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Why not make a difference when you can?

How to use simple observation skills to make someone’s day

A few experiences recently have reminded me how important this is.


I had my weekly ‘thinking morning’ in my favourite coffee shop earlier this week. New staff member is there, just finishing her training. I’m writing notes but also got my ears open and she asks the manager about the plants around the cafe. The manager says that watering the plants is on the roster, but that nobody really knows anything else about them. New staff member looks around and says: “They’re all succulents, simplest plant in the world to take care of. I’ll look after them.”

Of course, my spidey-sense is really tingling now, because here’s somebody who’s just revealed both an expertise and a sense of purpose. I decide to buy an extra coffee as an excuse to open a conversation: “I heard you mention succulents – sounds like you know your stuff about plants?

This simple bit of listening and initial nosiness was all it took for me to hear this woman’s life-story and how this was a stop-gap job until she could work as a florist. And you can tell when just hearing someone like this, being witness to their hopes is big deal! All the succulents were well looked after and sung to that morning.


Last month I had lunch with a friend who I first met as a business acquittance a few years ago. He never misses a chance to ask if I remember what I said to him back then, during what was then a tough time for him. I don’t really remember what I said, but I do remember the impression I got of him at the time, which was of someone just hanging-on by his fingertips, with the strain showing, but also with this little flame flickering inside him, of something very important he wanted to fulfil. Just looking at the way he stood and a simple bit of listening about what he was trying to achieve was enough to reveal all of this.

The way he tells it, it went something like this:

Him: “I’m not sure if I can take this anymore, and I’m at the end of my tether“.

Me: “Sometimes, all it takes to turn things around is just hanging-on a little bit more“.

And it seems that simple homily was enough, because now he does exactly what that little flame was all about.


Then an email arrives from a former client, somebody I coached nearly 15 years ago. It’s to tell me how they’ve just made the next giant step towards realising a business plan we first crafted, on a beer mat (it’s a long story, but I kept a supply of them back then for doing just that…) , all that time ago. The email includes the line: “Do you remember when you asked me about X? That was the real turning point for me.

Again, I don’t really remember what I said. But I remember thinking about how strong and determined this person was.


So, this is my really important learning.

That there are opportunities to say and do things which make a huge difference for people, just waiting around for us to grasp them. And that people will remember you did this for years and years.

All it takes is a simple bit of observation, listening to what they’re saying, taking in all the other impressions you have of this person. And reflecting back something true about them.

As it’s so possible to do this, why not do it whenever you can?


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Self-Awareness (1)

9 Expert Questions and one handy Diagram for Building great Self-Awareness

The best starting point for any development and growth at work, whether as a leader, a team member or just as your individual self, is the place of “self-awareness”.

And I’m talking here of self-awareness in a wide sense.

If you’re looking at self-awareness just as an emotional intelligence tool, then you’ll be focussed too narrowly, just on the awareness of your own feelings. What I want you to get, is a self-awareness about the whole you. That’ll include your drives, flaws, experiences, ambitions, assumptions, patterns of behaviour, values, resourcefulness and more. But also, and maybe more importantly, the big picture of what it’s like to be you. And what’s it like to experience who you are.

This kind of deep self-awareness really is essential to any kind of development. It’ll answer questions right down at a tactical level about what you want to be doing with your time and effort and how best to interact with the world. And it’ll act as a kind of beacon, keeping you heading towards the more important, bigger picture of what you’re about.

Sometimes this kind of self-awareness is forced upon us when something we’re trying to achieve goes wrong. Then we have to re-assess things on a personal level. And at other times, self-awareness comes out of a ‘gap’, a sense that something’s missing or unfulfilled.

Overcoming the uneasiness and discomfort around this kind of self-knowledge is important both to make sense of what’s happened so far and to move forward.


If you wanted to get some more self-awareness without being forced into it by that kind of circumstance, how would you go about it?

One of the best ways is to pretend to be your own observer.
Check out the diagram alongside. (If you click it and then right-click it, you should be able to download a copy.)

