Author Archives: Terry

Cognitive bias – understanding how we fool ourselves

A client of mine told me: ‘My customers are going to love the new service I’m launching.’

‘How can you be so sure’ I asked.

‘How could they not like it?’ was his confident reply.

Ok, his knowledge of his customers may well be extensive, but does he know what they really want? Has he asked them? His ‘How could they not like it?’ gave away the fact that his own enthusiasm for the service was playing a big part in convincing him that it would be a success.

It’s a common mistake when doing sales projections. We are so determined to succeed that we become prone to false optimism, unrealistic targets suddenly seem achievable. This skewed thinking is an example of what psychologists call cognitive bias.

Unfortunately, cognitive bias takes many forms. Even if my client had done some research, he might well have succumbed to confirmation bias – the tendency to search for and interpret information in a way that confirms what he already thinks. Added to this, he might not realise the power and influence of his own enthusiasm for the new service. Psychologists refer here to the empathy gap – our inability to fully understand the role of our emotions in decision making. Research also suggests that even if he had received some negative feedback from customers, he might well have succumbed to conservatism bias –  the tendency to revise plans insufficiently in the face of unfavourable evidence.

When he finally managed to tailor a service to suit his customers, he would still have to decide on a price, and here would face other hazards. The IKEA effect is the tendency to over-value things that we have made ourselves, regardless of their attributes. And once this is done, it’s easy to fall into the trap of the endowment effect, the tendency to demand a higher price for something than people are willing to pay.

If you’re feeling smug at this point, thinking ‘Huh, I don’t do that sort of thing’, be warned. In its many forms, cognitive bias can affect us all. There’s even a name for the skewed thinking that leads to our smugness, it’s called bias blind spot – the tendency to see ourselves as less biased than other people.

As a coach, part of my role is to listen out for cognitive bias. If I hear it, I ask questions like ‘How do you know?’, or ‘What makes you think that?’ I provide a more detached perspective, and my clients get an opportunity to talk through and reflect on their thoughts, feelings, plans and desires.

You will find a list of cognitive biases here.

You will find more information on coaching here.

Become a great leader and role model

If asked to name a leader we might think of a captain of industry or a major political figure, a Richard Branson or a Barack Obama. But you don’t have to be responsible for a multinational company or president of a nation to be a leader – leadership also occurs on a much smaller scale. For me, a key part of leadership is the ability to influence and motivate using attitudes and behaviour – leadership doesn’t rely on the use of power and the authority inherent in a high position, nor does it result just from the ability to reward.

Leaders lead by way of personality, attitude and behaviour. A good leader needs to have a clear vision of the future, be confident in their own abilities, have a ‘can do’ attitude, and be a good communicator and motivator – they also need courage and perseverance. So, I would argue that even a junior manager is a leader of sorts – they are a role model for their team, they lead by example, they need communication skills, and the ability to influence, motivate and encourage.

There are lots of models or theories of leadership. I’m a fan of the Transformational Leadership model because it describes a set of leadership characteristics and competences that apply to leadership at all levels. There are four core attributes of a Transformational Leader, they can be summarized thus:

Charisma. The qualities and behaviors that enable a leader to act as a positive role for their team – these leaders display conviction, adherence to a set of values, are ‘true to themselves’, and behave in a consistent manner.

Inspiration. The qualities that enable a leader to articulate future goals with clarity and optimism – these leaders inspire and motivate their team.

Intellectual stimulation. The qualities that enable a leader to be both willing and able to challenge assumptions, and strive for higher levels of achievement – these leaders encourage their team to do likewise and to create a culture of creativity and constant improvement.

Individual attention. The qualities that enable a leader to be aware of the needs of individual team members – these leaders mentor and coach, and give positive feedback.

The first two of these attributes are about leading from the front, the second two are to do with enabling improvement and higher levels of achievement – I think of them as leading from the front and tuning the engine.

The above is the briefest of summaries, if you want to know more about Transformational Leadership (and other leadership theories), Peter G. Northouse’s Leadership gives a good overview.

I offer a ‘How to be a great leader’ workshop that draws on the Transformational Leadership model. This works well for groups of middle and/or senior managers. If you are interested, you can find more information at here – or call or email me.

