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April 2011

Thinking about appraisal 1

The primary goal of organisations is find and keep customers so that in this way they make a profit. But they cannot do this without the active support of their staff. The key issue is to help teams and individuals improve their performance. How, then?

Appraisal is just such a system that is designed to help organisations and the people in them improve performance. In fact, it could be argued that if performance were not improving after introducing an appraisal scheme, then what would be the point?

Unfortunately, Deming, the great quality guru, observed that it took the average American employee about six months to recover from a typical performance appraisal. As such appraisals tend to be bi-annual this means that they never fully recover! And it’s not only Americans who experience this horror: the UK, especially the public sector, have many stories of where what was intended as a tonic to the troops proves to be an albatross around everybody’s neck. Why is this; and what, then, is appraisal?

Before answering these questions I’m going to say at the outset that it is my belief that it is possible for any organisation to have an effective – even a motivational – appraisal system. Many of the problems that appraisal generates can easily be avoided – it’s all in the setting up and the thinking through. However, let’s be clear: no amount of knowledge or insight, even coupled with relevant skills, is going to enable a manager or boss to run a good appraisal programme when they personally are – what might be called – ‘psychologically or emotionally deficient’.

By this I mean that the manager is using their position to play games. This might be summed up as having - in Transactional Analysis terms – one of three negative life positions: first, ‘I’m OK, you’re not OK’, which will lead them to consistently ‘put down’ the subordinate. Or, ‘I’m not OK, you’re OK’, in which they will lack confidence for positive follow-through; or worst of all, ‘I’m not OK, you’re not OK’, which leads to despair and cynicism and the self-fulfilling prophecy of hopelessness – what’s the point, nothing works, does it? If as a boss or manager, these sound familiar attitudes in those below (or even above) you, then I advise you try to develop a strategy for dealing with it before attempting appraisal. Appraisal will only expose the glaring deficiencies, not remedy them.

Three types of people

 Someone once said that there were two types of people: people who divide the world into two types of people, and people who don't! A brilliant paradox, but alas not wholly true, because there are three types of people, not two; it is as well to know these types because one of the most important decisions we will ever make is who we allow to enter our inner circle.

If we have too many 'drainers' – that is, emotional energy drainers in our circle, game players, negative people – we will quickly find that no matter how talented and knowledgeable we are, our prospects start becoming limited. Equally, the more 'boosters' we enjoy around us, the more energy we have, the more successful we are going to be even if our innate talent is not so strong.

The first way to spot who is a booster and who a drainer is by being in touch with one's feelings – you feel it in their presence: you feel 'bad' or you feel 'good', but the trouble with this simple prescription is that many people are not in touch with their feelings, so cannot differentiate until it is too late.

Thus it is that another way of categorising people might be useful, especially if the categorisation depended more on observation – thinking, rather than feeling. And there is such a way, and it involves considering what people talk about.

At the bottom end, the people to avoid or curtail, are mediocre people. What is their characteristic? Mediocre people talk about … other people! Bizarrely, this is not a good thing, because firstly, the talking about other people tends to be negative: criticism or worse, gossip, sarcasm, judgement and other detrimental words. Further, talking about other people tends to be about how they 'relate' to us – we become fixated by comparisons with them – we feel better in ourselves searching out their faults. Ultimately, we develop a co-dependence on them: we exist in the light of how they are, and not in our own essential self.

In the middle are average people. Average people talk about 'things': things are important to them. What are things? Possessions, typically: the house, the car, the money in the bank, the gadgets. Big things – my big status car? Bigger is better. Holidays and experiences – ever met the endless bore who wants to – whether you will or no – go on about the 36 countries they have visited, the five peaks they have climbed, the oceans they have yachted, and so on. There is of course nothing intrinsically wrong with going to 36 countries, climbing 5 peaks, and yachting across the oceans, only for these average people – who as a result of 'things' consider themselves superior people – they have transmogrified experience into a 'thing', a badge, a medal to display – and that is so average. It is what young children want for their efforts.

Finally, we have great people. What do great people talk about? Great people talk about ideas. Yes, they love meaning, they love freedom and creativity. They are open to change because talking about ideas can really engage them with other people; talking about ideas can throw new light on 'things', be they never so 'thing-y'. Talking about ideas means we can soar to be strategic, yet can stoop to be operational. Ideas energise – we can become excited by ideas. Ideas are to die for. Of course becoming fixated on one idea and closed to other possibilities starts to limit the greatness, but nevertheless habitually talking about ideas is a sure sign of a great person.

