotional upheavals common to resistors. They need at least the same consideration, support and encouragement as they will have doubts, concerns and even reversals. They will feel any setbacks or lack of progress acutely. If not suitably nurtured and recognised they may even defect to the nay-sayers.

My younger daughter has just completed her degree and is somewhat relieved that the academic ordeal is over and looking forward eagerly to  starting her career. However, even change coming from success presents some challenges. She is now finding that it is not easy to secure a job, which frustrates her ambition and dampens her enthusiasm. Moving back into the family home means she has had to readjust to different norms and standards than those she has become accustomed to; her close circle of friends is dispersed to the four winds and all but lost, despite or maybe exacerbated by the apparent ease of maintaining contact provided by Facebook and email. So lots of changes all brought about by something she wanted deeply and worked hard to achieve. The euphoria and relief of graduation have been tempered with self-doubt and frustration.

Remember that denial and a range of emotion will precede the rationalisation needed for acceptance and commitment to the change, sometimes captured as the mnemonic DERAC. To help people through these stages we need to show that we understand and are willing to offer the support they need. (I remember these stages by reversing the letters and trying to show I CARED.)

A common piece of advice is to beware of spending too much time with the relatively small number of vocal resistors and instead to work with the undecided waverers, who usually form a quieter majority and if converted can provide the critical mass needed for success. Although this thinking is logical, I sound a note of caution. If your focus is too closely on those people, you may neglect your erstwhile allies and fail to recognise important signals of discontent. If you lose your champions, the struggle will be considerably greater to convert the rest.

Spare a thought for Ed Stafford, the intrepid former soldier who has just  completed a marathon 4,000 mile trek to walk the length of the Amazon in 859 days. I am sure he is exultant at his record breaking achievement and relieved to have completed it. However, he will now face huge new challenges in adjusting to “normal” life again and without his goal to focus on.

So it is for my daughter and for those managers in Royal Mail, change is an inevitable part of life and careers, but it does exact a toll. Understanding and support from friends, colleagues and managers will help them all to cope.

A change, though can be as good as a rest. So for something different, have a look at http://www.recyclethis.co.uk/ for tips on recycling everything from old wall planners to empty walnut shells!

Changing Times Call for New Perspectives and Challenging the Rules

Change, we are often told, is inevitable, unavoidable and should be embraced by leaders. Change, though is not just organisational, it is also social and as leaders we need to recognise and appreciate all its manifestations.

A great friend of mine, in his seventies and a military man is exasperated when he sees young men enter a building or room while wearing a hat. In his day this was completely taboo and considered rude. The offenders are more likely to be ignorant of this tradition rather than rebellious or intentionally disrespectful.
Another friend berates the younger members of the rugby team he coaches for not phoning him with their availability, preferring instead to communicate through Facebook.

I read recently of people “tweeting” each other during a presentation. Normally I would consider anyone using their mobile phones during a presentation as rude and inconsiderate, but are these just new norms and am I in danger of becoming as curmudgeonly as my aforementioned friends? Looking at this in another way, it offers a new way to interact with your audience
The etiquette of social media is evolving rapidly as is this new way of interacting with people. Organisations are trying to come to terms with it, writing rules to avoid the worst potential consequences, but this is not easy. I read last week of a police force that had issued a 7,000 word document outlining acceptable email practice, the size of which may reflect the complexity of the subject, but also inhibits the likelihood of anybody reading it, let alone complying with it. Sites like Facebook are a potential minefield as they are very public, but the traps are avoidable if you use common sense and sensitivity, providing a powerful new communication tool.

