Development for difficult men and men in difficulty at work

Dealing with Professional Envy - Nick Robinson Executive Coaching

Envy, Resentment and Fulfilment

Professional Envy at work. Why it’s so bad and my easy four-step cure

I enjoy the chance to coach with ‘negative’ states and emotions. Things like anger, resentment, guilt, anxiety and so on. In fact, if you’ve worked with me personally, you’ll probably know that I’ll often be celebrating those emotions and states as we discover them. This is not because I’m completely weird (no, really, it’s not) but because these are often what I call “signal” states. That is, they’re a great sign that there is some real potential for change and development. So long as you can address what’s causing them.

Take Anger for example. Anger is a great sign that one of your personal boundaries has been crossed, or that something or someone very important to you is at risk.

Envy, resentment and jealousy (and other emotions or feelings in that same group), are also really good signals of some potential opportunity for growth and greater fulfilment.

One of the negative states or emotions that sometimes comes up in my coaching work with leaders and team-members is a sense of what I call “professional envy”.

Professional Envy is where a person is acutely aware of the success that somebody else is enjoying – and really doesn’t like it.

Team members may feel that another person (or team) is getting too much attention from the boss, or receiving too many rewards or accolades for their work. Board Members may feel that another director is getting too much credit, being a bit of a glory boy, “Has it all handed to him on a plate” or already has too big a slice of the pie.

Experts, consultants and qualified people often seem to experience Professional Envy at the apparent ubiquity of somebody they perceive as a rival. I’ll hear things like: “Everywhere I go, there she is, being idolised again!”

The problem with Professional Envy, from an individual point of view, is that it sucks all of the energy out of getting things done and spoils the chance for enjoying what is happening. From an organisational point of view, Professional Envy can lead to a deterioration of effective working relationships, to passive resistance towards other people’s initiatives or even to outright sabotage of important projects.

If you or someone you know is exhibiting signs of professional envy, here’s my easy four-step cure.

The first step is to recognise professional envy as one of my ‘signal emotions’.

Take a moment to get some clarity around who is the object of your professional envy, and notice what you’re experiencing and how that feels. Then begin to label that experience as a sign that there’s an opportunity here for you to grow and develop towards much more fulfilment for you personally.

Second, you need to know that professional envy is a sign that you are not achieving all that you want to achieve.

Deep down, you probably already know this. You may have found yourself blocked from achieving what you originally set out to achieve. Circumstances may not have been in your favour. You may have experienced set-backs, failures or a crisis of confidence. In a way, it doesn’t really matter what your current circumstances are. The most important thing is just to recognise that – right now – you are not doing all that you want to be doing.

The third step is to shift your focus away from the object of your professional envy, and back onto you and what you want for yourself.

Don’t be saying stuff like: “Oh, I want them to fall flat on their face.” It’s understandable to want that, and it might be funny to see, but it won’t really help you any.

Instead, put your attention onto what you do want, for you. Allow yourself to dream big again.

There’s a couple of possible outcomes from this step, which fall broadly into these two categories:

  1. You realise that there is some really ambitious stuff that you’d like to be working towards;
  2. You realise that you’re actually reasonably happy not bothering to be achievement-focussed and quite like things as they are.

The fourth step is to take the outputs from step 3 and begin working on them.

This is the most powerful part of the process. Even if you’re not entirely clear what it is that you’re ambitious about. Or if you’re not entirely sure how to be content just as you are. Just start working on it.

It’s a bit like what Buddhists call “entering the stream”. You’ve taken a decision to drop the things that were not helping you. Instead, you’re dipping your foot into the wider current of potential energy that now starts to ripple and become available to you as a flowing force.

Experience with clients suggests that these four steps alone are not enough to achieve that big thing nor to re-discover that contentment. They are however, almost always enough in themselves to completely vanish that sense of Professional Envy.

Good luck, and let me know how you get on.

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Three Empowerment Techniques

Three simple ways you won’t have thought of to help someone empower themselves at work

OK, you might have thought of some of these, but they’re so simple, and so effective, that they often seem to get overlooked and are definitely worth repeating.

