Managing Remotely

Managing Remotely

This blog is taken from a passage in my first book (The Psychological Manager; improve your performance conversations) as I came across it recently. I have made a few amendments, but to be honest, it’s all still valid. This was written when it was optional though. We just need to turn it up to 11. . .

In many respects, managing a virtual/remote team is similar to managing one that is all in the same place. All the theories, principles and practices still apply. It’s just harder to spot them and potentially harder to deal with them.

Firstly, it is worth pointing out that there are many advantages to organisations in allowing flexibility of working practices, or indeed in having members of your team located elsewhere. Flexible working promotes goodwill with staff, and may be more productive for some people who don’t need the structure of a nine to five office location[1]. This blended working style, or “Martini working[2]”, doesn’t suit everyone, but for many it can lead to higher output and greater job satisfaction. In fact, increasing pressures on organisational space and environmental sustainability concerns are already leading to increased hot-desking and flexible working as the norm, built into the strategic plans of Estates Departments countrywide. Add to this the advantages of having members of your team located near, say, a particular client base or embedded in various parts of the organisation, and the idea of having your team cosily located in one room sounds quite dated[3]. This is only going one way, too, if current circumstances are anything to go by!

This has very real implications for the way in which you manage. The jobs where we can assume someone isn’t at work if they are not at their desk are getting fewer and fewer; they may turn up at 10am but have been working on their [insert mobile device of choice] in a coffee shop (remember the days when you could do that?) for the last two hours. Command and control “presenteeism” surely now cannot be the best way to manage in this permanently connected world – if, indeed, it ever was. Our mobile device is now our office, and they are about to become the primary way we access the internet. As such, for many jobs, where someone works is fast becoming irrelevant – all that matters is the output.

This raises important questions. What is now expected of the manager of a virtual or flexible team? How does this fit culturally with the rest of the organisation? What performance management methods make the most sense in this more fragmented workplace? And, of course, how do we maintain the sense of team when our co-workers work mainly from home or are located in Brazil[4]?

Firstly, whilst there should always be a clear theme and authenticity to your management style, it is no longer possible to treat all the members of your team the same in terms of working styles and practices. To some extent, this has been one of the themes of this book; increasing the size of your managerial toolkit to be able to deal flexibly with varying degrees of skill and will in your teams, so maybe it is not such a huge leap. With mobile connections the norm, we now also have to consider the where and the when of working, not just the what and the how, and this may need to be tailored to each individual in your team. Many organisations have introduced guidelines that place the onus on the manager to demonstrate why a member of their team cannot work flexibly or remotely, as opposed to the team member having to make the business case for it. Indeed, at the time of writing it is a legal obligation to consider flexible working requests if it is at all possible. This calls for flexibility on the behalf of the manager and acknowledgement of resulting protocol from the individual concerned to ensure the arrangement is satisfactory to both parties and the wider team. Work-life flexibility is the new work-life balance!

Secondly, managing performance effectively becomes even more important. And not just performance – having clear rules of engagement and ground-rules for behaviour are vital. Discussions and agreement should take place to clarify how the team will operate – both those who are mainly office based and those who work more remotely or virtually. Parameters may include communication methods and frequency, “checking-in” expectations, how to share progress and more personal updates, how decisions are made and any differences resolved. Review them regularly – what have you and the team learned about how to work in this way?

We have argued throughout this book that managing performance is primarily concerned with conversations. Work happens through relationships and the technology can help with that but it is all too easy to focus on the gadget and not the message. It is the conversation that is important, and with virtual teams a bigger effort has to be made to have those conversations to ensure shared clarity of purpose (individual and team) and targets/goals/objectives. This may include tangible deliverables and intangible outcomes or behaviours. It is also important to remember that we miss out on many of the subtleties and nuances of language and non-verbal communication when we are using e-mail, tele-conferencing and, nowadays, Teams, Zoom, Webex and the like. As a result, misunderstandings are more likely to happen, and interpersonal differences and conflicts become harder to resolve and may drag on longer than is necessary or healthy[5].

