Category Archives: Insights

“If you think you’re too small to have an impact, try going to bed with a mosquito.” ANITA RODDICK

Ladies and gentlemen… your attention please.

Aristotle statue, Stageira, Greece. ©
Aristotle statue, Stageira, Greece.

Impact, Charisma and Presence are essential qualities in a Senior Executive. If a leader wants to influence peers, enthuse employees, inspire confidence in regulators and officials it is vital that they express themselves fully and with a sense of conviction. Presence, then, is a key attribute that effective leaders possess; one that enables them to motivate others. The dictionary defines ‘Presence’ as…

  • The state of being closely focused on the here and now, not distracted by irrelevant thoughts
  • A quality of poise that enables a person to achieve a close relationship with an audience

So Impact and Presence is about paying full attention to, and connecting with, the feelings of other people in order to inspire them to take a given action. And once you’ve got a ‘connection’ it’s about voicing an opinion, that’s based on logic and analysis, in a clear, concise, and compelling manner.

And, as with so many other qualities, it is a skill that can be learned.

Learning from the past

Research into leadership qualities has a long history. The ancient Greeks highly valued public speaking and over 2,000 years ago Aristotle identified “the three persuasive appeals” that combine together to make a powerful argument that inspires people to act. They are:

  1. Ethos: being credible as a speaker
    (e.g. being thought of as trustworthy and knowledgeable)
  2. Pathos: building emotional connection to the audience through establishing common ground or linking to key values
  3. Logos: having logical argument supported by data, facts and analysis

Much of what is taught today in respect of presence goes back to these writings on rhetoric (or the art of persuasion) by the ancient Greeks.

For example, in their June 2012 HBR article Antonkis, Fenley and Leichti on Learning Charisma, note that while leaders can pressure people to do as they ask because they have the power to reward or punish employees, it is the ability to demonstrate charismatic leadership that really inspires people to give of their best. They go on to highlight twelve ancient rhetorical techniques as being especially powerful for modern leaders. These include…

Rhetorical Questions to engage people e.g. “So, what does good performance look like?”

Expressing Moral Conviction (setting standards for right or just behaviour) e.g. “This quality problem is damaging our relationships with our customers, it’s our issue to resolve and we need to take ownership for fixing it as a group.”

Reflecting the Group’s/Audience’s Sentiments – even when they are negative – as they show empathy and help the group to ‘connect’ with the speaker e.g. “I know how disappointed and upset you are about this decision… it is a bitter pill to swallow after all your hard work…”

Setting Challenging Goals – giving people a clear, compelling objective to focus on e.g. “this Nation should commit itself to achieving the goal, before this decade is out, of landing a man on the moon”, John. F. Kennedy (May 1961).

Learning from the present

Moving on to the 21st century recent research at Cambridge University (‘Social Networks and Leader Charisma’) demonstrates that leaders who are regarded as charismatic by their teams will have a high-performing group. So, impact and presence does affect team performance. They also note that being charismatic in this context is primarily about; “becoming an expert (i.e. ‘ethos’) plus soliciting advice from people, and treating people with consideration” (i.e. pathos), highlighting that both ethos and pathos are vital components of developing great teams.

A study published in the Journal of Behavioural studies (September 2014) analysed the attributes of a cross section of Charismatic Leaders (all US based) and identified the following attributes associated with making an impact…

  • Being Genuine: talking from the heart, being sincere and honest (and consistent)
  • Meeting Expectations: dressing appropriately, looking fit and heathy
  • Working the room: connecting with audience or group members before the formal talk/meeting starts. This involves shaking hands with people, making small talk, picking up on the mood of the group etc.
  • Reading the Room: observing people’s reactions to what’s being said during the actual meeting or talk and adjusting behaviour accordingly, in ‘real time’
  • Using humour to connect with an audience
  • Storytelling

Storytelling was seen as particularly important as it made messages memorable and easy to digest. Also, stories that involve (or relate to) members of the group are a powerful way of forging a connection between the leader and the team.

Getting the body language right – Communicate like Clinton?

Positive body language is a key aspect of demonstrating charisma; especially adopting an upright, relaxed posture, coupled with steady eye contact and a warm smile.

