How do you lead out of confusion?

When things change we become a little uncertain for a while. With large scale organisational change, this uncertainty can become almost paralysing for some people, and right now we are all experiencing more change than any of us are used to. There is change both at work and at home, and it is impacted on almost every aspect of our lives.

We look to leaders to help us create certainty and stability, but how do you lead out of so much confusion?

Paul and Rob explore how leaders can bring people together and create the certainty that we need to move forward together.

Photo by Matt Botsford on Unsplash

Who wins (at work) when we when find new ways of working?

The way we work has changed more in the last few months than any other time in our working lives.  Who will be the winners?

Political styles that might have worked well in the office may not be as effective when working remotely.  However, ignoring the politics is equally as bad.   

Rob and Paul explore political styles during change, asking how do we find a balance between doing the right thing and getting what we want?

Photo by Jaz King on Unsplash

Will holding onto the past put the future at risk?

2020 has been a year of change unlike any other for most of us, with many still coming to terms with the different ways of working (and living) that have been forced upon us.  There is little sign that the ‘normality’ that existed at the start of the year is going to return any time soon.

What is the impact of this longing for a return to simpler times?  Richard and Paul discuss how leaders can help people let go and start to embrace a new normal.

This podcast was recorded while we are still in lockdown.  Like most people, we are working from home (kids and pets may appear at any time).  We are still focused on the questions that are getting in the way.

Photo by Jason Rosewell on Unsplash

How can we keep people united?

Following on from considering the pace at which change can be progressed (click here for that podcast) we are looking at how you can keep people united through uncertain times.  

Change creates plenty of opportunities to divide teams, as people become winners or losers in the change process.  How can leaders actively bring teams together as one?

This podcast was recorded while we are still in lockdown.  Like most people, we are working from home (kids and pets may appear at any time).  Apologies for the quality of one of the mics on this podcast. The perils of working without a producer.

We are still focused on the questions that are getting in the way.

Photo by Jaz King on Unsplash

How can I ensure that people feel in control at times of change?

When the world changes around us, many of us feel completely out of control and struggle to find meaning.  This struggle then leads to even the most competent people hitting a productivity brick wall as they work to resolve these feelings.

Rob explains to Ricky how to spot this happening in the workplace and how leaders and managers can help people regain control through some simple steps, helping them to process the change which in turn allows productivity to return. This is more important than ever, with COVID-19 creating change in every part of lives.

This podcast was recorded while we are still in lockdown. Like most people we are working from home (kids and pets may appear at any time). We are still focused on the questions that are getting in the way.

Photo by Jason Rosewell on Unsplash

How to Combat Loneliness when Working Remotely

For all its perceived advantages, like, for example, not having to commute and working when you want to, remote working also has its challenges. Loneliness is a primary risk and will have a very real impact for the thousands of UK workers who now suddenly find that remote working is going to have to be the ‘new normal’ for an unspecified amount of time due to the spread of the coronavirus.

At Thinking Focus, we have worked remotely for years, so it is so much our ‘normal’ that we would probably initially struggle to adjust to working in a central place of work and fit into a structure of regulated office time, physical meetings, commuting to and from work and working shoulder to shoulder with our colleagues. We’ve learned a few things over the years and would like to share some of that with you.

A real focus for your own well-being – let alone remaining effective when you have to work remotely – is making sure that you never feel isolated or alone. Here’s how to stay connected as a remote worker, including as an employee and as a person, during any time of uncertainty.

Set up regular remote meetings

Getting regular, consistent feedback is an important part of productive remote working. If you’re the manager of a remote worker, or a remote worker yourself, consider implementing some of these strategies for staying in touch:

  1. A daily check-in: It’s always good to make sure that everyone’s on the same page and that everyone knows which daily tasks to prioritise.
    A weekly team meeting: When you’re working remotely team, it is important to hear about what other people are working on—even if it’s outside of the scope of your focus. It helps to keep you connected.
  2. Video is more personal than a conference call—and can help bond a team together, setting the groundwork for collaboration (even at a distance). After all, much of communication is non-verbal. faces need to be seen & expressions interpreted.
  3. Regular person-to-person meetings: Regular video calls with other remote teammates is important. Plan days to work together. You can use the time to share business updates, individual successes and failures, even social, non-work related chat for a time. The point is to feel more connected to each other.


Designate an in-office contact for remote workers

Now that you are practically away from your normal place of work, it can be easy to feel out of the loop—or worse, like your concerns or questions aren’t being addressed. One way to combat this issue is to designate an in-office contact. This person can be a manager, or they can be on the same level as the rest of the team. Part of their responsibility would be to make sure that team conference calls run smoothly by letting remote workers have equal air-time and making sure that issues are heard. In some cases, you’ll need a manager or an HR professional to help set up this designated role.

Find a remote working buddy

Friends and colleagues will be immensely important right now. People with a work buddy typically feel more engaged with their work than those without one. Try to find someone that you can regularly check-in with who can help keep you motivated when working alone. Don’t wait until you feel loneliness taking hold.