Apart from these particular issues, managing the performance and development of an individual who works flexibly, or remotely, are the same as normal; building skill, dealing with will (motivation), goal-setting, giving feedback, coaching and addressing an individual’s motivational drivers are the key skills required; you just have to be more rigorous and structured in your approach as you don’t always have the luxury of the spontaneous conversation. And remember that to some people, public recognition from their team members is an important motivator, so make the effort to celebrate individual success with the whole team.

Thirdly, and perhaps the biggest challenge, is to build and maintain the sense of team. It was mentioned earlier that a large part of our learning comes from social interaction and that such interaction fulfils a deep-rooted need in us. One of the dangers of flexible or remote working is that it can lead to team members feeling isolated and disconnected from the rest of the team and from its core purpose[6]. And this can be real, not merely imagined or perceived. One study found that distributed work groups led to fragmented communication, failure to return telephone calls or respond to enquiries from other team members, individuals being left off e-mail distribution lists and, at  worst, remote workers being viewed as part of the out-group[7]  (see Tajfel’s Social Identity theory). As mentioned before, the actual distance didn’t seem to make any difference; it was the lack of the “water-cooler” type conversations and other spontaneous social exchanges that seemed to make people feel out of the loop.

The communication technology we use to enable this new way of working has its own limitations. Some researchers suggest that the lack of social and non-verbal cues in text-based communication methods increases the sense of anonymity and result in a state of “deindividuation”. When this state happens, our characters and the characters of others are essentially depersonalised, and generally accepted norms of politeness and social etiquette fly out of the window[8]. Of course, as such technology becomes the norm, we may well learn to adapt accordingly, but it is fair to say that such electronic relationships are more tenuous and fragile without our mirror neurons reinforcing the empathic understanding and flow of emotions of our team-mates. There may also be an additional effect; Walther (1996) in his “hyperpersonal perspective” theory suggested that the limited cues that we do get when using new media are exaggerated as they are all we have to go on. Our impressions of others therefore become biased as we focus on the only things that are available to us. We are all getting better at this in the current circumstances, but we need to be flexible – and kinder!

So, it is all too easy for remote workers to feel (and in many cases, be) misconstrued or even forgotten as part of the team. Of course, this effect is amplified if there are time, language and cultural differences between the team members. For more senior managers who may be trying to integrate several distributed teams into one coherent, strategic whole, the challenge can also be to mitigate the effects of each team having its own culture and norms, definitions of quality and acceptable behaviour and the like.

All is not lost, however. Whilst it is undoubtedly harder, there are many things that you as manager can do to promote the sense of team identity when you have flexible or remote team members within it. Remember that, in an organisation with a high degree of technical orientation (often the type of organisation that embraces distance working) people skills may be overlooked just when they are most needed[9]. Firstly, make everything explicit. Do not assume that everyone knows what is going on or is aware of how projects fit in with core purpose or the direction of travel. Spell it out and ensure that all your team members are aware of what each other is working on. As far as possible, create projects or working groups that mean individuals have to work together and find ways around the distance or different hours. Anything you can do to increase such connectivity will increase cohesion, team identity and increase the trust levels. It may help to explicitly reward collaborative efforts.

Remember – it takes longer for remote teams to make decisions and to create a sense of team spirit. We cannot assume everyone has the same grasp of technology or even a safe space t work or a good internet connection, so be patient and forgiving. Talk about things that are not just about work as this can help build trust.

And talking of trust levels, this of course includes you. In the section on motivation (in the book, I’m afraid – it’s very good!), we explored Douglas McGregor’s Theory X and Theory Y. I will assume by now that it will be pretty much understood that a manager who subscribes to Theory X is going to have a hard time building trust in a multi-located team or one where individuals work at least partly remotely. Managing by trust, not control brings the commitment of employees into sharp focus and allows them autonomy – often a key motivational driver. Your role becomes one of helping to set goals and related deliverables – their role is to deliver to those goals in their way rather than by a set process[10].  Other researchers suggest that creating team interdependence on projects is especially vital in the first year of a team’s existence; after that point, enough of a team identity has been created through the sharing of ideas, communication and subsequent improvement in relationships (and therefore trust) for it to become a group norm[11].

