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Leadership Today Podcast

Author: Andrew Beveridge

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Weekly research-based tips and advice to tackle today's biggest leadership challenges, all in under ten minutes. Hosted by leadership development specialist and psychologist Andrew Beveridge. Go to for more information.
37 Episodes
Episode 33 - The Problem with Solving Problems
Summary The problem with solving problems is that we often rush towards solutions without spending enough time clearly identifying the challenge we’re facing. In this episode we explore the power of a well crafted problem statement.   Transcript Welcome to episode 33 of the Leadership Today Podcast where each week we tackle one of today’s biggest leadership challenges. This week we are looking at the problem with solving problems - that we often rush towards solutions without spending enough time clearly identifying the challenge we’re facing. There’s a quote typically attributed to Albert Einstein that goes along the lines of “If I had only one hour to save the world, I would spend fifty-five minutes defining the problem, and only five minutes finding the solution.” Now, there’s not great evidence that Einstein ever uttered those words, but there is still a great deal of truth in them. We often rush into solution mode when we’ve only partially, or even incorrectly, identified the problem we’re trying to solve. I’ve spent around half of my career working in management consulting focusing on complex problems and solutions. Over that time I lost count of the number of times I heard the classic attempted put down - “consultants borrow your watch to tell you the time, then charge you for it”. Of course, if you ask a consultant to tell you the time while you’re wearing a watch, then maybe the consultant isn’t the problem. Either way, it highlights that organisations often outsource solution generation, and are then frustrated when the expensive solutions don’t quite hit the mark. I believe this is often because the problem isn’t clearly and accurately identified, so people end up frantically working towards solving the wrong problem. Once the problem is clear, organisations are usually pretty good at developing and implementing solutions. I shared an example in the last episode of a person who inherited a task to prepare a series of reports. Preparing all of these reports was arduous and took 8 hours to complete - it was a real problem for him as he struggled to get the rest of his work completed in the rest of the week. He initially identified the problem as “these reports take too long to complete”, and so came up with and implemented improvements that meant he could prepare the reports in just four hours. But there was a deeper question that needed answering - “why are these reports needed?” It turned out people weren’t actually using the reports - no one really needed the reports to be generated, and so he took an eight hour task and reduced it to zero. The problem to explore was around the need for the reports, not the efficiency of report production. It’s hard to identify the real problem when you’re in the middle of it, but using a clear structure and approach can help. It might even save you from using a consultant or, at least, make your investment in an external consultant more valuable. We need to start by trying to identify the root cause of the problem. I’ve talked about using the “5 whys” approach in episode 20 - repeatedly asking the question “why?” to step back towards the root cause. Once we think we’re close to the root cause, a structured problem statement can help. It provides some rigour around identifying the problem and its impact, while also making it easier to communicate the problem to others, and assess the value of various proposed solutions. One simple structure for a problem statement includes four elements: Ideal scenario – what it would be like if this problem didn’t exist Current situation – what it is currently like - the current reality Consequences – the implications for this audience if we do nothing - can help build momentum towards change Focus – the areas we will explore to solve the problem Here’s an example of applying that approach to a business that’s struggling to have sufficient stock in stores. Ideal - We want our customers to be able to easily purchase our products with an emphasis on experience and convenience. Current - Our most loyal customers are complaining that their local stores are often out of stock of our most popular products, so they’re forced to phone ahead or drive around to other stores looking for stock. Consequences - We are losing sales and frustrating our customers, leaving ourselves open to them switching to competitor products. Focus - To address this problem, we are going to explore three elements. The first being the reliability of transport of product from our warehouse to stores. The second - building our capacity to track current stock levels at stores. And thirdly, explore our ability to provide stock to customers directly via a new home delivery channel. Now it’s important to also be responsive. Sometimes as we are seeking to solve the problem, we come across further information which may further clarify the problem. You can always refine the problem statement to reflect this new information.
Episode 32 - When Working Smarter Isn't The Smartest Way To Work
Summary We’ve all heard the mantra - work smarter, not harder. But sometimes our idea of ‘smarter’ still isn’t the smartest way to work. We need to reflect on an entirely different level.   Transcript Welcome to episode 32 of the Leadership Today Podcast where each week we tackle one of today’s biggest leadership challenges. This week we are looking at the importance of taking time to reflect and challenge the work we’re conducting. We’ve all heard the mantra - work smarter, not harder. But sometimes our idea of ‘smarter’ still isn’t the smartest way to work. It’s quite possible to very efficiently completely miss the point, overlooking an opportunity to see things from an entirely new perspective. This is particularly a risk in high-paced, busy environments. Chris Argyris wrote a classic Harvard Business Review article in 1977 called “Double Loop Learning in Organizations”. In the article, Chris provided the example of an organisation that had a dud product, which was eventually discontinued. But those closest to production knew years in advance of the problems. However not all the information about the product’s issues were passed upwards (neither was this information sought out from those in decision making positions). The bad news was watered down. The delay in cancelling the product cost the organisation greatly. Chris highlighted this as a classic example of an organisation failing to learn. People ended up not questioning the work that was being done, but merely trying to streamline it. He saw them using single loop instead of double loop learning. Let’s use an example to describe what Chris meant by single and double loop learning. Let’s say I’m working on a project, and I notice that we’re starting to fall behind schedule - the project is slipping. One option is to work harder - just put in more hours to try to bring the project back to the original schedule. In this approach, we’re looking at the challenge from an ‘action - result’ perspective. To try to change the result, the only lever we can use is to do more of the action. We haven’t actually learnt anything. Chris would call this ‘zero loop learning’. There is no feedback loop between the result that has changed the action, beyond increasing the amount of action. A second option to address the slipping project is to work smarter. Here we notice the project is slipping, so we spend some time planning our approach. This could lead us to change our action - maybe we can streamline a process, or negotiate a change in the delivery date, or change the mix of resources on the project. This single loop from action back to planning may well help. We have learnt something and improved our approach to the project, so that’s a good thing, right? Of course it is - but is it the best course of action? Argyris described this as single loop learning - the gap to performance expectations loops back to a planning step that isn’t present in zero loop learning. This is likely to lead to some improvement, and it is where many people and organisations stop.  