Art imitating life?

It’s not often you get the chance to experiment with charcoal and Playdoh in the normal working day. Unless of course you’re an artist.

But a Team Awayday should be fun and different and help people to see their colleagues in a different light. And if the aim is to enhance teamwork, communication and creativity, then using art as the vehicle seems perfect!

So for a recent team awayday I worked with local artist Susie Olczak to devise some art-based activities.

Working with charcoal, teams of 3 were asked to illustrate on a poster a proverb about teams, such as ‘A boat goes nowhere if everyone is rowing in a different direction.’ Interesting and revealing how each person interpreted the same proverb differently and a real challenge to agree and draw a common picture. In the next stage a rep from each group went to look at another group’s poster and then explained it to their group so they could copy it – an exercise in clear communication and open-minded listening.

Later, in a highly competitive and frenetic game based on Pictionary, one team member had to draw, mime or model from Playdoh a team value. Not easy when they are values like ‘Trust each other’ or ‘Be supportive’ but ideal for defining what these values actually look like. And this of course is the point!

Outdoor activities are well-established as a means to encourage the development of team skills. More recently the team cookery challenge has become a great indoor alternative. Using art proved to be a new and fun approach – I’d certainly do it again.



Growth mindset needed to inspire foreign language learning

It was shocking last week to learn from a BBC Survey that there has been a 63% drop in entries for GCSE French since 2002 and a 67% drop for German.

Why don’t pupils in the UK want to learn French and German anymore?

Well, for the last 20 years or so they have been surrounded by a narrative that perpetuates an overwhelmingly negative fixed mindset.  ‘Foreign languages don’t matter. Everyone speaks English’ or ‘French/German is too hard to learn.’ 

When my own children were at primary school (2005-2016) it was ‘compulsory’ to learn French. But as no teacher in the school was qualified to teach it, they relied on a computer programme to do the job. Hardly the most motivating way to learn a living language. And when they fell behind on some other part of the curriculum, guess what lesson was dropped that week? So from this early stage, children are getting the message ’French doesn’t matter’. Sadly, this is the mindset that many take with them to secondary school. Pity the language teacher who has to start from this base line.

Then there is the refrain ‘It’s too hard to learn French or German.’ Where has this perception come from? Why single out French and German?  Can these languages really be harder than Mandarin, for which there has been a dramatic uptake at GCSE?

We are doing our children a huge disservice by feeding and supporting this fixed mindset.   It makes no sense to lose the ability to communicate with our neighbours in the country geographically closest to many of us. All French people don’t speak English – why should we expect them to?   And as we head towards an exit from the EU, the younger generation will need to do all it can to rebuild the bridges we are breaking down, in order to thrive with our European trading partners – of whom Germany is the most significant, importing goods worth $47 billion from the UK in 2018 (Source ie Business School).

Giving up on French and German (and often languages altogether) robs our young people of an opportunity to truly appreciate diversity, to understand another culture, and to live and work in another part of the world. Learning a language is life enhancing.

The third fixed mindset in language learning is ‘I’ll look stupid if I say something wrong.’  How have our children got the message that you can learn anything new without the risk of looking stupid? Looking stupid is part of the learning process. Our young people need to be applauded for their efforts and to hear encouraging messages: ‘You don’ t need to get it 100% right, you just need to be understood.’ Speaking the language in the classroom needs to be the norm from day 1, not something you build up to like a stage performance by learning a script and then regurgitating it word for word.

How can we change the narrative? We must replace the fixed mindset with a growth mindset.

How about this? We are privileged to live on the edge on mainland Europe, a multilingual and multicultural treasure chest. Even a smattering of ‘holiday phrases’ in another language will build respect and appreciation with those we meet. Greater fluency will enable us to dive deeper into another culture, and provide the foundation for living and working there.  Knowing French and German will open doors in Austria, Belgium, Switzerland and Luxembourg, to say nothing of French speaking Canada and 27 countries in Africa. With French we can more easily pick up Spanish and Italian; with German we can read Dutch without too much difficulty and often find it’s a shared language in the Czech Republic.

It’s estimated that 56% of the world’s population is bilingual. So the chances are that the person we want to speak to in another language has been through that learning curve themselves. They know what it’s like to have a go and make mistakes. They understand we may feel stupid. And they will generally be supportive.

I will never forget the joy on the face of one of my 14 year old pupils during an exchange visit to Mainz in Germany, where she was staying with a host family. ‘I told them a joke in German,’ she said, hardly able to contain her excitement ‘..and they laughed!’ I daresay her rendition was faltering, but that didn’t matter.  Mistakes are a springboard to learning. The important thing is to have a go. This is one great way for our young people to build confidence and resilience: life enhancing qualities we all need.

Leading a virtual team: How to build trust when team members may never meet

Have you come across Patrick Lencioni’s excellent work on the Five Dysfunctions of a Team? He describes five problems which build on one another, the first dysfunction being Absence of Trust – a fear of making oneself vulnerable by being open with colleagues about weaknesses, mistakes, fears and behaviours. Without trust, 4 other dysfunctions are likely to follow:

  • Fear of conflict as people are reluctant to disagree with, challenge and question one another in order to reach the best decisions and solutions. Such treading carefully around other people’s egos results in ‘artificial harmony’ which leads to ….
  • Lack of commitment arising from woolly discussion and unwillingness to buy in to decisions, which leads to ….
  • Avoidance of accountability where team members feel unable to challenge one another about performance standards, which leads to….
  • Inattention to results with people focussing on self-preservation and individual success rather than team goals.

Whenever I present Lencioni’s model in a workshop about Building Effective Teams, there are nods and groans, with many leaders recognising this downward spiral occurring in their own team.

