I find it hard to deal with staff when things aren’t working out. Whether it’s a problem with a project missing its deadline or an issue with someone’s dress code or punctuality, I find these conversations difficult. Essentially, I need to learn how to tell people off but these are all grown ups. What skills can I learn to make this process as painless and as effective as possible? ZM, Abu Dhabi

Many people find the conversations you mention challenging and difficult. Typically, it has a lot to do with our own motivators, drivers and triggers. Things we find difficult to talk to others about are things we wouldn’t do ourselves, and that pushes our buttons. We annoyingly think to ourselves “if I turn up on time, why can’t you?” or “everyone has met the project delivery deadline, so why can’t you?”.

That being said, difficult conversations are part and parcel of corporate life, especially when you’re managing other people. These conversations become demanding because opinions vary, the stakes run high and emotions tend to be strong. Handling such dialogue and successfully turning it into a productive conversation is a great skill, and more art than science. It can be helpful to think of such a conversation as a dance, where you move effortlessly with your partner towards a goal you both want to achieve – shared understanding.

To achieve this shared understanding, the first thing to realise is that you are not “telling people off” like a parent with a child. This is actually a conversation between two adults, where you are seeking to improve someone else’s performance at work. Your intentions seem to come from a good place, but the other person also needs to take some responsibility in making the situation work. The outcomes of the conversation rest on both of your shoulders because as they say “it takes two to tango”.

The next thing you need to keep in mind is that people will respond according to how important they perceive the conversation is to you. Your ability to be present and give full attention in any conversation can be the difference between it being a success or failure. Leave aside obvious distractions like a noisy office, laptops or your mobile phone and give the conversation the attention it warrants. If it doesn’t appear to mean anything to you then why should it mean anything to them?

Remember the most common distraction for all of us is not our surroundings but our “inner voice”; the self-talk in our head that speaks to us and stops us from hearing what the other person is saying. This voice is always there – you cannot stop it – but you can become aware of it and mindfully put it aside. Remember, being fully present and engaged is contagious and the other person has no choice but to sit up and listen.

The next step is to remain self-aware, as this is key for having effective conversations. Be aware of the specific triggers that cause you to unplug from the situation. For example, my trigger is when someone has nothing or very little say in return. I feel like they don’t care as much as I do, when in fact they may just be absorbing the information. If you are aware of these triggers, you can better control your emotional reactions and thus keep yourself in the conversation.

Another important skill for a conversation like this is to be able to listen and effectively decode what the other person is saying, and to make sure nothing is lost in translation (as that tends to often happen). Once you have voiced your concern, you must allow them to respond and carefully listen to not just what they have to say, but also how they appear to be feeling in the situation. For instance, their lateness may be because of a number of very valid reasons and you need to openly listen (even if you disagree), holding back the urge to reply. Remember we often listen to win and seek to be proved right, rather than listening to understand with the aim of achieving shared understanding.

Doctor’s Prescription:

Conversations don’t have to be difficult. Give them the time and attention they deserve and they will become a critical leadership skill. Every conversation is a dance between two people and to stay in time with the music, there are a number of simple steps you should follow. Remember to be fully present and to openly listen and you will achieve a shared understanding.

Alex Davda is a business psychologist and client director at Ashridge Executive Education, Hult International Business School, and is based in the Middle East. Email him at business@thenational.ae for advice on any work issues

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I work in retail and there’s a lot of talk of redundancies due to falling sales figures. Should I stick it out and hope I don’t get cut or jump before I get pushed. I’ve been in this position before and don’t want to get caught out. KG, Dubai

Retail is a challenging industry anywhere in the world, but especially in the GCC, where we feel the backlash of a lack of economic confidence. Anxiety is in the atmosphere because of lower oil prices, which results in uncertainty over jobs. This anxiety affects consumer spending on non-essential items significantly. We hear and read things and then cut back on buying a new car or wait another year for a new kitchen. Equally, people stick to their budget more strictly and that weekly shopping trip turns into a fortnightly one. This is all bad news for the retail sector and those who work in it.

