Proactive problem solving

PROBLEMS CROP up regularly as part of our working lives. For example, we might get sick, which makes it impossible to meet a deadline or, half way through a job, we might realise that the work involved is going to be much more complicated than we thought, which means that we’ll have to go back to our boss or client to ask for more resources.

However, problems don’t necessarily mean that there’s trouble ahead and solved efficiently can actually cement a working relationship rather than damage it.

To ensure that you deliver on your promises and your reputation remains in tact, consider the following steps:

Own the problem: people often shy away from problems because they feel scared, guilty or unsure of what to do. Many problems can be nipped in the bud with little effort if you are quick to react. However, ignoring the problem may mean that it esculates and becomes a real threat to the satisfactory delivery of your work and consquently taint the impression people have of you.

Voice your concerns: remember that other people in the work chain may be affected too and, if you fail to deliver, you could be putting them in an extremely difficult position. If this happens, they may lose trust in your ability and tell others about their bad experience too.

However, if they are aware that there is a problem in good time, they are much more likely to be able to avoid negative consquences at their end and may also be able to help you sort things out.

Prepare options: don’t just dump your problem onto someone else’s lap but try to come up with at least one workable solution before you draw attention to it. The person involved may have a better idea of how to deal with it but, at least, you will demonstrate your willingness and commitment to put things right.

Ask for help: if you’re stumped, do ask your colleagues and friends to help you brainstorm a solution. When you’re engrossed in something or perhaps you’re panicking, an objective view from others can be illuminating.

Even if you can’t come up with a solution, still make sure that whoever is involved knows what’s going on. They may get shirty – justifiably, if it’s your fault – but they’ll be much angrier if they find out for themselves when it’s too late to take corrective action.

Be upfront. The best way to avoid problems is to communicate and take a clear brief before the work begins. Make sure that you understand what the work entails by asking lots of questions beforehand – what, when, who, where and how?

Also, you need to be sure that the person you’re accountable to for the work knows what it will take for you to complete it to the required standards on time. If both parties have a clear understanding of what the process will entail including who’s meant to be doing what by when and what resources are available, problems are less likely to occur in the first place. However, you may have to take the lead in educating people to ensure that everyone is clear before the off. An effective way of doing this is to provide a written summary of what you’ve agreed in bullet points so people have time to reflect on what’s been said and amend where necessary.

More info

If you and your team would like to learn more about problem solving, we run a range of bespoke training courses and topics that can improve productivity and profitability.

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Tuning into assertiveness

THERE’S BEEN a rush on for assertiveness training recently from all sorts of organisations. I’m taking this as a positive sign that people are sick of a recession-induced mentality of keeping their heads below the parapet until it all blows over and getting back to their audacious roots.

From my experience, even what seem to be the most ‘no nonsense’ of people struggle with assertiveness in some areas of their working lives whether it’s asking for pay rises or delegating to colleagues.

From my observations, being confident and direct in claiming our rights and stating our views, opinions and needs in any given situation (i.e., being assertive) is a more effective way of building productive working relationships than it is to say nothing and let other people take control (passive – where you’re trusting to luck to get what you want) or bulldozing people into doing it your way (aggressive – where you may establish short term gains but quickly alienate people).

If you’d like to become more assertive, the following should help:

Know yourself: most of us are assertive in some areas of our lives. Think about the areas where you are most assertive to understand what motivates you to act in this manner. Now, think about the areas in which you would like to improve your assertiveness. How do you act currently and why? What do you need to change about your thought processes and subsequent actions to move forward?

Take responsibility: the greatest step towards assertiveness is to claim responsibility for your own life. Often people behave as if life is something that ‘happens to them’. While there are many things out of our control, assertive people tend to control what they can by working out their options and taking appropriate action. They realise that even when they can’t control everything, they can control how they react.

Plan/decide what you want: part of being responsible is clarifying what you want to change and what you want to achieve and not letting others decide this for you (and then blaming them when you don’t like the outcome!).

Be willing to negotiate: being assertive doesn’t mean getting what you want immediately or all of the time. Most relationships (whether work or social) rely on compromise and solutions that both parties are happy with. Assertive people don’t get put off when the initial answer is no but rather continue to explore different ways in which to reach common goals.

However, if an agreement can’t be made, they don’t take offence. Assertiveness is about both self-respect and respecting others not about winning at any cost or always having to be right, accepting that others don’t have to agree with you or even like what you are doing and knowing the time to agree to disagree.

