Author Archives: Mark Buchan

About Mark Buchan

Mark is an Agile Consultant and Executive Coach who specialises in working with leadership teams when they are transforming their organisation to a more Agile way of delivery.

The Agile Mindset – Perceptions around Failure

If I used the word failure to you – what does it bring up for you?  What sort of feelings, images or thoughts does it conjure up?  Failure is an evocative word that sends shivers down the spines of the most macho of males.  It is a dirty word in many organisations with a traditional or fixed mindset as failure perceived as “bad”, or “wrong” or “negative”.

An Agile mindset, however, regards failure differently. In the Agile community we have an expression:  Fail often; fail early.

There is no failure; only feedback

Failure is a necessary step in the process of learning.  One method through which behaviour change happens is by carrying out behavioural experiments.  Not all experiments “succeed”, but they all give us results.  This is why I personally like the expression which I learned on my NLP Master-practitioner training which embrace  this learning perspective “there is no failure; only feedback”.  However this viewpoint is often scorned and shouted down by managers and leaders who have little tolerance for failure and see it as a “cop-out” by “losers”.  These prehistoric managers and leaders are all about the “bottom-line” or the impossible schedules that they inflict upon people. I often hear the expressions “failure is not an option”, or “we don’t do failure” from these type of people who see little value in learning, let alone gaining any learning from mistakes.

But let’s put aside for one moment those managers and leaders who choose not to change or who are so defended against any criticism, because for these type of managers Agile is seen as a way of doing more with less or getting more out of their people than they are already giving.  This in my opinion is not the true purpose of meaning of Agile and I suspect that type of manager had already quit reading this article two paragraphs ago.

An Agile mindset reframes the experience of failure

So Agile embraces the notion of failure. Well, let’s be clear on this.  It’s not like we are saying that failure is “good” and that we shouldn’t care about our results or outcomes.   The Agile mindset, however, perceives failure differently.  Traditional perspectives of failure are strongly associated with the notion of losing; if we fail we lose.  We may perceive that we lose face or that others will lose faith in us as a result of our failure.  The Agile mindset reframes failure; failure is a result, not a verb.  We as individuals don’t fail and we are not failures if we fail more than we succeed, but our experiments might not give the results we desired or expected.  Thomas Edison was interviewed after his success with the invention of the incandescent light; “So Mr Edison, how did it feel to fail 10,000 times?” He replied with “I didn’t fail – I found 9999 ways that didn’t work”.  This is a healthier attitude towards failure don’t you think, otherwise we might still be sitting around in candle or gas light waiting for the light bulb to be invented.

An Agile mantra: fail often; fail early

From an Agile perspective we do embrace spotting and acting on our failures sooner rather than later.  Take for example the business case.  This document is written in part as a means of keeping checks and balances on a project to ensure that business benefit will accrue at some point once the solution has been deployed.  But how many project managers or business leaders continually check progress against the business case to ensure they are still on target.  From my experience not many! Circumstances may have more than likely changed from the first day the business case was accepted and signed off.  If may well be that shortly after starting the project that it may not deliver on business need, so maybe the sensible thing to do is to abort the project.  But what happens when people have checked and discover that the business benefits of delivering the project will never be realised? All too often people are more concerned with the personal and group psychology surrounding sunk costs and/or  saving face.  Is this because they will be perceived as having failed or worse yet be failures?  In this instance how could it even be considered that someone has failed as a result of the business context or environment changing, but yet that’s how Agile thinking or an Agile mindset gets sabotaged; through flawed and unchecked subconscious thinking processes and the repetition of self-defeating behaviour.  It takes great discipline and courage but often it is wise to cut our losses, fail early and learn from the experience.

Failure as an inevitable part of learning

All of us of us were children at one time and except for an unfortunate few, most of us learned how to walk.  I wonder how your parents treated you as you learned to walk.  Were they critical and abusive to you every time you stumbled and fell over?  Did they shout “get up you idiot, come on you loser – start walking!”  I hope not.  But this might seem amusing to think of somebody treating a mere baby in this way, but yet this is a strategy that many leaders and managers use to varying degrees on themselves and sometimes on their people.  They condition their people to “not fail” because if they do the consequences will be unpleasant, who wants to be bawled at in the middle of the office?  This attitude and accompanying behaviours are restrictive to the learning process and will limit the creativity that is so desperately required in many under-performing organisations.  (Notice I did not say failing organisations 🙂 .)  What many people have forgotten is that failure is an inevitable part of learning and that most often we fail our way to success.

If failure is learning; why does it feel so bad?

