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The British are famous for their manners and politeness. Overseas visitors are often baffled by our tendency to apologise for everything, our habit of understatement and our love of orderly queues. Politeness and the values of fair play and consideration are a key element of what makes Britain great. However, being too polite and giving way to others too readily can become a problem in the world of work. To keep team members on track, maximise productivity and maintain fairness, managers need to be able to act assertively. A few simple guidelines can help you avoid small everyday issues becoming a big drama. The key is to show consideration but to act quick, be clear and consistent and, if necessary, follow through with consequences.

Research sponsored by WebExpenses reveals that the majority of UK managers have difficulty being assertive when dealing with difficult situations at work. Two-thirds describe themselves as “too polite” even though more than three-quarters believe that excessive politeness impacts their business and many say it hampers their career progression. The problem is acute in particular professions; as many as 70% of IT and Telecoms managers believe they are too polite, with 90% acknowledging that this has a cost to their business.

The issues that managers typically avoid tackling include: poor time-keeping and unjustified absence from work; theft or fraudulent expense claims; bad behaviour; and poor performance. Each individual instance may not be significant in itself but repeated avoidance or inconsistent handling of such issues can lead to an escalating problem within an organisation. As a leader in a business, managers have a responsibility to ensure people are doing the right things, to the best of their ability, and are acting in a way that is fair to the company and to their colleagues. This ensures the company stays competitive and that it is a good place to work with strong staff morale. If we know it would be better to be more assertive, what is stopping us?

Firstly, it’s hard to break the habits of the prevailing culture. It’s generally less acceptable within the UK to appear loud or bossy and our individualistic culture means that we prefer to feel we have free will. Giving orders can lead to resentment so it can be better to make suggestions or explore options rather than just tell someone what to do. This will generate greater commitment to do what is required but also carries the risk of greater ambiguity and people pushing boundaries. Assertiveness still has an important role to play.

Secondly, personality plays a part. As a fairly introverted nation, we have a higher proportion of people who feel uncomfortable engaging with others, or verbalising their thoughts and feelings. We would rather quietly consider what to do than get out there and do it. British or not, a more sensitive temperament, accommodating nature and caring attitude will make it harder to stand up to others and deliver an unpopular message. For some, the emotional impact of handing a difficult conversation is turned up to a higher level.

However, emotion, and fear of emotion, can be a barrier for us all: we fear the other person’s reaction; we fear our ability to handle this; we fear the consequences of doing it wrong; and we fear getting angry or upset ourselves. Fear is unpleasant so we find excuses to avoid the situation. We tell ourselves: maybe it wasn’t their fault; maybe they will work it out for themselves; maybe its not really my place to speak out; maybe if I ignore it, then it will all go away.

Of course, there will be times when it will be right to leave things alone. However, the risk of inaction is that over time emotions fester and grow. What should have been a small issue becomes a larger problem impacting team morale, business performance and the manager’s peace of mind.

The best tactic for the reserved UK manager is to fight the instinct to hide but instead act early and nip any problems in the bud. Be calm, clear and consistent but use politeness to deliver the message with considerateness and care.

To flex more assertive behaviours:
  1. Quick: act before a problem escalates or it becomes embedded and let others see you dealing with problems regularly and immediately.
  2. Clear: ensure your expectations are unambiguous. As leader it is your responsibility to communicate the company’s goals and values.
  3. Consistent: have shared rules and apply them to all. This avoids conflict and dissatisfaction in the team.
  4. Continued: if the problem persists then restate the message. People may not readily change. Don’t use this as an excuse to give up.
  5. Consequences: celebrate success but also be prepared to take action if others cannot or will not do what is required for the business.

To balance the above with a polite human touch:
  1. Calm: manage your own emotions to avoid expressing unhelpful anger and blame. You may need to wait until initial frustrations subside.
  2. Considerate: ask questions to understand others’ feelings and point of view so that they feel valued.
  3. Compromise: accommodate others needs where this does not undermine your goal, to develop trust and loyalty.
  4. Collaborate: ask the other person to propose a solution to empower them and share ownership of the problem.
  5. Caring: offer support and coaching to show that however tough your demands, you’re on the same side.

Diversity is good for business: this is the mantra that's been accepted for many years now.

In fact, the research, when looked at fully, is more mixed than that.

Diversity has certainly been found to make a positive difference to a team's performance. It is the case, though, that there is also research to show that diversity makes no difference to a team's performance, and other research that shows it is actually detrimental to a team.

