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Dear White People

Shaping the business towards Allyship

In the broader context of the Black Lives Matter movement I feel that globally, we are all being challenged to sit up and take notice of our own biases, the systemic racism around us and to make real and lasting change.  As a business leader I’m compelled to ask, “what part can I play in changing institutional racism?”

A first top tip from commentators on developing an anti-racist plan is to get educated. Read up on our history, understand how racism works and what it feels like, start to recognise the unrecognisable privilege white people have.

I started with Why I’m No Longer Talking to White People About Race by Reni Eddo-Lodge and I highly recommend it.

But I believe that I have two key roles to play: one is the same for all of us – listening, learning, challenging our privilege and standing alongside those who are being treated unfairly. The second one is about my expertise in unconscious bias, through this strength I can make a difference and the business has begun to reshape its focus and energy into this space, moving far beyond interview skills.

What has surprised me in this journey is the reaction of a few predominantly white people.  In the local, everyday conversations, where our friends and family get upset about us raising the topic of racism I have to ask, what else could be going on? When someone we know to be friendly and kind suddenly seems so closed and defensive because we started a conversation about white privilege?

With this in mind, and through the inspiration of Chikere Igbokwe, Abi Adamson and Priyanka Sharma, I was delighted to be able to contribute more on this to the blog

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Totem Talks Episode 13: Unconscious Bias

What exactly is unconscious bias? Put simply, it’s the decisions that we make every day – on an unconscious basis – in relation to other people.

Based on our gender, ethnicity, genetics, upbringing, education and so many other factors, our brains are wired in different ways. And the tricky thing with different brain patterns is that we tend to like our own, because we only know our own ways of thinking and working. Our minds are perfect echo chambers, everyone who thinks differently – more often than not we think of as wrong, misguided or weird.

In the broader context of the recent resurgence is the Black Lives Matter movement we feel that globally, we are all being challenged to sit up and take notice of our own biases, the systemic racism around us and to make real and lasting change.

In this podcast, Mark Smith and Helen Frewin describe their upbringing and the influence of race upon their unconscious biases, their response to recent developments and how they plan to contribute to a future free from racism.

As mentioned in the podcast, Mark has been particularly moved by the work of Dr Laura Morgan Roberts, a consultant and researcher on the science of maximising human potential in diverse organizations and communities.

You can find out more about the workshops Laura runs and the book she helped write below:

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Resilience through Uncertainty

Continuing to assess the impact from COVID-19

The past few weeks have brought new meaning to leading through uncertainty.  In this article we’ll explore the ways different businesses are responding to the current situation, offer some tips from the research on resilience and leave you with the reminder that your mindset is critical for your success and mental health.

If you’re not in a position to make or influence decisions about how the business repsonds during this time, what can you actually do?  Developing your resilience or ‘bouncebackability’ can be critical for staying effective and focused, no matter what life throws at you in the next few weeks and months.

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One of the critical aspects of resilience is self-belief – slightly different to self-confidence, self-belief is the sense that you can cope, you will survive and life goes on.  Why is self-belief important for resilience?  Without self-belief we can feel helpless in the face of difficult and challenging situations that occur.  We can be afraid of the future, worry that things will be impossible to overcome and feel frozen into inaction.

Jelly Bean Diversity

However, if we believe that we have the skills and resources to deal with these situations, we will be willing to tackle the challenge head-on, focus on the outcomes we want and persist towards that outcome even when things get difficult.  So how can people develop self-belief?

Remember where you have coped before

We have all faced challenging situations before and whilst Covid-19 does offer us all unique challenges, it is a good idea to think back to the difficult things in life you have overcome.  When has life been hard and you have managed to survive and maybe even thrive afterwards?  Remembering that we have coped before can boost our confidence that we can cope again – building that belief in our ability.

Set goals and achieve them

A key way to develop self-belief is through ‘mastery’ experiences, ie setting yourself goals and achieving them.  In relation to resilience this means learning you can cope with unexpected situations.  By putting yourself in situations where you have to use your coping resources, you will learn that you are capable of dealing with these situations.

Identify and observe role models

Identify people who are able to cope with challenging and difficult situations easily.  What do they do and what can you learn from them?

