Articles tagged with: communication


What a good workplace looks like: Purpose, Recognition and Growth.


In August 1983, I visited the Highlands & Islands of Scotland for the very first time. Everything was magnificent including, and I now know very unusually the weather. It was sunny, warm and dry every day for the whole trip. I fell in love with Scotland and have returned many times over the past 34 years. Unfortunately, I have never again experienced a similar extended period of perfect weather. In fact, I have frequently spent days suspecting that I was participating in some kind of ongoing ice-bucket challenge. Notwithstanding my subsequent experiences, I always think of Scotland bathed in the sunshine of my first visit. My perception and belief about what was both possible and desirable was set early. As a result, I return to Scotland with a sense of optimism, although experience has taught me to always pack my wet-weather gear.

It has been very much the same for me when it comes to work. I was similarly blessed in my first “real” job in 1987. It provided a very positive experience about what good looked like in the workplace and how work could be a “soul-enhancing” experience rather than a “soul-destroying” one.  Over the last 30 years I have managed to experience a few similar positive work environments, indeed I am very proud that I have been involved in creating some of them. However I have also experienced or should that be endured the workplace equivalent of the “ice-bucket challenge; endless inclement cultures seemingly devoid of hope.   

What I have learned from these diverse experiences is the difference between good and bad in the workplace. I believe it can be distilled down to the presence or absence of three factors. These factors are firstly a sense of purpose or meaning, secondly an ongoing stream of evidence of making a difference, that is adding value to something or somebody and lastly a feeling of personal growth or development.

When all three factors are present they amplify and reinforce each other.  They are, in a very healthy sense contagious, in that individuals who display them communicate them to their colleagues, creating an environment which retains the right people and attracts other like-minded folk.

Unfortunately, when one or more of the factors is weak or absent then they diminish the positive impact of those that are present and good people leave in search of what they intuitively know is missing.

Let’s look at the three in a little more detail. Purpose is often talked about at a big-picture level and it is certainly motivating to think that your work is changing the world in some way for the better, Whilst I would always recommend that every organisation has a clear purpose in the form of a well-crafted mission statement, my experience is that it is the ability to find purpose in the more mundane tasks that our work often involves, that makes for a real sense of meaning on a daily basis.  Activities designed with clearly visible progress and completion are a great way of providing this. It is also useful to focus on individual human interactions; “how” we do things and how we make our colleagues and customers feel are just as important as the “what” of what we actually do.

The second factor is related to our significance as individuals. Is what we do noticed and valued? Ongoing feedback and recognition is vital. The best kind of recognition is timely, individualised and specific; it seldom comes in the form of an impersonal award via a HR system! Validation from and the respect of our peers is especially important. The environment should be one where everyone is involved in improvements and is both allowed and encouraged to make changes. Again, it is the knowledge and visibility of progress that is vital. Performance indicators and metrics are of the most value when used to allow people to manage themselves as opposed to the more usual situation when they are used by managers to manage employees. An example of this approach is the world renowned “Toyota Production System”. In Toyota, the supervisor/manager’s role consists of facilitating process improvements and developing individuals. 

This last point provides a nice segue to the final factor, Growth.  Everybody needs to feel that they are developing in some way. The amount and type of growth required varies hugely between different individuals; this is definitely a case where one size does not fit all. A healthy workplace recognises this and provides a wide range of support, options and development paths along with just the right amount of challenge and pressure. I have been coaching and mentoring managers across the globe for many years and seeing these individuals grow and develop has been one of the most rewarding aspects of my career. Management author David Bolchover argues in his excellent book “The 90-Minute Manager” that one of the core tasks of any manager is the development of their people. Unfortunately, this task is often either forgotten completely or put to the bottom of the priority list, after all development usually takes time and costs money.

A healthy working environment that attracts and retains competent people and delivers the required results can take many different forms. Whatever the form it will be an environment where its people can find meaning, be recognised for their contributions and feel that they are growing.  I strongly believe every workplace can and should be improved by a systematic focus on enabling these three factors.  I know what a good workplace looks and feels like. Hopefully you too have experienced similar positive environments. The knowledge that they exist should give us hope that we can recreate them anew. It is this same hope that has kept me going whilst trudging through the driving rain on many a Scottish mountainside.


The 90-Minute Manager – David Bolchover

Toyota Talent : Developing Your People the Toyota Way - Jeffrey K. Liker , David Meier


Christmas Reading

Good reads for the holiday season.

Christmas Reading

At Serious we spend a lot of time reading & we have collected a list of eight of the books we read in 2015 that made the biggest impact on us.

