Observing Performance by Watching & Listening

watching and listening

Recently I have been reading Alex Ferguson’s book on “Leading”. Early on in his book he talks about the importance of observation. He calls it “watching” and “listening” saying he believes most people, let alone people in managerial positions, do not use their eyes and ears effectively. They don’t watch closely or listen intently and don’t do either nearly often enough.

I think he is spot on. Our work world in the 21st century is high paced and contains an incessant workload. Most people in managerial roles have their own “tasks” to do as well as leading and managing their team and it easy to be consumed by such tasks to the detriment of spending time with your teams.  People who have recently moved up into managerial roles find this very hard, as they are confident in completing tasks, and less confident in their new managerial responsibilities and so, not surprisingly like doing the former.

But if you are ultimately accountable for your team’s performance you need to find a way to spend time closely observing what is going on. So why not start to make it a habit? Plan “downtime” into your own schedule of tasks and spend that downtime just quietly observing what is going on around you. Tune in with your eyes and ears and keep some mental and written notes on what you see and hear.  Some initial things to help guide your observations might be to look out for: –

  • Are your own managers or team leads actually spending the right amount of time doing that, or are they constantly immersed in their own tasks?
  • What are people saying to each other face to face? Are they showing respect? Listening to each other? Talking over one another?
  • Who is influencing whom?
  • Who is allowing themselves to be wrongly influenced by others?
  • Are people spending their time wisely – working on the right things?
  • Are they doing those things efficiently?
  • What is the general mood like?
  • Who is showing an appetite for leading?
  • How well are people working together – have I got a team or disconnected individuals?
  • Are people showing skills and talent for the roles I have them in or are they disengaged doing the role because they have to?

How is their manner when talking with clients?

If you start tuning in using the observational senses of listening and watching it should enable you to be more effective in giving feedback as it will be first hand, and very specific. NB this isn’t about “spooking” people and it’s not about compiling dossiers of evidence to beat people up with. It’s about finding the time and a way of being closer to what’s going on, and placing yourself in a position to be more effective in leading and coaching your team members.

Next week I will share some thoughts and tips around assessing performance and whether this should be linked to reward. If you have any comments, questions or observations in relation to this topic please do share via the website, LinkedIn or by email to tim@realitybusiness.co.uk.

Beware Multiple Questions

set of hand drawn arrows and speech bubbles on cardboard  background, vector illustration

set of hand drawn arrows and speech bubbles on cardboard background, vector illustration

A common mistake made by managers when giving feedback is to ask questions which are unclear. This can easily make the conversation more difficult than it should have been.

Let me give you an example:

“Fred, I have noticed you have been late in submitting your figures for the last two weeks and this is having a knock-on impact delaying the new marketing campaign.”

(so far so good)

“What’s the problem? Is it to do with the new software or is it because you are waiting on Jim in sales? Is there anything I need to know and how can I help?”

(Fred now has a choice of which question to answer and will probably plump for the easiest)

“Thanks boss, no everything is now under control and I will let you know if I need any help.”

The result of the above exchange is minimal. The manager is none the wiser about what has happened and Fred is none the wiser as to what the manager wants him to do in future.

A much better question would have been:

“What’s the problem?”

(Fred talks about the situation and you listen, before asking a second question)

“What do you need to do to ensure your figures are always submitted on time in future?”

Multiple questions do not help the person receiving the feedback so keep your questions short, simple and only ask one at a time.

Managing teams better for greater efficiency

‘What would you do?’
I was with a group of delegates chatting over dinner during a residential management workshop this week. During the day we had been discussing time management and delegation skills and had agreed that managers need to spend as much of their time as possible dealing with the most important tasks.

It was agreed that one of most effective activities to achieve this was the delegation to your team of those less important tasks.

One of the managers had been reflecting upon this and said he was struggling to see how he could apply the learning. Only that very day (whilst on the workshop) he had received 6 calls and emails from his team wanting his help in sourcing non-standard items for customers. He saw this as an important part of his role as experience had shown him that the extra effort in sourcing a solution often resulted in either a new or more loyal and therefore valuable customer.

