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Common management problems and solutions


Our staff don't care - 6 ways to turn disempowered, demoralised, demotivated and underperforming staff into engaged employees.

If you've got this far you know disengaged staff are a big problem, but you might not know quite how big. In 2005 David Bolchover took it upon himself to find out what actively disengaged employees do when at work (and also when not). Scouring the research, he found that:

  •   1 in 3 people have taken illegal drugs at work: ecstasy, cannabis, and cocaine
  •   1 in 5 people have had sex at work
  •   70% of porn site hits happen during working hours
  •   The actively disengaged have twice as much time off sick (and many of them are to be found at theme parks, apparently)
  •   1 in 5 people describe themselves as constantly surfing the net, while a majority of people estimate they spend the equivalent of a day a week on non-work websites at work
  •   7% send more than 20 personal emails a day
  •   1/3 of young professionals confess to being hung over twice a week at work; and
  •   A quarter of people have fallen asleep at work


Think of the productivity gains from tackling this effectively! So how do you do that?

  1. Using strengths and talents. People encouraged to use their strengths at work are about 2.5 times as likely to be engaged as those who are encouraged to focus on their weaknesses. They are particularly more likely to be engaged if they get to use their strengths every day. Help people identify their strengths either with good psychometric tools like Strengthscope, or through Appreciative Inquiry discovery interviews and Feedback Strengths Cards.
  2. Experiencing flow. When people are in flow they are engaged. Flow is the state you experience when you're doing something you enjoy and loose yourself in, the sort of activity where you loose track of time because you are completely engageed in what you're doing. Flow experiences occur at work but aren’t always recognised as such. Help people understand their flow experiences. To discover them, inquire into when they ‘lose’ themselves in their work, or ask them when they feel ‘in the zone’.
  3. The helpful use of goals and rewards. Much goal setting at work is poorly done. At its best goal setting provides opportunities for people to experience plentiful, positive and meaningful rewards (positive reinforcement). Working for social or self-satisfaction rewards can be highly motivating and engaging. The sustainable reward pattern is one that is self-reinforcing e.g. the more or better I do, the better I feel. 
  4. Help people find meaning in work. When people are engaged in work that they experience as meaningful, they are more engaged. People can be helped to create positive meaning at work, particularly when groups are given the opportunity talk to each other about why their work is meaningful to them, to the organisation, and to the world. It's all about context - there's a big difference between doing a routine task just because that's your job and doing it because you understand how that helps, in its own small way, to reduce childhood poverty or help people buy their first car.
  5. Create positive emotional experience moments. The research into positive emotions continues to demonstrate the powerful positive effects of a high ratio of feeling good moments to feeling bad moments. Create environments where positive moments: a shared laugh, sharing good news, pauses for wonderment at the achievements of others, happens often.
  6. Encourage job crafting. Helping people to shape their roles and tasks in a way that maximises their sense of meaningfulness, their ability to use their strengths, their self-reinforcement and the pleasure they can take in their work will boost their engagement and their performance. Hire good people then fit the roles to them, not the other way round.

Dysfunctional management and a blame culture - it can get better: 3 first steps

Dysfunctional management is the nightmare of any organisation. It paralyses everything, leaving you steadily drifting into irrelevance. A blame culture at the top is usually both a cause and a consequence of this state and it spreads across the organisation, making even small, localised changes hard to achieve. If you can't change you can't adapt to your competitors or to changes in technology or consumer choices. So how do you start to fix that?   

It is hard for organisations to step outside their existing culture, to act ‘as if’ they weren’t in their existing world. This is as true for managers as anyone else. Attempts to ‘bring in’ or in any other way impose a new culture by diktat or plan or rhetoric is pretty much doomed to failure. New cultures need to be cultivated; they need to be grown from within the organization. How do you do this? The organization is both created by, and constrains, the small daily habitual patterns of interaction and communication of everyone in the organization, or in this case the management team.  Change these and you change the organization.

The patterns of behaviour are both products, and reinforcers, of our patterns of mind, that is, our habitual way of understanding the world. Powerful experiences that can’t be accommodated by our existing world-views are the things that change our mental models.