In no particular order……… 





Bargaining with the Devil - When to Negotiate, When to Fight - Robert Mnookin

This book by the head of Harvard’s Program on Negotiation is unsurprisingly case-study based.  The studies range from the historical and political (Hitler, Churchill and Mandela ) to the world of business (IBM and Fujitsu) and the more personal realms of divorce and inheritance.  The studies illustrate Mnookin’s key message that negotiation should always be considered as an option.  Specifically, we should always “systematically compare the expected costs and benefits” of every conflict; this point is frequently missed when emotions are raging and/or moral judgments have been made. I am afraid I still haven’t figured out the correct pronunciation of the author’s name.

A Mind For Numbers: How to Excel at Math and Science (Even If You Flunked Algebra)  - Barbara Oakley

Engineering Professor Barbara Oakley has written this simple to understand book on how to improve your ability to learn.  Using evidence based research she highlights techniques such as chunking, tackling difficult problems first and letting your diffuse thinking work on difficult problems overnight.  This is a valuable addition to your library especially if you are studying or have children at school.

Evil Genes: Why Rome Fell, Hitler Rose, Enron Failed, and My Sister Stole My Mother's Boyfriend - Barbara Oakley 

The second book in this list from Barbara Oakley deals with very different subject matter but displays all of her polymath abilities, diverse life experience and considerable humour.  Oakley draws on research from brain imaging to explore the relationship of genes, emotions & behavior in so called “Machiavellian” individuals.  She weaves the science with the stories of well-known sociopaths such as Slobodan Milosevic and Mao Zedong and with the personal story of his (Mao’s) own sister.  What is most useful is that the book highlights how to identify similar individuals in our own lives and thereby avoid suffering at their hands or harbouring any unrealistic expectations about the likelihood of them changing.

Black Box Thinking: The Surprising Truth About Success - Matthew Syed

I first came across ex Table Tennis world champion and now Times columnist, Syed in 2011 with his excellent first book “Bounce: The Myth of Talent and the Power of Practice”.  He broadens his scope here to cover the subject of failure across almost the entire gamut of human activity including the fields of politics, engineering, education, medicine and the law.  Syed covers how we should change the way we view failure and most importantly how we must systematically use evidence to extract and implement learnings to avoid continually repeating errors.


Why Information Grows: The Evolution of Order, from Atoms to Economies- César Hidalgo

This is one of the most ambitious books I have ever read and it deserves to be widely read.  It is essentially a (very credible) attempt to integrate Physics, Math’s, Information & Communications Theory and Economics in order to explain human development!

Hidalgo has an easy style which makes the sometimes complicated subject matter very accessible.  That said he admits to having reordered the chapter flow several times as he wrote the book and I am not sure there is a right answer as the field he is covering is so huge.  Notwithstanding this he has managed to synthesize several previously unrelated fields and a large body of cutting-edge work into what will develop further into a unified theory of human growth.

Good Strategy Bad Strategy: The Difference & why it matters - Richard Rumelt

This 2011 book is now my answer whenever I am asked what book I recommend on strategy and before that I could never answer the question with a single book alone.   Good Strategy Bad Strategy is an essential read for all involved in any kind of long term thinking or planning (whether it is called Strategy or not).  One of his key messages is that most things that are called “strategy” are not!  Rumelt details how to run the gamut of “fluff”, muddled thinking, goal obsession and other common strategy traps.  His prescription is essentially ”less is more”, with a simple three-step process that has a strong (and very necessary focus) on execution.

Zero to One – Peter Thiel.

This book made it to #1 on the NYT books list. Peter was one of the founders of Paypal and is a good buddy of Elon Musk. He is worth several billion dollars and in his book he evangelizes how one should go about crating something from nothing. Clearly Peter is an INTP and this is an INTP perspective of how you should create and run a company.  While I can understand his perspective I am not sure I agree with all he has to say. Luck plays no part in his success (according to him) and of course “to the victor goes the spoils” he gets to write about history.

Superforcasting: The art and science of prediction – Philip E Tetlock and Dan Gardner

Along the lines of Thinking Fast Thinking Slow, this book chronicles the activities of Superforecasters, a group of people whose ability to make accurate predictions far surpasses (statistically) that of professional forecasters, futurologists and intelligence agencies. What do these people have in common? They understand math especially statistics, they make frequent changes to their predictions based on timely information, and they consider both sides of the probability that is what is the likelihood of something occurring and what is the likelihood of it not occurring.  A good read for anyone in the field of decision making and planning.   

Posted in Business Management


How to Manage Conflict in Teams

Setting teams up for success is the best way to avoid conflict

How to Manage Conflict in Teams

Stanford Professor of Organizational Behavior, Lindred Greer provides good advice on how to manage conflicts within teams. In this video she outlines the types of conflicts that can occur within teams and how to deal with them.  Conflicts can arise from differences on tasks, process, relationship and status.  Understanding who is involved in the conflict and why they are involved is the first step in managing the conflict. 