Etiquette is peculiar to generations and to cultures. Globalisation, multi-culturalism and foreign travel all expose us to different practices and standards, occasionally causing confusion and offence, but also delight, wonder and appreciation. I remember being fascinated in Hong Kong by the local tradition of burning money and laying out food on graves to honour deceased ancestors. This was all the more intriguing when the money was revealed as “hell money” – akin to Monopoly money and the food was retrieved and enjoyed by the family once the ancestors had chosen not to partake!
When abroad it is tempting and generally a good idea to adopt the local customs – when in Rome – but you can still stay true to your self. You don’t have to use the mixed sauna if you find it embarrassing, no matter how much pressure from your host.
On a recent course with students on an international Masters programme at Nottingham Business School, we were treated, on top of Mam Tor in snowy Derbyshire to songs in several different languages – three of them were to the tune of “Frère Jaques” but were about tigers and butterflies. A wonderful demonstration that in many ways we are as alike as we are different.

When is it correct to bow, when to shake hands, when to hug and when to kiss cheeks? Should emails contain greetings, and polite sign offs? I believe that leaders help to set standards, but not by being stubborn, change resistant or aloof. Leaders should look to set an example, but also to be sensitive to others’ preferences, upbringing and habits, and maybe even embracing the new way. Challenge different behaviour and standards if it bothers you, but more to appreciate why they do things as they do. Remember Stephen Covey’s 5th Habit of Highly Effective People – “Seek first to understand and then to be understood.”

Stalin and the Stranglers

Two radio news items captured my attention today and the Stranglers sang “No More Heroes” as I started to type this, which seemed fitting.

The first news item was an interview with the UK managing director of Lego, who told us that the company name Lego was coined by Christiansen from the Danish phrase “leg godt”, which means “play well“. The name could also be interpreted as Latin for “I put together“, though this may be a somewhat forced application of the general sense “I collect; I gather; I learn“; the word is most used in the derived sense “I read“. Close enough for me, deserves to be true! Lego is certainly a great toy for helping children to learn.

The second was an interview with Stalin’s grandson, who was stoutly defending his reputation and honour. This put me in mind of a theme I have explored in a number of training sessions, where I have asked people to identify major influences in their lives – both positive and negative, or “Heroes and Villains.” This can be useful when we analyse how much influence we take or allow from these people, and how valuable or limiting this can be to our personal development.

One personal example could be Dean Richards, who I admired hugely as a rugby player in the 1980’s, but who has recently been pilloried for his involvement in rugby’s “bloodgate” episode.  I do not approve of what he has done, indeed I find it indefensible, but this does not mean that I have to rewrite my memories or re-evaluate my admiration for his leadership and skill on the rugby field. Other sporting heroes have been caught stretching the rules, including Neil Back, Michael Atherton and Maradonna.

How many people refused to believe scandals involving Michael Jackson, because they loved his music, performances and public persona?
This works equally well for those we dislike as well as those we admire. I always thought of David Beckham as a prima donna of the worst kind, but was genuinely impressed by his maturity and inspiration as England captain.

Sometimes we can take these influences even further. During my military career I met Paddy Ashdown, himself an ex-Royal Marine and then a Member of Parliament, but I felt snubbed by him, and developed a strong dislike of him. I then found myself dismissing all statements from the party he went on to lead, just because I identified them with him – not a very rational or useful attitude.

I also resent the way some people revisit the life stories of historical figures and unfairly re-assess their character against the morals, values and experience of our own times. That is not to condone or justify evil or selfish acts, but I feel we should recognise that things were different then. I am still awed by the bravery of the likes of Scott, Nelson and Lawrence – all possibly flawed in some way, but still deserving of their hero status. Similarly, Mao and Stalin surely deserve their reputations as despots, but may have had some good personal qualities.

I think it can be very inspiring to have heroes or role models, but it doesn’t have to mean we admire and try to emulate all their traits. We need to be selective and recognise that they may be admirable, but are not always perfect. We can then make intelligent choices about what behaviours to learn and which to avoid. These role models may not be celebrities or even well known, they may just be exemplars from our own life or work. Most people can identify their best boss and their worst. Are there traits from the best to avoid and even some from the worst, which could help make us better bosses?

Don’t Knock It Until You’ve tried It

Human beings, who are almost unique in having the ability to learn from the experience of others, are also remarkable for their apparent disinclination to do so.