Use a remote working office platform

Communication is clearly the key to successful remote working. Find an effective office platform where team workflow can be monitored and important documents shared. This will provide a transparent way for everyone to monitor each other’s progress, as well as their own.

Communicate about more than your remote work

Keep in touch with your co-workers about more than just your daily tasks. If you can, try to stay up to date with people’s birthdays and what’s going on in their lives. Don’t be afraid to talk to other people about things that aren’t specifically about work – relationship building and maintenance is critical right now.

Set up a helpful remote work routine

Feeling more connected is not all to do with the office. Remember to keep connected to the rest of the world. Don’t get caught up in being or feeling isolated.

The workday should have room for enjoyment. Whether that means creating a light-hearted connection channel with friends online or simply giving a friend or family member a phone call when you complete a difficult task, don’t hesitate to take breaks and reward yourself for putting in the time and doing good work. Having fun is also part of the productive rhythm of a workday.

Stand up and walk around whilst on the phone. Remember to stop and have a meal – physically set the time aside. Build in time for exercise and fresh air.

Photo by Stefano Pollio on Unsplash

Clarity is key

Are you clear about your team’s purpose and objectives? Is your team clear about them? My experience studying and challenging workplace behaviour suggests that most teams don’t have clarity about their purpose, or how their purpose relates to the big picture: in this new world of remote working, that’s a real issue for managers.

The proportion of clarity that we gain from daily interpersonal interactions should not be underestimated. These small moments that happen in passing through the day, at the start of meetings, or in corridor conversations underpin how we understand the world. In the office, even if you have rigorous project plans in place, staff will get more actionable information about what’s needed in their day-to-day work during informal conversations by the coffee machine, than from the formalised communication channels.

As you start — or increase the amount of — remote working, have regular sessions with everybody, to make sure everyone’s comfortable asking for guidance when necessary. Otherwise, you won’t really be managing a team, but a group of individuals who can only hope they’re doing the right thing. To start, meet more frequently than you think you need, then back off as the team becomes comfortable with the new ways of working.

After a few days of remote work, stop and think to yourself: “How am I finding all of this? What questions might my team have about our situation?” Use that reflection as a platform to get in line with your people — identify issues they might be having and offer solutions from the get-go, instead of putting them on the spot (where they may feel they have to respond with “Doing great, thanks!”).

Organise online social time for everyone to catch up on personal matters. Give time in work-related calls for people to have a relaxed chat (a perfect time to show off your pet or favourite mug).

What experience shows me, time and time again, is that it’s almost impossible to over-communicate when teams start working remotely. Don’t just assume that something like a WhatsApp group will totally solve the issue. Chat groups and emails hide emotion and anxiety, making it harder to know when you need to intervene as a manager. Video calls are a great way of maintaining clarity in your team, especially while you can’t meet in person, as you can still pick up on physical clues such as body language. Even conference calls will give you a sense of how people are coping since during the call you can gauge not just what is said, but how things are being said by different team members.

As we move forward into uncertain times for the shape of the workplace, put extra effort into maintaining clarity when managing remote workers. Give your team discrete and clear guidance of what’s required from them and keep them up-to-date with what’s happening in the rest of the team and the company. By doing so, you can significantly ease the challenges of managing remotely.

Politics in the workplace: Dealing with sheep, donkeys, foxes and owls

People very rarely like to talk about politics in the workplace. Perhaps we don’t even like to admit that it’s a thing. But the fact is that everyone in your organisation is acting in a political way.

That’s because workplace politics is about how we behave towards each other, and what our motivations are in doing so. It’s all about power, authority and relationships. This power can come from different sources: It could be based on someone’s role, experience, knowledge, professional or personal network, or charisma.

The term ‘office politics’ usually has negative connotations, but is it really always a bad thing? The answer is no – but it depends what kind of politics are in play. Good politics is about doing things correctly and fairly in the interest of the group and the overall vision, whereas bad politics is about acting out of self-interest. Particularly during the process of change, behaviour needs to be driven by politics – there needs to be somebody who is able to engage people and take them on a journey. That’s what change leadership is all about.

As a manager of people who will behave according to their own politics, awareness is key. Often change leaders involve people for the wrong reasons. It’s easy to make the mistake of involving someone because of their position or their relationship with you.

Recognising the political motivations of your people will help you to assign useful, productive roles to them which utilise their skills and experience and help achieve a goal that’s for the overall good. It’s vital for those times when you need to rely on people who can lead and get things done for the good of the organisation, its people and its goals. So what political game are your people playing? A useful way of identifying the political style and motivations of your team members is using the model developed by Simon Baddeley and Kim James, as shown in this diagram:

It splits people into one of four categories: sheep, donkeys, owls and foxes. Once you understand which category a person fits into, you’ll have an idea of how they will approach things, and what kind of role they should take on a project. It can be particularly helpful when implementing change and thinking about the kind of people you can rely on to lead it successfully.

So what kind of characteristics does each animal show, and what does this mean for their role in the team?