First things first, notice that it’s about helping someone to empower themselves, not doing it for them (which is actually disempowering). I reckon a lot of corporate programmes fall down right at this first hurdle, trying to spoon-feed empowerment to their staff instead of creating the conditions in which people want to take power for themselves. Perhaps that second option is just a bit too scary in some organisations?

1. Ask for their help

Nothing helps people realise what they’re capable of better than an opportunity to help somebody else. If you can do this in a way that is genuine, i.e. on something where you really do need their help, that’s good. If you can do it in a way that shows that asking for help is itself an act of strength, not weakness, even better.

2. Tell them what you see

This one is really so sweet and so powerful that it should come with a government health warning! People take themselves for granted. They forget about their good qualities and they focus on the things that they don’t like about themselves. You can change that in an instant with this way of giving people recognition.

Take a moment to remind someone about a resourceful quality of theirs that you have noticed them using. The format is really simple, but does take some guts to use. It goes like this: “I noticed that you were really [resourceful quality] during [recent situation]; that’s a great quality to have.”  Here’s an example of the kind of thing I’ll say to the barista in my coffee shop, just for practice:

I noticed that you were really calm and helpful with that difficult customer just now. That’s a great quality to have.

3. Be kind in their presence

Everybody knows by now that acts of kindness are contagious; when you see someone being kind you tend to pay it forwards yourself.  People are less aware that there’s an unconscious association of kindness with resourcefulness. It’s like part of your brain says to itself: “Oh, I’ve just been kind! I must have the strength of mind and physical resources that mean I can spare some for others”. Whenever you get the chance, role-model this for people and use the contagious power of kindness to remind people just how resourceful they really are.

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Productivity and Moral Self-Licensing

One (more) reason why people don’t straight-away do what they’ve said they would – and what to do about it

If you’ve ever been in a long meeting where lots of actions where agreed, and then found yourself wondering why people haven’t followed-through on those actions – or if you’ve ever spent a fair bit of time and effort making a to-do list yourself, only to then bunk-off instead of actually getting on with it – then you might find this useful.

In simple terms, Moral Self-Licensing is when people unconsciously allow themselves to indulge after they’ve done something positive.

Research suggests that it affects individual behaviour in a variety of contexts, including: consumer purchases, political opinions, charitable giving, energy policy, job hiring, racial attitudes, health-related decision-making, risky sexual behavior, alcohol consumption and diet.

In terms of productivity, the influence of Moral Self-Licensing is likely to mean a slump in achieving things between the planning and the doing stages. My experience with individual and team clients is that the effect is particularly pronounced when:

  • The issues that people were agreeing upon or planning actions for were especially difficult or threatening to address. This means that they feel unusually positive about having finally got down to addressing them and are (unconsciously) more likely to give themselves moral self-license to be ‘indulgent’ afterwards;
  • Physical energy levels are low and/or have been lowered by the planning or to-do-listing activities (especially likely when long journeys or stodgy meals are involved I suspect). I don’t know if there’s research to support this, but I’ve often thought that low energy levels are likely to reduce the threshold for moral self-license, since our mind/body systems are designed to look after our short-term survival and to prioritise food and rest now.

So what can you do if you notice that there’s a productivity slump between the planning and the action stages?

  1. Plan for it
    Since the tendency to be indulgent after we’ve done something positive is such a widespread and unconscious phenomena, it makes sense to me to expect it to happen. When you’ve had people in meetings and you all agree on a list of actions, why not explicitly agree an ‘indulgency period’ during which nobody is required to actually do anything productive until they’ve given themselves a treat of some kind;
  2. Actively be Rested and Healthy
    If it’s true that the productivity slump caused by moral self-license is more pronounced when people are already tired, then we can prepare for that by taking active steps to be properly rested and healthy. Less coffee and more naps, perhaps?
  3. Delegate
    Have somebody who wasn’t at the meeting, and who therefore won’t be experiencing their own moral self-license indulgence (at least, not yet), be responsible for reminding about, chasing and/or kick-starting the actions;
  4. Organise
    Make sure that your meetings, your decision-making-processes and the techniques you use to organise actions are as effective and as frictionless as possible. Consider using trained facilitators to help design agendas and processes. The less this feels like an effort, the less likely people are to indulge afterwards;
  5. Don’t Procrastinate
    The longer you put-off or fail to address difficult issues and tasks, the more you’re unconsciously likely to feel that you deserve an indulgence after you finally get around to deciding to do something about them.


