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Four Behaviour Chairs

Have you ever wondered why some people who are very talented seem to go around in circles?

And why other people leave a trail of bodies behind them and can’t understand why people aren’t grateful for their leadership! And why some people seem to be their own worst enemies. Then there are those who simply get things done and achieve results that are important to them without the drums rolling or making a huge scene.

Lessons from Greyton

Come back with me to my middle career. You find me in the village of Greyton in the Western Cape of South Africa. It’s an unexpectedly magical place and so different from the surrounding countryside it’s as if it doesn’t belong there.

After the open wheat lands of the Overberg, you drive into the main street lined with oak trees and cosy coffee shops. The narrow lanes are lined with gingerbread cottages alongside gurgling water furrows. People walk their dogs and horses in the champagne air against the background of the majestic Riviersonderend mountains.  

You find me loitering around the coffee area with a group of other Executives. We will spend four days with the doyenne of assertiveness in South Africa, Lidia Vosloo – a tough lady whose reputation preceded her. She could ‘ride a bus over you’ if required, so the story went. Lidia was a senior manager in Corporate life before becoming a Clinical Psychologist. She started her work to help women develop more assertiveness in their careers. A mission I continue to share.

Over the next few days I would discover some profound new truths about life and a new set of choices for the workplace.

I would discover that there was a difference between my personality and my behaviour. That trying to change my personality would be an expensive and futile exercise. But being able to choose my behaviour would be liberating.

I would discover that I can become my own ‘therapist’ by challenging beliefs that have sabotaged me in the past and those that continue to hound me.

I would come to realise that my behaviour affects how other people behave towards me.

I would discover that I am always 100% responsible for my own behaviour, but only 50% responsible for any relationship in my life.

I would affirm once again that I can choose my attitude in any situation, no matter what is happening around me.

The words of Viktor Frankl, the Jewish psychiatrist and Auschwitz survivor, would remind me again:

“Everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms—to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.” 

I wondered then, as I still do now, why this isn’t part of our formal education. And why we don’t encourage and celebrate choice more often rather than assigning yet another ‘type’ or ‘style’ that provides yet another way to label ourselves.

To say that people can’t change is like saying a dog can’t learn new tricks. That we are victims of our previous circumstances or habits. If that were true, we would not have survived as a human race. We would certainly not have sustained relationships. And we would all be helpless in the face of adversity.

I discovered during those few days in the country that Winnie the Pooh was spot on: “You’re braver than you believe, stronger than you seem, and smarter than you think”.

My father was a dog

One of my favourite cartoons by Leo Cullum is of a cat lying attentively on the couch while the dog, sitting on the carpet, explains: ’It’s genetic, My Father was a dog, and I’m a dog’

Many people consider their poor behaviour choices to be genetic. ‘It’s just who I am’ they argue.

Your personality is largely genetic, but that doesn’t dictate how you behave. How often have you done something and cringed at your choice? Or failed to do something that was right for you?

In the workplace you have behaviour choices throughout your day and in your interactions with other people. Whether to be proactive or wait for someone else to initiate action. Whether to listen well or fake attention. Whether to address conflict or avoid it and hope it goes away. Whether to use negative feedback constructively or to defend and justify yourself. Whether to speak up or withhold your opinion in case it’s not popular. Whether to say yes or no to an unreasonable request. Whether to raise an issue with someone or to moan in your head. Whether to tell someone that what they are doing is not helpful or tell someone else about it under the guise of caring for them.

These are all behaviour choices. You can learn to listen better. You can learn to collaborate more successfully. You can learn to build more productive relationships without game-playing. You can learn to actively empower yourself and other people. You can learn to take more focused action. You can learn to get your ego out of the way and work toward getting better results for everyone.

People often blame their behaviour choices on their personality. I hear people use their introversion to explain why they don’t speak up, or connect with other people, or take on leadership roles. Or that they are rude simply because of their heritage. Since introversion is often raised in our workshops, let’s explore that as an example.

Introversion and extroversion are personality characteristics. That means you can’t tell who is introverted or extroverted by their behaviour from the outside and you also cannot decide to change it. It’s where you get your energy from.

Extroverts get their energy from being with and around people. That doesn’t mean they have anything to say. They may have very poor interpersonal skills. Others are jovial and think with their mouths open.

Introverts get their energy away from other people, but may be very social, listen well and even be the centre of the party with the right people.

The energy we have around people is like a water tank. The stronger your extroversion, the larger your people tank, the more time you can spend with people and be energised by them. The more introverted you are, the smaller your tank, which means you need to refill it more often or for longer periods of time away from people.

It’s the end of a rough day at the office and your colleagues suggest: ‘Let’s all go out for a drink at the Waterfront, it’s such a beautiful evening’. ‘Great idea! We’re in! say the extroverts without reservation. The introverts have other commitments, of course. They leave quietly down the back stairs so nobody follows them or asks for a lift, then take the long way home and hope no one else is home yet.

Two hours later at the Waterfront the extroverts’ eyes are sparkling again. Two hours later the introvert, after a leisurely shower, a bit of reading and gazing into space, is now already returning to normal and recovering some energy for the folks who will arrive home soon.

As an introvert, there is one thing that may confuse, or even infuriate your extroverted friends. You have a small dinner for a few good friends when you discuss things that interest you over good food and wine. And you can talk with energy till 2am! ‘Oh, you can talk to them!’ they say, but not to me!

That’s because introverts come alive with small groups of people around topics that interest them. It’s not making small talk at a large event, for too long, or spending hours with people that drain their energy.

But regardless of your preference, even after a tough day, giving someone your full attention is a behaviour choice. Giving presentations, attending functions and accepting dinner dates come with the responsibility to make an effort. Using introversion as an excuse for not making an effort is career and life limiting. Using extraversion as an excuse for talking too much, being insensitive to other people’s needs and not listening is also limiting.

Taking back choice means letting go of blaming your personality, your style, brain profile, upbringing, gender, sexual orientation or your parents for the behaviour choices you make.

You have literally thousands of opportunities every day to make choices in your personal life and in the workplace. Every time you open your mouth you have a choice. Every time you choose to act or not to act you have a choice. Every time you do a piece of work you have a choice to aim higher, even though you may miss it, or to aim low and hit it.

Perhaps the children’s character Bob the Builder got it right.

