The blame game

You’ve probably seen the diagram of a small circle, labelled ‘Things you can control’ with a larger circle around it, labelled ‘Things you can affect’ and a much larger circle around that, labelled ‘Things you can neither control nor affect’. That huge outer circle includes things like the weather and the economy. In the ‘Things you can affect’ circle are matters like your family’s happiness and the results you get at work. In the ‘Things you can control’ circle is basically yourself: your behaviour and your attitude.

That diagram of three circles leads us to Denial, Blame, Excuses and Responsibility. So imagine this: You’ve had a hard day and you’ve finally made it home and are sitting comfortably with your feet up, trying to chill out. The kids are in the kitchen and you hear a crash, tinkle, tinkle. ‘What happened?’ you ask. And what’s the response? ‘Nothing!’ That’s Denial; something has clearly happened.

So you say, ‘Don’t tell me nothing! I heard something break!’ And you hear ‘It wasn’t my fault, it was his fault.’ That’s Blame.

So you say, ‘I don’t care whose fault it is–what happened?’ And you hear, ‘The bottle was slippery and it fell out of my hand.’ That’s an Excuse.

Wouldn’t it be nice to hear, ‘I dropped a bottle. I’m just getting a mop to clean it up.’ That’s taking Responsibility.

Quite a few adults have turned Denial, Blame and Excuse into something of an art form, which means they focus not on the little inner circle of Control, but on the big outer circle of No Control. So nothing changes.

Let’s take a look at the first refuge or the irresponsible: Blame. Someone slips on the pavement. Do they blame the council for not sweeping up fallen leaves or do they take responsibility for not taking care how they’re walking? Blame is a great defence mechanism. It preserves your sense of self-esteem by avoiding admitting to your own shortcomings. But you’ll keep slipping on leaves.

Someone leaves the sausages in the frying pan too long and they burn. Do they take responsibility for being distracted or do they blame their partner for not doing their share of the housework so they have to multitask. Blaming others is great when you’re in attack mode. And it’s great when it’s easier to blame someone else rather than accept responsibility. But you’ll just start an argument and keep burning the sausages.

Blame is also handy when you think you can lie and get away with it. ‘I didn’t drop the bottle and leave the mess behind.’ Then you cross your fingers and hope no one saw you drop the bottle.

Of course, not everything is our responsibility. But when it is, we need to step up to it. The more we play the blame game, the more we lose. And the less we learn.

Managers, team leaders and parents take note: Step up when you need to. And teach your team members and your children to step up, too.

Holding a difficult conversation

Wasting your breath, harming a relationship, fraying your own and other people’s tempers and nerves unnecessarily … Ah, those difficult conversations that we’d all rather do without.

Unfortunately, good intentions don’t count when difficult conversations are involved. So that the discussion doesn’t start off on the wrong foot and go downhill from there, give some thought to the conversation beforehand. These four questions are especially helpful:

  1. What do I want the conversation to achieve and how do I want it to proceed?
  2. What, specifically, do I need the other person to understand and do as a result?
  3. How can I make my message palatable so the other person doesn’t tune out?
  4. How do I want the person to feel about me and my message once the conversation has ended?

When you are clear on those four questions, you can frame the discussion so that it proceeds cooperatively rather than confrontationally. Since the way you begin a conversation often determines how well people receive and accept your message, think carefully about your opening comments. You want them to guide the conversation towards the result you’re after.

Remember the WIFM factor (What’s In it For Me? factor) and include a WIFM as early as you can in the conversation, even in your opening comments. How will the other person benefit from acceding to your wishes?

Keep your words neutral, objective and positive. Those kind of words are more influential and persuasive than emotional, critical and negatively-loaded words and are much less likely to make the other person bristle. They also set a better ‘tone’ for the conversation.

One final word of advice: Without diminishing your meaning, keep your words as soft and sweet as you can in case you have to eat them!


How to be a peak performer

When I was heavily into designing and leading management training programs for lots of organisations around Australia and New Zealand, I got to know thousands of managers. It became pretty clear that the star performers all shared similar attitudes and mindsets towards their jobs and life in general. And I developed a theory about the ways their minds worked.

I took my theory to a cross section of these organisations who agreed to identify their peak performers objectively, based on their results, and I interviewed them individually and in small groups to pick their brains about how they thought. The goal was to train other managers to think and behave like the peak performers so that they, too, could become ‘stars’.

As expected, we found that the peak performers all shared remarkably similar ways of looking at the world. Here are the highlights, in no particular order because they’re all inter-linked.

