By Lorraine Madden, Semann & Slattery

Leaders in early and middle years settings often ask how they can motivate their teams. Edward Deci, who together with Richard Ryan developed Self-Determination Theory, argues that this is the wrong question. He suggests a more helpful question is: ‘How can you create conditions within which others will motivate themselves?’ (Deci, 2012). Let’s take a step back and explore some of the key components of self-determination theory before going back to the Deci’s question.

 Self-determination theory

Self-determination theory is an evidence-based theory of human motivation, which recognises that people are moved to act (or not act) for different reasons, with motivation being the driving force behind these actions or inactions. Accordingly, motivation can be described as exiting along a continuum from autonomous motivation to controlled motivation Deci & Ryan, 2008; Ryan & Deci, 2000).

Autonomous motivation

Autonomous motivation refers to the pursuit of goals or activities that align with our values and that we identify with as important, that is, they are internally motivating. In autonomous motivation there is an element of willingness and choice, and interest and enjoyment. There is also a greater sense of purpose, meaning and satisfaction (“I love doing it). Autonomous motivation can also occur when there is a conscious valuing of a goal or task, such that it is accepted or owned as being personally important (“I can see it is important”).

Controlled motivation

Controlled motivation refers to the pursuit of goals and activities for extrinsic or externally motivated purposes. In controlled motivation, people may feel pressured or forced to act in a particular way, such as to avoid guilt or embarrassment, or to gain a sense of importance in the eyes of others (“I should do it”), or to gain a reward or avoid a punishment (“I have to do it”).

This continuum of motivation, detailing the different types of motivation, from intrinsic to extrinsic, is detailed below:


Adapted from Ryan & Deci (2000)

Understanding what motivates you

Think about something you do:

  • For the pure joy of doing it
  • Because you have to do it
  • Because you think you should.
  • For what you will gain

How does this play out in how you engage in these experiences and how you feel while doing them and afterwards?

Providing autonomy support

So back to our original question: How can you create conditions within which others will motivate themselves? Deci argues that the answer is to provide autonomy support to assist people to motivate themselves.

Deci (2012) proposes that to provide autonomy support we need to:

  • Consider people’s perspectives – Ask yourself how do they see the situation in order to better understand where they are coming from
  • Provide choice – Involve people in decision-making processes
  • Promote self initiation – Allow people to be self starters
  • Support exploration – Provide opportunities for people to try out new ideas and ways of doing things
  • Provide a meaningful rationale – When people understand the purpose of something they are more able to identify with it as being important.

Benefits of autonomous motivation

Deci (2012) also highlights a number of benefits associated with autonomous motivation. When people are autonomously motivated, he argues, they perform better, are more creative, better problem solvers, have more positive emotions, and better physical and psychological health.

A final word

By changing the question, from ‘How can I motivate others?’ to ‘How can I create conditions within which others will motivate themselves?’ we can take on a different role that is within our control in motivating others. This can lead to benefits for the individual while also having a flow on effect for the team and organisation.




Deci, E. L. (2012). Promoting Motivation, Health, and Excellence: Ed Deci at TEDxFlourCity.        [You tube video]. Retrieved from

Deci, E. & Ryan, R. M. (2008). Self-determination theory: A macrotheory of human motivation, development and health. Canadian Psychology, 49(3), 182-185.

Ryan, R. M. & Deci, E. L. (2000). Self-determination theory and the facilitation of intrinsic motivation, social development, and well-being. American Psychologist, 55(1), 68-78. read more →

By Lorraine Madden

Is the glass half empty or half full? What would you say? This well-known saying requires little explanation. Typically, even when we are looking at the same situation, we can see it or make sense of it in very different ways. These different ways of thinking, about problems, challenges and even people can all be described as examples of reframing.

Reframing is a useful technique that is used in social work (McCashen, 2005) and in coaching (Greene & Grant, 2003). McCashen (2005) defines reframing as follows:

‘Reframing helps people think differently about themselves and the problems they are facing. It involves exploring alternative perspectives on the same event, story or experience and enabling genuine choice of a preferred description. Reframing is aimed at creating possible positive descriptions’ (p. 63).

Greene and Grant (2003) describe it in the following way:

‘Reframing is about changing the meaning we give to events, not necessarily changing the events themselves’ (p. 41).

Both definitions highlight the potential of reframing in thinking about a current perspective in a new and different way. Reframing is also an opportunity to rethink the event or story in a more positive light. This is important because how we see a person, situation or challenge impacts on how we respond. With people we can either damage or strengthen the relationship, depending on the viewpoint we take. With situations, our perspective can stop us from taking action or alternatively, inspire us to take the first step towards reaching a goal.

Regardless of whether we are ‘coaching’ ourselves or someone else, reframing is a useful tool for thinking about and understanding people and situations in a different way or from a previously unconsidered perspective. For example:

  • Do we describe parents as ‘demanding’ or an advocate for their child?
  • Do we label children as challenging or having unmet emotional needs?
  • Do we see our peers and colleagues as not motivated, or motivated by something different to us?
  • Do we describe a relapse in making a change as a failure or an opportunity to celebrate progress to date and make some adjustments to the plan?
  • Do we reprimand ourselves for being nervous, or remind ourselves that being nervous might be a very normal response in a given situation?