I asked the manager about their team. The manager said that whilst they had a good team they did not feel any of them had the experience or as much passion as he did about providing this level of service. Their default solution therefore was to work extra hours to get everything done or if they were away from the office to explicitly instruct the team with step by step instructions of what to do.

What Would You Do? Management Graphic

The manager was well aware that his approach was not tenable in the long run and he wanted to trust his team more but did not know where to start. I asked him ‘what else could you do when you get a phone call from your deputy telling you about a challenging customer request?’ After a while the manager said ‘I suppose I could ask them what they would do… but what if they say they don’t know what to do or suggest something I don’t like?’

‘Good question’ I said. What would you do in that circumstance?’ There was a pause and then the manager smiled at me and said ‘I see what you’re doing. You are asking me for my solution before suggesting one yourself and that way I either feel empowered by my own ideas or supported if guidance is still needed. I suppose I could try this with my team!’

Using a phrase like ‘what would you do?’ is a coaching style of management and whilst not suitable for every situation it’s definitely one to have at your disposal. Especially if you are a bit of a control freak!

Using Questioning Skills to Gain Commitment

I recently had a difficult conversation with myself and it went something like this.

Me: Steve, come on in and grab yourself a seat. How are you today?
Myself: Not at all bad thanks ………….. weekend ………. i-pad problem …….. possible new client ….
Me: Can I get you a coffee?
Myself: Just a glass of water thanks. I am trying to cut back on caffeine and to hydrate better.
Me: Good for you. You don’t mind if I tuck into this double espresso latte macchiato do you?

Me: Steve I have noticed that you have not published a top tip for difficult conversations for over a month now. As a result the website is looking a bit stale plus some subscribers to your tips are starting to grumble. So what’s the story?
Myself: The truth is I have just been so busy ………. demanding clients ………other priorities ………… holiday ………… travelling to Derby, Swindon and Hong Kong …….. its just been so hectic. It’s not that I don’t want to write it you know. I know it’s important.

Me: You say it’s important. How do you see that?
Myself: Oh there are a hundred good reasons ………..

Me: You make a strong case for getting this done. So how hectic does the rest of this week look?
Myself: A little better actually as I am in the office for 3 days and have cleared most of the urgent stuff already. I reckon with a fair wind and a bit of luck it could be done this week or next.

Me: I would really like to see you get it published by this Friday lunchtime. We know from the newsletter data that a lot of people do click on the top tips Friday afternoon and Monday morning. Can you commit to that for me?
Myself: Well I will certainly try. I have an idea for the content so I suppose if I sketched that out once we’ve finished I could do the first draft Wednesday and then polish up and publish on Friday morning.

Me: So, can I take that as a yes?
Myself: Yes, I suppose so.
Me: You don’t sound sure. If you want to run the draft past me on Wednesday I am around most of the day.
Myself: That’s good to know. Yes, see you on Wednesday.
Me: Great.

So what was going on there?

1. The manager (me) used a simple acronym called AID to deliver the message. More about that in the next top tip.
2. The manager also used a range of questions and a funnelling approach to work towards a commitment.

Different Types of Questions

“How are you today”.
An open question designed to create rapport and start a conversation.
“Can I get you a coffee?”.
A closed question with limited answers designed to create a bridge to the subject matter.
“You don’t mind …….. do you?”
A rhetorical question where no answer is required or expected.
“So what’s the story?”
An open question to get the conversation moving towards the 30/ 70 desired ratio.
“You say it’s important. How do you see that?”
A probing question picking up on a key word or phrase. The purpose is to find out more.
“How hectic does the rest of the week look?”
Further probing through a less open question designed to focus in on a specific area.
“Can you commit to that for me?”
A closed question with the purpose of gaining commitment on a specific point.
“So can I take that for a yes?” and “You don’t sound sure”.
A mixture of probing/closed as good listening skills identified some possible doubts.