‘Can we fix it? Yes, we can!’

Assertiveness means leading yourself

Assertiveness got itself a bad reputation through programmes and books that taught people to be pushy, play the broken record till they got heard and demanding they get their own way. This resulted in choices that turned out to be self-centred and aggressive.

In her book ‘The Choice’ Dr Edith Eger, a holocaust survivor and now a world-renowned psychotherapist explains the difference beautifully: ‘Aggression is telling other people what to do. Submission is allowing other people to tell you what to do. Assertiveness is telling yourself what to do’.


Assertiveness is therefore about leading yourself and other people in a way that empowers you and them. It means leading your own behaviour, your own emotions and your internal dialogue. It means actively seeking workable compromises that value the dignity of other people and recognises that their needs may be different to yours. It means you can disagree without disliking people.

As you will see, the choices you make as a leader of yourself and of other people in the workplace are based on your ability to manage two things. My friend Andrew who does paragliding as a hobby, explains that there are two toggles to work with when you are in the air. On each is a ‘brake line’ that effectively steers the wing of your paraglider. Using only one of them will make it difficult to catch thermals or to navigate your way to a destination. And leaving it to its own devices and hanging on for dear life could give you a smooth ride, in no particular direction, until you come to a nasty end, perhaps requiring some expensive dental work.

Traditional leadership models use different words to describe these two dimensions. The Managerial Grid developed by Blake and Mouton calls these dimensions ‘Concern for people’ and ‘Concern for production’.  The Dimensional Model of Managerial Behaviour developed by Lefton, Buzotto and Sherberg uses a continuum from hostility to warmth to describe the ‘people’ dimension and a continuum from dominance to submission to describe the ‘task’ dimension.  The Situational Leadership Model developed by Blanchard and Hersey calls these two dimensions ‘Relationship Behaviour’ and ‘Task Behaviour’.

As in paragliding, sometimes you will take the people dimension too far at the expense of task. Other times you will become task-focused at the expense of people.

Learning to lead yourself and other people means mastering these two key dimensions.

I believe there are Twenty-one behaviours that truly assertive leaders display:

  1. They are people-focused and results-driven. They seek opportunities to empower themselves and other people to achieve results. They are therefore ‘we’ rather than ‘me’ focused.

  2. They communicate clearly what they want, where they are going and why. There is no need for double-guessing or hidden agendas within the confines of confidentiality.

  3. They do whatever they can to grow themselves and other people. They make every effort to gain insight into themselves and give both positive and constructive negative feedback to help others grow and reach their best potential.

  4. They are authentic. They are the same people in different situations, no pre-warning is required about how they may be ‘today’.

  5. They show dignity for other people in every interaction, even where there is disagreement or bad news.

  6. They are willing to make unpopular decisions that may be necessary for the business. They are not dependent on approval from other people and they don’t seek consensus on every issue before they move forward.

  7. They are willing to make mistakes, to admit them and to learn from them. They are also willing to accept that others make mistakes in the process of learning.

  8. They are willing to stick their necks out to make progress. They don’t hide behind policy or old ways of doing things simply because they are there. They know that systems are there to support the business, not the other way around.

  9. They are honest. They are honest with themselves, are honest about their values and are willing to say what needs to be said without in any way belittling or shaming other people.

  10. They listen better. They give their full attention to what other people are saying, rather than listening selectively and waiting for their turn to respond, criticise or offer advice. They are therefore able to identify the real issues amidst a sea of information and activity.

  11. They truly empower people. They ask more questions, invite contribution and encourage others to presents ideas and to solve problems.

  12. They treat other people as individuals. They appreciate that people are different with different capacities for work. They also do not judge or discriminate against anyone for their gender, culture, sexual orientation or background.

  13. They are able to manage themselves. They have the emotional intelligence to manage their thinking, their emotions and their behaviour and are well able to regulate themselves in the workplace and beyond.

  14. They are more interested in solving the problem at hand than wallowing in the past, naming, blaming and shaming other people. They are focused on what needs to be done rather than who needs to carry the blame.

  15. They ask for help. They realise it is not necessary or practical to know everything or to be competent in all things. They also openly acknowledge those who bring solutions.

  16. They take ownership for decisions they make without blaming the system, other people, the environment or market conditions for lack of success.

  17. They are willing to make tough decisions and pay the price for those decisions without complaining endlessly about how costly they were.

  18. They plan and grow people to succeed them. They are under no illusion that they are immortal, indispensable and that the world will indeed go on without them.

  19. They are committed to growth and seek opportunities for development and growth for themselves and other people.

  20. They are kind to themselves. They treat themselves as importantly as other people and are actively managing themselves, their energy and their well-being. They do whatever it takes to increase their own capacity to lead others to results.
  1. They realise that perfection is not possible, but that excellence is both a choice and a habit. They therefore nurture excellence in themselves and in those they lead.

The four behaviour chairs

 Anyone who has studied marketing and sales, even in its rudimentary form, will have been introduced to the four P’s of marketing, known as the marketing mix: Product, Place, Price and Promotion.

Blending the two dimensions of ‘people’ and ‘task’ also allows us to create a behaviour mix, each of them producing different levels of empowerment and impact.

I thought it may be helpful to see this behaviour mix in four chairs. Some chairs have a higher task component, others a higher people component. Some have very little of either component and are ineffective and even destructive.

Before we explain the four chairs, here are some important things to know about them:

  • Just because the chairs are there, doesn’t mean that you sit in them all. You may use some exclusively, avoid some entirely or use some more often than others.

  • We don’t always sit on a chair in the same way. Sometimes we sit ‘deep’ in a chair and occupy it entirely. Other times we sit on the edge, or lean on it heavily from the back, or even casually hold onto it standing alongside it. Each position we take has different levels of intensity.

  • You may sit on different chairs in different situations, with different people, or even move between them in the course of a single conversation.

  • Just because you have become accustomed to one chair, doesn’t mean you can’t move. We have perhaps all had a favourite chair at home that has been supremely comfortable for years. But it may be hurting your back as you have gotten older. It may be time for some re-upholstering, or even time for a new one entirely.

  • These are chairs, not people. So, unless you are made of wood like Pinnochio, you are not a chair. Just because you sit in one chair often doesn’t make you one. Just because you have shifted from one chair to another doesn’t change who you are. Moving chairs does not mean you have a split personality. It simply means you have changed what you do. It means you are making new choices. Isn’t that what life is about?