Unfortunately, this type of situation also creates a vicious cycle for you, as your own fear of redundancy further contributes to the stall in consumer spending, and like many others, you too tighten your belt.

It is not all bad news though. If the lack of parking space at the malls is anything to go by, then people are at least heading to the malls. They may just be going to the cinema, but the temptation to spend while they are there will still exist Another positive economic sign is that many organisations are planning to hire in the next year, so falls in sales figures may only be a short-term hiccup and a more optimistic future may be on the horizon.

If you believe your company is planning to reduce its workforce and are worried you won’t making the cut, it’s important to notice the early warning signs about your job being at risk before you make any rash decisions. Remember, you don’t want to jump if you’re not going to be pushed at all.

As you have been in this position before and it ended badly, it would help to first identify any similarities in the previous experience with your current one. Has anything happened recently to make you feel uneasy and think “Oh no. Here we go again”?

Observe the behaviour of senior management; has anything changed recently? Do you feel important conversations are going on that you are no longer a part of? If you feel management is avoiding you, then this could be a warning sign. But enquire further before jumping the gun. In a sales role, you are the face of the organisation and if you begin to feel invisible then this should raise an alarm.

Also, try to assess the financial status of the business. You could either check out the latest sales figures – if you have access to them – or pay closer attention to the businesses performance both locally and internationally The closer you get to the realities of the situation, the more equipped you will be to make an informed decision, rather than basing it on emotions or hearsay.

If management’s behaviour, the financials and the office gossip (something that should never be solely relied on) all seem to be painting a consistently dreary picture, then I suggest sticking it out while simultaneously planning your exit. Start a discreet job search, take stock of what your passion really is, and think about the learning experience from your current job. If you do not want to feel as exposed again, then target your job search in roles outside of sales and away from retail. That way you may feel more stable and secure in the future.

Doctor’s Prescription:

Unfortunately, the retail industry is vulnerable to economic anxiety and consumer pessimism and that vulnerability plays out through fear of redundancy. For those who feel susceptible, gather as accurate a picture as possible of the true situation. Although it is impossible to fully understand the reality, the closer you are to it, the easier it is to make an informed decision.

Alex Davda is business psychologist and client director at Ashridge Executive Education, Hult International Business School and is based in the Middle East. Email him at business@thenational.ae for advice on any work issues.

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Workplace doctor: test the wind when planning your exit

I work in retail and there’s a lot of talk of redundancies due to falling sales. Should I stick it out and hope I don’t get cut or jump before I get pushed? I’ve been in this position before and don’t want to get caught out. KG, Dubai

Retail is a challenging industry anywhere in the world, but especially in the GCC, where we feel the backlash of a lack of economic confidence. Anxiety is in the atmosphere because of lower oil prices, which results in uncertainty over jobs. This anxiety affects consumer spending on non-essential items significantly. We hear and read things and then cut back on buying a new car or wait another year for a new kitchen. Equally, people stick to their budget more strictly and that weekly shopping trip turns into a fortnightly one. This is all bad news for the retail sector and those who work in it.

Unfortunately, this type of situation also creates a vicious cycle for you, as your own fear of redundancy further contributes to the stall in consumer spending and like many others, you also tighten your belt.

It is not all bad news, though. If the lack of parking space at the malls is anything to go by, then people are at least heading to them. They may just be going to the cinema, but the temptation to spend while they are there will still exist. Another positive economic sign is that many organisations are planning to hire in the next year, so falls in sales figures may only be a short-term hiccup and a more optimistic future may be on the horizon.

If you believe your company is planning to reduce its workforce and are worried you won’t make the cut, it’s important to notice the early warning signs about your job being at risk before you make any rash decisions. Remember, you don’t want to jump if you’re not going to be pushed at all.

As you have been in this position before and it ended badly, it would help to first identify any similarities in the previous experience with your current one. Has anything happened recently to make you feel uneasy and think: “Oh no. Here we go again”?

Observe the behaviour of senior management: has anything changed recently? Do you feel that important conversations are going on that you are no longer a part of? If you feel management is avoiding you, this could be a warning sign. But inquire further before jumping the gun. In a sales role, you are the face of the organisation and if you begin to feel invisible then this should raise an alarm.