Ask questions and explore options: don’t assume that you know what the result will be beforehand. Many people are put off taking action because they imagine the worst!

So, don’t think yourself into a standstill. Ask questions. Find out the facts and explore options as you go along. The more you understand what lies behind someone’s stance or demands, the easier it is to find a solution that works well for all involved.

Learn to say no: most of us have times when we really want to say no but feel obliged to say yes. When this happens, a useful question to ask yourself to weigh up the balance is: “If I say yes, what else will I have to say no to?” Realising what you have to give up will make it easier to say no when necessary.

Trail and error: change isn’t usually a quick fix. If you want to become more assertive, you’ll need to practise and learn from what happens. Remember that just because you have decided to change your behaviour doesn’t mean that others will follow suit. However, you will be more satisfied knowing that you are acting in a way that is more productive for you and in general, assertive people tend to get better results.

More info: find out more about our assertiveness training and other courses on our listings page or contact us direct for a chat about your specific needs.

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Play to your strengths

IF YOU’RE thinking about improving your life in some way, whether it’s to do with furthering your career or beefing up your social life, you might find a few ‘positive psychology’ tips useful.

Rather than poring over weaknesses and ways to correct them, this approach to self-development aims to discover what’s right in people working on the premise that, if you concentrate on what you’re good at and what you love to do, it’s more likely that you’ll excel and find greater satisfaction.

If you’re a ‘glass half empty sort of person’, bear with me here. Positive psychology doesn’t ignore negative emotions, failures and problems and you don’t have to splash out on a pair of rose coloured spectacles and adopt a Pollyanna persona. Be assured, you can remain your grumpy, sceptical self (it’s probably one of your strengths and greatest pleasures). However, you may need to adopt some mental agility to explore the following areas:

1. Positive focus

For example, when you think you’d like to move jobs, rather than concentrating on the things you dislike about your current job, framing your objectives positively will help clarify what you really want and provide indicators of what to look for in your next position rather than keeping you stuck in the rut of what’s not happening now: “I hate working on weekends”; “My boss is constantly looking over my shoulder”; “I’ll never get promoted,” becomes “I’d like to work on weekdays only”; “I want a position that gives me more autonomy”; “I want to work for an organisation that provides a career path”.

2. The benefits of positive emotions

The achievement of most worthwhile goals doesn’t come at the snap of your fingers. Usually, there are hurdles and unexpected challenges along the way so it makes sense that, when you feel good about your goals, you’ll be much more motivated to achieve them. “Obvious, but there are some things that I have to do to pay my mortgage”, you might say. Good point and true in some cases. But, in my experience, some of what we feel we have to put up with is what we’ve told ourselves and has little basis in reality (self-limiting beliefs, thoughts and feelings in psycho-speak). For example, “I hate my life”, (generalisation); “It’s bound to go wrong” (catastrophising); “He thinks I’m an idiot” (mind reading).

Most people wouldn’t dream of emotionally punching up their friends in this way, but get into the habit of creating and listening to a destructive inner voice that makes them feel bad and doesn’t accurately reflect external circumstances.

Whereas, recognising if you’ve a tendency to let your thoughts negatively spiral, isolating problems and exploring what can be done is more likely to bring you the changes that you’re looking for.

If life has thrown a particularly hard curve ball, it can be difficult to feel good about the current situation. Here it’s important to draw on good feelings from the past and what you imagine it will feel like when you’ve achieved your goals. Once again, it’s about concentrating on the positive rather than the negative. For example: “What gives me energy?” (not “I feel drained”); “What is it that I value most about myself?” (not “I’ve got so many weakness”) and “What inspires me? (not “I’m so bored”).

3. Identifying strengths

People often focus on what they can’t do and ignore what they are naturally good at. Of course, it’s sensible and interesting to continue to learn new skills, but none of us can be all things to all people so it’s equally sensible to play to and develop our strengths.

If you need help with defining or re-assessing your strengths, you might want to ask some colleagues or friends how they perceive you. You’ll probably be surprised and rather pleased at what they say. If you’re not, maybe think about changing your colleagues or friends as they’re obviously an awful lot who should be given a wide birth!

Also, you might want to take this psychometric test (Brief Strengths) from the University of Pennsylvania. Basically, it’ll come up with your top strengths in order. No strength is better or worse than another but the idea is that, if you are aware of your strengths and value them (rather, as many people do, take them for granted and wish for others), you can build on what you’ve got to become even better at what you do and/or more content with your life choices.