Find a supportive coach or mentor

A key element of building self-belief is being encouraged by others and having them acknowledge your achievements.  Identify someone who can support you and mentor you – Skype is free and it’s good to talk.  Reach out to someone and don’t underestimate yourself, it’s possible that others may see you as a role model too.

Challenge your own limiting beliefs

Our belief in our ability to cope is often limited by our beliefs about ourselves and our own capabilities.  It is important to challenge and question these beliefs, as it is often only these beliefs that hold us back. The first step is identifying them: what statements do you tell yourself over and over?  Things like “I could never cope with…,” “I’m not good enough for this job,” “I can’t do this” and “I could never do this job if…” are common limiting beliefs.  We state them in our minds like they are facts.

Make a list of the most common things you tell yourself that fit into this category of sounding like facts, yet are really more beliefs about your ability.

The second step is to challenge these statements.  Are they facts?  For each one, ask yourself whether this is true, false or cannot say.  What evidence do you have that this statement might be false?  When we say things like “I always fail” or “I never do well at…” the fact is that we will have evidence to the contrary.  We will of course sometimes fail, but we sometimes succeed too.  Challenging these limiting beliefs and creating new beliefs for ourselves can be critical to our self-belief.

What if we changed “I always fail” to “Sometimes I do well and I want to do everything I can to make sure this time I do well too.”

Each business is reacting differently to the changes the world is experiencing at the moment and that uncertainty will continue.  Looking at building resilience and self-belief – for yourself and your people, is a critical step towards surviving and thriving today and tomorrow.

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COVID-19. What now?

Overcoming Uncertainty.  How Psychology Can Help.

The only certainty seems to be uncertainty itself.

This website is loaded with freely available materials to help you through times of uncertainty, from mindset to neuroplasticity we’ll be sharing some of the most relevant support via our Thought Leadership updates as the situation unfolds over the next few weeks and months.

As many of our clients are facing difficult conversations with their people we explore these early reactions of uncertainty and unease:

  • How is my company affected by the news?
  • Could budget cuts and fears over economic uncertainty lead to me not having a job?
  • Will the budgets be cut from my key projects leading me back to square one on a lot of hard work?
  • How are things going to change in my job?
  • What does all this really mean for me, my job, my team?

These are just some of the questions swimming around the minds of people and in conversations around the workplace.  Yet as with any time of uncertainty and ambiguity, the fact is that nobody really knows the answers to these questions.  So how do we respond?  How should leaders communicate “I don’t know” or “we’ll have to wait and see”, when that response is unlikely to put people at ease – in fact it might make things worse.

Totem Lollipops

We know from neuroscience research that the brain responds far better to bad news than not knowing.  We would rather know what difficult things lie ahead than be in a time of uncertainty; we simply crave certainty.  This means that messages about seeing how things go, or needing to wait for reports back from certain teams or results, can be really unhelpful.

A better option is to frequently and to the point that it feels like over-communication, clarify what you know, what you don’t know and when you will update people again.  You can reinforce this with reminders on what will stay the same and what will change.  The key reason for this over-communication of simple messages is the threat of an unhelpful series of events, which can build in times of uncertainty:

  • The brain craves certainty and will find it – so if you don’t tell people what is certain, their brains will choose things that seem likely or possibly assume the worst
  • That will start the rumour mill, so if you’re not communicating regularly or clearly enough, the rumours will fill in the gaps for you
  • People assuming the worst and worrying about their job security creates a threat response in the brain, which can lead to a variety of unhelpful behaviours
  • Without clarification on what will stay the same, people may also jump to conclusions about how much will change – possibly creating a further threat response
  • You’re likely to see more defensive behaviour, people wanting to keep their heads down, or worse – people becoming negative and cynical about their work
  • And through all of this, because of the brain’s focus on the threat situation – people will not be doing their best thinking or their best work

Once a week – perhaps as part of the usual company update or results check-in conference calls,  update your people on how things are progressing.  When you think about it, you might notice that we often repeat messages many times, for example clarifying the goals or targets for the month or year.  This is very helpful as the classic saying “what gets measured gets done” also applies to “what gets talked about gets heard.”