Double-loop learning is a completely new way of looking at the issue with the project. Instead of just working harder or smarter, we’re asking ourselves a new question - is it the right work? The double-loop takes us another step back from the project to explore our assumptions. What is the project trying to achieve? Why is this important? If we could start all over again, what other approaches could we use to address this need? It’s getting outside the work, and reflecting on bigger questions. It’s also about taking personal responsibility. Chris Argyris wrote a great follow up article in 1991 called “Teaching Smart People How to Learn”, again in Harvard Business Review. In it he described the work he had performed in management consulting firms, and the tendency for consultants and managers to blame their clients when projects didn’t deliver the expected outcomes. Consultants were quite happy to work on helping clients to learn and improve, but tended not to step back and think about how they could improve. Their focus on improving the performance of clients didn’t extend to themselves. When you don’t step back, the tendency is to blame others. The assumption is that you are approaching the client work well, so any performance issues are related to the client’s inability to learn. It reminded me of a financial institution I once worked with, where senior leaders would often talk negatively about customers. One senior leader regularly joked “this place would run much better if we didn’t have any customers”. Is it any surprise that the failed to see changes in the market and ultimately lost customers? After all, that’s what they jokingly wanted. When I shared the double-loop learning framework in a leadership program, one of the participants shared a story. They had been spending eight hours a week producing a series of reports, drawing data from various sources, and then distributing these reports to various people across the organisation. It’s what their predecessor had done, so was handed across to them as a task to complete. By using their knowledge of Excel, they managed to streamline the report preparation process, reducing it down to around half a day - a great example of single-loop learning. But they never received any feedback about the reports. So they sent an email out to the recipients - how do you use these reports, can I make them more helpful? No response. So they decided to stop producing the reports. Guess what happened - absolutely nothing. It turned out that no one was actually using the reports any more. So they ultimately improved their efficiency by 20% and bought themselves an extra day to focus on things that really mattered. So many people would have stopped at the single-loop step of developing a more efficient way to produce the reports, instead of stepping back and asking what the reports were for, and whether they were needed.   To make double-loop learning work we need a few things in place: Permission to question the approach - testing the assumptions is actually valued and actively solicited A culture that values feedback, even when it’s negative or critical, as long as the focus is on improvement Time to reflect on our approach - so many of us are hyper-busy with no time to reflect - reflection is never going to make it into the ‘important and urgent’ quadrant, so we need to schedule this reflection time in Take a wider view - what’s happening in other organisations, industries, professions, countries - read widely     References Chris Argyris - Double Loop Learning in Organizations - Harvard Business Review 1977 - Chris Argyris - Teaching Smart People How To Learn - Harvard Business Review 1991 -
Episode 31 - Limiting Thoughts - Taming Your Own Worst Critic
Summary In this episode we look at ways to retrain our own worst critic - the automatic limiting thoughts that enter our minds when we are faced with challenges, and that hold us back from opportunities.   Transcript Hello and welcome to episode 31 of the Leadership Today Podcast where each week we tackle one of today’s biggest leadership challenges. This week we are looking at ways to retrain our own worst critic - the automatic limiting thoughts that enter our minds when we are faced with challenges, and that hold us back from opportunities.   Have you ever had someone in your life that was continually negative and critical? Always chipping away, complaining, pointing out faults, highlighting risks? Did they hold you back from thinking more positively, from trying new things, from taking action? If you did have someone in your life like that, you probably either pointed out those tendencies to them, or simply spent more time with positive people.   For many people, the most negative and critical voice in their life is the one inside their head - those automatic limiting thoughts that enter our conscious mind when we’re faced with a challenge or hit with a set back. The thoughts are automatic because they arrive without any conscious effort. And they are limiting because they hold us back from the potential positives of taking a different course of action.   The human brain works really hard to join dots - to discover patterns and meaning behind the wealth of information constantly rushing in from outside and from within ourselves. The thoughts that enter our conscious mind are ideas providing one possible explanation for what we’re interpreting. As we saw in the self-fulfilling prophecy episode, these thoughts and beliefs can be so powerful that they actually shape events and people around us. If we think someone doesn’t like us, we can act in a way that will lead that person to like us less. And so the limiting thought is reinforced and strengthened.   The human brain is also a risk management machine - we’re wired to notice threats. While you hear this sentence, your brain is scanning the environment for threats multiple times. This feature of our brain can also exaggerate the risk of taking action, leading us to magnify the risks and minimise the potential rewards. That’s why most people will work much harder to avoid losing a dollar than to gain an extra dollar. We are often working out of a mindset of risk and potential loss.   I was recently coaching a person who was very nervous about public presentations. In fact they said “If I have to give a presentation to the rest of the team, I will die”. Now, on one level, “I will die” was just a turn of phrase. But, on another level, it was actually how they physically responded to upcoming presentations. They thought, felt and acted like there was an imminent threat to their life which, of course, there wasn’t. I worked with them to challenge and then change their interpretation of presentations. First we started by challenging the automatic thought. How did the team respond to other presentations in the past? It turns out they were usually quite supportive. Then we considered some alternative explanations. Perhaps they felt physically worked up about the presentation because they wanted to do a good job and it mattered to them. Then we simply changed the script - choosing an alternate thought that they were excited about the presentation. When you’re excited your heart rate might increase, you might get a little sweaty, you might even stumble over some words. But excitement is much more positive than nervousness. It’s the same physiology, but a very different mindset. Having your heart race made sense as an indicator of excitement - they didn’t need to interpret it as a warning sign. In fact, presentations could actually be a great opportunity to practice and improve their public speaking. So the presentation to the team became an exciting opportunity, instead of a life threatening risk.   Retraining your own worst critic initially takes conscious effort, but over time we can create new and more positive automatic thoughts. The only way to get more comfortable and confident with public speaking is to do lots of public speaking. The new mindset, that presentations are an exciting opportunity to get better at presenting, encouraged them to do more presentations.   Here are some ways to tackle our limiting thoughts, and retrain our inner critic: Notice your automatic thoughts. Write them down in a journal or using a notes app on your phone. That will give you a sense of what you’re telling yourself through the day. See thoughts as opinions, not facts. Assess whether each automatic thought is rational, true and helpful. Incorporate other information. Craft other potential explanations. Try to identify the most likely explanation. Avoid catastrophic language - “I’ll just die”, “this always happens to me”, “I’ll never get any better at this”. This just escalates the impact of the negative thought. Play the scenario out - realise that, even if the worst case comes true, you’ll still be okay. Rewrite the script - just like I did with the person I was coaching, changing “nervous” to “excited”. We can change the interpretation we place on our automatic thoughts and the cues from our body.   By applying these approaches we can retrain our own worst critic to become much more focused on positive opportunities than paralysed by risks.
