Talk to any working team and group, in any culture, and the same handful of ‘wish this didn’t happen’ issues will appear.

The top winner, by miles, is the casual use of email.

Over use. Misuse.

It’s a perfect storm of demotivation. A workload problem (having ‘00s or ‘000s of emails to deal with daily) combines with a communication problem (so many of these emails containing unclear, unsuccessful and unnecessary versions of communication that just devalue the recipient).

The most common cry?

‘They could just come and talk to me….’

Email isn’t the problem of course, only the symptom.

Just about everyone finds connecting with colleagues in a ‘real’ way difficult.

Its not a recognized or supported skill. It suits any hierarchical culture not to build this skill.

But reporting email-over-use as the top ‘wish this didn’t happen’ issue keeps the real interpersonal communication issue underground and out of sight.

An interesting word was used by a team member the other day as he described a how it felt to receive a slew of emails from his bosses.

‘It’s like they are being aloof. It keeps them aloof’

I looked up the origin of the word, suspecting perhaps a military or sporting etymology.

It was nautical. And conjured rich imagery.

The word meant ‘windward’, to keep distance from another vessel.

From ‘luff’, or ‘loef’ (old Dutch) the word aloof has grown in everyday usage from a sense of distance to include a sense of a lack of sympathy.

The perfect image.

The word describing a vessel at sea using the wind to keep its distance now describes a management style that uses email to do exactly the same.


Over the last couple of weeks, several ‘culture’ conversations have surfaced a common experience that professionals rarely have a chance to speak about – little inner voices that whisper advice.

These invisible friends can be encouraging, they can be steadying, they can be….

Well, you know how they can be: horrible.

Sometimes these voices are adding to the already high (quite enough thank you) level of anxiety being felt in the workplace. Psychologists call them toxic interjects.
It’s a deadening phrase for what many experience as a much more energetic and lively internal exchange.

These are invisible friends, right?

The content is not friendly. It can debilitate. We need some techniques for reducing the cacophony level. It may be time to reclaim a phrase that is sometimes abused these days as a tactic for not answering a challenge.

It’s the thought – ‘lighten up’.


Professional sports people, performing artists, those who expose themselves constantly to the sorts of experience where those invisible friends love to make themselves heard, all report that an ‘are the stakes really as high as I’m making out?’ question helps reduce the level.

So, they are taught to try out..

‘If anyone was filming this, they’d laugh’
‘I’ll just do what I do’
‘Anything could happen, and probably will’
‘ I’ll do my best. Yep, my best’
‘I chose to do this. I choose it.
Well, here we are and here we go’.

Or many collect and use a tranche of family sayings to ground, recalibrate, and raise an internal laugh of recognition

‘I am on dry land..’
‘Great aunt (insert fictitious and ridiculous name) is gonna love this’

and as was suggested years ago by a tutor

‘Just don’t leave this room as you found it’

Make some up, try them out, lighten up, and send those invisible friends on holiday.


Well here’s a thing.

While consulting a book about something else entirely, I chanced this week upon a little contribution from Theodore Zeldin (of power of creative conversation fame, ‘Conversation: How Talk Can Change Our Lives’ published in 2000 ) about ‘humour’ and ‘anxiety’.

It turns out that humour and anxiety are closer than you think.

Once upon a time they both meant nearly the same thing: an imbalance.

And this snippet of wisdom appeared just as I was wondering about two little happenings.

Happening 1. Last weekend was filled with Shakespearean celebrations. London’s South Bank saw The Globe Theatre’s amazing series of 37 films – 10 minute essences of each of Shakespeare’s 37 plays – between Tower Bridge and Westminster .

And in front of ‘Hamlet’ I heard something of the conversation between two members of the audience. An elderly gentleman (of London, not Verona) was quietly recalling to his companion how he had once appeared, in his younger days, in a production of Hamlet. It was a young audience, and he remembered now that the sad Ophelia scene, beautifully performed, provoked … ….nervous laughter. And he had always wondered why.