Line of isolated jelly bean figures with shadows

When we talk consistently about targets and goals, people have certainty; they know what is expected.  In the same way when we talk about uncertainty or not knowing what will happen in future, the mind is filled with doubt and concern.  You can see it in the media already, where a strong narrative is that nobody really knows what will happen next – causing fear and unrest in our everyday lives and the wider economy.

Here’s a sample communication script from one of our client’s support functions teams, which you could adapt for your specific business, level and situation.

What we know, whilst also emphasising what will stay the same

  • The fast-changing situation with COVID 19 and the government’s response has caused a shock and plenty of concern in the economy. You will have heard in the news that the global economy has taken a big knock, but this is to be expected given the severe circumstances.
  • We know that our partners and suppliers around the globe are facing challenges with their supply chains, so we are working closely with them to plan for alternative approaches to our contracts.
  • As we’ve talked about many times before, our major focus for the next three years is to improve our platforms to enable smoother operations for our customers and our internal reporting, whilst also growing our B2B services. This has not changed, we will continue to invest and grow in these areas.
  • We know that asking more people to work from home is challenging, and that as we head towards the Easter holidays and potential school closures, many of our people will struggle to work from home without disruption and difficulty. We want to support as best we can in this time, so will be running webinars on how to structure the workday in such different circumstances and make the most of time with families. We also have mental health support seminars coming in the next fortnight on coping with the isolation. Whether you are home alone or with family, loneliness can be hard to face, and we want to do everything we can to support our people.

Notice the emphasis is on clarifying what it might be easy to assume is obvious. Saying our results are the same when surely people can see it in the data might seem pointless but we need to keep positive messages front and centre to give our people (and their brains in particular) reassurance and clarity.

For the things we don’t know, we state what we don’t know, clarify what is known within this, what that means to people now, when we might know and when updates will come from the business.

  • We do not know exactly how hard our customer spend will be hit as the lockdown increases, so we will provide daily updates on our trading figures.
  • Because of the uncertainty of how long the lockdown will be in place, we don’t know how many of our Summer and Autumn projects are still relevant, as these may be going live during a time when we have no or very few paying customers. We therefore want to complete our current research phases on all of those projects, then pause until we know more. We will run an update conference call with everyone involved in those projects in early May, by which point we should know more about the medium-term business impacts.
  • Our team’s role on these projects is to support the research and when that is complete, we still have plenty of work to do on the platform improvement projects, so there will be no job role changes or cuts to this team.
  • In the customer-facing teams, we have discussed the option of reducing hours, as it is likely we will see fewer and fewer customers and that we will reduce trading hours. You may have heard about the government’s economic support for businesses, to ease this pressure, so we are speaking with our advisors to find out how we can protect wages and ensure our people are looked after. We will update you on this by the end of the week.
  • We will update you every week on the progress with all of this, clarifying what stays the same and what, if anything, will be changing.

Notice wherever there is a comment about something we don’t know, or something changing, there is a supporting comment on what’s next and dates to clarify things.

The overall message with all of this is to over-communicate.  Clarify what stays the same, talk about what is unknown and how and when you might have answers.

A classic fault with our brains is to assume everyone is thinking in the same way, which causes major issues through times of change and ambiguity.  Business leaders may have had the privilege of new insight, market research or an in-depth study of the political and economic news; whereas the rest of the company may be unsure what’s happening.

By sharing information, the insight used to make decisions and the thinking behind what is going on, business leaders empower their people to think for themselves, engage with the uncertainty and see a way through it.  That’s your people working at their best.

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Mindfulness Download

Businessman - head in the black cloudsWhat does mindfulness really mean and how can we use it to our advantage?

We never or very rarely have completely empty moments – our brains are almost always full of ideas, thoughts, criticisms, judgements and concerns.

Mindfulness is a state of awareness, of focusing and being able to return to that focus.  Meditation is a practice that helps train the brain to be more mindful.  We’ve put together this awesome little download as an introduction to mindfulness and its benefits.

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Our leadership team are currently practising mindfulness with this amazing app if you’d like to learn about how we’re finding it useful follow me!

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How to Encourage Learning

Bicycle-Training-Wheels 400x265Exploring Activities that Encourage Learning

We’ve been having a lot of fun exploring the in’s and out’s of Learning Organisations recently, you can find a couple of additional resources by following me or following me.