Episode 30 - Making Negative Feedback a Little Less Negative
Summary Commentary around the effectiveness of negative feedback is mixed, with people often highlighting the adverse impact that it can have on individuals. But is there a way to make negative feedback, well, less negative?   Transcript Hello and welcome to episode 30 of the Leadership Today Podcast where each week we tackle one of today’s biggest leadership challenges. This week we’re exploring how to make negative feedback a little less negative. Commentary around the effectiveness of negative feedback is mixed, with people often highlighting the adverse impact that it can have on individuals. This has led some to recommend that leaders should avoid providing negative feedback altogether. A less extreme recommendation is typically to provide much more positive feedback than negative feedback, which makes a lot of sense. We should put a lot more effort into guiding people towards an objective, rather than correcting them for straying from the path. But is there a way to make negative feedback, well, less negative? Let’s step outside the business context for a moment, and into the world of friendships. Recent research has shown that as a friendship deepens, the friends seek and provide more negative feedback to each other. In contrast, the deepening friendship doesn’t lead to an increase or decrease in the amount of positive feedback provided. It seems that the depth of the connection allows negative feedback to play a more constructive role in the relationship. The friendship becomes a safe place where people can provide and receive candid feedback to help each other improve. So what’s the difference between positive and negative feedback. One simple distinction is that positive feedback seeks to recognise and reinforce a behaviour. In contrast negative feedback seeks to identify a behaviour that should be reduced or changed. As we covered in an earlier episode, one way to make feedback more effective is to focus on the behaviour demonstrated, and the impact of that behaviour on you and others. But what other conditions are specific to making negative feedback work? How do we make it more like the negative feedback close friends seek and provide to each other? Two pieces of research provide helpful insight into making negative feedback more constructive. The first is a very recent meta analysis of 78 studies into the impact of negative feedback on intrinsic motivation. The second study looked specifically at the factors that moderate an employees reaction to negative feedback. Taken together, these two studies highlight four important principles when we need to provide negative feedback. Connection matters - much like in the earlier research about negative feedback in friendships, the closer the connection, the more effective the negative feedback. And face to face feedback works best. This allows a much richer conversation that factors in the subtle non verbal cues so important in communication. Your motivation matters - being considerate makes a difference. This could mean acknowledging that the feedback is difficult to give, but that you really want the person to develop and improve. In fact, you wouldn’t be providing the feedback unless you cared about the person’s development and progress. Quality matters - negative feedback works best when it is data and criteria based. This could involve highlighting how the negative behaviour is adversely impacting on performance measures for the role, and how the desired behaviour will help the individual. Guidance matters - the research demonstrated that negative feedback was more effective when there was clear guidance about how to improve. Such guidance helps demonstrate that you are willing to support the individual’s development.   Most people don’t enjoy giving or receiving negative feedback, but if delivered well using these four principles it can be an important driver of further development. So as a final reminder, connection matters, your motivation matters, quality matters, and guidance matters. I hope you found this episode helpful. As always, please recommend the podcast to a friend or colleague. And you can get in touch via the website if you have any thoughts or feedback on the episode. See you next week!   Research   A Meta-Analysis of Negative Feedback on Intrinsic Motivation. Fong, Carlton J; Patall, Erika A; Vasquez, Ariana C; Stautberg, Sandra. Educational Psychology Review; New York Vol. 31, Iss. 1,  (Mar 2019): 121-162.   Moderators of employee reactions to negative feedback. Steelman, Lisa A; Rutkowski, Kelly A. Journal of Managerial Psychology; Bradford Vol. 19, Iss. 1/2,  (2004): 6-18.   When friends exchange negative feedback. Finkelstein, Stacey R; Fishbach, Ayelet; Tu, Yanping. Motivation and Emotion; New York Vol. 41, Iss. 1,  (Feb 2017): 69-83
Episode 29 - Chronotypes and the Perils of Working 9 to 5
Summary Working 9 to 5 may not be the best way for everyone to maximise their productivity. In this episode we look at the science of chronotypes, and how leaders can use our natural sleep/wake cycles to get the best out of their people.   Transcript Hello and welcome to episode 29 of the Leadership Today Podcast where each week we tackle one of today’s biggest leadership challenges. Today we are talking about chronotypes and the perils of working 9 to 5. As you wade into research about patterns in daily productivity, focus and sleep, you find a wealth of information, often confusing and sometimes contradictory. So let’s start with the basics. Chronotypes are used to categorise people based on their sleep/wake cycles across a 24 hour period. There are three main chronotypes - morning, intermediate and evening types. These follow a normal distribution, so 50% of people are classed as intermediate types. But even these intermediate types can have a preference towards morning or evening. Your chronotype impacts when you best exercise, concentrate, eat and sleep - it’s not just a learned preference, it has a biological basis. Hormones are part of that biological basis. For example, the hormone melatonin starts being produced in greater levels by the pineal gland as a person approaches sleep, it peaks during the night, and then more rapidly declines towards waking time. Another hormone, cortisol, follows an opposing pattern - rising as morning approaches, peaking later in the morning, then tapering off towards evening. Cortisol is typically classed as a stress hormone, and you’ve probably only heard bad things about it. But, in moderation, it has a number of positive benefits relating to concentration, energy levels, and positive mood. Peaks in melatonin typically vary by around four hours between morning and evening types.  