Michael Ellsberg, author of The Power of Eye Contact argues that exuding presence has a lot to do with the number of behaviours a person employs when communicating their message. So ex US President Bill Clinton, for example, when meeting someone makes eye contact and smiles and touches their hand or upper arm and raises his voice slightly, to communicate his message in a powerful way.

A voice of your own?

Part of having presence is to be able to use your voice to communicate emotion to the listener and so motivate them to action e.g. by signalling things like urgency, seriousness, happiness, surprise, caution (and sometimes anger). Also, to use voice energy to capture their attention by varying the volume from a stage whisper, to a clear, controlled statement of the facts and on to a commanding call for action!

Patsy Rodenburg (the world-renowned acting coach) emphasises the power of a strong voice, breathing exercises and mental focus to project energy and connect with people. In her book, The Second Circle: How to Use Positive Energy for Success in Every Situation, she explains how to find and release tensions and project your voice to engage with the listener.

Leadership presence – acting the part

In their book Leadership Presence Halpern and Lubar (like Rodenburg) make a link between what is required of a top performing senior executive and the actor’s craft. They note that actors don’t expect to be ‘born’ with charisma but train, using specific ‘drills’, to be able to capture an audience’s attention and to have people focus completely on them.

Of course leaders have many skills that actors don’t e.g. they understand corporate strategy and markets and can negotiate effectively but the need to ‘connect’ with others is a common thread between the two worlds. For example they argue that the only way to elicit emotion and/or a given level of energy from a work group is to actually express that level of emotion or energy personally. They suggest using a technique known as ‘emotional memory’ to be able to project emotions in an appropriate and positive way.

Also, a good performance based on a poor script doesn’t impress anyone: presence captures people’s attention and gets them to take the speaker seriously, but the content of the message must also be compelling. So effective leaders don’t only make their point with energy and conviction (pathos), they also have something to say that is worth listening to (logos).

Six key lessons about Presence

Looking at the research we can highlight six fundamental aspects of developing a strong presence:

  1. Stand up straight, make eye contact and smile (a genuine smile).
  2. Put energy into your voice and breathe fully.
  3. Be interested in other people and what they have to say to you.
  4. Develop a logical proposition or argument to put forward (and script and rehearse what you want to say).
  5. Make what you say relevant to the other person’s situation. (How are you helping to ‘solve their problem or address their issues?’)
  6. Pay attention to the other person’s body language and adjust what you are doing in the light of how you see them reacting.

So what’s next?

Reflect on how much you really listen to other people when you talk with them. Make a determined effort to give them your undivided attention.

Consider what your body language says about you. What messages are you (unconsciously) transmitting through your posture or your use of gestures? Focus on ‘standing upright’ and relaxing your body as you talk with people.


Try reading, The Power of Presence unlock your potential to influence and engage others by Kristi Hedges (AMACOM, 2011)


Have a look at this YouTube clip (15 minutes) on Making A Positive First Impression by Olivia Fox Cabane, author of the Charisma Myth


Take a look at our intensive two day in-house programme on Impact and Presence (an intensive training course for a maximum of six delegates per programme)


Or maybe review our ‘One to One’ executive coaching services to get some personal guidance on developing your personal impact.


Download this article as a pdf


Give us a call on 0844 394 8877 (UK) or +44 1788 475 877 (international) or email us at and we’ll be happy to discuss how we can work with you.

And we end with a quote about the well-known Shakespearean characters in Julius Caesar

“When Brutus spoke the crowd cheered; but when Antony spoke they marched.”


“There’s nowt so queer as folk.” – old English proverb
collaborating with difficult people

Coping with an awkward squad

Some people we like and some we don’t. Similarly, there are some people (hopefully not too many) who don’t care too much for us. Sometimes we find people behave badly towards us and sometimes (hopefully not too often) we are less than courteous in our treatment of others. In a world that is populated with people of many and varied values, goals, cultural backgrounds, attitudes and life experiences that’s to be expected. If we can simply avoid these difficult people and the uncomfortable or unpleasant situations they create, all well and good. But sometimes we can’t ignore them. They might be an important client, or a colleague, or a manager, or our partner’s parents, and then we have to find ways of getting along with them.

Knowing me; knowing you (aha)

The cornerstone of dealing with people in general (and people we find difficult or challenging in particular) is empathy i.e. the ability to share another person’s feelings, as if they were your own.

