Monthly Archives: July 2019

Book Notes: 5 Conversations

5 Conversations – How to Transform Trust, Engagement and Performance at Work by Nick Cowley & Nigel Purse
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

The book kicks off by highlighting that leadership is a relationship – trust, stewardship, concern, understanding and humanity you display towards people and the safe environment you create for them to flourish and grow in.

The book proposes the following definition of engagement:

  • Organisational citizenship – being proud to belong to their organisation and being advocates of its products and services to other potential employees and customers
  • Discretionary effort – to be willing to go the extra mile or put in those additional hours when needed
  • Intention to stay – coupled with a belief that they have room to grow and fulfil their potential and career aspirations within the organisation

What drives high engagement:

  • A strong narrative – where has the organisation come from and where is it going. A clear purpose and vision that individuals are clear where they fit in and contribute to.
  • Engaged managers who
    • Focus their people and give them scope to innovate and contribute
    • Treat their people as individuals – and build individual relationships
    • Coach and stretch their people
  • Employees are heard – information and ideas don’t just flow downwards from the top but travel upwards too. Employees views are actively sought out and are listened to.
  • Organisational integrity – the values on the wall reflect day-to-day behaviours at all levels and in all context both formal and informal.

Relationships are key to humans, we have evolved in a social way:

  • Leaders need to avoid (consciously or unconsciously) demonstrating behaviour that people will perceive as a threat, risk or danger. Humans sense these and kick into a closed, defensive and suspicious state.
  • Leaders need to build positive conditions to appeal to the rewards systems of peoples brains through authentic, honest, two-way conversations and through instilling a trusting environment.
  • Building relationships is key, people are good at detecting insincerity. You need to genuinely understand and relate to the other person. This is not about being soft, but is about honestly seeking a meaningful, high quality relationship.

The book proposes there are five key conversations:

  1. Establishing a trusting relationship
  2. Agreeing mutual expectations
  3. Showing genuine appreciation
  4. Challenging unhelpful behaviour
  5. Building for the future

Smart leaders today engage with employees in a way that resembles ordinary person-to-person conversation more than it does a series of commands from on high.

Leadership Is a conversation, Groysberg and Slind, Harvard Business Review

Sample questions

Establishing a trusting relationship

  • What’s really important to you at work?
  • What do you feel most strongly about?
  • What are you most passionate about?
  • What do you consider your greatest strength?
  • What are you most proud of?
  • What do you think is your greatest limitation?
  • What do you really want to be known for?
  • What is it that you really stand for?
  • What’s important to you in building relationships with someone?
  • What matters most to you when trusting others?
  • When do you tend to feel most badly let down by colleagues?
  • What sorts of things destroy a relationship for you?
  • To what extent do you tend to open up to others at work?
  • How easily do you trust others?
  • What one thing could I tell you that would help you trust me?
  • Tell me about a good day at work?
  • What gives you most satisfaction at work?
  • What energises you?
  • Tell me what a bad day at work looks like?
  • What causes you to lose sleep at night?
  • Which emotions do you experience most often?
  • What one question could I ask you that would enable me to really understand you?
  • What one thing can you tell me that might be helpful for me to know about you that I don’t already know?
  • Do you have any unrealised ambitions?
  • What do you most value about working here?
  • What one thing would you change about working here and why?
  • What would you like to be most remembered for?

Agreeing mutual expectations

  • Let me give you an overview of what I’m trying to achieve over the next period, and especially why this matters for me…
  • Can you talk me through the same thing from your point of view? What are you trying to achieve and why is it important to you?
  • Can we explore how we can support each other in achieving our goals? e.g resources, influencing, coaching etc? What would be most useful?
  • How do you think you can best support me?
  • How might we get in each other’s way? Is there anything we should be aware of to avoid this?
  • Can we summarise the expectations we have of each other and how we can hold each other to account for delivering on these expectations?