A morning type could have a melatonin level at 7pm that an evening type doesn’t reach until 11pm. Some research has even seen ranges in melatonin peaks of up to ten hours. You can imagine the impact of forcing morning and evening types to go to sleep or wake at the same time. Yet so often our business hours are a compromise between these two types - 9 to 5. I’m definitely a morning person, and that has become even clearer now I have greater flexibility over my day. This morning preference has also become more pronounced as I age, but more on that soon. In contrast, I remember a participant on a leadership program with a quite different chronotype to me. She really struggled with the program’s 8.30am start time, which was an hour earlier than when she usually got to work. She wasn’t particularly sharp in the morning. While others were asking questions and engaging in activities, this participant took a while to warm up. However, at the very point when most people were fading in the afternoon, this person came into their own - they were asking questions, engaging with activities and were much more physically animated. During a break I asked what her perfect work day would look like if she had absolute freedom to choose. It turns out her perfect work day would be 11am to 7.30pm. In fact she had even suggested these work hours to her manager. This would allow her to get up around 9.30am, and still have time to get to the gym before work. But most of her fellow team members were working 8.30am to 5pm, and her manager thought an 11am start would be too extreme. They ended up negotiating a compromise of 9.30am to 6pm, but it was common for her to work an extra hour or two at the end of the agreed work day when she felt particularly sharp and focused. Interestingly she did work her preferred hours when she worked from home - no one noticed any difference and she felt great. I wonder how much those compromised hours are costing her and the business. The impact of having people working outside their preferred hours is much like crossing time zones - having to wake consistently earlier, or later than our natural biological rhythms. This wreaks havoc on our bodies and health. Even one hour shifts for daylight saving changes mess with our biological clocks, and you can even see the impact of that in mental health and crime statistics. Sleep wake cycles are also linked to age. Teenagers need more sleep, and tend to shift towards later sleep and wake times, achieving what’s known as “peak lateness” at 19 years old. Given this, the optimal school day for most teenagers should start around 10am or even later. As we age, we tend to shift more towards the morning. For example, men on average shift from evening to morning types around 40 years of age. So older workers may prefer an earlier start, but there is a very broad distribution of preferences at any age. As a leader there are a number of ways in which we can take chronotypes into account to support both individuals and the business: Ask individuals - if they could pick their perfect work hours, what would they be? It’s important to not set up an expectation that you can automatically provide these hours, but it’s a great question to gain additional information that could impact rosters and work times. Assess and raise awareness about chronotypes - The Center for Environmental Therapeutics has an online version of the often-used Morning Evening Questionnaire (or MEQ) which can help people to identify their chronotype. I’ve included a link to the questionnaire in the show notes ( Provide flexibility - encourage people to trial different work hours when they are working at home. Just be aware that, like jet lag, it takes a few days to adjust into a new rhythm. Communicate - like any other diversity in the workplace, there is a risk of misunderstanding. Make sure you communicate when people are trialing new hours so people don’t think the other types are being lazy by either leaving earlier or arriving later than usual. Focus on outputs - measure what people deliver, not how long it takes them or the process. This will provide people with greater flexibility over how they produce results. And chronotypes aren’t just about how you lead others, they’re also important for managing yourself. Here are some things to try if you’re struggling with your sleep/wake cycle: Complete the assessment - find out what your preferred chronotype is. Negotiate work time experiments. Sometimes managers are concerned about making large changes and what that might mean for them and the team they manage. Turning this into experiments may give them more confidence. Even if your new work hours are a complete failure, they can always change back. Go with consistent sleep times - go to bed and wake up at the same times every day. It makes a huge difference in really establishing those rhythms. Make sure you get plenty of light in the morning and not much at night - get outdoors in the morning so your brain and body can synch with sunlight cues, and avoid screens at night. In winter consider bright lights in morning and dimmer lighting in the evenings. Sleep is really tightly linked with diet and exercise, so improvements in these will also help the quality of our sleep.  Read up - there are two really interesting books that I highly recommend around these topics: Why we sleep: The new science of sleep and dreams. By Matthew Walker. It includes some fascinating science, and there’s a particularly great narrator on the audio book - in fact I’ve fallen asleep while listening to that book on more than one flight. When: The scientific secrets of perfect timing. By Daniel Pink. Daniel has a fantastic ability to consolidate a broad range of scientific research together with entertaining stories focused on decision making and chronotypes. Well I hope you found the content in this episode helpful. As always it would be great if you could share the podcast with your friends and work colleagues, and please make contact via the website if you have any feedback or questions. See you next week.     Research Find out your type by taking the Morning Evening Questionnaire by the Center for Environmental Therapeutics: - Emotion. 2016 Jun; 16(4): 431–435. Published online 2016 Mar 7. Positive upshots of cortisol in everyday life Lindsay T. Hoyt,1,* Katharine H. Zeiders,2 Katherine B. Ehrlich,3 and Emma K. Adam3,4,*  
Episode 28 - How Leaders Create an Environment Where People Thrive
Summary How do leaders create an environment where people thrive? This week we look at the importance of leadership styles in helping to bring out the best in our people.     Transcript Hello and welcome to episode 28 of the Leadership Today Podcast where each week we tackle one of today’s biggest leadership challenges. This week we’re looking at how leaders create an environment where people thrive, which is building on some of the themes from last week’s episode. When I was 15 my first part time job was at a large retailer. My job title was ‘Customer Service Security’, which sounds pretty impressive, but in practice that meant I was the person who checked bags as people left the store to make sure they hadn’t stolen anything. At that time the retailer had a garden department with its own street entrance, so it wasn’t uncommon for people to come in the main entrance, steal something, then try to make a quick escape through the garden department. Of course they had to get past Customer Service Security first. By any measure, this wasn’t a great job to give to a 15 year old, but it was character building if nothing else. Another of my responsibilities was to help people who were returning goods, checking their receipts and passing them through to a person who could give them a refund. There’s one refund that