The idea of moving from open to probing to closed questions is to ‘funnel’ the conversation. At the top are potentially wide-ranging and varied topics (the rapport stage) then to lots of data about a more focussed area and finally very focussed and very specific (commitment).  Developing your questioning skills can be a very useful tool for both your personal and professional leadership.

I hope you find this useful as I can report that Steve actually completed his top tip ahead of time!!!!

Team Types in Action

I introduced Belbin’s team types to a group this week and maybe because of that session my ME preference was more finely tuned than usual. ME stands for ‘Monitor Evaluator’ and is that person with a quality focus who is good at spotting mistakes before they become disasters.

I received a package of slidepacks for a workshop in 2 weeks time and usually I wouldn’t unwrap the materials until much nearer the day. However, on this occasion the weight of the parcel just seemed wrong, far heavier than expected for a dozen 24 page sets. Thank goodness I looked. Every set had been double printed and in the wrong format with the wrong page numbers.

Happily a quick call to the printers confirmed their mistake (the first in 3 years) and a reprint and delivery was scheduled for next week.

My challenge now is to summon up a bit more of one of my lower team type preferences and to finish writing up some coaching notes by G&T O’clock!

My lower preference team type is CF………………… ‘Completer Finisher’ of course.

Dealing with Setbacks

Over the last few weeks I’ve been dipping in and out of the BBC coverage of the Winter Olympics. I’m a keen skier so enjoyed the downhill and slalom events, and was also drawn to the lunacy end of the spectrum with the snowboarding “slopestyle” contest – I think the people who do this must have some sort of “fear chip” that’s missing from their brain…………and that’s probably what my next blog will be about!

Anyhow what many of the events highlighted for me were the small margins between success and failure, and in particular how participants cope with the latter. I saw the interviews with Elise Christie (Speed Skating) and Andrew Musgrave (Cross Country Skiing). Here were two athletes who had genuine medal hopes. Christie was ranked in the world top 3 in 2 of her 3 events, and Musgrave had just won in Norway prior to the Olympics and was expected to win a medal. Christie was disqualified in her events – twice for minute infringements, and the third time, somewhat bafflingly for being knocked over by another skater! Musgrave came 29th and when interviewed had no excuse other than to say “I just had no energy”. For these two competitors, and countless others who went into the games with high hopes, there was no sense of “being proud to represent my country and doing my best”, just desolation that the culmination of 4 years intense training was to come away with nothing.

So how do athletes deal with setbacks,  this sense of disappointment or “failure” (to put a stronger more emotive tag on it – which some, of course, will)?

And of course, this isn’t just about elite athletes, it’s about everyday occurrences that happen to everybody at some stage in their home and work lives, and sometimes with an undesired frequency too. How do you “bounce-back”, and find the agility or strategy to recover from adversity? It’s not just a question at individual level, but for smaller and larger groupings of people too – families, teams and organisations.

I remember vividly a conversation I had with an ex-boss of mine who, in the midst of what was then a high flying career, was suddenly ousted from his job quite nastily by a somewhat unscrupulous executive who clearly saw him as a threat. I asked him how he dealing with it and he said “I’m fine – I happen to believe there are a multitude of roles out there that I can probably do better than the person currently doing them so I have no worries about my future”! Now one might call this arrogance, but fundamentally he was completely self-confident and aware of his worth. How many of us share that same level of confidence about ourselves and our futures?  Why is that?

Over the years we’ve worked with many individuals at various levels within various organisations and often use Emotional Intelligence as a profiling instrument as part of our toolkit. It has uncovered many reasons for people’s uncertainties, and how their present, and their future performance is effected by these. Used alongside other tools and activities it starts to unpick how we feel, how we think, and how we manage those thoughts and feelings. There are many other angles that can be combined here too, to provide a powerful set of insights into the way we cope with the cards we are dealt and help us be better at it. Our colleagues in one of our partner organisations have developed further insights into what they term as “personal resilience” that include looking at our physical make up and wellbeing and how this influences our ability to cope with adversity.