Failure is uncomfortable because of the meaning that we assign to it and the beliefs that we have about it.  I have provided some explorative questions below to help you reflect on failure and its meaning to you.  In many of the people that I have coached the root causes of failure are found in childhood where failure resulted in some punishment either in the form or verbal abuse or loss of love or acceptance in some way from our care-givers or people in authority.  Failure often translates into “I’m bad” or “I’m not worthy” or “I’m not good enough”. The ABC model used in cognitive behaviour therapy helps us to understand that it is not the activating event (the “A” in the ABC model) that causes us us stress, anxiety, frustration or whatever (the “C” in the ABC model); instead it is our beliefs, thinking, assumptions (the “B” in the ABC model) that causes our grief.  So by changing our thinking we can change our responses to ones that are more appropriate to learning from our failure rather than beating ourselves up or looking for people to blame for it.

Change your mind …

So to acquire more of an Agile mindset we need to change our minds about what failure means to us and I’m wondering what sort of reframes or re-decisions you can make about its meaning to you.  I would love to hear some of your thoughts so please post your replies below.  I’ll give you a few to get started:

Without failure there is no learning; There is no failure; only feedback

Explorations and Reflections

Here are some personal reflections that I encourage my clients to explore as we make the journey to acquiring a more Agile mindset.

  • What does failure mean to you?
  • What does it say about you if you were to fail?
  • How do you react when you fail? Do you accept responsibility or do you look for the scapegoat?
  • What about others who fail?  How do you perceive them?
  • What is your personal reflection on “there is no failure; only feedback”? Is there a truth in there?
  • What do you observe about how other people respond to failure?

If you would like more insight and support into changing your thinking …

If you would like to learn more about how you can take control of your thinking as a way of improving your performance or that of your team then take a look at the inner coach process.  It may be the last time you will ever need to use a coach! Click here to find out more.

Acquiring an Agile Mindset – Part 2 of The 12 Dysfunctions

In the previous part of this two part article I identified the 12 dysfunctions of thinking and provided some description of the first 5 dysfunctions.  Here is a reminder of the 12 dysfunctions and here is a link to the first part of this article.

  1. All or nothing thinking
  2. Magnification or minimisation
  3. Personalisation
  4. Emotional reasoning
  5. Mind-reading
  6. Labelling
  7. Discounting the positive
  8. Shoulds and musts
  9. Mental filter
  10. Catastrophising
  11. Over-generalisation
  12. Fortune-telling

So continuing from where we left of in the last article …


This is where someone will assign a label to themselves based on some behaviour they have previously carried out.  For instance if I ended up breaking the latest build of our code I might call myself an idiot for being so stupid.  I would be labelling myself in full as being an idiot just because I broke the build whereas I am not seeing the actual behaviour that led to the mistake in the first place.  So in this instance it is better for me to stick with the evidence “I broke the build” which focuses on my behaviour rather than “I’m an idiot”.  Ensuring that we label the behaviour rather than ourselves allows us to focus on fixing the behaviour and improving; but if I continually tell myself I’m an idiot and if I believe this, how will I ever learn or improve

Discounting the positive

This is a dysfunction that many people can relate to especially when we have been given a compliment. Often when receiving praise someone may immediately think “they are just saying that to be nice”.  Now I believe that it is important to have humility, but sometimes this can go too far and rather than be a virtue if becomes a dysfunction when we continually focus on the negatives.  Humility is still having the ability to accept the positive and not discount it, so a simple thank you to the person delivering the compliment and taking time to reflect on the positives does bring about some feel-good feelings.  Continually discounting the positive has a very wearing and draining effect on our psyches and may result in an attitude of why bother so it is wise to have a balanced view of seeing both the positive and the negative aspects of ourselves and our outputs.

Shoulds and musts

I often joke with my coachees that they are too much into S&M and I tend to get a shocked look.  I quickly explain that if our conversations contain lots of Shoulds and Musts these are a sign to me of a judgemental and rigid mindset.  When using these words we need to be aware that we are placing very rigid rules on ourselves or other people to behave or think in a certain way.  Breaking these rules often results in condemnation of self or others, which leads to much bad feeling.  S&Ms are the complete antithesis of the Agile way of thinking which at its core should embrace flexibility. (I’m sure that the more astute of you reading this spotted my deliberate placing of the should in the last sentence.  🙂 )

Mental filter

This is when we might have a tendency to focus exclusively on one negative aspect of a situation and as a result judge the whole situation in accordance with that aspect.  For instance if one Timebox didn’t deliver everything that it should have done, this doesn’t make the whole increment or project a failure.  What needs to happen is for people to stand back and take a wider perspective so that learnings can be taken from the mistakes made that caused the Timebox to not deliver according to expectations.  Applying a generalising filter does little to aid the learning process and in fact will damage morale and confidence in teams.