With the exception of psychopaths, humans are born with an in-built capacity for empathy, and that’s reflected in the ability to mirror behaviour. For example, when a baby cries, another baby will cry: when a baby yawns, another baby will yawn. As we develop, we get much more complex understandings of how to ‘put ourselves’ in someone else’s shoes and imagine their experiences. Research with jurors in the US, however, shows that the natural tendency is to be more empathic towards those who look or act like us. So that can lead to unfair treatment where the accused seems too ‘different’ from those who are judging them.

A key attribute of using empathy really effectively then is to be able to get a sense of how someone from a background different to our own might think and feel. Of course, ‘understanding’ someone’s feelings is not the same as agreeing with them. It’s entirely possible to fully appreciate someone’s point of view and think them wrong, or misguided, or maybe even malicious. But ‘understanding’ is the first step to be able to take meaningful action. And sometime the act of understanding is enough, in and of itself, to improve a situation.  So, we begin addressing any awkward person, or difficult situation, by thinking about what’s driving their behaviour; because for sure, in their mind, what they are doing makes perfect sense.  And once we have an insight into their motivation we can have some ideas about how to respond effectively to them.

See people not bodies

Rick Hanson the neuropsychologist and author has an interesting view on developing empathy, which can be useful in the setting of having to collaborate with a difficult person.

He argues that when we encounter someone, usually the mind automatically slots the person into a category: man, woman, your friend Tom, etc. 
In effect, the mind summarises and simplifies many details into a single thing – a human thing to be sure, but one with an umbrella label that makes it easy to know how to act. For example: “Oh, that’s my boss (or mother-in-law, or boyfriend, or waiter) . . . and now I know what to do.”

This labelling process is fast, efficient, and gets to the essentials, but this categorising has lots of problems. It fixes attention on surface features of the person’s body, such as age, gender, attractiveness, or role. It leads to objectifying others (e.g., the ‘pretty woman’, the ‘authority figure’) rather than respecting their humanity. It tricks us into thinking that a person comprised of changing complexities is a static unified entity. It’s easier to feel threatened by, or blame, or ignore someone you’ve labelled as this or that.

So, Hanson suggests that when you talk with someone (maybe someone from another department you are collaborating with), be aware of the many things they are, such as: son, brother, father, uncle, fisherman, donor to charity, reader of detective novels, etc. etc. Recognise some of the many thoughts, feelings, and reactions swirling around in the mind of the other person. Knowing the complexity of your own mind, try to imagine some of the many bubbling-up contents in their stream of consciousness. Being aware of your own changes – alert one moment and sleepy another, nervous now and calm later, perhaps you can see changes happening in the other person. This helps to develop a greater understanding of the other person and to encourage a more balanced and calmer way of interacting with them. As Hanson says, “the more significant the relationship, the more it helps to see beings, not bodies.”

The art of Non-Violent Communication

The psychologist, Dr. Marshall Rosenberg (1934-2015) developed the idea of Non-Violent Communication in the 1960’s.

His approach was to not try and get your own way when faced with a challenging conversation.  And also, to not treat people as ‘enemies’ or ‘competitors’ and to avoid making judgements or attributing blame. Instead he said to ‘Identify your Needs’ or desires, and also uncover their underlying needs e.g. acceptance, security, consistency, integrity, effectiveness etc.

So, he encouraged people to ask themselves (and the other party) “what do I/you need or value in this situation…?”

E.g. Identify your Needs: “I don’t feel I am getting the information I need to be comfortable that the project is on track. I need more data and more certainty that the work is going to be completed on time.”

Once the needs are out in the open then it’s important to explicitly acknowledge them (and have them empathically acknowledge your needs in return).

It is then possible to Formulate Requests that will lead to the needs being met. The requests should be firm and clear but not be phrased as a ‘demand’, nor should you use a negative tone, such as sarcasm.

He recommended using the format, “Would you be willing to…” Or “I would like you…” Or, “Would you like it if I…”.

E.g. Formulate Requests: Would you be willing to email me a weekly update, every Friday morning before 12 o’clock, using these four Key Performance Indicators (KPI’s)?

Then it’s a case of Obtaining Feedback e.g. “Is this something you can live with” … “Am I on the right track with this conversation?”

It’s important to understand that this process is a two-way street: both sides’ underlying needs must be uncovered, acknowledged and met.