First, imagine ‘seeing’ a version of yourself. Get a sense of who this person is, and what’s important to them.

Second, imagine you could observe how this person goes about interacting with the world about them and with other people.

There are many things you could be observing and getting a sense of, but to get you started here’s some of the things I’ll typically be asking my clients about to help them develop their self-awareness. We talk about them as if they were another person, so instead of saying “what’s important to you”, I’ll get them to practice being an impartial observer of themselves by asking, “what’s important to this person?”.

Here’s some of the aspects you might be considering as you pretend to observe yourself. It’s a fairly long and deep list, so don’t feel you have to get all of this straight away:

  1. What kind of things are really important to this person?
  2. What’s the story of how they got to where they are today? And what did they have to overcome, sacrifice or achieve to get here?
  3. What are they like, at their absolute best?
  4. What qualities do they have that make them a resourceful person? What personal attributes, skills and knowledge can they call upon?
  5. What holds them back or keeps them stuck?
  6. As they interact with the world, how clear are they about what outcomes they want?
  7. Thinking of a specific interaction that you want to understand more about, what was their intention at the outset? Did what they wanted to have happen, actually happen?
  8. How wide is the range of choices they have about how they approach things; do they have one typical way of operating or a wider range?
  9. What are some of the assumptions, hidden beliefs or ‘rules’ that they have about the world, about themselves and about others?

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How to Like Yourself and be Honest about your Faults at Work

5 Steps to Effective Behaviour Change at Work – the Silver Dollar Technique

One of the (apparent) paradoxes I love about my work revolves around this little dichotomy:

1. People can’t change if they don’t like themselves;

BUT

2. People won’t change unless they’re honest about their faults.

People can’t change if they don’t like themselves. This first point is true because real change requires a positive mindset. It needs the ability to move towards something specific and attractive. If your mind is in a place where you’re constantly beating yourself up, or feeling at fault, or where you don’t like the underlying person that is really you, attempts to change just don’t work.  They get sabotaged, overtaken or drowned-out by a focus on what’s wrong.

But the second point is also true. People won’t change unless they’re honest about their faults. If my delusion that I don’t need to grow or change is so complete, where’s my motivation to change? If I can’t see myself as others see me, to understand the impact I have in the way that I do things, how do I know that a different approach might also be possible?

But seeing your faults is painful and raw. Knowing that your typical way of doing things is having a negative impact on others usually doesn’t make you feel like high-fiving yourself.

And this is the situation that about a third of my clients find themselves in when they arrive for their first coaching. They’ve come to me because their way of doing things at work is no longer getting results. Often, their behaviours are out of sync with other people, or even causing problems. If the situation has been allowed to continue for too long, this person may even have acquired a reputation for negative behaviour that precedes them; that is worse than their actual behaviour.

This is a tough situation to be in, and a hard one from which to to make effective changes.

So here’s one of my favourite techniques for resolving that dichotomy and making effective change in behaviour at work.
To learn to like yourself and all your traits, and to be honest about your faults.

I call it the Silver Dollar Approach to Behavioural Change, because (a) a Silver Dollar has two very distinct sides; and (b) I’ve got a Silver Dollar that I brought home from Las Vegas and am very fond of. This technique is so easy that you don’t even really need a Silver Dollar to make it work.

Step One – Identify a Quality

Identify a quality of yours, or a way that you tend to go about things, that you either like or don’t like (it doesn’t matter which). Let’s use a real example of something that was given to a client as negative feedback:

“Well, I’ve been told that at team meetings I can be like a bull in a china shop”.

Step Two – Give that Quality a Neutral Label

Give that quality a neutral label, one that can describe how it is, without an overly negative or overly positive connotation. It may take some exploration and discussion to find the right label. The coach’s job here is to check for neutrality in the term; beyond that, the client should be allowed to call that quality whatever they want. The label can be one word, a couple of words or even a short phrase. Here’s what came up with our bull in a china shop example:

“I suppose you could call that being Direct“.