Chair Number 1: The AGGRESSIVE chair

When you sit in this chair, you display varying degrees of telling people what to do, how to think and how the world would be a better place if they only did things your way!

When you are in this chair you do lots of ‘telling’, giving un-asked-for advice, belittling and blaming other people when things go wrong, and of course always having to be right.

Here you manage people tightly so you are always in control. And you quickly put punitive measures in place for those who have a mind of their own.

This may seem like strong leadership, but it is not leadership at all since it effectively disempowers other people by not inviting them to think or to take initiative. Indeed, it could be career-limiting for them to do so.

The impact here is that you get things done and people do what they are told, but it suppresses potential in other people and effectively removes their own power. You then complain that no-one thinks unless you do, no one takes ownership for anything and that ‘the place will fall apart’ without you. Which indeed it might if you have not empowered other people to think and act on their own.

There comes a time when you need to provide strong vision and direction in the workplace, but that doesn’t mean bullying, dictating and demanding that your way is the only way. 

Your listening skills in this chair are poor and generally selective. The danger of course is that if you don’t listen you may eventually be surrounded by people who have nothing to say.

When you sit in this chair, your communication is one-way. You have to be right and know all the answers. If people have other views, you need to set them straight, often in a critical and judgmental way. You may choose to belittle them in front of other people, make comments about them on social media or send mails that humiliate them and copy in other people for added impact.

You are not necessarily in-your-face rude. You may have learned to patronise people in the nicest possible way but underlying it is a cutting comment. ‘For a blond that was quite smart….’, ‘Oh, didn’t your MBA cover cashflow?’ or ‘For someone as old as you, you have a lot to learn’ and so on. That is accompanied by judgement about people on the basis of who they are or where they come from.

Behaviour in this chair may get you into the corner office because you certainly get things done. But your biggest problem now becomes that you have lost your people orientation along the way and may lose the support of the people you need most. If you have enough positional power, you can certainly get compliance, but self-motivation, genuine buy-in, ownership and initiative will be hard to find. You may even invite sabotage.

In this chair your task orientation is strong, but your people orientation gets in your way. Fortunately for you, this is easier to fix than a lack of task focus.

You have Frank Sinatra’s ‘My Way’ as the ringtone on your phone.


Chair Number 2: The PASSIVE AGGRESSIVE chair

When you sit in the Passive Aggressive chair, or hang around it, you behave in varying degrees of misery, helplessness and digging your heels in. Your focus is what could go wrong rather than what could go right.

Because of the low people and task orientation in this chair, you remain uninvolved, maintaining the status quo at all costs and because change is dangerous you have an endless list of reasons why things won’t work and why you have no influence over it. The impact on your work and your life are the same. Lack of progress, movement and well-being.

That makes it a lonely, unproductive and anxiety-provoking place to be. Not only does it hugely impact your career, it also fuels depression if you have a genetic predisposition to that – it’s like taking poison and hoping someone else will die.

When you are in this chair you make it difficult for other people to help you. Playing ‘hate tapes’ in your head and expecting other people to read your mind or your body language or sulky expression is a sure way to distance yourself from people who may be willing and keen to help you. That can become a lonely place. Your choice of poor people skills and little initiative make you very difficult, and tiring, to manage.

Here you don’t lead yourself, or anyone else. In the workplace you simply become a post office, passing on information without creating any impact. Sharing bad news is not so difficult, because it’s so much more fun to share and of course requires nothing from you, personally.

Now, we all spend times complaining in our heads, seeing only the negative and making life difficult for ourselves and other people. But living here permanently has its own price. So have a quick misery holiday, sort yourself out, but don’t stay there for fifteen years.

In the Winnie the Pooh books, there is a character called Eeyore. He is a grey stuffed donkey who is generally pessimistic, gloomy and not surprisingly, depressed.

Here are some of Eeyore’s famous comments:

‘If it is a good morning, which I doubt…’;

‘Days. Weeks. Months. Who knows?’

‘It’s all for naught’

Both your people and task focus are poor in this chair, so you could end up anywhere. Sitting in this chair is career and life-limiting and you end up sabotaging yourself. Because you don’t want to get anything wrong, you may end up doing very little. Playing it safe in a changing workplace may end up being the riskiest thing you can do.

If you want to go nowhere slowly, this chair is a great choice.


Chair Number 3: The POLLYANNA chair

When you sit in the Pollyanna chair, you are so invested in the positive that you focus only on that. Here you avoid conflict and difficult conversations and end up agreeing to many more things than you are willing or have capacity to do.

The story of Pollyanna was written by Eleanor Porter in 1913. Pollyanna is an orphan who goes to live with her Aunt Polly, a wealthy but cold and unfeeling spinster who only takes her in from a sense of duty.

But Pollyanna is happy all the time and does whatever she can to make other people happy. She plays the game her father taught her, called “the glad game”, which is about finding something to be happy about even when you are sad.

We refer to people as a Pollyanna when they are excessively or blindly optimistic, often at the expense of ignoring bad news, explaining away difficult situations with positivity and believing that if you just think positive thoughts everything will be OK.

Because you are so invested in being ‘nice’ at all costs, you often ignore your own needs in the process. You may not get things done or initiate anything new and then you start building frustration and resentment about how other people take advantage of you.

Other people have needs, but so do you. When you are in this chair you become so overly focused on the needs of other people and doing what pleases them, you are in danger of becoming a good doormat. If you have spent many years in this chair you may have forgotten that you too have needs, or have difficulty stating them in the face of demands from other people.

Despite your strong need to create a better world many of the plans you talk about never materialise. Few of your goals get completed and you allow ‘life’ to get in the way of doing what is important to you. The endless pleasing of everyone else ends up sabotaging your own goals.

Because of your need to be liked when you sit here, it can be difficult finding your own voice and sharing opinions that may not be popular or acceptable in the workplace.

Because you are overly dependent on other people for approval, you let difficult conversations slide or not have them at all. You let performance issues, including your own, run for too long. And instead of telling people what you really want to say when you are unhappy, you hint or make humorous but cutting comments. Then you laugh it off with ‘Just joking!’

