To thine own self be true

The idea that we should be true to ourselves has a long and honourable history, and also has much to commend it. However, much depends on how it is interpreted. A very common interpretation is that it involves being clear what your ‘true’ self is and then acting in accordance with that. This entails digging deep into yourself to find out what your ‘true’ or real self is.

This is highly problematic, as it is based on an oversimplified understanding of what it means to have a ‘self’. The technical term for this is ‘essentialism’, because it is based on the false idea that everyone has a fixed ‘essence’, an unchanging underlying personality or identity. This is what is seen as a ‘true self’ – the ‘real me’, as it were.

So, what is wrong with this assumption? Why is it problematic? The short answer is that it is just too simplistic to account for the highly complex processes that shape who we are. It also assumes that we are fixed entities that stay pretty much the same throughout our lives. It therefore fails to appreciate the dynamic nature of selfhood. If our ‘true’ self were fixed, then no one could change, and yet we see evidence of people changing all around us.

What we need is a more sophisticated understanding of what it means to have a ‘self’. One such approach is to see our ‘self’ not as a fixed entity on a journey through life, but to understand our self to be that journey. This means understanding human existence as a constant process of ‘becoming’. This is not only a more accurate picture of selfhood (in so far as it fits more closely with the reality of people’s lives), it is also a more positive one. This is because the idea of constantly ‘becoming’ offers much greater scope for change, growth and development.

And this is where the notion of being true to yourself comes into its own. It is not about finding the real you, but more a case of becoming the you that you can be – fulfilling your potential. In other words: don’t try to find yourself, make yourself! Of course, that’s not necessarily easy, but trying to be who or what you want to be is what being true to yourself is all about.

A key part of this is the concept of ‘self-disempowerment’. It refers to the ways in which we prevent ourselves from moving forward. We can question our own ability, undermine our own confidence by relying on negative self-talk and generally convincing ourselves that there is nothing we can do to change our circumstances. Defeatism and cynicism are extreme forms of this, but milder forms are very common. For example, many people will not try a new experience because they have already convinced themselves that it is not for them. Similarly, many people are not open to learning; they stick to their existing views and perceptions and are not prepared to consider alternatives.

These are not just individual characteristics; these patterns are often ‘taught’ through social experiences. For example, sexist structures and cultures can make women and men feel trapped within their own gender roles. Similarly, the education system can, for many people, give strong messages about what they are and are not capable of – creating unnecessary barriers to self-fulfilment (or what the 19th century philosopher, Friedrich Nietzsche, called ‘self-overcoming’ – which can be seen as the opposite of self-disempowerment).

So, with these thoughts in mind, we can see that there is far more to being true to yourself than finding your ‘true’ self. ‘To thine own self be true’ challenges us to embrace the opportunities for growth and development we have and not write ourselves off (or allow societal prejudices to write us off).

Don’t oversimplify the complex or overcomplicate the simple

We live in a world of soundbites and dumbed-down media messages. Having so many people competing for our attention and trying to capture that attention in a short time is bound to lead to an oversimplification of complex issues much of the time. Add to this the fact that there are so many people trying to earn a living by coming up with simple solutions to complex problems and a strong picture of oversimplification starts to emerge.

Sometimes it is a straightforward matter of unscrupulous people trying to sell ‘snake oil’, magic potions to cure all our ills, ranging from wonder diets to get-rich-quick schemes. But much of the time there are people who are – up to a point – offering potentially helpful guidance and understanding, but doing so in a way that does not tell the whole story. For example, there is much that has been written from a psychological perspective which offers useful insights, but does not take account of the social context in which human psychology operates. By the same token, some people can offer important sociological insights, but without considering what these mean for people at a psychological level. If we want to have a sound understanding of people we need to have a more holistic perspective that incorporates both psychological and sociological aspects (hence the common use of the term ‘psychosocial’) rather than choosing between the two perspectives.

What can also lead to an oversimplification of complex issues is pressure of work. If you are under pressure to come up with a solution to someone’s problem (or your own), easy answers can have great appeal, even though easy answers are generally far removed from the best answers and are often dangerous. This can lead to digging ourselves into a deeper hole. That is, when one easy answer causes further problems, we may be tempted to look for another easy answer, rather than step back and draw on our professional knowledge, skills and values in a spirit of reflective practice.