So, this is not about how we feel – it's about what does that person talk about most of the time? Other people? Possessions and things? Or are they talking ideas? Let's get more ideas people into our lives.

Checking out optimism

Optimism is a favourite topic for coaches, and quite rightly so. There is now so much important literature about it and its consequences.

I am on record as saying that optimism is a pre-requisite for success in leadership and management, and probably every major area of our life, including relationships. For, after all, what kind of relationship would it be in which either or both people in it expected 'things' to turn out badly? (The answer to that question, incidentally, for those interested is: we'd be in a 'Soap', a real life and popular soap). One of the core reasons for promoting optimism as a way of life and also as a fixed mindset is the simple fact of the self-fulfilling prophesy: what we believe tends to affect how things turn out. GK Chesterton put it well when he said, “At least in the mind of man, if not in the nature of things, there seems to be some connection between concentration and reality”. Or, what we think about … materializes.

Given all that, however, I think it important to strike a blow for true optimism rather than a rather pernicious form of pseudo-optimism, which regularly surfaces on chat forums, especially from coaches and others actively involved in the the personal development movement.

I encountered it only the other day. A discussion was under-way about selling and why 'sales' was a dirty word in Britain, and somebody chipped in with a heart-felt critique of British society and the expectation that selling was a rip-off because of the banks, the politicians and others that had contaminated our perception of fair play. Some immediately assumed this was 'negative' and discounted the input.

And this is the point: optimism is about positive expectations – things turn out well for those imagining things turning out well – but it is not about discounting reality, turning a blind eye to negative things, people and events – as if seeing just how bad something or someone is means one is not being optimistic. In order to be fully optimistic we need to embrace just how bad some things, events and people get.

Thus, we really ought to chip in and attack the banks, especially their senior management for appalling incompetence, insensitivity and greed. Optimism requires we do so; and then, may be, we can hope to see a better world beyond whereby in a democracy perhaps this time public opinion will lead to lasting change and a better banking system. Further, and optimistically, we can all learn more caution with our banks – be less trusting of their advice and perhaps begin to see that our money might be better off elsewhere. Optimistically, diversity of investment becomes a consequence of their incompetence. The crisis, then, becomes a spur to improve our situation.

Similarly with politicians: pretending we are in a world of trust and benefit, that any one person or party could be trusted, would not be being optimistic, it would be being foolish; it would be turning our radars off as the missiles were coming in. It would be … pollyannish. And there's the word: pollyanna - “someone whose optimism may verge on the insufferable” (Chambers Dictionary). Yes, insufferable and unreal. Things are going to turn out much better – say I optimistically - if we critique the leadership of the Labour Party, if we insist on leaving Europe, if we tell British Prime Ministers to stop going to war at the hint of a pseudo-moral position that seems to apply nowhere else in the world.

Ah – I feel so much better getting that off my chest – I feel more optimistic: I am sure things are going to turn out well for all of us.

The new financial year

 The new year is a long time ago; what was fresh now seems stale. But the good news is that there are always three new years in merry old England. There's the new New Year beginning on the First of January; there's the academic new year starting in September when schools return from their summer vacations; and then again, plum in the middle, there's the financial new year, which in the UK starts on the 6th April when the new tax year begins. Many companies organise their accounts around it – and we are one – so we are now in the first quarter. How are things, then?

Well, April 2010 to March 2011 was a cracking and ground breaking year for Motivational Maps Ltd in all sorts of ways. Two important events preceded the actual April kick-off. One, on what appeared at the time as a negative note, but which proved a massive boon, we changed our web developers. And my! that made a massive difference when we came to arguably the biggest single event of the year: the development of our new product, The Motivational Youth Map. More anon.

Second, shortly before the April start, Linda and I had had a series of remarkable consultancy sessions with the great Dr Dave Richards. We'd had some excellent consultancy advice a couple of years earlier from another consultant, which was invaluable, but we had begun to lose the plot just through our own 'drift'. What Dr Dave did was give us a seven point focus that even now is at the heart of what we do.

We came into the first quarter, then, running: our number one priority to recruit new level 3 licensees of our product anywhere in the world. By May we had over from South Africa two top coaches who were with us for nearly eight days, were trained by us, and granted an exclusive South African license, which has now extended to Botswana.

