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Family lessons for the workplace leader

By Stephen Sutcliffe, Director of Finance & Accounting

Stephen SutcliffeI'm not quite sure how, but Christmas always manages to take me by surprise. One day, I'm happily contemplating the leaves turning colour, or that first smell of autumn in the air. The next - BAM!  It's December 24th

I have to confess to being a bit stereotypically male when it comes to Organising Christmas. Which is to say - I don't. I just do as I'm told, usually by Jo, but increasingly by Charlie and our army of nieces and nephews. I've discovered that the whole festive season runs much more smoothly that way.

Whilst doing as you're told is great strategy for marital harmony, it's not generally considered to be an admirable leadership quality. Leaders should be setting direction and targets. Showing the way. Breaking new ground. Shouldn't they?

The fact is, colleagues are another sort of family. Like family, we inherit some and choose others. Some you love, some you tolerate, and some you'd rather never see again. (Don't balk - you know it's true). The reference to "work wives" and "work husbands" is funny because it's true. More fundamentally, for most of us, work - like family - isn't just a place you go. It's part of who you are.

So is there any lessons we can take from our family lives and use in the workplace? I think so. Here, for what it's worth, are my top tips for a happy work family. Some I've developed over the years; others I've shamelessly plagiarised. And yes, some of them involve doing as we're told.

 1.   Manage pollution by dilution

Sanitation engineers live by this mantra. And it's just as true in a metaphorical sense as a literal one. If your work family contains the equivalent of grumpy Uncle Ed (the chap who makes London cabbies and the Daily Mail seem liberal), isolating the culprit might be the worst thing to do. Instead, try the dilution tactic - keep Uncle Ed at the centre of a large group. It shares the burden, and the very powerful influence of social norms is more likely to moderate his behaviour than any number of managerial "quiet words".

2.   Be the first follower

I'm a fan of TED talks. An oldie but a goodie is from Derek Sivers - "Leadership Lessons from the Dancing Guy." It shows how a movement is built. In the course of three minutes, we see one "lone nut" (which could be me!) doing a silly dance at a festival transforming into a crowd of people rushing to become part of the silly dance movement. The key principle is this:  being a follower - especially a first follower - is an underappreciated form of leadership. A leader may get all the glory, but having someone with the courage to join in and be a first follower is what turns this isolated act into a movement. This is particularly important when working across organisational divides, which often have a whiff of "not invented here" mentality. From experience, I know it's equally useful during the inevitable post-Christmas dinner discussion about whether to go for a bracing walk or nestle into the sofa with another mince pie.

3.   Suiting the job to the person

This may surprise you, but when I met Jo, I didn't give her a competency-based interview. I didn't ask about her skills as a homemaker, or whether her cooking was any good. Had I done so, I suspect I would still be single. We worked out what needed doing and arranged our domestic chores around what we were better at and what the other person disliked more. 

Work is different. The rise of competency based interviews, whilst undoubtedly well-meaning, has sometimes resulted in a culture which discourages flexibility and which reduces the individual to the level of an algorithm - repeatedly performing a function, with little consideration given to the potential of individuals to help create, shape or mould the team in which they work to develop a higher-performing and more stimulating workplace.

Put simply, an environment which gives people as much control as possible over the work they do and how they do it is more likely to result in a team which is high-performing, flexible and resilient.

4.   Disagree and commit

Despite all its well-publicised woes, the NHS can still be a wonderful place to work. A common character trait is that most NHS folks share is genuine compassion and a desire to help. The flip side of this can be that our desire to please can lead to "paralysis by analysis" with a lack of consensus leading to inaction.

Disagree and commit is a management technique which holds that whilst individuals are allowed to disagree whilst a decision is being made, once the decision is made everybody must commit to it.

So far, so mundane. The iron fist within the bland statement is: it applies just as much (perhaps even more) to a leader as it does to their followers.

If you have confidence in your team, then you, as the boss, need to disagree and commit just as much as everyone else. In his 2016 letter to shareholders, Amazon's Chief Executive Jeff Bezos talked about disagree and commit saving a lot of time. Citing an example of greenlighting an Amazon Studios original film which he felt was complicated to produce and not very interesting, he contrasts the mindset of "well, I still think my team are wrong, but it's not worth me chasing" with the belief that although he has a strong opinion, his team are more likely to be right than he is. He disagrees with them, but commits to their course of action.

5.   The art of praise

If you're a parent, I'm betting you're an empowered, educated and informed one. Depending on the age of your kids, I'm guessing tomes like "What to Expect When You're Expecting" and "How to Talk So Kids Will Listen and Listen So Kids Will Talk" are on your bookshelves.

Whilst parenting gurus like Dr Spock and Gina Ford come in and out of fashion, some of their techniques have stood the test of time. Chief amongst these is the importance of praise - and, more recently, the art of praise.

The need to be praised is something that makes us human. Being praised induces physiological changes in the brain - a pleasurable little blip of serotonin that makes us want to repeat the action that led to it.

So praise is important. But as leaders, how can we use it in a way which boosts development, rather than just rewards it?

The secret here is "praise effort, not achievement". Praising achievement is easy - we've all bashed out emails congratulating colleagues on a successful event, or an awards win. But how often do we praise effort? The person who tries their hardest to get a meeting together, but is stymied by diaries? The person who works on a business case which is ultimately rejected?

Another element of the art of praise is specificity. Name the person, the praise-worthy behaviour and the character trait. For example: "Hey, Alice - I noticed you had a huge pile of orders on your desk at 3 o'clock yesterday.  When I looked at 4, they'd gone. Well done you - that's a great effort. I really like working with people who show that sort of dedication." So much more powerful than "well done, great job."


This is my last blog of the year. From my family, and my workplace, to yours - have a wonderful Christmas and a very happy new year - even if it does take you by surprise!


Follow Stephen on Twitter @sasutty

Back copies of his blogs can be read at https://www.futurefocusedfinance.nhs.uk/users/stephen-sutcliffe/8025

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