If there was bullying here, I’d know

Do you have problems like this in your organisation? Why do you think they happen? I would be really interested to read your comments.

The bus bringing my daughter home was half an hour late on Wednesday. As a consequence I ended up talking with one of the other mothers with whom I am normally just on nodding terms.

We chatted for a while about the school both our daughters used to go to. I said that I had been keen for my daughter to leave as soon as possible because I was not wholly happy with the Head Teacher. She looked very surprised and then in hushed tones, admitted that she thought him to be a ‘Tony Blair’ type who was smooth and a good talker but did nothing to resolve serious problems.

I had to laugh. This was because when I first encountered him I described him in exactly the same way to my husband. Even going so far as to say he was ‘like Tony Blair.’


She went on to recount a meeting she had had with him to express her concern about bullying.

He adjusted his glasses so he could see her directly over them and said, in patronising tones: “There is no bullying here. If there was bullying here, I’d know.”

This was the same response I had from an HR director on a workshop who had been in her company for 20 years. She said the workshop was irrelevant to her because there was no bullying in her company.

She left early. The woman who had organised the workshop came up to me and apologised. She said she’d worked at that company as a consultant for many years and there was a massive bullying problem.

Why Didn’t They Know?

In an effort to be fair to the Head Teacher and the HR Director, I must point out that it can be hard to spot bullying, especially if you don’t know what you are looking for.

Lack of Awareness

I was working with a group recently running a workshop on recruitment. We very quickly identified the cause of their biggest problem in recruiting.

(Now I know recruitment may be the last thing on your mind at the moment, but I’m telling you this so that you know that not every corner of the economy is writhing in agony. Some of our clients are actually recruiting.)

Allow me to describe the process they use. Let’s see if you can spot what’s wrong.

1 The manager identifies that they need to recruit
2 They write out the job description
3 They compose the person specification, based on the job description
4 They write an advertisement
5 The HR department arranges for the advertisement to be posted
6 The applications come in
7 The manager shortlists the candidate
8 About 6 – 8 weeks later the HR department sends out a letter, only to the successful candidates, letting them know they have an interview either the next day or in the next couple of days
9 They hold the interviews on the arranged day, but only 10% of the candidates turn up and often not one of these is a suitable candidate.

Did you spot the problem? I expect you did. It’s the 6 – 8 week gap before sending out the interview offer letters.

I must admit I was horrified at this. To give people just one day’s notice of an interview after making them wait two months to learn if they have an interview is pretty bad. Not letting people know they have been unsuccessful is, to me, a lack of courtesy.

Also, I imagine most of the skilled candidates will have, by this time, been for interviews with other organisations and probably accepted offers from them.

The Costs

As part of the workshop last week we spent some time working out the cost of recruiting a new person. This assumed the person was a good fit for the role. The cost (when you add in the time of all those concerned, advertising and so on) can easily be between £10,000 and £20,000.

The cost of recruiting someone not suitable for the role is much, much higher. That’s what we are often tempted to do when faced with just a limited number of candidates and we are desperate.

So the cost of this one small problem with the process is massive.

It’s hard to put the cost of bullying in terms of money, but we have. Just one person bullying his team and colleagues cost one organisation (a hospital) £2.6m over five years. This included the cost of constant recruitment to replace people who had left as a result of this individual’s behaviour and the cost of using agency staff (double the normal employment cost) because recruitment proved more and more difficult as the individual became notorious.

How Can People Be So Blind?

Here are some of the reasons:
1 The person responsible for the offending part of the process has no idea of the cost of their inefficiency. They’re not doing it on purpose; they just don’t know that it’s a problem.

2 It may be that the process was fine when it was originally implemented, but over the years it has slipped and the people who knew what they were doing have been replaced. And no one has checked that it’s still working.

3 No one has told them there’s a problem.

4 They don’t listen because they are so convinced that their system (or school) is perfect that they can’t conceive of the situation being any different.

We Are All Guilty

I think this last reason is the root of it in many problems. And the worst thing is that we are all guilty of it. We just don’t want to believe there’s a problem or it has simply never occurred to us that there could be one. Even when faced with evidence, we deny it.

