I hear this style of management quoted often as being great practice; after all, a manager’s job is to coach.
And I would like to raise an alarm bell. If someone is drowning, they need you to throw a line, or even jump in with them. They don’t need you to coach them to swim.
How Would This Management Policy Work Here?
A few days ago, someone came to speak to me about a very current and desperate issue that they had been struggling with for days. They were at the end of their tether with a problem and were close to tears. If I had said
“and what do you think you should do about that? What are your options? What has worked before?”
I rather suspect that would have finished them off.
They didn’t need coaching. They did need someone to listen but they also needed some help. I wasn’t the expert but I was in a position where I could offer some ideas because I wasn’t the one drowning. I jumped in and offered a life belt. It was just enough to give them some space, take hold of their emotions and see a way through.
So What Is A Great Management Policy?
A manager’s job is to build the environment where individuals can thrive. Sometimes they need telling how to do stuff. Sometimes they absolutely do not. A blanket policy of “don’t come to me with your problems” means you never get to hear about their problems. And that’s not great either. So a policy that decides how you reply before they have spoken is no good. It doesn’t work for them and it doesn’t work for the manager.
Instead, dial up the empathy, listen carefully and then choose the right approach: Tell, Teach, Mentor or Coach. Be the manager that people can come to and get what they need (which may not always be what they want.) You can only do that if you are empathetic enough and flexible enough to choose how to respond.
If you say don’t come to me with problems, what you are saying is “Don’t come to me, particularly when it’s really difficult” and no employee wants to hear that.
You can find other thoughts on great management practice here:
What’s best, management or leadership development? Where should I put my energies?
Good leaders are really important. They give an organisation drive, focus, spirit and hope. But good leadership can’t make up for poor management. If the boss is terrific at cheering on the team, but incapable of dealing with an individual’s poor performance, then the whole team suffers. Or if the boss is great at inspiring followers but hopeless at communicating what actually needs to be done, then nothing gets done. An inspiring vision wont help a team that is at loggerheads.
“Management is doing things right; leadership is doing the right things.”
Management is often seen as a poor relation to leadership – certainly the price tag of leadership training and coaching would suggest that. But fundamentally managers need to manage well; to do things right. The right things, yes, but in the right place, in the right way, at the right time.
And they need to be able to manage themselves; manage their time, their critical thinking, their communication and their assertiveness.
What’s the Answer for Janet Webb Consulting?
Excellence in management can have a significant impact.
So I have nailed my colours to the mast and decided to concentrate on helping managers be great managers.
I’ve worked for really amazing managers who were shy and unassuming. And I’ve worked for poor managers who had an excess of charisma and passion. I know which I preferred and I know which environment I thrived in. It certainly wasn’t the one where we got a daily dose of guano; manure is really only good for the roses.
Imagine you were an archer. You fire your arrow and you get feedback immediately; either you hit the target or you don’t. You can adjust your technique and get instant feedback on those adjustments. In time you become better and better as an archer.
Suppose that you can’t see the target; it would be very difficult to hit and you would have no idea of the result. The only way you could tell how well you were doing was if someone, like a coach, told you.
Now suppose that they also can’t see the target – how can they give you feedback? All they could do is share with you some data about how often you fired the arrows or whether your technique looked OK or not. You might tell them how you felt; probably you would be frustrated.
Eventually the coach would stop talking about it because nothing helpful would be happening. In turn you would stop bothering and just fire off arrows in the right direction, probably as fast as possible, to get it over and done with.
Now let’s look at managing and coaching staff. How do you know if you hit the target? You probably try various things and look for feedback through outcomes and whether the member of staff looked happy or not. You might even have a discussion with your manager about how you think it is going.
But not directly paying attention to the member of staff and getting their feedback is as hopeless as firing arrows at a board and not knowing whether they hit or not. Ask your direct reports how well you are doing if you really want to improve as a manager.
Of course, if you don’t care whether you are a good manager, then that is a different problem altogether.
