Don’t tolerate bullying

March 5th, 2012

Physical bullying is more common amongst children; being pushed or having their hair pulled. Physical aggression is less often seen in the corporate world. Emotional bullying is more subtle but no less damaging. Child bullies exclude their targets from playing and talking with other children. In the extreme at work, it can become constructive dismissal.

Verbal bullying, such as criticising or making fun of someone has become commonplace amongst children on social network sites and mobile phones. In the work environment it is probably the most common type of toxic behaviour in the form of anger outbursts, or excessive and personal criticism given in public.

Bullying is tolerated by some parents and teachers on the basis that it is a normal stage of childhood development. Current research however strongly suggests this is not so: that it is a precursor to more serious criminal behaviour in adult life and must be addressed if we want a less violent society.

At work it is tolerated when the bully is the person who brings in the biggest sales or who has valuable technical knowledge and is sometimes supported by stories of dramatic incidents that become corporate legends.

Whether it takes place at school or at work, the general strategies for dealing with bullying are the same.

It should be addressed as early as possible. One of the most effective ways is for influential people to model non-bullying behaviour as the means of resolving problems and exerting influence.Parents and teachers who generally show warmth and kindness have a positive impact on bullying at school. Senior people set the tone for the culture in an organisation.

In homes, schools and organisations there must be clear rules about the definition of unacceptable behaviour and its consequences. The consequences for unacceptable behaviour must be applied immediately it is noticed so that it does not become habitual. Toxic abusive behaviour develops into habits as quickly with children as it does with adults.

School performance and quality of work output should not be used to excuse bad behaviour or to allow the perpetrators to become models for others.

Research confirms that positive models showing bullying behaviour being encouraged and rewarded provides encouragement and justification for it to continue and to be copied by others.

Both bullies and their targets need support in developing effective interactive skills. Bullies need help in understanding the reasons for their behaviour and in developing empathy for others. People targeted by bullies must learn how to cope with bullies and avoid becoming targets in the future. This help most often needs to be supplied by counsellors skilled in dealing with violence and bullying.

It’s not enough for a school or an organisation to proclaim a zero tolerance policy on bullying. It’s also not enough for parents to say that their children are merely standing up for themselves when they exhibit bullying behaviour, or for organisations to pride themselves on their tough cultures. Just as children deserve to learn, play and grow up in safe supportive environments, so employees are entitled to work in similar spaces.

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So you like being a firefighter?

February 27th, 2012

If you’re paid to be a firefighter, then it’s fine to spend all day fighting fires.

But if you’re actually paid to plan strategies, define goals and objectives, think of ways to improve how you operate, and provide coaching and support so people around you grow and develop – then what on earth are you doing fighting so many fires?

Being a firefighter is very seductive. You get to live in the limelight, save the day, be a hero, receive accolades and feel good. It comes with advantages. You’re not expected to complete boring reports and attend to the admin. In fact if you keep moving fast enough ‘Must rush – sorry - I’ve a crisis on my hands!’ you can get away with murder. You’ll also be forgiven for taking some slack time between fires, ‘Give her a break. You should have seen how she coped in that last crisis!’

But like everything else, there’s a dark side to it. Firefighting is reactive. Firefighters mostly follow tried and tested procedures. There’s little time to stop, review, rethink, try something different. ‘We’ll try that next time. Right now, there’s a crisis!’

When you’re under pressure you give instructions and you expect obedience. ‘There’s no time to talk about it. Just do what I say. This is a crisis!’

And then there’s the adrenaline rush to which you become addicted, sometimes even to the point of becoming an arsonist…if there isn’t a good crisis that you can get your teeth into, well, you’ll create one!

As the year gets under way I see more and more crisis management. Stress levels are heading off the scale, patience ran out long ago, tempers are rising and the behavior of people toward each other much of the time, verges on the abusive.

Crisis management becomes a habit, and like all habits, it’s hard to break.