  • Peak performers have high standards and expect the best for themselves, from themselves and from those around them. That attitude reminds me of a sign that hung in every classroom of my high school: Mediocrity is a choice — so is excellence. Peak performers opt for excellence and don’t settle for second best. Why should they?
  • Those high standards mean they set challenging goals and keep moving towards them.
  • Their high standards also mean that they constantly strive to improve themselves, the way they work and the results they’re getting. Peak performers are always looking for different and better ways. One way they do that is by reviewing the day’s events and selecting one to pick apart — what went well, what could have gone better, how can I do even better next time? Then, when they come across a similar situation, they can put their improvement plan into practice. (Find out more about that here.)
  • This leads to another characteristic of peak performers: they take responsibility. They work out what they need to do in order to accomplish their goals. They don’t sit back and wait for the magic to happen; they get out there and do something in a proactive way. And when things don’t go as well as they’d hoped, they don’t blame circumstances, the economy, the weather, other people or anything else. They take a look at what happened and figure out what they can do to make things better.
  • Peak performers deal with mistakes differently than ‘also-rans’, too. When peak performers make a mistake, they don’t deny they’ve made a mistake, bury it, blame someone else or make excuses. Nothing changes when you do that. Peak performers see the mistake as a practice shot, move on and try something different. Soichera Honda famously said that success is 99% failure, which may be a bit of an exaggeration, but it makes a good point.
  • Peak performers focus their efforts where they’ll count. No one can fix the weather or the economy but when an El Ninio is predicted, peak performing farmers might plant crops that don’t need as much water, put in a more efficient watering system or build a grey water irrigation facility. When the economy goes south, peak performing sales people might figure out ways to sell more to existing customers, pick up new customers or help develop new and improved offerings.
  • Linked with that is focusing not on their difficulties and the obstacles in their path but on what they can do to circumvent them jump over them or work their way through them. They can do this because they keep their eyes on the goal, not what’s getting in their way.
  • Finally, peak performers communicate and work effectively with others. The world of work is changing dramatically and important as this ability has always been, it is becoming ever-more important as work is becoming increasingly team-based and temporary. This means managers (and team members) need to be able to work well with a wide range of people in different situations and work out quickly what specifically they need to do in order to add value.

How many of those mindsets do you share? What about your team members? What can you do to help them adopt those ways of thinking and acting so that you have an entire team of peak performers?

Two all-important three-letter words

There is a three-letter word that creates arguments and another that creates cooperation. The first is ‘but’ and the second is ‘and’. Who would think one small, simple word has the power to damage relationships and spoil conversations, and the other to make them more satisfying and effective?

‘That’s a good effort, but …’                                 ‘That looks fine, but …’
‘You did a good job, but …’                                  ‘I can tell you tried, but …’
‘I take your point, but …’                                       ‘We’ve received your order, but …’
‘I understand what you’re saying, but …’               ‘That’s one option, but …’

Do you see? When you hear the word ‘but’, you know bad news is coming. The ‘but’ butts away the positive information preceding it. It’s a verbal hammer that signals disagreement.

Are you thinking of substituting ‘but’ with ‘however’? Forget it. ‘However’ is just a three-syllable version of ‘but’ and sends the same signals.

Substitute ‘but’ with ‘and’.

‘That’s a good effort, and …’                                 ‘That looks fine, and …’
‘You did a good job, and …’                                  ‘I can tell you tried, and …’
‘I take your point, and …’                                       ‘We’ve received your order, and …’
‘I understand what you’re saying, and …’               ‘That’s one option, and …’

Hear the difference? ‘But’ blocks.  ‘And’ builds. With ‘and’, you’re working with people, not pushing against them. ‘And’ allows you to offer an improvement suggestion while acknowledging the good job that has been done.

‘That’s a good effort, and something else you could try is …’
‘That looks fine, and one way to enhance it might be to …’
‘You did a good job, and it would be fantastic if you could also …’
‘I can tell you tried, and you’ve made good progress. One thing for next time is …’

‘And’ also shows you’ve listened and heard.  It helps prevent arguments because it allows two points of view to stand and acknowledges and extends what the other person has said.

‘I take your point, and another thing we could consider is …’
‘We’ve received your order, and in order to process it, I just need …’
‘I understand what you’re saying, and here’s another way to look at it.’
‘That’s one option, and another might be …’


Substituting ‘but’ with ‘and’ can be a hard habit to break, at least it was for me, but it was well worth it. Communication becomes much more cooperative. It also becomes much more clear without muddying the waters with the mixed message ‘but’ sends.

One more thing: Much of the time, you can simply substitute ‘and’ for ‘but’. But (yes, here’s some slightly bad news) sometimes, you need to reconstruct the sentence and make your point differently. When that happens, the reworded statement is invariably stronger, more cooperative and more effective than the original version. And it’s definitely worth the effort when you want more agreements than arguments.