In the case of the bullying I suspect that even if the Head or HR Director ever asked people about bullying they asked people who didn’t want to tell them the truth for various reasons or were doing the bullying themselves. So as far as they were aware, there wasn’t a problem.

In the case of the recruitment process, I think that department is completely unaware of its responsibilities and defends its processes rather than investigating and improving them.


When you are in charge of an organisation, department or process it is your responsibility to set up reliable independent checking processes to ensure that the service you are responsible for is performing as it should. It is not acceptable to wait till people complain about it or problems crop up.

Of course you can’t have a way of checking absolutely everything, but you should be checking the most important things.

The Easy Way

Here, at Vinehouse, we believe in doing things the easy way, wherever possible. So here’s what we suggest: Ask your customers (internal as well as external) what’s important to them about what you do. Then just ask them how they would know you were doing a good job.

Then set up systems to measure whatever they say is important. It’s not rocket science, but it could lead to drastic improvements in the performance of your organisation and some huge cost savings, if everyone just asked these simple questions.

It’s only June

My father was a head teacher for many years. As a result of this he was good friends with our head teacher (or ‘Headmaster’ as we called them in those days).

Although I was not very fond of ‘The Beak’, as he was known to us, my father had a great respect for him and his level of skill. One story he told us about The Beak was of his first teaching job. The Beak died a few years ago now at about 80, so he must have been looking for a teaching job around 1940. This was no easy task.

He was a good historian and also well qualified in French. His wife was French. But still jobs were hard to come by. Eventually he was offered a post. The head, on offering him the position, told him that he would be teaching History, French and German.

‘But I don’t speak German.’ was his swift and worried response.
‘It’s only June.’ came the answer.

So The Beak learned German and, apparently, was merely paragraphs ahead of his pupils at times. My father is German and assures me that the Beak’s German was very good.

A Similar Example

I was reminded of this story when I listened to some extracts from a book by Professor Eric Hawkins; Journey Into Language.

He described the same situation in teaching pupils Spanish. He said he enjoyed discussing questions of grammar with them and working on the answers together and commenting on the inadequacies of the explanations in the textbooks.

Most of all he comments that it was much easier for him to understand the difficulties of the pupils when he himself was facing them.


That last thought of Professor Eric Hawkins reminded me of an incident years ago when I shared a house with two friends. It was in the early 14th Century before mobile phones (though we did have a TV). We all shared the one phone in the house. Each of us religiously wrote down the length of every call, noted what type of call (long distance, local etc) and put our name by it.

Every three months, when the bill arrived, I would add up all the calls and allocate the payments accordingly. As a testament to our honesty, this system proved that we were pretty good. We were usually within a pound or two of the actual bill.

As a testament to our mathematical skills it was a bit more worrying. Neither of my cohabitees was capable of adding it up correctly.

A Shock

So you can imagine my surprise when Steph told me that she was changing her career and retraining as a Maths teacher. I could hardly stop laughing. ‘But you can’t even add up the phone bill.’ I said.
‘Yes, and that’s why I’m going to make a great maths teacher. I know what’s it’s like not to understand maths in a way that you could never know’ she shouted at me.

I was really put in my place. It was an extremely useful lesson and one I have put to good use as a trainer and coach ever since.

Something You Find Difficult

I have made it a policy to always be learning something I find difficult. The reason for this is that when you are teaching others something you find easy, it is very easy for you to forget what it’s like for them. And this does not make for good teaching, training or coaching.

It’s very easy to criticise other for all kinds of things – we all do it. What’s far more difficult is to give them feedback that will help them, structure our training in ways that will make it easy for them to learn and set up systems that encourage the behaviours we want rather than catch people out when they go wrong.

It’s difficult but I believe it should be the goal of every manager. (And probably parent too….)

Just a Suggestion

So today, if you should find yourself about to criticise someone else, spend a few moments working out what you could do to make it easier for them to do a good job instead – and then put it into action.

Then, look at what you could learn that would be challenging to you.

For ideas go to

You’ll find lots of ideas in my booklet ‘Boost Your Brain in Your Spare Time’. Not only will they help you to understand the issues others sometimes have, they will also improve your brain. What a bargain.

When People Won’t Do What You Want

Every now and then I have a week where the same topic keeps coming up. It happened this week.