Saying no to things that may be important to someone else, but are not on your personal priority list, is a start…presupposing that you know what your priorities are. Then you can take the time you have rescued and put it to…no…not another crisis! Put it to an activity that will help circumvent a future crisis or at least make your response to future crises more effective.

One of the very best ways to use the rescued time is to spend it with your team, coaching and problem solving so the team learns to operate more efficiently. A consequence of living in crisis mode is that you encounter the same problems again and again, without being able to take time to develop better responses to them.

Crisis management encourages micro-management because in a crisis you want a quick right-first-time fix. This reinforces the behavior of those who’ve done it before and can fix it this time without leaving their comfort zone. But it causes great frustration for the rest who can see better ways of doing things…if only someone who wasn’t in crisis would take time to listen.

You may enjoy being a firefighter, but next time the fire dies down, use the flames for some quiet reflection.

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The year has only just started and already we’re in burnout. The memory of the holidays is long gone. E-mails are streaming through in their hundreds; meetings are stacked up back to back; the school term is well under way; social activities are going non-stop and you’ve started planning for Easter!

It’s no wonder your stress level is rising.

Some of the stressors in our lives are outside of our control such as bureaucratic red tape that takes up time and energy for obscure purposes,requirements from unreasonable clients, and the demand from school that your child has a hair-cut before the following morning…but it’s now six o’clock in the evening. You can add sitting in traffic to the list.

The only option in these situations is to control your emotions so that your resentment, frustration, and anger do not take over, creating a temper tantrum which increases your stress level, and that of anyone else in earshot.

In other situations, one of the most powerful tools at your disposal to help you manage your time and energy, and keep yourself in a good space, is the ability to say no.

How often do you find yourself in situations that you have created, by saying yes instead of no?

To a client: ‘Yes of course. It’ll be ready by Friday’

To your boss: ‘It’s not a problem. I can get it done.’

To a friend, ‘Don’t worry. I’m happy to help out.’

Saying no relieves you of the resentment and anger you experience when you put yourself in a corner where you are unable to live up to the standards or promises to which you have committed.

For many people, saying no is virtually unthinkable. But agreeing to actions or deadlines without properly considering their implications, takes you into an inevitable sequence of bland assurances, through excuses and apologies, to more excuses and even lies. Other people become impatient, demanding and maybe abusive. You feel pressurised, defensive and resentful. People write you off as unreliable. Your stress level increases.

When someone makes a request to which you are not sure you want to agree, start by finding out exactly what they want and what you are getting yourself into. Take time to be clear on the details. Don’t be pushed into a hasty decision. Then let them know that you have heard and understood their request so they are reassured you are not making your decision thoughtlessly or carelessly. You might say, ‘So let me be clear. You want me to…’ Or, ‘Okay, you’re asking if I can…’

Next, take time to think through your own resources, capabilities and priorities so you are not left to deal with implications for cost, time or inconvenience that you have overlooked. Then consider the effects of your decision, both short and long term. You might decide to stretch the boundaries for one person but not for another.

Finally communicate your decision, including a brief explanation of why you made it the way you did, so the other person can understand and appreciate your reasons.

If you agree to requests from others without properly considering the demands they will make on you, you trade the positive impression you give by your willingness to help, for the negative impression you create when you cannot live up to your commitments. You also create stress that spills over onto everyone around you.

Try saying no using the steps above and see the positive effect it has on your time, your energy and your stress level.

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When we talk about needing space, setting limits or agreeing on what is acceptable behavior, we are referring to personal boundaries. When you have boundaries in place you don’t tolerate abuse or disrespect from others and you don’t take on the problems that belong to them. You know who you are and you treat yourself and others with respect. Clear boundaries create healthy relationships.

When you are able to communicate your needs, feelings and preferences clearly you can make decisions about where you want your boundaries to be. When there is a factual or common practice basis for boundaries the conversations can be straightforward as when you discuss how work should be shared or decide on boundaries to lying, stealing, or physical abuse.

Boundaries based only on personal preferences, feelings and needs can be difficult to negotiate. If it’s your boss, a family member or close friend who is overstepping the lines you wish to draw and if you have tolerated their behavior for some time, conversations are more sensitive.

