Category Archives: Leadership

We should all beware of experts

gingerCEOs and senior business leaders are increasingly placing their trust in experts such as academics, consultants and technical experts.   A 2011 report from the Edelman group points to a dramatic rise in leaders turning to ‘credentialed spokespeople’, so-called experts. But is ‘expertise’ really all it’s cracked up to be?   In 1984 The Economist set a challenge to four different groups to predict what the stock market would look like in ten years time. The groups were made up of four former finance ministers, four company chairmen, four Oxford University students and four London dustmen. Ten years on, who came closest? Of course, it was the dustmen, with the finance ministers trailing in last place.   A study of 82,000 predictions by 284 experts over a 16 year period on issues ranging from the fall of the Soviet Union, oil prices, the Arab Spring and 9/11 showed that the so-called experts got no more right than a monkey randomly sticking a pin in a board.   According to Noreena Hertz’s fabulous book Eyes Wide Open, a 2012 challenge run by The Observer pitted a team of professional investment advisors against a ginger cat called Orlando. Whilst the professionals studies the stock market and used their decades of experience to select winning stocks, Orlando made his choice by pushing a toy mouse onto a grid of numbers.   At the end of the year, Orlando ended up with an impressive 11% return, compared to the ‘experts’ measly 3.5%.

As Hertz says: “experts are taken at face value simply because they are perceived as being expert.” She points to a recent experiment in which a group of adults were asked to make a financial decision while contemplating an expert’s advice. An fMRI scanner measured their brain activity as they did so. What happened next shocked the researchers.  When faced with expert advice, the independent decision making parts of the participants’ brain effectively switched off. An experts speaks, and we stop thinking for ourselves. In her book, Hertz calls for greater consideration of what she calls ‘lay experts’ – those people with skills and experience from the front line.   “Traditional experts come to the table with particular skills and knowhow,” she says. “They are valuable, yet all too often they make their pronouncements from on high, without sufficient mindfulness of context or local conditions. Lay experts, on the other hand, have their feet on the ground. This means that they are capable of delivering insights that those looking down from up top, however qualified, may never discover or volunteer.” We need instead to tap into what Nobel prizewinning economist Friedrich Hayek describes as “the dispersed wisdom of those on the ground.” They may not have the PHDs and the fancy job titles but they almost certainly know what’s best.   When faced with a challenge, expensive consultants are not always the answer. And I’m speaking as a consultant, so I’m effectively saying, don’t hire me.

What to do if your boss is a psychopath

office-politicsWhat I love most about the Hay Festival is the eclectic mix of stories and ideas you can be exposed to in a single day.  On one day last week I started in the morning at a talk about Socrates and ended it with a rock concert.    In between I learned about how WW2 prisoners escaped from occupied France by crossing the Pyrenees, what Michael Vaughan thinks of the forthcoming Ashes series and the latest advances in neuroscience.  I listened to a former Archbishop of Canterbury and the director of the British Museum talk about imagery in religion, watched Simon Schama moan about the teaching of history in schools and saw my daughter getting inspired by the great Michael Morpurgo.   And that’s just one day.   One of the talks I was most looking forward to was the psychologist Oliver James discussing his recent book Office Politics:  How to Survive in a World of Lying, Backstabbing and Dirty Tricks.    I read the book a few months ago and found it to be an entertaining study of office behaviour, if not a little worrying.   According to James, the only way to thrive in business today is to learn the art of office politics.

He suggests our offices are patrolled by a ‘dark triad’ of psychopaths, Machiavels and narcissists.   The psychopaths have no conscience and will do whatever it takes to climb to the top.  The Machiavels will manipulate colleagues like pieces on a chessboard, while the narcissists are so full of self-love they’ll offer promotions to anyone who tells them how great they are.    Recent research in the US showed that psychopathy was four times commoner than normal in a study of 200 American senior managers, while a British study revealed significantly more narcissism in senior managers than patients in mental hospitals or inmates in a secure prison for violent offenders!   While the labels and descriptions may seem a little colourful and over the top, the stories in James’s book (based on real life interviews with office workers) are certainly familiar to us all.   What’s more, James insists we all use office politics every day, whether we’re aware of it or not.   We instinctively know that we stand a better chance of getting promoted if we can get the boss to like us, and good political skills will increase the chances of gaining that awareness, popularity and trust.   Simply by laughing at the boss’s jokes, asking about weekend plans or referring to the fact that we worked late, we’re playing the game.   And there’s no shame in that, says Oliver James.