has stuck in my mind 30 years after the event. A man came into the garden department one Saturday morning carrying what looked like a stick with a black plastic bag on one end. He let me know that he wanted a full cash refund on the item. I looked at the receipt, and what he had originally purchased a full three months earlier was a bare-rooted lemon tree. You see occasionally had specials where we would sell a bunch of young trees with minimal soil around the roots which were then sealed in a plastic bag - which made it much easier than shipping and selling them than putting them in pots. But this guy had bought the bare-rooted lemon tree, taken it home and put it in his garage for a full three months - no sunlight, no water, no nutrients, no space to grow. It didn’t take a horticultural qualification to realise the lemon tree was dead. Amazingly, our generous refund policy meant the man left with a full refund, and we were left wondering what to do with a dead stick in a bag. There are a few important leadership principles wrapped up in this story. The most obvious one is that, as leaders, we need to create an environment where people can thrive. Just like the lemon tree needed to be planted in good soil, with access to sunlight, water and nutrients to thrive, as leaders we need to provide an environment where people can thrive. I’ll talk more about how we can do that shortly. The second equally important principle is that we can’t force people to be motivated and to grow - that comes from within the person themselves. As leaders it’s important to recognise that we can’t directly motivate anyone to do anything. The closest we can get is through demands and threats, which is unfortunately what all too many leaders default to. While that might lead to a short-term lift in performance driven by fear, ultimately the impact is negative on the individual and the organisation. Instead what we’re aiming for is aligned motivation. If someone shows up at your workplace, they’re motivated. As a leader our role is to uncover what specifically motivates that individual, and to help align that with the direction and needs of the organisation. We do that by creating the right environment. In summary - the person owns the motivation, and the leader owns the environment that helps to align that motivation. So how do leaders shape the environment? We shape the environment through the leadership behaviours we demonstrate - the actions we take that build the kind of environment where people can thrive. The concept of leadership styles is not new - the styles I refer to are informed by over 80 years of research by people including Kurt Lewin, Fred Fiedler, Martin Evans, Robert House, James McGregor Burns, Bernard Bass, Paul Hersey and Ken Blanchard. There are four sets of leadership behaviours or leadership styles that are particularly helpful in building a positive environment. The first leadership style is Inspiring. This involves developing a compelling vision for the work that we undertake, communicating that vision, and aligning roles and individuals to the vision. This helps to increase clarity, and it also encourages alignment. People know where we are headed, they know their role, and they can connect their own motivations with that broader purpose. This is like sunlight for the lemon tree - providing energy and a direction to grow. My own research with over 1,000 leaders demonstrated that having a feeling you’re contributing to something meaningful reduced negative stress by 31%, and increased engagement by 74%. It even increased an individual’s likelihood of staying with the organisation by a full 87%. The second leadership style is Developing. Here we’re discussing the skills and capabilities people want to develop, coaching people, providing stretch opportunities, and investing in their development. This ensures people are developing their capability, while we’re also building the capacity of the organisation. This is like watering the lemon tree - encouraging its development. Here my research saw more significant results. Where people felt they were developing in areas important to them, their stress was 26% lower, engagement was up by 60% and again the likelihood of staying was up by 87%. The third leadership style is Connecting. This is where we help connect people with others that can provide support, while we also identify opportunities to work across the organisation, build teamwork, and provide direct support and encouragement. This style helps ensure people have the support they need, while also building collaboration for the organisation. This is like adding nutrients to give that extra boost to the lemon tree. Where people felt their job provided the chance to make meaningful connections, my research showed a 22% reduction in negative stress, with engagement up 57% and likelihood of staying up 68%. The fourth style is Delegating. Here we delegate important work to people, even when it may mean a short term dip in performance. We focus more on accountabilities and outcomes, giving people greater freedom about how they produce results. This provides the individual with authority, while also enabling us to hold them accountable. It’s like giving the lemon tree extra room to grow - putting it in a larger pot, or planting it with plenty of space to spread out. Again my research showed that providing people with autonomy and freedom has a significant impact, with negative work-related stress down 20%, engagement up 52% and likelihood of staying up 55%. There are two other styles that also influence the work environment, but not always in a positive way. Directing is about telling people how to do their work, closely monitoring people, and emphasising the negative consequences of getting things wrong. There are some times when this leadership style is appropriate - it provides task clarity and control. But it does this at the cost of autonomy and personal responsibility. This one is a bit like yelling at the lemon tree - it might make you feel better, but the tree won’t take much notice. The final leadership style is Avoiding. As the name suggests, this is where a person avoids the role of being leader altogether, keeping tasks to themselves, focusing on their own job, and avoiding delegating to people who have let them down. While the individual may be productive, team productivity is likely to be low. It looks a lot like the guy who left the lemon tree in his garage so he could focus on other things. Perhaps that worked well for him, but it didn’t turn out too well for the lemon tree. The really good news is that, like any other behaviour, leadership styles can be developed. A great way to start is to assess your own leadership styles. I’ve developed a great card-sort exercise which I use on leadership programs that helps people to identify their preferred styles. And I also have a Leadership Styles Self-Assessment which I’m providing as a free gift for those who sign up for Leadership Today updates. Just head to the website, and sign up on the Connect page and I’ll send you a link. If you’ve already signed up, have no fear - I’ll be emailing you a link shortly. I’ll be interested in how you find the assessment, and I’ll be looking forward to seeing you next week.