In the workplace, despite your need to be liked and to be popular, you are often not taken seriously. Your need to be popular has begun to interfere with your ability to be effective. Because you seek popularity before results, this is a difficult place from which to lead yourself or other people.

In this chair your people orientation is well developed, but your task focus needs some work if you want to move into a more productive space.

You have Barry Manilow’s ‘Can’t smile without you’ as your ringtone.


Chair Number 4: The PRODUCTIVE chair

In this chair you have achieved varying degrees of mastery of both people and task behaviours and are able to blend them in a way that is productive and empowering. You lead yourself and other people as individuals so that you get optimal buy-in and results.

Here you listen well and ask more questions. You genuinely invite other people’s thoughts and ideas. Your purpose here is to get the best results, not a feather in your cap for having done it yourself.

Here there is two-way communication, clear expectations and no double-guessing. Good and bad news has equal value and you acknowledge that we make mistakes as a way of learning and doing better next time. It’s a tough leadership space, since there are no games.

From a leadership perspective, it is in this chair that you truly lead yourself and other people, driving clear goals and making everyone accountable for what they do. It therefore challenges a culture that may have become ‘country club’ where everyone must be happy, or a dictatorial environment where people only move when you speak, and then only in the direction you decree.

Instead it creates an adult environment where people who are willing to work can work together to create something bigger than themselves.

It creates a culture where people value themselves and other people, where learning and growth are valued and where mistakes in the process of learning are valued as much as getting it right every time.

Leading from this chair doesn’t make you perfect, always rational and calm. Nor does it mean that everyone you lead will respond in the way you want them to. But it does give you the best chance to grow people as far as they are able and willing and to get the best results you can.

The power chair would seem to have more power simply because people do what they are told, for fear of reprisal if they don’t. But that puts all leadership in one place. The productive chair is more powerful than the third chair could ever be. And that’s because it mobilises the power, initiative and energy of other people to multiply results.

From a people perspective, you display warmth without compromising quality, delivery or accountability.

Most importantly, no one needs to read your mind. You have no hidden agendas. What you say is what you mean. You are firm in your decisions and actions without demeaning other people.

In this chair it’s not all about you. Your need is to create something bigger than yourself, to find win-win’s in business and in life. In this chair getting results for everyone is more important than being an individual hero.

In this chair, you are realistic enough to know what you don’t have the power to change in other people, or to fix a relationship single-handedly, or to truly motivate people without their help.

You don’t need a ringtone on your phone. You use your own voice.


Moving chairs

Now that we have established how easily we change our behaviour from day to day, from meeting to meeting or within an individual or group conversation, let’s consider some common moves in the workplace.

The Passive Mover: When you move between the Passive Aggressive Chair and the Pollyanna chair, the common factor is that you remain passive. You may well be adding value, but you don’t take initiative to make things happen. You may be constantly frustrated that you don’t get things done, that you don’t achieve those goals you set for yourself, or that the only goals you have for yourself are those other people think are good for you.

The sign above your desk reads: ‘Passive and reactive. Smiling may be deceiving, over-commitment probable, sabotage possible’

The Aggressive mover: When you move between the Aggressive and the Passive Aggressive chairs, you remain aggressive. When you sit in the Aggressive chair the aggression comes out of your mouth with rudeness, sarcasm and bullying. When you sit in the passive aggressive chair the aggression is in your head, in the arguments you have with people who aren’t there. 

The sign above your desk reads: ‘I only do people when there is no way around it’.

The Bitchy mover: When you move from the Pollyanna chair to the Aggressive chair, you generally allow others to call the shots. Until you get mad. Then you throw your toys with force. Then you go back to your corner. This can be very confusing for other people. No one knows, perhaps not even you, whether you will respond kindly or tell them in no uncertain terms how they take you for granted and who do they think you are!

The sign above your desk reads: ‘Generally agreeable with sporadic acts of aggressiveness’.

The Assertive mover: When you move from the Pollyanna to the Productive chair, you have moments of assertive brilliance when you are focused, productive and clear. You really do inspire people and things happen. You have extended periods of time feeling unproductive and wish you had more days when you got it right.

The sign above your desk reads: ‘A good doormat, but sometimes impressively focused and results driven’

The Liberated mover: To move from the Passive Aggressive Chair to the Productive chair is liberating. It does mean being willing to give up your helplessness, your insistence that you can’t or won’t make it and to give up your excuses for not taking action. Many people who discover they have a choice make utterly dramatic shifts, so can you. Others however are so attached to their misery they are reluctant to give it up. As the bumper sticker goes ‘If you love your cage, no one can set you free’

The sign above your desk reads: I’m back in charge!

The Productive mover: When you move from the Aggressive chair to the Productive chair, you move towards behaviour that truly empowers people. This does not dilute your strong ability to drive new action, take a stand, make plans and execute them. By moving to the Productive chair, you execute tasks without executing anybody in the process. This of course means giving up your need to have the last word and to access the energy, intellect and contributions of other people. You have mastered the skill of taking action and driving progress. You simply need to work more productively with people, which is an easier skill to learn than developing the task orientation you already have.

The sign about your desk reads: ‘Now that I have tamed my ego, can we work together?’

The Ultimate mover: When you sit in all the chairs, this can be extremely tiring for you and confusing for other people. You wish you had more control over your choices!

The sign above your desk reads: ‘Intent good, response unpredictable’

Behaviour in Organisations

Organisations don’t change behaviour, people do.

Many organisations recognise the need to create a participative, learning, people-driven, high performance culture. They want interdependence, collaboration in teams and across teams, empowerment at all levels of the organisation, ownership and focused action.

From the productive chair, here are some important behaviours to develop and cultivate in organisational life:

  • Honesty means having the conversations you need to have, not only those that are comfortable or that people want to hear. It means having the real conversations with the right people without game playing, hinting or berating people.

  • True Empowerment. Empowerment means making people 100% responsible for their own behaviour, including your own. That means encouraging, mentoring and training. It sometimes means letting people go that don’t serve your business.

  • Authentic participation. Participation is not about endless meetings and consensus merry-go-rounds, but engaging people to contribute, to find solutions and to take the action required to achieve results.

  • Results focus. How would it be if the whole workplace operated in this chair? I don’t think we could hold down performance, customer service or delivery. Will we get it all right? No. Do we need to? No. But we can do better, day by day.