So how do we survive this nasty, backstabbing world of office politics?   You can’t beat them, says James, so you may as well join them.    According to him, there are four key skills we must learn:  astuteness (being able to read the signs), thespianism (knowing how and when to act), networking (carefully nurturing relationships) and sincerity (or, more specifically, the appearance of sincerity).     There are some pretty ruthless and unsavoury characters in James’s book but he insists they are real people in real jobs.  He also believes they exist in every office, and he’s probably right to some extent.  We all understand the term ‘office politics’ and we communications professionals arguably come up against it more than most.   We almost certainly play office politics more than we’d let on too.  There is clearly a ‘political’ dimension to the work we do and the whole employee engagement agenda is riddled with tactics and behaviours that could be described as manipulative.  I’ve even met a few comms professionals in my time with clear psychopathic tendencies!   We internal comms people tend not to talk about office politics as much as we should.   It’s not the same as culture.   We know office politics exists but we tend to work around it rather than confronting it.   Maybe it’s time to take it more seriously?

Seven ways to get your line managers communicating

Businessman Wearing CapeI feel I may have been a bit harsh when I had a pop at managers in my last post.   I do stand by what I wrote – about managers being afraid to communicate and all that – but I feel I should at least balance up the criticism with something a little more constructive.   It just so happens that I’m designing a new training course for the Institute of Internal Communications about how we comms people can get the most from our line managers, so this may be an appropriate time to float some practical suggestions.   Here, then, are seven ways in which we can support our line managers to become informed, engaged, capable, inspired and inspiring communicators. 

See managers as human beings rather than a component of an operating model.     Line managers may have a job that gives them responsibility for managing people but they are individuals too.  They have the same pressures, frustrations, dreams, motivation and fears as the rest of us and research tells us that they are often the unhappiest people in the organisation – not close enough to the top to make decisions and reap the rewards, and not close enough to the bottom to deliver to customers and ‘make a difference’.   They are the squeezed middle – over-worked, under-valued and very often, lonely.   So we need to do our best to treat them with respect and understand where they’re coming from.   That means getting to know them and showing some empathy.

Trust them.   It can be tempting for us as communications professionals to over-support managers.   What I mean is that we often have very honourable intentions to make it easy for them – to package up the message, write it all down for them and then tell them where to stand and what to say (and how to say it).    We do this (i) because we want to be helpful, (ii) because it makes us look good and (iii) because we don’t trust them.   But the future of internal comms is not about controlling everything and we need to learn to trust a little more.   Make friends with the managers, help them believe in themselves, make them realise what power they have to inspire … and watch them surprise you.

Clear messages = clear delivery.   Of course, we need line managers to be well informed for obvious reasons, but they don’t need to know everything.   Perhaps the most valuable thing we can do for our managers is to run a tight ship when it comes to knowing what is important.    Senior leaders suffer from the curse of knowledge and they are too removed from the frontline to know what will stick, so we need to step in and manage the message with clarity and rigour.   Our job is to help create a compelling narrative that runs like a golden thread through the organisation – simple messages, well told.    If the messages line manages receive are clear, the messages they translate and connect with will be too.   So concentrate as much on the message flow between senior and middle managers as you do on the message flow direct to all staff.

Light the flames.    It’s right to step back and empower managers but we should power them too, with the skills, techniques and tools that will make them great.   I wouldn’t use the word ‘training’ – not to a manager’s face – because  they tend not to like the ‘t’ word, but I would concentrate my efforts on equipping them with the practical skills to make them better communicators.    Communication is an art, not a science, and like all artists we all have our own distinct style.    We should never try to turn our line managers into ‘best practice clones’ but we should encourage them to be themselves and offer them some hints, tips and guidance to weave into their own personal way of communicating.   This can be as subtle as a ‘tip of the week’ on the intranet or as deliberate as giving them a skills booklet (like this one on my website!) or offer them a workshop.    But concentrate on proper engagement skills, like listening, making the message stick, storytelling, creativity, building a sense of purpose and engaging through change ….. not just ‘how to deliver a presentation’.