In June we had over a world class executive coach from Italy for a license; and then we had an extraordinary run of licensees right up to Christmas, culminating in the exact opposite of the South African adventure: namely, appointing a superb business guru to handle Maps in the Dorset area – my own patch, as it were. Wonderful. We had really got some quality people.

And as exciting again was the creation of the Pupil – or as it came to be called – the Youth Map for pupils in schools. A first rate consultant and company bought an extended exclusive license in the product, as well as some equity too; they trialled the product in a Bournemouth Secondary school, achieving phenomenal results, and from this the product was launched nationally at Warwick University on the 4th February – it is already making serious inroads in national and international markets, so compelling is its proposition and outcomes.

It was in 2010 also that the long awaited Higher Education Map pilot at Coventry University Business School finally got signed off and agreed, and this is under-way as I write. When the pilot is finished we hope to float it as we have the Youth Map.

The last quarter did not quite sustain the level of commitment and interest that the preceding three quarters did, but as we pack away the receipts and invoices for our accountant to process we are quietly confident that it has been a great year.

But what next? What challenges does the new year hold? What must we do?

The priority for Motivational Maps remains the same: to attract and recruit first rate licensees in the UK and round the world. In the UK we particularly want new licensees in counties where we are either not represented or under-represented. So, London, Cardiff, Edinburgh, Lancashire, Northumberland, Birmingham top of our list. From the world perspective four countries must be our special concern: the US, Canada, Australia and India. These are powerful and large markets – coaches and consultants who want a superior competitive advantage we believe should use our product. Thus we are actively searching for those coaches and consultants who want to build a business with Maps as core.

Beyond that we need to support existing licensees. This is done in many ways, but crucially the area of product development itself is vital here. We realise that Maps have a uniqueness which eventually others will seek to replicate. The only way to safeguard that uniqueness is to develop it further; it's about creating a level of complexity and layering that means that copycatting will be superficial at best, and more likely just plain inadequate.

The new year is off to a flying start. So much is happening which is so exciting. Part of the joy of running your own business is the freedom to meet people you like . So happy new – financial - year to all my blog readers. Let's hope we meet up this year. Keep in touch. And get motivated!

Relieving negative self talk


Everyone at some time or another experiences negative self talk. Why is this and what should be do about it?

The first character who speaks in the Bible is God: at Genesis 1 v 3 God says, “Let there be light”, and there was. This is a pattern of God's language: he frequently speaks in imperatives or what we might call commands. That's hardly surprising as He is God.

The first question in the Bible, however, is spoken by another character: the serpent – the Devil – who says, “Indeed, has God said, 'You shall not eat from any tree of the garden'?” And there we have it: the first question, the first, in effect, doubt, expressed by the Devil. Whether you want to believe in this literally is irrelevant to my purposes in this article; what is clear is that psychologically this is profoundly true.

Asking questions is all too often threatening to others, and all too often symptomatic of doubt in us. Whether that be doubt about our political institutions and their validity, or doubts about our partner or colleagues or bosses, once the questioning mode starts we all too frequently lose faith in someone or something, and our feelings about them become divided.

Nowhere is this more important than in our thoughts about ourself. Once we start serially questioning our own motives, our own talents and abilities, our own – and this is deepest of all – self worth, then we are in serious trouble: we cannot succeed at anything, for to use the New Testament psychological insight – the house divided against itself cannot stand. We call this deep questioning of ourself 'negative self talk', and for some people it a permanent condition of torture.

How, then, can be lessen or even remove this thorn in our flesh, because every one at some time or another experiences this problem? Here are ten great ideas to help you relieve negative self-talk.

One, move, or more accurately, break the body set. What this means is that once we start being negative about ourself we find that a certain rigidity or tension creeps into our body and its posture. Thus, at its simplest level, going for a brisk walk is a good idea. Take those strides, feel those arms swinging purposefully side to side.

Second, be in the here and now. In other words, stop regretting the past or worrying about the future. Easier said than done? Yes. The key technique for being in the now is meditation and focusing on your breath. This can be aligned to point number one if we consider disciplines like yoga, chi gung or tai chi: in these the breath is central, as is breaking the body set, all the while slowing down and enjoying the moment.