Sheep are politically naïve but act in the group’s interest, because they think it’s the right thing for the organisation and the people. They are loyal and industrious but need to be led.

Donkeys, like sheep, are politically naïve – but the difference is that they act out of self-interest.

Owls are politically aware of the situation and the environment but ask how to do things for the overarching goal and the people. Loyal to the organisation, they possess integrity, and are respected by colleagues.

Foxes are also politically aware but act out of self-interest, putting themselves before others and even before the organisation. But there’s no doubt that they can make things happen, even though they are doing it for their benefit. There’s nothing wrong with sending a wily fox into a difficult situation as long as you are prepared to manage them closely. Foxes are useful, but make sure you’re aware of their motivation, how they are likely to behave and the opportunities they may want to seize for themselves.

Dealing with these different personalities as a manager can be difficult, but the first step is to recognise who fits into each category, and to understand who should therefore be placed in a key role for a specific project, and who needs to be carefully managed. Owls are clearly prime candidates, although they may as well be unicorns as they are so hard to find! Perhaps you may like or require the ambition and drive of foxes.

The role of a leader is not to get lost in politics or to turn a fox into an owl. It’s about recognising which political ‘animals’ are in your team, and being aware of how best to manage them.

Baddeley, S. and James, K., 1987.  Owl, fox, donkey or sheep: Political skills for managers. Management Education and Development, 18(1), pp.3-19.

Thinking Focus shortlisted in Learning Awards

Thinking Focus has been announced as a finalist in the Learning Awards 2019, a prestigious celebration of outstanding achievement in workplace learning and development.

The company, which was founded in 2016, was among hundreds of entries from companies across the world, and is vying for the title of Start-Up Learning Provider of the Year alongside five other organisations based both in the UK and abroad.

Ricky Muddimer, a director at Thinking Focus, said: “We’re delighted to be shortlisted in the Learning Awards and to be recognised for our achievements since setting up the company just over two years ago.

“The last couple of years has seen Thinking Focus win 49 new clients, work on assignments in 12 countries and across 21 sectors, and meet, work with and develop well over 2,000 interesting and inspiring people. We’ve also taken on our first employee, produced a book and created a gamified learning product called What Would You Do? which helps develop managers in a way that makes learning stick.

“But what gives us the biggest buzz of all is seeing how our work delivers impact, and hearing our clients report fantastic results.”

Run by the Learning Performance Institute, the Learning Awards are a leading event in the learning industry, and recognise outstanding examples of high standards, best practice, innovation and excellence in the corporate L&D sphere. Around 400 people will attend the glittering presentation evening at the Dorchester Hotel, London, in February next year.

Thinking Focus are people productivity specialists who work with organisations around the world to unlock productivity, implement change and deliver sustainable results. Using a flexible and practical tools-based approach, combined with their proven psychology-based methodology, they focus on developing growth mindsets to enable people to think and work differently, and to help them define a clear and shared vision.

Ricky added: “We’re so proud that our hard work, innovation and growth has been recognised in these prestigious awards, and would like to thank all those who have helped, inspired and supported us: We couldn’t have done it without you.”

Why do change leaders focus on the plan rather than the people?

It is not uncommon to find elaborate, well-thought-through change plans missing just one ‘small’ component: the people.

Why does this happen? Why do some change leaders get so lost in the detail of their planning that they forget to bring the people involved along with them on the journey?

Paul and Richard discuss why it can feel easier just to focus on the plan – and what happens when people get left out of it.

Effecting change involves two things: there’s the practical side of it and then there’s the ‘transition’ of taking people through it. Focusing on both elements leads to successful change. Having an awesome plan without the engagement and support of your people will mean it won’t be as effective as it could be.

A change plan can take up a lot of time and effort but, in a way, it’s the easy bit. Most change leaders have technical or project management skills, and know how to create a strong plan. It’s an area they feel comfortable with. But when it comes to taking people through the transition, the process is more unpredictable.

So, if you’re leading change and have a great plan but haven’t really looked at the people side, where do you start?

We’d suggest taking a step back and assessing where people are on the change journey. Ask two questions: 1, What is their attitude to this specific change? 2, How much energy are they putting into this?

Answering these questions about each individual will help you place them in one of four categories:

  • Spectators
  • Champions
  • ‘Corporate Corpses’
  • Saboteurs

The likelihood is that at least half of the people will be Spectators. They are in the neutral zone, supportive of the change but with low energy. However, the great thing is that they can become engaged with the process if they are given information and choices.

The Champions are the people who are supportive of the change and are putting a lot of energy in to it. They can help the leaders by taking some of the burden and acting as positive role models for the Spectators.

The ‘Corporate Corpses’ are the zombie brigade – people who have very low energy and a very bad attitude, although they’re not being disruptive or causing any trouble.

The Saboteurs are usually the very noisy vocal minority who have a bad attitude and lots of energy. They are the people who are trying to hold back change and undermine leaders. They tend to attract attention and effort which should instead be focused on trying to engage the Spectators.