Secondly, engineer regular formal and informal events. Schedule regular meetings, in person if possible, but via Zoom, Teams etc if not. Do it more often. Make it normal. Create social events to reinforce interpersonal relations and team bonding and specifically help new team members become part of the in-group. Use social media where appropriate. And if you can, spend some of your budget on regular team-building sessions where everyone does eventually meet up face to face and spend quality time together, working on problem solving techniques, communication exercises or individual/team insight activities such as sessions built around team dynamics. Now would be a really good time to invest in a remote team-build session; don’t leave it until “things are back to normal.”

Whatever that is.

[1] Or spending two hours every day with their nose stuffed into another commuter’s armpit.

[2] Working “any place, anytime, anywhere,” not with a stiff drink.

[3] There is a further pressure here in the rise of Generation C, the cohort now leaving school and University (also called Millennials). “C” stands for connected, content-driven, communicating, computerised, and other words beginning with C. This way of flexible, permanently connected working is all they know and what they will expect when they come and work for you.

[4] Or even Basildon, or a few streets away. The actual distance seems to matter less than the fact that there is a distance.

[5] Especially important when you are the boss. As we have said before, emotions are contagious and the strongest emotion is the one that gets noticed in a group. When it is the boss that is having the emotion, people pay extra attention to see what sort of a day they are going to have because the ripple effect is heightened. We all prefer it when the boss is smiling, unless the boss is Jack Nicholson. When using technology to communicate, managers have to be even more careful to get the tone just right.

[6] We do not get the “hit” of the “you are my friend” chemical oxytocin (Rock, 2009).

[7] Armstrong & Cole, (2002).

[8] Sproull & Kiesler, (1986). Also, compare this concept with Zimbardo’s definition of deindividuation.

[9] Kirkman et al, (2002)

[10] (Bell & Kozlowski, 2002)

[11] Hertel et al (2004).

Survival is the ability to swim in strange waters. Frank Herbert, Dune

I will be honest with you here. If I hear that hoary old chestnut “change is the only constant” one more time, I will saw my own leg off with a rusty spanner. It is so painfully obvious and overused that it has failed to have any meaning. It’s also untrue.[1] But, of course, like many trite and annoying sayings and those pithy phrases that get posted on your LinkedIn timeline every day, it’s sort of true. The world is constantly changing. Society is. The world of work is. And we are.

Who we are changes. Who we were changes (or at least our perception of whom we were). Who we want to be changes. What we want to achieve changes. The circumstances of our lives both at home and at work changes. Constantly.

Curses. Perhaps they have a point after all.

We had better get used to it then. But it’s hard. And most of us don’t like it. Some do, and are actively searching for it, but most of us don’t – or at the very least, it makes us uncomfortable. Dealing with uncertainty and ambiguity is a life skill that most of us would rather not have to develop. It would appear, if the Leadership literature is anything to go by, that it will become increasingly important in this new technological age where Moore’s Law (computing power doubles around every two years or so) is still law after 40 years of it being posited. It changes everything. I use no more than about 20% of my phone’s capabilities (and that is pushing it) so I can’t imagine double the capability of the two-years-hence version.

I do have two favourite quotes about change though. The first is from AD10 from a not particularly insightful or forward thinking Sextus Julius Frontinus; “Man has run out of things to invent”.[2] It is easy to make fun of our Roman though. In a way, many of us do this – as I said, I can’t imagine my phone having double its capacity. I am horrified that some say the email is dead and we will all soon communicate by social media alone. I’ve only just got used to it. It is so seductive to think “that’s as good as it will get” about anything because we are limited by our imagination.

Here’s another selection of change quotes. Let’s get them out of the way. Consider them a gift.

  • Change imposed is change opposed. Anonymous.
  • The universe is change; life is what thinking makes of it. Marcus Aurelius
  • It is said that I am against change. I am not against change. I am in favour of change in the right circumstances. And those circumstances are when it can no longer be resisted. Paul Johnson in The Spectator
  • They must often change who would be constant in happiness or wisdom. Confucius
  • You cannot step twice in the same river. Heraclitus
  • Change is not made without inconvenience, even from worse to better. Richard Hooker


Anyway. You get the picture. There are a lot of them. One I do really like though, and use a lot in my change workshops, is the classic Charles Darwin one; “it is not the strongest of the species that survives, nor the most intelligent, but the one most responsive to change”. A powerful lesson. If we think back 65 million years to when a big lump of rock hit what would eventually be a Tequila bar on Mexico’s Yucatan peninsular, it wasn’t the biggest or strongest things like the dinosaurs that survived but the little warm-blooded mouse-type things that were flexible and adaptable and eventually stood upright and became us and created the need for the Trouser Press.