In the past, I’ve scoffed at this sort of thing but in the spirit of open mindedness, I tutted and muttered darkly through it. From the results, I immediately fell into the above trap of dissing what the test turned up as my strengths. I had imagined things like creativity and initiative would be top of the list. But, to my consternation, these were outstripped by honesty, social intelligence and an appreciation for beauty: “Oh, how tame and superficial,” I generalised. “My life is a sham and I’ve obviously missed my vocation as some Gucci-clad vicar”, I catastrophised. (No offense to Gucci-clad vicars, it’s just the first thing that sprang into my mind).

On reflection though and taking a tip from above, these strengths (as we’re now calling them) do in fact play an important role in my life. Also, on further analysis, I do play to them, e.g., my clients tell me they value my approach that seeks to make things easy for them rather than bamboozle. And, I aleady work to such themes as you’ll see in the messages throughout the website.

It may be coincidence and the results haven’t converted me to a psychometric test believer. But, in this instance, it made sense and served as a refreshing reminder of what I value leading to more positive focus and emotions. Try it…you might find it useful. It’s certainly fun discussing it with your mates.

Crucially, no longer do I need to feel guilty about my proclivity for expensive shoes. After all, an appreciation for beauty is one of my key strengths and must be observed as a vital cornerstone of my future development.

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Are you alienating your customers?

According to a recent survey by Which Magazine, the following elements will get up your customers’ noses:

  • Automated telephone systems
  • Trying to sell them products that they don’t want
  • Being passed around from person to person
  • Annoying ‘hold’ music
  • Long queues
  • Rude staff
  • Staff too busy talking to each other
  • Standard responses to problems
  • Staff lacking knowledge of products/services
  • Having to wait for help or a response.

There isn’t really a new magic formula to providing great service that generates customer satisfaction and repeat business. It involves valuing your customers, continually checking to ensure that they are happy with the service you provide (remember, it’s their definition of good service not your’s that counts) and clear, effective communication whether it’s to spread your service ethos throughout your organisation or to quickly deal with mistakes.

From the survey results, it surprising that some companies are not even covering the basics such as polite and well-informed staff. It seems logical that, as Which reports, happy customers are loyal customers and hence profitable customers and “exceptional service more than pays for itself.” Can’t be that logical if so many customers are being put off by the same old dissatisfying experiences though.

If you’d like with improving your customer service whether through consultancy or training, please contact us. You could also have a look at my book Managing Customer Service if you want a  some straightforward tips.


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You gotta have a goal

I admire anyone who sets New Year resolutions and actually sticks to them. In my case, my main priority at that time of year is reaching spring without slitting my wrists!

Dramatic I know but, a sensation seeker to the core, the post festive slump combined with the ‘starless and bible-black’ nights, can have a S.A.D. effect on my oh so creative sensibility – leading to too much navel gazing and not enough action. At least I know myself.

This is why I choose autumn to review what I’ve achieved and what I want to do next. Perhaps because of that lingering ‘back to school’ feeling, I find this is a great time to assess the old and plan the new. Advantageously, it also means that I am well into the journey by the time January is upon us and can just switch back into work mode rather than waste time cranking up the gears of possibility.

Whatever the timing, goal setting – whether for yourself or your team – is a powerful success technique as most higher flyers will tell you.

Simplistically, if you know what you want from life, you have much more chance of getting it! Alternatively, you can let others take control, which is fine if that’s what makes you happy. However, if you’re taking a laissez faire approach to your ambitions, don’t get bitter and twisted if you end up with what others want and not what your heart desires.

If you’re about to take a shot at defining some new goals, using the S.M.A.R.T principle will help you focus on and achieve the prize.


Clearly define each of your goals so that you have specific targets to aim for. This sounds obvious but how many times have you vaguely thought you’d like to do something in your life but never got around to it? “I want to change” is not a goal – think about exactly what you want to achieve and what actions this will entail.


Quantifying your goal ensures that you can assess your achievement levels as you go along and know when you’ve achieved that goal. For example, I want to be rich is too vague while I want to earn £100,000 by the end of year gives you a measurable target to work to.


Goals need to be within your reach so that you are motivated enough to commit to achieving them while being challenging enough to change your life in the way that you foresee.