Many businesses are going through a period of great change where the solid ground is frankly now a bit wobbly:
some are thriving
many are having to adapt business models to provide very different services
and some are doing the same thing but in quite different ways
What is true for all of these scenarios is that bringing your staff along with you is vital, whether you are busy or having to start again from scratch. Good supervision of your staff is always important but particularly so during periods of uncertainty; staff need to know what you expect of them in order to feel confident. They need to know what it means to do good work and to do it well. They also need to know that you will support them and the limits within which they can work.
Helping Staff Stand On Solid Ground
1 – Purpose. Make sure that they understand what the purpose of their job is and how vital they are to your business. Unless they truly know why they are doing what you are asking them to do, they are working blindfolded.
2 – Outcome Focused. Be specific about what the outcome is rather than focusing on the methodology or a list of tasks. Give deadlines and explain why these deadlines matter.
3 – Flexibility. Having explained what you want and by when, give staff as much flexibility as possible to do things their own way. Let them know what the boundaries are, e.g.
house style and values
policies on customer service, health and safety, IT guidelines etc.
…then get out of their way!
4 – Give them credit. Give constructive feedback on what they are doing well. Be specific. “You are doing fine” is not helpful; no-one knows what you mean by that and therefore cannot reproduce it.
5 – Stand in their shoes. Your staff are likely to be feeling a bit distracted: juggling home life and work, worrying about family and friends, concerns about their own health, uncertainty about the future. Check how they are really doing and cut them a bit of slack. In the long run, your empathy will breed loyalty.
6 – Prepare for mistakes. Help them to learn from mistakes rather than make them fearful of ever making a mistake again. Fear shuts down effective working practice like a nasty virus! Matthew Syed’s research on learning from mistakes shows that organsiations that embrace mistakes and learn effectively from them have a super power over their competitors.
This is the second part of an e-mail that I sent to my friend who was feeling very anxious about work. She thought she was being pushed out and abandoned. Maybe she was being paranoid, or maybe she wasn’t. The first part of the email, introducing David Rock’s SCARF model is here.
This then, is the good news; what to do about it. And it’s all about taking control.
What Do You Do About A Work Place That Feels Threatening?
1. This is SO important. The feelings are caused by hormones. They are not the reality. If you were to get drunk and feel like you could fly that would also not be real.
What you need to do is manage the hormones by a) taking any medication that you are on b) getting exercise, sleep and good nutrition c) managing the things that are triggering the hormones d) accepting that the triggers are not helping and telling your brain
“just shut up! I’ve got this thank you; pumping cortisol around is not helping. Brain – wind your neck in!”
2. Get really honest with yourself about a whole host of things.
S – What is your self-worth? Writing out/updating your C.V. might be a good exercise right now. Your worth is not linked to how well you are being treated; they are separate things. What are your skills and aptitudes, what experience do you have etc.? Also, who loves you? Why do they love you? Are they stupid? No. So what is it about you that is lovable, useful, clever, needed?
C – The future is a scary place when we don’t know what it is. So sit down and write out some possible scenarios. What might happen realistically? Winning the lottery is not a plan, by the way. What can you do to make the best of those scenarios? What can you do now to prepare? (You will notice that none of the realistic, likely scenarios include an axe murderer turning up and yet that’s what your brain is preparing you for.)
A – What CAN you take control of? Look at all of the things you make decisions about. You’ve got this. You are not helpless; you have skills and abilities. Take some control and you will feel better; your brain needs this. Ignore the stuff that you can’t do. What CAN you do?
R – Part of the problem is that you don’t feel safe with your work colleagues. But again, they are not about to attack with an axe. Contributing to this situation is being left out of the loop as far as information goes. So you need to be a bit demanding for some information. More of that later.
F – This situation doesn’t feel fair. But actually it might be. The problem is that you don’t know.
And another thing…
…your self-perception may be part of the problem. What do you believe about yourself that is not helping? If we believe that we are helpless, stupid, mentally unstable, incapable etc. etc. etc. then to act differently takes quite an effort, because it goes against our habitual thinking – and habits are tricky little blighters. They are like bits of software code that give us short cuts. The habit of brushing our teeth the same way each morning stops us wasting mental processing power each morning. Habits are good. But our unhelpful beliefs (unhelpful habitual thinking patterns) are not and they are also unlikely to be true.