Is when we always assume the worst in a situation with only a little evidence to support one possible outcome out of many probable ones.  This is what we refer to “making mountains out of molehills”.  This is what we might call an overly negative mindset that can see only failure looming in the future.  Whilst it is healthy to see potential pitfalls in what we are about to embark on, it is when this mindset continually locks into the negative doom-and-gloom thinking where it becomes a problem.


This is where we might make broad sweeping conclusions about a situation with little regard to how this situation may be different to others in the past.  It is the persons ability to filter for sameness and their inability to spot difference.  When we over-generalise we are in effect deleting large chunks of information that allow us to come to simple conclusions, thus simplifying our decision making processes.


This where we believe that we have the ability to predict the future with a high degree of certainty.  Like the pattern of over-generalising, this doesn’t take into account any nuances or differences that might open us up to the possibilities of other outcomes.  Fortune-Telling happens a lot in organisations especially around change initiatives where people can, with maybe some past experience or evidence, accurately predict that this change effort, like the rest will fail.  Of course they will be using their logic to support their assertions, but what most people miss is the fact that they will act in accordance with their prediction and with their actions and attitudes will set the wheels in motion for the demise of project.  They can then bask in the glow of “I told you so”.

So what about you and your organisation …

So how many of these patterns of thinking do you spot in your organisation?  More importantly how many do you spot in yourself?  If you would like to share any of your experiences then please feel free to fill out the reply box below.  I would love to hear from you.

If you would like more insight and support into changing your thinking …

If you would like to learn more about how you can take control of your thinking as a way of improving your performance or that of your team then take a look at the inner coach process.  It may be the last time you will ever need to use a coach! Click here to find out more.

Acquiring an Agile Mindset – The 12 Dysfunctional Patterns of Thinking

I have been asked by a number of you to write a little more on the subject of Agile mindset and thinking, so here is the first in a series of articles that will target thinking and Agile mindset.  In this article I will firstly identify what I refer to as 12 dysfunctional patterns of thinking.  This is a two part article where I will cover the first 5 in this part and the remaining 7 in the next part.

So what are the 12 dysfunctional patterns of thinking?

My definition of an Agile mindset is one where learning and continuous improvement of ourselves is at the core of everything that we do.  However we are often thwarted in our efforts to improve by our limitations in our thinking processes. The area of cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) identifies 12 different ways in which people’s thinking can often be distorted.  In times of great stress people may adopt one or more of these ways of thinking and this can cause additional problems to the ones they are already experiencing.  As a coach I encourage leaders and managers to first start to become aware of their own patterns of limiting thinking as these patterns will then become easier to spot in other people.  A word of caution though: the purpose in spotting these thinking patterns is not so that you can set out to change or fix them in other people, this is an area best left to professionals who with the appropriate level of tact and skill can help people overcome these limitations.

So let’s start by giving you the list of the 12 dysfunctional patterns of thinking:

  1. All or nothing thinking
  2. Magnification or minimisation
  3. Personalisation
  4. Emotional reasoning
  5. Mind-reading
  6. Labelling
  7. Discounting the positive
  8. Shoulds and musts
  9. Mental filter
  10. Catastrophising
  11. Over-generalisation
  12. Fortune-telling

All or nothing thinking

This was one of my favourite ways of distorting my own thinking.  When under pressure I would often see things in very extreme ways, everything is either black or white with no shades of grey in between.  The problem with this sort of thinking is that people may often fail to find solutions to their problems if they tend to focus on the extremes.  Solving complex problems requires for us to have flexible thinking and the ability to not only identify with opposite ends of the spectrum but with the infinite possibilities that often lie between the extremes.

Magnification or minimisation

This type of thinking is where a person will amplify the “bad” or negative aspects of a situation while attenuating the positive.  Of course some people might do the complete opposite.  This way of thinking has the effect of distorting reality and may result in more stress for the thinker as they perceive some event or person as being more negative or positive than in reality.


Some people have a tendency to make external events or situations all about them.  They may blame themselves or take on too much responsibility for the actions of other people or for circumstances that were outside of their control.  An example of this would be where you may logically decide that the reason for the failure of the programme was because you failed to deliver your project within budget.  Now it may be true that you may have had some part to play in that, but a blanket statement of  “its all my fault” is rarely the truth.