Step Three – You’ve Got a Silver Dollar

Imagine that quality was a Silver Dollar. So now we’ve got a Silver Dollar with the quality of being “Direct“.

Now, whether you tend to hang out in Las Vegas or not, you’ll know that a Silver Dollar is a valuable thing. If you’re a cowboy, you probably keep one in your boots to pay for your funeral. In my view, everybody should have several.

Joking apart, what I’m trying to say here, is that all human qualities have value – and they also have two sides.

Step Four – the Two Sides of that Silver Dollar

So the thing about this Silver Dollar is that its value depends on where you are and on what kind of situation you find yourself in.

We can use the two sides of the Silver Dollar to think about different types of situations:

Side 1 – can be about situations when this particular Silver Dollar is really, really useful.

Side 2 – can be about situations when this particular dollar is less useful, maybe even counter-productive.

To continue our example, here we have a Silver Dollar that is about being “Direct“. Now go ahead and explore that quality:

  • What are the kind of situations at work when being Direct is really useful?
  • What kind of impact can it have when you bring out your Direct silver dollar at the right time?Now flip your dollar over:
  • In what kind of situation is Direct less useful?
  • What’s it like for other people when the Direct silver dollar comes out at the wrong time?

Step Five – We all have many Silver Dollars

This is a key step in the process. What’s often happened for people who are struggling at work is that they’ve been relying on one of their strongest qualities too much. They’ve unconsciously seen that it worked for them in the past, now they use it in all situations regardless of whether it will work or not. They’re spending the same silver dollar over and over.

The coach’s job at this point is to explore a number of other qualities that this client also has. Look for qualities, ways of being, typical styles of doing things. And especially listen out for qualities of theirs that the client might not like.

For example: “I can sometimes doubt myself and I try hard not to show it”, can become the quality of “Intuition“. And being able to say in a meeting: “Actually, my intuition tells me there’s something we don’t quite understand here”, is a great partner to the quality of being “Direct“.

Keep going until you’ve identified number of qualities and have explored when they’re most useful and when they’re less useful.


The thing I love most about this technique is that you’re not so much asking someone to change, as actually helping them to bring out different aspects of who they really are, at times when that is useful for them. For me, this resolves the dichotomy I mentioned at the start, because you can both like all the qualities that represent your behaviours and be open to how they impact other people.


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Empowering Beliefs (part 2)

Why asking yourself ‘why’ never works – How the search for meaning steals your power

One of the great strengths of the way the human mind works is our ability to make meaning of the world around us. This happens all the time, mostly unconsciously and starts at a very young age.

You’ll have seen how young children never seem to stop asking questions that seek to understand the meaning behind things: Why is that tree green? What does that lady wear such a big hat for? Why aren’t there any more dinosaurs? You’ve probably got a few favourite examples you’ve heard yourself!

I think there’s a clear advantage to us as humans to be able to do this. As we were evolving as a species, being able to interpret and understand the world around us, to know what certain events and significant moments mean, would have been of great help. We see food that is an unusual colour and we know it probably means it’s unsafe to eat. We notice smoke and understand that it means fire is nearby. Loud and sustained shouting may mean that a violent confrontation is taking place. Three or four people heading-off in a different direction to us might mean that they know about a food source.


This pattern continues through our lives. We notice something important, or a significant event happens, and in order to make sense of it, we interpret or attach meaning to it.


And it’s also useful that this meaning-making process mostly occurs unconsciously. Imagine if you had to stop and think about everything all the time in order to understand its meaning. There wouldn’t actually be enough time left to do anything with the information! It’s important that our minds have these kind of shortcuts so that the meaning of everyday events and interactions with others isn’t something that we consciously need to analyse and interpret. Otherwise it could quickly become overwhelming to do so.

But problems can arise when the meanings that we give to significant events or moments become like rules or automatic shortcuts. When we start to believe that X always means Y. Or when we automatically interpret X as meaning Y, when a wider view of the situation or a more complete weighing of the evidence might suggest a different meaning.

