Wednesday, 29 August 2012

Bite the bullet. It might be cherry flavoured.

After tweeting about possible blogs on the subject of difficult conversations, the lovely Andy Mildner of Azure Financial Services asked "Why not write about how those difficult conversations turn out not to be so difficult after all?" Good thinking Batman, said I, and spent last night thinking about just that.

It's true when we allow ourselves time to think too much about having 'that talk' with someone we risk falling into anxiety, fretfulness and overthinking the position. By trying too hard to be tactful, diplomatic, persuasive or even express our anger, we often fudge it- leaving a trail of confusion or conflict in our wake.

So, given that you feel justified in raising an issue, have done your research (please tell me you've done your research) and know what you want from the 'chat', what's making you reluctant?

Fear of being shot down in flames? Fear of upsetting the other person? Fear of losing confidence, face or position?

Fear, full stop? 

Let's think about those times when you have to criticise someone because they messed up. What could you do to help you bite that bullet?
Give it to them straight. Tough messages should be simply and clearly stated from the start. Prepare well, focus on a few key points, and don't waffle. Sounding apologetic dilutes the impact of what you're really saying. Plus, once that hard message is out there, nothing else seems as scary, does it?

Be realistic. You can't ever lose the stress you'll feel about having that conversation completely, but you can cut it down to size. Weigh up the alternatives- by not saying anything, will they think it was OK to do what they did? Would the mistake or behaviour be worse next time? Would their behaviour be replicated by others? Could it have a wide-reaching impact on your team, business, customers or clients? Could it damage your reputation? 

How about the other person? Will they be left confused and wondering how in Hell they got away with such a monumental error? Will they think you useless for avoiding bringing it up? 

Is avoiding a few minutes of pain worth that risk?

It's not a monologue. You are not giving them your Hamlet. Remember they will need to contribute too, so let them speak freely and for Heaven's sake- LISTEN. They need to feel a degree of control too, and denying them that makes for a confrontational and disagreeable experience all round.

You can drive the 'feel' of the conversation by using a good pace and tone of voice, speaking at normal volume. You can pre-empt some distractions, objections and blame- but not all, so don't beat yourself up on that score. 

If you're offering criticism, don't point fingers. It's not a playground. Refrain from raising your voice, using bad language or appearing physically imposing or domineering. Make your comments constructive, and give examples of what you'd like to have seen happen.  Oh, and don't do it publicly- nobody will thank you for that.

Your view is just that. Each person involved in the situation has a different viewpoint and will tell their own story about what happened. Try not to judge who's right and wrong, work together to create better results in the future. 

Show them you heard. To ensure everyone gets it, and to let people know you're listening, reflect back to them what they're telling you. They'll be grateful that you heard their words. Listen for repeated ones, too. Don't ignore the fact that they've used a word two or three times- that's what they need you to hear. 

Steel yourself- this could get messy. Difficult conversations are difficult for them, too. They can result in deflection, aggression, denial, blaming, arguments and tears. Sometimes, they are met with stony silence. You can't- and shouldn't- control others' reactions, but you can be prepared to handle them. (About the silence thing- when that's happened to me, I just let it hang there. Learn to be comfortable with silences. You'd be surprised how often they lend a little focus and defuse a situation.)

The above tips can help you prepare for and manage a difficult conversation, but you have to take the leap of faith. That's where these come into their own...

Pretend it's a month, a year, or thirty years from now. Visualise the impact of not having the conversation. Imagine the outcome of having it, and seeing great results. Put it into perspective- what seems tough today often seems nothing at all when you put yourself into your own future. 

They may be waiting for you to say it. They probably know there's a problem and are dreading having to be the one to raise it. They may be relieved that you did.

Hey, they're just people. You are not an ogre, they know that. But remember- nor are they. Nobody actively wants this chat, but it has to happen. Grownups get it.

I know we should also consider how we react when we are called upon at no notice at all to hande a sticky situation (stickier than when Sticky the stick insect got stuck on a sticky bun, thank you Edmund Blackadder.) Often what we view as 'thinking on our feet' and rushing to a solution without really talking through the issues and emotions in play can come across as wearing a hat reading 'I'D REALLY RATHER NOT HANDLE THIS' in neon letters.

But that's another post...

Tuesday, 28 August 2012

Why we 'do' Wellbeing, and so should you

Physiotherapists warn that 'screen slaving' sees workers putting their health at risk

From the Communication Workers Union mailout, 28 August 2012:

"Physiotherapists have warned that spending long hours in front of a screen presents serious posture and stress dangers.

