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Is 'assertive' a dirty word in your organisation?

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Oh she’s ‘Assertive!’ – When have you heard that phrase? I’ve heard it many times in my career and I can tell you that it didn’t really mean that ‘she’ was assertive at all, it meant that ‘she’ was aggressive.

In the 1980’s women were sent on ‘Assertiveness’ courses and some of us were power-dressing! Just that word alone makes me shiver. Power for who? For us? Or to enable us to have power in a male dominated world. However, what we were being taught was to, yes, stand up for ourselves and state our needs, but not to listen or take on board anyone else’s point of view. We were taught to be loud, to change our tone of voice, to make ourselves look bigger (Oh those shoulder pads!), in other words to match the dominant males we were going to make listen to us.

It’s still happening – I’ve been doing some research recently on the different, specific skills, if any, female leaders need to be successful at work. One of our clients told me – “I have heard some managers comment that some female leaders are aggressive, when perhaps they mean ‘assertive’ and the males are perceived as a strong leader when they behave in the same way”.

I would like to start a campaign that takes away the ‘dirty word’ association from Assertive and people use it to mean what it was meant to:

 ‘Someone who is assertive states their needs and opinions clearly, so that people take notice’.

It’s International Women’s day today! ‘Balance for Better’ and we are working with clients who are trying to re-dress, (not power-dress!) the balance, to enable women to reach their potential in their chosen fields.

We’re still talking about ‘assertiveness’ but in its true sense. It’s a ‘balance’ in stating your needs and also listening to understand.

Can showing vulnerability make you more resilient?

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Let's start 2019 with a story (I love a good story!):

In my role, I lead a number of different programmes and they typically begin with an introduction where I headline the process and how the next few days of the module/s are going to work.

This can be addressing an audience size of anything from 14 to 120 participants and is an opportunity to really set the tone for how well the entire programme will be received. It is a widely held belief that it is this introduction that can make or break a module - no pressure!

The first time I was asked to do this (admittedly a few years ago), I was feeling seriously daunted by the whole process. I was introducing a three-day workshop to a large group of engineering graduates who had recently begun their careers with a major construction company.

The messages reverberating around my head were "You're going to let the team down!" "You're not good enough!" and my favourite "You're 40, what are you going to tell this room of 20 somethings?"

Needless to say, I clenched my fists and survived...

Later in the day I was with my assigned small group of six graduates and we were doing a feedback activity where I asked them to write down on a post it something that they thought someone else in the room needed to hear.

One of them gave me this:

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And I still have the original post it after all these years!

In typical Facilitator fashion, I'm going to ask you a series of questions:

  • When was the last time that you felt vulnerable at work?

  • How did it feel?

  • What were the messages that you told yourself?

  • How did you cope with those feelings and messages?

  • Did you talk to anyone about it?

  • If you did, who and why?

  • If you didn't, what stopped you?

The post it note that I had been given had 'unhooked' shame from vulnerability for me!

I had unconsciously exposed my vulnerability to what I perceived as potential ridicule and the author of that post it's empathy had allowed them to see that and support me. Between us, we had created an environment where we felt able to be vulnerable, not only in words, but in actions.

It's a widely held belief from a number of sources (Robertson and Cooper, Clarke and Nicholson, Steve Radcliffe - to name a few) that one of the key tools that can allow us to become more resilient is establishing and engaging with a strong support network.

Put simply, the ability to talk to someone about what is happening for you and have them genuinely listen to what you have to say.

So, how can you establish this support network?

You need two things:

  1. the ability to be vulnerable, and

  2. the ability to 'be with' vulnerability (to demonstrate empathy)

Namely, being truly open with someone and also being able to be with someone when they are being open, without either rushing to fix it (being 'rescuer' or 'problem solver'), or wallowing as well.

Let me leave you with three questions to consider:

  • When did you last feel vulnerable? How did you cope and how could you manage that behaviour differently?

  • What behaviours are you role modelling? Do you first look to shame others?

  • Are you listening, or solving first?

Training versus Facilitation... and why you care!

Some practical guidance for recognising the difference, and what happens when you get it wrong!

For those of us in professional HR/ learning & development, this is a well- worn discussion, but I wanted to take a moment to share with a broader audience the difference between 'training' and 'facilitation' and why it matters, especially if you have a hand in designing, procuring or commissioning L&D solutions.

For years now in my practice as a learning and development professional, working with companies large and small and at all levels of seniority, I have tried to put as much distance between myself and 'training' as possible. The accusation that I am a ‘trainer’ has always felt almost demeaning.