Also try to assess the financial status of the business. You could either check out the latest sales figures – if you have access to them – or pay closer attention to the performance of the business locally and internationally. The closer you get to the realities of the situation, the better equipped you will be to make an informed decision, rather than basing it on emotions or hearsay.

If management’s behaviour, the financials and the office gossip (something that should never be solely relied on) all seem to be painting a consistently dreary picture, then I suggest sticking it out while simultaneously planning your exit. Start a discreet job search, take stock of what your passion really is and think about the learning experience from your current job. If you do not want to feel as exposed again, then target your job search in roles outside sales and away from retail. That way you may feel more stable and secure in the future.

Doctor’s prescription

Unfortunately, the retail industry is vulnerable to economic anxiety and consumer pessimism and that vulnerability plays out through fear of redundancy. For those who feel susceptible, gather as accurate a picture as possible of the true situation. Although it is impossible to fully understand the reality, the closer you are to it the easier it is to make an informed decision.

Alex Davda is business psychologist and client director at Ashridge Executive Education, Hult International Business School, and is based in the Middle East. Email him at business@thenational.ae for advice on any work issues.

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I’ve been working solidly for 25 years and would now like to take a sabbatical. As a senior team leader in my industry, some colleagues think I am wrong to take my foot off the pedal. But I’m in my late 40s and feel I need a break. I plan to take six months to travel from the top of North America to the bottom of South America. Am I committing career suicide? HF, Dubai

While many dream of taking time off mid-career, few have the courage to do so as they fear they will have to return at the back of the line. Yet popular articles and videos on social media now show that the number of people taking lengthy sabbaticals earlier or later in life is increasing. We all deserve a break from mundane work life now and again, and 25 years in the workplace certainly warrants some time out. Companies today are also more open to the idea, especially for those who have shown their loyalty through years of service. Some com­panies even offer this time off as a retention tool as they know the physical and psychological benefits of providing breathing space for their employees.

Progressing into a senior position in your industry is something you should be proud of. But, you also say you need a break. Feeling drained, tired and depleted is unfortunately common for workers who have spent most of their lives contributing to organisations and in simple terms are burnt out. Realising this feeling is one thing yet doing something about it is another. It is a testament to your own self-awareness and insight that you are willing to take a big step out of your comfort zone and give your batteries a much-needed boost – even if this decision is surprising and daunting to your co-workers.

Corporate life can also get extremely repetitive sometimes as we find ourselves fighting the same battles day after day. I also sometimes feel like I am in the film Groundhog Day, following the same routine daily. Yet we bring it on ourselves, finding safety by falling into the same traps over and over again. Research says that 80 per cent of our behaviour falls under autopilot mode. Sometimes this can be helpful as it helps us conserve energy; but other times it leaves us completely stuck. This feeling can be rather frustrating and we need to do something drastically different to shake ourselves out of it. That is exactly what you are doing, but rather than join a cooking class and learning to cook Mexican food, you have decided to take the radical leap to taste real Mexican salsa first-hand.

Your colleagues are probably envious as you are willing to do something very different and leap outside your comfort zone to experience fulfilment rather than sticking to safe decisions. I wouldn’t say you are taking your foot off the pedal at all, but instead learning a new driving style that will help you keep fuel in the tank for longer. It is highly likely that many of your colleagues will be running on empty when you return.

If you think about your 25-year career so far, six months is nothing in comparison to your overall business contribution. Rather than seeing it as a step back, view it as a personal development project in which you will learn, grow and develop in ways that are impossible stuck at the office. This experience will enhance your ability to lead, as you will encounter new and interesting people on your travels. It will help to shape you better, personally and professionally. You will return to the workplace energised and with a greater sense of purpose.

To put this perspective, I was recently talking to a working mother about returning to work after a period of maternity leave. I asked if she was nervous about getting back to work after six months and she confidently stated that she was not. Her brand was built around her expertise, competence and attitude and these things don’t have an expiry date. Be confident in yourself and the knowledge you have gained, and give yourself the six months you deserve, as the experience is worth many years more.