Episode 27 - Psychological Safety - The Hard Edge to Feeling Safe at Work
Summary How safe do you feel at work to speak up, raise an idea or a concern, or to try something new? This week we look at psychological safety, and how it has an unexpectedly hard edge.     Transcript Hello and welcome to episode 27 of the Leadership Today Podcast where each week we tackle one of today’s biggest leadership challenges. This week we’re looking at psychological safety - the hard edge to feeling safe at work. How safe do you feel at work to speak up, raise an idea or a concern, or to try something new? There has been increasing interest over the past few years about the importance of psychological safety in the workplace, a concept originating in the 1990s. This has been driven, in no small part, by highly publicised research conducted by Google on what makes a team effective at Google - which they called project Aristotle. Before we go too much further, it’s worth talking about some of the details and definitions of the study. They defined a team as being a group of people who are highly interdependent - that team members need each other to produce results. They’re not just working alongside each other. Studied a wide and diverse range of teams, from 3 to 50 individuals - with the median size being 9 team members. Explored the effectiveness of teams, using a range of measures including evaluations by the executives, team leaders, team members and also sales performance. And they explored a range of variables gathered through interviews and survey data, alongside demographics such as tenure and location. Now they’re quick to note that this is what matters for teams at Google - obviously these results may vary elsewhere. This research was Interesting as much for what they found didn’t matter, at least when working at Google: things like colocation (working in the same place), team size, individual performance, and extroversion levels - none of those factors had a significant impact. What were the factors they found to be most significant for effective teams? They found five factors, and let’s work through those in reverse order of importance: Number five was having an impact - making a difference was really important Number four was a sense of meaning and purpose Number three was structure and clarity - where people understood their role and objectives Number two was dependability - where people reliably complete work on time And the number one factor, as you might expect, was psychological safety One definition of psychological safety is “a shared belief held by members of a team that the team is safe for interpersonal risk taking”.  Basically I feel confident people won’t “embarrass or punish anyone else for admitting a mistake, asking a question, or offering a new idea.” Importantly, psychological safety isn’t ’soft’ - it isn’t about avoiding disagreements or withholding corrective feedback - it’s not about bubble wrapping the environment so people can’t hurt themselves. Rather, an environment with psychological safety is supportive but stretching. Once people are free to try things and make mistakes, we are better able to set high standards and hold people to account. A workplace with psychological safety isn’t about comfort - in fact, it can feel quite uncomfortable as you’re being stretched into new areas (you might want to see our episode on conscious incompetence). However, you feel supported. You are still responsible for the consequences of your actions, but your fellow team members want you to succeed and have got your back. It’s better to think of psychological safety as something that makes people confident, not comfortable. There are two major leadership styles, or sets of leadership behaviours that are most relevant to psychological safety: The first is Connecting - that, as leaders, we help to connect people with others that can support them - we work on the team and seek to build team effectiveness The second is Delegating - we provide the freedom for people to try things out, we give them autonomy, and we delegate important responsibilities to them So that sounds great for the individual, but what’s in it for the organisation? Providing a connected and supportive workplace leads to increased collaboration. It’s an environment where people are much more willing to contribute, take chances, learn from each other, and contribute to each others’ success. And providing authority allows us to hold people to account. Holding people accountable may initially sound negative, but of course it also involves proving positive feedback and celebrating successes. Google started a company called X, which now sits under Alphabet. They also called this the “Moonshot Factory”. Here their missions was to  “create radical new technologies to solve some of the world’s hardest problems”. They had projects like using balloons to provide internet access in remote locations, drone delivery, self-driving vehicles, and kites to generate electricity. Importantly they don’t just celebrate successes, but also celebrate projects that are shut down - recognising the efforts put in, even if ultimately the project doesn’t prove feasible. In summary, nice cultures aren’t nice places to work, if that niceness means covering over disagreements. As leaders, let’s build environments where people can stretch themselves, try new things, make the occasional mistake, learn from that, and ultimately develop to produce even greater results. Well I hope you found today’s podcast helpful and if you did it would be great if you could recommend it to a few of your friends. The podcast is really growing in terms of the number of people downloading it each week, and that makes a real difference in terms of the impact we can have in developing leaders. Also, if some of the content in today’s podcast was of interest, I have a one day leadership foundations program which covers things like motivation, leadership styles, building resilience - a range of things that are really important across a range of leadership roles. If that’s of interest, just make contact via the website at And while I’m on the topic, if you go to the connect page there you can sign up for our regular updates and also to connect with us on LinkedIn and Facebook. See you next week.   References
Episode 26 - Self-Fulfilling Prophecy - Why We Get What We Expect
Summary   The self-fulfilling prophecy describes how our expectations of others can lead them to act in a way that confirms those expectations. As leaders it’s time to reset our expectations so we can get the best out of our people and stop holding them back.     Transcript   Hello and welcome to episode 26 of the Leadership Today Podcast where each week we tackle one of today’s biggest leadership challenges. This week we’re looking at self-fulfilling prophecies, and why we get what we expect. It’s a sunny Wednesday in 1932 as the CEO of Last National Bank walks towards his desk. The bank is thriving and financially strong, and Cartright Millingville is rightly proud of the business he oversees. But as he continues past the tellers, he notices the queue of people lining up is much longer than usual - nothing to worry about at this point, but certainly different to most Wednesday mornings. As he takes a seat at this desk the noise and activity in the bank gradually grows, with people becoming increasingly unruly. And that’s because this is no ordinary day - hundreds of people are lining up to withdraw all of their funds from the bank, having heard a rumour of the bank’s imminent collapse. Despite the bank’s strong financial position, it could not survive the initially false, but ultimately true, perception that it might be at risk. The bank collapsed and closed its doors permanently the same day. The false perception became fact. The sociologist Robert Merton shares this example in his classic 1948 paper - The Self-Fulfilling Prophecy. In the paper he describes how our expectations can influence the world around us. Thinking that a financial institution is at risk of collapse can ultimately lead to its collapse. In the same way, our expectations of others can lead them to behave in line with these expectations. Merton defines the self-fulfilling prophecy as “a false definition of the situation evoking a new behaviour which makes the originally false conception come true.” And, of course, this outcome strengthens the original perception of the situation, as Merton continues “for the prophet will cite