What to do with Energy Sappers

When I was 15 I was told by my house captain of games (the school was made up of 26 houses of 50 boys: yes, it was a big school) that  I was to represent the house in the school Steeplechase.  This required us to run 15 miles or so over a cross country course, most of which as I recall involved  running over recently ploughed fields.  As someone who preferred sprinting to long distance, and who tended to throw up after any distance race over 200m, I knew this would be a gruelling run, and I was dreading it somewhat. However, I wanted to do my bit as the sole representative of the slightly unsporty house I was in, so I grudgingly donned my running kit and headed out on a wet June afternoon.

Runners racetrackWhen I turned up at the start line, I found myself standing next to a boy I knew of the same age, mainly from being in the school orchestra with him and being in the same class for French lessons.

He came from a very wealthy and well known family of bankers, so today let’s just call him Richard.

Richard:  “Have you been told to turn up, like I have?”

Me:  “Yes.”

Richard:  “Do you hate them for it?”

Me: “Kind of.”

Richard:  “Stick with me, I have a plan.”

Me:  “Righto.”

Little did I know that he effectively he was about to undermine my performance that day.  Right from the start.

As the starting gun fired, he literally held me back.  “You’re not going to win, what’s the point in rushing?  Let the others rush ahead, they’ll soon drop back.”

3 miles later, running at little more than a jog, we found ourselves I imagine at the back of the pack (of maybe 75 runners).  Suddenly Richard stopped.  He looked behind to check no one could see us.

“Right, through this hedge, it’s a shortcut.  It’ll knock 6 miles off it.”

He had found my bottom line.  Without a word I sprinted off, and did my best to try and clamber back up to a respectable position.  Which I think by then was well nigh impossible.

Richard was an Energy Sapper.  I partnered with him because I was looking for a comrade in adversity, and I didn’t know him well enough to give him a wide berth.

The older I get the less I want to be near Energy Sappers.  I want to be with people who fuel me, and reciprocate energy.  They can do this in all sorts of ways.  It might be from their attitude, their inner energy, their lack of mental limits, their ability to improvise in the moment.  It doesn’t really matter how they do it, but as long as being with them leaves me higher than when we first meet, I want to be with them.

The people I definitely DON’T want to be with these fall into these broad energy-sapping categories:

The needy one.  The person who just wants to unload their problems onto you and thus share the load, without caring about what your load might be.

The lazy one.  The person who can’t be bothered to get up early enough or get off their arse enough to find out stuff for themselves.  The one who expects it to be a one way street in which they get the information they want without giving any back.  Mentally and physically lazy.

The “poor me” one.  The colleague (true story) who will willingly let you drive for 6 hours, during which she tells you the detail of all her woes, and when she has finished winds her seat back and goes to sleep.  And when we get to the hotel (eventually after getting lost for 30 mins because she couldn’t be arsed to map read) the first thing she wants to do before checking in so we can get some food is have a fag.

The fake.  The one who promises commitment and then under delivers.  At the last minute, so your options to plug the gap are severely reduced,  Rather than be straight and up front, fakes support until it’s too late.  Passive aggressive, basically.

Boss threatening employeeThe talker.  The one who sees himself as at the centre of the Cosmos, and thinks the most interesting subject on the planet is himself.  Exhausting to be with, and actually extremely boring.

Then there are the liars, cheats, frauds, fakes, none of whom you should spend time with if you can avoid it.

These people need to be given a wide berth.  Life is too short, why wouldn’t you surround yourself with the opposite, the ones who inspire, uplift, reciprocate, engage, create, stimulate you?  Make a list for yourself, how many fall into the toxic energy sapping variety?  When are you going to ditch them?

There are more types of Energy Sappers than I have listed, loads more.  Which variety do you dislike most?


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How not to give bad news

20 years ago I was working in marketing for a large drinks company.  I worked closely with a marketing agency, and they invited me to an awards dinner in London during which they hoped we would be picking up an award.  It was a black tie affair, and I was looking forward to some intensive celebrations and an overnight stay in London.

Annoyingly, my new boss got his secretary to ring me that day to ask me to meet him for an important announcement.  I assume this would be the results of a restructure he had been planning, and was hopeful that it might lead to a new role and maybe even promotion.  It was annoying because it meant taking a detour to another hotel to meet him, and getting changed into my DJ in the car park.