Third, exaggerate the problem – yes, you heard right: exaggerate the problem! So, you are telling yourself that you are an unattractive person, that nobody would like you? Dead right – you're Quasimodo, the Hunchback of Notre Dame, Frankenstein, or whoever – and as the picture, the cartoon almost, forms in your mind, its very exaggeration starts becoming comical. If we can laugh at ourself, then we can offset the sting of the negativity.

Fourth, undertake physical exertion. This is slightly different from point one, because here we are talking about more serious and heavy physical exertion: some serious gardening, for example, is quite different from going for a brisk walk. And so might be a serious house clean. It will be different for every one of us depending on our age and fitness and health; nevertheless, physical exertion always takes our mind away from the negative ramblings of our mind.

Fifth, create your own safe place, or haven, or as I like to call it, my den. Where can you go where you feel at peace, at one, and safe? This may be a room in your house or flat. It may be, as it often is for people, a spot in nature – a park, a beach, a forest. Beauty always heals.

Sixth, review the sounds that surround you. Do you have music that is beautiful, that is healing, that restores you? Not to put to fine a point upon it, there are some musical styles which are ugly, discordant, aggressive and manufactured to maximise unhappiness in your soul. Avoid these. Instead, listen to the opposite; that may include some popular and modern music; but do not forget the wonders of JS Bach. As Roberto Assagioli put it in his marvellous book, Psychosynthesis: “The music which can especially produce this kind of healing influence is that of JS Bach ...” and he cites Albert Schweitzer who calls a composition by Bach, “an expression of the Primal Power which manifests itself in the infinite rotating worlds”. Bach is “a song of love, unfolding itself in the light of intelligence, and impelled by will. That is why it enriches so much.”

Seventh, talk with someone. A good friend can correct our erroneous views of ourself, can restore the correct balance to our thoughts, can enable us to see the good when all we can grasp is the bad. This is especially important for men who have a tendency to bottle things in, regard 'sharing feelings' as unmanly, which is clearly a mistaken and negative thought in itself.

Eighth, consider other people. One of the problems with negative self talk is its tendency to promote self-obsession at the expense of true self love. Who can you help? Who needs your assistance or support? Once we think like this we begin to realise too that whatever we were thinking our shortcomings were, there may be somebody else who has it far worse than we do. This, bizarrely, though not good in itself, relying as it does on comparison, yet can get us to re-evaluate our own position.

Ninth, take a nap, and indeed sleep more. Sleep is nature's healing balm, and we need more of it. In our pressurised Western life styles some people do not get enough sleep – which should be at least seven hours a day. If you know you are only getting five or six hours, ensure you steal naps during the course of the day. You'll feel a lot better and negative thinking will recede.

Finally, and possibly controversially, learn to pray. If meditation is listening in the silence to the voice of the universe, then prayer is asking and focusing with intention on the universe to help. There are no atheists in fox-holes, as the saying goes, and developing humility through prayer is paradoxically one of the single most powerful things you can do to feel better about yourself. It's counter-intuitive, but it's true, as many testify. Pray – for as it says in the First Epistle of John, 3 v 19-20: “We set our hearts at rest in his presence whenever our hearts condemn us. For God is greater than our hearts, and he knows everything.” Surely, that is a staggering thought that silences doubt even as we begin to contemplate its majesty?



Understanding more about mentoring

There is much written about coaching, which is undeniably an incredible and powerful way to develop people. Far less is written about mentoring; yet mentoring is one of the most powerful tools for personal development known to mankind.

Speaking generically, there are three major ways to improve oneself: first, trial and error – a necessary but largely expensive way of doing so. The expense comes in the wasted time, money and emotion that trial and error predicates; it may be described as the 'evolutionary' approach – one may be dead before achieving the right solution! Second is modelling; this is a methodology much in vogue in the West since the advent of Neuro Linguistic Programming whose whole rationale was based on observing and imitating excellence. Often coaching uses NLP techniques. Another word for this would be the old fashioned concept of imitation: you did not, for example, attempt to write original poems, but you imitated the classics which had been created before. This is powerful. But third, and finally, we come to mentoring, arguably the most powerful method of all, and certainly the one with the longest pedigree.

