Monday, 27 October 2014

In praise of Argos

In my MSc I have a new a much welcomed outlet for my obsession with customer service.  It gives me a framework for understanding the potential causes and remedies (and there are a multitude of both).

I'm fascinated with how opinions and subsequent behaviours can be impacted with a memorable experience - whether it is good or bad.  I'm also intrigued in situations where there is a deep and loyal brand affinity which is put to the test. How many times will we make excuses for the brand before you admit your annoyance, displeasure or break the connection?

I'm really interested in your experiences and stories.  If you'd like to share them here that's great, otherwise drop me a line or tell me the next time we meet, I'm becoming a bit of a collector.

To get the ball rolling let me tell you about Argos.  I visited their Brighton shop on Saturday with some trepidation.  I needed a new laptop and after much research selected the type I wanted.  It was available at Argos so I mentally prepared for a crammed shop full of people and their children doing early Christmas shopping, thumbing through enormous catalogues and gazing in a glazed manner at a screen where their order number moved ever close to the top.  That's before I get to the faff on with the miniature pencils and the toy-like stock checking gizmos.

Anyway - I was pleasantly surprised.  As well as the enormous, laminated catalogues there were also touch screens to check and look up products.  There was a helpful chap working the floor helping people locate items in the catalogue or on screen.  There were automated payment points and then, the long, familiar bar of joy where my laptop would appear in approximately 11 minutes.  I felt my expectations were being managed. There was a steady stream of people collecting their purchases and my joy was palpable as my number was called.  This was the one bum note in the proceedings as my item had not yet arrived.  A few minutes later I saw it slide down the conveyor.  I pointed this out to an assistant who advised they weren't allowed to collect it until it had been cleared by one of the two 'conveyor clearers' or 'dispatchers'.  I willed these two to pick up the box - it took a little longer but then all was checked and I was on my way.  The experience, though not perfect was far better than I had anticipated.  The staff were polite and responsive.

I still can't fathom how the basic concept of Argos still survives - is it the selection products and the pricing?  I have to say my laptop was a great price.

Go on - share your experience - good or bad.




Sunday, 19 October 2014

Zone of Proximal Development

As I enter my fourth week of my Masters it's a fun time to reminisce about my first Psychology Degree.  

My thesis is still on my bookshelf - lovingly typed by my Mum (on a word processor!) it looks superb.  

The title of the thesis? Influence of Adult Tutoring on Children's Route Planning Strategies.  Now this might not sound like the most enthralling topic but bear with me - I do have a point.

Lev Vygotsky & The Zone

One of my heroes at the time was a psychologist called Lev Vygotsky who described something called the Zone of Proximal Development. He described the Zone as:
"the distance between the actual developmental level as determined by independent problem solving and the level of potential development as determined through problem solving under adult guidance, or in collaboration with more capable peers"
Or to put it another way - it's the difference between what a learner can do without help and what he or she can do with help. 

My research involved working with children between 8 and 9 years old and their parents.

I divided the children into two groups.  Both groups of children completed a final task (without any help from their parents) which involved planning a route around a basic map of a small village to drop their friends off after a party. They had to draw the route directly onto the map. 

Here is the map they used (of course - drawn by me!).  You can just about see the route drawn by one of the subjects of the study.

Before this final task they had worked on a task with their parents. One Group worked on a task that was similar to the final route planning task, it involved planning a route around a supermarket based upon a shopping list. The second Group worked on a task which was unrelated to the final task. It involved sorting pictures of objects into different categories. 

So..what did I find when I analysed the final task?  The children who had practised route planning with their parents used a greater number of one step moves and also marked the locations they had to visit on the map before they began.  The children who had completed a unrelated task used no such strategies and paused a significantly greater number of times.

The tutoring from their parents had caused them to develop new strategies which they used in the final task.  

Vygotsky also found this effect when children worked and played with peers.

I wouldn't limit this effect to learning in childhood.

Two Questions
How aware are you of what there is to learn from each situation you are placed in during your daily life? How often do you stop to consider what you have learned?