I once heard someone say ‘The further away you are from something, the simpler it seems’. I think that is a very wise insight, as so often people don’t look closely enough at what they are dealing with, and the result can be a dangerously distorted picture – for example, when people don’t look closely enough at the risks involved in a situation and then go to one dangerous extreme (complacency) or the other (a risk-averse overreaction).

However, we also have to be aware of the dangers of the opposite of oversimplifying a complex situation, namely overcomplicating a simple matter. One example of this would be the tendency for many academic writers to present relatively straightforward concepts in very obscure, overly complex language. Sometimes concepts are very complex and very difficult to explain in simple terms, but that is not always the case.

In practice situations we can sometimes overcomplicate the simple because of anxiety. If we are dealing with a tense situation or one where emotions are running high, we may oversimplify, but the danger of going in the opposite direction can be present too. For example, I have come across many situations where someone is grieving and, for the moment, just needs reassurance and human warmth, but is actually being offered much more than that (reflecting the common false assumption that anyone who is grieving needs grief counselling).

So, how do make sure we get the balance right by not oversimplifying the complex and not overcomplicating the simple? Well, if I were to give a simple formula, I would be falling into the very trap I am warning against. What it boils down to is thinking situations through before we respond to them, so that we have chance to consider what level of complexity we are dealing with.

Robert Adams – a sad loss

Robert Adams was one of the most successful and highly respected authors of his generation. His death on New Year’s Eve at the age of 70 therefore means that the world of human services is now much the poorer.

He was a prolific author and editor, with his work being extremely well received in social work and social care and the human services more broadly. He shared with me and many others a commitment to trying to make sure that social work was not seen as something separate from the wider field of intervening in human problems. In all this his compassion and integrity came shining through.

Jo Campling, the renowned publishing adviser, was keen that Robert and I should work together, as she described us as kindred spirits. Two planned projects on which Robert and I could collaborate both collapsed through no fault of our own, so we never did get chance to work together directly, although I did have chapters published in several of his edited collection books. But, more importantly, we did become friends.

Robert had a long and varied career, but in whatever field he worked he was well aware of the importance of values and of the need to act in accordance with them. His complete consistency in this was a key part of what made him such a special person and such an asset to our profession.

In addition to his very impressive human services publishing track record, Robert was also a crime writer, producing several crime novels that were well received. This is further evidence of what a talented and resourceful man he was.

Sadly not everyone in the caring professions is a caring person, but Robert certainly was. If ever there was a role model for being a member of the caring professions Robert was it. I personally will miss Robert a great deal, but more significantly, the field of human services education will miss him immensely. Thankfully, Robert leaves an extensive legacy of a range of excellent publications that will offer important insights to current and future generations of students, practitioners and managers.

Dr Neil Thompson

Force of habit

In my People Solutions Sourcebook I write about the ‘Three Hs’ that are powerful influences on behaviour: head (reason); heart (passion or emotion) and habit. Which is more powerful will depend on the circumstances at any given time. For example, following a major loss heart is likely to be to the fore.

It’s also fair to say that these three sets of influences will affect each other – for example, our reasoning may well be affected by emotional issues at times (and vice versa, of course). But one thing that tends to remain constant most of the time is the power of habit. A major part of the reason for this is that habits establish ‘neural pathways’. That is, we ‘train’ our brain to react in certain ways, according to certain predefined patterns of behaviour and response. So, in a sense, a habit becomes an automatic, pre-programmed response. We do something so often that it becomes an established part of our ‘repertoire’ – we just do it without thinking about it. And that is why the phrase ‘force of habit’ is such an appropriate one.

But, and it’s a big but, that does not mean that habits become forces beyond our control, parts of our behaviour that we can do nothing about. That is an unwarranted defeatist approach, one that oversimplifies a much more complex picture. Neural pathways can be changed. They will continue to apply if nothing happens to change them, but steps can be taken to change them, of course.

This is where reflective practice comes in. A key part of reflective practice is self-awareness, being able to ‘tune in’ to what effect we are having on a situation and what effect it is having on us. This can include being aware of our habits and evaluating whether they help or hinder. We can then leave the positive habits well alone and let them continue to do their good work and focus on changing those habits that may be problematic in some way.

So, how do you change a habit? Basically it involves taking a more conscious approach to certain behaviours. For example, if you know that you tend to speak too quickly when you are nervous, then you need to train yourself to speak at normal speed when you are nervous. This would involve being self-aware enough to recognise that you are starting to feel nervous and then consciously controllingthe speed at which you are speaking (without going to the other extreme and speaking too slowly!). What you need to do consciously, carefully and deliberately to begin with will soon become established as a new habit – you will establish a new neural pathway. This time, though, it will be a more positive and helpful habit.