Doctors prescription:

It takes courage to break out of the safety net of habits that underpin our working lives, but if working solidly for 25 years doesn’t give you a six-month pass to North and South America, then nothing will. Appreciate what you have achieved in your career so far, keep in mind the different and beneficial experience you will gain during the travel journey, and when you return re-energised and ready for the next 25 years of your career, others will too.

Alex Davda is business psychologist and client director at Ashridge Executive Education, Hult International Business School and is based in the Middle East. Email him at business@thenational.ae for advice on any work issues.

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My new boss has an obsession with training. Management training, leadership training, security training, how to deal with your team training, etc. This is all well and good, but it takes time out from actually getting the job done. Plus not everyone sent on the courses has any leadership potential whatsoever. Is it all necessary? PJ, Abu Dhabi

a Coming from a business school and as a solution provider of management and leadership trainings myself, I am going to take a stand on the extensive learning and development, especially if it is targeted at specific needs or requirements. There is a definite value in getting people together away from the office; it helps them gain a fresh perspective, network, build relationships, learn new skills and reflect on their own practices and behaviour.

Research proves that learning and reflecting with colleagues has a higher learning impact than the technical content of the course. I have worked with numerous individuals and teams who have shown measurable growth as a result of development experiences. It is often something they learnt by talking to someone else or by reflecting on their own behaviour rather than to do with a model they learn from a projector in a classroom.

Interestingly, in this challenging economic climate, I often hear people complain about the opposite. Employees are frustrated that their boss and organisation refuses to invest in training and development programmes. So in a way you can consider yourself lucky, but I completely understand that you may feel a little exasperated at being drowned by PowerPoint slides, training manuals and group icebreaker exercises.

It appears your new boss is creating training fatigue by using a “one-size-fits-all” approach to deal with all the challenges your team may face. “Let’s send them away to the trainers and hopefully they will come back polished and shiny”. This obsession, although fuelled by good intentions, could be unnecessary if it actually stops people from getting the job done, as they do not have enough time between training interventions to practise and apply their new behaviours. It may feel as though colleagues are spending more time in the training room than they do in the office.

Your boss may also be diffusing some responsibility away from himself to develop people or provide technical advice, as he may lack the skill and confidence to transfer his own knowledge to his subordinates. Many managers are technically very credible, yet they have never been developed as teachers, trainers or coaches, so it may be he who needs a course or two.

Anyway, it is important you voice your concerns, albeit remaining positive about his orientation towards development and growth. Help him see that it may not be enough to take the school of goldfish out of the fish bowl, clean them up for a few days and return them back to the same tank.

The general culture of the team and how people work together may also need some examining. Your boss may feel comfortable passing these things over to a trainer, but in reality he is the best placed person to help, especially back at the workplace where he can support staff through coaching, mentoring and in-role development. People need time to take in what they have learnt and experiment with it in their day-to-day activities, in an environment that will allow them to do so.

In terms of selecting the right people for the training programmes, this is the responsibility of your manager, to identify and understand the development needs of his people. Remember, it is not just those with leadership potential who require training; it may be technical specialists trying to be better managers or those lacking or struggling in a particular area.

Yet it is your boss who needs to understand not only what training is required for each individual, but also what action needs to happen back at work to maximise the training effect on the business.

Doctor’s prescription:

Training is an important way to develop people. However, your boss should realise that the one-size-fits-all technique does not apply here. He needs to take some personal responsibility to encourage his team to apply the new skills acquired on return to the office. It is not enough to just send people away to learn, as they will always come back to the same environment.

Alex Davda is business psychologist and client director at Ashridge Executive Education, Hult International Business School and is based in the Middle East. Email him at business@thenational.ae for advice on any work issues

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A lot of notes get left around the office. These are notes on the correct etiquette of using the office fridge, notes on how to clean the kitchen after use, notes even on how to use the toilet. I’ve no idea who leaves these “helpful” post-its – an example in the fridge would be “this food is mine; touch at your peril” – but it makes me want to write something very sarcastic in return. Should I get involved or simply learn to ignore? WL, Abu Dhabi

Someone in your office seems to want to “stamp” their authority, but is finding it difficult to appropriately voice this frustration, equally they may not know exactly who the perpetrator is and not want to make any false acquisitions. Yet this person is annoyed by the behaviour of others in your office.