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Goals, Objectives and Being

How do you set your priorities?

As I write this, it’s December and the run-up to Christmas is getting into full swing here. If you get a chance, turn your thoughts to what kind of year you want next year. And don’t worry if you’re reading this and it isn’t anywhere near Christmas, a new year starts any day you want.

What’s it going to be about, this coming year?

Maybe there’s a theme that would work for you. Is this going to be an adventurous year, or is it going to be a year of discovery or of consolidation or of renewal or something else? What’s your theme for your next year?

Or maybe a theme isn’t the right way to approach it.

Try this instead – what is it for, this coming year?

What is it now time to achieve, to build, to throw yourself into?

Or it could be that this coming year isn’t the time to achieve anything at all – maybe this is the year to stop. We all need to call a halt to something, to step away from what isn’t working. Confucius said: “Even a journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step”, which is true.

But most journeys also begin by closing the front door behind you.
What is it time for you to close the door on?

And then again, some of my best years have been those when I don’t look at the big-picture or even the details of what I want at all, but when I’ve mostly been just in the moment. Perhaps this coming year is going to be more about ‘being’ than doing.

What would an in-the-moment year be like for you?

Maybe for you, it’d be like the Zen saying, where one just chops the wood and carries the water; just quietly doing what needs to be done and being content with that.

Or maybe in-the-moment for you is a real flow-state experience, fully immersed in a feeling of energized focus and enjoying being completely absorbed in what you do.

Whichever way of looking at it works, I’d love to know what you want for your next year? Drop me a line or leave me a comment if you get a chance to consider it.

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Choice Not Control

Whether you feel in or out of control, it’s probably an illusion. What you choose is what really counts


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Relationships and Onboarding

Why newly appointed leaders sometimes fail to get things done or don’t live up to expectations

A new boss of mine (somebody I liked and respected right from the start) once told me that he now made it a policy to under promise and over-deliver in his first six months in a job. He talked about the expectations that everybody has for you when you start a senior position, especially if you’ve got there because of outstanding performance in your previous role. He also talked about the pressure you might put yourself under, from wanting to make the most of your next great opportunity, to being concerned about keeping your track-record up to scratch.

Since then, I’ve done a lot of coaching with people newly promoted or recently appointed to those kind of jobs. From what I’ve seen, I reckon that my boss was spot-on. Those expectations and the self-pressure are probably two out of three of the main reasons why newly appointed leaders don’t achieve as much as you anticipated.

But the third reason is probably the most important…

Newly appointed leaders can sometimes have a habit of underestimating just how much of their ability to get things done in their old role was down to the depth and strength of their relationships with the people around them.

It seems that it’s not what you know, but neither is it who you know – it’s actually how well you know people.

The depths and strengths of those relationships are like the oil in the engine when it comes to getting things done. You don’t notice when the oil is up to temperature and is at the right level – the engine just works. But take it away and everything grinds to a halt.

So if you’ve got somebody who is relatively new to their position and they’re not delivering as much or as well as you’d hoped, this is the first place to look if you want to coach them. Here are some things to check out:

  • Have they had a chance to get to know people in the business as well as they need to?
  • Has their own desire to succeed got in the way of building lasting relationships with key people?
  • Are other people just operating from a pre-judgement about this new person’s reputation or building too much on the basis of the expectations you’ve expressed? (I’ve often heard board members say things like: “It’ll be OK when X gets here, they’ll sort everything out in a jiffy”)
  • Look for ways to increase the quality and frequency of opportunities for people to connect with this new person, without creating lots of new tasks/expectations.
  • Are they really a ‘fit’ culturally?
  • Do they need help in balancing out their task/relationships skills?