I’ve also added a leadership element to my ‘How to be a great manager’ workshop. It’s a workshop for new managers or those with no previous management training. If you are interested, you can find more information at here – or call or email me.

Shakespeare and life skills

I’m a great Shakespeare fan, so the recent anniversary of this death was been a great time for me. Re-watching some of the plays has reminded me that there are many instances in which Shakespeare’s characters offer great advice about how to live their lives. Two instances of this advice-giving spring to mind – both involve advice from a father to a departing son.

In Richard II, the King banishes Henry Bullingbrook (the future Henry IV) from England. As Henry contemplates a bleak future his father (John of Gaunt) encourages him not to be downcast, and to change his thoughts from negative to positive ones.

‘All places that the eye of heaven visits, are to a wise man ports and happy havens.’

(Act 1, scene 3, line 576 – for the full text see here.

As a coach, and in a similar way, I often use the techniques of asset-based thinking – these encourage you to focus on what you have got and what you can do rather than what you haven’t got and can’t do, and on what a person or situation can do for you rather than what they can’t. For more information, see my blog.

In Hamlet, Polonius offers Laertes (his son) advice about how he should conduct himself when he is away in France. The advice includes:

‘Give every man thy ear, but few they voice.’

(Act 1, scene 3, line 554 – for the full text see here.

This line has always resonated with me. Listening is (I think) an over-looked but crucial skill for the workplace as well as for life in general. For more on listening skills, see my blog.

Asset-Based Thinking

Asset-Based Thinking (ABT) was one of the first ‘positive thinking’ tools that I came across. I still use it a lot and think it’s one of the best and most easily used tools of its type.

ABT  encourages us to think positively, to think about what we’ve got rather than what we haven’t got, what we can do rather than what we can’t do. It focuses on:

  • opportunities rather than problems
  • strengths rather than weaknesses
  • what can be done rather what can’t be done

It applies this thinking in three realms:

  1. ourselves – it looks at our strengths and what we can do
  2. others – it looks at their strengths and what they can do for us, how they can help us
  3. situations – what’s good about them and the benefits they provide

The way we think is reflected in our internal dialogues, the language we use, the questions we ask ourselves and the answers we give. ABT focuses on these dialogues and seeks to change them, and in doing so, to change negative or deficit-based thinking into something more positive and enabling.

For example, these are some ABT ‘corrections’ to deficit-based thinking:

Don’t say ‘that’s impossible.’ Ask ‘what is possible?’
Don’t say ‘oh no, not that again!’ Say ‘it could be better, but I’ve seen this before.’
Don’t say ‘whose fault is that?’ Say ‘what’s done is done, move on.’
Don’t say ‘I’ll never get this done.’ Say ‘this could take longer than expected.’
Don’t say ‘what’s wrong with me?’ Ask ‘what am I learning?’
Don’t say ‘I always get it wrong.’ Say ‘I didn’t get it right last time, but I’ve learnt.’
Don’t say ‘that’ll never change.’ Ask ‘how can I get around this?’
Don’t say ‘he’s out of his mind.’ Ask ‘what makes him tick?’

For more information check out, for a complete guide to ABT, including practical tips and ‘work outs’ see Kathryn D. Kramer and Hank Wasiak, Change The Way You See Everything Through Asset-based Thinking, Running Press, 2006.

Grants to help towards training costs

Good news – there are funds available to help towards the cost of skills development.

If you’re based in Barnsley, Bradford, Calderdale, Craven, Harrogate, Kirklees, Leeds, Selby, Wakefield or York, you can get support and funding from the Leeds City Region Enterprise Partnership.

The Partnership has launched a service that provides skills support to small
and medium-sized businesses. This includes businesses in the creative and digital sector.

I am an approved and registered supplier of training for the LEP skills service. This means that, subject to application and approval, there are funds available to help towards the cost of training delivered by me.