A new survey for the Chartered Society of Physiotherapy (CSP) reveals that UK office workers are putting their mental and physical health at risk by working more than two hours extra each night on their commute and at home.

About two-thirds (64%) of the 2,010 office workers polled by the CSP said they continued working on smartphones and other devices after they left the office, and spent an average of 2 hours 18 minutes doing so.

This was on top of an average of 6 hours 22 minutes in front of a screen in the office during their regular working day.

The biggest reasons given for doing extra work were to 'ease the pressure of the working day' (35%) and having 'too much work to do' (33%).

While 29% of people surveyed said additional work at home helped reduce their overall stress levels, a worrying 24% wanted to be offered counseling services for stress. 

The survey revealed 53% of those who work at home out of office hours said this had increased in the past two years, but of these people just 8% said their boss was trying to do anything about it.

Physiotherapists are concerned that 'over working' is storing up both physical and mental health problems for the future - particularly since 66% of those surveyed reported suffering job-related ill health such as headaches and back pain.

The CSP is concerned that poor posture when using smartphones and other mobile devices can lead to back and neck pain.
Fewer than one in four people surveyed said that they considered their posture when looking at screens outside of work. Long hours can also contribute to stress-related illness.

The results were released to coincide with the CSP's Workout at Work campaign which encourages people across the UK to be more physically active in order to combat stress and avoid musculoskeletal disorders like back pain.

In June this year, 300 physiotherapists went into workplaces across the UK to demonstrate easy, low-cost ways for employers to help their staff lead healthier lives.

The CSP are urging employers to be more aware of the need to keep their staff healthy and to encourage better working habits among staff.

 Simple low cost measures include:

·         Encouraging staff to report any concerns about their health at an early stage
·         Encouraging staff to take regular breaks and be physically active during lunchtimes
·         Displaying leaflets and posters promoting good posture, health advice and activities for staff
·         Arranging and supporting activities that help staff to get active, like lunchtime walking clubs
·         Creating links with local gyms and clubs
·         Implementing a Cycle to Work scheme and taking advantage of a tax exemption enabling you to loan to staff cycles and cycling equipment as a tax-free benefit
·         Encouraging active travel to and from work e.g. cycling, walking and running
·         Encouraging workstation assessments to reduce and treat musculoskeletal disorders
·         Access to physiotherapy, fitness classes and ergonomically-designed chairs were three services that many workers in the survey said they would like their employer to pay for.

The Chartered Society of Physiotherapy (CSP), said that the results of the survey are a huge concern to physiotherapists, who see the consequences of poor posture and bad working practices each day. While doing a bit of extra work at home may seem like a good short-term fix, if it becomes a regular part of the evening routine then it can lead to problems such as back and neck problems, as well as stress-related illness. This is especially the case if people are using handheld devices and not thinking about posture. CSP want to raise awareness of how important it is to look after your mental and physical health to ensure a good work/life balance and want more employers to do a lot more to improve the health of the nation's workforce.

The CSP has produced a new free leaflet in association with the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development (CIPD) called 'Under Pressure'. This looks at the link between physical activity and mental wellbeing, with advice on staying happy and healthy at work. 

The Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development (CIPD), said that Employers should be concerned if staff are regularly taking work home with them and finding it hard to switch off and re-charge. While a level of pressure is of course an essential part of working life, evidence suggests that prolonged exposure to excessive pressure - i.e. stress - is linked to conditions such as anxiety, depression and heart disease. 

Managers should be asking staff regularly about their workload to ensure people's health does not suffer. In addition, it is in employers' interests to work with staff to support their wellbeing. For example, regular exercise is proven to be one of the best ways of both preventing and managing stress. There are many low-cost and no-cost ways of
encouraging employees' interest in building activity into their working day such as participation in work sports teams, walking groups, on-site exercise
classes and subsidised gym membership."


Wellbeing at work is huge. Enormous. You ignore it at your peril, and other scary statements. 

But why not make caring about it a benefit of working for you, something that defines how you work? Defines not what you do, but how you do it?

Our approach focuses on the 'low or no cost' ways to care for employees' wellbeing. It always will. Throwing cash at a problem rarely addresses the root causes. We believe in making the most of the resources you have to create something that really belongs to you and your people, not buying in an often ridiculously-expensive, ready-made package from people who haven't listened to what you actually need at all.

