Monday, 30 March 2015

It's Official

Image result for elections uk 2015
As if we didn’t know there was an election coming up, it’s now officially official. Parliament gets dissolved and we have five and a half weeks of hyperbole of the highest order.

Here is today’s collection of sound bites from the party leaders:


            Voters face a ‘stark choice’
            UK is on the ‘right track’
            Labour would create ‘economic chaos’


            Conservatives pose a ‘clear danger’ to UK firms
            ‘nothing worse than playing political games with our membership in Europe’


            His party would occupy the ‘reasoned centre ground’


            His party was the ‘radical’ choice


            The Greens are offering a ‘message of hope’

What the hell does any of that actually mean??

I had this bizarre image over the weekend of each party leader laying out a bunch of words they could say and then taking a bicycle pump and pumping each one up till it was unrecognisable as a word in relation to other words.

That’s what all these sound bites, attention grabbing exhortations seem like – a bunch of words strung together to get the most emotional punch without actually meaning anything.

I yearn for clear and concise communication spoken in simple, non accusatory, non-blaming language.

Given that that’s not going to happen I’m now looking forward to playing the ‘how bad can it get?’ game.  This game is where you get to identify just how overblowing, heart-string pulling, fear inducing our party leaders can get.

I’m sure by now someone muse have created Election Bingo, where you have a grid of the most expected and common over-inflated phrases and you can tick each box as you hear those tried and (un)true and fabulously trite slogans trotted out.  If no one has, you can create your own.

Do I sound cynical?  You bet I am.  All this verbiage we are going to be subjected to for FIVE AND A HALF WEEKS has almost nothing to do with what will happen once one of these party leaders or group of party leaders make it to Number 10.

Remember, I’m not commenting on policies, just on politics.
Check out Impact Factory’s range of Communication Skills Training.

By Jo Ellen Grzyb, Director, Impact Factory

Friday, 27 March 2015

Influencing and Negotiation

This isn't my weekly political blog (you can read my run-up-to-the-election-blogs here) but I can't help but reflect on how I have or haven't been influenced by 'the election gang' as we get closer and closer to voting day.

If I weren't a committed voter (though I do wish we could have the choice of 'None of the Above), would I be persuaded by any of the party leaders to go to a polling station on Election Day to vote for one of them (as opposed to against one of them)?

Probably not.

Their powers of persuasion are rather weak as far as I’m concerned.

What influences me certainly won't be the same as what influences you, and I'm not just talking politics here. We are influenced dozens of times each day by any number of things:  the weather, the traffic, whether we had time for breakfast, the newspaper headlines, the text that didn't get a response or the one that did. 

We are influenced by the people around us - what they say and do. If you have children, they will have been influencing you since before they were born.

Your boss will influence your behaviour and if you are the boss, your employees will influence you.

In turn, you will be influencing those around you by what you say and do, both verbally and non-verbally. I'm sitting on a train right now and the chap sitting next to me has influenced me in a positive way as he hasn't taken up more room than his allotted seat (as has happened with others in the past), so I don't feel hemmed in.

That's one tiny influence in many that will happen today.

A lot of what influences me I have no control over; the frost on the car this morning meant an extra few minutes scraping it off which meant I was on the road a bit later than planned.  A little pedal to the metal made up for lost time and I caught my train in plenty of time not to be stressed. 

What I do have control over is how I react to these outside influences.  I also have a degree of control on how I influence others.  The key arena where I want to influence today will be a meeting where I want to initiate a new system for invoice chasing.  Here is where I have to start planning, consciously, how to persuade a couple of my colleagues that firstly, a new system is required and secondly, that they will be willing to implement it.

I could just do the 'boss' thing and demand it, but it's unlikely I'll get much buy-in and more likely I'll get reluctance and resistance. 

This is where choosing how I influence comes into play; this is where I give thoughtful reflection on how I can convince my colleagues that this system should at least be given a try. My first step is to involve them in the discussion rather than telling them what has to be done.  They may come up with an even better process.

So my goal isn't about putting a new system in place, much as we may need one; the goal is to create a setting where everyone will feel able to contribute and together we'll find a solution.  That form of influencing not only will solve the current problem, but will build trust, engage people and encourage everyone's creative problem-solving juices.

Influencing isn’t just about getting what you want, but more importantly, giving people what they need in order to want to help or support you. 

This is key to getting buy-in and developing relationships long-term.  You might strong-arm someone into doing something for you but you won’t build trust and they’ll certainly be wary the next time you ask them for something.

What about the Negotiation part of Influencing and Negotiation?

We believe that you can’t negotiate if you can’t influence. Since much of influencing is understanding what other people want, bringing that into a negotiating arena will give you a much greater chance of success. 

You hear the phrase ‘win-win’ a lot when it comes to negotiation – how do you create an outcome where both ‘sides’ get something they’re happy with?