  • The ability to learn from mistakes. To get our ego out of the way, to be open to feedback, to let go of perfection and pursue excellence.

But changing culture means changing the way people behave, and that’s not a quick fix.

Sometimes however the change is complicated by overcompensating. Here is how it could play out.

The organisation realises it needs to change the legacy of autocratic management that has taught employees to be guarded, not to take any chances and not to challenge authority or raise new ideas.

And so they decide it’s time to introduce a new culture around valuing people.

With air tickets and hired car vouchers in hand, they troop off to the ‘Power through people’ conference. They are blown away by the power they could release into their organisation if they simply allowed people the space to think, to share ideas and to seek consensus rather than be told what to do.

Meetings become more inclusive, and longer. Posters go up about how the company’s biggest asset is their people and new reward schemes recognise people who live their values.

Awards, gifts and positive reinforcement abound, even for those who have tried hard but not succeeded.

But results go down rather than up.

The management team become increasingly disillusioned that this high people culture is not getting the results they had in mind. And so, off to a local game park to review this strategy. It’s a gripe session about how this new culture simply doesn’t deliver and that’s it’s time to put pressure on again so that people deliver the goods. Perhaps we should have got robots after all, at least you can programme them!

And so, they revert to telling people what to do. ‘You had your chance to take the initiative and you didn’t take it’. ‘Now it’s time for business again. ‘If you don’t perform, you’re out! ‘No more prizes for trying’. It’s back to what Yoda said in Star Wars: ‘Do or do not; there is no try!’

And so, a high-performance culture becomes the rationalisation for a culture that is arrogant and demanding.

The organisation goes into another round of change, restructuring, new games, new posters and good people start to leave.

What a pity when all that is required is to maintain a high people orientation and move to the fourth chair. There is always the danger of over-compensating and moving from one unproductive chair to another.

The key is often to recognise what you are already doing well and adding the behaviours that are missing. It is generally easier to develop people skills than production skills, so if you already have a strong culture of getting things done, you have an easier task.  

There is an adage that reads: ‘We hire people for their skills and fire them for their behaviour faults’. That’s often truer than we care to admit. People with lousy attitudes, the inability or unwillingness to think, who create drama for its own sake and play the popularity game at the expense of productivity, undermine themselves and the business. If ever we needed personal career leadership in the workplace, it’s now.

As I contemplate the new workplace with the introduction of Artificial Intelligence (AI) and the ongoing need for innovation, we usher in a critical need of what we have called soft skills. They are now the new hard skills. We need people who can create new things, who can innovate, who can build productive relationships, who are empathetic, yet can make decisions and take responsibility for themselves in the face of ongoing change.

Those who resist personal growth, who determinedly busy themselves with repetitive tasks (even at a sophisticated level) and blame their environments for their misery, will be dispensable.

Those who can’t get along with other people and who are passive and reactive, waiting for things to happen rather than making things happen will end up behind the curve. Those who report the problem rather than fixing it may not be needed for too long.  

Many call centre environments have become a rote activity, frustrating for both the caller and the disempowered employee. Follow the script. Wish them a happy day. Pass them around the organisation rather than solving their problem. Explain and justify the problem, even blame them, rather than being empathetic. ‘Just don’t send me to a call centre’ I hear more and more people say. It’s not the call centre they are avoiding, but another reactive, low accountability individual who is only doing what technology could have done without them.

Haven’t we come full circle where technology needs to serve us and not replace us? Where we again want to speak to real people who understand our needs and can help us? There are plenty activities that don’t require human interaction, but perhaps it’s time to review which of those we need to take back.

If you are making career decisions, climbing the corporate ladder or trying to get your act together, how you behave matters. If your job search is slow and beset with misery and victimhood, it could take a long time to find someone who needs you and likes what they see. If you want to make progress in your organisation, taking focused action and connecting with people matters immensely.

Those people in the workplace who can lead themselves and build productive relationships and get things done will always be sought after in the workplace.

Perhaps it’s time to raise your game.  Benjamin Franklin, in Poor Richard’s Almanac, said: “How few there are who have courage enough to own their faults, or resolution enough to mend them!”

But you cannot oversimplify behaviour, since our choices are driven by strong beliefs and assumptions about life.

Walls and other obstacles

A few years back we bought new offices. They overlooked an expansive green belt with beautiful mountains in the distance. With a north-facing aspect we would get wonderful sun in winter.

It’s 3.30 in the morning and I can’t sleep. I am gazing at two architectural plans in my home office with a third cup of tea.

The first floorplan has my signature on it. It’s logical, it uses space well and the architects have convinced me it’s the most logical and cost-effective way to go. Most of it has been constructed while I’ve been on a work trip to Johannesburg. I spent the previous afternoon sitting cross-legged on the cement floor gazing at the progress.

What had been a beautiful light space with views of the park and distant mountains was now dark and the view was sliced up into office size chunks.

I gaze lovingly at the other plan, not nearly as practical or logical, with an expensive glass wall and sliding doors. But it would let in the light, optimise the view and create a sense of space. The conference room and the office alongside would have a panoramic view. With the glass wall light would extend through the conference area to the reception area so everyone had light!

The conversation with the builder the next day went something like this.

‘We can’t change these walls now Mr Bramley’

‘Why not?

‘Well, we’ve been busy with them for a week while you’ve been away, we can’t go backwards now. In any case you’ll waste all that material and labour’.

I realise there is a cost implication, but they are ‘soft walls’ I offered. ‘Can we perhaps re-use some of the materials?’

‘These are custom sizes, so we can’t re-use them’

‘If I buy new materials, how long would it take to change this?’

‘We scheduled your work for this week, so we can’t start again now’.

‘I am really keen to include the glass doors and get more light in here’

‘The glass doors you want will blow the budget and in any case the ceiling is not strong enough’

When last did someone tell you that it’s like that because it’s like that? That things are the way they are and can’t be changed? That’s it’s just too much trouble, so live with it? Just look at what you’ve invested in that, how can you give that all up now? It would cost too much and in any case you don’t have the strength to carry it?

‘What will it take to change these walls?’ I persisted.

‘You are going to have to pay for all the new materials and supervise it yourself if you want it done. We suggest you learn to live with it’

When last did someone suggest you just learn to live with it?

Or that you have invested too much already, so rather just leave it?