How wrong I was.  After waiting for 30 minutes in reception and seeing one of my colleagues walk out of the hotel without stopping to chat (and looking somewhat stressed), I went into a windowless room in the basement to meet him.  I was surprised to see a guy from HR there, but thought nothing of it.  Both of their faces dropped when they saw I was in black tie and all excited.

He sat me down with the minimum of pleasantries and proceeded to read me a statement.  Paragraph two had the immortal words which I shall never forget:

“As a result of the recent review of the marketing function, the Board has decided that your services will no longer be required.”

I can’t remember much else because I had stopped listening.  Two important questions had overwhelmed me:

1.  How am I going to tell Charlotte?

2.  What about the kids and the mortgage?

Oh, and question three, what about the awards dinner?

I drove home in a trance, moving through the classic initial change responses of numbness, anger and denial, all within the (probably very risky) 2 hour drive home.  When I got home I was already deeply depressed and ready to fall on my own sword.

2 weeks later of course I was over it and creating a new career in which I finally found a job (the one I do now) which flicked all my switches.  Looking back, thank goodness they pushed me, otherwise I might have wasted yet more years in that comparatively fruitless role (some of which would have involved having HIM as my boss).

All these years later what still gets me is the way it was done.  But how could it have been done better?  I’ve recreated the moment in this video.  Watch it and ask yourself how many crass errors are made within just a couple of minutes.  There can be no easy way to break this sort of news, but it has to be capable of being done so much better, surely?

Let me know what you think.


Posted in Communication, Conflict, Management Skills | Tagged , , , , , , | 7 Comments

Can a human survive without a mobile phone and the internet?

Since moving house I have had the pleasure of meeting lots of new friends.  Amongst which I count a couple of young lads, early twenties, who have both rekindled my faith in the human race, whilst at the same time reminding me how doomed we all are.

They are twins.  Their father owns some lovely woodland near us, and they do all the physical stuff with the trees.  They have long hair, huge hands, whizz around in a tiny beaten up car, and wear gargantuan steel capped boots.  They are true gentlemen; well mannered, respectful, and interested in others no matter what their age or background.

Said tree is that green straggly thing on the left.  Not exactly in keeping, and blocks a lot of light.

Said tree is that green straggly thing on the left. Not exactly in keeping, and blocks a lot of light.

We bumped into them in the pub last night, and something remarkable happened.  I had sent them an email asking if they would like to pop round to cut down a tree in our garden (they have certain expertise in this field, and I thought might appreciate a cash boost to their earnings.)  We’d had no reply, so I presumed they were not interested, so went ahead yesterday and chopped most of it down myself.

As soon as we walked into the pub for a well earnt pint, Miles said: “A mate printed off your email for me yesterday about the tree.  Sorry I haven’t replied, only I don’t have a computer.”.

A conversation ensued, as you might imagine, during which it became clear that only one of the bothers possesses a mobile phone, and neither has a computer.  The other is considering it, but only so that they can communicate when one of them needs a lift back from some other part of the woods.  No other reason for having one.

Wow!  22 years old, no Facebook, Twitter, Vimeo accounts?  How do they get by?  Perfectly well, it seems.  They are two of the most well balanced, authentic, interesting and happy young people I have met in years.  Always laughing, full of energy, happy with their lot and totally at ease with themselves.

I find myself comparing this with the vast majority of the human race, whose fate I bemoan regularly on this Blog.  We are all doomed, I propose.  Let me give you some personal observations to substantiate my claim, all witnessed within the last week:

  • Go on then, eat that without putting down your phone!

    Go on then, eat that without putting down your phone!

    A guy in a restaurant in Brussels eating a bowl of spaghetti in its entirety with one hand whilst studying his iphone throughout.  He did not put the phone down once.

  • A day of training, 3 different groups of people, hardly any of which turned up with a pen so they could write things down
  • Sitting in an airport lounge and listening to the frenzied Skype calls and phone conversations.  So hard not to tune in, and so utterly inane when you do.
  • Watching two Californian (they made sure we knew that) girls showing off their purchases from London.  Glittery high heeled platform shoes (whatever they are called these days).  Moaning about the price of diamonds.  Loudly.