Happening 2. To a team workshop, with a lovely team. But a team with a badly kept secret: the covering up of a longstanding and unspoken frustration that was inhibiting a conversation that really, really neede to happen. In a spirit of – frankly – desperation, I steered us towards some future story stuff. Amongst other things, we played around gently and not-seriously with ‘being’ different people and different roles. When … boom. We all stopped to watch and listen. The very pair with ‘the issue’ were conducting their conversation as comedians. I can report that starting a complaint with ‘I say, I say, I say’ is a near magical thing. We were all torn between gasps (of anxiety) and howls (of laughter). It really worked. The anxiety from the anxiety-making thing was handled as laughter from the laughter–making thing. Genius.

So thank you Theodore for that insight.

A bit of googling later turned up this thought, which I now think might be rather profound:

‘Laughter is the shortest distance between two people’ – Victor Borge.


F80pxtreeinding out what someone really feels about an idea is hard. It really is.

The most useful position to take over satisfaction scores, ‘likes’ and approval ratings is …healthy doubt.  One of the first focus groups I observed during trainee days, years ago, demonstrated this the hard way.

The new-product creative concepts were going down really well with just about everyone. I was loving it.  Phrases such as ‘those will work very well’ and ‘those are very clever’ and ‘yes I think people will really get these’ were scattered through my notes.
(I know, I know – naïve and inexperienced)

The moderator taught me a lot that day.

Prompted by a) brilliant instinct, and b) recognition of the pattern of the responses, he continued,

So we like them. Good.
Theoretically, which of them would you take home?

The answer?  None. Not one.

Approval could safely be expressed for an ‘over-there’ world, for ‘other people’, but personal buy in? Nope.

Personal buy-in is expressed actively, and…personally.

Which brings me to employee surveys.

I keep coming across the weirdest thing.

I am seeing leadership teams inside businesses whoop that scores for the question..
“How likely are you to recommend working here to someone else” have improved year on year, while scratching their heads that scores for a question such as…“ How likely are you to be working here in 18 months time?” have plummeted over the same period.

The recommendation question will tell you absolutely nothing: it’s impersonal.

It’s the thumbs up to the personal that matters.

It’s whether you would ‘take it home’.


T80pxtreewo themes collide this week.

The first was a serious look at how to help the boardrooms of businesses ‘get’ the idea that old systems of thinking and planning and ‘managing’ are just that – old. Clever people talk of changing mindsets, of having to think differently. “The past is crumbling and the future isn’t here yet” observed a contributor at one seminar.

Why are boards, in particular, finding it so hard to build cultures that dance well with change?

The second theme nestled within an episode of David Eagleman’s series on neuroscience. Programmes about thinking about thinking; absolutely compelling.

In this episode, a beautifully designed experiment looked at empathy, at how we are able to feel what others feel. An extraordinary finding was that the body leads the process. A viewers face ‘copies’ the expressions of the person being watched. The then – felt sensation drives the empathic response.

This jewel of a finding burst into significance when working with people who had received beauty treatments – botox – that basically freeze groups of facial muscles. You would expect (rightly) that their faces would be hard to read, that it would be hard to understand what they were feeling. But these wrinkle- free individuals were cut off in another way. They were unable to deduce what others were feeling – because their own facial muscles did not move.

There’s a connection here.

The old pattern of removed, elevated, even rarified boardroom conversations is rather like freezing those facial muscles. Nothing can be felt or understood.

I’m going to keep my eyes open for this. Business Botox.


W80pxtreee think we know how something works. And then we find we don’t. Probably when it breaks down.

A (lovely) team I know was pretty sure about why things worked. And then they weren’t.

They kept telling themselves that it was something to do with poor communication. While mysteriously all being able to communicate this thought quite clearly to each other.

The best lesson I could find to help explain the why, the what, and the how, was offered by a current exhibition at the British Museum called ‘Drawing with silver and gold’.

Hendrik Goltzius: Self-portrait, c.1589   (British Museum: 1895,0915.1020)

This beautiful exhibition explores the art of metalpoint from across 6 centuries and includes some heart stopping drawing work.

What has metalpoint silverpoint got to do with a team; a group of committed people who work closely together?

The process is a very helpful analogy. And amazing.

Coated paper was drawn on with a fine soft-metal stylus. The paper coating was traditionally finely ground bone, pigment, and a binding agent. Several coats might be applied, resulting in a finely abrasive surface on which the metal would leave a delicate trace.