The negative, and even the neutral, findings don't seem to find their way into official reports, for fear that it may lead to people being unwilling to support diversity programmes. The unfortunate side effect of this is that we fail to use the research to ask a more interesting question: why is diversity good for performance in some situations and bad in others? The answer to this is inclusion, or a lack of it.

Diversity and inclusion

Diversity is a fact of life in the UK that we can't run away from. The challenge we face now is how to create cultures in which everyone, irrespective of their background, feels fairly treated, valued and able to contribute to the achievement of organisational goals. Diversity and inclusion are linked, but they are also different. An organisation can be diverse but not inclusive, or inclusive but not diverse.

During my working life I have seen how the Civil Service has worked hard to be more representative of society. The task that many organisations now face is how to be more inclusive as well as being more diverse at senior levels.

Where people feel included they are more motivated, more engaged and, not surprisingly, more productive. There are also tremendous personal benefits, with people reporting higher levels of psychological wellbeing and feeling more resilient. In addition, where people feel a sense of inclusion they are more likely to feel able to speak up when they see things going on around them that they feel are wrong. So, inclusion not only leads to good outcomes, but a lack of inclusion is more likely to lead to poor outcomes.

Bias awareness

If we are to achieve greater diversity and inclusion we need to be more open about the factors that get in the way.

The first is an acknowledgment that bias, both conscious and unconscious, is something everyone is prone to. We are all biased: the world is not divided into those who show bias and those who don't. It is, however, split between those who recognise they are biased and those who believe they are not. It is one of the biggest ironies that the latter group is likely to be the most biased. Acceptance that each of us is biased is probably the most important step anyone can take. Without this self-awareness, bias is always someone else's problem. Bias, especially in leaders, can then lead to the creation, or the maintenance, of a culture in which certain categories of people are less likely to have their voices heard, their opinions listened to and their capabilities acknowledged.

I have never seen diversity as simply being about achieving numerical goals. It is about achieving something more aspirational and inspiring: a culture in which people feel they have been treated fairly. This is easier said than done – but when is anything worth achieving easy?

This blog was written for the Civil Service and can be found on their Diversity & Inclusion Blog page.

An important ingredient in successful coaching is self-awareness. In fact it could be argued that it is the most important step towards successful coaching and that, without it, any positive impact of the coaching will be negligible and short-lived. I would go so far as to suggest that self-awareness is core to our behaviour, a control centre that monitors and regulates our interactions and our effectiveness in all walks of life, not least in managing and leading others.

In coaching, when you ask people how they feel, the vast majority of people will have a reasonably clear and articulate response. They may be happy, sad, frustrated, annoyed, excited and so on.

But the real challenge emerges when you ask people to describe how they make others feel. While some may be switched on to this, far fewer people are able to clearly express how they make others feel.

A recent paper in the European Journal of Personality builds on research into what’s known as ‘affective presence’. This is the extent to which we elicit emotions in others. Several different studies suggest that this is a trait that we all share - much like assertiveness or sociability - and that it varies between us.

To understand affective presence, the researchers measured the way that people consistently left others feeling over the course of several interactions. These feelings were then rated and the scores were correlated with other trait characteristics.

What did they find? Most importantly, the strength of our affective presence has a marked positive (or negative) impact on the degree to which: we connect with others; we leave others feeling positive; and the extent to which we enthuse and motivate others. Interestingly individuals with higher levels of affective presence also have higher levels of emotional regulation (they manage their reactions in pressured situations) and have higher emotional expressiveness (they share how they are feeling). They also have significantly higher levels of agreeableness.

So what? Well, if affective presence is a trait then it will be measurable. If it’s measurable, then it may provide useful feedback and insights that will be helpful in coaching and development to raise self-awareness. And in the process, it may be one of the keys to developing greater self-awareness over a long period of time and, with it, greater leadership effectiveness.

According to a BBC online test (, based on my personality, the city where I would feel happiest living is Oxford! Apparently my unique mix of artistic openness and cool stand-offishness would help me fit in well within the land of dreaming spires. Good to know, as I happen to work in Oxford.

Gathering data from 400,000 people the BBC and Cambridge University identified clusters of personality types that typified different geographical areas of Britain. To some extent these confirm our common beliefs about regional stereotypes. City types, in general, tend to be more open to new experiences and more sociable, but at the same time more emotionally distant. Whilst those that live in the countryside are more conventional and reserved. However, there could be several possible drivers for such differences:

Environmental influence. If you live somewhere noisy, busy, with many cultures and influences but where you need to actively protect your personal space, you might adapt to more city dweller type behaviours to survive.