With virtual teams it's important to have a face to face kick off which allows them to get to know each other and understand the context that others are coming from. In our work with virtual teams across the globe we always insist on a face to face meeting where team members come together. In the face to face meeting not only do we work on the task/s the team has to manage but we spend time working on interpersonal relationships. We then have face to face followups every 3 months. In the intervening periods we conduct teleconferences which run to a strict agenda and time. The benefits of such an approach far outweigh any of the costs involved. Setting teams up for success is the best way of avoiding conflicts in the first place.



Developing Empathy to Increase Emotional Intelligence

Developing Empathy to Increase Emotional Intelligence

The ability to understand why people behave the way they do is a critical component of emotional intelligence, and it is a skill that can be taught. To be successful, it helps if you can develop empathy towards the person or people whose behaviour you are trying to understand. The psychoanalyst Theodor Reik (a student of Sigmund Freud) defined empathy as a process involving four components:


  1. Identification - focusing one’s own attention to another and allowing oneself to become absorbed in contemplation of that person.
  2. Incorporation - making the other’s experience one’s own via internalizing the other.
  3. Reverberation - experiencing the other’s experience while attending to one’s own cognitive and affective associations to that experience.
  4. Detachment - moving back from the merged inner relationship to a position of separate identity, which permits a response to be made that reflects both understanding of others as well as separateness from them.

Steps 1 through 3 involve the ability to put your self in the shoes of the other while step 4 requires that you detach yourself from the situation so you can present a “rational” and “objective” response.

Without being able to do steps 1 to 3 you can’t accurately do step 4, and as my experience has born out, it is not so easy for people to do steps 1 to 3. That is, people have great difficulty putting themselves in the shoes of others.

So what can you do to develop this ability? There are a few techniques that can be used such as:

Emotional attribution tasks where participants are presented with short stories describing emotional situations and asked what the protagonists might feel in those situations;

Faux pas task where participants are read a story with the occurrence of a faux pas and asked if they detected the faux pas—that is, a socially awkward situation;

Being assigned to groups that differ in terms of perspective-taking instructions before watching videotape or listening to an emotionally laden story and then discussing their reactions.

These techniques put the focus on developing self-awareness and mental flexibility, so you can step outside your own immediate reactions and put yourself in the shoes of the other. Empathy then is a skill that can be learned and you can use it to enhance your emotional intelligence.

Posted in Business Management


How to engage and create meaning

How to engage and create meaning

Last week I had the great experience of attending a three-day retreat run by some very capable and inspiring leaders. With a group of about 90 others in attendance we visited the site of what could arguably described as one of the key defining moments of Australian history – the rebellion at the Eureka stockade.  There were a number of causes for the rebellion, but the most significant was the tax regime (permits for mining) levied on the miners for the right to prospect for gold – and they had to pay the tax whether they found gold or not.  To cut a long story short the rebellion was led by an Irish man called Peter Lalor who mobilised the miners to resist police troops who were coming to evict them. In the melee that ensued about 20 miners and 9 police officers were killed. Thirteen of the miners including Peter Lalor were arrested and tried for treason, all were acquitted. Peter Lalor later went on to have a career in politics.

As mentioned above the retreat was run by some inspiring leaders who kept things interesting and well organised. They were year 3 and year 4 teachers and the 90 others were 9 and 10 year old children.  I was a parent helper.

One of the characteristics that these teachers have is the ability to create meaning for people. To use stories, in this case about historical events, to make the connection between everyday actions and the reason for those actions.  Children as you know always ask lots of questions, in business environments employees often have lots of questions but don’t ask them. The real art lies in the ability to engage your audience – this is a skill teachers have and it is a skill leaders need.


Death by PowerPoint

or how not to turn your audience off!

Death by PowerPoint

Jerry Seinfeld joked about a survey that found that the fear of public speaking ranks higher in most people's minds than the fear of death. "In other words," he said, “at a funeral, the average person would rather be in the casket than giving the eulogy."

I have another type of fear of public speaking; that of listening to a speaker reading in a monotone from notes which they have projected on the wall behind them.

We’ve all experienced the cruel and unusual punishment of “Death by PowerPoint”. As far as I am concerned the ubiquitous use of this software (it’s even taught in schools now) has not only resulted in a possible cure for insomnia but also in the death of good public speaking.

Posted in Business Management


Undercover Boss

Yet another management gimmick!

Undercover Boss

The urge for CEO’s to go “undercover” as employees or work safe officers in order to truly understand what’s happening on the “shop floor” highlights the disconnection between senior management and employees. If anything it goes to prove that a lack of trust exists between and within the management ranks and employees at all levels. What does it say about a company’s culture when the CEO feels he or she has to go “undercover” to understand or learn about what’s happening in the business? Clearly it is says, “I don’t trust you!”  More so it undermines the leadership of first line supervisors and managers.  If CEO’s truly feel they need to go “undercover” then it raises serious questions about how much management is trusted.

Posted in Business Management

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