Office culture is fascinating and guided by the informal rules of “the way things are done around here”. You can unknowingly break the rules in a number of ways, for example, not showing up to a team social event, forgetting a birthday or leaving a hot desk messy after using it. These unwritten laws are what guides the psychological contracts people have with each other and with the organisation and are usually more powerful than any formal contract or written handbook.

Often newcomers miss these subtle cultural cues, like we may do when moving to a new city or country, and then learn the hard way as to what is and isn’t appropriate. My own experience, after first moving to the UAE, of going into meetings and diving straight into business without building rapport was quickly shut down. I quickly realised my very British approach needed to be adapted to the Middle East.

In this fast-moving world we need to learn quickly about how to conduct ourselves, both in business and in life. Yet it can be frustrating when someone else doesn’t seem willing to adopt these customs.

It appears the workplace is becoming increasingly stressful for one of your coworkers who is seeing the behaviour of others fall completely out of line with their own views of what is appropriate at work. He or she is likely to have been the victim of some less-than-savoury workplace behaviour.

Try to put yourself in their shoes. I know how irritated I would feel if someone ate my freshly prepared meal waiting for me in the fridge, or if I went into the kitchen at work and it looked like it had been set upon by a pack of hungry wolves. Remember, we spend 40 hours a week at work and all want to feel comfortable. Imagine how you would react if someone came into your house, messed up the kitchen and then ate your dinner.

That being said, leaving notes around is an extremely passive-aggressive way of dealing with the situation. This individual either needs to speak up or put up, as their chosen approach is rather childish and clearly having an adverse effect. Maybe you could find out who the “phantom note maker” is and suggest a more adult strategy.

In terms of deciding whether to get involved or to ignore, I would avoid sarcasm at all costs and instead promote a more positive, considerate and polite work environment. This means you could raise the general issue of cleanliness and manners or ask the management to do so.

To overcome these irritating post-it notes; you may want to create and share information regarding “kitchen etiquette”. In my office, there are some friendly and humorous signs encouraging certain behaviours and people do actually adhere to them. This could have dual benefits by creating a better working environment and stop the childish displays of frustration.

Doctor’s Prescription:

I understand why you are becoming irritated at these patronising statements being left lying around. Yet your own frustration is probably tiny compared to the perpetrator, who considers themself the victim of someone else’s messy workplace behaviour. Instead of sarcasm and cynicism towards the “phantom note maker ” instead try to promote more considerate behaviour in the office and tackle both issues at once.

Alex Davda is business psychologist and client director at Ashridge Executive Education, Hult International Business School and is based in the Middle East. Email him at business@thenational.ae for advice on any work issues.

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My son has just dropped out of university in the US, where he was studying engineering. He’s taken a part-time job working at a hotel and says he needs time to “think about what to do with his life”. As the parent who paid for this education, it’s a difficult pill to swallow. How do I get him to realise he either needs to go back to college or kick-start his career? And how do I help him “think” a little more quickly, so that he does not waste valuable time, without him believing I am applying pressure. KJ, Dubai

I can understand how being emotionally and financially invested in your child’s future and seeing that in jeopardy is a difficult pill to swallow. As a parent, you only want the best for him and will try anything for him to succeed. However, it’s fair if he needs some time to think about the direction he wants to go in and the route he would like to follow to get there. This may require you accepting that although there is the conventional journey from school to university and then on to a prestigious career, not everyone follows these steps neatly and in that order. We all know of people who are still young, yet in their second or third careers, or of others 20 years into their careers who return to studying.

Whatever confusion you are feeling at the moment is tiny compared to the pressure and confusion he must be facing. He may have studied engineering because he was good at it or because he liked the thought of studying it. He then found out through experiencing the degree that it wasn’t for him. This is difficult to accept and even harder to admit. It is always hard for children to live up to their parents’ expectations and many feel crippled with the pressure of pleasing them.