Is it time to review the plan you made with the best will in the world but that is wrong for you?

Is it time to move beyond the risks and problems and look at what can be done?

Are you tired of hearing only what can’t be done? Is that person perhaps you?

The next day I was a building supervisor.

The walls came down, one by one.

The builder was absolutely right, it took two months out of my working life. I lived with chalk in my hand in faded blue jeans. I bought burgers and coffee and cold drinks to keep the building team fed.

The builder was right about another thing, it did cost more, a lot more. The carpets had to wait while we recovered from that. The built-in cupboards fell off the budget entirely. We lived without blinds for a few months till we could afford them.

But as the walls came down, the light flooded in again. The view widened. The energy came in.

We now needed to, with great precision, align our glass wall with the double entrance doors that

were themselves glass and aluminium. We got it right, millimetres to spare.

And so, I was surprised to arrive on site one day to discover new doors waiting to be fitted. The glass doors would be replaced with wooden doors.

‘The fire chief has ordered us to replace your entrance doors’ said the gentleman at our office entrance. ‘We are here to fit the new one’.

The new doors were solid wood and had been beautifully made. But instead of a large panel on the right side of two doors, the doors were now in the middle with a glass panel on either side. It would mean that the right-hand door was now in the middle of our new, and expensive, glass wall.

‘They won’t line up with our sliding glass doors’ I said contemplating the large structure that stood threateningly against the wall.

‘The doors are already made and the whole building gets them’ said the man with hands on hips with his pointed shoes directed at me.

We glared at each other as boys in a playground to see who would give in first.

‘We won’t be able to open both doors given our new walls’ I offered as an opening gambit ‘Perhaps we could alter them some way?’.

‘You can just open one of the doors’ the short man offered with a look of satisfaction for having solved my problem.

‘What would it take to remove the side panels and put them on one side as a single panel?

‘You would need to come to the factory and sort this out yourself! They can’t be changed now’ he challenged.

It took no more than two hours at the factory to move the panels so the door was on the left and not between two smaller panels.

When were you last told this is the way it has to be, because the Chief said so?

When were you offered an expedient solution that required you to compromise your goals simply because someone else said it was good enough?

When last were you told that everyone else was doing it, so why weren’t you?

The work we have done in that beautiful light space has paid for those changes many times over. ‘We don’t want to leave’ is a common refrain from clients who see us there or spend days in our conference room.

We all have hard walls. Things we can’t change. But many of our walls are soft, and with some work, can be moved and replaced.

That’s what the next section is about.

Replacing soft walls

The Serenity Prayer may be the appropriate plea for us all:

“God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.”

“What you can change and what you can’t” is the title of the well-researched book by Martin Seligman Ph.D., Professor of psychology at the University of Pennsylvania and past President of the American Psychological Association.

In it he provides a list of things that can be changed and managed. Here are some of them. We can unlearn panic. We can control moods that wreak havoc with our physical health. We can alleviate depression with conscious thinking. Optimism can be learned. Dieting, in the long run, doesn’t work. There is no quick fix for recovery from alcoholism. Homosexuality does not become heterosexuality and our sexual identity (the gender we identify with) is fixed.

That leaves a lot of scope for change in the workplace. You can learn to listen better. You can learn to speak up. You can learn to say no. You can learn to receive negative feedback without getting defensive. You can take charge or your career and your life, if you want to.

You can also identify and replace some of the beliefs, assumptions and views of the world that drive those choices.

When we sit in the Passive Aggressive chair, we nurture beliefs of how helpless we are and how little control we have over ourselves, our circumstances and the world. We have a very loud choir singing that we don’t have what it takes, that other people and the world are generally against us and in any case life’s a bitch and then you die, so it really worth it? And of course, we’re in the choir!

When we sit in the Pollyanna chair, we are driven by strong beliefs that we need to be popular, liked by everyone in our work and life and that conflict and disappointing people is awful and undesirable. We are therefore hugely conflicted when we need to say no, set boundaries, or make tough calls when we have to complete projects or take time out for ourselves.

When we sit in the Power chair, we are driven by needing to be in charge, to be in control, needing to be right and have all the answers, combined with a belief that other people are less than us in some way. Because I am OK and other people need my help to think and survive.

Cultivating a mindset that drives us towards the Productive Chair means realising we are in this together. That I have some great capabilities, but so do other people. It means letting go of judgement, of how people ‘ought’ to be and how they truly are. But at the same time realising that not everyone is on my side, not everyone wants to succeed and that some would rather test the lower limits and trip me up when they get the opportunity.

The biggest gift of being an adult is the ability to reassess the beliefs and attitudes you may have grown up with and replace those that have done their time, then replace them with thoughts and beliefs that serve you better.

Soft Walls

We’ve discussed hard walls; things you can’t change. Your personality, your genetic makeup, your sexual identity and so on.

Soft walls, however, are the beliefs and assumptions and demands that drive the behaviour choices we make from day to day in our work lives and beyond.

Here are some common soft walls:

Walls of perfectionism; ‘I must be perfect’. The wall of perfectionism is a liability and seriously limits your movement. It stops you from trying things, finishing things, taking decisive action and leaves you having to walk on eggshells just in case you get something wrong.

Walls of approval; ‘I must do whatever it takes to be approved of by other people’. This often means avoiding conflict and disagreement to keep the peace, or over-promising so that you don’t disappoint people. It causes you untold stress and can leave you resentful that your own needs are not met.

Walls of ‘demandingness’; ‘I must, they must, it should’ This wall demands that you, other people and the world must be a certain way before you can be happy and productive. And if it doesn’t go your way, it’s a disaster! This is a great way to create angst and frustration, since the world and everybody in it will never only be the way you want it.

Walls of negativity; ‘It won’t work’ You decide it won’t work before you even try it. For every solution you have a problem. For every opportunity you only see the risks. You not only limit yourself this way, you also disempower other people who may be willing to help you.

Walls of toxic positivity; ‘If I smile and think positively, everything will work out’. Being optimistic is a positive trait in the world, but only focusing on what can go right and ignoring bad news can leave you high and dry. In life many things do go wrong, not everyone has your best interest at heart and some problems require tough and sometimes unpopular action.