  1. On the road again. Exposing someone to different experiences can shift their views. For example sending the production manager out with a salesman to experience customer behaviour and need first hand. The production manager is going to be skeptical - "why do I need to see how sales works, that's their job. Our job is to make our widgets in the most efficient way we can to the designs we've been given. I've cut the cost of making each widget by 30%, if they're not selling as well as they used to that's sales's fault." Then he sees the customer explaining to the salesman that because they can't get replacement widgets the next day anymore he's switched widget supplier. The salesman and the production manager discuss this and they realise its because the new, more efficient procedure the production manager has brought in means they don't carry much spare inventory anymore.The salesman sees that the production manager didn't do this to make his job harder and the production manager realises his actions had unintended consequences.
  2. This person's not just a pain in my @$£%, they're a human being. In a similar way creating events where people experience each other differently can shift their beliefs about each other as they discover aspects of and qualities in the person to which they had not previously been exposed. Two managers bring their respective middle managers to a workshop session. Both get their teams to talk about one instance where the manager helped them to become more confident and competent in their roles. Both managers will see that the other manager isn't just the person that shoots down their ideas, tells them things can't be done and berates them for not following their systems, they're people who care about and nurture their teams. Then the next time there's an issue between them it's not "they're just saying no to spite me" or "they're lazy" but rather "maybe they're worried about the strain its going to put on their team".
  3. I've never even thought of that before. Alternatively the powerful experience can be an internal one. The experience of being asked a really powerful question is akin to having the world shake on its axis. If a manager only seems to see when someone is getting it wrong ask them: "Who thinks highly of this person, and what is it that they see that you don't?". When someone seems to have a good idea but is unable to get going on with it ask them: "Who do you feel you need express permission from to make something happen here? To take the initiative?" - it might be "No one I guess", they're just used to waiting for direction. When someone is locked into complaining about something, particularly if it isn't something they can actually fix, the question "If you weren't spending time talking about this, what would you be talking about?" should wake them up to the waste of time and energy.

Change: I know I should, but how?

New and powerfully effective ways of changing organisations: Appreciative Inquiry, Simureal, World Cafe, positive psychology - you've heard of them, you want to use them if they'll create change in your organisation that actually sticks but you don't know where to start. And why should you - most of us only know how to manage change the way we manage most things, by coming up with a plan at the top and trying to get everyone else to conform to it. That's not how you actually affect how people behave. To do that you have to get people to realise why things need to change, how things can be better and to actually help you to do this. Overcoming resistance to change? No - there shouldn't be resistance if you're doing it right:


Positive Psychology

This is just a term for the overall philosophy behind how we help organisations change effectively and for the better. Basically it means that in order to be more successful, organisations should think about what they already do well and focus on that, both to do even better at that area and to learn from how they approach that task or function successfully how to change they way they approach things they're not good at. It's more productive to say 'A is great, let's make everything as good as that' rather than 'B is terrible, what the hell are we going to do?'.

Closely related to this is the idea of working with strengths. This means that people should be doing things they enjoy and can loose themselves in because a) they are better at doing that than anything else; and b) they will work much harder at doing that than anything else. You may think that suiting the roles to the people, rather than forcing people to do everything their role 'should' include won't work as there are some roles which are essential but which 'nobody' likes. In some cases that's true, but you'd be surprised what some people can loose themselves in doing well.


Appreciative Inquiry

Appreciative Inquiry is the most flexible tool in the change management arsenal. It is useful in so many change situations, not just for the organisation as a whole but also for departments, teams and even individuals. All Appreciative Inquiry is is a practical way of doing positive psychology, i.e. how to get a group of people or just one person to stop focusing on how they are failing to do one thing but rather to focus on how they excel at doing something else. This then allows you to unpack what it is they do that allows them to excel at something and both think about how they could apply these techniques to whatever it is they're failing at and to realise how good they could be at it. The latter is important - not only does focusing ono what's going wrong tend to make the discussion about blame and reacting to past mistakes but it puts people in the mindset that this is the way it's always going to be, that things can't be any better. That kills all motivation to try and improve. 