It's modular too, so you work with what suits your business, and will deliver the best results for you.

The results are unquestionable, if often immeasurable- sickness absence drops, loyalty rises, and there's a tangible energy shift amongst teams when they feel cared for and they contribute more. It fosters an atmosphere of collaboration- we see less disputes, better communication and a more ready willingness to support one another in good times and bad. It can lift both physical and mental wellbeing.

We're really proud of what we do. (Can you tell?) What's even better is seeing others get proud too.

Not all business owners like it when we are honest and say the impact is in many ways immeasurable. Sure, you can measure sickness absence and the number of grievances raised each year. The rest is often harder to define: it's a feeling, it's an experience, a different conversation with an employee or colleague. It's getting that sense that someone's really enjoying working for and with you, because they feel that they matter. It's the smile on your face when a colleague thanks you for a small kindness that cost very little and you really thought nothing of... but that lifted a stress from their shoulders or enabled them to feel healthier and more connected to things.

It's all the little things that make a great place to work.

And anyway, as we often say... not everything that counts can be counted.

Tuesday, 21 August 2012

Those difficult conversations...

Recently I've been working on developing my skills as a workplace mediator, refreshing techniques I have developed and learned over the years (and losing the odd bad habit too.)

After posting a musing on the issue of opening a difficult conversation, I was asked by a Tweeter for some thoughts on handling such situations earlier today. This is a huge subject, and one I can only hope to scratch the surface of in a single blog post. However, it's given me plenty of food for thought and I have plans to expand on the topic in further posts. Here though I'd like to look at the technique of 'Non-violent Communication' as set out by American psychologist- and hugely engaging speaker- Marshall Rosenberg.

Non-violent communication (NVC) sets out a process whereby parties in conflict can exchange information and share their positions in a way that is peaceful, constructive and geared towards finding common ground and resolution.

Thinking about conflict and disagreement, how do you approach the other person? In fact, do you approach them- or do you do your damnedest to avoid that discussion?

NVC depends on the belief that all people can feel compassion and act upon that- no matter how opposite their view may be to your own. Rosenberg states that people only resort to violence or negative behaviour that creates harm (whether for themselves or others) because they lack the strategies to effectively interact and address the genuine needs involved.

The theory is that all conflict arises because a need is not being met: for example, that may be denying someone a promotion at work that results in them feeling they are being denied their basic need for security and respect. A conflict develops, and must be addressed before bigger problems arise.

Its a personal opinion, but I find Nonviolent Communication (NVC) to be a great concept- but what a terrible name. I prefer the slightly less clunky 'Compassionate Communication'. Whatever you decide to call it, the basics remain the same: the approach focuses on three aspects of communication: self-empathy (defined as a strong awareness of our own personal experiences), empathy (described as actively listening to others with understanding and compassion), and honest self-expression (authentic expression of feelings, experiences and information in a way that inspires compassion in others.)

The simplest way to put NVC to work for you would be by developing a conversation through four steps:


Opening a conversation designed to address a conflict isn't easy- get it wrong and the process is doomed. Avoid challenging- instead of saying "You've really wound me up by sending me work related emails late at night", set out your position in such a way that it's a simple statement of what you've seen happening. Try "I've had several late night emails from you this week." It's an observation, not a challenge, and the absence of a defensive response enables you to move forward.


Exactly what it says on the tin! Tell them how what you've observed made you feel. Be clear and respectful- they may be completely unaware. For example, "You've really wound me up!" is inflammatory- "I feel frustrated and angry" sees you take ownership of your emotions and enables them to see the effect their actions have had. Don't fall into the trap of repeating yourself- state how you feel or have felt, and move forward.


Set out how your needs have not been met- it may be a need for security and respect as above, or a basic need for a comfortable working environment that has not been met. Tell them clearly what it is you need to resolve things.


Here's your chance to make it clear to them what it is you want to put things right. Be polite, respectful and mindful that they may be shocked by what you've said. They may feel bad, or they may be confused as to what is expected of them.

Using this technique to open a difficult conversation is no magic bullet, but it's highly effective, and far more conducive to resolution than a confrontation or stand-up row!

Friday, 17 August 2012

ACAS recognise the stress of handling redundanies

ACAS have today issued amended guidlines for companies handling redundancies.

They argue that more support should be given to the people who pass on news of redundancies, recognising the vital role they play and the often enormous strain involved in this.

Their refreshed ‘redundancy handling’ guide identifies these people as ‘tellers’, who act as the link between decision-makers in management and staff. 'Tellers' can be line managers, or more often, HR personnel. 