Use peer pressure.   Gauging the right level of support, and knowing how and when to intervene, is hard to get right.    Provide too much support and the managers come to define themselves as a tool of the comms function, but if we don’t support them enough we risk creating a landscape littered with patches of good and bad practice, with little consistency.   This is where a bit of peer pressure can work wonders.   I always favour setting up a dedicated channel for line managers to enable them to check the ‘messages of the moment’, find out what’s going on and to have a nose at what others are doing.    Managers soon take notice when they see their peer group doing stuff that they’re not, so this is a good way of surfacing good practice and facilitating a forum for managers to share ideas and experiences.  Which leads us to …

Community action.    Building a community among line managers can help with knowledge sharing, consistent application and capability uplift.   The more you can get managers together – virtually or physically, the more they will generate ideas and a sense of purpose.    The peer pressure will kick-in and they’ll more willingly take on the responsibilities for comms and engagement.   If they start talking about it amongst themselves you know you’re onto something.  And it only takes a light (but important) touch from you.   Start by finding some role models and champions who already do it well.

Conversations not cascades.    Everyone knows that the Team Brief cascade system of communication doesn’t work.    Using line managers to deliver a functional outcome like passing on a message is not a good use of their leadership skills and does nothing for employee engagement.  And as we know, they won’t do it at the right time anyway, if at all.     The only way managers can truly engage is through conversation – a good old fashioned, eye-to-eye chat.    It’s in those conversations – and the questions asked – that true engagement happens – how are you feeling, is there anything you don’t understand, how can I help, what do you most enjoy doing, what could we do better, are you clear about what’s expected of you, have you any good ideas, what do you want to do next?   Those sorts of questions.   That doesn’t take training, it just takes encouragement, a bit of support, some self-belief and probably a dose of culture change.  Which is a whole different story!

It’s fear, not workload, that stops managers communicating

Signature:1aa0edd3f00ecb0adc8aa215f572f8061f81f2bd7ee14d34f53c48d50acdcb69I once worked for a manager who inspired me to believe I could achieve anything.   Then there was the manager who yelled at his staff and threw smartphones at them.    I remember the CEO with the charisma of a movie star and the CFO with the personality of a yoghurt.   I’ve seen them driven like Gandhi and lost like Bambi.    I’ve known managers who light up rooms and others who light up cigarettes.   In my time, I’ve worked for, followed, admired and observed managers of all shapes and sizes.   Some were natural communicators, many were not.  Some drove me to perfection, others drive me to tears.   We all know what that’s like.

Comms people often call out line managers as their biggest challenge.  Why is this?  Why are so many managers so frustratingly poor at engaging with the people they are paid to lead?    Most managers tend to think they are good communicators.   They’ll insist they talk regularly with their staff and that they take comms seriously, but then they’ll throw up excuses about time and conflicting business priorities.  Others think their comms responsibilities extend only to reading out a team briefing, announcing decisions or conducting the occasional team meeting.

I’ll tell you why so many managers don’t communicate.  They’re scared.  It’s fear, not workload, that stops them communicating.

Fear of peer judgement.   Managers are competitive and they don’t like to look weak.   They have a mental picture in their head that managers should look strong, confident and ‘in charge’.   They often become leaders of people by virtue of technical ability or time-served, and they justify their lofty appointments by talking about strategic business issues, sprinkling their language with corporate jargon and generally ‘acting senior’.     That’s what managers do isn’t it – have meetings, make decisions and display tangible evidence of their authority?   What would the other managers say if they put people and engagement above strategy and execution on their list of priorities?

Fear of looking soft.    The macho culture of many organisations mean that managers tend to consider qualities like humility, creativity and active listening as ‘too soft’.    For them, emotional intelligence is just a fancy HR buzzword and not something hard-nosed business decision makers should be taking seriously.    It takes a lot of courage to be an authentic leader – to admit to weakness, to own up to mistakes, to show emotion and ask others to do likewise.   Good communicators listen more than they talk.  They facilitate more than dictate.  They ask people about their lives, how they feel and what brings out the best in them.   They ask questions like “what can I do better” and “how can I help”.   For many managers, that’s too much to ask.