The evidence as to the detriment to health that is caused by mental anguish, worry and stress is overwhelming.  What is perhaps less well known is the detriment to individual and business performance in the workplace. But the research has been done – and recent information from 3 different sources (CIPD, BUPA and Gallup) are conclusive in showing a direct causal link between the way organisations and individuals deal with these things and their resultant performance.

So – I finish with a question “how effective are you or your organisation at dealing with setbacks, worry, concerns and burn-out?”

Performance Capability and Fluctuation

In my last blog I talked about Performance Fluctuation and about making an honest assessment of yourself and those around you in terms of how consistently you are performing at between 90-100% of your true performance capability.

We work regularly with many managers in all sorts of different roles across a multitude of business types and cultures and have been doing for the last 10 years. We see people on our programmes but also in situ in the workplace and often observe first hand these performance variations. Indeed many Manager’s engage us to help them with their team’s less than stellar performance and in particular specific individuals whose performance they’ve seen decline and cannot seem to get under the skin as to why.

So – let’s firstly look at the concept of a “psychological contract”. This is the non-existent piece of paper that determines the amount of discretionary effort an individual will give in the workplace – you may want to call it “the inner motivation to do well”. There’s a pile of classic and well proven motivational theory (Herzberg/Maslow etc.) that one can draw on to identify some of the things that might cause someone to either choose to, or choose not to, feel motivated – such things as their job content, chances for development advancement, security, reward, workplace surrounds, the business culture and environment and so on.

All of these things are absolutely valid as to possible things that can cause performance capability to fluctuate but the majority of them are EXTERNAL to the person and whilst it’s possible to influence some of them to an extent, it’s also true that the degree of influence is not hugely within your span of control.

What we see less people examining are those factors that are INTERNAL to the individual and it is my belief that these are key to truly understanding ours and others performance. We’ve seen some substantial uplift in performance from courses we have run with groups of people and from 1-1 coaching we have done where we raise awareness of, and then work on these internal factors. The fields of Emotional Intelligence and Personal Resilience offer some extraordinary insights into what makes people tick  – we’ve been amazed at how many people we’ve come across some of whom are in very senior positions) who suffer from issues around self-confidence, relationship building and their handling of change and setbacks. Once people are able to understand and connect how they think (and why that is) to how they feel and behave they can start to unravel why they aren’t performing as they’d like to (such performance often extending way beyond the workplace to their home and social lives too). The next stage then is make the (for some) almighty leap to realise that so much of this is a CHOICE and, moreover, totally within our span of influence.

So – if you know there’s something going on with yours or others performance – it may well be something that lies in this INTERNAL arena – and if you are interested in doing something about it but don’t know how, why not give us a call! We may well be able to help!

And if you are interested in Sport and don’t get what I’m on about do a bit of research on any of those sporting people I mentioned in my previous blog……………look at the fluctuations in their performance capability………..are they INTERNAL or EXTERNAL factors?

Stepping Up to the next Management Level

tim fuller

The Reality Business have been running Management and Leadership programmes now for just over 10 years. Over that time we’ve experienced a multitude of organisations and business sectors and worked with delegates from junior first line management roles all the way up to Director’s and CEO’s.

We often get asked by senior managers for our views of the people we’ve had through our programmes and where this can be done in a way that satisfies our values of trust and integrity we are happy to do this.  Such discussions very often include the question “are they ready for stepping up to the next management level yet”?   So I’ve been thinking recently as to what criteria I think need to be satisfied for us to answer that question with an unequivocal “YES, ABSOLUTELY”.

For me the starting point is to ask myself “to what extent would I trust this person to be able to do a great job” and I therefore reflect on the dual axis of trust namely “character” and “competence”.