However, how do Lencioni’s ideas translate to a virtual team, which is the reality for many people these days? Team members are working on the same project but in different locations across an office, a city, a country or the globe. They may rarely, if ever, meet each other face to face.

So let’s start with the fundamental problem: How can you as a team leader help to build trust in a virtual team?

Virtual teams face an added challenge in building trust: working in different locations makes it harder to get to know team mates and understand how they tick. It’s all too easy to build an ‘us and them’ rather than an ’us and us’ culture. In order to prevent sub-teams developing:

  • Take every opportunity to meet face to face, both for formal meetings and social gatherings.
  • Schedule routine catch-ups face to face if possible, but if not, then via Skype/GoToMeeting etc . Conference calls are the next best option. Seeing colleagues on screen helps build trust more readily than just hearing them.
  • Value the ‘chit-chat’ at the start of a meeting or call; it helps to develop empathy.
  • Use email judiciously: misunderstandings are generally cleared up much more quickly by calling or going to see the other person.
  • Look for opportunities to move people around whenever feasible so they sit and work in different locations with different colleagues.
  • Be crystal clear on roles and responsibilities of team members in every location to avoid misunderstanding and frustration.
  • Challenge negative assumptions about team members who are ‘out of sight’; don’t condone or engage in negative banter about them. This creates cliques. Instead, ask people to test their assumptions respectfully in a conversation with that team member.
  • Be especially sensitive to cultural differences that may be harder to recognise without face-to face communication eg. level of discomfort in disclosing mistakes and weaknesses, particularly where strong workplace hierarchies are the norm and ‘loss of face’ is unacceptable.
  • When using English, for example, as the common language, be aware that it is harder for non-native speakers to converse and understand by phone than it is face to face.

Next time… how can you generate healthy conflict in a virtual team in order to discuss issues openly?


What does it take to persuade you?

What does it take to persuade you?

Watching recent coverage of the Scottish Referendum debate has made me wonder what it takes to persuade a wavering voter to decide for or against independence. The strength and clarity of the argument is a key factor, of course. But what about the speaker and how much we like, trust or admire them?

Remember the inspiring story of Stephen Sutton, the teenage cancer sufferer whose courage and positivity persuaded thousands of people to donate money to Teenage Cancer Trust. So far more than £4 million has been raised through his efforts, though he sadly died in May 2014.


So what makes people willing to do what you want? In reality it’s a blend of the messenger and the message.

Here are my Top 10 factors for being persuasive.

  1. Build relationships

People do things for people they know, like and trust. Or people they admire. Meet face to face where possible, or at least pick up the phone. Build a reputation as a trustworthy professional.

  1. Know your audience

Adapt your approach. Put yourself in the other person’s shoes. Learn about their preferences, needs, priorities and concerns.


  1. Be generous in doing favours

Do something for another person and they are more likely to want to reciprocate.


  1. Prepare

What do you really want to achieve? What are your main points? Back them up and bring them to life with engaging evidence, examples, details, illustrations, stories, precedents.


  1. Identify the benefits for your audience

People typically make choices based on self-interest – so what’s in it for them?


  1. Make it easy for to agree

Getting a response from a busy person is far more likely if they just have to click or tick a box rather than answer an open question on a blank sheet. Nudge them towards the outcome you want. Of course, it means more preparatory work on your part.


  1. Communicate your message clearly and concisely

Don’t waffle or apologise for yourself! Practise aloud beforehand when it really matters.

  1. Really listen to views and objections

Show that you understand and respect their viewpoint. Be open to new information. Collaborating is likely to lead to the best solution.


  1. Remember that body language is critical

Use good eye contact and an upright open posture. Use your hands to reinforce what you say. Arrange seating for cooperation rather than confrontation (45-90°).


10. Use your voice for impact

A lower pitch makes you sound more persuasive. Speak slowly and use pauses for emphasis. Raising the volume will also make your voice more modulated and interesting to listen to. Use downward inflection at the end of key points for authority.




The Three Little Pigs

The Three Little Pigs filmed as a political satire for a team awayday on Handling Change? Weird but wonderfully effective!

Three PigsThe setting was the Disability Resource Centre (DRC) at Cambridge University where staff were digesting news of potentially huge changes to their work. Not only this, but they were also gearing up for a move to a new office location.

So this awayday was a timely opportunity to equip them with the skills and attitudes they need to handle such changes effectively as individuals, and cohesively as a team.

What better way to get the ball rolling than to give them an experience of unexpected change? So I split them into two groups, each with a very different project, clear deliverables, key resources and a deadline.

One group was asked to make a demo film of the classic children’s story of the Three Little Pigs. The other group had to produce a menu for a St George’s Day buffet. Once they got started, I changed things around – people were swapped from one project to another, the scope widened, the budget changed.

Actually they showed impressive resilience and flexibility. Once they knew to expect change they built in processes to help them deal with it.

The end results were wonderful: the Three Little Pigs became three disabled student pigs pursued by a big and very bad wolf. The buffet menu sounded delicious and suitably patriotic.

Change is pretty much the norm in the modern workplace, but we don’t often step back to think about what we need to do to handle it proactively, rather than simply ‘coping.’

Our discussion of some theory around change explored the fact that when one element changes on a project, such as the scope, it’s important to consider the knock-on effects on other aspects, like risk and budget. And we looked at Stephen Covey’s Circles of Concern/Influence/ Control to enable the DRC team to identify the issues they can do something about during a time of change.

In the end the team agreed a set of Commitments for Change, specifying how they will treat one another and communicate during the change.

Managing change is a critical skill for leaders tasked with introducing and implementing a change initiative. But it’s just as important for staff affected by the change to feel they have the skills to handle it, whatever the impact.

For more information, contact Duraikan Training at For an outline of our Handling Change workshop, click here.