The LEP skills service helps businesses to identify their skills needs based on their business growth objectives and then find the right training solution. The training provision is employer-led, enabling businesses to design their own solutions and select their own training provider. Small and medium sized business based in the Leeds City Region that have a budget to put towards training could also be eligible for funding of between £500 and £50,000. To find out more, or to see if you’re eligible for support and funding visit:

There’s a brief list of what I do at the end of this email, and more information here. Note, I prefer to deliver training that is tailored to suit my client’s needs, rather than off-the-shelf solutions.

Get in touch if you are interested in some training and are thinking of making an application for support.

About Learning

I work on the assumption that we can all be even better at what we do. Therefore, it follows that we are (or can be) always learning.

It helps to know what our learning style is if you want to learn and properly embed new skills and knowledge. We all naturally prefer to learn in different ways. To understand these different ways, Peter Honey and Alan Mumford developed their ‘Learning Styles’ model. They identified four distinct learning styles or preferences and recommend that we should both understand our learning style, and seek out opportunities to learn using that style.

Their four styles are:

Activists. Activists involve themselves fully in new experiences. They are open-minded, not sceptical, and this tends to make them enthusiastic about anything new. Their philosophy is: “I’ll try anything once”.

Reflectors. Reflectors like to stand back to ponder experiences and observe them from many different perspectives. They collect data, both first hand and from others, and prefer to think about it thoroughly before coming to any conclusion.

Theorists. Theorists adapt and integrate observations into complex but logically sound theories. They think problems through in a step-by-step logical way. They assimilate disparate facts into coherent theories.

Pragmatists. Pragmatists are the sorts of people who return from management courses brimming with new ideas that they want to try out in practice. They like to get on with things and act quickly and confidently on ideas that attract them.

If you want to know more about Learning Styles, and know more about your own style, you can download a free questionnaire here.

For me, one of the greatest pleasures in life is being curious and learning new stuff. What have you learnt today?

Using questions

Knowing how to ask great questions is one of the keys to clear and effective communication. Asking the right question in the most effective way can help both the person asking and the person answering.

Questions are a great tool when you’re managing or leading people, when you’re planning, looking for options or making decisions. Questions can help you learn, investigate, be curious, open up possibilities, challenge assumptions and think outside the box.

There are many different types of questions, here are some of them.

The simplest way of categorising questions is think of them as being either open or closed. Open questions invite thought, allow the respondent to choose how to answer, and they encourage a full answer:

What do you think about that?
How will you tackle that problem?

If you want to ask an open question, a great way is simply to start with ‘what’ or ‘how’.

Closed questions seek specific information, often the answers do not require much thought:

When will that happen?
Have you finished the work?
What did Dave say?

Closed questions often seek clarification:

Are you sure about that?
Are we meeting at 2 o’clock?

Both types of question have their uses. We often find it easier to ask closed questions – try practising asking more open questions.

Beyond the simple open and closed questions there are some more sophisticated types.

Directing questions move the focus of a conversation in a way that is determined by the questioner, often they are some way between open and closed:

What do you think about my idea?
What happened the other day when I was out?

Powerful questions are designed to encourage creative thinking, or thinking ‘outside the box’.

What else could your boss’ actions mean?
What other interpretations could you put on the events?

Sometimes we need to be more forceful. Challenging questions are designed, as their name implies, to change current thinking, to halt to evasion and confusion:

What has stopped you achieving this outcome so far?
What happens if things don’t work out the way you think they will?

Another way to free up, or open up, someone’s thinking is to ask ‘slide past’ questions. These bypass someone’s usual ways of thinking and any mental blocks they might have. Slide-pasts work by including a presupposition:

What were the lessons learned there? (the presupposition is that there were lessons learned)
What will you do when you’ve been promoted? (the presupposition is the person will win promotion)

We might even combine a powerful and a slide past question:

What would you do if you knew you couldn’t fail?

Finally, some tips for asking great questions:

  1. Ask short questions, they are more powerful – avoid asking long rambling questions, you won’t get the answer you require.
  2. Only ask one question at a time – if you ask a multiple question you’re likely to only get an answer to the last one you asked.
  3. Be careful not to include an answer as you ask the question – just ask a question.

Questioning is a tool, as such we can improve our skill at using it. What are you going to do to improve your questioning skills?

In my next blog I’ll look at some questioning routes – ways to ask successive questions to powerful effect.