The conversations that follow are between Teresa and her friend Judy who has become accustomed to leaving her children with Teresa during the afternoons.

‘Hi, Teresa. Can I drop off the kids with you this afternoon? I’m sorry to call you at the last minute. I’ve got a lot of shopping to do and the kids hate being dragged around the shops. I hope you don’t mind.’

Judy sounded harassed and instinctively Teresa agreed to help, but as she put the phone down, she felt some resentment. Although they often helped each other out, Teresa was starting to feel that Judy was taking advantage of her availability to look after the children.She realised it was her own fault for letting the situation develop, but she resolved that next time she would speak up. Her time alone with her own children was precious.

Two days later, Judy called early in the morning. ‘Could you take the kids after school today? I need to go and see my aunt; she’s recently moved to an old-age home.’

‘I’m not sure about today,’ Teresa replied. ‘I was looking forward to spending it with the boys. How long will you be?’

‘Well, the retirement home is down town, so I guess I’ll be gone most of the afternoon.’

Notice that Teresa opened her reply by sending a signal to Judy that she might not be able to help, before she clarified Judy’s request by asking how long she will be away.

Then Teresa is honest about her reasons for not being able to help her friend but does not become involved in long explanations or apologies. She simply makes it clear that she cannot help Judy that day.

‘Judy, I’ve already made plans with the children today. I don’t want to change them, so I’m sorry, but I won’t be able to help you out. I hope you can make another plan.’

‘Oh!’ Judy sounded surprised. Clearly she had been expecting Teresa to be available as usual. ‘Well, okay then. Not to worry. I’ll sort something out.’

Judy’s surprise indicates that in future she may think twice before imposing on Teresa.

Having said no to Judy on this occasion, Teresa will find it easier to do so in future. She has made a good start in putting a boundary in place.

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How to say no

February 3rd, 2012

Learning how to say no is one of the best ways to reduce your stress level. Use it to protect your personal time and resources, and to avoid the resentment you feel when you allow yourself to be pushed into saying yes. Learn it and use it.

Think how you feel when you agree to do something you don’t want to do for someone you resent, or when you give up your time to meet the demands of others instead of attending to your own priorities. Stressed!

Learning how to say no is one of the best ways to reduce your stress level. Learn it and use it. The longer you allow others to assume that you are always available to fit in with their plans and demands, the more difficult it becomes to change your behaviour – and theirs. This is true both at work and in your personal life.

Sophie has allowed her manager to assume she is regularly available for work on Saturdays, but in the conversation below she resists a request that they meet on a Saturday morning because of a commitment she has already made.

Notice how she checks that she understands exactly what her manager wants and acknowledges its urgency, then explainsthe commitment she has made to her family calmly and without apology.Silence can be very powerful in difficult conversations. Sophie uses it to resist pressure to change her plan but softens her refusal by offering a compromise.

When Sophie relocated she planned to get home at least once every month. She knew that her boyfriend and her family missed her, but she had been finding it useful to use some of the weekend to catch up on emails and plan for the coming week. Several times previously she and her manager Julie had met on Saturdays mornings. This week she had worked late every day to be sure that she could fly home on Friday for a weekend at home.

On Thursday afternoon, the phone rang.It was Julie. ‘Listen, Sophie, I need some figures for the executive meeting on Monday morning, so I thought that we could get together early on Saturday, to go through everything.’

Sophie listened carefully. ‘Julie, can I check that I’ve understood what you need? I want to be sure I’m clear. I know the meeting is important.’When she understood the detail of information that was needed, Sophie took a breath and said, ‘Julie, I’ve booked a flight to go home tomorrow evening. It’s the first weekend I’ll be home in six weeks. I’ve been missing my family and I’m looking forward to seeing them all again.I can get this to you tomorrow, before the end of the afternoon. My flight is only at six o’clock. But I won’t be able to meet with you on Saturday. I hope you understand. I’ll be available on my cell over the weekend, and we can also talk on Monday morning if you need to.’