When I studied psychology at university, I had a friend who was bright, sociable and grasped all the core psychological concepts extremely quickly. Yet it was clear from the start that psychology wasn’t his passion and that he was more interested in playing rugby. He took the course on because his father was a clinical psychologist and he felt that following in his footsteps would please him. He completed his studies but soon after that started playing professional rugby and does the same to this day. He compromised and completed his studies, but still pursued the career he wanted.

During university and then on to the earlier stages of our career, it is all about exercising one’s intellectual and interpersonal energies and bringing enthusiasm, energy and curiosity to our studies, which then hopefully leads to identifying our real aspirations. Your son may have realised that engineering doesn’t exercise this curiosity or is not energising enough for him to pursue. Rather than kicking him back on to a career path that he has derailed from and seems unsure about, consider helping him make sense of what he really wants to do. As his parent, can you think about what really gives him joy? We all want our loved ones to have successful and meaningful careers, but is it our own view of their success we are preoccupied with? A parent sometimes has to put this aside and focus on what will bring satisfaction and contentment to a child.

Your most important objective at this critical time should be to coach him and try to not put a timescale on his “thinking time” (even though I understand why you don’t want him to waste this stage of his life). You can help him discover his strengths and interests. Ask him to reflect on what skills he is getting out of the degree, over and above the technical engineering knowledge. Hopefully he realises the extended benefits gained as a person from completing university. If there is no convincing, then he can use this time off university to try different part-time roles and gain different kinds of experience from each, and also get feedback from peers, friends and mentors to help him identify what he is good at.

Doctor’s prescription:

Where you are so heavily invested in your child’s development, it is easy to try to push them towards making a definitive decision. The truth is they may not know the answers for some time and some experimentation is required to identify true aspirations. Your role as a parent and as a guide is to shine the torch on the map for his life, rather than forcing him down a route that seems satisfactory to you but may leave him dissatisfied and left in the dark in the long term.

Alex Davda is business psychologist and client director at Ashridge Executive Education, Hult International Business School and is based in the Middle East. Email him at business@thenational.ae for advice on any work issues.

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The senior leadership team is about to undergo a restructure. A couple of people have already been let go and there is no clear timeline on when all the decisions will be made. I am happy to take redundancy if it comes, but this uncertainty is making the team very jumpy. What’s the best way to handle this? MN, Abu Dhabi

Losing a job can have the same emotional and psychological impact as losing someone significant other in life, so it’s natural that redundancy can feel like losing a part of yourself as, for many people, they are what they do. The central role of work is hardly a modern phenomenon, with surnames across the globe inherited from the occupations of forefathers or associated in some way with a particular trade or industry.

Unfortunately, in today’s unstable economy the fear of redundancy and restructuring looms like a dark cloud for many. This is especially true for teams in this region responsible for their organisation’s performance during this challenging time, and accountable to a head office located miles away that is often far removed from the business realities of the GCC.

If you look at the data from a range of statistics, usually one in three people report being worried about holding on to their job. The uncertainty can lead to serious anxiety, which can be really difficult to live with, keeping many awake at night. Therefore it is important to come up with a solution on how to best manage this, as the experience of waiting creates unnecessary stress and tension in the team.

To best handle this situation, first find out what factors are within your control. The uncertainty of the final decision is definitely out of your manageable boundaries, but how you think, feel and react is entirely down to you. You can also help the team by gathering as much information as possible and sharing it with them. Do be open and honest about what you don’t know, as people’s mind can wander in all sorts of negative thoughts when faced with change and ambiguity. Try your best to maintain a positive outlook and be proactive, focused and optimistic for the rest of the team, even though you may face negativity, moaning and some anger. Don’t take things personally even if people transfer their frustration with the organisation on to you.

Another outlook to this is that being made redundant allows some individuals to create new opportunities for themselves by starting their own business, taking a career break or shifting into a completely new field. Oprah Winfrey was actually fired from her job as a television reporter as she was told she was unfit for TV. Can you imagine that? She’s proof that people can recover from setbacks if we are determined enough. Your role as a leader is to make sure that people who may leave do so full of confidence and optimism about their future.