Personal choice. If you are sensitive, shy and traditional you might yearn for a quiet life in the country and make a conscious decision to settle there.

Age effects. The average age of city dwellers is younger than the average age of those in the country, particularly if you think about the major university towns. Research has shown that personality changes with age and the characteristics that this study shows are typical of city types are also typical of younger people.

Cultural impact. Over time, generations living in an area might develop particular shared values and attitudes that impact personality. This research shows that the highlands of Scotland have high agreeableness and low neuroticism. Meanwhile the Welsh, although living in a somewhat similar physical environment, show lower agreeableness and much higher levels of neuroticism.

Genetic communities. Personality is in part linked to our biology and regional variations exist in our genetic make-up that could underlie regional personality types. Recent research published in Nature (Leslie S et al., 2015) has shown that the Welsh and Scottish are more different to one another genetically than any other UK group. Could this be the cause of the big difference in Neuroticism between these two groups?

If such regional variations in personality exist this might explain different political leanings across the country. For example, is it just coincidence that UKIP have their greatest levels of support in East Anglia and the East Midlands where levels of Openness are particularly low?

For companies operating in these different regions it raises interesting questions about preferred ways of working. With a concentration of finance sector companies in Norwich; it’s probably reassuring to see that local inhabitants here have amongst the highest levels of conscientiousness in the country.

So with all this in mind should I be moving to Oxford? I think not. Ultimately, in spite of the statistical trends, we need not be clones of our neighbours. Britain is one of the most culturally diverse countries in the world and any such diversity only adds to our strength and richness. Although one things for sure, I won’t be moving to Corby; apparently it’s the last place I’d ever fit in!

Steve Jobs, Richard Branson, Mark Zuckerman. What do they have in common?

They all established hugely successful innovative organisations; Apple, Virgin and Facebook. They also all dropped out of school or college. It seems that being the best student is not necessarily the only route to success and, in fact, when it comes to being innovative, being a good learner could even be counter-productive. This doesn’t mean we should necessarily encourage our kids to drop out of school but to encourage creativity we do need to recognise the value of breaking away from conventional teachings and offer an environment in which unusual ideas are celebrated and fostered rather than suppressed. Some ideas will fail, but unless all ideas are welcome that huge new breakthrough might never come.

Create the right Environment. In his latest project “Ideas Britain”, musician Dave Stewart addresses what he sees as the “tendency of big business to shut its doors to new thinking” by providing an on-line space for ideas and inventions to be shared and to attract financial support. However, innovation is not the preserve of mavericks and rebels. There’s much that can be done at an organisational level to ensure creativity is allowed to flourish. Give ideas the SUN they need to grow: Suspend criticism, Understand and Nurture.

Make time and space. By stepping away from the doctrines of learning, innovators do something important which is make space for thinking and creating. In his TED talk ( , Jacob Barnett, a young autistic mathematical prodigy who was predicted to never achieve anything through conventional education, highlights that some of our greatest scientific breakthroughs came when scientists suspended learning and started thinking. He argues that Isaac Newton developed his greatest ideas whilst Cambridge University shut down due to the Plague, and Albert Einstein perhaps achieved more whilst being barred from a university teaching position in pre-Nazi Europe. However, like his role models, Jacob Barnett’s own ground-breaking theories did not appear out of the blue but from many hours of trial and error and exploration of new possibilities.

Work at it: To be creative, it probably helps if you were born an unconventional thinker. Dyer et al., 2011 propose that one third of creativity can be explained by our genetic composition. However, that leaves two- thirds of creativity as a learned skill and so it is, arguably, something we can all practice and improve. Innovation requires hard work: exploring things from new perspectives, making unusual connections, experimenting, challenging assumptions, taking the risk that an idea might not actually work but exploring it and trying it anyway.

A useful model to help develop your innovative thinking is CASTING: • C-onnect: Make unusual connections and associations. Force yourself to get off your mental tramlines and see what else is possible and where this takes you.
• A-sk: Challenge your assumptions and ask “What if?”. It might pay to throw out the rule book.
• S-ee: Observe what works or what doesn’t work. Look around you at what other people are doing and think about how you can adapt that to your situation.
• T-ry: Experiment with alternatives to find what works best. Avoid ruling out options without giving them a go.
• In–volve: Harness diverse people and perspectives. Cross fertilisation of ideas from different specialisms is invaluable.
• G–o Do It!: Be positive. Protect and nurture your ideas to help them grow and develop.
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