Emotional reasoning

Feelings are very powerful as anyone who has watched a rugby match can understand.  The strength of our emotions can often muddy the water of our thinking processes. Coming to conclusions or reaching decisions as a result of our feelings may often lead to poor decision making especially in times of duress.  To this end it is important to examine the evidence available in an unemotive way in order to come to an accurate assessment of the situation.  It is worth mentioning that emotional reasoning is not the same as using our intuitive abilities, but that is a subject for another day.


Just as it says on the tin, this dysfunction is about believing we can read the minds of other people.  We may tell ourselves things like “my colleagues think I’m an idiot”.  Because we are thinking something we can have the tendency to believe that the other person is thinking the same thing.  We need to check our assumptions and gather evidence before we start to act on our misplaced thinking, so in this example I can ask my colleagues if they do think I’m are an idiot and they may reassure me by telling me no, but do I believe them?  If I don’t then I would contend that I have gone back to mind reading again.

In the next article I will provide a description of the other 7 dysfunctions of thinking.  Here is a link to that article.

Building and Strengthening Relationships — An Exercise

The first Agile value stated in the Agile Manifesto is “Individuals and Interactions over Processes and Tools”.  Our everyday interactions with our colleagues, whether on Agile projects or not, are the ingredients that comprise our relationships.  And as everybody knows, maybe with the exception of the people on Ramsay’s Kitchen Nightmares, poor ingredients lead to less than appetising dishes. Often our time as leaders is overly concerned with the workaday pressures of building business, fighting fires and just plain getting the job done. As a result our relationships may often be neglected or worse still may even be ruptured as a result of careless or “negatively” emotional interactions.  I encourage any leader reading this to explore and reflect on their business relationships, especially those that have hit a “rocky patch”.  To that end I have provided the following exercise, one that finds it origins in Neuro-linguistic programming (NLP), as it will help to guide your reflections on the most meaningful relationships to you. Allow yourself some quality time to carry out the exercise properly and it can reveal all manner of insights for you as a leader.  Please feel free to share any insights in the reply box below.

Perceptual Positions Exercise

This exercise will take approximately 15-20 minutes.

Find a location where you won’t be disturbed and turn your phone off.

Take a moment to think of a relationship that you consider to be a bit “rocky”.  Think now of a specific incident where you and the other had difficulty in communicating your points to each other.

Take a moment to get into what NLP practitioners call the first position. Sit yourself comfortably in a chair, close your and take a few deep breaths so that you can begin to relax. In this position you will see everything for your perspective exactly as it happened.  What was it you were seeing at that time?  Do you remember what the other was wearing, how they were sitting, the expressions on their face.  Remember as much as you can to really bring the scene back to life. What were you hearing at the time?  How was your tone of voice? What about their tome and pitch of voice?  Was there emphasis on any particular words?  Now what about the feelings at the time, what were you feeling?  Can you remember the feelings in particular parts of your body?  Do you also remember what you were thinking at that time?  What was the other saying that evoked different thoughts or feelings? Take your time to remember the scene as accurately as you can.

Once you have done this take a moment to break that state.  You can break your state by standing up and clapping your hands together, walk around the room, shake your hands and feet or whatever.

In the other’s shoes …

Now return to your seat and relax again by taking a few breaths and when you are ready close your eyes.  You are now going to go into what we call the second position, this is where you step into the scene from the position of the other.  Take on their physiology, their body language, see things how they would see them.  See how they would be seeing you, how they would see your gestures and expressions.  Hear how they would hear your words, your tone of voice and so on.  This may feel odd as you step into that other person and as you take on their perspectives.  You can take this one stage further now by talking as if you were them.  Use the word “I” as if you were them speaking.  You may be very surprised as to how easy the words will flow and how you are able to construct a meaningful perspective from their viewpoint.

Spend a few more moment in second position and until you have gained some extra perspectives. Take a moment to absorb the essence of the other and take on board any meaningful learnings and insights from this position.  When you are ready break your state again as you did previously.

Being the “fly on the wall”

Return to your seat now and again relax, take a few deep breaths and when you’re ready close your eyes.  Now you are going to go into third position, what you might call the fly on the wall.  The difference between you and the fly however is that you are more engaged and concerned about the outcome in this relationship.  Take a moment to observe the person that looks like you in the first position.  As you see the person who looks like you what is it that you need more of to help you achieve your goal or intention with the other?  What do you need less of?  What advice would you give this person as a result of any insights that you have gained from being in the second position.  You may also from this position observe the nature and dynamic of the relationship and the interactions.  As an engaged observer allow yourself to see what else might be needed to nurture and cultivate that particular relationship.  What other advice would you then offer to the person who looks like you?

When you are ready and you have taken some meaningful insight form the positions take a moment to break you state again and return to yourself in the here and now.

For reflection:

Did this exercise provide you with any meaningful data that you can act on?