This is fantastic. It basically allows you to illustrate to people who normally work in separate departments and on different sites how seemingly small and, to them, perfectly justifiable, deviations from established procedures can cause havoc over time unless there is good communication between people in different departments and divisions as to whats been done and why. Essentially over the course of a day or a few hours you simulate months of activity in an organisation by simplifying non-essential elements and speeding up the timeframe.  In some work we did with an manufacturing company we showed how people in distribution making up rushed orders by 'borrowing' small numbers of components intended for other deliveries and not entering this information into the computer tracking software properly quickly led to chaos as the computer system began issuing impossible orders to all concerned. 


World Cafe

An effective way of encouraging the sharing of ideas and experiences, this technique allows people brought together to learn from each other to join and leave conversations at will in a casual setting. It is enormously efficient as it prevents people from spending hours trapped in formalised discussions about topics which they have nothing to contribute to and enormously productive as people relax and open up to each other and begin scribbling ideas down on tablecloths. 

Downsizing Is Killing Us - how can we stop demoralising the people who are still here?

There's no getting around it, sometimes organisations have to let people go to cut costs. If you're focused on the right things then you will have tried everything else first but that doesn't make it any easier for the people concerned. Even more important to the future of the organisation - what about the people who are left? Even when it becomes clear that they are safe you're essentially asking them to not only carry on doing a good job but in effect to work even harder, now that there's less people to do the work, despite the fact that they may well be seriously demoralised and under-motivated. 

This collapse in morale amongst those staff who are retained not only affects productivity directly but often means there is an exodus amongst the remaining staff, particularly the most talented, as was found by Charlie Trevor and Anthony Nyberg of the Wisconsin School of Business[1], even if the redundancy programme had been carefully designed to avoid that.


There are two ways the remaining staff can be seriously unsettled:

  • Personal bitterness: Many of the people remaining will be friends of those let go and if they feel that their friends were treated shabbily during the process they will resent it.
  • Survivor guilt: When it becomes apparent that they have survived the redundancy round feelings of guilt, similar to those that survivors of natural disasters often report, can easily surface.  As well being a general problem this may make it seem disloyal to them to embrace or engage with any organisational changes made during the redundancies.


You can minimise the fallout from downsizing by doing it appreciatively - 3 essential steps   

Here's what you need to do to prevent your remaining staff feeling traumatised by the whole experience. Basically it can be summed up by saying that if you treat those leaving well, and not as an embarrassment, it will make those staying a lot less guilty and resentful of the organisation as a whole and you personally:

  1. Treat the people leaving as individuals -  Organise practical support, whether its ‘how to adjust to retirement’, to ‘how to work your network’, for those leaving and negotiate individual leaving packages that meet their needs e.g. some might want to keep the car for a month to help with appearances and confidence at interviews, while others, keen to launch their business idea or take up their hobby might want everything converted to cash.
  2. Be sorry, not ashamed: Be crystal clear why the organisation has to let people go. Remember that just because you have to do something someone might be experiencing as a bad thing doesn’t make you a bad person. You are not the sole architect of their fate. Don’t avoid people; seek them out so you can tell them personally how sorry you are that it has come to this. If appropriate let them know that you personally are happy to write them letters of recommendation and that when things pick up you would be very happy to offer them employment if they are still around, but sadly, for now, to save the organisation for the future, you have had to make some very hard decisions.
  3. Honour them - This might be hard for you, given what you've just done to these people, and you might be afraid that they will throw the offer back in your face but it is essential. Hiding in your office or making sure you're in meetings on people's last days will rightly be seen as cowardice and a final, unnecessary slight. You need some sort of ceremony for departing staff. This should include:
  • Making sure friends and colleagues from the organisation can attend, maybe invite (or suggest the leaving employee invite) their family.
  • Having someone honour each departing individual. Make sure it's someone who can speak with genuine appreciation of what they have brought to the organisation. This might well be a work-mate rather than senior management. Someone who can say from a state of knowledge how sorry they are to see this person go.
  • Putting up a talking wall, in a public place, of the achievements of those who are leaving. The technology can range from video clips or interviews with colleagues, to flip-chart paper and post it notes. Depending on your industry and their specialism you might include accounts won, innovations developed, sporting teams led, social relationships fostered, talent nurtured and so on. Invite people to add their own messages of sorrow, support, and reminiscence.