Collaborative behaviours

The US State Department has published a list of behaviours, based on a review of the research on effective communication behaviours, which they feel drive collaborative working in ‘day to day’ and face to face interactions.

This way of working will also help when dealing with difficult people or challenging conversations. They include:

Pausing: Pausing slows down the discussion and signals to others that their ideas are worth thinking about. It dignifies their contribution, so builds rapport and implicitly encourages future participation. It also, of course, creates time for people to think and that means it’s less likely that someone will blurt out something ‘hurtful’ or ‘unhelpful’.

Summarising: A well-known study by the psychologist Neil Rackham showed that expert communicators summarise twice as often as average ones.  A summary helps members of a team hear and understand each other as they evaluate data and formulate decisions.  It (like pausing) slows the conversation down and checks understanding.  Of course, there is a clear link to demonstrating ’empathy’ here.

Asking questions: Open questions, motivated by curiosity, increase the clarity and precision of a person’s thinking. Interestingly, the Rackham study found that expert communicators ask twice as many questions as average ones.

Putting forward ideas: it is vital that collaborative groups nurture suggestions, as they are the heart of a meaningful discussion. Of course, this can be done in line with the principles of non-violent communication e.g. “Would you be willing to…”

Notice your own and other people’s body language:  communication is generally ‘smoother’ when someone is not only aware of what he or she is saying, but also how it is said (i.e. tone of voice) and how others are responding to it. This ties in with the non-violent communication concepts of not blaming or judging people.

Balancing advocacy and inquiry: Both inquiry (asking questions) and advocacy (making proposals) are necessary components of collaborative work. Inquiry provides for greater understanding. Advocacy leads to decision-making. A common mistake is to bring premature closure to problem identification (inquiry for understanding) and rush into problem resolution (advocacy for a specific remedy or solution).  So again (to link with the ideas of non-violent communication) be sure to take the time to really uncover what the underlying needs or desires are in any given situation.

So what’s next?

Think about past collaborations you have been involved in that meant you had to engage with difficult people. For the ones that turned out well think about why things ended up being OK. For the ones that went badly, think about why they went badly. As you reflect on the two experiences, what does that suggest to you about how you can improve your collaborative efforts going forward?

Try reading: this thoughtful article on the nature of empathy by Seung Chan Lim…

Have a look at Dr. Marshall Rosenberg talking about non-violent communication on You Tube. (10 minutes)

If you think that you or your work team could benefit from our help then take a look at our in-house half-day, master class on Self Awareness & Effective Team Work…

Or perhaps think about some ‘one to one’ executive coaching to help develop your ability to deal with difficult people or situations….

And to end with a useful piece of advice on dealing with people (difficult or otherwise) from the management guru Stephen Covey;

“Seek first to understand and then to be understood”

“O would some power the giftie gie us to see ourselves as others see us.” Robert Burns
face in the mirror

Self-awareness Vs. sleep walking

It is very easy to live life on ‘auto pilot’ without really stopping to think about what is driving our behaviour and motivating our actions. This is especially true when the pace of life is hectic and there are many demands on our time and attention. This can have unfortunate consequences for people in all walks of life. Margaret Thatcher (the UK Prime Minister) had a very effective style, for a while, but when it all started to go wrong she thought that she needed to be more like herself, when in fact the opposite was required. This capacity for ‘self-awareness’ is emphasised in “True North: Discover Your Authentic Leadership”, by Harvard Professor Bill George, which highlights the importance of ‘knowing your true self’, if you are going to be a good leader.

Self-awareness from the outside in

One popular way of gaining insights into our automatic, or default, patterns of behaviours is to take psychometric inventory that help us to analyse our innermost motivations. There are literally thousands of published psychometric inventories, of widely varying degrees of validity. The most popular inventory, is probably the “Myers-Briggs Type Indicator (MBTI)” assessment, with over two million tests administered each year. Sadly, it’s a very poorly designed test; you can view a video about its origins here…

My personal preference when using psychometric inventories to develop self-awareness, however, is for the “Strength Deployment Inventory” developed by the US psychologist, clinical therapist, educator and author Elias H. Porter, Ph.D. A very robust instrument, the SDI helps people to recognise that they can choose their behaviours to accommodate their underlying ‘core’ values, while also taking into account the values of others’ (which can be quite different from their own.) www.personalstrengthsuk/

The SDI assess personality against four core values. People are a mix of all four ‘orientations’ and these fundamental motivations can drive a very wide range of individual behaviours. In a highly simplified form the four values are: Altruism (a desire to help others), Directing (having a strong focus on goals), Analytical (a preference for making careful assessments) and Cohering (a focus on team work and group dynamics).

