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.