[1] Trevor, C. and Nyberg, A., 2009. ‘Keeping your headcount when all about you are loosing theirs’, Academy of Management Journal. Available at: www.bit.ly/amj2008.

The Silo Mentality - How To Kill The Un-killable Beast

So what is a silo mentality and why is it so bad? Basically it is when the different divisions of an organisation seem, to the people in them, like different organisations altogether.  You might not think this applies to your organisation, especially if you are in a somewhat senior position, but in can look very different on the front line. A shared livery, universal HR and health and safety policies and accounting structure don't mean much to people who not only don't know anyone working in a different division but may have physically never gone to any site or part of a building other than the one that houses their department. Why is this so bad? Here's why:

  • It uses up enormous amounts of managers' time. When someone doesn't know anyone at another department who can help them resolve an issue between the two then the issues will be escalated up the hierarchy until it reaches a layer of management where people from different departments come into regular contact with each other. This eats up large parts of managers' days by essentially forcing them to act as a sort of switchboard for routine requests for help and information between people within the organisation.
  • It is a massive drag on efficiency. Quite aside from the time wasted waiting for questions to flow up one arm of the hierarchy, across to another, down to someone who might know the answer and then back again (assuming it comes back at all), it often prevents those question from even being asked in the first place. If you never come into contact with people who work in other departments you might not only have to wait to see if something you want to do will affect them, it might not even occur to you to that it might. This leads to conflict as the people in the other department say to themselves "look what those idiots at Sales/Production/Distribution/PR have done now, didn't it occur to them that we're trying to (insert other priority here)". This in turn can easily develop into acrimonious exchanges of emails between people who have little idea that the person they're talking to is basically a decent man or woman doing their best. More time and effort wasted, more people distracted.


The silo is always with us - except that it doesn't have to be

You would think by now that it is so obvious that organisations must try to reduce divisions to formal, logical groupings of functions for the purposes of internal accounting, internal efficiency (most issues people come across in their day-to-day work should be resolvable by talking to people they know doing closely related work) and career progression that the 'us and them' mentality would be largely gone. Yet in many organisations departments are akin to separate tribes within the organisation that, even if they don't actively discourage informal contact with other departments directly, certainly don't promote it. Here's how to start fixing that:

  1. Delegate: Its tough to give up control while maintaining responsibility but that is what you have to do to become a great manager. Identify good people, make them your subordinates and encourage them to do the same. Push as many decisions down the hierarchy as far as you can - your time is valuable and so are your subordinate's skills so you shouldn't be wasting either by giving your people less autonomy than they need to excel. Make it clear that if they need to talk to someone at their level in another department they should do just that and that you trust them to do that, not route the question through you.
  2. Socialise: It might sound wishy-washy to say that having a drink at the pub after work, or playing football with people from another department on a regular basis increases efficiency but it's true. People are social, and the blunt truth is that they don't like picking up the phone to talk to people they don't know and who might be rude or dismissive to them because there's no consequences to doing so. It's less daunting to think "I'll call Rita, she'll know what this is about", rather than "I'll have to get an answer out of someone at Sales".  
  3. Inform: People need to know what's going on across the organisation to realise how their actions could affect issues that are priorities for the organisation as a whole, and so ultimately for them too, but which are largely being handled or co-ordinated by other departments. A classic example of this not happening in the UK would be the big utility companies - their management must know that their long-term future is under threat from smaller rivals successfully competing with them on customer service, as many in their PR department probably know as well, yet it seems like that priority is not felt by many in the complaints divisions of these companies. This is a little-and-often project - a few company-wide memos and a quarterly internal newsletter isn't going to do it. Take five minutes at the beginning of your team meetings to talk about the wider context of your tasks for that week and refer to the priorities of the organisation when explaining your decisions. It all adds up.