A culture of feedback

Feedback is one of the most powerful tools we have for developing individuals and teams, for improving processes and systems, for enhancing quality and increasing productivity.

Feedback is best used when it’s embedded in an organisation’s culture – as a culture of feedback. It’s a shame that in so many organisations feedback is only given on special occasions, such as the end of a project or a personal review/appraisal. In a culture of feedback everyone is trained to help others by providing great feedback on a regular basis.

There are two aspects to giving great feedback, it is more than just expressing a view. The first aspect involves encouraging others to reflect on what they have done – it asks questions such as ‘what was your goal and what did you achieve?’, ‘what have you learnt?’, ‘how could it have been even better?’ The second aspect of feedback involves an objective assessment and sometimes a personal response, it looks at what was successful and what could have been better and how that might be achieved next time – it also praises and celebrates success.

In such a culture everyone is encouraged to ask for feedback, recognising that it is a way to grow and develop. They feel safe doing this because trust is endemic to the culture, there is a lack of blame and an absence of punishment – no-one needs to cover up or to justify their actions, it’s understood that people learn from mistakes.

I’m currently running a series of workshops designed to develop a culture of feedback – if you want to know more call me on 07932 657925 or email me at

You can read a bit more about a culture of feedback on Ed Batista’s Harvard Business Review Blog ‘Building a Feedback-Rich Culture –


Great questions pt. 2: GROW and 5QF

Here are two very useful tools based on asking powerful questions. You can use both tools to support and help others clarify goals or find solutions, or you can use them to structure your own planning and thinking process.

Both tools are questioning routes, they set out a structured journey based on the power of questions. They will help you think and plan in a positive way. You can use them to help planning, goal setting, and problem solving. They are useful if you’re a project manager, a manager of people, leading a team, running a company, or when you’re dealing with clients or customers.


This was developed as a coaching tool and is now widely used in the business environment. GROW is an acronym for Goal, Reality, Options, Way forward – it provides a structured approach to problem solving and planning.

Some people like to add a T – for Topic – as the first stage to ensure that everyone involved is clear what is being discussed.

It is important to follow the stages in the GROW order.

Stage 1. Goal

Ask: What is it you want to achieve? What is your goal?

Remember – a goal should be aspirational and motivating, and it should also be SMART:

Specific – it is clear, not vague
Measurable – you know when it’s been achieved
Attainable – it’s realistic in the sense that it can be attained, and you have the necessary resources
Relevant – it will help you achieve long-term plans, it is in line with your values
Time specific – it has a time limit

Therefore, after the initial goal question, you might ask others such as:

Exactly what will it look like?
When will it be finished?
How much will it cost?

The goal setting comes at this stage, before the Reality section, so that the process is started on a positive note, and you are less likely to be constrained by thinking about the problems of the moment or past failures.

Stage 2. Reality

Ask: Where are you now? What is the current situation?

At this point you should analyse the current situation, exploring those areas that directly impact on or influence the achievement of the goal. What have you already achieved, and what might be holding you back. In simple terms, you need to know where you are now in order to know how to get where you want to be – if your goal is to make a 1000 widgets a day, or make a journey to a specific destination, you need to know the current level of production or the journey’s starting point.

Stage 3. Options

Ask: What options have you got?

At this stage you should identify the options you have for getting to your goal.

A key question at this stage is: what other options are there? The more options you can explore the more chance of success. Brainstorming can be done to produce a list of options.

Analyse the options and chose the one that will most readily get you to your goal.

Stage 4.

Ask: What will you do now? What exactly will you do?

At this point you need to plan the way forward – how will you put your chosen option into action, what will you actually do?

Sometimes, as you start to plan you realise that there are aspects of the main goal, or sub-goals, that are not clear, in which case you can use GROW again to clarify.



5QF is another framework for tackling problems and challenges, and for moving forward.

It’s a great tool for overcoming ‘blockages’ and helping in situations where no progress is being made towards solving problems. It’s a very positive tool in that it looks at assets – what’s working rather than what’s broken, what you have achieved rather than what you haven’t done.

At the heart of 5QF is a simple set of five questions. The order of the questions is important.

Question 1 – What’s working?