Yet for others, their financial or life situations may mean this job holds great importance for them and if this financial security is taken away, they may experience a real sense of loss and dejection and not know what to do next. Make sure you take a personal approach to managing the team, as one size will not fit all, and some will need more attention than others.

As a leader supporting your team through this difficult time, you are also not in the wrong by helping them prepare for the worst. This may be through one-on-one conversations, encouraging them to explore other opportunities within the organisation or mentally preparing them to step back into the job marketplace. Equally, you should let them know what you appreciate and value about each of them, as an experience like this can be confidenc-shattering even for the brightest and toughest of people.

Doctor’s prescription:

Supporting your team through this tough time is your priority, as you seem comfortable with your own situation. Like any loss, people can’t begin recovering until they receive certainty of the outcome. Until then your role is to support, share what you know and keep spirits up. Eventually, for those who are being shown the way out, prepare them on how to deal with life after this, which could include looking for a new opportunity, a career break or even realising their dream of setting up shop and being their own boss.

Alex Davda is business psychologist and client director at Ashridge Executive Education, Hult International Business School and is based in the Middle East. Email him at business@thenational.ae for advice on any work issues.

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I plan to have a second child and this time would like to take more than the statutory maternity leave entitlement. I’m hoping to take off one year or two. But how damaging is a career break like this? Can I return at the same level and should I expect to take a pay cut when I do? RW, Dubai

People often worry that a break in their careers will stunt the progress they have worked so hard to achieve. There are various reasons they decide to take time off from the mundane working life; to travel, to spend more time with their children in the formative years or to check something off their bucket list, such as forming a rock band or backpacking across a continent. I have a friend who took a career break from a high-powered corporate role to spend a year working with children who had learning disabilities in the UK. He describes his experience as both profound and life-changing, and feels he is more effective in his career because of what he learnt and experienced. Even if this resulted in a slight career backlog, his new perspective on life accelerated him forward in many other ways and helped him acquire a senior position in the insurance industry.

In this stressful and fact-paced sprint to reach the top, the fear of being left behind if we take a stopgap can be daunting. Yet for many, like my friend, it’s just what they need to put things into perspective and help them realise what is not only the critical truth of life, but also their careers. Difficult clients or challenging projects don’t feel as stressful as they used to. Also, as you are lucky enough to have already had a first child, you will know there is nothing more maturing and perspective-shifting than parenthood, and your experience does not compare to what you may gain at work.

If we look at things purely from a corporate ladder perspective, it depends on where you are in your car­eer and how much you have achieved thus far. It could be that you have 10 or 15 years’ experience in a particular field or industry and that a one or two-year break is only a small chip in an otherwise well-established armour of corporate experience. On the other hand, only four years’ experience with a two-year break will mean that you fall behind your peers who you left at the same level. This is not necessarily to say you have to wait until you have 10 or 15 years’ experience to have a child. However, it’s something you need to take into account when you are planning your leave entitlement.

I would also suggest is discussing your plans with your current employer. If you have a good relationship and they value you, they may be able to offer you a similar role for similar pay when you return. Even after a break of a year or two, they should still want to keep you rather than losing you to the competition. Play the long game and let them know of your intention of returning to work .

Now let’s look at things from a broader perspective. Career breaks are very common, especially in women. Research shows that 50 to 60 per cent of working women take some sort of career gap, and yet more than 70 per cent of them feel anxious about their decision and the potential hit it may take on both their careers and their confidence when they return to the office. The reasons vary, but spending more time with children is one of the most common. The time mothers spend with their newborns is irreplaceable. I was lucky to have spent my early years around a lot of my family, and that has resulted in the strong bond we share today. So even if you do not return at the same level or are forced to take a pay cut after the break, it is in exchange for something far more important and you will easily move up the ladder again.

Doctor’s prescription

Many people often worry that a break in their careers will stunt the progress they have worked so hard to achieve. The experience you have gained over your career will be important, but the growth and contribution you can make to your family outweighs any stopgap you may face if you take a one or two-year career break. Experience and maturity are gained in different ways, and taking time off to do something you love will change your perspective. This know­ledge you achieve will be helpful at work when you return. Remember why you go to work every day in the first place and this decision should be easier to make.