Several clients had problems getting people who worked for them to do their jobs. They were all slightly different situations, but the root was the same.


Sometimes it’s just a simple misunderstanding. You ask someone to do something (or you think you have) and then it doesn’t get done, or, somehow, it seems to still be on your plate.

I’m not talking about these one-off events, They are pretty simple to resolve. You just go back to the person, check what their understanding is, apologise for not explaining clearly and then explain what you really meant.

Today I want to talk about the long-term ones.

The Architect Of Your Own Downfall

I run lots of workshops on Performance Management and SMART objectives. To me, there is nothing magic about managing performance. My job is to give you the straightforward, easy techniques that will enable you to get things done, and help you to make sure that your people can do their jobs well.

Most of us, at some time or other, do the complete reverse and put barriers in the way of our team members.

One of the worst cases I ever came across was Ricky (not his real name). He came on a workshop a while back. He complained at length about his staff. There were about 20 of these lazy spongers who felt it was their right to get paid, be developed and generally do things they enjoyed.

Their poor manager was at their beck and call, working for most of his waking hours, hardly paying himself anything and at the mercy of all their whims.

Hang On A Minute

Who started this company? Who had hired these people? Who had made the rules? Who had led them to believe that they had these ‘rights’?

Yes, it was Ricky himself. He had engineered the entire situation. I can still see his face as this hit him with all the gentleness of a brick.

The trouble was he thought all you had to do was to be nice to people and if you did that they would somehow magically know what they needed to do and automatically do a great job.

Another Example

I was working with a group who kept telling me they had a lot of performance issues with members of their teams. As we investigated, it transpired that hardly any of these people had been given any objectives, job descriptions or idea what they were supposed to be doing.

I think they could have managed without those if someone had just sat down with each new employee when they started and explained what was expected of them.

One Last Example

One of my greatest triumphs was reducing the turnover in a company to just 25%. You may be horrified at this (an acceptable rate is usually regarded to be 2-5% in normal times). So 25 people out of every hundred at that company left every year.

Before I did anything, it was 100%! Yes, everyone left every year (on average).

What’s the answer?

In the last case, all I did was implement a simple induction programme. People were welcomed in to the organisation, assigned a ‘buddy’, given some literature about the company, shown where the canteen was and so on.

Most importantly, their manager sat down with them and explained to them what they were responsible for, what was expected of them and how that would be measured.

Dealing With Problems

What if you are in the same situation as Ricky was? The good news is that you can resolve it. Ricky did and is a lot happier.

You need to sit down with people and go through what their responsibilities are. You can do this in various ways
1. Go through their job description, if you have one
2. Ask them what they think your responsibilities are (pay them on time, give them training, materials etc) then ask them what they think their responsibilities are (do the work, come in on time etc)
3. Go through specific projects and ask them what their plan is and what they personally are doing or need to do to complete each one
4. Ask them how they think their performance is measured
5. Get the whole team together, identify what needs to be achieved (your objectives) and who is responsible for each part of that. Then focus on what that means to each individual.


Whatever you do, you need to have agreed standards and expectations. So often people think that it’s just ‘obvious’. They think that because they are just hiring a waitress, she will automatically know what to do because she was a waitress somewhere before.

This will be true to a certain extent, but your organisation is bound to be different in some way. And it’s the same with any job.


I remember a woman who worked for me many years ago. She decided it was time for her to move on, so got another job and left. We were sorry to see her go. She was a skilled assembly worker and well liked.

Two days later she turned up and came to see me. She was in tears. She had started her new job and no one had spoken to her. She had gone to the canteen at lunch time and got her food and sat at a table all on her own. Then another woman turned up and greeted her: ‘Oy, that’s my seat.’

She begged me to take her back, which I did.

The Sad Truth

This was an employee who was a hard-working individual with high standards and her new employer had wasted all that effort and expense in recruiting her because they fell at the last fence. It wasn’t just the poor behaviour at lunch time, it was not being told what she was there for and what she needed to achieve.

Why is it so many people shy away from making these things clear? It seems some people are just too embarrassed to talk about it because ‘it goes without saying’. I’m saying it doesn’t.