When developing self-awareness using psychometrics in leadership teams, it is common for consultants to select the “Hogan Leadership Series” developed by Dr Robert & Dr Joyce Hogan, which has been evolving since the 1970’s. The Hogan Series of inventories contains three sets of analysis: the “bright side”, positive qualities necessary for success (e.g. tact, perceptiveness, initiative); the “dark side”, covering potential barriers or de-railers to success (e.g. arrogance, moodiness, stubbornness); and the “inside”, the internal drivers that motivate behaviour (e.g. wanting to help others, seeking out social interaction etc.) It has been taken by several millions of people in over 12 countries. The British Psychological Society awarded it the highest accolade for test development. The Hogan web site is: (and we offer the Hogan assessment and feedback as part of our coaching services… )


Another popular approach to get a sense of how others see us is 360-degree feedback, where the opinion of colleagues and peers is used to highlight their perception of our strengths and weaknesses. While this can be a valuable exercise, completing it successfully is fraught with difficulties e.g. all employees are treated equally, so the views of top performing employees have the same weight as those of low performers, who may give a low score because they don’t like their manager pushing them to improve. Or employees may mark a manager they like personally higher than they deserve (or vice versa); the same may be true if they fear that the feedback isn’t anonymous. Also, many surveys don’t ask for suggested ‘solutions’ to perceived behavioural ‘problems’, so how specifically the person at the centre of the 360 should change their ways might not be obvious etc.

Self-awareness from the inside out

Another possibility is analysing our past in order to uncover deep motivation patterns that affect us in the present. This ‘personal history’ analysis simply involves looking at some key facts from the past, and thinking about their current impact on our daily life by asking four key questions…

  1. What are three significant facts about your upbringing?
  2. What are three ways that your personal history positively affects you today?
  3. What are three ways that your personal history negatively affects you today?
  4. What can you do to escape from the negative aspects of your personal history?

The key to this deceptively simple exercise, which can be surprisingly powerful and sometimes ‘unsettling’, is to write down the answers to the four questions. The act of writing down the answers helps with processing emotions and makes it easier to consider the issues being raised in an objective manner.

Avoiding Junk Logic

A common cause of personal problems associated with a lack of self-awareness, is negative, irrational thinking patterns (also called ‘junk logic’.) According to Albert Ellis (founder of Rational Emotive Behaviour Therapy) there are four types of irrational beliefs that inhibit the ability to act in a constructive way, which he explores in his book “How to Make Yourself Happy and Remarkably Less Disturbed.”

The four types of junk logic are…

  1. Demands – believing that things have to be a particular way. This causes problems because it is not usually possible to control other people or the way they are. For example, thinking that “everyone must like me at all times”” is a recipe for distress as it is simply not possible to be liked by all of the people all of the time. A more rational thought would be; “I want people to like me and I will treat people well, but if occasionally someone doesn’t like me, that is their choice and I feel OK about it.”
  2. Avoiding responsibility – placing the responsibility for things going wrong onto another person. An example of this would be the person who says, “you make me angry”, or “you will make me angry if you talk to me about (x)”, whereas, of course, the person has the responsibility to choose their actions, and we have the responsibility to choose our response.
  3. Over Generalisations – thinking that the occurrence of one event will mean that things will always be a particular way. So in this case one swallow does make a summer. Unwarranted generalisations lead to feelings of frustration, worry and helplessness.
  4. Catastrophisation – thinking that some event is awful or disastrous, leading to anxiety and despair e.g. “I will die of embarrassment if I have to give a presentation”.