Showing genuine appreciation

  • Understand and appreciate
    • What’s going really well for you at the moment? What’s been your biggest success in the last few weeks? What’s been your biggest achievement recently? What’s been your biggest challenge?
    • What was the situation? What were the key challenges you faces?
    • What did you say and do that led to success?
    • How did you feel as this was happening/
    • What strengths, talents and skills of yours contributed most to this outcome?
    • What’s the learning you take from this experience?
    • How are you feeling right now?
    • Thank you! I really appreciate your contribution you are making and the skills and commitment you bring to our team
  • Explore
    • What other opportunities are there for you to use these strengths, talents and skills?
    • How else can we play to your strengths?
    • How do you want to develop these skills further?
  • Consolidate
    • What’s the key insight you have gained from the discussion?
    • What learning points should we both take away?
    • What are the action points that we both commit to follow up on?

Challenging unhelpful behaviour

  • Observations – what you saw
  • Feelings – how this made you feel
  • Needs – what are your needs? e.g. support and protect, respect, harmony, reassurance, support
  • Request – the clear request of what you want

Building for the future

  • Purpose/Meaning – understand their need to make a difference
  • Autonomy/Freedom – understanding their needs for freedom e.g. job content, hours
  • Mastery/Learning – what and how do they want to grow
  • Innovation/Exploring – opportunities for creative, discovery, innovation and exploration
  • Collaboration/Inclusivity – how important is this for them to work or lead a team
  • Achievement/Recognition – the need to win, succeed or achieve
  • Work-Life Balance/Wellbeing – what do they want this balance to be or change
  • Advancement/Promotion – the desire to climb the corporate ladder
  • Financial Reward/Security – peoples drive for financial security and benefits
  • Status/Power – understanding their drive for power and satisfaction to exert influence over teams, functions or organisations

Book Notes: Why Do So Many Incompetent Men Become Leaders?

Why Do So Many Incompetent Men Become Leaders? (And How to Fix It) by Tomas Chamorro-Premuzic
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Research finds that there are lots of bad leaders and these leaders have huge impact on the teams which they lead. As such improving leaders has a huge impact on the business. The book also highlights that people who tend to be self-centered, feel entitled and narcissists tend to emerge as leaders taking control of resources and power.

Confidence Disguised as Competence – people naturally feel that people who are more confident are more competent however there is no link between how good you think you are doing at a job and your actual ability. Being overly confident can have huge consequences – such as making a bad decision then pushing it too much.


  • An unrealistic sense of grandiosity and superiority, manifested in the form of vanity, self-admiration and delusion of talent.
  • Narcissists’ have high confidence but fragile so crave validation and recognition from others.
  • They have less interest in others and as such lack genuine consideration for people other than themselves.
  • High levels of entitlement – when you think you are better than others you perceive unfairness where there is none.
  • They are perceived to have high levels of creativity, but in reality there is no difference to others they are just better at selling their ideas.
  • They are worried about how they look – masters of imanage memagement coming across as attractive and confident.
  • Assuring people that their own personal brand is bigger than the firms is a classic narcissistic statement.
  • Narcissistic tendencies are more likely to get in your way than to help. They have a particularly bad long-term effect on other people.


  • A lack of moral inhibition, which at an extreme is manifested in the form of strong antisocial tendencies and an intense desire to break the rules, even just for the sake of it.
  • When psychopaths break the rules they feel no guilt or remorse.
  • People with psychopathic tendencies are prone to making reckless behavioral choices. This reduced concern for danger will put them and others at risk.
  • A lack of empathy – they don’t care what others think or feel, despite being able to understand those feelings.
  • Psychopathy offers few advantages to effective leadership – most psychopaths are incompetent as leaders. This poor overall performance is largely because of their lack of diligence, disdain for deadlines and processes, their failing to assume responsibilities resulting in them being rated poorly by both their bosses and subordinates. An inability to build and motivate team members, an unwillingness to accept blame and responsibility, a lack of follow through and impulsive unpredictability.


  • Unlike Narcissism and Psychopathy which are personality traits – Charisma is in the eye of the viewer.
  • People naturally like charismatic people, so this clouds how people perceive how a leader is actually performing and are evaluated more favorably.
  • Charismatic leaders excel at giving people hope – charisma is great for selling a vision.
  • However charisma has no strong link to performance but can easily, and incorrectly, end up being used as a proxy measure for leadership. This would then lead to us ignoring other leadership signals such as competence, integrity and self-awareness.
  • Humble leadership tends to cascade down turning leaders into genuine role models. They display more modesty, admit mistakes, share credit with others, and are more receptive to others’ ideas and feedback.

What good leaders look like

  • Intellectual capital
    • Domain specific expertise, experience and good judgement
    • Such people can rely on their instincts regarding work problems because experience and expertise have made their intuition more data-driven.
    • This boosts team morale and employee engagement.
    • Companies sometimes over-rely on technical expertise, it does matter but EQ and “soft skills” are also important especially when moving from an individual contributor role to a leadership position. As AI takes on more of the data work technical expertise will likely reduce in its importance.
  • Social capital
    • The network and connections that leaders have – leaders with wider and deeper connections within and outside of their organisation are more effective.
    • “a great person attracts great people and knows how to hold them together”
  • Psychological capital
    • How individuals will lead
    • Good characteristics
      • How people act on their best days, constituting of their general learning ability (intelligence) and major personality traits (curiocity, extraversion and emotional stability).
    • Bad characteristics
      • Distancing traits – being highly excitable and moody or having a deeply skeptical, cynical outlook which makes it hard to build trust. Additionally passive-aggressiveness.
      • Seductive qualities – assertive, charismatic leaders gaining followers and influence bosses through their ability to manage up. Narcissism and psychopathy – hindering a leaders ability to build and maintain high-performance teams and contribute to the long term success.
      • Ingratiating traits – these can have positive connotations in followers but rarely do in leaders. Someone who is diligent might be great when a lone worker but can translate into a preoccupation with petty matters or micromanagement. Someone who is dutiful and eager to please those in authority can easily become too submissive.
    • The inside
      • Their values – their internal moral compass, e.g. people valuing tradition will struggle in a disruptive innovator.

Having intellectual, social and psychological capital results in more potential but it is not guaranteed. The context in which they are working is a key to their success, or failure.

  • Dominance – cultures embracing assertive, overconfident and authoritarian leaders.
  • Spontaneity – the level of acceptance of spontaneity and improvisation, how accepting of uncertainty.
  • Individualism – what is values higher the contributions of the individual or the results of the team. In individualism environments more people aspire to be leaders to stand out personally.
  • Status – how the power is regarded between individuals, in status oriented cultures those higher up are always better off.
Aspect of leadershipCommon perceptionEvidence-based view
Defination of leaderPerson in charge or with powerPerson who builds a winning team
Goal of leaderGet to the top, be successfulHelp the team outperform rivals
Leader’s performanceEquals leader’s career successDepends on team’s performance
Subordinates’ rolesHelp the leader succeedUnit in the pursuit of a shared goal
Key leader attributesConfidence and charismaCompetence and integrity
  1. Some characteristics are hard to change – 30% of leadership is determined by genetic factors.
  2. Good coaching works – of course not all coaches will work for you but finding the right one can help especially growing EQ potentially by 25%.
  3. Beware of leaders’ strengths – don’t forget the weaknesses and don’t overdo the strengths as these can turn to arrogance, risk-taking and hubris.
  4. Self-awareness is essential – it is key to know have you come across, what you are doing well and what does not work
  5. It is not easy to go against our nature – leaders tend to become more exaggerated versions of themselves. It is key to counterbalance so leaders go against their nature to go to places they would not have gone.
  6. Coachability is an integral part of potential – the people who take up coaching are the people who need it the least, they are the people who are more self aware and looking to improve. It is the bad leaders who don’t feel they need the coaching who actually do.