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Reduced Performance at Work

How to use Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs to diagnose and deal with what’s going on when someone’s performance at work takes a nosedive

Maslow’s framework has been around since 1943, when he wrote a paper called “A Theory of Human Motivation”, seeking to describe and explain the behavior and motivation of exemplary individuals, including Albert Einstein. It has some flaws and critics, but since it is so well known and follows an easily remembered structure it’s also a great tool to use when somebody just isn’t delivering anymore, or seems to have become quite ineffective compared to their normal levels of performance. Here’s how to use it that way.

As a point of principle, the approach I’m going to describe here is essentially a ‘pastoral’ one – that is, it’s about looking after people rather than blaming, criticizing or trying to fix them. After writing his 1943 paper, Maslow subsequently extended his ideas to include his observations of human beings’ innate curiosity. If a member of your team is no longer performing, set your own innate curiosity alight. Perhaps by yourself initially but then certainly in partnership with the person concerned, get curious about what might be going on.

Start at the bottom of the pyramid.

Physiological needs are the physical requirements for human survival – food, water, air, sleep, clothing, shelter – and the sexual instinct (according to Maslow). Check that your team member is looking after themselves physically: just basic stuff like are they taking lunch, is there water to drink?

I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve had to point out to often very senior clients that they are driving and flying big distances and working very long hours and that the reason their performance is suffering is because they are simply really tired. Do they have opportunities for rest? Can they work from home? Can they stay over one or two nights a week instead of commuting?

Can you mention the sex issue with a colleague? I would argue “yes” if you have a pastoral responsibility to them. But how you do so is likely to be determined by your organisational culture. Just be aware that it isn’t only younger employees who may be staying out late and/or drinking more alcohol than usual in response to their basic sexual instincts.

Safety needs are about feeling secure and free from actual (and the threat of) physical and emotional harm. Does this person feel safe? Is their physical, emotional and economic security currently threatened by anything? Perhaps there are some basic issues that need to be addressed. If you can, ask them how they’d like you support them in feeling safer.

Since change is now just about the only constant we experience at work, I’ve yet to find a workplace that doesn’t include some anxiety. Either about job security if there are threats or even concern over the unknown caused by positive opportunities for growth and change. Often, all of this is left unspoken. Commercial sensitivities can mean that it’s hard to tell people exactly what changes are afoot.

To the extent that you can, talk through these things:

“I wonder if you’re concerned at all about X? I can’t give you all the exact details of what we’re doing, but here’s what I can tell you. When we’ve been though this kind of change before, there have been costs but positive aspects too.”

Tell them what your intention is during this next phase of change with regards to them personally, even if it’s just in principle for now rather than full practical details. Fear of the unknown is usually greater than fear of known risks.

Love and belonging. The third level of human needs is interpersonal and involves feelings of friendship and intimacy. People need to feel a sense of belonging and acceptance among their social groups and a large part of that takes place at work. Many people become susceptible to loneliness, social anxiety, and clinical depression if their need for love and belonging is not satisfied.

My experience has been that the needs around social interaction and group-belonging are exceptionally strong drivers of behavior at work. Other psychologists since Maslow have written about things like Group Norms and how peer-pressure drives performance.

Is this individual getting on well with their peers and staff and other colleagues? Are they accepted for who they are? Are there any factors which might be isolating them or leaving them feeling disconnected? Do they have a mentor or confidant in the workplace?

Esteem is the need for respect from others and oneself. Needs for respect from others may include those for status, recognition and attention. The need for self-respect may include needs for independence, competence, mastery and self-confidence.

If someone’s performance has dropped markedly, has there been a change in what they might perceive as respect from others – for example, a change in their status or in the attention they get from bosses or peers? Are they getting appropriate recognition for who they are and what they bring?

Or perhaps their self-belief has taken a knock and for some reason they no longer respect themselves in a healthy way or their self-confidence is not what it was?

If you suspect that their self-respect might need a boost, now is a good time for you to adopt a coaching leadership style. Help them to see the situation for what it really is (probably just a bump in the road) and to set out a plan to deal with it, including some achievable goals and some learning, reflection and development.