Hurry up and be perfect

Eric Berne, the Canadian psychiatrist and developer of the Transactional Analysis School of Psychology, proposed that in childhood there are certain messages or ‘drivers’ that are often transmitted to children via their environment and how they are treated. These ‘drivers’ then influence how people behave as adults. Each ‘driver’ can have certain strengths, but also potential weaknesses associated with them. Due to this, when a ‘driver’ is unacknowledged, in later life it can cause relationship problems. So for example, if someone became aware that they always felt the need for urgency, or to ‘Hurry Up’, one corrective action would be to consciously make the effort to ‘take their time’ over some task or activity. The five key ‘drivers’ are…

  1. Be perfect! Positive Aspect: valuing accuracy, tidiness and maintaining high standards. Negative Aspect: feeling dissatisfied because you can never be quiet good enough, finding it hard to delegate or trust others to do things correctly.
  2. Be Strong! Positive Aspect: making things happen, taking control of situations, not being overly emotional, or dependent on others. Negative Aspect: being seen as aloof, distant and getting overwhelmed by refusing to ask for help when it’s needed.
  3. Try Hard! Positive Aspect: working hard, a willingness to take on new things. Negative Aspect: taking on more than you can cope with, getting sidetracked and so frustrating other people when you don’t get things done on time.
  4. Please others! Positive Aspect: being friendly, supportive and easy to get along with, a good team player. Negative Aspect: finding it hard to say no, even to unfair requests and downplaying your own needs
  5. Hurry Up! Positive Aspect: working fast, being efficient and getting things done quickly. Negative Aspect: leaving things until the last minute, appearing impatient, being unrealistic about timelines and so having to continually ‘rush’ to get things done.

Self-awareness and energy management

Schwattz and McCarthy ague in their October 2007 HBR article, “Manage Your Energy not Your Time” ( that many ‘problems’ and stress reactions can be attributed to people being unaware of how they manage their energy. Gaining an insight into how energy is being managed (or mismanaged) is, for them, the key to being effective.

They identify four classes of energy that need to be consciously managed:

  1. Physical energy
  2. Emotional energy
  3. Mental energy
  4. Spiritual energy

They recommend that people develop specific daily ‘rituals’ that create a sense of ‘renewal’ throughout the day, for each of the four categories. For example, Physical Energy could be developed by making a habit of going to bed early, exercising each morning (as soon as you get up), going for a short walk each lunchtime etc. Emotional Energy can be improved by deliberately expressing appreciation of others e.g. saying thank you, sending a congratulatory email etc. They argue that praising or acknowledging other people’s efforts causes productivity to increase, stress to be reduced and enthusiasm to be generated.

Looking through Johari’s Window

“The Johari Window” model was devised by American psychologists Joseph Luft and Harry Ingham in 1955, while researching group dynamics at the University of California Los Angeles. The name comes from a combination of their first names (Joseph and Harry.) The model asks that people assess their thoughts and feelings in relation to four ‘regions’ or areas:

  1. The Open Area: what is known by the person about him/herself and is also known by others
  2. The Blind Spot: what is unknown by the person about him/herself, but which others know
  3. The Hidden Area: what the person knows about him/herself that others do not know
  4. The Unknown Area: what is unknown by the person about him/herself and is also unknown by others

Of course in team work situations one aim of the window is to increase productivity by working to get people to know each other better, and so increase the size of the “Open Area”.

Blind Spots (e.g. not realizing that other people see you as (say) indecisive) can be addressed by seeking feedback from others.

The Hidden Area consists of dreams, desires, fears, preferences, secrets etc. that we keep to ourselves. While some of this hidden information is ‘sensitive’ and is best kept private, a lot of it isn’t especially personal and we can achieve better relationships with others by moving it into the “Open Area”, through well-judged ‘disclosure’ i.e. telling people what’s on your mind.

The Unknown Area is a thing that neither the person or those that know them are aware of e.g. a hidden talent – as in an ability or skill that no-one knows they have because the situation where it might be relevant has never arisen, or an experience they might enjoy but haven’t tried yet e.g. a type of food, or maybe a pastime etc. On the ‘dark side’ this area could also include memories of traumatic events that have been repressed. Exploring this area involves embarking on self-discovery through reflection, or experimenting with new experiences.

So what’s next???

Developing self-awareness means accepting those parts of you and your behaviour that usually remain hidden. It also involves being honest about personal limitations and areas of weakness. Self-awareness, however, also means highlighting those situations where you are most effective, assists with decision-making, boosts motivation and is the key to personal growth and leadership development. So consider:

Trying an online version of the Cattell 16PF test to get some feedback on your preferred approach to situations.

