Saturday, 20 November 2021

Performance Management

The other day, over dinner and a glass or two, I was asked by a senior academic what I thought was the biggest issue that Universities needed to address, in the context of management and leadership.  I said performance management; and he - and the other members of the University at dinner (both academics and professional services staff) agreed with an enthusiasm that slightly took me aback. (It wasn't as though I was paying for the wine, either...).

Whether it is the most important or not is clearly debatable; but it is certainly important. And I think the context in which we think about it needs re-examining.

Too often, we treat performance management as the unpleasant business of dealing with poor performance; which is a bureaucratic, as well as an emotional, nightmare.

However, I think it is better conceived of as a leadership task, and a positive one, at that.  For if we take performance management seriously, it is surely about the leader's responsibility to create the environment (context, culture, systems, structures) in which people are most likely to be both willing and able to give of their best. 

That is likely to include maximising autonomy, where ever possible; offering clarity about context and desirable outcomes; modelling the positive values that the institution aspires to; noticing and honouring both effort and results; encouraging and enabling teamwork and collaboration; and so on.  

It also means casting a critical eye over all the other good, but perhaps slightly peripheral, things we aspire to do, and considering whether pursuing them (or pursuing them at this time, or in this way) will have deleterious effect on on people's willingness and desire to give of their best; and when necessary, fighting off some of the well-intentioned but burdensome initiatives that bureaucracies have a peculiar gift for imposing.

It will also include addressing poor performance; not least because one of the things that people find really disheartening is to work their socks off, and then see others, apparently, getting away with doing little or nothing. But addressing poor performance is only a small, albeit crucial, element in a genuine performance management approach: there is so much more to it than that!


With thanks to  Lefteris kallergis and Prince Akachi for sharing their photos on Unsplash

Thursday, 11 November 2021

The Cleverness of Me

Occasionally, I meet someone who mentions that they read and like my blog. Typically, they say that is because I don't spend all my time talking about how wonderful I am and what clever things I am just doing (and, by the way, buy now!).

So based on that haphazard approach to understanding my readers' interests, I have decided to write a blog post about how wonderful I am and a clever thing I have just done (though still lacking that incisive sales pitch, alas). 

Having said which, it did take me some time...  

So, to start at the beginning: when the children were smaller (they are now all in their 20s and have moved out) I was from time to time frustrated to find that all the pencils in the house were blunt. So I bought one of those rather good pencil sharpeners - you know, the kind you remember from junior school (at least, if you are of my generation). But the problem was, where to mount it? Because you cannot use it without screwing it down: otherwise you would need one hand to hold it, one to hold the pencil, and a third to turn the handle.

My dilemma was that the old dining table that I use as a desk is rather nice beech, and I was reluctant to drive screws into it. So I had the bright idea of fastening it to the shelves above my desk: but allowing for the handle and the length of a pencil, that would have taken the best part of a foot (30 cm for you youngsters) of available shelf space out of use: and we never have enough shelf space.

And then, the other day, with that flair for genius that is my stock-in-trade, and a mere 20 years or so after first buying the thing, I realised that I could screw it to the bottom of a shelf - for it works just as well upside down!

And I have been as happy as can be ever since: and all of our pencils have been sharpened. 


With thanks to Marcus Spiske for sharing his photo on Unsplash

Friday, 5 November 2021

Ease and discomfort

One of the components of Nancy Kline's Thinking Environment (qv passim) is Ease. Kline sees this primarily as a freedom from urgency. Her thesis is that people think better in our presence if they know that we have time for them and that we are happy for them to take their time in developing and articulating their thinking.  And I think that she is right.  I would also add a freedom from being judged, as a contributor to that sense of ease.

On the other hand, I am also keenly aware of the importance of discomfort. If we go to the leading edge of our thinking, and explore the unknown, that may be uncomfortable.  Further, the Thinking Environment process itself is uncomfortable for some people: it is so contrary to their habits and expectations (eg the complete absence of interruption) that it can feel odd. So I often reassure people that I am quite comfortable with their being uncomfortable...

So how do I reconcile those two? And do I need to?  I quite like paradox - it often takes us to interesting places.

And as so often, this blog post is my thinking out loud about the subject, as it were.  It is work in progress, not a settled position.