The Action Plan – this is about getting some balance, reality, control and options.
When you are feeling anxious about work, or anything for that matter, it helps to take control. An action plan works wonders (if only to trick our brain into chillin’)
Write out a list of at least 10 things about yourself that you like; this will help to re-balance your self-perception. This may take a lot of effort. Do it!
If you can come up with 10 easily, that’s great; write 10 more. If you struggle to find 3, then this is at the heart of the problem; you are undermining yourself. Persist. Put the list down and come back to it later. Anyone who knows you well could write a list about you of thirty things without even breaking into a sweat. So write the list. This may be the most important thing you do.
Update your C.V – thinking about yourself in the third person can be really helpful too.
Start to look about to see what other companies you could work for; just see what is out there. It will give you a sense that there are options; that feels better than feeling trapped.
Now consider those future scenarios. What might happen? Write them down. Doing this helps your brain (specifically the limbic system) understand properly what the threat is and also assures your brain that you are in control. Having it on paper can help you park it rather than keep going over and over the “what ifs.”
Now write an e-mail to your company and ask politely but assertively for information. You have a right to be kept informed.
Get someone to read it. Then press send.
Add more to the list.
You’ll be full of adrenaline so go for a walk to use it up. Then relax.
If this doesn’t generate a good response, then it’s time to look for another job. Instead of feeling anxious about work, imagine that; not working there anymore!
I was speaking to a friend over the weekend who was feeling vulnerable at work before the lock-down and is feeling anxious during lock-down now that she is furloughed and out of any normal communication channels. The management style in her organisation is pretty aggressive (and sulky) and she’s had no communication from her manager in a month. She’s had two standard letters from HR; the last one arriving to say that she would not be going back to work in two days time as indicated in her previous letter. She feels like she is being crashed about by waves that she can’t see.
This article is based on the e-mail that I sent her; if your work place feels threatening at the moment, and you are feeling anxious, then this is for you too.
E-mail to a friend who is feeling anxious during lock-down and shouldn’t be.
David Rock’s SCARF model gives us a structure for thinking about what is happening to us during change. We respond either with a threat response or a reward response; we either like what is happening and get positive hormones or we feel threatened and we send out fear hormones, preparing us for our imminent death! This is all influenced by our own circumstance and how we view things. Nevertheless, organisations have a responsibility to not harm their staff; mentally and physically.
Status – our sense of personal worth
Questions to ask – How does this affect my status? Does this impact on my credibility? Where am I on the pecking order? How do I compare to others?
Certainty – our sense of the future
Questions to ask – How well can I predict the future? Do I know what is likely to happen next? Do I have the information that will help me predict the future?
Autonomy – our sense of control over our life
Questions to ask – To what degree can I make decisions and choices? What control do I have? What input do I have over the things that affect me?
Relatedness – our sense of safety with others
Questions to ask – Am I safe with other people? How much do I trust others? How connected do I feel? Am I in or out of the “in” group?
Fairness – our sense of fairness in the system
Questions to ask – Is what’s happening fair? Am I experiencing fair connections and exchanges with others? Is the system intrinsically fair?
Looking at this and asking the questions, you can see that almost every aspect of the current situation is likely to generate a threat response in you at the moment. Each of the areas is likely to trigger stress hormones. If you were on a battle field you could use that to beat everyone up; you would be invincible. The trouble is that you can’t! So you are left with a mental soup of hormones telling you to run or fight but you can’t use those hormones up. It is no wonder that you are struggling – anyone would! You are in a constant state of alarm which needs turning down.
My current thoughts, and therefore the basis of my presentation, are as follows:
Forgive me, but this is the wrong question.
An organisation needs a workforce that is competent and confident enough to do a good job, executed well. The question is how does an organisation achieve this? And to answer that, there are a number of other questions to ask.
What are the right questions?
What does great management look like in this organisation?
How competent and confident are the current managers, at all levels, at delivering great management?
What would let the “boss” know that they are?
How do the employees know what a good job looks like and how do we measure how effective they are at delivering it?