In those cases, this ability to look for the meaning behind things can become a hindrance not a help. When we’re looking for the meaning behind an event or interaction and it’s not making sense or it doesn’t fit the usual pattern we’re expecting – to continue searching for it can be particularly disempowering.

Here’s some simplified examples of real-life meanings/interpretations that typically come up for my coaching clients at work:

  • My colleague never smiles at me; she doesn’t like me.
  • My team member was late for our appointment; he has no respect for my time.
  • The Board haven’t responded to my email; they can’t be interested in my idea.
  • I always feel out of place in our Executive meeting; I ‘m not the kind of person that belongs here.
  • I can’t seem to get everything done in the time available; I’m just not disciplined enough.

You can see that the pattern for this kind of thinking goes like this:

  • This thing happened; I interprete it to mean that…

This pattern becomes a problem, as I’ve said earlier, when we assume that “this” always means “that”; or when a wider view would suggest something else. AND – it becomes a really disempowering pattern when we put our focus on finding the meaning itself, but the meaning isn’t actually what’s important.


A great way to uncover whether or not you’ve got into a disempowering view of these events, is to check out if you’re asking yourself those kind of “Why” questions:

  • Why doesn’t she like me?
  • Why doesn’t he respect my time?
  • Why aren’t they interested in my idea?
  • Why can’t I be more assertive in the Executive meeting?
  • Why can’t I be more disciplined with my time?

These kind of “Why” questions are a potentially useful indicator that you’ve slipped into a disempowered mindset. In a way, it’s a kind of return to being like that little child, trying to make sense of the new and huge world around them. And wanting a grown-up to explain it all to them.

In those situations, we need to stop searching for the meaning we expected to find. We need to stop taking that automatic shortcut. Fortunately, there’s very easy way to do so. Here’s how.

For the reasons described above, us coaches very rarely ask “Why” questions of our clients. In fact, if your coach asks you a “Why” question, it’s quite likely that they think they’re spotted an unconscious meaning or interpretation of yours that is not helping you – and they’re trying to uncover it more fully.

Instead of trying to figure out the “why”, your coach will help to look beyond that automatic search.

Let’s take that first example from above. Instead of asking about: “Why doesn’t my colleague like me?”, your coach will help you shift your focus to something much more empowering – a bit like this:

Coach: What do you actually want in this situation?
Client: All I really want is a good enough relationship with her so I can do my job effectively.

Coach: What evidence would you need to see or hear to know that your working relationship was good enough?
Client: Mostly it would be that she answers my calls or gives me time when I need help with issues in her speciality.

Coach: If you didn’t have that straight away, how would you go about getting it?
Client: Actually, and this has worked in the past, I’d either book time ahead with her, or check if it was OK to go directly to one of her team members.

Coach: And how do you feel now about her not smiling at you?
Client: Well, I know that smiling and being seen to be friendly is important to me; so that’s what I’m going to do myself. I’ll never really know if she likes me or not, but that isn’t what’s important here.

This is a much more empowering and useful way of interacting with the world. So next time you find yourself focussing on the “Why”, try this sequence instead:

  1. What’s actually Important to you
  2. What tangible Evidence do you need so that you’ll know when you have that important thing
  3. What Strategy (the how) will you use to get what’s actually important to you.

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Trust Yourself

How to take charge of your self-doubt

Maybe I should start with a confession.

By nature, I’m actually a fairly nervous, cautious and uncertain person. People who know me well get this, and they also know that:

  1. I don’t mind people knowing it, because I’m very happy to be messily human and to live with all the flaws and imperfections that come with life; &
  2. I’m really, really good at managing my nerves, fears and uncertainties.

People who don’t know me that well tend to assume that I’m extremely confident because I choose to trust my instincts, I don’t let anything stop me, and I’ll take appropriately-managed risks in pursuit of what’s important.

But this is all learned behaviour for me.