According to some research published in The Guardian this week, 49% of 14 and 15-year olds feel they are addicted to the internet, and 77% take a phone or computer to bed.  These numbers are never going to improve, are they.  As these kids grow up and have children, they will be passing on this behaviour, and it will become the norm.  We have travelled way past the point of no return.  Sadly I am still going to be around to see this stuff gain momentum.  It’s here to stay.

We are turning into dysfunctional freaks and weirdos, all of us.  Well, nearly all.  It is all about pressure to conform, keeping up with the pace, multitasking, not knowing when to stop, everything a million miles per hour.  And that’s just me, and I’m not half as bad as the rest, of that I am sure.

Thank goodness for the Miles’ and Jamies, who reminded me that the world does still spin without this crap.

They were disappointed to hear the tree had been chopped, because they wanted to come and dig it out (are you sure, this is a 10 foot high Yew Tree) because they don’t have any Yew in their woodland.  How green is that?  So fortunately it is still 4′ high, minus its branches, and probably ideal for transplanting.  They’ll be round next week to dig it out in their big clodhopping boots.  Thus saving a tree and saving me a lot of sweat.  Thank you boys!  In more ways than one.

© Igor Mojzes – Fotolia.com

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How NOT to set Objectives

Most of us have come across SMART objectives, and we kind of get why they are a good idea.  If people are working towards well formed objectives, it tends to improve their performance somewhat.

Roger BannisterHow else did we get the 4 minute mile  (set 60 years ago this month, as it happens, by the great Roger Bannister)?

My experience of working with managers in businesses of all shapes and sizes around the globe is that whilst they seem to know about SMART objectives, they don’t apply the concept.

The objectives they themselves are working to (and thus most probably the people they manage are working to as well) demonstrate a somewhat different SMART:

loppy.  They use loose language, vague timelines, woolly verbs, weakening adverbs.

eaningless.  The objectives are not something they can relate to, let alone influence.  Often they rely upon others to do their bit in order to hit the objective, and so the individual is able to escape accountability.  Or they may be aspirational business speak that sounds fine but means nothing.

A rbitrary.  Objectives are set which do not tie in to the core business priorities, leading to misalignment and potential conflict of interest.  This is often because the manager is not clear about what the priorities are either, and so we end up with a “spray and pray” approach, hoping that sufficient effort will be relevant to the priorities that we achieve them in some way or another.

outine.  The objectives are set around routine activity which forms the bread and butter of the employee’s contribution, and should be taken as a given.  This stuff should be treated as a target (a very different thing from an objective), and performance managed in the usual way.  Setting targets as objectives is a wasted opportunity to motivate and focus the individual on new and high impact contributions towards team goals.

imed-out.  Because the objectives are not reviewed regularly (they should be part of the ongoing regular reviews between manager and employee) they have often been completed and then not updated (why not replace with a new one?), or have become irrelevant or inappropriate.  How likely is it that an objective set in Maye 2014 will still be relevant and valid as stated on the document 12 months later?   Not very, I suggest.

Sad  but true.

How SMART (in the positive sense of Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Relevant and Timed) are your objectives?  Are you guilty of any of the above?  If you are, rewrite them, I suggest!  They’re not meant to be written on tablets of stone:  far better that they are kept organic, and updated or modified as the need arises.

I’ve just filmed a video on the subject which I’ll add in here once it has been edited.  Meanwhile I can’t resist inserting this glorious excerpt from Big Keith’s Appraisal in The Office.

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How 2 recognise a watershed when you see it.

Warning:  this article contains elements which might be deemed by the sensitive reader to smack of self promotion.  If you tend to suffer from allergic reaction when someone tells you about something new they have been doing, please stop reading now.  You have been warned!

What is a career watershed?  How do you know when you see one?  Can it only be seen after the event, or is it possible to recognise it at the time, and if so is that a good thing? seedling

I think I might be going through one right now.  It feels like it’s not the end of something, nor a clean start of something new.  It’s more like a shoot sprouting out of the soil next to the rose bush which has been my life for the last 16 years, and I’m not sure whether it is another rose of a different colour, or whether it is in fact an oak tree.  Either way, it’s exciting , and I’m watering it like mad and putting on fertiliser by the spadeful.

The shoot in question is a new approach to training videos, which from our research are, without wishing to be too rude, generally second rate, patronising, fake, poorly produced or just plain weird.  There you are, I said it.  Go and look for yourself if you don’t believe me.