How would you be able to act on that information?

Is this an exercise that you can utilise again in the future?

Further Notes:

Some people are very good at either first, second or third position.  You may find yourself more comfortable with one in particular.  Be careful that if you are very comfortable with second position that you ensure that you are not overly biased towards this persons viewpoint.  People who don’t have a strong sense of self are more likely to bias their thoughts and feelings towards the other and as a result maybe lose sight of their own needs in the relationship.

Would you like help with your interactions and relationships?

Building and nurturing effective relationships are the core of any successful business.  You might like to chat to me about how you can improve your ability to grow you relationships.  If so give me a call today or contact me using our contact form and book a 30 minute no obligation coaching session to help you become a more relational leader.

The Abilene Paradox – Saying Yes When We Really Mean No

Have you ever sat in a meeting or some other gathering where a decision is being made that you don’t particularly agree with.  You maybe heard one of your inner voices say “wait a minute – that doesn’t feel right”.  The group consensus appears to be saying “yes”, but then you maybe start to feel uncomfortable about being the sole voice who says “no”.

This is quite a common occurrence and is referred to as the Abilene Paradox, named by Dr Jerry Harvey.  Abilene is small town in Texas in the USA and is used as a metaphor to describe a destination to where all members of a family verbally agreed to travel, but internally they all have misgivings about going there.  The point is that as individuals we tend to mistakenly believe that our opinion is in the minority and as such we might not want to voice our opinion for fear that we might “rock the boat”.

Why bother?

Think about it for a moment, who wants to be the party pooper, the kill-joy being accused of not being a team player just because they have a different opinion.  It’s part of our human condition to want to be part of the group as Maslow identified in his hierarchy of needs, so why go to the bother of isolating ourselves when maybe if we kept our mouths shut  maybe things will work out OK in the end.

Of course this is not always the case because there are a few individuals in every organisation who have the courage of their convictions and do speak out.  However these Lightning Rods, as I refer to them because they take on the wrath of God or the leaders, tend to get a bit of a name for themselves and end up with limited career options.

Managing Agreement over Managing Conflict

Many management theorists talk about this particular problem as that of Managing Agreement over Managing Conflict.  The great thing about conflict is its visibility.  If we can see the conflict we can help to resolve or manage it.  But what about the false agreements that are made in organisations every day that may have widespread and long-lasting impacts.  People may mutter and grumble about “that’s the way things are around here” and may become very cynical about their ability to change opinions or reverse decisions.  This is why the Agile value of courage is most important in organisations, people do need to have the courage of their convictions to voice their opinions.

What’s the Solution?

Ultimately however, my belief is that the solution to this particular problem is a leadership one.  Leaders need to become more aware of the power of group dynamics and the effects that it has on the individuals in an organisation.  If leaders can find a way to allow true  dialogue in their organisation that encourages a spirit of inquiry in their teams and groups, this would allows differences of opinion to emerge and who knows how this may benefit everyone concerned.

Many leaders may be unaware of how they surround themselves with “yes -people” or how the power of their personality may overwhelm people to the point that others cannot provide the diversity opinions that may be needed for an organisation to break out of a slump or to make a meaningful difference in the marketplace.  All too often I have seen leaders become consumed with their own importance and lose sense of reality.  They may say that they value other peoples opinions but they may be quite shocked to discover that they have unwittingly given a covert message that disagreement will not be tolerated.  When that happens, very soon the organisation will suffer and so will its people.

Leaders – Be the Change

So if you are a leader reading this and you have decided to embrace an Agile culture in your organisation, please know that there will most likely be changes needed with you and other leaders in the organisation and not just the delivery teams and people in the front-line.  An Agile organisation requires a different form and style of leadership than a bureaucratic one.  As Gandhi famously said “Be the change”.

The 3 Cs of User Stories

In our consulting work we often refer to the three C’s of user stories, here is what we mean.  The C’s are abbreviations for the:

  • Card
  • Conversation
  • Confirmation

The card contains little information and is often written in the form “As A <<Role Name>> I want <<a feature>> so that <<some value delivered>>”.  There are many different forms that this can take, but what is most important is that what is written, is meaningful to the team delivering the feature and the customer (or product owner) requesting it. Developers cannot write software from the card alone and to that end they need the next part … the conversation.

The conversation is the essence of the requirement and conversations can spawn many outputs or artefacts such as models, notes, story maps or even good old fashioned code!  I like to think of the conversation as the most important part of the story because this is where the learning is achieved.