‘Well, I suppose so,’ Julie replied after a pause. ‘I was hoping you’d be around on Saturday, so we could discuss any final details. I didn’t expect you’d be going home.’

Sophie stayed silent, resisting the temptation to offer to postpone her flight and after a moment Julie continued, ‘I suppose it will do if you get it all to me tomorrow afternoon.’

Saying no can be simple and easy if you resist the temptation to give excuses and apologise unnecessarily. Rehearse what you will say the next time you are confronted. Be sure the person knows you have listened to and considered their request. Presentthe reasons for your decision clearly, so they are able to understand and respect the basis for it. Say no. Then feel your stress level start to drop.

Click to see the latest Straight Talk book: How to manage conversations that scare you, filled with conversations like this one.

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We say yes when we really want to say no because we fear that others will criticise us for being selfish, uncaring or unhelpful. We say yes to hold onto the illusion that we can be there for everyone, the dependable fall-back in every crisis, the perfect employee, perfect friend and perfect partner. We say yes to others when we don’t give our personal needs and dreams the respect and priority they deserve, and end up sacrificing our self-respect to gain the approval.

The consequence is that we do things we don’t enjoy with people we don’t like; we put ourselves out for people who don’t appreciate our efforts; and we spend our time on their wants and demands when we could be pursuing our own needs.

Playing nice to gain approval comes with a downside. You have no time or energy left to follow your own dreams or desires, if you could even remember what they were. You feel bitter and resentful about the lack of appreciation from those you have helped, and as your true feelings start to show, you become negative, critical and even spiteful. Your self- esteem drops further and your stress level rises. Depression and physical health issues are sure to follow.

Being able to say no is one of the most important skills you need to keep yourself in a good space. It helps you get a life.  It’s the way you do it that matters. Use the acronym CARE to organise it properly.

C is for clear

Start by finding out exactly what the other person wants from you. Ask for the details of what, when, who, why and how much. Make sure you are clear about what you are getting into.

A is for acknowledge

Acknowledgethe request. Make sure the person knows you have heard and understood what they want, and that you are in a position to consider it fairly. It means that if you decide to turn it down they can be reassured you have not done so thoughtlessly or without listening. You might say, ‘So let me check. You want me to…’ or ‘Okay, you’re asking if I can…is that right?’

R is for recognise

Before you make your decision, stop and recognise your own needs, resources and skills, constraints and priorities. Do you really have time for this? Do you have the skill to do it? Would you enjoy doing it or is it something you dislike?

If someone wants to push you into doing something that suits them but not you, be prepared for them to pressurise you to agree immediately. Don’t be afraid to take time to make a decision that is good for you.

E is for effect

Think through the effectof your decision. If you say no, will it have a negative effect on an important relationship or your career? Will you become stressed and exhausted or will the request fit easily into your schedule?  Decisions have both short and long term effects. Think of both before you make up your mind.

Finally, when you decide to say no, first explain what you have considered in arriving at your decision. Be brief. Be honest. Don’t apologise and don’t explain unnecessarily. Simply allow the other person to see that you have made your decision thoughtfully and carefully.

They might wish you had said yes and been a pushover, but if they have any care for you at all, they will respect your decision and the way you made it. Sometimes you may be able to offer a compromise. If not, simply say you cannot help.

Think of all the times that saying yes got you into stressful situations that were beyond your capabilities and responsibilities or not in your best interests. Next time, try saying no and notice the positive effect it has on your stress level.

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The diverse, democratic societies of today require communication that is more thoughtful, tolerant of difference and open to negotiated solutions. Communications technology has got smarter, but our communication is less effective than ever.

In Business Day, 25 January 2012, Bobby Godsell writes that successful societies in the 21st century need rapid and sustained economic growth, combined with effective social cohesion. This is true wealth, unlike the wealth that took us into the economic implosion of 2008/9.

Social cohesion starts with individuals and the way they relate to each other.