In the vast majority of situations there is something that is working, it’s very rare to have a situation where everything is bad, or broken, or wrong. This question starts the investigation on a positive note, it helps to overcome feelings of ‘I can’t solve this.’

Question 2 – Why is it working?

This question is designed to get deeper into an understanding of what’s right, and it reinforces the positive start. Also, if you know what’s working you can do more of it, and this might help you to find other things that work.

Question 3 – Where do we want to be?

This question seeks to clarify the goal – what do we need to achieve, what will it be like when everything is fixed?

Question 4 – What needs tweaking?

This question moves on from what’s working to look at what is almost working, to look at other things that are already in place or already being done, but which aren’t quite achieving the desired results. In most situations there will be a lot of things that don’t need replacing, they just need adjusting, developing, adapting.

Question 5 – What resources could help?

The last question looks at what else can be bought to bear on the problem – does it need more thought, someone else to give a fresh perspective, more time/money etc? It’s the question that starts to look at what else can be done that is not currently being done.

For more on the Five Question Framework see Kurt Wright, Breaking the Rules: Removing the Obstacles to Effortless High Performance, C P M, 1998.

The art of asking great questions

The ability to ask great questions is one of the most important skills we can develop and use in the workplace. Used intelligently, questioning can lead to greater knowledge and understanding, improved skills, better working relationships and much more. Questions have the power to challenge stubborn ways of thinking, open the mind to new possibilities, cut through mystification, and encourage decisiveness.

There are many types of questions, each has its own use and benefits – here are just a few.

A simple and useful distinction can be made between open and closed questions. Open questions invite thought and encourage a full answer, they are good for eliciting opinion and encouraging new ideas. These questions often use ‘what’ and ‘how’:

  • What do you think about that?
  • How will you tackle that problem?

Many of the other types of question illustrated below are open.

Closed questions, these seek specific information or clarification:

  • When will that happen?
  • Have you finished the work?
  • What did you say?
  • What time is it?

Closed questions often require a simple ‘yes’ or ‘no’:

  • Are you going to the party?
  • Do you understand?

Directing questions, as their name implies, direct attention towards a specific point or subject determined by the questioner. They are open questions, but they limit the possible answer:

  • What do you think about my idea?
  • What do you think John will say to that?

Powerful questions are designed to challenge current thinking, they are provocative queries that put a halt to evasion and confusion. They can also act to make the respondent think more deeply and uncover unquestioned assumptions. They tend to be open questions because they are encouraging new ways of thinking:

  • What happens if things don’t work out the way you expect them to?
  • What makes you think Bill will behave that way?

Expanding questions are designed to encourage creative thinking, or thinking ‘outside the box’:

  • What else could your Mary’s actions mean?
  • What other interpretations could you put on the events?
  • What other options have you got?

Slide past questions bypass someone’s usual ways of thinking and any mental blocks they might have. Slide-pasts work by including a presupposition:

  • What were the lessons learned there? (the presupposition is that there were lessons learned)
  • What will you do when you’ve been promoted? (the presupposition is the person will win promotion)

In practice you can combine different types of questions. One of my favourite questions combines a slide past and a powerful question:

  • What would you do if you knew you couldn’t fail?

Open questions often precede closed questions, for example, when you’re brainstorming. At first you ask open questions: ‘what else can we do?’, ‘what else would work here?’. Then, when you have a series of options, you might start to narrow down the field and be more specific: ‘which one shall we choose?’, ‘when will we do that?’

The power of a great question can easily be diminished if it’s asked in the wrong way. Here are some simple guidelines to ensure that your questions have the required affect:

  • make sure you are clear about what you want before you ask a question
  • pause before you ask, use that moment to frame a great question
  • ask short questions, they are more powerful
  • avoid long preambles
  • ask one question at a time, don’t ask multiple questions
  • don’t include an answer in your question
  • when you’ve asked your question, remain silent, wait and listen.

Questioning is the other side of the coin to listening – there’s no point in asking a great question if you don’t listen to the answer! To learn more about the benefits of listening, see my blog here.

Finally, let me ask an open question:

What are you going to do to improve your questioning skills?

. . . and now a closed one:

When will you do that?