Walls of others’ opinions; ‘What other people think determines who I am.’ Eleanor Roosevelt famously said that what other people think is none of your business. Feedback is the food of champions, but not all of it is helpful. What walls of opinions are up for review? Who told you that you’d never make it? Or that you don’t have what it takes? Or that you’re not ‘academic’ because you didn’t do well in the schooling system? Or that you are not good enough? There comes a time to question whether these beliefs are true.

Walls of assumption; ‘I know how this will turn out’. This wall makes assumptions about what other people are thinking and predicts how things will turn out without any evidence to support it. A great way to live in your head and make decisions based on guesswork.

Walls of arrogance; ‘I have all the answers.’ You are convinced that other people have somehow got it wrong. The world would be a better place if they would just be like you, do it your way and at your pace. This is a sure way to make enemies, disempower other people and cause yourself a lot of stress in the process.

Walls of self-doubt; ‘I doubt myself at every turn’. You seem intent on believing that you are never enough, that it will never work and that you don’t have what it takes, even though it may be well within your capability. You may discover the only thing in your way is you and that’s a huge wall.

Walls of risk-aversion; ‘I demand that everything be safe’. This means you avoid change and uncertainty and fearing what might happen if you do something new. We all need some measure of certainty, but when this good value gets taken to a ridiculous extreme it gets in the way of making progress and taking any risk at all.

Walls of drama; ‘I create stress and drama about ordinary things.’ This means turning the proverbial molehill into a mountain. Problems that are part of normal life end up being not difficult or disappointing, but a catastrophe! Its tiring for you and other people and gets in the way of being productive.

Walls of low-frustration tolerance; ‘I must avoid anything that is difficult and uncomfortable’. This means you only do things that are quick, easy and expedient, often at the risk of not achieving anything of significance.

Walls of blame; ‘It’s their fault’. You quickly blame other people and circumstances for what goes wrong in your career and your life. It’s never you. This wall drives low responsibility and lots of complaining without taking action. This is a severely career-limiting wall.

Walls of helplessness; ‘I always have a good reason why I am not able to do something’ That means you end up expecting other people to think for you, do for you, get you out of bed in the morning and take responsibility for your life. A sure way to become a victim in life and to undermine your health and your career.

Walls of independence: ‘I have to do everything myself’. You regard asking for help as a sign of weakness or incompetence. Independence is a good quality, but when you don’t ask for help when you need it, it prevents you from making progress and getting things done. After all, where is it written that you must be good at everything?

Walls of anger; ‘Anger gets in my way’ Anger is a helpful signal that something is not OK. But there is a difference between feeling angry and acting aggressively. The first is a message, the second is a behaviour. Learning to deal with anger positively helps set boundaries, resolve issues, build relationships and get on with life.

Walls of indecision; ‘I avoid making decisions for fear of them being wrong’. It is not possible, or necessary that every decision be a good one. Avoiding decisions for fear of being wrong can be tiresome, frustrating for other people and hugely unproductive.

What soft walls are holding you back from making new decisions? Or from speaking up? Or from saying no? Or saying yes so others can depend on you? Or taking action around things that really matter to you? Or from trying something new? Or learning something new? Or taking a risk? Or making a start on an important career goal for you?

Only when you start to move the soft walls that are in your way, can you begin to learn new behaviours in a sustainable way. The truth is that you can learn to listen better. You can be more open to other peoples’ thinking and ideas without having to have the last word. You can ask for help when you need it without being helpless. You can push through when there is only a glimmer of light. You can learn to say no to yourself and to other people when you need to. You can learn to deal with anger. You can learn to have more courageous conversations with other people. You can learn to manage your emotions more consciously. You can learn to make better choices.

When you take down soft walls that block the light, you set yourself free to make new choices, do new things, take more focused action and invest more actively in your career and your life.

Perhaps it is time to make peace with what you can’t change, then get busy with the rest!

The Assertive Leadership Journey

In our Assertive Leadership work, we use the acronym A.D.U.L.T to describe our system of learning to lead yourself, your career and your life in a more proactive way.

Here then are the five stages of becoming a more assertive leader in your career and your life.

  1. Awareness

Without awareness any attempts at behaviour change are random at best. If you don’t know what you are doing now, how do you know what to keep doing? And what to change? 

The first stage of making better choices is gaining an awareness and a more critical insight in your current choices. What do you do naturally without even thinking about it? What do you do when you want to make your best impression? What do you do when you wear a mask? What do you do when the pressure is on? And what are you doing when you are doing well and succeeding.

But awareness of your own behaviour is not enough. Since none of us live independently of other people, we also need an awareness of the behaviour of other people. When you take people on personally rather than recognise their behaviour, it’s easy to become judgmental and uncooperative. Once you recognise that other people are not perfect any more than you are, and that you do not have the power to change them, you can begin to work collaboratively with them to find the best possible win-win outcome.

With increased awareness, you are now more easily able to separate your own behaviour from that of others. Being able to recognise behaviour for what it is and to make better choices as you interact with people every day is the starting point of leading yourself and empowering other people as far as you can.

  1. Determine where your choices come from

‘I don’t know how I did that’ or ‘what was I thinking? are common refrains. With the very best of intentions we sometimes make choices that don’t work out too well. Sometimes they undermine other people, and very often they undermine us. And often they are contrary to what we intended.

If that weren’t true, we would all behave the same. But we don’t. That’s because our behaviour is influenced by many factors.

We make choices based on what we believe, on what is important to us, from the values we have embraced in life, from our cultural and family background, from the truths we have adopted about life, from the rights we believe we have as human beings and from the way we see the world.

When you learn to identify the drivers of your behaviour choices, you can begin to understand why you do what you do. You are also then in a position to challenge beliefs and values that may have run the show, so far, and to make some new choices that direct your work and your life in a more coherent and purposeful way.

  1. Undo and replace walls of beliefs and assumptions driving your choices

Our behaviour choices are often driven by habit, it’s just how we’ve always done it. Other times we are driven by strong emotions and we react in a way that, in hindsight, was a bit rash.

One of the most powerful forces that drive our behaviour choices are our thoughts and the beliefs we have gathered over our lifetime. Many of our beliefs help us to be more productive and successful. Others however may have done their time.

Here is an opportunity to become your own career therapist by having the tools to test assumptions, challenge beliefs that may be sabotaging you, and replacing them with more rational alternatives. It means being able to identity the soft walls and move them where you want them.