An article in the Guardian caught my eye and furrowed my brow this

week, as it denigrated the benefits of positive thinking. In particular, it took to task “Think and Grow Rich” by Napoleon Hill, the self-help book from the 1930s, and a bestseller ever since. This reminded me of so many instances where people, in print or in person denounce ideas and philosophies without fully understanding or testing them. It seems that too many people are looking for the easy way, the quick fix or the shortcut to health, wealth and happiness.
I have heard people ridicule and demonise all sorts of things, claiming that they don’t work or are a matter of luck. More often than not, the people who make the most noise about them have never read the book, never tried the technique or given the method chance to work. I am thinking of those who condemned the Atkins diet, when only following a small selection of the recommendations; or those who pour scorn on the Law of Attraction without following all of the steps in the formula. I even read a piece in a magazine declaring that brainstorming doesn’t work, but deep in the summary it admitted that it only didn’t work if the process was not followed correctly.

Both Hill and Stephen Covey invoke natural law, calling it the law of gender or the law of the farm – some things, most things happen when they are ready. Seeds take time to germinate and grow, bread dough needs time to rise, successful farmers only harvest when the crop is ready, and many of these ideas will work, but only if we use them correctly and give them enough time to work.

Of course I am, on occasion as guilty as others. I scoff at fad diets, believing it better to change your diet rather than “go on a diet”. However, I know people who have found diets that have worked for them, so good luck to them. Six months of nothing but Guinness and bananas will not be to everyone’s taste, but it helped a rugby friend to lose a lot of weight! We all have different experiences, and all learn differently from them, but do avoid condemning new – or old – ideas until you have tried them, or at least read the book! I have read these books and have doubts about some of their claims, and am sure nobody can become thin, rich or famous just by wishing for it, but thinking positively about your goals and ambitions is an important step to success in any field.

Life Lessons from Gandhi and Clint Eastwood

I have read a lot in the last week or so about people and blame. We have had political leaders apologising, refusing to apologise, blaming others or global forces for problems. We have even had Josef Fritzl blaming his mother for the abhorrent crimes against his family.

And then I was directed to an article in the Times, condemning all “management” theories as irrelevant and blaming them for organisations ills.

This all takes me back to a central tenet of my personal philosophy, which is best summed up as the first of Covey’s Seven Habits of Highly Effective People, which is to be proactive. Covey’s definition of this term takes it back to the fundamental premise of taking responsibility for yourself, your life and your actions, past, present and future – a strong theme from Transactional Analysis, which is another good old theory. This was well put by Abe Wagner, my favourite TA tutor, who advised us to “Be self determining and help others to do the same.”

I believe that if we do that, which frees our minds and our spirit. it then becomes much easier to be effective and successful. You are not hot tempered because you are Irish or have red hair or because your Dad was like that. Life and personality are based on choices – choices about acceptance and direction. No-one else is to blame, and certainly not a theory, which is only someone’s attempt to describe or explain their experience of how life has been for them. How you interpret and live that theory is your responsibility.

We can all learn from experience, whether it is our own or someone else’s, which is why we like to read or watch biographies and in a shorter version, peoples quotes.

As Mahatma Gandhi said: “Nobody can hurt me without my permission.”

Or as Clint Eastwood puts it: “Respect your efforts, respect yourself. Self-respect leads to self-discipline. When you have both firmly under your belt, that’s real power.”

So I need to “make my day”, not wait for some punk to do it for me! We should all learn to learn from and through experience.

Positive Feedback – What a Great Message

Had just posted my comments about receiving difficult feedback positively, when I was pointed to this by a colleague, Dr John Kenworthy – thanks, John.

Just watch this – it is quite long – 15 minutes, but great story and you can all work out the message for yourself! You can get the gist in the first 5 minutes, but if you are like me, you will have to watch it right through!


Shoes, Pizzas, and Well Aimed Feedback!