The corporate world often fails to heed this message. Let’s take three recent examples. In 2013, two companies announced that they were in difficulties; HMV and Blockbusters. One of the reasons given in the press was that they did not see the writing on the wall with regard to the downloading phenomenon; to some extent, they still subscribed to the “people want to go into stores and browse” model. Which, of course, some do. But not enough anymore. It doesn’t matter how big you are as an organisation, or how long-established you are (HMV had been going since 1921); if the business model doesn’t flex and adapt to what the people want and/or technological changes, then it’s curtains. HMV is in the process of reinventing itself. Not so Blockbusters, unless I’ve missed it.

So, I thought I would write a book about it. So, I did. I rather like it. This is the opening page. If you like the way it sounds, and want to know more about how our brains work, how to be resilient through change (and take your team through it at the same time), then you can find it here:



[1] Pedants amongst you will have already thought about Pi, or, of course, Euler’s constant; approximately equal to 2.71828, and is the limit of (1 + 1/n)n as n approaches infinity, an expression that arises in the study of compound interest. I looked it up. It’s probably not what they meant though.

[2] He patently didn’t see the Corby Trouser Press coming.

Deja Vu. All over again.

I have written previously about the challenge of writing that difficult second book (Close to the Edit) and also this time last year of celebrating the end of my second year of independence (Lessons Learned Log). Well, this latest post cleverly (my words) combines the two. It is the end of Year Three. I’m still loving it. I can still afford to feed the badger. And I am writing another book.

This, of course, has nothing to do with the fact that August is quiet (it does and it is) but more to do with applying Point One of my Lessons Learned Log; “Come to terms with the fact that no-one loves you during August and December and write a book”. I am not good at not being busy.

However. There are few things more daunting than a blank page. Well, actually there is. Being at the dentist. A job interview. Being asked your name in Starbucks. But when you are trying to be creative, whether it is a course, a book, a blog or a song, that moment when you are faced with a pixel-less screen is filled with a tension that says “what if I have nothing to say?” The trick, I have found, is to write about having nothing to say and just see what happens. Don’t tell me you haven’t noticed.

But, it appears that I have quite a lot to say. My first book was about applying some psychological principles to your management of people. The second was about career coaching yourself. The narrative that is currently forcing its way into my consciousness like a dog with a cold nose is about dealing with change.  As a manager.  As an employee.  As a, you know, person. And with that, of course, comes a veritable gamut of related topics that I draw on in my workshops; emotional intelligence, resilience and cognitive bias, self-coaching, reframing, having difficult conversations, dealing with resistance in your team and dealing with resistance in yourself, understanding and applying your strengths to increase said resilience. . . Not to mention applying all this to the organisational context you find yourself in – or perhaps more accurately, choose to be in. I think I’d like to read a book like that. I have never seen it all in one place in an accessible format and with witty one-liners.

I’d better write it then. Wish me luck – and BBC, if you by any chance read this, please take Bargain Hunt off for a month or so. Thank you.

A Psychologist’s Take on Clarksongate

It’s been a while since I felt the urge to write a blog, and the re-emergence of this itch has coincided with a spare hour in Caffe Nero[i] (Waterloo Bridge, if you’re asking). So, in my first blog of the year, I thought I would write something about an uncontroversial topic that is unlikely to divide opinion.


Jeremy Clarkson.


Now, I have written before about amygdala hijacking (see Biting the Arm that Feeds You) and here is another classic example. Another example of a limbic system overload creating a result that no-one, including Jeremy, wanted; being sacked. Therefore, by definition, emotionally unintelligent.