The guide says that selecting close colleagues of staff as ‘tellers’ due to their emotional link to those affected may be more damaging in the long run. In fact, they say, it may be better to choose somebody with ‘emotional distance’ who will feel less personal pain during the process.

“Tellers expect a difficult time from employees at risk,” says the guide. “Yet even so, many still struggle to cope with the range of emotion they face and must confront, sometimes over months, on top of very long hours.

It can be complicated being the link between employees at risk - explaining how the company's plans could affect them and dealing with the emotions involved - and then reporting back to the ... decision makers.”

The duties of being a 'Teller' can last for weeks or even months. It is often a stressful and conflicted time, with high emotions and mountains of information to consider.Employers must take great care to see that the person or people they choose for the job are able, supported and clear on what is involved. 

We welcome ACAS' recognition of the invaluable role of the 'tellers' and look forward to seeing better support for those fulfilling the role within their own organisations.

Thursday, 16 August 2012

Getting a break, or breaking yourself?

When did you last take a lunch hour? I mean, a full hour, where you got away from your desk and went for a real break? A tea break even, where you left your working area and went outside to breathe? Last week? A month ago? Are you blushing because you can’t recall?

Workplace stress can be countered with some simple and effective techniques including creating space between you and what irks you. Taking time during breaks to recollect who you are and do something that gives you pleasure can make all the difference between ill health and good health.
Some employees I speak to say they feel pressured to be in the office by competitive colleagues or a demanding boss. They feel that disappearing for an hour- ONE WHOLE HOUR, mind you! - will damage how they are seen. They feel they’d be viewed as a slacker, or not committed. They need to be present, regardless of what they are doing.

Doesn’t this mean then that they are often pointlessly busy, rather than productive?

It’s a fact that stress and loss of concentration affects productivity-  piling through your lunch break pausing only to grab a sandwich and snarf it at your desk isn’t going to help you focus and turn out great work for the remainder of the working day. It may even lead to errors- in fact, one study says this sort of working lifestyle costs the UK economy £45m per day.

It’s clear then that being chained to your desk isn’t helping anyone.

So here’s a little tip: long hours does not = great productivity.

So apart from helping you focus better and being entitled to them, why else are proper breaks good for workers and workplaces?

A change of scenery, some fresh air or a walk can work wonders in helping you recharge and return to work refreshed and focussed.

It can help you towards that mythical ‘work life balance’ we are urged to strive for.
There is both an emotional and a physical impact of working long hours without a real break- a lack of time to think about something else can lead to stagnating thinking, with you stuck on a merry-go-round (not-so-merry-go-round?) of stress that leads you into making the same mistakes again and again.
Often, you need to switch off and step away to see what’s really happening. Getting away from your desk can help you achieve that.

Your boss may wonder why you don’t take a break. Why you’re always there. Don’t you have any interests, anything to do? No friends to meet for lunch? And anyway, why should they care about you when you clearly don’t care for yourself? 

Ask any boss- not one of them worth their salt realistically expects your output to be constant, 9 hours a day. You are not a robot. 

If they do, they shouldn’t be managing people, but a mechanised production line.
So what do we recommend? It’s simple enough.

At lunchtime, LEAVE your work area and get a change of scenery- get outdoors if possible. Go for a slow stroll to a shop, buy a bottle of water. Go and look at the ducks in the park. Go and dance in the rain if that’s what makes your wheels squeal. Anything that helps you Be Elsewhere.

GET ACTIVE- go for a walk, to a local leisure centre for a quick swim, or wander off to a park nearby (we recommend having a go on the swings. You’ll get some looks, but you will feel fantastic.) Taking a colleague along makes this a social as well as a healthy activity.

MAKE TIME in your working day to do fun things that you enjoy. That doesn’t mean set up a football pitch in the car park (unless you can) but seek out projects you know you can powerfully contribute to and engage with. Go to the local library. Reacquaint yourself with how it feels to be somewhere tranquil.

When it’s time to take a break, try to FEEL HAPPY and RELAX as you enjoy some free time. We all have those lunchtimes when we have to shop, make calls, or run something somewhere. Just prioritise. Can that wait til later? Can someone else do that?

Breaks are an essential part of the day, and without them we become sluggish, rusty and miserable. 

We mess up, and we get sick.

We hope you’ll look at this differently in your workplace, and we look forward to never having to write about this ever again.