In the week that President Bush had shoes thrown at him by an Iraqi
journalist and a delivery man was saved by a pizza, I was prompted to reflect on the learning potential of feedback.
To explain, George Bush had shoes thrown at him in Baghdad, although he was agile enough to avoid both missiles. He then showed presence of mind and even statesmanship by defending the man’s right to protest in a free society and pointing out to journalists that his assailant had succeeded in getting people talking about his protest.
The other story relates to how a Florida pizza delivery man was challenged by armed robbers in the city of Miramar, but got in first with his own weapon – a large pepperoni pizza. Eric Lopez Devictoria, flung the piping hot pizza at the gunman, then turned on his heels and ran, making a safe getaway, despite one shot being fired as he fled. Police later arrested three teenage suspects, who have been charged with armed robbery.
I came across these two stories as I was thinking about how some people still cower in their comfort zones, avoiding risk and change. If you want to develop, you need to step out of your areas of competence and confidence, and challenge your fears. Children have few fears and often explore the world with wild abandon. As they mature they are taught and learn to respect and even fear experiencing some life situations and activities. While this is useful learning in some potentially dangerous situations, they can develop the unfortunate idea that to try anything new and failing is embarrassing and uncomfortable and should be avoided.
This learned fear of failure can become stronger as we grow older and severely limit our development. One way of learning is to invite, contemplate and act on feedback. If we don’t ask for it, or worse still ignore it or even punish the giver, we lose that learning channel. As leaders we need to encourage feedback, even if delivered in awkward or rude ways. A mature learner will filter out the insult and listen to the kernel of truth in what has been said. In the same way that George Bush ducked the shoes, but respected the journalist’s right to criticise him!
Remember that feedback is not the absolute truth, but someone else’s perception. To accept feedback constructively you need to:
  • LISTEN – and ask for clarification if necessary
  • ACCEPT IT OR REJECT IT – whichever you choose, try to identify the learning.

And finally, this week’s bizarre fact – Please keep all raisins away from your dog… they are extremely toxic to dogs and can be deadly! (I never knew that!)


Staff want responsibility but Managers don’t trust them

Nearly half (43%) of employees would like more responsibility in their current role, but a fifth of managers do not trust their staff to deliver.

According to research of 2,452 employees by YouGov for Investors in People, 43% of managers think staff would be concerned about the extra workload of more responsibility but only 8% of employees thought it would have a negative impact on their performance and only 4% felt it would make them less motivated.
In fact if staff were not given more responsibility 59% say they would become demotivated and 58% would be frustrated.But 53% of staff have never asked their manager for more responsibility and 29% do not think there is an opportunity for them – with 15% believing their manager to be too controlling.Simon Jones, chief executive of Investors in People, said: “By taking everything on themselves, managers can leave almost two-thirds of their people feeling demotivated and two-fifths could end up looking for a new job. In other words, giving employees the right level of responsibility is vital to driving the productivity of organisations through their people.”

This headline, which may come as a surprise to some, strongly reflects the opinions I often hear on management programmes. Whether this is fear of being let down, a fear of letting go, or fear of somebody doing a better job than them, this a familiar theme. Managers need to learn to delegate more and one of the keys to effective and confident delegation is learning to trust. Leaders may be slow to trust, but need to learn that leaders lead – and that often means being the first to do something and this is certainly true of showing trust! If you want trust, be trustworthy and trusting. Richard Branson has said that if you have high expectations of your people, they will live up to them.

Why Conflict Can Be Useful

When talking about barriers to effective teamwork, one issue that is often raised is conflict. Many of us dislike and avoid conflict, but of course a complete lack of conflict can be an even bigger problem for teams with people reluctant to rock the boat, not daring to think differently and so falling into the “groupthink” trap.