Below is a list of statements with some possible reframing responses. Reframing responses can be statements, questions or a combination of both. You might also like to consider some different ways to respond.


Statement Reframe
“We have tried that already…” So we have a good idea about what doesn’t work. What can we do differently this time?
“It has been an absolute failure.” An absolute failure? Which bits did work? What can we learn from what happened? What might we do next time?
“We don’t have the time to do any of that.” What can we stop doing in order to make time? Which bits do we have time for?
“Just ignore it. That child is just doing that to get attention?” I wonder what the child is trying to tell us that we just aren’t getting? What do we need to do to better understand them?
“That parent isn’t interested in being involved. That’s just the way they are!” I wonder what barriers exist that might disable parents from participating fully?

Adapted from Greene & Grant (2003)

Why not brainstorm some of the labels, statements or perspectives that are creating barriers to successful relationships, positive changes or goal attainment, and think about what other understandings or viewpoints might be possible. Try to suspend judgments and remain curious about different ways to understand the person, event or challenge. You might also like to brainstorm ideas with colleagues or friends, before deciding on a new way of thinking, and potentially a new course of action.

And finally, back to the question of whether the glass is half empty or half full…. perhaps the glass is always full!


Greene, J. & Grant, A. M. (2003). Solution-Focused Coaching: Managing people in a complex world. Harlow:Pearson Educated Limited.

McCashen, W. (2005). The Strengths Approach. Bendigo: St Luke’s Innovative Resources.

Image source

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10 Sep 2014
September 10, 2014

Strengths spotting

Coaching, Leadership 0 Comment

Lorraine Madden

8 September 2014

Much has been written about the benefits of using our strengths across all aspects of our lives. Interestingly, many of us have difficulty identifying strengths. In addition, most people who can name their strengths say they don’t use them all that much (Biswas-Diener, Kashdan & Minhas, 2011).

There are a number of questionnaires and assessments that can be used to determine a person’s strengths. Some are free, such as the Values in Action (VIA) Survey of Character Strengths. Other can be purchased for a fee, such as Realise2 and the Clifton Strengths Finder.

Discovering our strengths through a survey or assessment tool is helpful for a number of reasons. Importantly, it gives us a tool with which to better understand, articulate and utilise our strengths, which can make us happier, more productive, engaged, energised, resilient and confident (Linley, Willars & Biswas-Diener, 2010). This knowledge also helps us to notice, describe and talk about the strengths we see in others, and how using these strengths impacts on them and on others.

Linley (2008) describes the ability to notice strengths in others as strengths spotting. Strengths spotting means we are actively seeking to notice what people are doing when they are at their best. He provides the following list of ‘telltale signs’ of strengths use:

  • A sense of energy and engagement when using the strength
  • Losing a sense of time when using the strength
  • Rapid learning of knowledge and skills associated with the strength
  • A repeated pattern of successful performance using the strength
  • Exemplary levels of performance using the strength
  • Consistently getting the task donethat requires the use of the strength
  • Prioritising tasks that require the use of the strength
  • Feeling a strong desire or longing to use the strength
  • Being drawn to do things that play to the strength (Linley, 2008, pp. 74-75).

Asking someone to talk about what they are doing when they are at their best can also reveal a number of telltale signs indicating strengths use. Linley describes an activity he used with a group of students in which he asked them to first talk about something they dislike or find challenging, followed by something they love doing. You might like to try this with people you know. Look and listen for changes in energy and emotion; body language and gesture; voice quality, such as pitch and tone; word selection; and the delivery and impact of the story.

Refining your strengths spotting skills enhances awareness and understanding of your own strengths and the strengths of others, increasing the potential of using your strengths more frequently and effectively, resulting in greater benefits, for you and for others.

There is a lot you can do to better understand and refine your strengths spotting skills:

  1. To find out more about your strengths spotting skills, you can complete a strengths spotting scale. To access the scale go to:
  2. To read Linley’s complete chapter on strengths spotting go to:



Biswas-Diener, R., Kashdan, T. B. & Minhas, G. (2011).A dynamic approach to psychological strength development andIntervention. The Journal of Positive Psychology, 6(2), 1-6-118.

Linley, A. (2008). Average to A+: Realising Strengths in Yourself and Others. Coventry, England: CAPP Press.

Linley, A., Willars, J. & Biswas-Diener, R. (2010). The Strengths Book. Coventry, England: CAPP Press.

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This blog is the fourth in a series of five that explores the art of asking the proper question. In the last blog I looked at solution-focused questions. In this blog I offer some examples of solution-focused questions.

Examples of solution-focused questions

The following examples are offered tentatively and as suggestions only. Please note, this is not an exhaustive list, and certainly not one you would work through from beginning to end. In getting started, you might like to select one or two to try out, as appropriate and relevant to the conversation. You might also like to add your own to this list!

Exploring goals

–       What is the most important thing for you/us to be talking about right now?

–       What is the best possible outcome you are hoping for?

–       What would you like to happen that’s not happening now?