However, there really is a place for 'training' and 'trainers', and as I look back I have often, rightly, been in that place. The problem with 'training' is that it suggests a very old-school approach to helping people grow. It suggests that power sits primarily with the trainer as the source of knowledge and answers. The trainer typically has every minute of the session planned and controlled so that it feels 'on rails' and there is very little, if any, room for emergent discussion. It will often look and feel as though the trainer is putting on a show and he/she is clearly the dominant presence in the room. He/ she will often be thinking about things like ‘keeping up the energy in the room', managing the physical space and keeping delegates engaged. Training is the right style where the learning is at the level of facts, knowledge or skills development and/ or the working group size is larger than about 10 people. For many of our graduate development programmes, this is absolutely the more effective and appropriate style.

Facilitation, on the other hand, is the appropriate style where the session needs to be focussed on emergent exploration of a problem or situation. The session will be far less structured - typically the facilitator will have prepared a few models, approaches or questions to help the group explore the question in hand - and the role of the facilitator is to provide direction, focus and 'ways of thinking' for the group dialogue. Unlike the trainer, the spotlight should never be on the facilitator. Facilitation is the right style where the answer(s) to one or a few relatively complex problems lie within the group themselves. Our recent work with the OSCE was more towards the facilitative style.

A lot of good work and investment can be undone very quickly

Perhaps unexpectedly, facilitation is the more complex and demanding skill. There is relative safety in knowing and controlling a day's training schedule, whereas it takes a good degree of confidence in your breadth and depth of experience and ability to manage a complex problem-solving discussion amongst a group of (typically senior) people to help them come to a useful resolution. Facilitation is analogous with group coaching, as training is to teaching. At Interaction, we regularly give each other feedback and proactively develop our skills so that we are able to range across this spectrum effectively, and we have a large pool of associates who are able to operate at both ends of this scale.

Getting this wrong is like to make for a painful and ineffective mismatch

Getting this wrong is likely to make for a painful and ineffective mismatch. I have known many 'trainers' come awkwardly unstuck in front of smaller, more senior audiences, and 'facilitators' fail to have any impact where a more dynamic and controlling style was required. Of course, skilled practitioners are able to adjust their style across the continuous spectrum from facilitation to training to best suit the audience. Just make sure that you have a good match, or a lot of good work and investment can be undone very swiftly.

What do you stand for?

We ran a session last week onpersonal brand’ as part of a graduate development module and it was fascinating how people engaged with it and worked hard to capture the many elements that make them who they are – and what they feel is important for others to recognise about them. In other words, the reputation that they would like to have at work.

It struck me how important the concept of ‘the shadow you cast’ is and how it’s something that doesn’t have a defined start and finish time. Perhaps at the start of your career it’s important to give this some thought as working within a team and organisation becomes a day-to-day reality. However, in many ways, in order to land a job in such competitive times, people have already given some thought to their personal qualities and what makes them stand out. The challenge then is to make this a reality and live up to your employer’s expectations – and this is when the timing of a session like this with graduates combined with good levels of business feedback will help take this thinking to the next level.

However, the interesting thing about ‘personal brand’ is that as people get more experienced within an organisation, it’s something that often gets overlooked. For me it still merits the same level of scrutiny and focus – even with more senior leaders. The old adage that ‘it’s not just what you know but how you do it’ is one that holds true for all of our careers, yet sometimes it still needs a timely development session to remind us that this is ongoing work that requires ongoing focus. So when we run similar sessions with senior leaders, they often say how refreshing it is to have time to give this proper thought – and almost always they identify an area that merits further attention and focus.

For me the moral is we never stop learning about who we are and how we come across. What’s important is that we retain an active curiosity in how important this is to our effectiveness at work.

How do feelings impact performance?

How important are our feelings at and towards work? At the Association of Business Psychologists Conference this year Rich Cook of JCA Global asserted that only a small minority of the workforce feel positive and engaged at any one time, and as a result, the vast majority of people at work could be compared to a car traveling with the handbrake on.

How people feel at work affects how they behave

By identifying and exploring feelings and behaviour at work we can make valuable changes. With the creation of a supportive environment and opportunities to experience what different behaviour feels like and looks like we can discover the impact we have, and are able to have, with others.

Through intelligently designed training programmes we support business needs to stimulate development through real experiences that bring about behavioural change.

Get in touch now to discover what we can do for you.