Fear of not knowing answers.  Managers, especially senior leaders, often like to avoid confrontation with ‘real people’ because they are frightened of what they might be asked.   They fear not having credible answers.  They worry about looking vulnerable.   That’s why they dread Q&As and open forums.   They haven’t yet worked out that leadership isn’t about having all the answers, it’s about knowing how to deal with the question and knowing what questions to ask in return.   It’s the same reason that leaders fear creativity.   They think it’s their job to come up with all the ideas.

Fear of getting it wrong.  We ask our managers to understand, translate, convey and ‘own’ corporate messages.  We expect them to role model values and inspire high performance.  But what if they don’t ‘get it’ themselves?  What if they don’t understand any or some of the message they are being asked to pass on with due gusto?   What if they don’t know what the acronyms mean?   You can only get so far with smoke and mirrors.    Many leaders avoid putting themselves in harm’s way by not communicating and not actively engaging with their people because they fear getting found out.

Ok, I know I’m having a bit of a downer of managers here.   I don’t mean to generalise, and I know there are some exceptional leaders and line managers in every organisation, but I do think that when managers fail to discharge their comms responsibilities it’s often a psychological rather than a practical barrier.

A story of how one CEO delivered instant change

Eye of Man in GlassesThe leaked memo from Barclays boss Antony Jenkins telling 140,000 staff to sign up to a new set of values or leave the company has caused quite a debate among communicators.   Some are uncomfortable with the blunt tone, others are more concerned about imposing values onto people and some say “way to go AJ”.   Personally, I don’t have a problem with the frank tone of the message, which states (to the people who don’t feel they can sign up to the values):  “My message to those people is simple: Barclays is not the place for you. The rules have changed. You won’t feel comfortable at Barclays and, to be frank, we won’t feel comfortable with you as colleagues.”   From a language point of view, it’s clear, strong and refreshingly uncorporate.   And given the context of bad behaviour in the bank up to now, a strong message is the only option.   But will it make a difference?

Back in 1998 I worked for a CEO who faced a similar challenge of bringing about cultural change in a global financial services organisation.   He spent the first six months in the job travelling round and taking a good look at what he had inherited.   He didn’t like what he saw.   He knew that dramatic wholesale change would be required to fix what was an ailing organisation lumbering towards the 21st Century.    He also knew that the organisation was full of fiefdoms and parochial cliques, where ‘knowledge is power’ managers would run the rule as they saw it.   The CEO wanted to pursue an agenda of personal responsibility, customer focus, teamwork, knowledge sharing, trust, collaboration, learning, change agility and tech revolution.    Some chance.    So he decided to bring 365 of the company’s top managers together for an event in Barcelona.    They all turned up, expecting the usual away-day jolly, only to find coloured polo shirts in their hotel room and a request to wear them next day for the first session – blue for Europe, yellow for AsiaPac and red for Americas.   They didn’t fancy this, of course – “how naff” they chorused.    But next day they dutifully gathered in their shirts, looking and sounding mightily uncomfortable.    The stage was very corporate – plain lectern with a logo filled background.    Then on came the CEO, in a suit and tie, and proceeded to embark on a fairly dull PowerPoint review of business performance.

Then, 20 minutes in, something happened.   The CEO interrupted his presentation, looked out at the audience and said:  “You know, when I first took on this job I thought we needed to change by evolution.  I was wrong.  I made a mistake.   What we need is a revolution.”    At that point, the lights went down, and the dry ice came up.  The Beatle’s Revolution began to play (very loudly) and the audience started to revolve (they didn’t know at the time, but their seats had been constructed on top of a giant revolving floor).    As the song played, some of the audience reacted with smiles, others began to clap but most just looked puzzled.    Then, as the floor turned 180 degrees, a new stage opened up in front of them, with new branding, moody lighting and no lectern.   On came the CEO … miked-up and dressed in a polo shirt.   His first words were:  “From now on, we’re not the same company.”