As I re-enter full time education I am struck by the rich source of learning from my fellow students and I am grateful for their generosity in sharing their knowledge and views.



PS A final shocker for me is that the children I worked with will now be in their early 30s - I wonder how good they are at route planning now?!

Sunday, 12 October 2014

Mirror Mirror on the wall

Let me introduce you to vocal mirroring. This is a very practical technique which is brilliant in its simplicity.  The more you practice, the better it gets.

I was first introduced to the method at a coaching workshop run by Sue Walden from Improvworks.  Sue is an inspirational speaker - if you ever get the chance to attend one of her events - don't hesitate.

Here's how it works

You'll need someone to work with.

Ask the other person to tell you a story of their choice at a slow and measured pace and ask them to keep going for at least 2 minutes.  The topic could be their potted life history, their dinner last night, their favourite film etc.

Advise them that you will be repeating everything they say out loud.

As they start their story repeat their words back to them.  It will feel a bit strange but keep the same pace as them, be accurate and maintain your focus. You should be milliseconds behind them. You'll hopefully find that it's fun.  You'll almost definitely find that you won't be able to focus on any of your internal dialogue (there will be no cognitive space left!).

Once the two minutes is up try and summarise the contents back to the other person.  You should find it quite easy (and it gets easier the more you practice).

They try the exercise again - with a different story.  But this time, just repeat the words in your head, don't say them out loud.  Again try to summarise the person's story after two minutes.

And that's it!

I told you it was simple.  Sue told us - that from her experience - this technique has transformed many relationships that were in great difficulty and on several occasions, saved them from destruction.

I use the technique on a daily basis - particularly in my coaching work but are many other applications. It's brilliant for focus and eliminating internal dialogue. Have a go and let me know how you get on.



Saturday, 4 October 2014

Conflict at Work

This week I was discussing an ongoing work situation with an ex-colleague who is involved in a long standing dispute. I have been reflecting how conflict at work can start with a relatively small incident but the ripples can quickly become amplified. In my experience the consequences not only affect the two parties involved but a range of other colleagues. This occurs as the two primary parties become entrenched and attempt to recruit colleagues and managers to support their stance (and join their bunkers).

This can cause a rapid deterioration in productivity, impact adversely on the health of those involved, significantly damage organisational culture and ultimately, the bottom line.

Workplace Conflict - Stage 1

Workplace Conflict - Stage 2

Workplace Conflict - Stage 3

Differences in Perspective

A great deal of workplace conflict originates with a difference in perspective. One model to explain these differences can be presented in a rather neat graph. The Thomas-Kilmann Conflict Mode Instrument is a self scoring assessment which is designed to measure how a person will behave in a conflict situation.  

You'll see it has two dimensions and characterises five different response modes in conflict situations.  The model can also be used to make people more aware of their conflict style.  Think about a time in your life when you've been in conflict.  Using this graph - can you identify your response mode in that situation?

The Solution 

The solution relies on not ignoring the early warning signs and taking action before opinions and positions become too entrenched.  We need to ensure that line managers have the skills and courage to explore a potential issues as soon as they spot it.  In small organisations, the issues may be easier to spot but someone needs to be equipped with the status and techniques to resolve the situation.

The skills required are not easy and their execution requires a mixture of procedure and art. 

An alternative solution is to use an expert third party to explore and hopefully resolve the issues as soon as they are spotted, using a technique such as mediation.


The principles of mediation are deceptively simple.  It provides an easily understandable framework which allows both parties in a dispute to have their say, explore and understand their differences and if possible to settle them. This process is managed and facilitated by a third party. An agreement is often reached on the way forward - this is determined by the parties involved - not the mediator.

As someone who is accredited to mediate I have applied my skills on numerous occasions to resolve (sometimes longstanding) workplace disputes.  I also use elements of the skills on a far more frequent basis.  

It's not a process for the faint hearted and requires the agreement of both parties.  Often it's easier as a mediator to be completely independent from the organisation so you are completely separated from the politics.

If you'd like to know more, discuss a situation in your workplace or perhaps run a workshop to raise self awareness and the psychological principles involved in conflict, please don't hesitate to get in touch.


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