Experimenting with an online version of the Johari Window, 360 feedback exercise. A classic and elegant awareness tool first developed in 1955.

Reading, “The Self Esteem Workbook” by Glenn R. Schiraldi if you want to explore this area in detail and have access to a number of ‘self development’ tools.

If you think that you or your work team could benefit from our help then take a look at our half-day, in-house Self-Awareness & Teamwork workshop using the SDI …

Or maybe our ‘one to one’ executive coaching services, for one of our experts to take you through the Hogan Leadership Questionnaire

Consider Sun Tzu’s famous quote from the Art of War

“If you know others and know yourself, you will not be imperilled in a hundred battles.”

“We must all hang together, or assuredly we shall all hang separately.”
Benjamin Franklin
collaborative working

Collaborating, between both external partners and also internal teams, is a key competency for successful organisations. But it goes wrong at least as often as it goes right, sometimes with horrible consequences.

Take, for example, the case of the 2007 joint venture between Swiss watch manufacture Swatch and the high-end jewellery retailer Tiffany. The aim of the collaboration was for Swatch to manufacture Tiffany branded watches that Tiffany would sell through its distribution outlets. All went well until 2011 when Tiffany decided that the watches were no longer a priority for their business and (according to Swatch) started dragging its feet on making decisions; it also stopped displaying the watches at its flagship 5th Avenue store in New York. The relationship soured and in 2013 Swatch was awarded, through an arbitration action, $449 million in compensation.

So, one thing this story tells us about good collaboration is the need to consider the issue of Residual Control i.e. if something unexpected happens, or circumstances alter, who can initiate a change? E.g. is there a specific ‘break clause’ in the collaboration agreement, or an option for mediation? But, of course, there’s much more to building an effective collaboration than having an ‘escape hatch’ built into the agreement.

Defining collaboration…

Let’s start with a formal definition… Collaborative Working is defined as:
‘People working jointly on an activity or project to achieve a common goal. Especially where this involves co-operation between a number of teams, departments and/or different organisations to achieve an agreed objective.’
It comes from the Latin, ‘collaborare’, meaning ‘to work with.’

Do the stars align?

Clearly a key part of this definition is the need for a ‘common goal’. So the starting point for collaboration to work is that there must be a clear and explicitly stated common interest and an agreed ‘vision’ for what is to be achieved. There must also be good quality goals and concrete measures of success. This clarity of purpose plus clear success criteria is the basis for all the other aspects that need to be in place for collaboration to work.

Naturally that common purpose needs to be genuine and sincerely felt by all involved if good results are to be achieved. Sometimes collaboration occurs for public relations reasons, with one or more of the parties just going through the motions, regarding the collaboration as their ‘least worst option’. In these cases, one of the ‘players’ secretly hope it will fail, stall, or be abandoned. All the while they seem to be collaborating they are actually looking for reasons to pull out while, on the surface of things, acting in a reasonable manner. The main message here is that it’s counterproductive to pressure people into a collaboration – as they usually have more ways of sabotaging things than you have ways of getting them to behave! Thus, a key stage in the collaborative process is to check that all the parties are fully invested in a successful outcome.

On a related point, as we’ve seen above, it’s also vital to make sure there is a mechanism to handle situations were those common interests, once genuinely in sync, for some reason start to diverge. (The issue of ‘residual control’.) So, I don’t suppose many people who are about to get married have the idea in their heads that things will end in divorce but anyone who’s rich and/or famous makes sure they’ve got the prenuptial agreement in place before they tie the knot.

You say potato, I say potata – let’s call the whole thing off

Common interests provide the rationale for the collaboration but alignment of organisational culture is the key driver of success. As the old saying goes, ‘culture eats strategy for breakfast’. So part of having a good alignment is that there are no cultural barriers that might block effective working; or if they are there then they are dealt with.

For example, take the case of the World Wide Fund for nature working with Plus Group (an organisation that certifies forestry management procedures as environmentally sound for products sold by its commercial members e.g. Boots, Sainsbury’s, Body Shop etc.) Unsurprisingly the WWF’s focus was primarily on protecting the environment, while Plus Group goals related to satisfying the business interests of its members e.g. getting cost reductions. Plus Group consequently felt that the WFF people were often ‘unable to appreciate commercial pressures’. The way these tensions were resolved was through ‘cultural mediators’. Essentially the WWF Project Managers built personal networks and ‘alliances’ that enabled them to act as bridges between the environmentalist culture and that of the commercial companies that made up the Plus Group membership. They worked to get a shared vocabulary and frame of reference established such that mutual respect could be established and trust built. So, when contemplating a collaboration, it’s worth thinking about who is going to provide that ‘cultural mediation’.