The whole sorry debacle brought to my mind in this coffee shop a saying from an old manager of mine back in the days when I was gainfully employed. “Emotions have no place in the workplace” he used to say, nodding sagely. I assume he meant this generally. Not at me specifically. Anyway, I still remember it and he was utterly, hopelessly, naively wrong.

Because, to put it incredibly simply, emotions are pretty much all we are. They inform virtually every thought we have or action we take. An emotion prompts us to do something, whether it is to smile at a potential client or to escape a sabre-toothed cat arriving unannounced in your cave just outside Basildon. It’s what they are for. Without an emotion we couldn’t make a decision; logic and rationality assess the pros and cons of a situation but it’s an emotion that chooses between the alternatives. They help us determine what is urgent, what is important (although we often get our wires crossed with that one) and what needs careful handling and who (and how) to build relationships with.

So I think what he meant is that being emotional has no place in the workplace. Is this necessarily true?  – or even possible? It depends, I guess. If you are constantly bursting into tears because someone has looked at you in a funny way or going into a sulk because you haven’t got your own way then I guess there is likely to be an impact on your perceived credibility and you might want to try some alternative coping strategies. If we never show emotion, however, what does this say about our authenticity? There are whole leadership tomes and models devoted to being the authentic leader – showing your true self with its strengths, weaknesses and idiosyncrasies but with skill, subtlety and nuance. Emotionally intelligently.

Obviously, there is a limit. Expressing displeasure, annoyance or excitement is one thing in the workplace. Biting an opponent or punching a colleague quite another. No ifs, no buts. No matter what else is going on in Jeremy’s life, or indeed how talented he is, no-one is above the law. The BBC effectively had no choice – we have seen where not addressing problems with on-screen talent has got them recently. Whilst sad for all concerned, we should applaud the strong managerial stance they have taken despite it presumably hitting them financially and firmly where it hurts – right in the ratings.


It is sad because he is undoubtedly talented; watched by 350 million throughout the world. That is more than read these blogs, probably. Top Gear is also my own guilty pleasure; I know I shouldn’t like it but I am a middle-aged man who likes cars and has an irreverent sense of humour. I am the target audience. I do like it – even though it does bear more than a passing resemblance to Last of the Summer Wine (ask your parents). The lesson here is that emotions – or rather, the way we handle our own and others’ – has everything to do with the workplace. Emotionally intelligent recognition and expression of emotions, situationally appropriate and in the spirit of authenticity makes for career success – way more than our intellect, if we believe the emotional intelligence literature. The alternative, as we have seen this week, can be somewhat career-limiting.


And yes, I’ve got a course for that.

[i] Other coffee shops are available

How to stop being so, well, British.

An incendiary title, I know, especially in these (largely self-proclaimed) post-rise-of-UKIP times. I love being British, albeit with a healthy dose of Viking which mainly comes out when I get close to a fjord. The glacial valley, not the car. Anyway, there is much to celebrate in being British, wherever pond our particular amphibian ancestors flopped out of to avoid the pre-Cambrian shopping trolleys.

But it comes with baggage. A peculiarly British disease which can be endearing but can also hold us back. This problem seems particularly rife in my own ancestral home of the Midlands, but it is everywhere. And no, it is more than just being secretly glad when it’s cool enough at last to wear a nice jumper.

We focus on the negative.

Take this typical conversation. It helps if you put on a Birmingham lilt but that’s just me.

“Oh Hello! How are you?”

“Not too bad.”

“You’re looking well!”

“Mustn’t grumble.”

“Nice weather today!”

“Could be worse. Will probably rain later.”


This is interesting, linguistically. Take the first answer. We were asked how we were, not how we weren’t. But that is how we often choose to answer (let’s save the thorny issue of choice vs habit for another time). Now, I was brought up with this (“don’t look forward to that school trip, it will probably get rained off/cancelled/end in multiple fractures”) and it was no doubt done with the very best of protective intentions; it is best not to get your hopes up as you will only be disappointed.

The problem is this can then become, if we are not careful, the narrative of our lives. It becomes our Truth, reinforced by our old friend Confirmation Bias (see previous Blogs. Yes, probably all of them). And it’s hard to argue against it. But this focus on the negative just in case can hold us back; it can prevent us trying new things, capitalising on opportunities or going to the seaside. And this way of thinking can permeate business culture and practices too.