the actual course of events as proof that he was right from the very beginning”. A common example of a self-fulfilling prophecy is the placebo effect. In drug trials, prospective new medications are put up against placebo pills. These placebo pills have no direct physical impact on the individual. But believing that a placebo tablet will have an impact is often enough for it to actually have that impact. For that reason, finding drugs that work better than placebos can be difficult. It’s not that a placebo is neutral - the expectation the person has of the placebo tablet actually makes that outcome more likely. More recent research demonstrates that the placebo effect is so strong, it can still work even when the person knows that they’re taking a placebo. By way of example, Dr Ted Kaptchuk treated patients with irritable bowel syndrome by giving them a tablet openly identified to the patient as a placebo. This group demonstrated significant improvement in their symptoms compared to a group that didn’t receive a placebo. As Dr Kaptchuck notes, this clearly can’t work for all medical issues. However he sees the greatest potential for so called ‘open-label’ placebo treatments in conditions that are largely measured through self-observation - conditions including pain, nausea and fatigue. Placebo tablets and treatments are a great example of the self-fulfilling prophecy. Classic experiments in schools have also shown the impact of the self-fulfilling prophecy. In the 1960s, Rosenthal and Jacobsen undertook a series of experiments with teachers and students. In one experiment, they chose a group of students at random and told teachers that those children had taken a test which showed they were “growth spurters” - that they had high potential and were likely to experience great progress in the year to come. The children weren’t aware of this finding - only the teachers knew. But the group was actually not special - they hadn’t taken a test and had no reason to advance more quickly than their peers. At the end of the year the evidence was in - the students identified as “growth spurters” to the teachers demonstrated significantly greater improvement across the year than their peers. Believing a student had greater potential led them to demonstrate greater potential. This research has been replicated many times and while some more recent research has questioned the size of the effect, the effect is still there. So how does this work? It’s believed teachers’ expectations impact the way they treat their students and this, in turn, changes the behaviour of the students, helping them to reach those expectations. If I think a student has high potential, I’ll treat them differently, by giving them more opportunities to develop and demonstrate this potential. Research has found this same effect alive and well in our organisations too, where supervisor expectations can modify performance. Which raises another point - having low expectations can also lead people to reduced performance. As a leader, findings like these should make us pause and think: What expectations do I have of my people? What evidence do I have for these expectations? Are my expectations limiting the performance and potential of my people? What if we wiped the slate clean as leaders and expected more out of our people? What impact might that have? What if we expect that people turn up to work wanting to do a good job. That people can and want to develop and improve. That if the conditions are right, people can deliver even more than what we expect of them. While we’re at it, what expectations do we have of ourselves? Are there limiting beliefs you have about yourself that lead people to treat you differently? Perhaps you don’t expect to get a promotion, and this leads others to see you as less worthy of a promotion. Perhaps you joke about being lazy, which leads others to see you as lazy. You might take some time this week to consider your strengths. One way to do this is to take a survey like the VIA Character Strengths which can help identify your unique strengths. Embracing your strengths will help you to present more confidently to others, and change the way they view you in line with the expectations you place on yourself. Let me know how you go, and have a great week.     References   The Self-Fulfilling ProphecyAuthor(s): Robert K. MertonSource: The Antioch Review, Vol. 8, No. 2 (Summer, 1948), pp. 193-210 Eden, D. (1984). Self-fulfilling prophecy as a management tool: Harnessing Pygmalion. The Academy of Management Review, 9(1), 64-73. VIA Character Strengths Survey - available free -
Episode 25 - Leading through Change
Summary Being able to effectively manage change is an essential skill for any leader. In this episode we explore the stages of change that people work through, and what they need from their leaders to support the change.     Transcript Welcome to episode 25 of the Leadership Today Podcast where each week we tackle one of today’s biggest leadership challenges.   Change is an essential part of the modern workplace. Hardly a week will go by without some kind of change that we need to manage. Some authors have likened working through change to the stages of grief. The five stages of grief (Denial, Anger, Depression, Bargaining and Acceptance) were Initially developed by Elizabeth Kubler-Ross. She actually used these labels to describe the stages that terminally ill patients go through as they process what their illness means to them. It was then applied to people grieving the loss of a loved one, however research shows that grief is complex, and doesn’t necessarily follow neat stages.   Cynthia Scott and Dennis Jaffe proposed that people move through four stages when coming to terms, and eventually engaging, with change - Denial, Resistance, Exploration and Commitment. Like the stages of grief, these don’t necessarily play out as neatly as the model would suggest, however it’s an extremely helpful framework for leaders in understanding how they can support and encourage people through change.   In the first stage, Denial, a person is trying to avoid the change by not taking action. They often act like nothing has happened. When they are forced to discuss the change, they may question the evidence behind the need for change, or blame those driving the change. I remember working through an office move. We had been in the same location for many years, but our lease was coming to an end, and the building managers didn’t want to renew the lease. So we found a new location and encouraged people to start clearing up around their areas to get ready for the move. I remember one person that didn’t seem to be involved in the clearing up. As I spoke to them, they were clearly in denial about the change. In fact they thought it was an elaborate ruse to get people to clean up their areas, and that we wouldn’t be moving office at all. And while that seems a little strange, it speaks volumes about what people need at this stage of change. Firstly, leaders need to accept that denial is a normal part of the change process. People need time and further information so they can get used to the change. As a leader you also need to expect that productivity will drop. I’m yet to hear of anyone who has moved offices without a pretty significant impact on productivity, and that will be the same for any other major change.   In the second stage, Resistance, people take on a more active opposition to the change. Active and passive resistance starts to occur. People can end up complaining, demonstrate frustration, and even become depressed. They will identify and raise numerous reasons why the change won’t work. As a leader, this can be quite challenging. You might even find yourself starting to doubt the ability for the organisation to change at this point. It’s important to recognise that you can’t get people through this stage with logic and reason. Additional data and evidence is unlikely to help. What people need is a leader who will listen to them and acknowledge the emotional component of the change. It’s really important to maintain your own composure at this point too. It’s very easy to become angry and argumentative yourself, which will only inflame the situation further. Instead, encourage the team to keep talking to you and each other about the change, and particularly focus on what lies ahead, while also recognising the feeling of loss about what is in the past.   