Mentoring goes back at least as far as the Odyssey of Homer, about 800 BC, and is named after the character, Mentor, an old man and friend of Odysseus, who is asked to look after and educate Odysseus' son, Telemachus as the father goes off to fight in the Trojan War. Clearly, the activity of mentoring pre-dates this particular example, but its point is clear: the mentor is a substitute father figure whose role is to develop the young man, the son. Lest it be thought sexist, the character Mentor dies before the end of the story, but Telemachus is unaware of this because the goddess, Pallas Athene, goddess of wisdom, has taken his place and simulated the dead man. Thus mentoring seems both a male and female process.

How is mentoring such a powerful process? I think it works because it does five things especially well. First, it intensifies experience and the implications of the current situation. Many people who need help come to see a coach, a counsellor, a consultant – a mentor – with a problem; they know it is a problem but often they have not fully grasped the implications. Like some small stone in the shoe, they think they have a minor irritant that they want removed; but the mentor gets them to see that the stone in the shoe is more like a razor blade and if decisive action is not taken soon then they are likely to be crippled.

Second, the mentor is somebody – hence the age of Mentor – who typifies experience. The initial reaction we all have – particularly as young people – to a problem is that it is unique. Nobody, for example, has ever fallen in love the way we have, or suffered as we have now that we have been rejected. Effective mentoring cuts through this and enables the client to see that whatever the problem they have, this problem has been encountered before, and therefore there is a solution.

Third, and this follows from the second point, the mentor emphasises that you are not alone. Gaining reassurance from the mentor's grasp of the problem, and expression of support, is crucial in building the confidence of the client to tackle the issue.

Fourth, the mentor paints a picture, helps you paint a picture, of the desired end state that resolves all the tension. The client confirms what they really want – they visualise and can see it – now as strongly as the problem they had not fully grasped in the first place. From this, fifth and finally, the mentor can help suggest ways forward – drawing on knowledge, experience, like situations, and all that appertains to the case. In short, the mentor becomes this invaluable ally who is truly allied to our needs; just like the substitute father/mother that Mentor originally was.

And perhaps that's hardest thing: creating just that level of relationship which is professional and yet presses beyond that – for what true father or mother is satisfied with merely a 'professional' relationship with their child? It is the dimension of commitment that makes all the difference; hence the power of real mentoring.

Who Needs Traffic Lights?

I walked this morning to my regular Tai Chi practice with Dr John. And as I always do I came to the T-Junction at the top end of Ashley Road. There is an intricate system of traffic lights – you know the sort, with green arrows so that while one lane is on red, another parallel one can flow round the corner. Naturally, I pressed the Pedestrian button and waited for the lights to change and allow me to cross.

As always, this waiting takes quite a while as all the combinations of red, red-amber, green, green arrows in all directions, have to run their course. I noticed too how dangerous traffic lights were. They engendered a 'my-right-of-way-move now' sort of attitude as a couple of times somebody was beeped as they weren't quite fast enough off the mark for the tastes of the car behind. I sensed as well that people turned off their attention from driving because the light said stop or go, so there was less looking and listening. And certainly as I stood on that corner I saw the acceleration towards me of cars swerving desperately to get round and 'beat' the light before it changed. In fact the traffic lights positively seemed to make the traffic more dangerous, which, of course, is precisely the opposite of their intended function.

Why is this the unintended consequence of traffic lights? It is I think another example of that death by a thousand cuts which is our modern society. At every stage somebody must control our activities, for we cannot be allowed to control them ourselves. No, we could not possibly approach a T-Junction without traffic lights and manoeuvre our way round or across using common sense and courtesy, paying attention to the other cars, for that would be dangerous!

In the same way on trains – we used to be able to open a window, or actually pull a window down as the train pulled into the station and undo the lock of the door as it was still moving – oh! too dangerous – so now we are secured inside till the electronics buzz and we are allowed out: allowed out, not deciding we want to get out and can do something about it.

And if we want more on the law of unintended consequences, look at hospitals: the lethal bugs and infections due to in-sanitation were not a problem when responsibility rested firmly with matron and she had the authority and conviction to do something about it. Now of course with all the health and safety regulations, including the obviously sensible compulsory hand-washing for visitors, we still don't crack the issue. The idea seems to be: the system has dealt with the issue, so it has been dealt with – despite all the evidence to the contrary.

Attempts to create safety and security by by-passing human responsibility and decisive intervention are doomed to failure, and the saddest aspect of it of all is the infantilism it creates. The so-called nanny state is alive and well and dis-empowering at the deepest level. We need to resist it.