A recent article in the Financial Times addresses the issue thus:

The Challenge of Straight Talking
By Stefan Stern
Lawyers, bankers, accountants and consultants are all after the same thing.  No, not cash. That goes without saying. What they dream about is achieving a special status with their clients: that of the Trusted Adviser.
It is lonely at the top, people say. You cannot count on colleagues to give you the unvarnished truth. Professional services firms can make good that shortfall in trust, and give you the brutal facts when others are unwilling or unable to do so.
Some bosses claim to have created a slightly less lonely environment for themselves. Jamie Dimon, chief executive of JPMorgan Chase, has met business leaders who say that they have done just that. “They tell you that you’ve always got to have at least one close colleague who will tell you the truth,” Mr Dimon said at the Harvard Business School centennial conference last week. “Well, if you’ve only got one guy in 10 who will tell you the truth you should fire the other nine!”
Mr Dimon is right. There should be zero tolerance for mealy-mouthed, flannelling, equivocating co-workers. And yet the evidence suggests that there is not enough straight talk at work. Fearing disruptive conflict and bust-ups, we muddle through, bite our tongues, zip the lip.
Robert McHenry, chief executive of OPP, the Oxford-based business psychology consultancy, says that some organisations may be suppressing conflicts that should in fact be allowed to burst out.
“Clients sometimes tell us that their biggest problem is the lack of conflict in their organisations,” he says. “They say that autocratic senior leaders create a culture where people prefer to ‘keep their head down’ and not offer feedback or ideas; the anticipation of conflict inhibits performance.”
This does not mean there never are rows at work – far from it. In fact, conflicts are usually messier because they have not been brought to the surface soon enough. Indeed, we should probably brace ourselves for more not less conflict at work as the world slides into recession. “Der Dalles schlägt sich,” as they used to say in Vienna. “Those who are struggling beat each other up.”
OPP recently surveyed 5,000 employees in Europe and America to discover their attitudes to (and experience of) conflict at work. They found that, on average, each employee spends 2.1 hours a week – roughly one day a month – dealing with conflict in some way.
Managers struggle with this. Some receive training in the kind of communication and mediation skills that can help defuse tension. Others – 7 per cent, according to OPP – turn in desperation to the last resort of the 21st-century manager, the internet.
It’s not all bad news. According to another piece of new (and ongoing) research, a burst of internal aggro might offer the chance to improve your company’s fortunes. Early findings point to the vital role of successfully managed conflict in the development of effective corporate strategy.
In their work with international businesses, the London-based consultancy Cognosis has found that managers can be a little bit daunted by the concept of “challenge”. But those who manage conflict will win greater engagement from their staff and much more “buy-in” as far as strategy is concerned.
How can you use disagreement to your advantage? Conflict should be managed formally rather than in an ad hoc way, Cognosis has found. You don’t want to encourage “water-cooler whingeing”, or a complete free-for-all where barrack-room lawyers with the loudest voices dominate.
In open corporate cultures employees feel able to challenge senior managers. Indeed, their critical views will be actively and regularly sought. “One of the defining characteristics of strategically effective leaders is their commitment to challenge, and their ability to both challenge others and be challenged themselves in a positive and constructive way,” says Richard Brown, managing partner at Cognosis.
On the flight home from a recent trip to the US, I explored at length the musical entertainment options that my carrier had kindly provided. After some uplifting Bach and some satisfying Beatles, I have to admit that my finger hovered momentarily over – I am not proud about this – the “Easy Listening” channel. Reader, I pressed that button. But after one glorious burst of Petula Clark’s timeless “Downtown” –
When you’re alone
And life is making you lonely
You can always go downtown
– I realised that this channel had nothing else to offer me.
And then it struck me. I had made exactly the same mistake Mr Dimon had warned against a day or two earlier. I had opted for Easy Listening, when I should have stuck with the robust truthfulness of Lennon and McCartney or the challenging polyphonics of JS Bach. Tiredness was no excuse. The soft option was all wrong.
In the difficult months ahead managers are going to have to lead by example, and not flinch from conflict. “In bygone days,” the British politician Jo Grimond once said, “commanders were taught that when in doubt, they should march their troops towards the sound of gunfire.” Tin hats on, everyone. By the left, quick, march.