And not waving, but drowning!

It’s a mad world and it seems to be only getting madder.

Madder, and also faster, less certain, increasingly inequitable, and more divisive. All conditions which neuroscience shows can  drive our primal brains into a very unhappy state.

This is increasingly visible within organisations which are  filled with people struggling with feeling  overwhelmed. The stress of too much to do and too little time, too many emails, meetings,  expectations, and yet,  fewer resources. Statistics compiled by the Association of the Global Organisation for Stress show that this is a global issue;

  • 80% of workers feel stress on the job and nearly half say they need help in learning how to manage stress.  And 42% say their co-workers need such help – American Institute of Stress.
  • Stress levels in the workplace are rising with 6  in 10 workers in major global economies experiencing increased workplace stress.  With China (86%) having the highest rise in workplace stress – The Regus Group
  • Alarmingly 91% of adult Australians feel stress in at least one important area of their lives.  Almost 50% feel very stressed about one part of their life – Lifeline Australia.
  • Australian employees are absent for an average of 3.2 working days each year through stress.  This workplace stress costs the Australian economy approximately $14.2 billion – Medibank
  • An estimated 442,000 individuals in Britain, who worked in 2007/08 believed that they were experiencing work-related stress at a level that was making them ill – Labour Force Survey.

Within this environment  employee engagement is also increasingly recognized as a driver of  workplace performance,   and this  has a downside when organisations define engagement, as they often do,  as  being willing to go above and beyond what’s expected. Those employees who get to work early, stay late and are always connected are often seen as valuable assets.  However,  this is  a recipe for burnout,  not for sustainable high performance.

How do you recognize when you,  your colleagues  or staff are running on empty? And how do you  promote the physical, emotional and social well-being of your people in such an environment?

If you are not paying attention to these issues already,  it may be time to consider changing that.

Which leads to the questions “what  really works to drive engagement and performance?”

The guys at Habits at Work  (* full disclosure I know them and love their work!) have systematically reviewed tons of research about what really works to drive engagement and performance in the workplace. Their team of actuaries and researchers in their Behavioral Research and Applied Technology Laboratory (or BRATLAB for short) spend their waking hours investigating the habits that lead to thriving employees, delighted customers and flourishing companies.

Over the last 20 years their key finding is that businesses flourish as a result of investing in their people. Employees who are healthy, happy and (financially) secure generate sustained, high-quality performance.

“Performance” in this context is defined as the ability, energy, stamina and mental capacity to do great work, to be resilient in the face of set-backs, to be engaged in your work and to remain highly focused on a set of important work and life tasks. Nice, right?

The most common element they’ve found among these factors is that they are all driven by our habits (what they call pivotal):  the repetitive actions we take each day.

What habits might you begin to establish within your workplace to promote this sort of “performance”?  There are three domains in which pivotal habit practices can be encouraged  – Health, Happiness and Financial Security; and while there are a number of practices specific to organizational needs, these are three that seem to have universal value:

  • HEALTH: Movement and being active is probably the most critical of all practices for it’s impact on a variety of factors like cognitive function, error rates and stamina, in addition to all the more well known health benefits. When your employees start taking on the challenge to be more active throughout the workday, you’ll notice a difference in engagement, energy and performance.  Some of the stats are amazing.
  • Forty minutes of walking three times per week improves episodic memory and executive control functions by 20%.
  • In one study, complex decision-making improved by 70% in response to exercise.
  • Mental errors of fit workers on concentration and memory tasks fell 27%.
  • Higher fitness correlates with reduced end-of-day fatigue rating and, therefore, greater stamina in the workplace (which may mean that everyone runs rather than walks out the door at five but that’s another issue altogether J)

If you can only do one thing for your employees, get them to move more often during the workday.

  • HAPPINESS: Fostering positive relationships with others may often be described as cultivating trust at work, having a good culture and the importance of having positive relationships inside and outside of work. Just a few very strong relationships can have a tremendous impact on the longevity of your life and on the quality of experiences you have. In addition, performing simple random acts of kindness, like buying someone a coffee, is a simple way to foster a momentary positive interaction with another human being.  So is practicing mindfulness, generosity and self-compassion. Another critical practice is using your own signature strengths.

Spending time on building rapport, ensuring processes that support trust and allocating resources to soft skills and relationship building all have a significant return on investment.

  • FINANCIALLY SECURE:  Managing personal finances encompasses learning money management skills and applying them to create a budget and pay down debt, an important, yet often overlooked performance driver. When employees are not properly managing their finances, their stress levels are significantly increased and their productivity declines.

Especially in these increasingly difficult economic times helping develop skills amongst staff to enable them to manage their money well can have an enormous pay-off in terms of productivity.

These are three things to try that have strong evidence which supports their value in increasing productivity and performance.

We’d love to know what you’ve tried? What worked and what was less successful?

Reflections on Leadership

flamingo reflectionSo far 2017 has been  what might be called an interesting year and we haven’t even hit Easter yet!

One of the many things that’s  been  fascinating me is how in SA,  and also in the UK and USA, supporters of political leaders so obviously emulate the behaviour of that Leadership, and then how relatively quickly that behaviour can spread and be taken up by others.

What’s worth considering is that the workplace is no different.

Staff consciously, and unconsciously,  imitate the behaviour of leaders within an organisation,  copying the positive  things leaders do, but also replicating  the negative things as well.  In many organisations managers  describe people as having “bad attitudes,” but often the culture created by leaders is the root cause of the problem. As Robert Whipple of the Trust Ambassador notes, if these same problem people are put in a culture of trust, respect, and challenge, many of them quickly rise up to become happy and productive workers.