One thing I see a lot that makes negotiations difficult is how entrenched people can become in their positions.  They hold on to what they want and start from that place and find it almost impossible to let go of that position, wanting all the movement to be from the other ‘side’.

What I see works a whole lot better is to spend good time really understanding what the other person wants and if you can, get to the why; why do they want this particular thing at this particular time?

I have a five year friend old in my life who I think could negotiate for the UN. First she lays out her stall – she wants to play for a half hour before bath time. When told she can have five more minutes she’s goes into her high-powered tactics. She knows begging won’t wash and tantrums only work occasionally. She begins to bargain with offers to sweeten the deal.  She knows that cleaning up, brushing her teeth before bed and helping set the table are all things she’s willing to do in exchange for more play time.

What she does almost instinctively, is to give the other ‘side’ (the grown-ups) a range of things they want that actually cost her nothing because she’s going to do them anyway – she rather enjoys doing them as well.  And her coup de grace is to agree to 20 minutes instead of 30.

These are terrific negotiating skills for any age and I really enjoy playing the ‘game’ with her since both us know it is a game and at some point we will achieve agreement.

Would that more people could use such tactics – life would be so much easier.  If you treat negotiations more like a game then it’s much easier to loosen the grip on what you want and to find a different want that might edge you closer to an agreed resolution.  It’s also much more fun.

Check out Impact Factory’s range of Influencing and Negotiation courses.

By Jo Ellen Grzyb, Director, Impact Factory

Wednesday, 25 March 2015

Politcs and Promises

“A chicken in every pot and a car in every garage.”

That was one election promise that was never met.

Do you know who and when?   Herbert Hoover 1928

Ooops!  The Stock Market crash of 1929 happened just seven months later so not too many chickens in pots or cars in garages.

Election promises are a whole breed in themselves. They sometimes have a vague connection to already constructed party platforms and policies.  More often than not they are designed to appeal to people’s emotions, fear being the biggest.

I’m not writing this from a political point of view, rather from a communication one.   How are we being communicated to?  (Or ‘at’ as I said in my blog last week).

Last minute election promises often feel hastily put together and come out of recent polls or focus groups or twitter trends or media headlines or Facebook ‘likes’.  They’re reactive rather than proactive.  And inevitably there’s a goodly bit of slung mud to ‘do down’ one or more of the other parties.

Election promises are almost the opposite of good communication.  They sometimes feel like threats as much as promises and seem to tap into people’s dreads and apprehensions.  “Vote for me and I’ll rescue you from your worst nightmares.”

Election promises also on occasion seem to reflect an underlying disdain that the electorate is made up of lazy thinkers who are happy to go along with the overblown verbiage, the guarantee that all will be well, the assurances that may not exactly be backed by too many concrete facts. 

The word cynical has been bandied about for as long as there have been elections – politicians are cynical manipulators of people’s emotions and you can’t trust anything they say. There is certainly a degree of truth in that – politics often seems to speak to the lowest common denominator rather than asking the electorate to think and question.

The Joseph Rowntree Foundation has created an evidence based research and policy analysis hub (General Election Hub) and in a recent blog said:

As we approach one of the most unpredictable general elections in recent history, one thing is certain. The facts behind the policy statements will be in dispute – and the public know it. This week’s NatCen poll for the UK Statistics Authority shows that while the public do trust official statistics, they just don’t trust the media or politicians to present them honestly.

The way politicians communicate with the populace has become so predictable that I really do wonder how much most of us actually hear when we listen to them speak. 

I took a survey recently, (tag line – ‘Vote for policies not personalities’) and found it was a very thoughtful approach to help with clarity of thought.  Without the rhetoric, bombast and anxiety-producing language , with just the words, my emotions weren’t being ‘controlled’. Granted, it was a survey so there wasn’t a lot of detail, but it still struck me that once you take away all the external influencers and stick with the words it was easier to formulate questions, to identify things I wanted to know more about.  I wasn’t doing my usual talking back to the telly or the newspapers or the twitter feeds. 

As I’m writing this I’m thinking – “What a shame!”

I want to be challenged, stimulated, excited and engaged.  I want my vote to count, and unfortunately for me to even make a decision, I’m the one who has to wade through the sea of exhortations, grandiloquence and speechifying. 

I don’t want to be sceptical and feel manipulated – and I do.

I want to be communicated to not in sound bites or over the top emotive language but in straight-forward facts, even uncomfortable ones.

Which brings me smartly round to the whole issue of communication.  Do we ourselves communicate in a straight-forward fashion or do we shy away from honesty if we are concerned we won’t get the response we’d like?  Are we as effective as we could be?  Do we avoid the tricky questions and put a gloss or spin on things we find uncomfortable?