Personal success used to come from being clever, being right, and being able to push others to agree with your point of view or action plan. In families, social groups,organisations and governments, people used power and control to get things done. There was little real personal or social cohesion. When you’ve got power, you don’t have to worry too much about creating it.

It doesn’t work like that any longer: today, no-one can have it all their own way. Today’s society is democratic, as well as socially and culturally diverse. The most successful people will be those who are able to find common goals and help people listen openly to various points of view; then negotiate solutions and obtain real commitment to action.

The stakes are high; the potential for at best, disagreement and at worst outright conflict, is enormous. If ever we needed all the emotional intelligence we can muster, it is now. Good relationships are vital; between individuals, within groups, and across continents.It’s not to say that having personal characteristics such as intelligence, technical ability, creativity, and perseverance are unimportant. They still matter. What is undeniable is that the effectiveness with which we are able to apply these characteristics depends more and more on how well we build relationships and work with others.

Relationships are built conversation by conversation. They take place between individuals, often in groups, increasingly in writing. The quality of the conversations determines the quality of the relationships.

You would think that as communications technology gets better and faster the quality of our communication would improve. In practice it seems to be having the opposite effect. We’re becoming more adept at uploading, messaging, networking and typing with our thumbs. But while we communicate more widely, we do so less thoughtfully. We use electronic mail and messaging instead of taking time to meet with people. And there’s so much of it, often going on simultaneously, that almost nothing gets our full attention.

It’s no better when it comes to the content of what we communicate. We continue to cling to old familiar styles. We go into conversations knowing that we know what is going on, what is right, what is wrong, and what we want other people to do to fix it. We tune out or shut down the contrary opinions of othersand then use persuasion, power, and if necessary threats, to get our own way.

The outcomes are predictable. Arguments become endless, but they resolve nothing and relationships are damaged. Eventually, people shut down and opt out. We mistake their compliance for commitment and then wonder why, a little way down the track, we’re back where we started.

If we continue communicating like this, we’ll have even poorer relationships and the notion of a cohesive society will be farther away than ever.

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How to manage change effectively

September 30th, 2011

This is the ninth of the blog posts based on the top ten most read Straight Talk Tips that go to my clients each month. The tips are free and you can sign up for them here

How to manage change effectively

Almost all organisations undergo extensive change at some time in their history. It may come from a merger or acquisition; new leadership, change in processes, technology or systems. Sometimes the change is anticipated and planned well in advance. At other times organisations have to react quickly in response to the arrival of a competitor, or change in market and economic conditions.

In spite of all the practice we have had in managing change, and the clarity of the principles that are involved, it’s often handled very badly.

Strange though it may seem, we can learn as much about handling change from a 15th century political philosopher as we can from a Harvard Professor of Leadership. What both have in common is an awareness that coping with change is a personal and emotional process.  When a change project plan ignores these personal factors, a newly structured and engineered organisation may well find that it is littered with the human carnage of anxious, depressed, exhausted and demotivated people.

The Harvard Professor of Leadership is John Kotter, who in his book Leading Change, writes from his extensive first-hand experience of the human anguish and waste that are created in organisations as they attempt major transformation. In his book he offers an eight step process that helps avoid some of the damage and ensures that change is more successful. Six of his eight steps focus specifically on helping people understand, accept and adapt to change in organisations.

In a very different context, Machiavelli, the 15th century Italian writer, is considered one of the main founders of modern political science. In his book, The Prince, he writes about the arts a prince should employ to stabilize a new regime and build it into an enduring structure. He says that cruel actions - and there is no doubt that plant closures, retrenchments and restructuring can be considered as cruel acts - may be morally acceptable as a means of achieving good results, so long as they are decisive, swift and effective.

Perhaps the best guidelines for any transformation process come from combining these two very different sources of wisdom. There must be a clear battle plan, and that plan must be actioned decisively. At the same time, care must be taken to attend to the needs of the people who survive the cruel act, so that they have the strength and motivation to carry the new regime, or re-created organisation, into a prosperous future.

Organisations that find their people responding to change with low motivation and poor performance might ponder some other Machiavellian words.