Alex Davda is business psychologist and client director at Ashridge Executive Education, Hult International Business School, and is based in the Middle East. Email him at business@thenational.ae for advice on any work issues.

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Workplace Doctor: How to humour a boss with a big ego

I suspect my boss is a narcissist. He comes across as very charming at first, but after a while he can become nit-picky and even nasty. He makes minor corrections and goes on about how significant they are. Appearances are vital with him. He doesn’t do a lot of actual work. How can I tell if my suspicions about his potential narcissism are correct, and if so, how should I deal with it? And what would be the wrong way to deal with it? AL, Abu Dhabi

Research shows that a large number of narcissists become leaders. However, describing someone as a narcissist in the truest sense of the word is a strong allegation to make and must be grounded in real facts with evidence gathered over time. Today the word narcissist is bounced around organisations so frequently that it is not uncommon to hear the term being used to describe the self-inflated ego of senior executives. Unfortunately, numerous false accusations of narcissism are also made if someone is seen to act selfishly or come across as overly competitive. These stamps can be terribly hard to shrug off and have potentially career-limiting effects. Most of us possess some narcissistic tendencies, some just have a few doses of the confidence gene, whereas others display all the disruptive and destructive tendencies that narcissists get their infamous reputation for.

Obvious examples of true narcissism are those in the public eye. This can be one of the reasons behind their status and drive for the limelight. The most notorious dictators and criminals and the world’s most successful celebrities in the past or present have had narcissistic personalities. Simon Cowell, the X Factor creator, can be seen as confident to the point of arrogance, but his success and expertise almost take the edge off his self-inflated ego. Some famous narcissists can be negative role models, and some positive.

True narcissists tend to be confident to the point of arrogance, have an exaggerated sense of entitlement and require constant praise and admiration. They are quick to claim credit for others’ achievements and blame colleagues for their own failures. They generally care only about their own success, and are willing to take advantage of others to get what they need. In short, they’re incredibly difficult to work for, or with. The qualities you described of your boss does unfortunately portray a classic case of narcissism. You also mentioned that he judges on appearance rather than merit and hard work; narcissists are generally guided by superficial judgments of others, and will be proud of their use of such stereotypes.

To deal with your narcissist boss, you need to realise that flattery, praise and appreciation will get you everywhere you want to be. They enjoy being the centre of attention and will accept admiration, even if it is falsely credited. I would suggest to play this in your favour and make sure to appear grateful for minor corrections, even if it’s annoying. Praising them, usually when a crowd is present, will have the most impact and inflate their ego. Many vulnerable narcissists are paranoid and constantly need to feel better about themselves, which is why they become sneaky and undercutting. Rather than resisting and feeling oppressed, keep your boss onside and feeling valued and appreciated.

It’s also in their nature to derive pleasure from watching others suffer, so realising their actions cause you such agony will only motivate them towards more aggressive counter-behaviour. Instead, maintain a positive outlook and show shining confidence, which may cause their obnoxious behaviour to diminish. Believe in yourself and they will be forced to believe in you. But always keep it balanced, as there is nothing worse than making them feel threatened. Unfortunately, in such a case, there can only be one alpha male.

Surprisingly, there are also certain things you can learn from a narcissistic boss. Observe how he communicates, makes impressions on others and shows charisma. He will have the ability to inspire others. Ask yourself if there is anything about the way he conducts himself at work and socially that you can incorporate into your own public and private repertoire. These stature and devotion-seeking characters love nothing more than being role models for others. Let him know that.

Doctor’s prescription

Narcissism is one of the trickiest workplace behaviours to manage, especially when it is your boss with the enormous ego making you feel suffocated. Successfully working for a narcissist requires a sophisticated and balanced approach that involves praise and appreciation (albeit false). And if you borrow any of their charming and charismatic qualities, make sure you let them know about it.

Alex Davda is business psychologist and client director at Ashridge Executive Education, Hult International Business School, and is based in the Middle East. Email him at business@thenational.ae for advice on any work issues