Now why did this happen?   Primarily it was to put a very clear stake in the ground that things were about to change.  There had to be a moment in time when the change started – and that time (as I still remember today) was 9.20am on June 6th 1998.  The time of the revolution.    There had to be this one moment to signal that things would be different from now on.    It could only happen with all the top managers in the room.   Now of course, the excitement died down and the CEO and his colleagues proceeded to set out, over the following three days, how the organisation was going to change and what he expected of his leaders.    But he quite rightly knew that would not be enough.  He knew some were “up for it” but it was obvious that many would go back to their constituencies and carry on as before.     So on the final day, at the farewell lunch, he dropped the bombshell.

At the point where he was expected to say “thanks very much, it’s been great, now have a safe journey home”, he actually said this:   “You know, over these last three days I’ve taken the opportunity to meet every single one of you.  I have looked into the whites of your eyes, and I know that some of you are ready to lead this change.  But I also know that some of you will go back to your part of the organisation and carry on exactly the same as you did before.   Well, to those people, let me just say this.  There are lots of good companies out there who would welcome your knowledge and experience.  So why don’t you go and work for those companies?    If you aren’t prepared to change, there’s no place for you here.”   We called this the “whites of your eyes” speech and it had a tangible impact on the room.   Over the following months, some great role modelling leaders emerged with innovative and inspiring ideas for engaging people.    Many other leaders left the organisation.  The change had begun and it captured the imagination.

So back to Barclays.   Antony Jenkins has just given his “whites of your eyes” speech, so let’s
see what happens next.   For me, the mistake Barclays have made is in their new core values.  They’re useless – respect, integrity, service, excellence and stewardship.   What does that mean?   As someone pointed out on a forum, Enron had three of these values!    Values shouldn’t be nouns – they should be verbs.  That way they can be actioned and measured.   Show me an organisation who doesn’t believe in integrity, respect, service yada yada.    Success will now lie in how they embed and role model the values, but I can’t help feeling it’s a missed opportunity.    The first punch was with a knuckle duster, the second was with a custard pie.

How to engage your middle managers

I’m a middle child, the second of three boys.   According to recent research, I should therefore be more successful, ambitious, open to innovation, empathic, well-adjusted, independent, generous, kind, devoted, balanced, confident and hard-working than my two brothers.   Well, I don’t know about that but I’ll take it!   Seriously though, a number of studies in the US and Europe have exposed the myth of us middle-borns being resentful and neglected underachievers.   Our middle status enhances our ability to keep the peace and negotiate.   The attention given to our supposedly responsible first and rebellious last-born siblings apparently gives us an inner drive to succeed, to get noticed, to rise above the pack.     OK, let’s assume all that is true.  Now let’s translate the same logic into the workplace and consider the role of middle managers.    My comms colleagues will immediately recognise this community as being a perennial ‘problem area’.   We worry about middle managers more than anyone else, because we know how important they are.   We ask more of middle managers than any other stakeholder group.   We need them to deliver and translate messages, manage change, improve wellbeing, motivate their people and role model values.   But unlike the senior leaders, who can be ‘picked off’ and coached individually, this middle community (what my old boss used to call the ‘marzipan layer’) is usually too remote and numerous (and busy) for us to nurture and support one-to-one.    What’s more, just like the middle child in the family, the middle manager has to juggle responsibilities and keep the peace, treading a fine line between ‘corporate mouthpiece’ and ‘voice of the people’.   They must support the ‘company line’ and embody its culture, whilst remaining loyal to the people they lead.   Middle managers are usually the unhappiest people in the organisation – stressed, over-worked, under-valued, constantly in fear of the chop and pulled from both ends.   It’s a tough ask, and then we communicators come along and make it even tougher.   I remember growing up wearing my older brother’s hand-me-down clothes, especially as there was (and still is!) only 17 months between us.   The metaphor translates to middle managers who are asked to consume hand-me-down messages created by others and which they are expected to endorse, interpret and pass on.  My industry devotes whole conferences to deciding how best to do that.   Maybe one way is to tap into those middle child characteristics.