This may all sound simple and straightforward at one level, but what makes it more complex (and difficult at times) is: (i) being tuned in to what our habits are is not always easy (by their very nature they tend to operate without our knowing they are happening); and (ii) it can take time before we have sufficient confidence in our ability to change habits to be able to discipline ourselves into behaving in new ways.

What adds to the complexity is that I have focused here on trying to change habits of behaviour, but there are also habits involved in our emotional responses and our thinking patterns. Like behavioural habits these too can help or hinder, but they too can be changed with the help of reflective practice.

What it boils down to then is that habits are very powerful influences on our thoughts, feeling and actions, but they are not all-powerful. Reflective practice has an important role to play in helping us take greater control over what influences us.


Thompson, N. (2012) The People Solutions Sourcebook, 2nd edn, Basingstoke, Palgrave Macmillan. tsPSS 2e

Routes to Resilience: a guest post by Carolyn Barber

When we talk about physical health, we mean healthy habits, fitness, strength, agility, energy and so on. Mental health on the other hand has become synonymous with ill-health – depression, anxiety, stress, unable to cope, and above all stigma.

With physical health, we all know that at times we have to work harder at it. We all know that if we get flu, or if we have an operation, there will be a period of recovery needed. Sometimes we have to build ourselves up physically to take on a particular challenge – stamina if we plan to run a marathon, for example. No one imagines that if you get yourself into peak physical condition you never have to think about your physical well-being again.

The stigma which surrounds mental ill-health means that we are often ignorant about what contributes to good mental health, which habits are beneficial and can help build psychological strength and mental resilience in times of change, for example. And if you’re in the 25% of the adult population who are identified as experiencing mental ill-health, such as depression and anxiety – many people say that the stigma and attitudes of others are the hardest things to deal with, making recovery tougher than it needs to be.

For those working in the people professions, self-care in terms of good mental health and well-being, is a pressing concern. According to the Health and Safety Executive in their 2013 report, the ‘industries that reported the highest rates of total cases of work-related stress (three-year average) were human health and social work, education and public administration and defence.’

There are huge challenges in the changing political and economic context, as well as the organisational cultures associated with human health and social care services. A better awareness of how to take care of our own mental health strengthens our professional ability to help others in a climate of uncertainty.

The 5Cs framework represents five core components of good mental health:

Challenge – this is the way we grow in self-confidence, and develop a sense of competence and capability. ‘Challenge’ represents learning new things, taking risks and stepping outside our comfort zone, setting goals for ourselves.

Character – this is about how we understand and believe in our own personal values, strengths, skills and resources. We all have stories about our lives, but how do we tell them?

Composure – this is the ability to distance ourselves from our thoughts and reduce emotional intensity. It means learning how to still the mind, notice more, and develop our self-awareness.

Connection – this is about our relationships with others, our social networks, and our contribution to work, to our family, to the community.

Creativity – this represents the fun, child-like aspects of our nature which all too often we lose sight of as we grow older. It’s about using our imagination, developing our creative talents, and thinking outside the box.

The 5Cs framework is simply a way of organising information to make sense of complex ideas. It’s helpful to think of a framework rather like a travel map. Like a map, a framework can help us make decisions about the route we want to take. It can show us that there may be many different paths to get to the same place. Using a framework we can explain why we might try this or that path depending on our circumstances.

Carolyn Barber is a qualified social worker with over thirty years’ experience as a practitioner, manager, practice educator, researcher and trainer. She is the author of The Layperson’s Guide to Good Mental Health: Your A-Z for a Happier Life (2013) and a founder director of The Good Mental Health Cooperative, a social enterprise based in Hampshire. Her new e-learning course, Positive Mental Health, uses the 5C’s framework to explore self-care in relation to good mental health, well-being and resilience; develop a broader perspective on the research and theory around what contributes to good mental health; and identify specific interventions which can be applied in direct work to support people experiencing poor mental health and mental ill-health. For more information go to

Groups and Groupwork – Book Review

A – Z of Groups and Groupwork by Mark Doel and Timothy B. Kelly, Palgrave Macmillan, 2014, ISBN 978 0 230 30857 2, 9 + 241pp.