The importance of a ‘collaboration strategy’

  • The UK’s National Audit Office has commissioned research into Collaborative Working relationships and how they can drive successful programmes. The research looked at nine collaborative projects involving major companies such as BP, AMEC, and Babcock. All the collaborations were between two separate organisations (not internal collaborations) and identified (unsurprisingly) the need for a clear Vision. They also noted the importance of:
  • Leaders being role models for, and actively championing, working in a collaborative manner e.g. sharing information openly, having regular and timely discussion on all matters that affect the collaboration with no, no-go areas or sacred cows.
  • The usefulness of a “no surprises” and a “no-blame” culture to build the levels of trust that effective collaboration needs if it is to succeed.
  • Making sure that the reward and recognition systems used by both parties were compatible with (i) one another and (ii) a collaborative approach. So it’s clearly destructive if the bonus schemes offered by the various parties to the collaboration pull people in different directions e.g. rewards for getting things done in the shortest possible time Vs. (say) the highest possible standard. For example, consider the case of a major UK bank where the Telephone Banking department wouldn’t suggest that customer’s pop into their local branch to sort out some paperwork, even when this was clearly the simplest and best option for the client, because that customer wouldn’t then count as part of their sales figures. So in a world where bonuses mattered a lot to the monthly take home pay and where those bonuses were dependant on hitting sales targets, collaboration was effectively discouraged.

Actively managing the inevitable conflict

Jeff Weiss and Jonathan Hughes in a Harvard Business Review Article on Collaboration propose that it has never been more important to get people to work together across internal boundaries. They also think that most Executives underestimate the inevitability of conflict in doing this.

To underline this point about likelihood of conflict occurring they list three ‘myths of collaboration’:

  1. Teaming workshops can help build bridges between internal teams: Weiss and Hughes say, ”no”, they don’t work very well as the inter-team conflicts typically go beyond the dynamics of day to day teamwork.
  2. Incentives encourage good behaviour: here they make a more nuanced point, (i) for sure poor incentives will kill the collaboration (ii) and good incentives will work up to a point but won’t be sufficient to sustain the collaboration long term.
  3. There is an optimal way of structuring the company to get good collaboration: again they say “no”, and state that, “no organisation chart that will avoid conflicts and lead to greater collaboration.”

They argue that the disagreements sparked by differences in perspective, competencies, culture, access to information, and strategic focus within a company are (a) Unavoidable (b) Actually generate much of the value that can come from collaboration.

So instead of trying simply to reduce disagreements, senior executives need to embrace conflict and institutionalise mechanisms for managing it. They divide these mechanisms into two main areas:

  • Strategies for managing disagreements at the point of conflict.
    For example, they suggest that a formal ‘conflict resolution’ process is put in place to provide an agreed mechanism for nipping disagreements in the bud. And they suggest that coaching is provided to the protagonists, to help them find common ground.
  • Strategies for managing conflict upon escalation up the management chain. This involves requiring that the people experiencing the conflict engage in a joint escalation process. So no one person can trigger an escalation, they have to involve their colleagues in the process.

And, of course, both processes need to be in place and fully utilised if a collaborative effort is to be a success.

So what’s next?

Think about past collaborations you have been involved in. For the ones that went well think about why they went well. For the ones that went badly think about why they went badly. As you reflect on the two experiences, what does that suggest to you about how you can improve your collaborative efforts going forward?


Want Collaboration?: Accept – and Actively Manage – Conflict
by Jeff Weiss and Jonathan Hughes, Harvard Business Review Article


Have a look at Tim Cook talking about collaboration at Apple (3 minutes long):


If you think that you, or your work team, could benefit from our help then you might like to review our in-house half-day master class on Conflict Management


Or if you want to help develop a leadership team take a look at our Executive Coaching Services

And to end with a quote from the well known entrepreneur…

“If everyone is moving forward together, then success takes care of itself”
Henry Ford