Think about Training Needs Analyses. Development Needs. They focus primarily on the deficit; what we are not good at in the hope of making us slightly less not good. There is another way. Appraisal systems could have a section saying “What strengths can you capitalise on in the coming year” as well as “what weaknesses do you need to address”.

Many of you who conduct interviews will often have noticed a particular reticence in candidates when asked what their strengths are or what they would bring to the organisation. Many of us are simply not used to thinking about it, or we feel it is disingenuous or showing off and, simply, just not British. We are so much more used to identifying what our weaknesses or training needs are, although it is best not to answer that particular question with a “Blimey, how long have you got?”

So. This is a call for balance. I am increasingly doing work in the field of identifying strengths for individuals and teams and helping them stretch them, and the more time I spend doing this the more convinced I am of the need to spend at least as much time understanding and stretching our strengths and the things we are good at (and therefore usually enjoy) as we do our weaknesses. So. Work out what they are and proclaim them from the rafters. In a gloriously understated, British way, of course.


Curses. It’s gone warm again.

Lessons learned Log

I have just celebrated (with a curry, if you’re asking) the end of my second year of running my own business. After congratulating myself on successfully avoiding the inevitable LinkedIn plea for plaudits, I took to reflecting on the highs (many) and the lows (a few, but then again, too few to mention[i]) of my two years of independence.

So, for what it’s worth, here is a selection from my “Lessons learned” log. Take from it what you will; steal, adapt, ignore or hoot with derision. These are in no particular order and many may be completely wrong.

  1. Come to terms with the fact that no-one loves you during August and December. And try to enjoy the time off. Decorate. Write books. Rearrange your stationery. And don’t panic.
  2. Congratulate yourself on the fact that by far the best form of marketing/business development is to do a damn good job the first time. And the time after that. Etc. Ad lib to fade. . .
  3. Standing up in front of an audience for an average of three days a week is an excellent weight loss mechanism.
  4. A celebratory gin afterwards isn’t.
  5. Balancing current delivery with future work generation is a delicious tension that should never go away. If it does, you are doomed.
  6. Love all your clients more than all the others.
  7. Remember that the clients who read blogs are apparently the most intelligent and astute.
  8. Learn to love admin days. And get used to the fact that no-one is paying you for them.
  9. Get feedback, but remember – perception is not always reality![ii]
  10. If you work from home for more than a few days at a time, under no circumstances give in to the temptation of watching Bargain Hunt at lunchtime[iii]. It’s a slippery slope.
  11. Keep your saw sharpened (see previous blogs).
  12. Whether you have too much work, or not enough, take each week at a time and don’t panic.
  13. Don’t panic. It’s all going to be fine.
  14. No, really.

[i] Actually, that’s not strictly true. But I’m not going to.

[ii] Like all facilitators, I have had the feedback that an event was “too long”, “too short” and “about right”. From three people sitting next to each other. I mean, really. What am I supposed to do with that?

[iii] And under no circumstances start making bets with yourself as to whether the Blue team or the Red team will win. Therein lies madness.

Know who you are at every age

The vast majority of theories of learning and development – and therapy, come to that – all say pretty much the same thing; that what we are unaware of controls us, and that of which we aware, we can control – and more importantly, can make sure those attributes work for us. If we know what our skills and strengths are, we can make sure we use them to our advantage. And that is very important when job hunting because if we are sure about what our Unique Selling Points are, we can make sure potential employers know what they are too.

We are all used to seeing brand names for products and services all around us every day of our lives. We gradually attach meaning to those brands. We will associate some brands with quality, some with value, some with products and services we trust; yet others with distaste. Think of 5 brands that you have been aware of in the past few days. What thoughts and feelings do those brands conjure up?  What words would you use to describe them? How do your thoughts and feelings about these brands influence what you buy?

Peculiar as it may seem, brands also apply to people. Like with products and services, they act as a kind of shortcut so we don’t have to build up a picture of them from scratch every time we think about them, see them or have to interact with them in some way.

