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It’s not much fun being a manager when results are bad. Sometimes it’s the performance of your team or your organisation that’s poor. Sometimes you’re working well but the market out there is slow or declining. Whatever the reason, the worst thing is the feeling that there’s nothing you can do about it. 

A feeling of helplessness or passivity, where you aren’t master of your own destiny, can be quite destabilising. It leads to negative emotions, decision paralysis, low morale and low productivity. Crucially, it also blinds us to positive opportunities or ‘upsides’. And of course a vicious circle soon forms, where low spirits lead to low performance and vice-versa. 

 This is true for individuals and groups. In fact, if it’s affecting a whole group it’s much harder to reverse and it takes an effective manager to turn the mood around.  Here’s one way of doing it. 

 It’s a way of thinking popularised by Steven Covey, and comes up in the first of his 7 Habits Of Highly Effective People. The official website is here. 

 The procedure is fairly simple. There are various ways of running it but this is typical one. 

  1. On a board or sheet of paper, draw 2 concentric circles  creating a kind of archery target with circles inside bigger ones. 
  2. Start by being a kind of Devil’s Advocate: get everyone to write down all the obstacles to success – all the reasons why you can’t succeed. These are things that you can’t control and can’t avoid. Putting them on sticky notes is a good idea. Where possible, I encourage people to abandon formal language and say it as it is: ‘The IT system sucks’, ‘Kevin blocks everything we try to do’, ‘Managers don’t know what they want from one day to the next’, ‘Our product isn’t the best in the market’Better to get it out bluntly (within reason!) than hold it back.
  3. Share these ideasPlace the ideas into the outer circle on your board. This is the Circle of Concern. And it’s the place you don’t want to be stuck in. But before you banish these thoughtstake a moment to affirm the truth of what people are sayingIn most cases, you’ll be able to agree that these major hindrances exist. 
  4. Now it’s time for a list of things you can control. Remember these are not in any way solutions to the obstacles just listed. These are just different things that are actually under your control. These thoughts go into the inner circle: The Circle Of Control. To begin with, these controllable things can seem insignificant in relation to the big, uncontrollable factors. But that’s just because what we can control is ourselves; what we can’t control is the rest of the world – which is way bigger than us! 

From here, you can take it different ways. The process so far might be enough to jolt you and the group into focusing on the positive: what you can control.  

When running this activity for myself, I imagine some ideal, ultimate professional has been parachuted into my place. What would they do? Well, they wouldn’t kid themselves about the barriers to success but they would definitely figure out what good work could be done, and do it. They would also be determined to approach their work with a positive attitude that other people could benefit from. As a result they could leave work at the end of each day thinking: ’That was a good day; I dealt well with everything I decided to do’. Then I try to do exactly that. 

Alternatively, you can shine more light on the two circles you have. Are all those insurmountable obstacles definitely insurmountable? Could we test out some ways of mitigating the problem? If not, fine, move on to the inner circle: Can we add to that list of things that we can control? Can we be more proactive, less reactive, by focusing on that category? If we all collaborate, and all care, what else can we do? 

 Remember that the Circle of Control is not a magical land of guaranteed outcomes. It can be made up of efforts that may or not bear fruit. For example, someone looking for a job can’t be certain that an application or networking opportunity will come to anything. But they, and only they, control the rate and quality of those efforts.  

The classic example of what goes in the Circle Of Control is: speak to people. So you can’t make your managers more consistent in their decision-making but you can look for small changes that make the situation better: try to anticipate or pre-empt their changes of tack; get more of their decisions to be firmer, written commitments or longer conversations rather than them ‘shooting from the hip’ in an email sent from a taxi; get tips from someone who finds them easier to handle than you do. 

As their manager, remember that simply making people feel more in control, more powerful, more influential, more effective, gives them a renewed purpose. It can raise morale and productivity. Using the Circles activity can really help to do this. And starting a meeting by drawing circles on bits of paper can signal to the team, some of whom might be weary, that today you’re trying something different.  

Even if you don’t follow this exact process, you can learn from the general shape of the interaction, and try to incorporate it into the way you communicate with your people: 

  •  Ask them as a group what they need 
  • Listen without interruption and record their answers 
  • Affirm what’s true 
  • Switch focus to what can be done 
  • Think of some quick fixes to smaller frustrations 
  • Resolve to try and influence on their behalf

Report back to them on your efforts to influence on their behalfFailure to remove the over-arching obstacles won’t necessarily harm your credibility. Demonstrating a desire to make life easier for your team will give your credibility a boost. 

For more on leadership, take a look at our complete Guide to Leadership Skills.


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