‘Princes [should not] complain of the faults committed by the people… for they result entirely from their own negligence or bad example’.

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How to use facts in conversations

September 26th, 2011

This is the eighth of the blog posts based on the top ten most read Straight Talk Tips that go to my clients each month. The tips are free and you can sign up for them here

How to use facts in conversations

When you open a conversation by putting the facts on the table you create a solid foundation for the discussion. By themselves, facts are not accusing or blaming. They’re just facts. If you describe them clearly and simply, the better they will be. If you can substantiate them with computer records, registers or other documentary evidence, even better.

Once the facts are on the table, people can give their different interpretations and opinions, without changing the facts themselves. Without facts, conversations can become slanging matches where the person with the loudest voice and the most strongly voiced opinion wins.

If you want to improve the quality of conversations in which you are trying to exert influence or be persuasive, start by working on the way you handle facts.  It will make more difference, more quickly, than anything else. We commonly say, ‘Just give me the facts’, or ‘Let’s get the facts on the table’, but in practice we tend to handle the facts rather badly in conversations.

  • We delay talking about things we find upsetting or frustrating to the point where our emotions take over and drown out the facts. We are so choked up that we cannot be rational or speak clearly and whatever facts we do have are lost. IT’s better to speak up sooner, before you get choked up and unable to speak competently and rationally.
  • Presenting your own opinions as if they were facts may fool some of the people some of the time but is more often the basis for an argument than a rational conversation. Remember that feeling strongly about something does not make your opinion anything more than just an opinion. When you plan a conversation, take time to distinguish the facts from your opinions, then be sure to present the facts first.
  • Facts that are vague or irrelevant do not help make a case. Facts should provide a rational foundation for a conversation. Select your facts with care so they support your view of the situation. Use the best facts you have and only enough to make your case. Too many facts come across as accusation and lead to argument. At the very least, they weaken and confuse the issue. Select just the strongest facts that support your case and use no more than are necessary.

A few minutes of thoughtful planning around the facts of the matter that you are dealing with, before you go into a conversation, can make all the difference to the outcome you achieve.

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This is the seventh of the blog posts based on the top ten most read Straight Talk Tips that go to my clients each month. The tips are free and you can sign up for them here

How to start over over in a relationship

Relationships can get stuck. Conversations end in argument; the same buttons get pressed; the same accusations are thrown; you don’t listen to each other. You want to resolve the problems so you can move on and you’re tried everything you can think of; but you end up in the same place every time. You’re locked into a loop. Your frustration grows.

Computers get stuck too, but the solution can be quite simple. Control Alt Delete: reset: reboot: start over. It works for computers. Why not in relationships? Sometimes the quickest and simplest way to move on in a relationship is to press the reset button. It allows you to reset the ground rules and start over.

There are some clear signals that tell you it’s time for a reset. Listen out for these phrases.

We keep talking about this but nothing changes.

What’s the point of talking? You always do it your way!

Things change for a while, but then we’re back to the same old…

Every time we discuss this, we end up arguing.

Pressing the reset button in a relationship means changing the ground rules for the way you relate and communicate. It takes place in conversations that start with: Can we talk about, how we communicate: or, where we’re going in our relationship: or, the way we give each other feedback: or, our relationship with your mother…

It includes ground rules for the conversation itself, for example: Can we start over with this and help each other focus on the facts. Or you might say: Can we agree to hear each other out, without interrupting. Or, Can we agree that if we start to get emotional about this, we’ll take a break before we say anything we’ll regret.

Using reset at work deals with expectations, boundaries and acceptable norms of behaviour. Resetting personal relationships covers much the same issues. It allows you to step back and clear a safe space in which you can hear all sides of the issue. Then you can try to reach agreement on future behaviour or future ground rules to which you both commit. When you get it right you can go a long way toward creating a basis for conversations that will be safer and far more productive.

When you find that you are locked into a pattern of poor communication and bad behaviour or you are in a dysfunctional relationship, try pressing reset. It breaks the cycle and gives you a chance to start over on a new footing.

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