You have a brand. It is what people say about you when you are not in the room. It helps us to separate ourselves from the competition when we are job hunting, to increase our visibility when we are looking for that promotion and it also helps us to be clear about who we are and to ensure we are acting in ways that are true to who we are. It has built up over a long time but it need not be hidden to us or beyond our control. It is a very useful exercise to think about how others might see you and how you wish to be seen. We can also shape it to make sure we are coming across in the way we intend and have a clear message about who we are.

We can think of our personal brand as comprising 3 core elements;

–          Our values

–          Our skills and strengths

–          Our Unique Selling Points

Determining our values can help us to identify what we want from our work. Values are different from interests and also from our skills and strengths. Values are our core beliefs about what is right and wrong and what is important to us; they reflect the footprint we want to leave and they say a lot about who we are as individuals. The culture we were brought up in, the way we were parented, our religion and our experiences as children and as adults all have an impact on our values. They can be treated as a route map; an inner voice or guide – or sometimes our conscience – and ultimately lead us to determining our behaviours and attitudes.


When we act against these values, we get a ‘pricking’ of our conscience. Psychologists call this cognitive dissonance. It’s an unpleasant feeling and it’s unpleasant for a reason: in order to prompt us to change either the belief/attitude or the behaviour so that the tension goes away. It’s always worth listening to this tension – this inner voice – because when we behave in accordance with our values, we become more fulfilled by what we’re doing.


Our strengths are different from our values. Our strengths are those qualities that energise us, when we are acting at our best and when we appear full of energy. When we are using our strengths at work,  when we are using them to help our job hunting or merely helping us be clear about how to sell ourselves when applying for jobs, we can be sure that we are coming across or performing at our best. When things are going well, playing to your strengths help you to do even better. When things are rather more difficult or challenging, we can turn to those strengths to increase our confidence and resilience. For example, I know one of my key strengths is Common Sense. When times get tough, I can consciously turn to this strength to get the best from the situation by logically evaluating it.

A useful framework of 24 work-based strengths has been developed by The Strengths Partnership ( and these are explored in my latest book[1]. These were chosen through research to depict the 24 strengths that have the biggest impact on work performance; examples are Relationship Building, Results Focus and Persuasiveness[2].

There is a saying that “if you have more than three priorities, you have no priorities” – and it is difficult to concentrate fully on more than three of these strengths when faced with a real-life situation. Identifying the three “standout” strengths from the full list of 24 is useful to ensure that they are always at the back of our mind; choose the three that are most descriptive of you. For each of these strengths, you can then ask yourself the following questions: when have I demonstrated this strength? How did it help me meet a difficult challenge? How can I stretch this strength further?

When we have identified our top three strengths, we have the instant answer on the tip of our tongue to the question “What do we get if we employ you?” and you have a useful framework for your opening paragraph on your CV!

Adding your values to your strengths and key transferable skills (learnt from previous jobs, our studies, voluntary work or even travel) help you create your Unique Selling Point – what it is about you that makes you special and organisations can see at a glance whether you will match what they are looking for. Understanding your values, strengths and what you bring to the table means you are better able to sell them – and help you to get that job!

PS. there is a prize (of satisfaction, to be honest) for identifying the title reference . . .

[1] Shameless plug. Ed.

[2] And it’s out in early May. Get that Job in 7 Simple Steps published by HarperCollins.

Just because you feel it. . .

. . . doesn’t mean it’s there. Or, it might be but there might be other things too. Or maybe not.

To be fair, I am writing this in a dentist’s surgery waiting room in-between treatments, with a numb mouth and a pocketful of painkillers, so I am aware this may need a little explanation.

I wanted to write in this blog post about the greatest and most prevalent series of lies we tell ourselves in our efforts to make sense of the world. It is called confirmation bias and we all do it. All the time. Even you. (There is even a bias bias in which we believe that we are less susceptible to confirmation bias than anyone else).

It is incredible hard to change a world-view or a deeply held set of beliefs. Attempting to do so touches all our threat, and therefore our fight/flight, buttons. So we don’t do it very often. It is far, far easier to notice and pay attention to all the evidence we can find (or make up) that goes along with these beliefs, and to studiously ignore anything that doesn’t. We are biased in what we see in ways that seek to confirm what we already believe.