If you set yourself a big challenge, make sure that you also set interim goals along the way. Also, to stay motivated, your goal needs to have true meaning and value to you as opposed to being something that you think you should or could do, perhaps because society tells you so.


While dreams can come true and you should never be discouraged from aiming high, it’s important to be realistic in both what you’re aiming for and the resources you have to achieve this.

Self-belief, confidence and persistence are all marks of successful people but so is the ability to recognise when you’re aiming for the wrong goal and to re-assess and change direction when necessary.


Setting deadlines is a great way to get and stay motivated. If you don’t achieve your goal by the set deadline, you can either extend it or re-assess the situation asking yourself why you didn’t meet the deadline and what else you will need to do so next time to ensure a more favourable result.

Remember, being motivated to achieve your goals is a consistent effort in which you will be continually evaluating and adapting what you are doing and sometimes what you want to achieve.

Help at hand

If you want in-depth advice or training on achieving business goals including team training sessions, please contact us.

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It’s all in the timing

I used to work with this chap John who was forever whisking frenetically up and down the office like a demented wasp. You could never pin him down to talk shop and if you managed to corner him in his office, he’d pick up the phone and start speaking into it in that ‘buy, buy, sell, sell’ sort of way that infers: “Don’t interrupt me, this is crucial”.

Eventually, the boss cottoned on to the fact that the draft John made was nothing but hot air and gave him his marching orders. In John’s case, his faked activity was a ‘can’t do this job’ facade. Happily, after months of avoidance tactics, ‘the boot’ gave him enforced impetus to find an occupation better suited to his skills set in.

Productive or busy getting nowhere?

Many successful people thrive on intense activity and it’s true that you won’t get far unless you’re willing to work hard. However, juggling the right things and juggling lots of things are very different and can help or hinder your progress respectively.

While time management and organisation don’t come naturally to me, experience has taught me that I can achieve better results if I pay attention to a few useful rules. You’re probably aware of them, but if you don’t apply them in practice, take it from someone who’s innately discipline-resistant, they work:

Stop the rot

Review your habits. Is the format of your day efficient? People often stick to ineffective working patters even if they have an underlying idea that things could be improved. For example, in a Radio 4 programme ‘Slowcoach’, which followed the lives of self-confessed busyaholics, an MD took the advice of a life coach and decided to switch off his email for one hour in the morning and one hour in the afternoon.

At the start of the experiment, he was resistant to the idea because he was convinced that his customers expected immediate attention. However, he soon found that, while there were no cries of complaint (his clients didn’t even notice), this seemingly small change resulted in wide-reaching benefits including more time to address crucial business areas from strategy to staff development. Ironically, his wife had been suggesting the same sort of changes for years, but, as most of us recognise, it sometimes takes an objective opinion to help us realise and let go of limiting beliefs and actions.

Make a daily list of priorities. Differentiate between ‘must do today’, ‘must do at another time’, ‘someone else can do’ and ‘could do but actually don’t need to’ – then, be merciless at re-organising, delegating and dropping tasks accordingly.

Work out optimum timing for you. For example, I am most creative and focused in the morning so, where possible, try to put off easy/boring/administrative tasks that don’t take much brainpower until after lunch.

Be pro-active. Many people, especially if they are overseeing or involved in a broad span of functions and decisions, become re-active, i.e., they complete whatever comes their way rather than take a few seconds to ‘filter’ at ‘contact’ stage. This often causes them to work unnecessarily long hours and means that key productive/creative time is spent on mundane tasks rather than on the most important ones that will truly contribute to performance and results.

Self-impose deadlines. Ask yourself what value you’ll get from spending that extra hour on a piece of work and what else will suffer if you do this. This doesn’t mean that you let standards slip but that you learn to assess the level of quality needed and let go when you’ve achieved this.

Be decisive. If you’re procrastinating, get to the route of why this is happening – research, gain information, assess, decide and take action.

Be assertive. Learn to say ‘no’. Explain why you can’t drop everything now and schedule activities when convenient.

While it’s unrealistic to expect your schedule to run to the nearest millisecond, becoming more time efficient will ultimately help you increase your productivity and your ability to react quickly to unexpected events that need urgent attention. Who knows? You may even create more time to spend outside the office having fun – remember that?!

Helping to improve your efficiency

If you’d like help with time management and organisation including training courses and written information for company materials such as newsletters and updates, contact us.

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