I’ve written before about imposter-syndrome, about dealing with your gremlins and about other related topics. Explore my blog and you’ll see that this is an important area for me. Not just because it’s something I need to consciously and consistently manage myself but because it comes up again and again in my clients. Often people who are attracted to work with me because of the perceived confidence they see.


Helping people to trust themselves is a core part of my purpose.

I’m especially interested in helping those people to whom others look for inspiration. Call them leaders if you want (they rarely tend to use that term themselves, even when it’s on a nameplate outside their door). It’s just that there’s something extra about the need and responsibility to take charge of your own self-doubts when other people are depending on you. If you don’t do this, people will unconsciously sense it. They’ll be puzzled by inconsistencies in your behaviour, they’ll hesitate when you ask them to do something stretching, and they’ll be less compelling in their interactions with your clients, customers and colleagues.


If I could conjure up some kind of holy-trinity of ways to take charge of your own self-doubt, it would be the three, deceptively simple things I’ve set-out for you below. Of course there are other techniques and tools and ways of dealing with what is a natural part of the human experience, but if you can get on board with these three, nothing need ever hold you back again.

Also, I’ve set these out fairly simply, without much exposition or argument because I really want them to stand out as self-evident truths.

What I’d most like is for you to test them out in real life.

Take a couple of weeks to monitor the level and kind of self-doubt you’re experiencing. Score your self-doubts on a 1-10 scale, keep a simple journal or log, and see if your experience changes once you adopt these ideas.


Rule One: Self-Doubt has an important purpose; it’s meant to keep you safe

Your experience of self-doubt is a perfectly natural part of being human that evolved with us for a very good reason. It’s meant to keep you safe. To stop you from doing stuff that might get you killed or injured; or to stop you being ostracised from the support network of your friends, colleagues and family.

You are not wrong, stupid, weak or inadequate for experiencing self-doubt.


Rule Two: Self-Doubt is largely physiological and your body is the best tool for dealing with it

There are brain chemicals that mediate the functioning of our guts, our perceptions of the resources available to us and our moods – all at the same time. Each element of our mind-body system interacts with the others. The food we’ve eaten (or not eaten), the amount of sleep we’ve had (or not had), the movement of our bodies, the amount of oxygen in our bloodstream. It’s all in a complex and largely self-regulating system. Because of this, very simple physical changes on our part can shift our self-doubts extremely quickly. A brisk walk. A glass of water. Lifting the head. Looking at the sky. A simple meal. A few deep and controlled breaths. A chat with a friend.

If you’re experiencing self-doubt and want it to change, always, always, always start by shifting something physically.


Rule Three: Self-Doubt doesn’t go away, so learn to walk alongside it

I’ve heard people say stuff like: “You have to kill your doubts”, “You have to get rid of them, once and for all”. But if you understand the origins of this process (see Rule One, above), you’ll know that killing your self-doubts or trying to permanently get rid of them is pointless and even counter-productive. I believe it’s much better to treat your self-doubts like a kind of nervous friend. Someone who really has your best interests at heart, but maybe doesn’t quite understand everything that you want to do or achieve in your life and work.

I sometimes imagine I’m out on a hike with this friend and they’ll often point out where we might get lost, or where we might slip over. And because of them I’ll see the bit of tricky navigation, or notice the rough ground when I might not have seen or noticed that before. Then we can choose to carry on with the hike if we want to. Just helping each other out as we go.


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Mindset & Leading with One-on-One Meetings

How to get your mindset right while you’re holding one on one meetings

If you’re leading and managing other people, then you’re almost certainly having one-on-one meetings with your staff and team members. I’ve spent a lot of time doing just that myself, and helping my coaching clients to be as effective as they can when they do the same.

To make all your one-to-one meetings go well, you need to be clear about the outcomes you want, to have a step-by-step process to gain trust, and be prepared to be flexible depending on what comes up.

But perhaps the most important thing my clients talk about, is having their own heads in the right place before they start.

If you want your one on one meetings to work really well, it isn’t enough to know what to do and how to do it, you also need to know what attitudes of mind are likely to get the best results for you.