Self-actualisation. Maslow describes this level as the desire to accomplish everything that one can, to become the most that one can be. People may perceive or focus on this need very individually, so that what is self-actualisation to me or you may be very different for somebody else.

Experience suggests that a drop-off in someone’s performance or demeanour at work can be related to their self-actualisation. Consciously or unconsciously, they may have re-appraised what they want from their life or career. Or they may have re-assessed their own ability or the resources required to achieve an important life or career goal.

This is a time for some fairly in-depth conversations with the person concerned and you may need to take it step-by-step, ensuring that you first have the depth and quality of relationship with them to trust and respect each other enough.

Can you help them relate what they want from their career and life with what is available from their current job? Can you help them plot a course to enhance their abilities and develop the right resources to maximise what their current role offers? Is there space for them to self-actualise somewhere in the organization, if not in their current role? Can you help them exit in a positive and useful way, if that is the best solution?

Personal Development Basics

Angry, Anxious, or Chaotic?
Three simple techniques for when you really need to kick-start some personal change

Sometimes before you can do any significant behaviour change and development, you first need to shift your state to be a little more positive or flexible. Or perhaps you just need to get yourself out of a temporary ‘stuckness’. Here are my favourite quick and easy actions to create some space, order and momentum. You’ll still need to do the developmental work and growth that leads to longer-term, sustainable change, but these simple actions often seem to help get that started.

Click here to download as a pdf

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Flowchart for Dealing with Difficult Team Leaders

The 5 questions and 3 outcomes for when a leader in your business is behaving negatively, derailing things or upsetting people

Please click the image above to open and download a copy of the flowchart.

Content summary:

1. Symptoms of a difficult team leader include:

  • Excessive and disruptive micro-managing;
  • Blaming people and processes outside of their team for failures;
  • Intimidating their own “weaker” team members;
  • Criticising any initiatives that originated outside their team or are outside their control.

The Five Questions you must ask in this situation:

  1. Has their boss told them that this is unacceptable?
  2. Have their team members had sufficient training & development?
  3. Are they being expected to achieve something which is at odds with the company culture?
  4. Can they be given significantly more autonomy over selecting, developing & organising their team?
  5. Have they had some good-quality, in-depth behavioural coaching over a substantial period?

The Three Outcomes you should plan for:

  1. They change their behaviour
  2. You change the organisation
  3. You ask them to leave

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Positive Behavioural Change

How to use Positive Intention and Metaphor to give someone a real boost to their interpersonal and relationship skills

I’m occasionally asked to help when a man in a senior leadership position is seen as being particularly challenging or negative in his relationships. Or similarly, when his interpersonal behaviour is having a damaging effect on other people or is just not getting the results that the business needs.

My experience has been that it’s almost impossible to help this man change his behaviour by starting out being critical of him. By the time things have got to the point where the business seeks my help, plenty of other people (and, sometimes, even the man himself) will already have been highly critical of him. Even if my being critical would have worked as a behavioural change catalyst (and sometimes it can), that option is often no longer available to me.

Instead, I often apply a change strategy based on two key aspects:

  1. the power of Positive Intention; and
  2. the use of Metaphor.

1. Positive Intention

Positive Intention works by seeking to understand, from the other person’s perspective, what was the ‘good’ outcome they were hoping to achieve by applying the behaviour that they used. Even if the actual outcome they got was highly negative, there will be something from their point of view that they were trying to achieve that, to them, would have been a positive outcome.

If I can understand what their Positive Intention is, as they see it, that’s halfway to creating the rapport and partnership we need for me to help them explore other behavioural strategies.

I’ve listed some of the examples I’ve come across of Positive Intention in the table below.

2. Metaphor

I’ve noticed that there’s something about metaphors in a coaching context that lets them fly right under a client’s radar, bypassing any resistance to change.

When we’ve found a metaphor that works well to either describe what the client’s positive intention was, or to picture how a ‘good’ interpersonal relationship might work, I can often see that it’s like weight has been lifted from their shoulders. See the table below for some examples.

Positive Intention and Metaphor

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