While there are plenty of life lessons among the pages of Dickens, Bronte, Hardy and Britain’s literary finest, this week we are celebrating the 120th anniversary of children’s author Enid Blyton by tapping into the expertise of those authors who inspired our imaginations during childhood.

It seems that those universal truths these writers explored apply as much to our working practices as they did in the playground. When our lawyers deliver our management development training across the sectors, we find the same themes of trust, failure, courage, attitude and perspective are frequently on the agenda. Our clients acknowledge that a manager’s approach to challenging people or situations is pivotal to a successful outcome and a worthwhile investment through prevention strategy rather than a more costly cure. Here are our 5 golden rules to help you get your “happy ever after” :

  1. Establish trust first

    “Any problem can be solved between people if only they can trust each other.” Michael Morpurgo, War horse

    Before you can begin to address some of the more challenging issues that might arise with an employee, you have to ensure that you have already invested some time in your working relationship or you will be on shaky ground before you even start. One way of doing this is to open up the lines of communication as soon as the employee joins your organisation with a brief discussion confirming that you are their advocate, a team-player, and that if they do or say anything that might get in the way of their success in their role or the working relationship, you will say something and you would like them to do the same. By setting the standard of expected behaviour in this way, your route to a more tricky and sometimes personal conversation feels more natural and it can reduce the likelihood of the employee reacting badly and issuing a harassment or bullying claim.

  2. Have the courage to create a “memory bank” of successful outcomes

    “Sometimes we have to choose between what is right and what is easy.” J K Rowling

    The greatest mistake one can make is to view these conversations as being “difficult.” When we see anything as difficult or unpleasant, our natural inclination is to avoid it for as long as possible. In an employment context this means that poor performance issues for example might not be addressed until an appraisal meeting which may be 3 or 4 months after the incident itself had occurred or become a pattern of behaviour which will then be harder to break and potentially lead to legal claims such as unfair dismissal. When the issue is finally raised and examples given that are far too historic, the employee is likely to be very defensive and find the delay hugely damaging to the relationship of trust and confidence that they may have thought they had with their manager. From the manager’s point of view, this negative experience then reinforces the brain’s perception of these conversations as “difficult”, that life was easier when they avoided the situation so avoidance becomes the brain’s learned, habitual response. The only way to break this cycle is by building up a “memory bank” of successful conversations where issues were nipped in the bud at a very early stage. Becoming an expert at these brief but immediate conversations is key to changing the culture within a team or organisation and provides much of the focus for our training.

  3. Your perspective is always wrong (but not completely)

    “What you see and what you hear depends a great deal on where you are standing. It also depends on what sort of person you are.” CS LewisWe tend to approach tricky conversations on the basis that we need to bring the other person around to our way of thinking so that they will act to change their behaviour. All too often this can mean each party becomes more entrenched in their position because they are focused on voicing “their version”. This inevitably stops them from truly listening to another’s perspective and rarely leads to the change in behaviour the manager was actually seeking. By approaching the conversation with an attitude of curiosity, a manager accepts that neither person’s version is completely accurate but that there is a mid-point at which both parties can be satisfied

  4. Change is hard – don’t expect too much too soon

    “You must never feel badly about making mistakes….as long as you take the trouble to learn from them. For you often learn more by being wrong for the right reasons than you do by being right for the wrong reasons.” Norton Juster, Phantom TollboothHave you ever tried to give anything up? Smoking? Chocolate? It’s hard! Whatever the issue, the employee has developed a habit of doing things in a certain way so don’t expect too much too soon. Especially when the problem involves behaviour; it can be a challenge for someone to change so give them time but schedule in review periods to check in with them and discuss their progress. Keep a paper trail of any meetings or discussions on the topic. In the event you are required to plead your case in an employment tribunal, you will have strong evidence that you made the employee adequately aware of the problem and gave them sufficient opportunity to improve.

  5. Attitudes and behaviour at work are as important as technical measures

    “A person who won’t read has not advantage over a person who can’t.” Mark Twain

    Whilst harder to measure than the more technical requirements of a role, behavioural issues at work are equally essential to address. When raising this topic, it is important to focus on specific actions and frame them in terms of their impact on the workplace. For example, “Yesterday I noticed you seemed angry when you returned from the meeting, you slammed your paperwork down on the desk and I’m concerned that kind of behaviour could cause tension for the rest of the team” is likely to be better received than simply “You’re aggressive.” Also consider how measured behavioural improvements could be reflected in the individual’s appraisal objectives so that they too understand their importance alongside the other targets set. If the individual fails to address the problem over a sustained period, you can then take more formal action as part of a disciplinary or capability procedure.