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If you put down that hammer, I promise I won’t shout

If you’re stuck in one typical way of doing things or only have one way of looking at things, how do you change?

Doing some group coaching recently with the board of a successful company that faces some big changes in its market. Unless they shift direction slightly, they’ve seen that they may not have a business at all in the space of just a few years!


So you can maybe understand why I wanted to shout at one director who was being amazingly intransigent and who seemed utterly and stubbornly unable to approach things through anything other than their usual way of looking at them. A person who was actually being part of the problem, if not even its cause, rather than part of the solution.


In the end I decided not to shout at them. I have tried this in the past; sometimes it’s worked and sometimes not. In this case I didn’t feel that shouting would help at all because the cause of this director’s intransigence is that old case of:

If your only tool is a hammer, after a while everything starts to look like a nail

And I’m pretty certain that this person knows they’re being stubborn and sticking to one, out-dated point of view and one inappropriate way of dealing with things.

It made me curious.

What if that was me, stuck there facing a difficult and uncertain future, wielding the wrong kind of tool but unable to put it down?

How do you get out of that? How do you help yourself to discover new ways of looking at things? How do you investigate new tools; different approaches for dealing with thorny problems?

There are two reasons why people, having metaphorically picked-up a hammer, are so reluctant to put it down and take fresh approaches:

  1. Habit
  2. Fear

Habit, because it works. This is why we develop habits. It’s terribly wasteful of energy and slow to do things in a new way every time. If you don’t have to think about it too much and it pretty much always works, why do it any differently? You’ve developed a skill, so use it. The trouble is of course that we become ossified, stuck within the boundaries of that way of doing it, even if that isn’t the best way. If we’re really skilled with a hammer, we can even bash a screw into place!

Instead of that skill being something that facilitates our achievements, it starts to define what and how we can achieve.

Fear, because it’s nature’s way of helping us to survive. Don’t think, there isn’t time. There’s a threat right here. Stick to what you know and apply that now. Attack, run, hide; fight, flight or freeze – stick to whichever of those you’re good at. It takes a brave person to say “Hold on, maybe we should take a fresh approach to this threat. Maybe I’m not seeing the whole picture here, or I’m stuck in one way of doing things and that isn’t helping.”


Really we need to practice these things before there’s a crisis. Learn new tools before they’re needed. Get used to taking a different perspective even when we don’t need to, when our usual way of looking at things is enough. Make space for curiosity for curiosity’s sake.


Some simple stuff about beginning to shift habits for you to try out yourself:

  • If you regularly commute, when was the last time you took a different route home, just to see what that was like?
  • Where do you usually holiday (same place or different places?) and how much exploring do you do when you’re there?
  • What type of entertainments do you prefer – and how much do you switch those around?
  • What working habits have you not changed in the last two, five or even ten years?
  • Are you sitting in the same desk, facing the same way today that you were this time last month or last year?
  • When did you last visit an art gallery? And when did you last visit an art gallery to deliberately see art that you don’t ‘get’?

And the same applies to fear. Fear hijacks our brain and gets us into that fight, flight or freeze straightjacket. When we’re in there, it’s hard to get out.

So we need to practice and become familiar with our fears in advance:

  • What are you afraid of?
  • What keeps you awake at night?
  • What are your deepest concerns about your business?
  • What do you not want people to find out about your own perceived inadequacies?
  • What can’t you let go of?

The more familiar we can become with our fears, the less power they have over us. The more flexible we can be with our habits, they more they become skills to help us, and not shackles to bind us.


Please let me know in the comments below, or by tweeting me @nickrobcoach, what you’re finding out about your own habits and fear, and how you’ve developed flexibility of approach.


Great One-on-One Meetings for Busy Managers

Capability – Part 1

Why teaching new skills isn’t enough by itself to make people more capable or to generate new behaviours at work

This is part one of a two-part article looking at the topic of Capability at work.

This first part explores what kind of approaches you can take if you want to help individuals to change their behaviours or to be more capable. In part two, I look at why you should really sit-up and pay attention if you’re hearing a lot of “I don’t know hows” in your business and what’s needed if you want everyone to feel more capable.


When I was about ten or eleven years old I discovered the fantastic “Teach Yourself…” book series in our local library. This series has been going since the 1930s and was originally published in distinctive yellow or blue and yellow dust jackets. They covered a really wide range of subjects, from practical stuff like brick-laying through to economics, calculus and even Esperanto, which I once spent a whole summer playing around with.

Take a look at this collector’s website for some great information about the series and its various imprints.

When I discovered those books, it felt like something clicked inside me.
If you come from the kind of background I did, your horizons can sometimes seem a little limited, the options constrained, some choices perhaps already made for you. But I thought that here in these books was one of the main gateways to the world – knowledge and the capability that it imparts – made plain and accessible to anyone who wanted it.


It’s maybe no surprise then that one of my favourite aspects of my coaching work is around the level of Capability.

In the kind of coaching I do, I lay out those ‘levels’ like this:

1EnvironmentRefers to the Where and the When of whatever you’re doing and reveals what external constraints you might be operating under.
2BehavioursRefers to the What it is that you’re doing and reveals itself in your actions. 
3CapabilitiesRefers to How you go about doing things and reveals what approaches you might take now or in the future.
4Beliefs and ValuesRefers to the Why behind what you’re doing and reveals your motivations and self-imposed limits. 
5IdentityAnswers questions about and establishes Who you are. It’s both revealed by and satisfied by the missions you might undertake.
6ConnectionAnswers questions about your Vision or Higher Purpose – that is, in the larger system of which you’re part, it addresses for who and towards what cause your actions are directed.

For now, it’s important to realise that there’s a hierarchy to the levels as I’ve set them out above. For example, I’m often asked to coach people around operating more effective Behaviours at work, either as a team member or a leader, or often both. You can see from the table, that Behaviours are at level two. However, in order to operate new Behaviours, people usually need new approaches, new ways of going about things – and those new approaches require new Capabilities, a level three aspect!

It’s quite usual to have to explore two, three or even more levels deeper whenever any significant kind of change is required. New Behaviours (level two) usually need new Capabilities (level three), and acquiring new Capabilities often needs a shift in self-imposed limits and a rediscovery of motivations – a level four Beliefs and Values shift. And a really significant shift in those self-imposed limits, or a re-alignment or rediscovery of motivations, often requires a long hard look at just who we really are – right down at level five, Identity.


This is why, as we’ll explore more in the subsequent article, you’ve got to address cultural aspects around values and ways of doing things, as well as individual motivations and limiting beliefs in order to have more capable people in your business. Just trying to teach them new skills or sending them on a management training course may not always work!


Great One-on-One Meetings for Busy Managers