In a recent study carried out by Dublin City University*, a number of middle managers in the Irish Health Service were asked to talk about a major organisational change event they had experienced.   About half chose the current top-down initiative (there’s always one isn’t there?) and the others recalled a change they themselves had initiated.    What the researchers found was that the corporate initiative came in for criticism around areas like strategic direction, increase in workload and poor communication.   On the other hand, those who talked about their own initiative were enthusiastic, pragmatic and highlighted the value of communication.    One participant neatly summed up the difference by saying his own approach was “we have an idea, can we talk to you about how it might work?”, whereas the top-down approach was more like “we have an idea and this is how it is going to work.”   Clearly this demonstrates the importance of ownership in times of change, we all prefer to be in control of our own destiny and we’re all nervous about ‘done to’ change.   But the Irish researchers made the important point that middle managers can be catalysts of change when given the opportunity to develop their own initiatives rather than pass on someone else’s.    In this particular study, they found that in most cases, the manager-led change initiatives produced many of the same outcomes that the top-down change was meant to enforce!   So maybe the lesson here is that rather than characterise middle managers as difficult, frustrating and hard to control, perhaps we should allow them to demonstrate those middle child skills of empathy, creativity and empowerment.    Be proud, you fellow mid-borns!

* Conway, E., & Monks, K. (2011). Change from below: the role of middle managers in mediating paradoxical change, Human Resource Management Journal

What’s the point of face to face communication?

As comms professionals we’ve always been taught that face to face is always best.  It feels instinctively right and surveys always confirm it to be true – given the choice, employees will always prefer to receive information face to face from their own boss.   As a consultant and trainer, I myself have never strayed from the path when advising clients.  Of course it’s true.  It makes perfect sense.   But what’s the point of face to face communication?  No, really, what’s the point?   Why is seeing a leader on a platform giving a presentation any more effective than being sent the slides by email, or downloading a PDF off the intranet?   Why are people so keen on being in the same room?

The answer is not in the words.  It’s in the eyes.   People want to communicate F2F because they want to see the other person’s eyes … and the face, and the expression, and the posture.   Face to face is a physical medium, and that’s why we like it.    Approach a new born baby (well, give it a week or two!) and watch the way it studies your eyes.  It’s fascinated.  The baby will stare into your eyes searching for meaning.   We never lose that curiosity.   Eye contact is one of the essential ingredients of human relationships.   There’s an old saying that goes “never trust anyone you haven’t looked in the eye”.   Eye contact is vital to building trust, so when our leaders ask us to trust them, they’ll stand a much better chance if they came to actually meet us.   It’s probably why we don’t trust politicians – because the vast majority of us have never looked one in the eye.   Many of us will have people in our LinkedIn network who we’ve only briefly met, say at a conference.   But why do we feel we know them?  Because we’ve looked into their eyes, and they’ve looked into ours.   Face to face communication is not so much about what’s said in the room, it’s more about what happens in the room.  It’s far better to have a leader go round the room meeting everyone and looking into their eyes, than up on  platform reading off a slide.   I heard a lovely quote the other day on a creative leadership webinar that said “leaders should be generous with their eyes”, which I think puts it rather well.

And it’s not just about eyes.  The human face has almost 90 muscles and so it’s an incredibly informative feature.   You hear about people’s face ‘lighting up’ when they’re excited or ‘looking down in the dumps’ when they’re fed up.   Interpreting facial expressions is a party trick of our right brain.  We’re instinctively good at reading expressions and emotions, when words aren’t required (particularly women).   Emotional connection also builds trust and engagement, but how much emotion do we see in the typical workplace?   We teach managers not to show emotion – don’t blink, don’t let them see you sweat, don’t admit to any failings.  We expect leaders to be strong and pokerfaced.    But that’s not conducive to effective face to face communication.  Surely we want communication to be natural, expressive, collaborative, authentic and have some emotional content?   That’s why we choose face to face, right?   But most leaders feel they need to leave their real self at the office door.   In meetings and presentations, we listen to the words but we listen to the eyes and the body more.   And the body never stops communicating.   This culture of emotional impotence has got to change, and it is I hope.   The term ‘emotional intelligence’ – the capacity to understand and relate to people – is gaining some traction in many organisations as leaders realise the increasing need for skills like empathy, creativity and relationship building.    This is what builds trust and engagement.   As comms people, we know we’re right to promote the face to face channel, but we should remind ourselves why.