Just Do It

My advice to you is to get these things clear at as early a stage as you possibly can. If you have the slightest impression that they are not clear, clarify them immediately. It saves so much trouble later on.

Good luck.

What’s Your Excuse?

This week I have been going round the village where I live doing my best to sell tickets for a recording of ‘Gardeners’ Question Time’ which is being held in our local church.

It’s an interesting task. The tickets are actually free, but there is a village gathering with drinks and nibbles afterwards if people want to come, and for that there are tickets to be bought.

It’s the kind of thing where some people don’t want to go but feel obliged to offer some kind of reason rather than saying it’s just not their thing.

The Best Excuse

‘We’re self employed; we run our own business’. That was what one of the residents told me. I was intrigued. I stood there waiting for more details.

‘Well, things are always cropping up. We never know what we’ll need to do. We’re retired really, but our son, well….’ And on it went.

Poor Time Management

It transpired that, in this lady’s view, being self employed was a reason for poor time management. Now I don’t mean to pick on her, but merely use this as an example of a very feeble excuse.

Two Main Ways to Improve Your Time Management

  • Stop doing things
  • Do things more efficiently

Take Responsibility

Both of these involve you taking responsibility for the situation you are in and taking on a level of control.

In order to decide what to stop doing you need to have clear criteria for deciding what to do and what not to do. This is what prioritisation is all about.

To do things more efficiently you need to do some analysis and investigation and usually put a little effort in up front to get the reward in the long term.

But What If You Have No Control?

Very often people on workshops tell me that they can’t plan their time because they are at the mercy of ‘unpredictable’ events.

Here’s how the conversation goes:
Delegate: ‘I can’t plan my time, but it’s not my fault. All these unexpected things keep cropping up.’
Me: ‘What kind of unexpected things would they be?’
Delegate: ‘Well, things like people phoning because they’ve lost their tickets and people suddenly needing to change the times of their bookings.’
Me: ‘How often do these things happen?’
Delegate: ‘On average about twice a day.’
Me: ‘And how long do they generally take to sort out?’
Delegate: ‘Some of them can take nearly half an hour.’
Me: ‘So you can predict it.’
Delegate: ‘I suppose so.’

There are lots of ways to tackle this kind of time management problem. The first is to plan in enough time to deal with these ‘unexpected’ events.

The next thing to do is to investigate how it happens and identify what you can do to reduce the incidence. If you can’t do that, then perhaps you can improve your system so that it takes less of your time to resolve it.

Here’s a different example.

The Help Desk

I have worked with many help desk people. It would seem that they truly are at the mercy of whatever happens ‘out there’. But that’s only if the system is set up so that they are powerless.

The secret is hidden in the information they have available. You won’t be surprised to learn that, for many IT help desks, 50% of their calls are from people who have forgotten their password. You may have even made one of these calls yourself.

When you look at the cost of this, it would be more beneficial in the long run to give people some training on how to remember their passwords than just passively deal with the problem.


Pareto was the person who identified that 20% of your effort gives you 80% of the reward (the 80:20 rule). The trick is knowing which 20% will give you that reward.

The Pareto analysis is one of the most useful tools in Time Management. You simply time how long all your tasks take and categorise them so that you can find out which type of task takes up the bulk of your time. Then you know where your efforts will give you the biggest reward so you focus on that one.

I talked to someone recently who spends nearly half her day replying to customers by email. I asked her how good her typing was. It turned out she had never learned to type because she didn’t see herself as a typist.

Improving your typing skills is one of the quickest ways of improving your time management if you spend a lot of time at the keyboard. If you haven’t done it, I highly recommend it. An easy way to learn is to use one of the software packages like Mavis Beacon to help you.

Take Control

The key is to get the information and find out where your time goes, then work on what will help you the most. Ultimately you are the only person who can really make a difference to your time management, even if you are self-employed or work on a help desk.

The Surprising Effects of Rudeness

‘Manners Maketh Man’

I was often told this by my grandmother. It seems manners do a lot more than that – or rather the lack of them is worse than you may have thought.

Here’s a study on the topic that may interest you by Dr Amir Erez at the University of Florida

He and his colleagues tested the impact of three scenarios involving rude behaviour on a series of tasks measuring creativity and memory skills. Their guinea pigs were 275 students enrolled in management classes at UF and the University of Southern California.