So, we all do it. We do it with our political beliefs by spinning evidence and we do it with our religion. It’s funny how the religion we were brought up in just happens to be the right one, as the rather controversial Mr Dawkins puts it. But of course it is. We ignore any evidence to the contrary so why wouldn’t it be? It is possible that the Freudian defence mechanism of projection, where we notice in others what we least like (and don’t want to own) in ourselves, is a manifestation of the same process.

Anyway, the reason why this all came into my mind today, lying on a dentist’s chair staring into a bright light through rather fetching wrap-around glasses, is that there has been a classic example of this in the media this week. A local (to me) Counsellor from a fringe political party (let’s call them Utwit) has stated his belief allegedly[1], if not unequivocally, in the link between gay marriage and the recent floods. It is hard not to laugh, even with a numb mouth. But he believes it. To him, it is evidence.

The cure? The trick is to notice it, as this is a largely unconscious process. But ultimately, we have to become academics – or at least, do what they do. The basic experimental design involves trying to prove the null hypothesis – in other words, that our idea or theory doesn’t work. If we can’t, it is proved to a degree of probability. It stops the confirmation bias because you are actively trying to do the opposite.

You hold a belief. And then you notice the things that appear to confirm it so it gets reinforced and ever more firmly entrenched. Just because you feel it doesn’t mean it’s there. Or is the Truth. It is just possible that the flooding was caused by the jet stream, for example. Just a thought.

Although I am biased. . .


[1] Definitely allegedly. Legal Ed.


On the face of it, it is only slightly less disturbing than it is bewildering. My friend in Australia (more than 100 miles away) sent me a clipping out of the blue from our hometown’s local newspaper (about a hundred miles away). How he got it first I don’t know, but I suspect our respective mothers.

Anyway. This picture is of me and my family doing an advertising campaign for said rag in 1971. Imagine my surprise and sense of foreboding. I vaguely remember the matching shirts my brother and me were forced to wear; they would have made Austin Powers wince. They haven’t aged well, let’s put it that way but I’m sure they were groovy, baby, at the time. I wouldn’t know. I was 9.

Disturbing enough, you might think; seeing long-forgotten images of yourself aged 9 wearing dodgy clothes coming back to haunt you. Oh no. It gets worse. Next to the photo and some text looking suspiciously like it was written by my mother was a “Where are they now” article somewhat reminiscent of a Spinal Tap movie. After the hype of that shirt and the hyperbole of the text, I could only ever disappoint in real life. Contrary to the article’s assertions, I never ran the BBC. I am not a best-selling author on the scale of JK Rowling. I do not live at Downtown Abbey.


This whole sorry saga raises several questions:

  1. How did this get to Australia and back again before getting to Berkshire?
  2. Does having a “Where are they now” article mean my life is now over?
  3. Is being forced to wear THAT shirt – an identical one to my 7 year old brother, mind – a form of child cruelty?
  4. Will it help me sell any books?

Close to the Edit

I have just finished writing that difficult second book. Not quite as difficult as making that difficult second album (I split with myself due to musical differences shortly afterwards) and actually a mostly enjoyable process. It’s about using a self-directed career coaching approach to getting that dream job and is part of a Business Skills series.

What was harder this time though is that I was writing for a Publisher instead of for myself. Which meant, of course, that they had a pretty good idea of what they wanted. Which meant, of course, that it didn’t always correspond with what I wanted to say – or more accurately, perhaps, with how I tend to say it.

I have to say that my Editor was great (thank you, Ben) and the book is far, far better than before he got hold of it. It now has full stops, sections and clearer explanations instead of a Dickensian ramble which does eventually get to the point if you decide to live long enough to get to the end of the sentence. That sentence would never have got through. . .

It is really, really hard, however, when you have burned the midnight oil over a hot computer (you see, that’s why I need an Editor) to hear that it would be better if you changed it a bit. Or a lot. Don’t get me wrong; I know the rules of receiving feedback constructively. I teach it. I believe it. As long as it is someone else on the receiving end.

My eventual readers will thank the fact that I did (mostly) listen to the feedback. And they should definitely thank Ben.