Are our politicians simply communicating on a larger platform the way many of us do in our day to day lives?

Friday, 20 March 2015

International Day of Happiness

So…along with the solar eclipse which many of us couldn’t see because of the cloud cover, today is also International Day of Happiness.

Are we happy yet?  Are we supposed to spend a whole day being happy?  Is that possible!!

It’s quite an erratic  thing, happiness.  And what makes me happy, won’t necessarily make you happy. And is it something we can ‘control’?

A lot of the premise of today’s International Day of Happiness is about connecting with other people.  Here’s something from the International Day of Happiness website:

Social isolation is as potent a cause of early death as smoking; and the epidemic of loneliness is twice as deadly as obesity.
We could change this in a day if we all reached out and made at least one positive connection. For the International Day of Happiness, that's exactly what we're going to do.

Positive connection being the operative phrase.

Ah!  The sun has just come out – way too late to see the eclipse, and yet sunshine makes me happy; watching the birds at the seed table makes me happy as does having a good conversation with a client, a good conversation with a friend, curling up with The New Yorker, cheering when my team wins, taking a walk without a purpose other than to walk, looking at beautiful pictures and listening to opera.

My happiness list would fill hundreds of pages and yours probably would too and we might have only a few similar things on our lists.

Happiness is ephemeral and yet I believe very strongly that we can indeed control happiness.  We have the choice not in what happens to us or around us but in how we react to what happens to and around us.

I do agree that positive connection is vital and a great way to feel happy and create happiness in others.  I also know that circumstances can come along and bump us off track, send us spiralling down into unhappiness and depression and then the world can seem quite bleak.

Here’s the tricky part….how can we ‘control’ our feelings when something comes along and trips us up, when someone comes along and gives us a hard time or upsets us?

Well, we can’t actually control our feelings – it’s the next step that’s crucial in the happiness stakes:  what are we going to then do about it?  This is classic Cognitive Behavioural Therapy stuff:  something happens, we have a feeling about it and at that juncture we can feed the feeling with negative, unhelpful thoughts or we can begin to starve the feeling with helpful thoughts and maybe even produce a different feeling.

I know someone who is really critical and judgemental – there isn’t a conversation that happens where she isn’t down on someone or something and it colours what happens around her.  It does seem as though she attracts really negative stuff disproportionally because of her attitude.  Her life seems to be one big negative spiral and because of that I don’t enjoy being around her even though underneath all that pessimism is an interesting, intelligent, even funny person.

There are definitely things that make us unhappy, that genuinely cause us distress and I for one, try to avoid happiness junkies – there’s even a term for it – the tyranny of positivity. I’m not going to be happy all the time, so there!

However, I’d rather be happy most of the time and that lies within my power to make that happen.

So, today, let’s indeed connect with others, find small things to be happy about and see if we can hold on to those feelings just a bit longer than normal.  Let’s see if we can turn around some of those negative feelings not by ignoring them, but by choosing a different way to respond to them.

By Jo Ellen Grzyb, Director, Impact Factory

Thursday, 19 March 2015

Burnout at he Workplace

Earlier this week there was a terrific article in the DealBook section of the New York Times on Employee Engagement and Burnout by Andrew Ross Sorkin.

The premise of the article is that many companies measure employee engagement by their (the employees’) willingness to go above and beyond and that in turn leads to burnout.  

It’s clear in those organisations that the onus is on the employees to feel engaged and committed.  At many of the best performing companies it’s the other way around - the onus is on the employer to take care of the well-being of their employees.

Here’s some interesting statistics from that article:

Companies in which employees reported feeling well taken care of — including not working too many hours — had twice the operating profit margins of those with traditionally engaged employees, and three times the profit levels of those with the least engaged employees.

To us it’s all a matter of expectations:  if there is an expectation that employees should go above and beyond without a concomitant balance in the way they are compensated (and I’m not talking money here) then that expectation will inevitably lead to increased levels of stress which has to lead to poor performance.

Covert expectations are the worst – the things employees aren’t told but learn through the grapevine and through watching the behaviour of their peers.  This is the place where bad habits get reinforced, where people feel obliged to work on weekends and even when they’re in the pub or at their daughter’s football practise will keep their smartphone turned on and will take calls and answer emails.

Employers take advantage of this ‘I’m available’ culture by giving people work on Friday afternoon with an expectation that it will be done by Monday and employees get the message that it’s not OK to say ‘No’.

And what about the whole issue of staying late?  Of course there are times in every company or department when deadlines put pressure on everyone and it’s ‘all hands to the pump’. Those can actually be exciting, collaborative, creative times when everyone feels they are contributing and putting in long hours is part of the excitement.

When it’s the expectation that’s another thing altogether.