Here are three of the most important ones:

1. Empowerment as an outcome of your management

You’ve got to want to inspire people to get more done under their own motivation and responsibility.

It’s a bit like having teenagers – they need to learn how to do stuff for themselves.

Until you’re prepared to adopt this as part of your mindset, you’re likely to be spoon-feeding people and picking-up after them long after they could have learned to do it for themselves. I think the trick here is to actually include empowerment as one of the outcomes you’re after. Put it up there alongside the tasks that you want this person to achieve and give it as much, if not more, weight as all the other important stuff you need to ensure gets done.

2. Coaching as a leadership style

This is where you put a big chunk of your leadership energies into the longer-term development of others.

It’s not the only leadership style you’ll need to use, but it is very effective and very rewarding for you. It’s also a good partner to empowerment.

You could think of a coaching leadership style as being NOT about you as leader having the answers, but about guiding people to find their own answers to things.

If I had to encapsulate it in a single phrase for leaders to use, it’d be something like:
“How about trying this…?”

3. The transition from doing to leading

The more your responsibilities increase, the more you need to shift from actually doing stuff yourself, to getting stuff done by acting through others – by leading.

If you’re like most people, you’ll have got to your position at least partly because you’re good at what you do. And so this can sometimes be a tricky transition to make, or even to be aware of its significance. It’s also quite scary because of course it takes you outside of what you know you’re good at doing, into possibly new territory – and people are often much more complex to understand and influence than the tasks themselves.

But this is a really important place to get your head into. Take a deep breath, stop doing stuff yourself, and start making sure that you act through others.


If you personally wanted to get the most out of people in your one-to-one meetings, what other attitudes of mind might also be important to you?

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Coaching Techniques

Coaching with clients’ symbolic non-verbal cues with respect and empowerment

One of the many things I love when I’m one-to-one coaching is when clients unconsciously start drawing shapes in the air, or writing on an imaginary whiteboard or using their hands to position symbolic thoughts, people and objects in different places around themselves. It’s clear that people’s hands and bodies are directly connected to the inner workings of their mind and are often able to represent things quicker and with more clarity than words alone can do.

In my experience, all the qualities of these shapes, diagrams, air-writings and positionings are great doorways into deeper understanding and will open up many new possibilities for insight and action with my client, if I treat them right.


I always try to be really respectful of what they’ve just ‘drawn’ and to not impose my own frame of reference on things. Here’s a technique that I like to use which I believe really helps to get more insight and action, without me the coach getting in the way.

Because my client is often sitting across from, not next to me, I’m not seeing what they’ve ‘drawn’ from their perspective. Suppose I want to ask something like this, so we can get deeper into what it means:

“I notice that you just drew that as a kind of curve; whereabouts are you on the shape of that curve?”

And as I ask that question, I’ll usually want to redraw that curve for them, so they can see it again for themselves but consciously this time.

Here’s the important bit – I reverse the frame of reference so that I’m mirroring, not reproducing what clients have done.

If they’ve drawn that curve in the air from their left-to-right, I’ll redraw it, but from my right-to-left. If they’ve picked-up an imaginary object, person or idea and moved it over to their left, I’ll play that back to them, but make sure that the thing I move also finishes-up on their left. I imagine that I’m tracing whatever they did back to them, from the other side of a glass whiteboard.

I believe that this approach is so crucial, because I don’t want it to be my thing – what I do want is to empower them to get more understanding about the thing they ‘drew’ or ‘moved’.
 

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A Leaders’ Guide to One-to-One Meetings

Ten ways to use one-to-one meetings to block progress, disempower people and avoid an embarrassing sense of being a team

 

Click on the picture above to download your own copy.

 

Oh, and I forgot number 11:

Always write it as “1-2-1” and never “one-to-one”. Because (a) words are just so hard to type and read, and (b) it’s so much quicker to use numbers and other shorthand than to muck about referring to actual people.
 

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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?

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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