On the former I’m looking to feel comfortable that the individual demonstrates confidence, integrity, passion, drive, energy and an appetite for continual learning – and one might well argue that these aren’t things that can be trained…………………….whereas in terms of competence I’d be looking to see that they had demonstrated a multitude of people related skills such as managing and leading, working well with stakeholders and so on, and the technical knowledge needed for the role in question.

On this competency axis is where investment in that individual both by themselves and the organisation they work for can help move those people who aren’t ready, or are nearly ready, up the necessary level of notches to be banging at the promotional door. In a similar way, a lack of recognition of the need to create this sort of “talent pipeline” or recognising the need but not doing anything about it, can leave organisations very vulnerable to losing key talent and to costly recruitment from the external marketplace.

Such investment should, or could, include a range of planned and targeted development such as active involvement with both technical and people training, which can be sourced and run either internally or externally, managers being trained as coaches, mentoring schemes, self-study initiatives, job swaps, opportunities to “act up” for short periods of time and formal qualifications.

I have a deep belief that there is a massive pool of talent out there, and I see numerous examples of incredibly talented individuals hugely frustrated by their organisations inability to provide aspirational opportunity to them and typically they either lose their energy and motivation and just “accept” it, or they leave – neither of which strike me as a great outcome for the organisation they work for.

So, if you know you have talent in your organisation, you need to cherish and nurture it, and make sure you provide opportunities!

Team Performance and the impact of Leadership

Whilst I would not describe myself as a massive football fan, I do follow the results and watch many of the games in the Premiership and Europe. To me, football, like many other team sports, provides its own microclimate within which we can observe leadership, management, and team and individual performance. It is quite difficult to get such observer insights in many other industries  – typically whether we are working inside or with a business, we can only observe that particular business’s managers, teams and individuals.

 So – some musings over performances so far this season:

 Let’s start with Manchester United – I think most armchair pundits would make a good case to justify that any new leader (David Moyes) taking over from an outgoing leader (Sir Alex Ferguson) who had been in charge for 26 years, may just take a little time to settle in, and that such a change may well be justification for United’s somewhat inconsistent, and for them, poor, performance so far this season.

 But for me, it raises a really crucial question and that is “where does the real reason for the poor performance of the team lie”?

 The newspapers and media, have been fairly quick to suggest that Ferguson’s team actually overachieved last season when they won the league and that this season’s league position and results more fairly reflects a team that lacks star quality across the positions. So their inference is that it was the Leader who made the difference. Is this true though? To what extent is it fair to burden success or failure on the manager/leader? If we look at the rest of the Premiership, we’ve already had Martin Jol, Ian Holloway, Steve Clarke and most recently AVB sacked from their respective clubs because of poor results and there are many betting websites, somewhat cruelly, lining up odds for the next casualty.

 So is this right? Is it the managers fault when (their) teams don’t perform? I think that the leader does clearly have to take some responsibility and it’s perfectly reasonable to assess them against a set of leadership qualities and skills, but they can’t play the game once the starting whistle blows.

 My view is that Football also provides a stunning example of a business where individual under performance is tolerated and where the consequences for that performance are insubstantial.

 I’ve lost count of the number of times, even in a single 90 minute game, where I see players, many of whom are paid £100,000+, a week, unable to complete even the most simple of tasks such as passing a ball to someone wearing the same colour shirt over a distance of less than 10 yards. Players taking corners and free kicks where they hit the first defender, players who are supposed to be attackers, shirking all responsibility for shooting or taking on a defender and instead going backwards or sideways. We don’t generally see their names emblazoned in the press the next day when the team fails.

From a football perspective my view is that perhaps it’s about time we did?

But what about in the real world, in your business or in your team.

  • Do teams and individuals have specific, measureable and relevant goals to achieve?
  • What checks and measures are there in place to monitor individual and team performance?
  • Are there any consequences for under performance or outstanding performance.
  • When a team or department does badly is the focus on blame or on development?

If these questions raise further questions perhaps we should talk to see if The Reality Business can help you find some answers.