Exploration is the third stage and, as the name suggests, this is when people start to actively engage with the change. At this stage people will want to come up with new ideas, to solve problems, and to try new things. While this is positive, it is worth recognising that this will distract people from core business. That inevitable drop in productivity will continue into this stage, despite the enthusiasm and energy people are demonstrating. As a leader you will need to focus people’s energy at this stage towards productive tasks. Think about how people can work together to progress the change. It’s also worth noting that people will reach this stage at different points, and may even cycle back into Resistance if they don’t feel their efforts are being recognised. You will want to encourage people to support others through the change - those in Exploration can really help those in the Resistance stage, so think about how you might engage people in that way.   The fourth and final stage is Commitment. Here people feel comfortable with the change, and are confident and in control. They will become more productive as the distracting elements of the change have been addressed. As a leader, it’s tempting at this stage to think your job is done. However, you should take the time to celebrate and recognise people’s efforts in working through the change. You can also help prepare people for the next change by reflecting on lessons learned.   This week you could reflect on the changes that are occurring in your workplace. What stage are you up to in the change? Where do you think members of your team are at? What do they need from you to make it to the next stage?   Thanks for joining me again this week. And a quick update - I’ve released a one day Leadership Foundations program, targeted at frontline to mid-level leaders. It covers: Leadership and motivation Leadership styles Coaching and feedback Focus and resilience   The feedback on the program has been great. If you or someone else in your organisation would be interested in learning more about the program, make contact with me via the website. I’m also working on an online version of the program people can undertake over a two week period, so let me know if you’re interested in a discounted trial. See you next week.   References Cynthia Scott and Dennis Jaffe (2006) Change Management: Leading People Through Organizational Transitions  
Episode 24 - Conscious Incompetence - Why Learning New Things is Painful
Summary Learning new things can be painful. Understand why that’s the case can help us, both as learners and leaders, to become more effective. This week we look at a framework to help us understand the predictable stages of learning, and what that requires from us as leaders.     Transcript Welcome to episode 24 of the Leadership Today Podcast where each week we tackle one of today’s biggest leadership challenges.   When’s the last time you learned something new? How did that feel?   The workplace is changing rapidly, which means as leaders we are often needing to try things that we haven’t tried before. But learning something new can be hard - it typically involves an element of feeling awkward. Why is that? And what does it mean for us and our teams?   Chances are that at some point in your life your learnt to drive a car. You may have even taught someone else to drive.   What does it feel like as the learner heads towards a car for their first lesson. They’re no doubt a little nervous, but are also typically keen to give it a try. Often there’s an assumption that driving a car can’t be that difficult - after all, they’ve seen thousands of others do it every day - how hard can it be? Martin Broadwell described four levels of learning back in 1969, and he referred to this stage as Unconscious Incompetence - the learner doesn’t know what they don’t know. They can’t possibly know how hard it might be to learn to drive a car because they’ve never done it before. The leader needs to invest effort and time in helping the learner at this point, as they’re likely to need really clear directions.   So what happens in those first few lessons? No doubt the learner stalls the car, maybe forgets to indicate, or even has a near miss with another car. They might choose the wrong gear or clip the kerb while taking a corner. Their lack of skill in the task is quickly uncovered. But what does that feel like? It feels awful. Every element of driving at this stage takes a lot of thought and planning - knowing where to position the car in the lane, what kind of distance to keep from the car in front, how to translate the images in the mirror to know where other cars are. Broadwell called this Conscious Incompetence - the learner is all too aware of just how much they don’t know, and it often feels awful. Unless there’s sufficient motivation, the learner may even give up at this stage. What the learner needs at this stage is plenty of encouragement to keep on learning.   Let’s assume the learner sticks with it. Over the next year they’re likely to become better at driving. Things will become more predictable and in control. They will still need to concentrate on elements of driving, but it will start to feel more comfortable and natural. They need fewer directions from the leader, aside from the occasional new element of encouragement. Broadwell called this stage Conscious Competence - the learner now knows how to do the task, but it still requires quite a lot of conscious thought and effort.   And, over time, if the learner driver continues to gain experience and develop their skills, eventually they will reach Unconscious Competence. This is the stage where the skill becomes automatic. Have you ever had that experience of driving somewhere and not remembering much of the trip? That’s likely an example of Unconscious Competence. All the gear changes, lane changes, braking, accelerating, mirror checks and everything else becomes automatic - only exceptional circumstances are likely to require you to use conscious thought and effort. You don’t need much input from the person training you - they have effectively delegated the task to you. The leader needs to adapt their approach to the learner at this stage, otherwise they end up becoming the equivalent of a back seat driver - barking directions at someone who is perfectly capable of doing a great job. While this stage is great as a learner, it can make it hard to then teach someone else that skill. It can be hard to remember what it was like to learn to drive. There can be elements of driving that you find difficult to explain because they’ve become automatic over the years.   I remember stepping into my first leadership role. There was so much in the role that was new - motivating others, analysing finances, putting together a business plan, hiring staff, laying off staff - it was almost overwhelming. I was absolutely aware of my short comings and just how much I needed to learn. Fortunately I had people around me who were prepared to invest in my development, and I was also motivated to keep going. But it did lead me at points to question my ability - perhaps I was the wrong person for the job - surely someone else could do this better than I could? And it also challenged me as my team became more and more capable. Was I willing to delegate things entirely? Or did I want to retain some control, just like the back seat driver?   Putting ourselves in the position of Conscious Incompetence is a necessary part of growth and development. And helping others through this stage with support and encouragement is critical if we are to retain our best people and keep them motivated.   What parts of your role fall in the Conscious Incompetence stage? Are there new challenges on the horizon that might push you back into that zone for some tasks? Where do your team members fall on their various responsibilities? Are there some that require additional support? Do you need to fully delegate to others who are now performing well, and stop back seat driving? How can you use this framework to prepare others for new responsibilities?   I hope you found this episode helpful. I’m so grateful for those of you who download the podcast each week and share it with others - it makes a huge difference. Leadership Today is now one of the top leadership podcasts on Spotify, which means even more people are discovering the podcast and working on their leadership. I look forward to speaking with you again next week.
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