It will be very difficult to move from the Pollyanna chair to the Productive chair in a particular situation if you believe that everything you do must always please other people. That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t be kind, but sometimes we need to have tough conversations. And sometimes our needs may be more important than someone else’s. And sometimes conflict is necessary and productive.

When you learn to identify those things that are in your way, you are in a position to set yourself free to make more self-helpful and more collaborative choices in your work and your life.

  1. Learn critical skills to lead yourself and other people in the workplace

The good news is that you can learn critical skills and attitudes to lead your career and your work life, here are just some of them:

  • Learn to manage yourself to get the job done. That means learning to manage your time, your priorities, your energy and your productivity. Whoever called these skills ‘soft’ was wrong. These are hard skills in the workplace. If you can’t manage yourself, how can you manage or influence other people or an organisation. It starts with you.

  • Learn to identify areas where you can add value, then do more than you are paid for. This does not mean working for less than you are worth or working many hours of agreed overtime without compensation. But it does mean being aware of the needs of the business and going the extra mile. Do the extra thing that makes it better.

  • Make excellence a habit. Perfection does not exist but doing better does. Do the best you can, check correspondence for errors. Bust your gut to get it right. If you would be remembered by the last piece of work you did, would you be satisfied that it was excellent?

  • Build productive relationships with co-workers, clients, associates and service providers. That may start with saying good morning to everyone before you start work. It may mean meeting clients with engagement and courtesy. Pick your head up, make an effort and be part of the team.Learn to be proactive. Pre-empt meetings and review available information rather than be surprised at last month’s turnover. Find a file. Look at the spreadsheet. Put out the cups. Don’t just arrive and hope to get by because you got ticked in the attendance register.

  • Learn to listen better. Good listening helps you find the real needs, solve the real problem, understand different points of view without judgement and empower people by allowing them to think and share ideas. Make the effort to check your understanding before rushing into decisions and action plans.

  • Learn to be part of the solution. Bring ideas and give some thought to what may not be working, particularly in your own area of work. Don’t always wait for someone else to have to suggest a way forward.

  • Learn to manage your emotions, sulking is death. If you have an issue that you are not ready to raise, that’s real life. But sulking, being uncooperative and surly are a sure way to limit your career. Work out the issue, decide how to address it, address it, or dump it and let it go.

  • Learn to manage your mouth. Treat the workplace as the workplace. It is not an extension of your home, so don’t bring all your personal issues to work every day. We all have bad days, but if you become ‘Oh, here he comes again…duck!’ you are overdoing it. That includes not making Facebook your online therapist. Your CV is everything you put online.

  • Learn to take ownership for tasks, for deadlines and for projects you are involved in. Finish that mail and check it is right. Check you have done a final check on your figures. Make sure the presentation slides work. Put the file away. Follow up the call you made. Make sure you don’t make your boss or your team your assistant. Take ownership for following through on tasks that are yours.

  • Learn to deal with negative feedback and criticism. When you screw up, as we all do, confess without blaming anyone else. Then decide how you are going to fix it.

  • Learn to take responsibility for tasks and responsibilities that belong to you. The workplace is about getting results. Those people who take action and get results are highly prized in the workplace. Check at the end of each conversation what needs to be done, then do what is yours.

  • Learn to speak up. You not only have the right to speak up, you also have the responsibility to make a contribution by stating opinions, sharing ideas and disagreeing when necessary.

  • Learn to share and receive positive feedback. Sharing genuine positive feedback with others is a powerful interpersonal and leadership skill. Be careful to also accept feedback graciously so that it builds your own skills and confidence.

  • Learn to ask for help. You don’t have to do it all on your own. Asking for help is therefore not only necessary but sane. And at the same time is helps to grow and empower other people.

  • Learn to say no without being unkind or un-cooperative. You can do anything but not everything. The ability to clarify requests and say YES and NO is therefore a necessary skill at work and in life. The purpose is not to say no, but to find workable compromises that achieve an optimal outcome.

  • Learn to share and receive negative feedback without being rude or defensive. Since none of us are perfect, the ability to both share and receive negative feedback is an essential skill in the workplace. Feedback is, after all, the food of champions. Those who are not able to work with negative feedback are at a serious disadvantage in the workplace.

  • Learn to deal with anger and conflict. Conflict is a reality in life and in the workplace. Your ability to deal with anger and conflict in a constructive way will help you work out solutions while still being true to yourself.

  • Learn to make tough choices. Your work and personal lives present many choices, some of them tough and conflicting. The ability to make decisions and do what is right for you while still serving others as far as you can, is key to living a life and a career that matters to you. 
  1. Take ownership for your choices

When you point a finger at someone else, three fingers are facing back at you.

It’s easy to blame other people for our choices, our burst of anger, our impatience.

When you fail to take ownership for your choices, you can end up being a victim of your work and your life. Perhaps it’s time to take back your life and your career. Who have you given your choices away to?

Are you still blaming your parents for choices you made? JK Rowling famously said in her Harvard Address: “There is an expiry date on blaming your parents for steering you in the wrong direction; the moment you are old enough to take the wheel, responsibility lies with you.”

Is it perhaps time to take ownership for your choices?

Towards lightness

They say if you are not making mistakes, you are probably not making anything.

That is how you learned to walk, and talk, and to write. To suddenly expect yourself to do everything right, every time, is simply a recipe for doing only those things that are safe or only those things that don’t show you up as being imperfect.

The journey for us all is giving ourselves the space to learn, to grow and to try again.

Leading with insight and skills doesn’t guarantee you’ll resolve every conflict and provide a solution that everyone is happy with. You may make good decisions that for whatever reason don’t work. You may have to let people go who are not good for your business, or your team, or your life.  

By making the best choices you can, you simply increase the chances of success in the most productive way possible.

I remember a conversation with my dear friend Lidia before she died. She said:

‘Andrew, I think the secret is to take your life more seriously, but to take life less seriously’.

Perhaps it’s time take your life more seriously, but lighten up and be kinder to yourself as you do?


Two women approached me at the airport one day. ‘The week we spent on your assertive leadership programme changed our lives’ they chorused.  They had indeed made some significant changes, so I asked:

‘What was it that you learned or heard or that helped you make these changes?

‘We learned that we had choice’ they said.

©Andrew Bramley, Career Warriors 2019. All Rights Reserved.


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