We’ve talked a lot about the benefits of a learning organisation and some of the key characteristics or behaviours you may want to encourage in your employees to develop a learning culture.  But what else can we do?  Is there a tick list for successfully embedding learning into your culture?

Well not quite, but there are a few key components to a continuous learning culture.  So let’s explore a few of the methods.  First off we have the traditional methods for individual learning including classroom training; online learning; mentoring; and participation in conferences, workshops, and seminars that can support you.

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Let’s begin with individual learning, which is the ability of individuals in your organisation to pursue self development. It requires individuals to take personal responsibility for their own learning and development through a process of assessment, reflection, and action – ideally supported by that individual’s line manager.  Individual learning helps the employee and the organisation continually update skills and remain competitive in the market place.

You might want to consider individual development plans, special projects or specifically created learning groups to support individuals in the acquisition or translation of new skills.

Another way to support individuals with their learning is through online learning or in modern vernacular Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs).  To find out more on MOOCs you can click me.  In summary MOOCs are a great way of using modern technology to deliver consistent, coordinated and measurable learning directly into the needs of your employees.

Mentoring is a great way to hold learners to account, and to ensure that the new skills an individual is acquiring are actually relevant to the broader business goals.  Quite often a mentor holds a higher position and is usually outside the employee’s chain of supervision.  Mentoring has the side benefit of fostering the talent in your business who show high potential for management or leadership responsibilities.

That’s the usual list of things a firm might do to encourage individual learning, so let’s now look at what a business can do to encourage a learning environment – using organisational learning.

Totem Gummi Bears

Organisational learning occurs when the entire organisation addresses and solves problems, builds repositories of lessons learned, and creates core competencies that represent the collective learning of employees, past and present.

Organisational learning not only contributes to resolving organisational issues, but it also promotes individual development of knowledge and skills.  It’s a win win!  So let’s start with action learning.

Action learning is a great process for bringing together a group of people with varied levels of skills and experience to analyse and address an actual work problem.  It’s important that the group continues to meet as actions are implemented, learning from the implementation and making mid-course corrections. It’s a powerful tool for addressing problems and issues that are complex and not easily resolved.

Cross-functional teams are the natural evolution of action learning groups and are composed of people with varied levels of skills and experience, brought together to accomplish a task. These teams may use action learning as a process to solve problems, but the key here is that cross-functional team members come from different areas of the business and so pool a much broader range of skills and experiences.

Finally, parallel learning structures.  These structures refer to groups who represent various levels and functions working to open new channels of communication outside but parallel to the normal hierarchical structure.

Parallel learning structures promote innovation and change in large organisations while retaining the advantage of bureaucratic design.  They take individuals from each level within an organisation, upskill them in a specific way and send them back into their original level of the organisation – often as change agents or ‘champions’ of a particular innovation or business agenda.

For the eagle eyed among you, what key theme links the steps that an organisation can take to foster a learning culture?

It’s the removal of traditional hierarchical barriers to communication and cooperation – even if temporary, between all employees across your organisation that will drive a culture of continuous learning and growth.  And whilst nothing beats doing this face-to-face, the wide range of social platforms now available for business mean that people can connect, share and learn across the globe.

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More Than The Sum

Sum-Of 400x265Aren’t we doing ourselves out of job?!

It’s been a fascinating year for us so far, the greatest demand from our clients has been the desire to enable their own people to become more than the sum of their parts.  This has meant taking what we do and training HR teams to deliver the same skills and approach in-house.

This has grown so much this year it is now a core part of what we do, distilling consultancy, coaching, facilitation and behavioural change into skills development for our peers.

So what have we learned about what works?  And aren’t we doing our selves out of a job!

  • Ask more questions
  • Build a solution together
  • Ask even more questions

That might sound just too simple, but we’ve seen it work time and time again.

Here’s how…

Asking more questions is about building rapport with the business and demonstrating commercial understanding. Often we are not recognised as commercial for the answers we give but for the quality of questions that we ask.

If I tell a business manager how much I understand the importance of delivering sales but that it is also important that people go on training courses, I am not seen as really getting the business needs.  If I ask instead “what are your sales targets?  How are you doing against them?  What might help you get closer to / exceed that target?  How could this development we offer help you do that?”  I’m showing my interest in your business and then demonstrating how my offering helps you hit the targets you’re working to.