My current thinking is this: if we look at why Ease is so important, I think it is for a few reasons.  One is that if people feel some urgency, the risk is that they go by the most direct route from Problem A to Solution B.  But that most direct route is the well-trodden path in their mind (or the strongest links in the neural network, if you prefer). Which means that they are likely to think what they always think, when addressing such questions under time pressure. And that in turn means that new insights are less likely.  Whereas, if they take a more rambling route, if they allow their mind to play with ideas, to explore some of the by-ways, they may see things from a different perspective, see new links and new possible pathways: and that may be where insight arises.

The second reason is that urgency risks stimulating the sympathetic nervous system: that fight/flight response, when our amygdala releases adrenaline etc into our system to respond to a (perceived) threat. Whereas ease allows us to operate out of the parasympathetic nervous system, focused more on long term goals than short term survival, enabling a more expansive consideration of the issues we are addressing.

So perhaps my role is to create sufficient ease that the thinker is able to go to the uncomfortable non-habitual or even dangerous places, and experience the discomfort of doing so, in such a psychologically safe space that the fight/flight response is not stimulated. 


With thanks to Ian Stauffer, Kai Bossom and Lionello DelPiccolo for sharing their photos on Unsplash

Friday, 29 October 2021


 Reflecting on the Practice Framework I've been developing, I recognise that one of my weaker areas (or development areas, as I suppose I should label it) is Evaluation. It is all too easy, at the end of the assignment, to accept the thanks fo the coachee, and move on to the next thing.   But that is scarcely the way to excellence...

One of the things that my framework makes explicit is the link between contracting and evaluation.  That is, I think that the contracting, at the start of the assignment should include an agreement about how we will evaluate it at the end; which will clearly include the coachee's evaluation as well as the coach's, of course; but might also include other stakeholders. 

Naturally, that may develop over the time of the coaching, as new goals emerge; but that is simply another reason to keep re-contracting periodically during the relationship.

One of the challenges I have found in evaluating coaching, is that sometimes the coachee is truly delighted, and yet I feel that it could have gone better.  Perhaps that is not surprising: if it is the coachee's first experience of coaching and it has delivered value, then that is good. But having some experience and expertise in the matter may mean that I have higher standards.

And that leads to another reflection: perhaps the emphasis in what we evaluate should be different.  The coachee is best placed to evaluate the content of the coaching: the learning, its application, and the difference that has made. He or she may well have comments about the coaching process, of course, and these are often valuable too.  But they are naturally made from a less informed position.

Whereas I have some expertise about process: I know what I have decided good coaching looks like (for me): hence this practice framework. Whereas I am actually less well-placed to judge the learning and the impact of the coaching; though of course, I will have a view.

So, as so often with my blogging, this is work in progress: I will continue to work on Evaluation as part of my professional practice, and see if these reflections are helpful.  And in due course, I may report back in another blog post.


No images this week, as Blogger seems to be playing up!

Friday, 22 October 2021

Towards a practice framework

 I have been thinking further about the notion of a practice framework for my coaching work (a phrase I found in Hewson & Carroll's book about which I have blogged previously.

This is linked to my reflections on Sandwiches (in another, more recent blog).

In essence, I am trying to map what I believe the essential elements of good coaching are, at least as I see them. The point of this, of course, is to keep learning and improving; as well as to prevent back-sliding from how I am when working at my best.  It informs my reflective practice and my conversations with my supervisor.

And of course, that is the other use for it: when supervising other coaches. My ideal would be for them to articulate their practice framework for themselves; but having mine as a starting point may facilitate that.  And the point is to ensure that over a series of supervisory conversations, as well as addressing whatever arises from the specific issues they bring to supervision, we also review all aspects of their practice in a comprehensive way. Much of that will be done in response to the issues that they bring to supervision; but it may be that something like evaluation never arises in that context.  So I think that there is real value in  having a map somewhere that we can re-visit from time to time, to check if there is anything we have not talked about.

This is, of course, a work in progress: and I'll be interested in any suggestions others may have to improve it.


I've added something about stakeholder and system understanding to the 'supported by' list...  (always a bit of a blindspot for me...)

Friday, 15 October 2021

Coaching in a Thinking Environment - and the power of not interrupting

 I have blogged a lot, over the years, about the Thinking Environment and my musings on it. I thought, this week, it might be interesting to reflect on a particular coaching session, and how conducting it in a Thinking Environment, as opposed to 'normal' coaching was different - both for me and for the individual I was coaching.