For years as a systems or business analyst I used to write requirements specifications that could sink a small boat and then lob these over the partition to my design colleagues (god I hated conversations with designers – they asked way too many questions ;0) ).  But seriously, minimising the written word to specify requirements is important, but you maybe can’t get away with eliminating it altogether.

Conversations, and more importantly evolving conversations, allow the developer/designer to hold the concepts of the requirement in their head while the design and code become the output of a requirements conversation rather than some weighty tome.  This minimises ambiguity and uncertainty as the analyst, or better yet customer, can see their thoughts become manifest as a result of a few insightful conversations.  Changes can then be made directly as the feedback is received rather than going through some lengthy change management process which will result in a document being changed giving the risk of more ambiguity.

The confirmation (often written on the back of the story card) gives us the high-level criteria against which the resulting feature will be tested against.  I like the idea of specifying the system by examples of what the system will do both when it functions correctly or incorrectly.  This is a better way of creating a specification as opposed to my boat sinking documentation of yore. Alternatively simple closed questions such as “does the screen go black?” may well suffice for acceptance criteria.  But these in themselves will not be the complete set of acceptance tests but only a high level set of tests to give the customer or product owner confidence that the feature that has been created fulfils their criteria of a working feature.

The Agile Culture — A Definition

I would like to start a conversation here on Agile culture so I do hope that you as a reader you will become a contributor, I encourage it so please do leave your comments.

If I was to define Agile in one sentence and in as few words as possible I would have to say that:

Agile is a culture.

More specifically Agile is a culture where:

  • People are respected and valued
  • Diversity and difference are appreciated and accepted
  • People work together rather than against each other
  • Learning and continuous improvement are the focus of its people
  • Learning is regarded as investment and contributes to business value
  • The customer is central to all that we do and create
  • Authentic adult conversations are the means by which change emerges and evolves
  • There are no right answers or solutions
  • Passion and creativity replace obedience and compliance
  • Leadership exists at all levels of the organisation rather than just at the top
  • People love to come to work and love their work
  • People are proud to be part of their organisation and team
  • Employee turnover is low
  • Employee engagement is high
  • We anticipate and work with change

Now imagine for a moment that all of the above need to be in place for your organisation to consider itself to be an Agile organisation.  To my thinking it is little wonder that the organisational culture becomes one of the key and limiting impediments to the wholesale adoption and transformation to an Agile culture.  How may of these elements are true in your organisation?

So, my question to you if my assertion is true, that Agile is a culture, what would you say are the key elements, measures or dimensions of that culture?  I would love to hear more from you and I will add to above list as the conversation emerges.

Improving Your Communication as a Leader

In just about every project that I have consulted on, communication has been cited as an issue. I have many theories and hypothesis about what the causes of poor communication are, but at the core it is my belief that people tend to have one, or maybe two modes of communication that are their preference and they tend to stick with these patterns of communicating.  For leaders this can be a huge problem, especially in large organisations where they are expected to effectively communicate with everyone.

It’s the how not the what of communication that is important

Now when people think of communication and changing their style or mode of communication, they invariably tend to think of changing what they are saying rather than how they are saying it.  In my view is because this is the easy part to change, we might change the order of the words or become creative and use different ones.  Think about this for a moment:  have you ever given directions to someone who doesn’t speak your language?  I know that in the UK we joke about this because when someone doesn’t understand us we tend to SHOUT THE DIRECTIONS AT THEM, in the grim hope that using the same words but speaking louder will help them to understand us better.

So what do I mean by the how we communicate if I don’t mean shouting, pointing, adding sarcasm or other tonality to our speech?  This is where the Taibi Kahler’s five modes of communication come in.

For those of you reading this article who have taken the Leadership Personality Assessment I have added an extra section at the end that will help you to correlate your preferred mode of communication with your particular leadership profile.  If you haven’t taken the two minute assessment, then go here to take the test and find out more about your leadership personality.

Kahler’s five modes of communication

In short the five modes that Kahler describes are:

  • Emotive
  • Nurturative
  • Requestive
  • Directive
  • Interruptive

Emotive Mode

This is where we express ourselves straight from the heart.  This is where we express what we are feeling openly to the other person.  The tone used by the communicator may often be upbeat and energetic, often employing expressive gestures.

Now this is probably the most difficult mode for many people to engage with, especially those who are not fully aware of their true feelings.  True feelings here refer to one of the four authentic feelings as described in TA literature: mad, sad, sacred or glad.  (The theory in TA states that any other feelings other than these four are false or racket feelings:  feelings that are designed to cover up our true feelings, but this is a huge subject and not enough space here to explain more.)