The building solutions together part is then about being adaptable and showing that we’ve listened to the business needs.  Following the example above, we might say “it sounds like you’re looking for X and the development programme we have delivers Y.  How could we adapt that to make it more relevant for what you need?”  Or it could be that we’re shaping something from scratch so the question could be, “what could we develop to help you meet those targets?”  Mixing questions here with the HR / Learning professional’s own expertise is how the solution is built together.

Aside from the learning-based examples above, this works equally well for a more traditional HR query. When a business manager wants to recruit someone or fire someone, asking questions to understand the real business issue then build a solution together means both parties end up with a better outcome.

And finally – ask even more questions.  What follow up has there been?  After we agreed that solution, what happened?  How have we measured the success of what we did?  What could we learn from that for next time?  What are the business problems now?  What do we need to do next?

This moves the HR team away from being purely reactive and introduces a more commercial edge to the service offered internally.

If you’re thinking about developing your HR and Learning team capability for in-house consulting and commercial business partnering, we’d love to chat with you.  Drop us a line and tell us about the business issues you’re facing – then we’ll see what we can do to help.

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HR and BIG Data

Big-Data2-400x265We get that it’s Data, but why is it BIG?

There’s a lot of talk about big data, and some have talked about the opportunity for HR to make use of greater analytics for workforce data, but we believe there is also more HR teams can do to support the pace of change business is facing.

In case you’ve not come across the term, “big data” is the title given to the simply jaw-dropping amount of information that is being generated, stored and could be analysed across all the systems out there.

From a customer perspective, you’ve got all the data on how someone moves around your website, how they got there, what other sites they browsed, what they buy, how they talk about you on social media, what feedback they then give on your service feedback capture – and the list goes on.

There’s no doubt there’s an opportunity for HR teams to take a good look at the big data available on the workforce.  What questions do we have about our employees, their behaviour, performance, activities etc?  What data is available or could we be capturing to answer those questions?

Beyond HR analytics

Aside from following the trend of analysing data, we see the role of HR – or specifically Talent and OD as one of building up the organisation to be ready for this seismic shift in how business works.  What are we doing in the Talent and OD space to make sure we are attracting and retaining the kind of talent that can take our businesses to the forefront of these changes?  What are we doing to build awareness and develop skills across all departments, so that people can make their own intelligent decisions on what to do with all this change and data?

Building awareness of what big data is and how it is changing the nature of business, could mean an unlocking of new opportunities: To have more people thinking of how to analyse the data available – and use those insights to make informed decisions.

Totem Gummi Bears

As the inspiration for this came from Sir Ian Cheshire’s Retail Lecture, let’s look at particularly what this could mean for HR teams in retail.  What do people across departments and out in stores know about the digitalisation and mobile shift in retail – and the big data that comes with that?  What does that mean to us in our jobs in retail?  How do we need to adapt?  Imagine roadshows where with this knowledge and understanding, your entire workforce can suggest ideas on how the company better respond and lead the way.

Although we’re all customers, shopping online and getting frustrated when the experience is not smooth – or when the app on my phone says something’s in-stock and we get into store and it’s not – that has not meant we have quickly grasped what this means to our work and businesses.  Big changes in the world are communicated throughout businesses to enable people to make choices and decisions – and this is one thing they definitely need to know about.

What could you do?

It’s easy to hold our heads in the sand when the world is changing and we’re not sure what that means or how to keep up.  We recommend exploring with your team – what do we know about shifts in our customer and employee digital behaviour, what big data that may be providing, and what that might all mean to our jobs and business?

Realising you don’t know the answers to these questions can be a great starting point to finding out, challenging the rest of the business to do the same, and seeing where you can go from there.

Happy exploring!

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Introducing Best

specks 400x265Drum roll please!

Here is the first of many articles covering our work on being at your Best.  So far we’ve shared one or two of the insights we’ve gleaned from our R&D and the journey we’ve been on whilst completing this PhD.

This is a little taster video just to introduce you to the concept of Best, where it came from and where we think it will take us!

And if you continue to follow our updates around Best, you might even learn why we chose a pair of glasses for this first post!

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