We worked with a company where the culture was that no one wanted to be seen to be the first to leave at the end of the day.  One delegate said her home life was really suffering because she was getting home later and later and later because she felt she had to prove her commitment over and over again and would stay till 10 o’clock most nights. Sure enough, six months of this led to some serious ‘cat kicking’ where she took out her frustrations out on her husband. She loved the company and its mission but eventually got fed up with the toll it was taking and left.

The startling thing about this woman is that she was one of the Directors.  She was complicit in creating and bolstering the unhealthy culture in the company and sadly she isn’t alone. 

In another company one of the senior managers complained that his staff never took their lunch hours and he said it was having an impact on productivity. We pointed out that he never took a lunch hour and his team were simply mirroring his behaviour. Talk about a small change for a big impact (one of Impact Factory’s core tenets); he started taking lunch so everyone else did too. 

The consequences of unhealthy corporate cultures are real: people become much less productive, they get ill, they get cranky and grumpy; their behaviour gets erratic and they leave or are made redundant or get overlooked for promotion. Not only that, because these consequences are ignored, swept under the carpet, not given the attention they require, there is no imperative for these unhealthy cultures to change.

Changing the status quo is challenging. However, if companies sincerely want their employees engaged, they have to make a visible effort to do things differently – the more visible the change, the more genuinely involved they will be.

By Jo Ellen Grzyb, Director, Impact Factory

Tuesday, 17 March 2015

Politicians and Communication

Does my heart sing or sigh when I think about the current political campaign and upcoming election?

On the one hand, I’m seriously interested in the ‘issues’; on the other, my brain turns off when I listen to the rhetoric.

There is much moaning and gnashing of teeth that young people aren’t voting in the numbers they could.  I love the quote doing the internet rounds:  “So, tell me all about how you’d rather sign a petition to save Jeremy Clarkson’s job….than a petition to save the NHS.”

Now to be fair there are quite a few petitions also doing the rounds about saving the NHS, but I think the point is one worth paying attention to: people respond emotionally when they are fully engaged.

Jeremy Clarkson creates feelings in people – passionately for/passionately against, but definitely passionate.  There aren’t that many people who feel neutral about the bloke.

Our politicians don’t seem to create much of anything in a lot of people other than apathy, cynicism and mistrust and if politicians are unable to engage the electorate then that electorate simply won’t go to the polls.

There they all are, lining up to try to convince us that each of them has the answer:  the current leaders:  David Cameron and Nick Clegg; the aspiring leader in opposition, Ed Miliband and others, perhaps king-makers in waiting as well; Nigel Farage, Natalie Bennett, Nicola Sturgeon,  Elfyn Llywd.  Closely followed by various ministers, cabinet and show cabinet members trying to grab our attention.

The gap between people we feel something about and those we don’t often has to do with the way they present themselves.  If we take a look at someone who is believable and who touches us it’s because they come across as authentically themselves.  We feel connected to them because they personalise their point of view; they create intimacy and seem to talk directly to us.

Politicians, on the other hand, are usually so determined to win that they neutralise their passions; they get polished and learn politician-speak that distances them from their audiences rather than creating a bond with them.

I’m not saying here that our politicians don’t believe in what they are saying; I certainly hope they do.  What I am saying is that they rely on rhetoric, overblown and emotive language and of course mud-slinging to try to convince us that they are genuine.

I don’t feel communicated to….I feel talked at or even talked down to.  Politicians’ sincerity feels learned rather than heart-felt. It’s evident in their body language as well as their spoken language.  Very rarely do you see any politician using ‘big’ body language – it’s all carefully orchestrated and constrained.  They play it safe and when someone plays it safe, they limit their expression of excitement, anger, joy, sorrow, etc. 

Will this ever change?  This bland, controlled, limited means of communication seems to be the norm now.  I can’t imagine the UK ever producing an Alexis Tsipras who knows how to communicate with his audiences brilliantly and is willing to overturn the status quo.

It’s seven weeks till the election.  Here’s a little game you can play:  the next time just about any politician comes on the telly turn the sound down and watch the body language.  Keep doing that and you’ll see the limitations these people put on themselves.  You can also do the opposite and close your eyes and only listen to the words.  Pay attention to the overuse of hyperbole and over-complicated sentences.

Then watch and listen at the same time.  If you think you’ve spotted insincerity, disingenuousness or even just a curbing of passion, see if you can identify what it is in their verbal or their body language that’s ‘telling’ you they’re playing it safe.

Over the next seven weeks I’ll be keeping my own eye out for those tell-tale signs of ‘safety’ that keep voters disengaged and disinterested.  I say it’s a little game you can play – however, the stakes are high for all of us and it’s certainly sad that so many of us are viewing a campaign that has neither fire nor flair.

Check out Impact Factory’s range of Presentation and Communication Skills Training.

By Jo Ellen Grzyb, Director, Impact Factory