An article in Harvard Business Review  reiterates that leaders can shape a company culture through their behaviour and so it’s important to make sure that the right  kind of behavioural example is modeled.

What might you consider paying attention to:

Watch what you say – language is powerful and it’s worth taking time to think about your values and choose words that reflect them. The stories organisations tell about themselves become the reality for those in that organisation. Are the right stories being told?

Watch what you reward – do you ask for one set of desired behaviours and then reward completely different behaviours. Rewards don’t have to be monetary, they can be recognition, access, inclusion. Ask yourself who is being  invited  into the inner circle and why?  Is teamwork encouraged but  individual achievement rewarded? Asking for robust input but dismissing opposing ideas?

Watch what you tolerate – ignoring a  problem sends a message to everyone. If you leave negative behaviour unaddressed you send a message to the whole organisation and what gets ignored becomes acceptable. Hoping problems will just go away if you turn a blind eye is a technique that, unfortunately, doesn’t work, anywhere, anytime.

If  you are trying to shape the culture of your organization, make sure the reflection in the mirror is the one you want to see reflected in the organisation.

Turning off to turn your brain on.

elephantsEarlier this week I spent a wonderfully inspiring day being reminded of the power of establishing a thinking environment with Nancy Kline, bestselling author of Time to Think.

During this time the issue of digital addiction came up and how “we have become slaves to the tools which were supposed to empower us”. Well, I’m as addicted as anyone and there is no ways I was letting this little smartphone be dragged out of my sweaty palm without a fight. However let’s consider the following;

One, giving someone your focussed attention, listening curiously and without interruption, significantly improves their ability to think independently,

And two, having your smartphone, ipad or laptop visible during meetings effectively stops you from thinking well. And what’s possibly worse, it also stops others from thinking well,

And if we understand that the quality of everything we do, every decision we take, depends on the quality of the independent thinking we do first, it would seem obvious the first responsibility of leadership is to help people think,

And that means providing full, generative attention, without interruption or distraction, while people think together.

If making meetings a digital no go zone would substantially increase the value of that time it seems a no brainer to me. So brace yourself, grab a pastry to calm the jitters, and turn that phone off! (And if you are now rolling your eyes in disbelief, check out the evidence in this longer article by Daniel J Levitan …..or, you could just trust me!).

if you are keen to know more about generating great thinking in your meetings chat to us about our Time to Think accredited Transforming Meetings workshops.

So what do people want?


I though I would share a little information around an issue that keeps coming up in executive coaching  conversations. How does one boost employee productivity and engagement?

An interesting Harvard Business Review article notes  that  many leaders make the  surprisingly common, and wrong,  assumption  that pay equals engagement. In fact research shows there is only a small correlation between pay and job satisfaction  and  there is much more to the high performance equation than merely income. It’s known that recognition and intrinsic motivation are much more important to our success, and this article discusses how recognition can boost engagement. An interesting read.

One thing I am sure you will remember is that  I always mention that  changing the way you  use meetings makes a big difference. Nancy Kline’s Thinking Environment argues that everything we do depends for its quality on the thinking we do first – and our thinking depends on the quality of our attention for each other. The Transforming Meetings training we offer results in savings of both time and money as well as improved relationships and  greater cooperation. If you, or someone you think might be interested, are ever keen to see the magic at work we have some workshops coming up.

Listening to staff can also make a leaders job so much easier – however one  thing people often struggle with is finding  ways of giving  staff a voice and the confidence to use it. Mark Graham, CEO of  the promotional marketing company Right Sleeve has some  ideas… 

It would be great to hear if you’ve had any positive  experiences of using listening and positive acknowledgement to boost engagement and  productivity.

Managing, Leading, What’s in a name?

Look, I'm going to Lead, you go manage.

Look, I’m going to Lead, you go ahead and manage.

There is often discussion in organisations around the need to help managers become leaders or how best to move from management to leadership. Certainly most managers think it’s much sexier to be a leader than a manager. And as a consultant I’m pretty sure you can charge more for leadership development than management training.

While most people have a fairly standard description of management  which is broadly “the process of dealing with or controlling things or people”, there are innumerable descriptions of  leadership.  However an   example of 33 ways to define leadership   notes that the general sentiments are that “leaders are people who know how to achieve goals and inspire people along the way”.   The big difference seems to be the inspirational part.

The language we use creates the impression that we consider management a mundane practice focused on getting people to do tasks while leadership is seen as a more heroic task of getting people to commit to some higher purpose. So are they very different and is one better than the other?

A recent Harvard Business Review article  “Do Managers and Leaders Really do Different Things?”  unpacks the differences between the two more eloquently than I ever could (it’s worth a read) and concludes with this:

“The majority of the activities [performed by managers and leaders] described were very similar, or even identical — delegating, learning, motivating, and so on. I’d suggest that they aren’t that different in terms of how they actually play out in organizations. Certain behaviours and activities are common to the effective demonstration of both leadership and management. The crucial difference – maybe the only difference — is the focus of the person carrying them out. Focus more on people and you’ll demonstrate leadership, more on results and you’ll perform management; but what you’re actually doing may not be that different.”

I found it really interesting that management is about doing and leadership is more about being, about what you focus your attention on? And if this is so, can one “teach” leadership?

I certainly think it’s possible to support managers as they review their approach and attitude in order to shift along the management / leadership scale. But more importantly I think many organisations actually (and unintentionally) create managers by their organisational culture.

And similarly  I  believe that organisations can create environments more conducive to growing leaders, if they  actively develop a  culture which values people as humans rather than resources, if they build trust and accountability with courageous conversations, and if they let go of the  minutia of task management and focus on broader outcomes than just profit.

And yes, full disclosure, I work with  organisations on all of that. If you’ve faced this dilemma I’d love your comments.