In one test a stooge student arrived late to an experiment. After the student had apologised, explaining another class had finished late, one group of students then witnessed the experimenter rudely criticise the student and say he was unprofessional. The control group just saw the student being told he was too late to take part and being dismissed.

A second set of students was sent to a room where they were expecting to take part in a test. A small sign that was deliberately easy to miss was posted on the door redirecting them to another room.

Some of the students were politely redirected by the person in the room. The others were told: “Can’t you read? There is a sign on the door that tells you the experiment will be in (another room). But you didn’t even bother to look at the door, did you? Instead, you preferred to disturb me and ask for directions when you can clearly see that I am busy. I am not a secretary here, I am a busy professor.”

In the last study the students were told just to imagine themselves in one of these situations.

The Impact

Compared to the control group, the students who were treated rudely, or even imagined they had been, had reduced problem-solving skills, helpfulness and levels of creativity.

Why Does This Happen?

Amir Erez, who carried out these studies, says it’s because your thinking skills are impaired, even when they are just witnessing the event. Even imagining it reduced performance and the willingness to be a team player.

“In all three studies, we found that relatively minor incidents of being rude to people influences their functioning. It influences their performance on creative tasks, and on complex tasks. It influences helpfulness and it was consistent across the three studies” he said.

Can It Really Be That Bad?

Yes. The reason for this is that just minor levels of stress have a big impact on how your brain works. It all goes back to what happens in your brain when you perceive a threat. Parts of your brain get shut down. This literally makes it harder for you to use your normal range of thinking skills.

The Link Between Emotions and Thinking

There is good reason for this. Emotions are in part there to tell you where to direct your attention and energy. If you feel threatened then your energy and attention need to be directed to reduce the threat. Not much is left for being creative, helping others or problem-solving.

Your Best Teacher

Remember when you were a student or at school? Who was the teacher you liked the most? What did you like about that person?

I’ve asked this question many times. Think of your own answer before reading on.

Most people will give a description talking about what the teacher was like: ‘Good fun’ ‘Enthusiastic’ ‘He made me feel excited about the subject.’ Or ‘We were always relaxed with him.’ Or ‘She made the subject really interesting.’

They will describe their feelings. Very few ever say ‘He had a really good way of explaining quadratic equations.’

Now think of your worst teacher. What did you dislike about him or her? Often people will tell me the lessons were ‘boring’. Or ‘He really frightened us.’

What’s Going On Here?

An often neglected skill of teachers is that of eliciting emotions. In other words, getting people into the right emotion to learn. Astonishingly, this has a greater impact than their knowledge of the subject.

You will know this if you have had a teacher who knew their subject inside out but was still boring. (I remember a few of those myself.)

‘Boring’ is the emotion that tells you that the task you are involved in is of no use to you and not worth putting energy into. That’s why it’s so hard to concentrate on something you find boring.

Your brain is telling you not to.

‘Interesting’ is the emotion that tells you it’s worth paying attention and expending energy on this topic.

It’s The Same With Managers

Managers need the skill to elicit the right emotions from their team so that the job gets done and people are able to use their brains most effectively.

It turns out that being rude or even allowing rudeness in their team is completely counter-productive.

I suspect very few are aware of just how damaging this behaviour can be. Well, let’s hope they are unaware of it – I’d hate to think managers were deliberately going round reducing the performance of their teams.

What Can You Do?

Have clear standards. Many organisations have values or capabilities or competencies and behaviours. Unfortunately they are often vague, woolly and open to interpretation. For example: ‘Act with respect towards your colleagues.’

You need to make sure that these are written down so that everyone can understand them and knows what they need to do in order to meet them.

People also need to know what to do if someone is not meeting the standards.

You need to help those whose behaviour is below the required standard.
First, be aware that people who behave like this are generally as unaware of their behaviour as they are of the impact of it. They will need some coaching or training. Often, just bringing it to people’s attention is enough, but other times people need more support.

Most importantly, those at the top need to set the bar. They need to lead by example in any situation.

It Can Be Tough

Yes, this can be very difficult, but just think of the benefits: increased creativity, problem-solving skills and teamwork. Who would say ‘No’ to that at the moment?