I started the session by reminding the coachee that the purpose of the session was to give him the time, space, support and challenge to think further than he usually had the chance to do, about anything (relevant to the coaching) that he chose. I mentioned that we would reserve the last 15 minutes or so to pull together the threads, recognise any learning or insights, catch any actions planned etc.  And apart from that, I would listen, and only ask questions when he told me that he had come to the end of a wave of thinking; and that whilst I would be happy to share any perspectives of my own, if he wanted me to do so, that would only happen after he had taken his own thinking as far as he could.  

This was a first session with this individual, so I made it clear we would run this as an experiment: if it worked, we could do something similar next time; if not, we could do something different. That was a way of giving him permission to give honest feedback about the process at the end of the session; and also helping him recognise that it might feel unusual: it was an experiment, after all! I checked he was OK with that, and then I invited him to think: 'What do you want to think about; and what are your thoughts.' And he thought.

As ever, it was really interesting; and as ever, it sparked off numerous thoughts in my own head - questions I could ask, models that might shed light on his experience, similar situations I had encountered with others, and so on.

In fact, I noticed seven times when I was on the verge of offering my contribution, as he paused between waves of thought.  And each time, I decided not to, in order to honour our initial agreement. So instead, I remained silent and he started to think again.  A couple of times, he asked me for another question ('What more do you think, or feel, or want to say?...') to get his thinking going again. 

After about an hour and ten minutes, he stopped, having resolved one substantial issue, and also a second, not-quite-so-weighty, one. He then asked for my reflections. I mentioned that a few things had gone through my head, but there were just two that I wanted to share with him at that stage. So I shared those, and he found them useful.

We then reviewed the learning and what actions he was going to take, and finally reviewed the process. He was surprised at how effective it had been, but had some lingering curiosity over what I had thought but not said. So after the session, I emailed him a list of the things that had gone through my head.  Somehow it looked less desperately urgent (and dare I say it, less impressive) than when I had been feeling that strong urge to interrupt.  He came back to me for more detail on a couple of the points that had particularly resonated or interested him.

So that is how (or at least one way) to coach in a Thinking Environment. It is interesting for me to reflect on how strong the urge to interrupt can be. After all, what benefit is he getting from me as a coach if I withhold my wisdom. And I am sure that I was right not to do so, as he reached his own resolution without me; and moreover, was able to have the benefit of my thinking in addition, after the session. 


With thanks to Girl with red hat  and Laurenz Kleinheider for sharing their photos on Unsplash

Friday, 8 October 2021

Adrenaline or peace?...

A few conversations this week have got me asking myself questions about the role of adrenaline in our lives, and our response to it.

One was a discussion about the component of ease in a Thinking Environment.  A colleague said that adrenaline is always detrimental to good thinking. 

I nodded along: that seemed sensible to me. I have experienced many times the powerful effect of a Thinking Environment, not least that component of ease, in helping me to think deeply and (of course) wisely about difficult or complex issues.

But on reflection I am not so sure. It's that word always that bothers me.  I tend to be wary of absolute statements, as I actually believe in absolutes...  

So I am wondering about the role of adrenaline in the context of physical emergencies or crises. I think firefighters, soldiers etc may well need the advantages that adrenaline offers as they go into action, and wonder if it is true that the price they pay for that is cognitive impairment.

Other conversations included issues like needing to be busy to feel as though you are accomplishing anything, or to keep the demons of rumination at bay. 

Here I reflect on the Eisenhower (Urgency/Importance) grid, and how many people spend a lot of time dealing with urgent issues (almost regardless of importance) at the expense of important issues that are not (or not yet) urgent.  In my thinking (and indeed experience) dealing with Important issues before they are urgent, by deliberate planning and choice, is a route to peace.  

Which raises the interesting question, are some people uneasy with peace? Is it too boring? Whereas adrenaline-stimulating crises are certainly interesting.  Which reminds me of something I wrote some years ago: working to a tight deadline triggers a release of adrenaline, (the fight or flight response), followed shortly afterwards by cortisol (which focuses us on the immediate crisis and therefore inhibits serotonin, oxytocin, dopamine). That results in us feeling lack-lustre, so we need more adrenaline to feel alive again.

I will continue to reflect on this (though not, I trust, ruminate) as I think I still have unanswered questions.  Fortunately, my job as coach doesn't require me to have the answers, just some great questions to get people thinking.


With thanks to Fabian Jones for sharing this photo on Unsplash