So think on this for a moment.

A very soft material is leaving a fine, permanent, distinctive trace on…a rough material.

As the team talked, something emerged.

One team member had just been seconded elsewhere. He is gentle, softly spoken, and self-effacing. His loudest colleague might even have admitted under pressure that it was sometimes possible to forget he was there.

Now he wasn’t. And they had, without recognizing the feeling for what it was, noticed.

It would appear that he left an indelible – and now much missed – mark on his more up front colleagues.

So then they knew how they worked: the rough with the smooth


The Bechdel test started out as a witty way of pointing out how profoundly absent women are from mainstream cinema. The cartoonist Alison Bechdel had one of her characters in her strip cartoon (Mo, in ‘The Rule’) describe how, to avoid wasting her time on gender biased cinema, she would only watch films that met 3 criteria.

  • There must be two female characters. With names.
  • They must talk to each other.
  • The conversation must be about something other than men.

And in various forms the test moved from cartoon land to real life.
JestershatThe years have passed, and entire film franchises (Harry Potter, Lord of the Rings) continue to fail the test.

Critics have stated that this is no way to judge a film (it was never meant to indicate quality, just absence), while in Sweden a couple of years ago an arthouse movie theatre resolved to show only films that had passed the test. (A big ‘A’ appeared on the poster. Just as worrying.)

The test is clever because it helps us see what we could previously only sense – and then to make our own judgement.

Let’s adapt the Bechdel test to work meetings.In the workplace, there are two biases – gender, and power.  So we could really have fun with these criteria..

Feel free to boycott any meeting that does not pass these 4 conditions.

  • There must be more people than communication devices.
  • The meeting must begin with everyone present speaking -checking in- for 30 seconds.
  • Everyone must prepare. Prep is 3 words only, 3 things to be achieved.
  • Any one eating must share with everyone else.

To really make a difference, then this additional condition applies.

  • Anyone apologizing for their point of view wears a Jester hat for the rest of the day.

Jesters tell the truth, and sometimes we all need to hear it.
Have a truly productive meeting. You’ll feel amazing.


Penny Hunt's blog coffee conversationsBusinesses need their people to be the best they can be. Releasing talent, potential and creativity transforms any business in a trice. Rather like eating healthily and taking exercise, businesses ‘know’ this, but find it hard to change old habits.

Is that why there is still such inequality at senior levels?

Coaching can contribute to releasing potential.

And it can also uncover some extremely helpful information….

The ChangeChemistry approach to coaching is all about enhancing people’s awareness of where they are now.  I discovered through my own research last year that the ‘not enough senior women in the work place’ issue is also about awareness. It’s about whether both men and women actually feel they can be themselves – be the best they can be.

This is why.

I’ve lived the ‘women in work’ story over a long time, having worked in male dominated and non-male dominated, creative and non-creative cultures, around the world. There’s been little real change for women: or for men in terms of how healthy the workplace feels today.

Illustration aboutr women in business in Penny Hunts blog, Change ChemistryWhile working with senior coaching clients, the ‘women’s experience in work’ issue increasingly infiltrated the sessions. Men are not all happy about work either. Not at all. Having to play a role tires everyone.

It became clear that the current narrative, which goes something like – ‘give women more confidence training, get men to shape up’, or ‘get a critical mass of women (currently 30%) into any workplace and change will happen’ – is wrong.

Well, it hasn’t worked, has it?

The narrative isn’t right because industries and cultures are human and complex with varied issues and different ‘levers for change’. The narrative isn’t right because people operate primarily through their intuitions – and intuitions are hard to train, or tame. Intuitively most of us want the status quo.  The narrative isn’t right because businesses can’t meet the challenge of how to get the best from everyone (inclusive), by concentrating on some and not on others (divisive).

Awareness of how it is for everyone is the first step, followed by a bespoke, nuanced, intelligent, humanistic approach to culture shifting rather than targets or quotas.

Shifting the culture is the real key.

The environments where men and women work wonderfully together have recognisable characteristics and behaviours…..
And that, o best beloved, will be the subject of next week’s story