It seems to me that:
staff need to know what is expected of them and to what standard
they need regular feedback and opportunities to discuss what is impacting on their role
this regular feedback and discussion needs to be of good quality, good enough that both parties value it
and this starts at the top – what objectives do the senior team have for leading, developing and motivating their team? And how good are they at doing that?
I sail; like running a business it’s not a dangerous sport – as long as you take the right precautions:
a certain amount of knowledge and skill
understanding the environment and its impact
having the right tools and equipment to hand
not making assumptions
having procedures in place
If all of that is in-hand then sailing is absolutely brilliant fun. Sailing a boat is not so very different from running a business – whether it’s a single-hander or a multi-million pound enterprise.
Sailing is one of those activities where teamwork makes the difference. It’s essential to stay safe, and if you are racing or wanting to get to a certain place by a certain time, it is crucial.
Organisations could learn a lot from great sailing teams.
Hire the best people – the best people are not necessarily the ones with all the certificates, but may well be the ones with all the right attitudes. You can teach someone to sail – you can’t teach someone to not be a fool.
Work together – spend time together honing your relationship, communication processes, understanding strengths and weaknesses. A new team doesn’t win straight off – unless they are incredibly lucky or if the opposition is non-existent.
Be clear about what is expected – give people clear parameters within which to work, give them the skills and tools to do a good job, give and receive feedback on how it’s going.
Get out of the way! – four hands trying to tie one rope doesn’t work.
Listen – if you are at the helm and someone else is at the sharp end telling you that there is an obstacle ahead, then listen, whether they are the Head of Finance or the galley steward.
Build up your people –a team that has “failed” will feel deflated and exhausted by the process. Remind them that getting from A to B is an achievement, even if you came last. And every situation teaches; you will learn more from coming last than the team who came first, as long as you are minded to.
Celebrate the things that matter – sitting on deck with a glass of something refreshing, watching the sun go down is one of the most fabulous feelings. Doing it with your team is just the best.
All of us have certain things that trigger anxiety – these differ for each person because our life experience is different and therefore we have differing beliefs and perspectives. For some a trigger might be public speaking and for others it is dealing with someone who is a bit “difficult.” (We could have a long debate about what difficult means, but I’ll save that for another blog.)
Anxiety Is A Chemical – it’s not you.
We feel our anxiety because a specific part of our brain sees these things as threatening. Unfortunately this bit of our hard wiring reacts as if we are facing death. Therefore, our bodies get ready to run away (from a sabre-tooth tiger) or stand up and fight (with the axe wielding member of an enemy tribe.) It’s a primitive response that is not so helpful if what you are trying to do is speak to your boss! Phobias, like fear of heights, spiders, snakes, the dark etc, are extreme versions of this anxiety.
Understanding what’s going on is part of the battle. I took a friend sailing a while back and was able to help him see a new perspective on his anxiety. I’ve written about it here. We have learned to be anxious about certain things. And we can unlearn it.
I work in fear. I don’t mean I’m frightened, I mean I work in arenas where anxiety stops people performing to their best. Also, I work with intent; both my intent and the intent of those I am working with. I’ve discovered over the years that being clear about your intent and challenging your fears are pretty good ways to start dealing with things.
New Managers – what stops them excelling in supporting their staff or sorting out problems? Fear of getting it wrong, or being seen as weak and so being unclear about what they are trying to achieve.
Middle and Senior Managers – what stops them being great leaders? Facing the pressure from both directions; juggling expectations coming up and demands coming down. This leads to worrying that they might not be cutting it and even imposter syndrome.
Communications – what stops people being effective in their communications? Not deciding what outcome they are after, fear of what others are thinking and fear of stuffing it up.
Dealing with change – what stops people handling this well? Fear of the unknown, not facing those fears, not exploring what choices they have available and not reaching for a positive future state.
In many situations asking two questions of ourselves and others can open up a new perspective and so move things along swimmingly:
what are you frightened of?
what are you hoping to achieve?
I’ll spend my days helping people to answer these two questions. I didn’t set out to do this work; it came and found me when I started to address my fears and wonder what my purpose was.