This book is part of a new series of A to Z books from Palgrave Macmillan. As the name implies, each book contains a set of dictionary-style definitions covering different aspects of the subject concerned, in this case groups and groupwork. Groupwork is a method that can be very effective in a variety of ways, a powerful way of bringing about much-needed change in what can often be very demanding circumstances. Sadly, it is not used as much as it used to be, but its value as a helpful resource remains unchanged and there is certainly much to be gained from making much fuller use of the empowering opportunities skilled groupwork offers.

Experience has taught me that any book that has Mark Doel’s name on the cover will have much to offer. He is one of those relatively rare authors who succeeds in discussing complex issues in an accessible way without oversimplifying them. In this new work he teams up with Timothy B. Kelly, another experienced groupworker, to produce an A to Z guide to groups and groupwork. The result is a well-written and very helpful overview of groupwork.

I believe this book will be helpful in a number of ways. For people who are undertaking groupwork, it will serve as a useful reference guide to be dipped in as and when required. For people who are new to groupwork it will be a useful introduction that gives a good flavour of what is involved in what they are about to embark on, including the challenges and the rewards. For students there will be much here to help them with assignments and their learning more broadly.

So, overall, this is a very welcome addition to the literature on this important topic.  As an A to Z guide should be, it is broad ranging in its scope. It is also clearly written and very well informed by two authors who quite obviously have considerable experience and expertise in the subject. Anyone involved in, or considering becoming involved in, groupwork should have a copy of this book.


Assessment in Child Care: Using and Developing Frameworks for Practice edited by Martin C. Calder and Simon Hackett, 2nd edn, Russell House Publishing, 2013, ISBN 978 1 905541 85 0, 384pp.

This is a new, revised edition of an established textbook. Working with children and young people in need of care and protection is complex and demanding work. Assessment is one of the major keys to effectiveness in this type of work, as it is a process of laying a foundation of understanding, a framework of meaning or narrative that helps us make sense of the situation we are dealing with. Developing a sound, helpful, accurate and reliable assessment is a highly skilled process, and so a well-resourced, wide-ranging book like this is to be welcomed.

In these bureaucratic, managerialist days I have seen far too many examples of assessment reports that do not do justice to the complexities involved, which do not achieve the level of professional understanding required for high-quality work. It is as if some people see assessment as just a process of filling in a form, when of course the reality is far more complex than that. This book is effective in getting across the message of just how complex and how important assessment is. It provides quite a comprehensive overview of the subject with chapters on a wide range of aspects.

Given that the book contains so many different chapters by different authors, it is perhaps inevitable that some chapters are better executed than others, but overall this is a well-written book with important things to say about important issues. It is not the sort of book that is likely to be read from cover to cover – although no doubt some people will, and will be all the better for doing so. It is more likely to be used as a reference source, and one that could and should be available to teams of staff charged with undertaking assessment work with vulnerable children and young people.

When it comes to concern about well-being, the well-being of children and young people can often be forgotten. The growing literature on well-being and happiness has little to say about children and young people, but this book provides an important contribution to our understanding of the needs of children and young people in need of care and protection.


Living and learning

Living and learning

It was Friedrich Nietzsche who said that what does not kill us makes us stronger, and he was nearly right. Only nearly? Yes, because much of what does not kill us has no effect on us whatsoever – it simply passes us by. Our life experience has the potential to make us stronger, but only if we capitalise on the opportunities presented. So, a more realistic aphorism would be: what does not kill us has the potential to make us stronger if we take the trouble to learn from that experience.

But much will depend on our understanding of what learning is all about, how the model of learning we adopt conceptualises it. For example, if we take the traditional model of learning as one of gathering facts and figures, filling our heads with information that may or may not be useful at a later date (the ‘banking‘ model of learning that Paulo Freire was so critical of), then that presents us with little scope for learning from life experiences.

What can also hold us back in terms of models of learning is the tendency to see learners as having fixed personalities (or ‘essences’, to use the technical term) – for example, when people say things like ‘it’s my nature, it’s just the way I am’, as if change is not possible. Such a model of learning assumes that the individual remains untouched by their learning, except for perhaps having added a few more bytes of information to their hard disk or giving them the opportunity to practise skills.

An alternative model of learning that can get us away from these limitations is what is known as existential learning, rooted in existentialist philosophy. According to this approach learners are not fixed entities to be topped up with additional information or more well-oiled skills. Learners are people on a life journey, changing in response to the circumstances they find themselves in. We are constantly faced with situations where we have to make decisions, where we have to choose which branch in the road we go down. Those decisions shape not only the direction we go in, but also who we are. That is, we are not fixed entities on a journey, we are that journey; the journey is a central part of our spirituality, our sense of who we are and how we fit into the wider world. For many that sense of spirituality comes from religion, but, whether religious or not, we all have a spiritual path we are following.

Not so long ago any mention of spirituality outside of religion would have been met with muttered barbs of ‘tree hugging’ and being ‘wired to a moonbeam’. But, increasingly now it is being recognised that spirituality is an important part of being human and that we have to get past any reluctance to engage with spiritual matters. Existential learning recognises this.

Existential learning is learning that changes us in some way, that empowers us to do things differently, to see things differently and, importantly, to feel things differently. Existential learning transforms us in some way. As Nietzsche would see it, it makes us stronger.

There is a parallel here with leadership, particularly self-leadership. A leader is not just someone who keeps the organisational wheels turning, but rather transforms the situation to make sure that they are turning in the right direction (following the best path). Self-leadership is about making sure we are clear about where we are going with our work and our lives more broadly (our path) and what decisions we need to make to follow that path and get where we want to be. Existential learning means making the changes we need to in order to be able to get the most out of our journey.

Existential learning is a key part of the Avenue Professional Development Programme:

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The Invisibility of Grief

I attended a conference once where one of the presenters said that when people undergo a major change in their lives they experience something very similar to grief. ‘Similar?’, I thought to myself. ‘No, it is more than similar, it is identical; it is grief’. Grief is our reaction to loss, not just our reaction to bereavement. This sounds a very straightforward statement to make, and yet I regularly encounter situations involving significant losses other than death where the people involved are not taking account of grief at all – even though I am sure they would do so if a death had occurred.

This is what I mean by the invisibility of grief. There are so many situations in which it is a significant factor and yet will often receive little or no consideration. I have come across social care workers who have been involved in settling older people into a residential setting (when increasing infirmity has necessitated giving up their home) who have given no thought to the grief the person concerned is likely to be experiencing. Similarly I have worked with child care staff who have not considered the grief involved in experiences of child abuse, a phenomenon characterised by many losses at many levels. Thankfully, I have also met many people who are well tuned in to loss and grief issues and respond very supportively and sensitively. However, it is the proportion of caring professionals who do not do so that causes me some degree of consternation.

I am not blaming or criticising such staff. If they have not had training on such issues and/or suitable guidance through supervision, then they cannot be criticised for not being aware of what they are not addressing.

Similar concerns occur in the wider workplace and not just in the caring professions. For example, employees may be given compassionate leave and, in some organisations at least, a very supportive response at a time of bereavement. However, if their loss is not death related, they may receive little or no support – even though losses unconnected with death can often be more impactful than a bereavement. For example, a worker whose spouse has been sent to prison may experience a stronger grief reaction than a worker whose grandparent has died (especially if they were not particularly close to their grandparent).
Kenneth Doka’s work on disenfranchised grief (Doka, 1989) has proven influential. A disenfranchised loss is one that is not recognised or socially sanctioned and does not therefore trigger off the type of social support people normal receive at the time of a significant loss. He identified three main forms of disenfranchisement: (i) the relationship is disenfranchised; for example, someone in a secret same-sex relationship – that is, one that is not ‘out’ – whose partner dies may receive little or no support if the person who has died is perceived as a flatmate or a lodger; (ii) the loss itself is disenfranchised; for example, a death by suicide may evoke less support than a less stigmatised cause of death; (iii) the griever is disenfranchised; for example, it is often assumed that people with learning disabilities do not grieve or that older people ‘get used to grief’. Corr (1998) added a fourth form when he made the important point that workplace losses can also be disenfranchised, as so many organisations are not geared up towards dealing with such matters (see Thompson, 2009).

We can also add a fifth form of disenfranchisement, namely losses that are not death related: divorce, homelessness, abuse, redundancy, becoming disabled or chronically sick, being a victim of a crime and/or violence and the myriad other losses that are part and parcel of life. Anything we put our heart into can lead to grief when we lose what we have made that emotional investment in. Grief is therefore a much wider concept than a response to death.

So, in the people professions – whether the caring professions or management and human resource practice across all sectors – we need to be attuned to issues of loss and grief and not fall into the sadly all-too-common trap of missing the significance of grief in situations where no actual death has occurred.

I have worked with many groups over the years (students at universities and practitioners and managers on training courses) where we have looked closely at just how significant a factor grief is in people’s problems – especially where that grief has not been acknowledged and given the attention it deserves. The result every time was a group of people who went away much better prepared for tuning in to loss issues. Such groups were also generally much more aware of how certain apparently inexplicable aspects of the situations they had been dealing with were now much more explicable.

Dr Neil Thompson is an independent writer, educator and adviser. He is the author of Grief and its Challenges (Palgrave Macmillan, 2012) and has also produced a DVD on working with loss ( His website is at


Corr, C. (1998) ‘Enhancing the Concept of Disenfranchised Grief’, paper presented at the annual meeting of the association for Death Education and Counseling, Chocago, IL, March.
Doka, K.J. (ed.) (1989) Disenfranchised Grief: Recognizing Hidden Sorrow, Lexington, MA, Lexington Books.
Doka, K.J. (ed.) (2002) Disenfranchised Grief: New Directions, Challenges and Strategies for Practice, Champaign, IL, Research Press.
Thompson, N. (2009) Loss, Grief and Trauma in the Workplace, Amityville, NY, Baywood.

Learn about grief with Neil’s book

Influencing organisational culture

‘Essentialism’ is the technical terms for the idea that each us has a fixed nature: we are who we are and there’s not a lot we can do about it. Despite ample evidence to show that this is a seriously flawed way of thinking, it remains a very common (mis)understanding of human psychology. While it would be foolish not to recognise very strong and lasting patterns of behaviour, though and emotional response in each of us, it would be equally foolish not to recognise that people can and do change.

Such changes can be self-initiated – that is, as a result of an explicit decision made: ‘I will be more patient from now on’; ‘I must cut down on fatty foods as I am worried about my cholesterol levels’; and so on. However, they are often in response to the circumstances we find ourselves in and we may not even notice we have changed, so subtle can the differences be. This is often the case in an organisational setting where the influence of other individuals, of groups and of the organisational culture can be very strong.

I want to now focus on the organisational culture issues as these can be particularly significant. This is because cultures influence us in very powerful but very subtle ways – we slide into commonly accepted norms and patterns, generally without recognising that this process is happening.

This can be good or bad, depending on the circumstances. For example, some cultures are very negative and are characterised by a degree of defeatism and cynicism, manifestations of low morale. On the other hand, cultures can be very positive influences, encouraging a supportive set of relationships, promoting learning, creativity and innovation and generating a sense of security. This is the hallmark of good teamwork – the sense of shared endeavour that makes people feel that, however challenging the workplace may be, ‘we are in this together’.

This is where leadership comes in. A major challenge for any leader is to be able to influence the culture in a positive direction, to bring about positive changes and to block negative ones. ‘Challenge’ is exactly the right word, as influencing a culture is a very difficult and demanding undertaking. But it is also a challenge that is worth investing time and energy in, as the positive benefits can be immense, while the price we pay for allowing a negative culture to persist is very high indeed.

Managers therefore need to take these issues very seriously and be prepared to develop the knowledge, skills and confidence to be able to shape cultures positively.  These can be developed, although not overnight. It involves building on our existing interpersonal skills to develop trust and credibility.

However, in my People Skills book, I make the point that it is not just managers who are leaders – professional staff can and should see themselves as leaders too. So, we all need to be thinking about what influence we can have on the culture around us and not just leave this to managers. For me this is part of self-leadership – the ability to be clear about where we are going with our work, career and life overall and helping to create the circumstances that will get us there plus the commitment to doing so.

Cultures are sets of habits, unwritten rules and taken-for-granted assumptions that develop into shared meanings. If we want to influence the culture in a positive direction, then we need to identify the negative elements and challenge them, while also recognising the positive elements and building on them.

How easy or otherwise it is to influence a culture will vary from circumstance to circumstance. Sometimes, it can be a long and difficult journey, but at other times, it can be relatively straightforward – for example, a culture characterised by a lack of communication can easily be changed by team members making a concerted effort to communicate with one another. Cultures are very powerful, but they are not all-powerful. We have a choice, we can either seek to influence our culture or we can resign ourselves to becoming passive victims of that culture, with all the detrimental effects that entails.

Neil Thompson’s latest book is People Management (Palgrave Macmillan, 2013), which is a follow up to his highly successful People Skills (3rd edn, Palgrave Macmillan, 2009) and the highly acclaimed The People Solutions Sourcebook (2nd edn, Palgrave Macmillan, 2012). His books are available from