The best way to praise your staff

I once worked for a boss for whom every task I turned in was ‘Fantastic!’ All comments were along the lines of ‘Good on ya!’ Compliments are great but when you’re deluged in them, they become meaningless. So meaningless that I began to suspect this boss didn’t know the difference between a job well done and a job poorly done. (Between you and me, I don’t think he did!)

But let’s face it — without some praise, people’s confidence withers and they think the quality of their work doesn’t matter. At the risk of sounding like a bumper sticker: Praise is like sunlight to the human spirit; we cannot flower and grow without it. (Actually, Jess Lair said that, a professor and leader in the self-help movement.)

So how to avoid turning your team members off with your words of praise? Here are three principles to follow:

  1. Be genuine. The brain has 100 billion neurons, or brain cells, and 10 billion of them are what is known technically as ‘B. S. detectors’. People quickly sense insincere praise and habitual ‘Good on ya’s’.
  2. Avoid empty flattery by commenting on things people have control over. Flattery is about characteristics people can’t control, like their height, while praise is about something they do, like keeping fit.
  3. Be specific by saying what you value or appreciate about what you’re praising; don’t simply say, ‘That was great’, but ‘That was great because …’. This also lets the person know that it’s worth their time and trouble to do the same again.

Praise builds performance. It brings out the best in people. In fact, it stimulates the brain and releases neuropeptides and endorphins, the ‘feel good’ chemicals — in both the giver and the receiver. So be liberal with your praise, but be discerning and follow the above three guidelines.

Best practice, or just another fad?

New and innovative management thinking that stands the test of time tends to become the new ‘baseline’ to which all organisations must comply sooner or later in order to remain in the game. Customer service, for example, was once a genuine differentiator of companies but is now expected, and what was once considered ‘great’ customer service is now the baseline. Other new approaches that have significantly effected the way we run organisations and manage people include management by objectives (MBO) and total quality management (TQM). Using ‘big data’ and offering smart, connected products are soon to join such ground-breaking practices.

But wait: in some organisations, MBO, TQM, and other initiatives such as Six Sigma, re-engineering and supply-chain analysis that became successfully embedded in many organisations, were mere ‘flavours of the month’ in others.  How can that be? The answer is clear: Initiatives that are potentially valuable and ground breaking don’t work in organisations that ‘dabble’. Dabblers:

  • don’t bother to train employees properly in the initiative
  • don’t win the commitment of the organisation’s leaders
  • don’t persevere with an initiative long enough to make it part of its culture
  • make them an add-on to peoples’ probably already-demanding workload, so they’re just another ‘chore’
  • don’t allow the initiative to create deep, genuine change to its culture or operations
  • don’t take the initiative seriously enough to measure properly or reward people for coming ‘on board’ with it.

Some best practices work and organisations move on. Once an organisation has re-engineered its operations from ‘go’ to ‘whoa’, for example, it needs to find another ground-breaking way to retain a competitive advantage. Once every organisation is doing it (customer service and TQM, for example) the next iteration of it must be found.

Other initiatives are just plain fads and always will be. Upside-down organisation charts and calling employees ‘associates’ spring to mind here. Oh yes, and ‘There’s no I in Team’. You can recognise fads because they’re simplistic and prescriptive: Do this one thing and watch the magic happen–whatever your industry, the size of your organisation, the nature of your business–no need to adapt it to suit your needs! Fads peddle a one-size-fits-all Answer. They’re filled with big words, jargon, overblown phrases and bumper sticker exhortations and slogans. They do nothing to change the core of an organisation, the way it really operates, interacts with its customers, suppliers and stakeholders.

Fads like these are easy to spot. Leave them alone. When you want to adopt a best practice initiative and ensure it works, don’t dabble.

Can you be too pushy in your quest for getting results?

Is it your job to be liked or to get results? Can you do both? This is an important questions for leader-managers and for project managers.

A study asked lots of MBA students, in three separate studies using both qualitative and quantitative methods, how they saw each other and how they saw their past bosses in terms of like-ability and the ability to get things done. They found that too little and too much assertiveness marks people as ineffective–the inverted U-shape. When you’re too assertive, you have poor working relationships; when you’re not assertive enough, you have poor results. Unfortunately, it’s all too easy to be perceived as either too assertive or not assertive enough by your followers.

Whether you’re dealing with conflict, influencing people to do something, or motivating your team, you want to be like Goldilocks and find the ‘sweet spot’ of ‘just right’–moderately assertive–because in the studies, assertiveness levels were complained about more than any other leadership trait–charisma, conscientiousness, intelligence, and so on.

Now you can have your cake and eat it, too.