Type “Giving feedback to employees” into YouTube and see what you get. We’ve been road testing ours, and have been told they are in a different league.  Because we’re not actors we are drawing on real life experience from somewhere deep down (all of them are planned but unscripted and done in one take).  We’re told this makes them credible and uncomfortably accurate.

SONY DSCThe idea of asking people to watch them for the deliberate errors (we call them gaffes) means people are engaged and have to be asking themselves what the right way is in order to spot the error.  It’s not passively sitting being told what to do (and who would ever dare to do that, to attempt to model excellence?  Oh, plenty of people, so it would seem).

It’s fun, quirky, effective, so we’re told.

If they’re right, and this approach really is effective, this could be the beginning of a whole new lifestyle for me.  Just rock up and do some filming for a couple of days per month, and let the rest take care of itself?  I suspect not: the effort which goes into creating the training materials that go with each video is huge, as is getting three trainer types to agree on formatting, learning methodology etc.  But we get there because we want to, and have a huge passion for it.  It’s like a shot of adrenalin when we get together, and long may that continue.

So, it might be a false alarm, the shoot might turn out to be a weed.  I hope not, and will be surprised if that is the case.  All I can do is keep up with the watering and fertilising and let nature takes its course. If you want to see what the shoot looks like, here’s the How NOT 2 website.  And here’s the promotional video our genius TV producer chap Martin (of BBC2 Fantasy Football League fame) made for us last week.

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When will the Extraverts ever learn?

Last week I had a meeting with the Head of Organisational Development in a large public sector organisation.  I’d never been to their smart Headquarters before, so my genial and outgoing host enthusiastically showed me around.  It wasn’t long before we found ourselves in a room which I think was called “Creativity Zone” or something like that.

This is Google's.

This is Google’s.

It had funky irregular shaped seating, soft toys to play with, a big blowup plastic desert island and strips of flashing lights.  There was even a white toy monkey sitting on top of the projector.  It was brightly lit, a bit like being in a McDonald’s, and clearly it was intended to stimulate alternative thinking.

I found myself asking what sort of person this room would appeal to.  As a trainer you quickly learn that you can’t please all the people all the time, so how to find a good compromise is a consideration which often pops into your head when you’re sitting with a fellow learning professional.  We quickly concluded that the room was designed by Extraverts, and would appeal to them far more than it would to Introverts.

Invite an Introvert to join in a “creativity session”, probably involving a group brainstorm, in a room like this, and they will run away screaming (mentally, if not physically).  The brightness, the flashiness, the whole mental noisiness of the place would, as I understand it, be a complete turn off.

So how do you unlock the creative genius inside the 50% or so of the population that has an Introversion preference?  In a way, you do the opposite of the “Creativity Zone” approach.

Here’s what I’ve learnt over the years:

  • Give them a chance to think by themselves
  • Recognise that they find solitude a catalyst for innovation
  • Don’t expect them to get excited, talk fast, be outgoing, get all “jazzed up”.

Give them time to think about the problem in advance of any creativity session.  Design processes for sharing ideas which do not require them to do it face to face (eg write them down and submit independently).

There is undoubtedly a bias towards Extraversion in the workplace and arguably in society as a whole.  Too many of our processes were designed by gobby Extraverts, without considering how to involve the Introverts without pointing a finger at them and shouting “what do you think?”  They have such a great contribution to make in developing new ideas.  Look at how helpful all this is:

“It’s not that I’m so smart.  It’s that I stay with problems longer.”

“It’s not that I’m so smart. It’s that I stay with problems longer.”

•Better at regulating excitement, and sticking to a plan

•Less likely to take risk or be impulsive.

•Less likely to give up, and more likely to work accurately

•Ask ‘what if?’, not ‘what is?’ (Extroverts)

•Know how to truly focus to generate innovation

•Patient, serious, committed.


What might you need to change to allow more room for your Introvert colleagues?  Are you guilty of designing processes which suit Extraversion only?

Let’s finish with Susan Cain’s TED talk, in which she explores the world of the Introvert as brilliantly described in her excellent book “Quiet.  The power of Introverts in a world which can’t stop talking.”



Posted in Creativity and Innovation, Personality types | Tagged , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment