Learning means business!

The shift from hours-based CPD to competence to practise presents an important opportunity for firms to reassess their learning strategy and ensure it contributes to their business needs. 

This article is based on a feature first published in Managing for Success, the magazine of the Law Society’s Law Management Section

In November 2017 all solicitors had a new experience; they applied for their practising certificate on the basis of a declaration of “competence to practise”.  This is because the concept of a “cpd hour” is now long gone from a regulatory perspective. The Solicitors Regulation Authority (SRA) moved to a competency-based model the year before.    Despite this seismic change in the way professional development is regulated, few in the profession are aware of the potential benefit to business which the new approach to learning & development makes possible.

Removing the comfort blanket of CPD hours brings firms up hard against the cold reality of the business purpose of learning. Some have dropped it like a stone, glad of an excuse to cut costs. Others see it an opportunity to take a new approach to learning at work and to ensure that professional development serves their business needs.

The rationale for change

Any learning provider will tell you that learning is not something that can be measured in hours.  Best practice in professional development now is all about delivering learning close to the work activity.  Learning at work is, after all, intended to change behaviour.  Everyone reading this article will know of the phenomenon of individuals turning up for irrelevant training sessions, just to get the hours.  Whilst the old system gave people who needed it a cast-iron reason to spend time on learning, it did nothing to address the quality of learning or the importance transferring skills into practice.

The competency-based approach

The SRA has provided a “Competency Statement” outlining four areas in which a solicitor may need to demonstrate “competence”.  It is important to note that the SRA’s version of competencies is NOT mandatory.  Indeed, it is not great!  I say that, because it is not commercially focused and the competencies are not especially well expressed.  Many firms have adopted the SRA version, but those firms are not the ones who have thought about what their businesses really need in terms of competencies, or what works for individuals; not everyone has to be able to demonstrate all the competencies.

Also worth noting is the fact that the SRA will only look into how an individual meets the competencies if there is an allegation of incompetence.  Were that to happen, both the firm and the individual solicitor would be required to produce evidence of competence, including what learning needs were identified, what learning was undertaken and how the learning was transferred into the work-place.  This reactive regulatory approach puts continuous learning at the bottom of the compliance priorities list.

In my view, however, learning is much too important to be a matter for compliance alone.  Getting people engaged and equipped to rise to the challenges of immense change is far more important.

The business case for change

It made be difficult to believe, but the SRA has done a good thing by freeing up the learning agenda.  We do not need to rely on pedagogical arguments to defend a competency-based approach.  The change brings very real business benefits for firms.

First, sustainable growth can only come from a strong internal base of well-managed, highly performing individuals; otherwise, there is an ever-present risk of failure to deliver consistently, or at all.

Second, market pressures and the ever accelerating pace of technological development make the ability to change an imperative. Adaptable people working in agile organisations will be more likely to survive and thrive.

Finally, law firms of the future will need to be creative about the way they deliver services. An organisation which values people who are willing to be creative must embrace the attendant risks and be able to manage and mitigate failure. That can only be achieved in an atmosphere of openness, dialogue and commitment to constant improvement. Creating that kind of culture requires a genuine commitment to skills-training as well as technical expertise.

Being released from the need to clock up CPD hours in order to comply with regulations enables firms to use professional development to rise to these challenges.

Managing the new regime also has the potential to bring positive change. Building an understanding of the purpose of learning ensures it is relevant to the strategy of your business and contributes to business need. Using a competency-based approach provides an excellent mechanism to make performance management genuinely meaningful and significantly increases the possibility of enhancing day-to-day performance.

Bringing a competency-based approach alive

Below are some tips for firms wanting to improve the quality and impact of learning, for their people and their business.


Take a strategic view

A good learning strategy defines the purpose of learning for the business; it is, by definition, ‘outcomes-focused’. Developing or reviewing learning strategy will provide evidence of a proactive approach to ensuring competence at an organisational level. It is also the first step in working out how to plan and prioritise training and measure return on investment for any learning initiative.


Use competencies

 Competencies are widely used across business and commerce. Put simply, they describe ‘what good looks like’. For example, it might be thought desirable for a lawyer to possess intellectual flexibility and technical knowledge. A competency-based approach would put some detail behind that statement to describe the desired behaviours, such as;

  • demonstrates intellectual curiosity in a variety of ways;
  • shares relevant information with colleagues across departments;
  • quickly and accurately grasps key issues in any legal problem; and
  • reflects and develops own thinking including discussion and debate with colleagues.

For some law firms, this kind of approach is well established. For others, however, it opens a Pandora’s Box of issues, including accountability for behaviour as well as financial output, ruffling the feathers of established expertise by shifting the focus to performance management.

Mark Briegal, partner at solicitors Aaron & Partners, ran a highly successful learning and development business before moving into the law; he describes the competency-based approach as a “no-brainer” in the legal sector, since “performance is not just about legal knowledge; it’s about competencies as well”. He describes competencies as fundamental to the performance management process: “If you cannot describe the behaviour you want to encourage, how can you begin to assess development needs?”

Providing evidence of competence throws a spotlight on the performance management process. Many lawyers who are required to manage appraisals are too busy or lack the skills to make them really effective. Yet giving individuals the opportunity to think purposefully about their development needs is an important starting point in the process of determining “competence”. Setting people up for success means getting to grips with performance management and making it work well.


 Capture learning in the workplace

 People learn most when they are doing their jobs, day-to-day. Arguably, lawyers do this more than most, as the law changes constantly and the work gets progressively more complex. But often, little is invested in maximising the opportunities to capture learning at work:

CILEx moved to an outcomes-based approach to CPD long before the SRA.  They require their members to capture a wide range of learning activities. Barbara Hamilton-Bruce, Head of Client at Slater & Gordon (UK) and a former council member at CILEx, says found the experience of recording learning outcomes to be a good one, “It made me think about my learning and, probably more importantly, about where I was unconsciously learning through the tasks that I was completing.”

The SRA’s approach to learning allows lawyers to utilise work-based learning (WBL) principles. Instead of losing the learning value of work activities in the noise and pressure of daily life, WBL takes a structured approach:

  1. identifying learning opportunities, such as making a presentation to a client or senior partners;
  2. recording the challenges faced and what it is hoped will be learned from the experience (this is a way for the learner to set their own learning outcomes); and
  3. once the task is completed, recording reflections on what was learned and identifying ways to build on the experience to further improve knowledge and skills.

There is significant scope for producing evidence of the application of professional ethics in this way – for example, by using WBL principles to learn from a forthcoming negotiation, transaction or proposal.


 Harness technology

 Learning technology is now key in learning delivery, offering both innovative learning opportunities and tools for tracking and evidencing learning.

It may come as a surprise to find that the number one online learning tool for personal & professional learning, and for work-place learning, in 2017 was YouTube (see Jane Hart’s survey at www.c4lpt.co.uk), because it provides a way to tap into a huge range of expertise in an immediate and engaging way. All kinds of online learning can be translated into recognisable units of activity, and captured through platforms such as the Learning Locker (www.learninglocker.net ).

Lawyers evidence their learning, for example, by using a training record. There is no reason in principle why that record should not be in pen and ink, or individuals can use an online record such as the one provided by the Law Society’s CPD Centre (www.lawsociety.org.uk/cpdcentre). The opportunities for capturing a range of learning activity, as well as the benefits of having a centralised way of tracking learning in the firm, will also make a centralised, and also potentially online, recording system attractive.


Focus on quality

The SRA no longer accredits CPD providers and it now recognises all sorts of learning activities. This throws the onus onto firms to be discerning about investing in training which delivers real impact.  Here are three things to look out for;

  1. Use purely didactic learning judiciously – many lawyers are comfortable being lectured, but that approach does not lend itself to transformational learning which changes behaviour
  2. Look for how much experiential learning is on offer, e. learning by doing, not listening – learning is an activity; it is not passive
  3. Always use providers who identify learning outcomes and, ideally, provide opportunities to consolidate learning after a face-to-face events with coaching or online resources

Firms with a clear understanding of the learning process will be able to provide the motivation, resources and support for individuals to progress their own professional development in a wide range of ways. The competency-based approach is intended to move away from rigid measures of learning, and towards a focus on the quality of learning and the potential to change behaviour as a result of training.

The wider context

There are excellent business reasons why a robust approach to individual and organisational performance should involve more than just metrics, whether those are learning hours or monthly budgets. If the move to an outcome-focused approach to CPD brings that prospect into focus, then I for one count it as a blessing.

Implementing learning strategy

  1. Make sure learning strategy is aligned with business goals
  2. Assess learning needs – what knowledge, skills and attitudes do you need in place to deliver on your strategy?
  3. Communicate the learning strategy
  4. Check there are no other organisational issues which will prevent people from using their new knowledge and skills –such as an unclear line management structure
  5. Prioritise learning activities in the light of business need
  6. Make a business case for learning activity – learning should always be more than “a good idea”
  7. Identify desired learning outcomes – these should accord with business need
  8. Consider a “blended learning” approach using different learning activities over time to establish and embed ideas and promote the transfer of learning to work
  9. Decide how and when to measure the impact of learning activities
  10. Measure the impact of learning activities in terms of hard and soft outcomes
  11. Generate evidence of success and use it to support the business case for future learning
  12. promote and support the integration of new knowledge and skills into day-to-day work to embed learning and create evidence of competence

Athena Professional is an award-winning consultancy which can help you to get the best value from your investment in learning.  Do get in touch if you would like to have a chat about your organisation’s needs.

French ban on phones in school – is it too late to manage the march of digital technology?

Recently the French Minister for Education, Jean-Michel Blanquer, announced that from September 2018 secondary school children under the age of 15 will not be allowed to have smartphones with them in school at any time, not even at break or at lunch-times.  Reading responses to this ban prompted me to think about the French perspective and this post captures those thoughts.

Is this about attention spans and focus or is it something else?  The French have a fierce history of protecting their identity as a secular, intellectual republic (massive generalisations aside, I make no comment about whether they achieve this – but it is my impression of how they like to see themselves).  Perhaps they perceive their unique identity as being under threat in some way.

The huge optimism which existed about the use of digital technology to democratise our lives has given way, under a wave of populism, to fear that it is merely another way of driving consumerism.  We cannot ignore the fact that children are being exploited as online consumers any more than we can ignore the fact that digital technology provides great opportunities.

For some reason humans do tend to end up making everything about power. Where that power is shared through some medium, like art, science, sex etc. the outcomes are perceived as positive. Where power is centralised with the objective of gaining control, whether of a market, behaviour or mind-set, then the outcomes are often ugly.

Which is holding sway now?  The bewildering pace of change means that the constant lure of the internet our children experience can be seen as a massive experiment.  Are things going to turn out well for the “click bait” generation?  Whilst positive outcomes are possible, to-date the digital age has facilitated the rise of extremism and provided a mechanism for terror.  Are the French are trying to draw a line in the sand at some level?

When I talk about the impact of digital technology with clients I like to put it in historical context. The printing press arrived in the UK in the 1470s – the first book was produced in 1473. In 1870 the Education Act was passed which made primary school education mandatory for all. Such was the degree of social & political control it took four hundred years to achieve universal entitlement to literacy.  In comparison, the reach, speed and extent of the impact of technology is staggering.  It is unlike anything we have seen before.

Braudel argued that History is not the product of human endeavour.  History is shaped first by geology and geography, he argued, then by economic cycles lasting many decades or centuries, and finally by individuals who dance on pin-heads and think themselves important.  I wonder where he would put digital technology in that story.  In the second bracket, I suspect, although the pace of change drives it towards the immediate individualistic level.  Old orthodoxies, even the historical theories by which we understand our past and our progress, are falling away in the face of the rapidity of change.

Do we just let this play out and see what happens or is it too late?  Digital technology exists and it is in the hands of big corporations who intend to make it pay, even more so now that net-neutrality appears doomed.  It was ever thus.  How do we make the most of the opportunities for learning whilst preserving a space in which children are not prey to the next click or image?  I can understand the French idea that smartphones are not essential in school, but ensuring that future generations are discerning, critical thinkers is absolutely crucial.

Stand-out moments from the LawNet Conference 2017

Yet again Jane Armytage and I had loads of fun exhibiting with Athena Professional at the brilliant LawNet conference which ran last Friday, 10th November 2017.  The calibre of the speakers was outstanding.  I felt it was a day that raised awareness; there is a burning platform and the its starting to get warm under foot!

Many excellent things were said.  Twice I practically jumping out of my seat and cheering and once I was just fascinated to watch the audience open up and engage.  Here are my three stand-out moments:


Keith Coats made it plain that CONTINUOUS LEARNING is where it’s at.  Oh Yes! Music to my ears!   I was inwardly jumping up and down.  Why?  Because, there is a huge opportunity to leap-frog over the sheep-dip training mentality and jump straight into equipping people to embrace change, to drive it, because they are permitted to think, to be creative and try out new ways of working.

Coats’ rationale was compelling; exponential change is only just getting under-way.  In other words if you think the world is complex and fast-moving now, you ain’t nothin’ yet!  The pace of change will become so ferocious that the ability to respond, to be adaptable and nimble, is going to be more important than robust strategic thinking and detailed planning, “You cannot plan your way into exponential change – plans give the illusion of control”.  Ouch!  That’s a powerful message for a room full of people who are used to being in complete control.

Coats prayed in aid the case of Netflix who sold billions of DVDs in the 1990s before recruiting a couple of former Amazon execs who told them the future was streaming film.  The business turned on a sixpence.  Within months they stopped making DVDs and began streaming.  It just so happens that Netflix was the topic of conversation in my house recently.  At one point both my teenagers chimed, “Mum! Everybody’s got a Netflix account!”

Surely the idea of ditching a brilliant business model must have seemed ridiculous to Netflix at first. However, Keith Coats related the words of Jim Dator, “Any useful idea about the future should appear to be ridiculous”, although the rider to that is, “not all ridiculous ideas are useful”!! That idea was captured in the cartoon record of the day created by Chris Shipton..

Are we willing to learn, to take risks and engage with ideas which might seem ridiculous?


To my absolute joy, THE RULE OF LAW got a mention from Sophie Adams-Bhatti.  She asked the audience to raise their hands if they thought it was important.  Most did.  Earlier in the day Keith Coats had concluded by suggesting that people need hope and the world needs a shared sense of a higher purpose.  Well, well!  The legal sector does not need to look very far for its higher purpose.  As Adams-Bhatti observed, the Rule of Law is a crucial pillar of a democratic society.  Amen to that.


Dr Brian Marien drew us into the subject of “Emotional Literacy” in the afternoon.  It was fascinating to see this room of senior lawyers given permission to think about their feelings and behaviours.  It has been my repeated experience that established professional people feel deeply concerned, vulnerable, even ashamed, about revealing that they do not know everything, that there are some skills they have not mastered, or that they or their colleagues demonstrate some behaviours of which they are not proud.  And yet I am certain that acknowledging the truth of that sort of sentiment is the starting point for so much that is so necessary to the profession.

If you would like to see the Twitter feed of the day go to #LNConf for lots of quotes and observations.

It is worth saying that the event is beautifully run by Helen Hamilton-Shaw and her team.  The venue, Heythrop Park in Oxfordshire is magnificent.  The whole day has such friendly, good vibe, its real pleasure to be there.  This was our fourth year of exhibiting.  I think we’ve worked with about a dozen LawNet firms now, so there are lots of people it is good to see and to catch up with, and plenty more to get to know.

I should also thank Chris Marston for giving Athena Professional a name-check during his introduction for our experiential approach to learning about performance management.  It is one aspect of continuous learning which is important and there is so much opportunity for more!


Report Writing – Top Tips

  1. Make it easy to read
    1. Format the report to make it easy to navigate and refer to; use page and paragraph numbers
    2. Use headings and sub-headings to help the reader understand your text
    3. Use 1.5 or double spacing
  2. Use simple language; leave out jargon and explain acronyms
  3. Refer to data and cite your sources; numbers are convincing!
  4. Use tables, bulletin points and diagrams where possible in order to represent information; it will make your report quicker to read and more compelling
  5. Plan to write at least two drafts. Writing is an iterative process.  Get your ideas out and shape them up, then shape and polish them some more!


A Standard Report Format

  1. Title Page & Table of Contents

Give a short explanation of the purpose of the report if necessary e.g. “Hanging on the Line.  A discussion of current telephone resources and potential new approaches to internal communication”.  Include authors and date your report.

  1. Executive Summary

Keep this short; no more than one side of A4. Outline the purpose of the report, give the most important information from the report, and state briefly your recommendations.

Make this section really easy to read by using bullet points and clear headings.  Someone coming to the report “cold” should be able to grasp the rationale of your report instantly from the executive summary.

  1. Methodology

State what methods you used and why you chose them.  Identify any challenges you faced, e.g. in collecting representative data, how you over-came those difficulties or what impact they have had on the report findings e.g. if you were not able to collect data from the night-shift, then be clear about the limitations of any conclusions about the whole workforce.

  1. Introduction

Signpost what the report is about and how it will be presented.

  1. Main Body

Structure the body of your report; make it a “story” which the reader can follow easily.  Give your strongest points first.  Use tables, bullet points, diagrams etc. to make it punchy.

Being overly selective about the data or being overtly biased in your argument will weaken your report over-all and leave you open to criticism.  So, make sure your argument is rounded, and acknowledge key weaknesses or challenges.

  1. Conclusion

Synthesise what has gone before.  Bring your argument together and state your outcome. Be brief.  Someone skim-reading the report should be able to comprehend your conclusion quickly and easily.

  1. Recommendations

Make it easy for a decision-maker to commit and take the next step by setting out clearly what you recommend.  Here is where your research and the strength of your argument play out.  If you know your argument is weak, you may feel nervous about this section; you are assuming responsibility for directing a decision.  Make it count!

  1. Appendices

The appendices are an essential reference for future use.  Include your data here.  Give your sources.

9. Glossary

If required, include a glossary of key terms or acronyms or abbreviations (although you should always give the name/reference in full the first time you use it in the text too e.g. Construction Design & Management Regulations (“CDM” Regs))

Forget the Lion the Witch and the Wardrobe…..

How about the Wand the Whip and the Carrot?

How do you manage performance in your organisation?

Option 1 the Wand – Using your magic wand to sprinkle a little pixie dust over the people in your organisation; make them all feel good for a while. Lovely!

Option 2 – the Whip – Using a whip or a big stick to threaten and scare people to work harder. It’s always worked in the past hasn’t it?

Option 3 – the Carrot – Encouraging the right behaviours and discouraging unhelpful behaviours.

All of these approaches have an impact on performance, but only the carrot creates a sustainable change in behaviour.

Performance management is a bad thing though isn’t it?

Very often the mere words, performance management, instil dread; a sense that something bad is going to happen to someone (hopefully not you!!).

It doesn’t have to be like that.

Defining what ‘good’ looks like, enables you to acknowledge good performance, encouraging desired behaviours to be replicated by others.

“Thank you” for a job well done is welcome, but doesn’t help the person understand specifically what it was that they did which was particularly helpful, or made a difference.

“Thank you” on its own is pixie dust. It has an immediate feel good factor, but does not always translate into continuing performance.

How do you manage performance?

Define Performance Starting with the end in mind.  Defining the   outcomes you are looking for, or what ‘good’ looks like. Performance definition, on its own, is not always enough, however, It does not clarify the expected observable behaviours.
Set up for Success Defining   what ‘good’ looks like.E.g. A professional who continually over-delivers, constantly agreeing to extra work.  As their manager you be pleased, but the impact on the organisation and the individual may not so positive.If  good performance is defined as ‘to deliver xxxx outcomes’, this could lead to a the individual feeling that they need to deliver no matter what the personal impact on them is.  However, if performance is further explained by….- deliver the outcomes in a way that does not impact other commitments

– ensuring that any obstacles or issues are dealt with in a timely way, and

– keeping your manager informed at all times

The professional can then understand how they  achieve the performance required.

Monitor & Review performance For improved performance you need to monitor performance and provide clear, structured feedback that enables the other person to stop, start or continue the behaviours or activities observed.If the behaviours expected have been clearly defined, it is much easier to give meaningful feedback at review stage. The individual can then take responsibility for their actions and adapt their behaviour.
Respond Engendering sustainable change by the over-deliverer stopping, starting or continuing the   desired activities or behaviours


Whether you use the wand the whip or the carrot, there will be no change unless you are clear about your expectations, not just the ‘WHAT’, also the ‘HOW’.

For help and support to introduce a positive performance management culture in your organisation contact:

Jane               07977 932551          jane@athenaprofessional.co.uk, Nicola             07799 237479          nicola@athenaprofessional.co.uk


Mentoring: Take another look

At first blush mentoring looks like a safe option.

  • It’s usually based on an hierarchical relationship (Odysseus gave his trusted servant “Mentor” responsibility for the development of his son, so the idea has been around a while)
  • It’s about passing on good practicePartnership
  • It’s not too demanding

If this view concurs with your impression of mentoring, then you have got the wrong end of the stick!

Certainly, mentoring is not a threatening activity, but its more than a quiet chat.  Mentoring can help unlock potential, engage long-serving staff and generate ideas.  All things a modern, progressive business will have on its “to do” list of people development.

Who benefits?

Mentoring results in hard, quantifiable benefits, like staff retention, or new staff being able to be productive rapidly.  Examples of less tangible, but highly valuable benefits include, staff engagement, inter-generational & inter-department communication, and support for line management.


Benefits of Mentoring for Stakeholders

Mentor Mentee Organisation
  • Recognition of experience & value to organisation
  • The opportunity to contribute to development
  • Time to reflect
  • A chance to stay in touch with colleagues
  • The possibility of learning something new from them
  • Learning new skills which will serve them in all walks of life


  • Access to experience outside line-management
  • Support
  • Guidance
  • Advice
  • A listening ear
  • A sounding board
  • Another perspective
  • Someone who can challenge them to be their best


  • Staff engagement
  • Increased staff retention
  • Motivation & commitment from all parties
  • New staff productive earlier
  • An additional source of support for line managers
  • Communication between different levels of staff
  • Cross-department working
  • Transferable skills for both mentor & mentee
  • A flow of ideas about existing practices

Mentoring: Getting started

It is essential that there is clarity about the purpose of your mentoring programme; otherwise any initiatives will fizzle out in the face of operational pressure.  Here are some key steps:

Step One

Identify who might benefit from mentoring, how that fits with business need and how you might measure the benefits.  You might consider;

  • your least experienced staffTaking the first step
  • new comers
  • people hoping for promotion

Think about existing formal and informal mentoring or mentoring-type activities in your business and make sure you are not over-burdening either the potential mentees or the potential mentors.  Do you need something new, or do you want to improve an existing arrangement?

Step Two

Get management buy-in to:

  • the strategic purpose
  • the operational impact (e.g. training need, communication effort, time away from the work-place)
  • how the process will be monitored and its impact measured

Step Three

Mentors have to be volunteers.  Identify who is interested in being a mentor and get them together to discuss their motivation and expectation.  Remember, mentors do not have to be people from the top of the organisation.  Experience, knowledge and skills worth communicating will be found at all levels.

Giving staff ownership of the mentoring project will increase its impact on engagement and is likely to be a positive factor in its success.   So get the potential mentors to think about;

  • The purpose of mentoring
  • The resources they need
  • What skills, knowledge and attitudes mentors need; do they have them?
  • What and how they would like to learn.

At this point you will have the basis for a planned approach to mentoring.

Essential Principles

Mentoring is natural for some people; they instinctively know when to encourage, or  when to advise and when to stand back and let someone work something out for themselves.  Even so, there are some basics which need to be part of the framework of mentoring, however lose it might be.

  • Boundaries need to be agreed at the outset
  • The ethics of the process need to be clear
  • Expectations need to be managed for all parties concerned, including line-managers, HoDs and at an organisational level

Reaching the parts other initiatives do not reach

High-flyers benefit from being mentored by excellent role-models, of course.  However, mentoring is a great way of engaging long-serving staff who may not have any other mechanism to communicate their knowledge and experience.  It builds-in that buzz word; sustainability.



A quiet performer

Introducing mentoring, or reviewing an existing programme, is an easy win.  Its low risk and relatively cheap.  Its a great way of demonstrating business values such as commitment to development, strong communication and recognition of experience.  And it opens up other avenues, like using developing low key coaching skills in senior staff, collaborative working,  and the potential to use online systems as a platform for mentoring.


Team Dynamics

Team Dynamics are how individuals within a group or team interact with each other.

The phrase was coined by Kurt Lewin, a social psychologist and change management expert in the early 1940s.  He observed that individuals in a team often take on particular roles and behaviours (See also Belbin’s work on team roles).  He defined Team Dynamics as the effect of these roles and behaviours  on the other team members and the team as a whole.

A team with a positive dynamic is very easy to spot.  There are high levels of trust, there are collective decisions, there are clear accountabilities defined and the team hold each other to account.  These teams tend to be very creative.

Poor team dynamics are demonstrated by disruptive behaviour within the team, poor decisions or a lack of of decision making and a lower propensity to be creative.

What Causes Poor Team Dynamics? A group lacking in behavioural diversity i.e. everyone behaves in the same way with no one introducing a different perspective, resulting in poor decisions or lack of decision-making and a lower propensity for creativity.

Negative team dynamics can be created by any of the team members, including the team leader.  Some of the most common problems that occur include:

  • Lack of leadership: without a strong leader, a more dominant member of the team may take charge. This can have many effects including infighting, change of focus or a  lack of direction.
  • Blocking: when the behaviours in the team disrupt the flow of information. These behaviours are driven by individuals adopting blocking roles such as:
    • The aggressor who continually disagrees with others, or is inappropriately outspoken.
    • The critic who is constantly critical of others’ ideas.
    • The withdrawer who doesn’t participate in the discussion.
    • The recognition seeker the boastful individual who dominates the session.
    • The joker who introduces humour inappropriately.
  • Groupthink:  when a desire for consensus exceeds the desire to reach the right decision.  This is often referred to as the Abilene Paradox. This prevents people from fully exploring alternative solutions.
  • Excessive deference to authority: this can happen when there is a very dominant leader with whom the rest of the team want to be seen to agree.  This leads team members holding back from expressing their own opinions which in turn can lead to the best solution not being adopted
  • Free riding: when some team members start to coast, and leave their colleagues to do all the work. Sometimes these free riders can work very hard on their own, but do not contribute to team situations; this is known as “social loafing.”
  • Evaluation apprehension: when people feel that they are being judged by other team members, and hold back their opinions as a result.

How can you improve Team Dynamics? 

Know your team You need to guide the development of your team, helping them progress through Tuckman’s stages of team development.  Understanding that progression through these stages is part of the process of developing an effective team will improve your team dynamics.Using Belbin’s Team Roles can help you understand the value that each person brings to the team, and help you deal with potential problems early.
Tackle problems quickly Nipping problems in the bud is the key here.  If you notice inappropriate behaviour act quickly to challenge it.  Give effective feedback to ensure the team member understands the impact of their actions, and to enable them to change their behaviour
Define Roles and Responsibilities Without focus or direction poor team dynamics quickly emerge.  Use RACI or a similar tool to help you clarify Responsibilities, Accountabilities Consult and Inform requirements early on.  Hold people to account
Break down barriers Ensure that attention is paid to the forming stage both at the outset and if new members join.  Team building exercises or using the Johari Window model can be very useful here
Communicate, Communicate, Communicate Communication is vital to effective team dynamics.  When you define the roles and responsibilities ensure that the Consult and Inform are also defined clearly and stick to it.  If you need to make an announcement let all the team know as quickly as possible to ensure all have the same information
Pay Attention Be continually aware of the signs of poor team dynamics and take action as soon as you spot them

Beyond reasonable doubt – A step too far?

Beyond Reasonable doubt - a step too far?In employment matters how much evidence do you need to make a decision?

There is a lot of misunderstanding within business about the burden of proof necessary to take action such as dismissal.

We are all used to crime drama where the test is “beyond reasonable doubt”…. However, employment law is a form of civil law and the burden of proof required is the rather less dramatically phrased, “on the balance of probabilities”.  This can be described as, “what is more likely to have happened than not”.

In employment matters you need:

  • a reasonable belief that the act of misconduct occurred based on a reasonable investigation of the facts
  • to follow a fair and reasonable process,  and
  • To respond within a range of reasonable responses.

Lots of “reasonableness”, which is probably why it gets confused with the criminal standard of proof, but what does it mean in practice?

Reasonable belief – a Case in Point

A female employee (Emma) alleged that her manager (Tom) had bullied her over an extended period of time.  Grievance & disciplinary procedures kicked in.  Tom was dismissed and took a claim to the Employment Tribunal.

The Investigation

In this case we looked at the behaviour of both parties over time using witness statements about the specific incidents detailed in the grievance.  A view was then taken, based on the evidence, about whether the dismissing manager had a reasonable belief that misconduct had occurred.

The evidence included material confirming the following:

  • Tom had on several occasions made jokes, at the expense of Emma, in front of others
  • Tom had excluded Emma from conversations
  • Tom had made several comments that Emma and others had believed were of a threatening nature towards Emma
  • Tom had used his position as a special police constable to make threats towards Emma
  • Emma had raised an informal complaint about Tom’s behaviour, but the behaviour had continued.

The dismissing manager concluded, on the balance of evidence available, that Tom did bully Emma over a lengthy period.

Was this a Reasonable Belief?

If this belief was based on a reasonable investigation, which gathered evidence from a range of sources that were believed to be reliable and was appropriately documented, then it can be a reasonable belief.  In Emma’s case the investigation revealed plenty of evidence which supported her claim to have been bullied.

Was this a Fair and Reasonable Process?

The company disciplinary process was followed, based on ACAS guidelines, an investigation was completed, relevant notice was given for the hearing, Tom was offered representation, Tom was given an opportunity to challenge the evidence and the dismissing manager was not previously involved in the situation. On this basis it was held to be a fair and reasonable process.

Was the Response Reasonable?

The outcome of this grievance was a disciplinary process that resulted in Tom being dismissed for gross misconduct.

It was found that the misconduct alleged had, on the balance of probabilities, occurred, and this misconduct was clearly identified as gross misconduct in the disciplinary process for which one option open to the company was dismissal.

Alternative responses were considered and were rejected, for example demotion, move to another site, remedial training, meditation.  The consideration of these alternatives to dismissal was documented.

At appeal the original decision was upheld.

At Tribunal

Tom took a claim to the Employment Tribunal on the basis that he had been unfairly dismissed.  He argued that there was insufficient evidence on which to base a decision to dismiss him. .

The company were able to demonstrate to the ET that they had conducted a reasonable investigation, which had informed a fair & reasonable grievance & disciplinary process.  The breadth of the evidence relied on, the procedural propriety and the fact consideration of alternative outcomes had been documented all served the company well.  The ET was able to find, using the civil standard of proof, that the company were not at fault and the claim failed.


Grievance & disciplinary procedures may sometimes seem onerous, but if the situation is handled professionally from the outset, they are not difficult.  If managers are well informed, able to exercise professional discretion and comfortable with the processes involved then the chances of being able to demonstrate a “reasonable” approach are greatly enhanced.  Having the confidence to be “reasonable” could save you a lot of money, time and heart-ache.

If you would like some help to manage employment issues in a way that sets you up to have the best chance of winning if matters come to tribunal, contact us on:

 01926 633086



A competency framework to demonstrate continuing competence

In November 2016 the CPD hour ceased. The SRA have now moved to a continuing competence based approach to personal development. Solicitors are required by the SRA to make a declaration of competence to practise each year by demonstrating continuing competence, rather than completing 16 hours cpd.

But what do the SRA mean by competent?

SRA Continuing Competence

The SRA define competence as:

the ability to perform the roles and tasks required by one’s job to the expected standard (Eraut & du Boulay 2001).

In layman’s terms – the skills knowledge & behaviours to do your job well.

How do you measure continuing competence?

Using a competency framework, which defines observable behaviours, can be enormously helpful.  At Athena Professional we have  developed a continuing competence framework for the legal sector.  Our competency framework maps back to the SRA competencies, thus ensuring you are in a position to make your declaration of competence to practise.

If you would like to download our continuing competence framework please click here.

Competency Framework for the Legal Sector 2017.

And if as a result of reviewing this framework you would like to talk to us about how to demonstrate continuing competence please contact us.

The Abilene Paradox


From Organizational Dynamics, Summer 1988, pp. 17–43. © 1988 by the American Management Association, New York. All rights reserved.  The Abilene Paradox:The Management of Agreement – Jerry B. Harvey

The July afternoon in Coleman, Texas (population 5,607) was particularly hot— 104 degrees as measured by the Walgreen’s Rexall Ex-Lax temperature gauge. In addition, the wind was blowing fine-gained West Texas topsoil through the house. But the afternoon was still tolerable—even potentially enjoyable.
There was a fan going on the back porch; there was cold lemonade; and finally, there was entertainment. Dominoes. Perfect for the conditions. The game required little more physical exertion than an occasional mumbled comment, “Shuffle ‘em,” and an unhurried movement of the arm to place the spots in the appropriate perspective on the table. All in all, it had the makings of an agreeable Sunday afternoon in Coleman—this is, it was until my father-in-law suddenly said, “Let’s get in the
car and go to Abilene and have dinner at the cafeteria.”

I thought, “What, go to Abilene? Fifty-three miles? In this dust storm and heat? And in an
unairconditioned 1958 Buick?”

But my wife chimed in with, “Sounds like a great idea. I’d like to go. How about you,
Jerry?” Since my own preferences were obviously out of step with the rest I replied,
“Sounds good to me,” and added, “I just hope your mother wants to go.”

“Of course I want to go,” said my mother-inlaw. “I haven’t been to Abilene in a long time.”
So into the car and off to Abilene we went.
My predictions were fulfilled. The heat was brutal. We were coated with a fine layer of
dust that was cemented with perspiration by the time we arrived. The food at the cafeteria
provided first-rate testimonial material for antacid commercials.
Some four hours and 106 miles later we returned to Coleman, hot and exhausted. We sat
in front of the fan for a long time in silence.

Then, both to be sociable and to break the silence, I said, “It was a great trip, wasn’t it?”

No one spoke.

Finally my mother-in-law said, with some irritation, “Well, to tell the truth, I really didn’t enjoy it much and would rather have stayed here. I just went along because
the three of you were so enthusiastic about going. I wouldn’t have gone if you all
hadn’t pressured me into it.”

I couldn’t believe it. “What do you mean ‘you all’?” I said. “Don’t put me in the ‘you all’ group. I was delighted to be doing what we were doing. I didn’t want to go. I only went to satisfy the rest of you. You’re the culprits.”

My wife looked shocked. “Don’t call me a culprit. You and Daddy and Mama were the ones who wanted to go. I just went along to be sociable and to keep you happy. I would have had to be crazy to want to go out in heat like that.”

Her father entered the conversation abruptly. “Hell!” he said.  He proceeded to expand on what was already absolutely clear. “Listen, I never wanted to go to Abilene. I just thought you might be bored. You visit so seldom I wanted to be sure you enjoyed it. I would have preferred to playanother game of dominoes and eat the leftovers in the icebox.”

After the outburst of recrimination we all sat back in silence. Here we were, four reasonably sensible people who, of our own volition, had just taken a 106-mile trip across a godforsaken desert in a furnace-like temperature through a cloud-like dust storm to eat unpalatable food at a hole-in-the-wall cafeteria in Abilene, when none of us had really wanted to go.

In fact, to be more accurate, we’d done just the opposite of what we wanted to do. The whole situation simply didn’t make sense.

At least it didn’t make sense at the time.


JERRY B. HARVEY is professor of management science at the George Washington University in Washington, D.C. He is a graduate of the University of Texas in Austin, where he earned an undergraduate degree in business administration and a Ph.D. in social psychology.
A member of the International Consultant’s Foundation, a Diplomate of the American Board of Professional Psychology, and a member of the O.D. Network, he has served as a consultant to a wide variety of industrial, governmental, religious, and voluntary organizations. He has written a number of articles in the fields of organizational
behavior and education and currently is involved in the exploration of moral, ethical, and spiritual issues of work. In the pursuit of that interest, his book, The Abilene Paradox and Other Meditations on Management, was published by Lexington Books in 1988.