Nurturative Mode

This mode of communication is where the person communicating is supportive and nurturing in their way of speaking and being.  They model acceptance and understanding of the other person while speaking in softer and more gentle tones than they might otherwise use.  Caution is urged here as to where and when to employ this mode of communication, especially in male-dominated organisations or workplaces.  It is easy to misinterpret this mode as “pink and fluffy” but in my opinion is the one that everyone can benefit from at one time or another as if used properly can help build the self-esteem and confidence of weaker team members.

Requestive Mode

As the name suggests, this is where the communicator makes a request of someone to act, think or feel in a certain way.  Very often the requestive mode is delivered in the form of a question and is delivered in an even tone with balanced and upright body posture.  Because the communciation is in the form of a question, this engages the others thinking ability and allows scope for discussion.

Directive Mode

In this mode of communication the communicator issues an instruction or command for the other to act, think or feel in a certain way.  Unlike the requestive mode, you are telling not asking.  To this end when one directs one does it with authority, but in a considered and supportive way.  The tone of voice is even as the command is delivered and leaves no room for discussion.  Good manners are optional here so adding please and thank you may help the flow of communication.

Interruptive Mode

Similar to the directive mode of communication, the communicator issues an instruction or command to get the other person to act, think or feel in a certain way.  This mode of communication is used to break or interrupt a pattern of thinking, behaving or feeling that is non-resourceful and could lead to a dangerous outcome.  To that end this mode of communication may appear abrupt or curt, but the goal of the communication here is to create enough impact to break the state of the other.

So what’s your preference?

As I said earlier if you have taken the leadership personality assessment you may be curious about the communication preferences for the other types.  Here is a summary which I have taken from Joines and Stewart’s book Personality Adaptations (2002, Lifespace, p150)

  • Enthusiastic-Overreactor prefers the nurturative mode;
  • Responsible-Workaholic prefers the requestive mode;
  • Brilliant-Skeptic prefers the requestive or directive mode;
  • Creative-Daydreamer prefers the directive mode;
  • Playful-Resistor prefers the emotive mode;
  • Charming-Manipulator prefers either emotive, nurturative or directive.

Do try this at work …

I recommend that you experience using each of the modes that I have described above in a variety of safe settings.  Become observant as to the impact that the mode of communication is having on:

  • You as a leader (which mode is more comfortable for you, why is that?);
  • Your followers;
  • The relationship with your followers.

As a leader you may want to raise the awareness of your team to these different modes of communication.





The Rules for Coaching Teams

I was just reading through David Clutterbuck’s “Coaching the Team at Work”, which is one of the few books written on team as opposed to individual coaching, it also happens to be one of my favourite books.  Clutterbuck draws on the experience of Jurgen Grobler, Great Britain’s rowing coach, who has personally coached gold medal crews in each of the five Olympic Games from 1992.   As a team coach he is someone who can speak with some authority on what it takes to coach teams that get results.

Here is Jurgen Grobler’s 8 rules for coaching a team (Clutterbuck, D. 2007. Coaching the Team at work. p78. Nicholas Brearly International) :

  1. Show you love your job;
  2. Guard mutual trust and openness;
  3. Question yourself before you question the team;
  4. Don’t run away from tough decisions;
  5. Deal with people as individuals, differently;
  6. No criticism means no progress;
  7. Listen to what your team is telling you;
  8. Shun favouritism.

Reading back through this list helps remind me as a coach that my performance as a coach is just as important as that of the team.  So as you read this list are there any surprises in there for you?  Are there any others that you would add?  I’m most curious to hear your thoughts, so please do share them with my readers by replying in the box below.  I’ll do my best to respond directly to you.


The Real Job of Leaders

Word count 1277, Time to read: 15 mins, Published 16 November 2011

In the previous newsletter I started to talk about motivation as that was a subject that a number of you requested as a place to start in our work together.  Since writing that installment I have been reflecting on a number of themes around motivation in order to provide you with something more meaningful than a rehash of “bog standard” motivational theories and practices.  As part of this reflection I became curious about whether or not as leaders, motivation, in its truest sense, is really our concern.  Allow me to explain further …

Dealing with Symptoms or Causes

Leaders these days are stressed out with the many calls on their time to fix the day to day crises that occur in their departments or organisations.  In fact they could probably be better referred to as fire-fighters rather than leaders.  As a coach and consultant my job is to challenge their thinking and behaviours and very often I discover that what their time is most consumed with is fixing the symptoms of organisational issues rather than the true causes.  So let’s take the subject of motivation in its most general terms: poor motivation, low morale, malaise, discontent, absenteeism and so on; are these symptoms or causes?  To my mind these are symptoms of underlying issues and not real causes.  Allow me to present you with a case study of someone who I worked with a few years back …

Dealing with Anger …

I was asked to coach Sally (not her real name), who was a senior manager responsible for quality in a large manufacturing organisation.  The issue that I was asked to coach her on was her anger and attitude.  For the first couple of sessions I was getting to know her and what was expected of her in her role and most importantly why she was “doing anger”.  (I can’t assume that she was feeling angry or yet more deeply being angry; to jump to conclusions about her experience would be fateful to the coaching relationship and the subsequent coaching outcomes, a mistake that rookie coaches or well intentioned leaders acting as coaches make.)    It became very apparent to me that Sally had every reason to be angry about what she was observing in the organisation.  Sally was good at her job.  She was a perfectionist, the ideal sort of person you would want to be heading your QA efforts.  However this tendency carried over into her professional relationships which had an inclination to put a strain on them.  Now bear in mind that HR had asked me to come in to work with Sally and to help “fix” her anger issue.  As I have said further exploration to the underlying issues, the potential causes of Sally’s issues revealed chaos, bullying, lethargy and incompetence in the organisation.  Now of course I have to be careful and not swallow everything whole that Sally presented, but even if only a fraction of what she was saying was true then to my mind, she had every reason to be angry.

A Happy Ending?

I wont go into the how I proceeded with the coaching suffice to say that the contract was renegotiated so that I could help Sally deal with her righteous anger in a healthy way.  The organisation wasn’t yet ready to change and subsequently Sally made her peace with the organisation and parted ways; she now works in an organisation that demonstrates appreciation for her, not by paying her more money (although she gets that too) but by listening to her and acting, where appropriate, on the advice she gives.  So all round yes this was a happy ending both for the organisation and Sally.  The organisation didn’t want to particularly lose Sally’s expertise but it didn’t also want the disruption that it perceived that Sally caused.  Sally is most definitely happy because she has come to understand that her feelings are telling her something and rather than act them out (doing anger) her feelings are usually a sign for her to go inwards and discover her own true source (or cause) of her discontent.  In Sally’s case this was a clash of values, a conflict that could only be resolved in the short term by sally find another organisation where people shared and lived her values.

Are You Working in an Angry Organisation?

So we started about talking about motivation and how leaders can motivate their people. Anger in organisations is commonplace, but organisations aren’t angry – people are, but very often the feeling of anger is justifiable but how we demonstrate our anger becomes an issue. Anger is a most uncomfortable emotion to deal with for many people.  In fact many people have been told that their anger is not “right”.  There is also a common belief that anger is a negative emotion.  These are very curious beliefs that find their origins in our care-givers who will punish or chastise a child that demonstrates their anger.  So what tends to happen in those cases where we are conditioned to believe that anger is bad, the anger goes underground and becomes invisible.*    This happens a lot in organisations, especially hierarchical ones that reinforce a parent-child dynamic between its leaders and it’s workforce.   Seething anger ferments and festers under the false smiles and “let’s pretend to be nice to each other” is far more damaging because it remains underground and becomes the un-discussable.

*As an aside its a fact that covering our true feelings happens with just about any emotions; a care-giver might just as easily reinforce the belief that it’s bad to demonstrate too much happiness, confidence, joy, love and so on.  These feelings are then supressed and replaced with feelings that are more acceptable to the care-giver.  In Transactional Analysis (TA) terms this is referred to racketeering.

So dealing or “fixing” anger is a classic example of dealing with an organisational symptom and not a true cause.  Peoples negative attitudes in organisations are often born out of frustration at not being able to make a change or difference to their working lives.  Worse still, they see their destinies being held in the hand of their leaders who in their minds are a “bunch of idiots who don’t know what they are doing.”  Of course this is the politer version of what I tend to hear, but I’m sure you know what I am driving at.

The Real Job of Leadership

The real job of leaders to my mind is to work on fixing what Herzberg referred to as hygiene factors.  If anger is a commonly observed symptom in the organisation the job of the leader is to uncover the root cause of the issue.  However there might be little appetite for that work as it may uncover deep rooted issues that are far more difficult to fix than sending the angry people to coaching.  It may mean that the leader will have to change something about themselves or their team.  Is your organisation one that deals effectively with the destructive and un-resourceful behaviours of senior management; or does it turn a blind eye because there maybe difficult, adult conversations that lie ahead?  I’m interested to hear more so please do share your experiences here with us all – but do give yourself a pseudonym in case your truth, like mine, is a little unpalatable to others in your organisation – just in case they read this too.

In the next article I will talk a little more about the hygiene factors and how as leaders we can make our organisations more habitable for our people.

Until then I wishing you all the best in your quest to become the leader you dream of being,