–       What do you hope to achieve from doing that? What would that give you?

–       Imagine you/your workplace twelve months from now. What would you like to be happening?

–       You have identified a number of issues and concerns. Which one is the most important one to start with?

–       What seems most achievable or manageable for you right now?

Exploring what’s happening

–       What’s currently happening?

–       Can you tell me a little more about that?

–       Can you give me an example of what that looks like?

–       What are others noticing about what’s happening?

–       What are your thoughts/feelings about what’s happening?

–       At what times throughout the day is this issue most evident/less evident?

–       When is the issue not happening/less of a concern? How is this different to other times?

Exploring options

–       What has worked for you in the past?

–       How can you move closer towards your goal?

–       What is the first step you could take?

–       Who can support you in making this change?

–       What support would you like from me?

–       What might be the pros and cons (or costs and benefits) of this course of action?

–       I wonder if there might be other possibilities you/we haven’t thought about?

–       Which of the options we discussed is the best possible fit for you right now?

–       How confident are you about taking this step? What would need to happen for you to feel more confident?

–       What are some of the obstacles that might get in the way? What can you do to overcome these obstacles should they arise?

–       Would you like to add a suggestion from me? (Offered tentatively and with permission)

–       How will you keep track of your progress? Measure your steps forward?

–       When would you like to check in again to see how things are going?

 Exploring progress and next steps

–       What’s changed? How are things different?

–       What are you most excited about/most proud of?

–       What worked well? What didn’t work so well?

–       What did you learn?

–       How would you do things differently next time?

–       What barriers have you overcome? How did you do this?

–       Where to from here? What are your next steps you will take?

–       Now that you have made some progress towards your goal, how will you ensure you stay on track?



Grant, A. M. (n.d.). The GROW Coaching Checklist [Handout]. Retrieved from read more →

This blog is the third in a series of five that explores the art of asking the proper question. In the last blog I looked at closed and open questions. In this blog, I will focus more specifically on asking solution-focused questions.

Solution-focused questions

Open questions that help us keep up moving forward in the direction of our goals are sometimes referred to as solution-focused questions. A study by Grant and O’Connor (2010) examined the effects of solution-focused and problem-focused coaching questions using an exploratory pilot study. The study found both problem-focused and solution-focused questions helped participants make progress towards a desired outcome. However, this was more so for participants who were asked solution-focused questions. In addition, solution-focused questions were found to have a greater impact on increasing positive emotions and self-efficacy, and helped participants to have a better understanding of the nature of the problem.

Solution-focused questions can be used in a number of ways. They can help us to:

–       Explore our uncertainty or ambivalence about making a change

–       Articulate our thoughts and feelings about a given situation

–       Raise awareness about our strengths, successes and achievements

–       Rethink our current way of thinking from another perspective

–       Imagine (or reimagine) a desired or best possible future

–       Gain clarity about a goal or goals

–       Build confidence, generate hope, and create a more positive mindset

–       Identify a range of options, strategies and action steps to achieve a goal

–       Evaluate progress towards our goals.

So what are some examples of these better, powerful, ‘magic’, solution-focused questions? To begin with, there is no ultimate list, although Bannink (2006) did come up with 1,001 of them! The best solution-focused questions need to be considered in the context of the current situation, the people involved in the conversation, the issues at hand, and the desired outcome.


Bannink, F. (2006). 1001 Solution-focused Questions. New York: W. W. Norton & Company.

Grant, A. M. & O’Connor, S. A. (2010). The differential effects of solution-focused and problem-focused coaching questions: a pilot study with implications for practice. Industrial and Commercial Training, 41(2), 102-111. read more →

This blog is the second in a series of five that explores the art of asking the proper question. Having introduced the importance of asking questions in our initial blog, I will now explore two different types of questions.

Different types of questions

Closed and open questions are two types of questions you may already be familiar with (Greene & Grant, 2003). Closed questions are typically used to obtain factual information and to check for accuracy. For example: Where do you live? Have you received coaching before? So what I am hearing you say is that reading isn’t your preferred way of learning. Have I got that right? While they have a purpose, closed questions don’t facilitate an interesting, thought provoking conversation in the same way that open questions can.

Open questions have the potential to promote learning and discovery, share thoughts and feelings, generate new ideas and possibilities and even facilitate positive change. However, in asking open questions, we need to take care we are asking the ‘better’ question (Tighe, 2011).

In finding the better question, much of the literature suggests we refrain from asking ‘why’ questions (See Tighe, 2011; Starr, 2008; Greene & Grant, 2003). Despite our intentions, ‘why’ questions can be interpreted as accusing, critical and judgmental. Asking why questions can force people to feel a need to justify themselves or defend their position. In addition, why questions tend to keep us stuck in the problem, which is not always helpful in generating solutions that keep us moving forward (Greene & Grant, 2003). Alternatively, questions more likely to open up a conversation in a way that promotes greater respect, interest and curiosity are those beginning with what, when, where, how and which (Tighe, 2011).

Consider the following questions and your reaction to them:

–     Why did you do that?

Compared with:

–       What was the outcome you were hoping for?

–       How did that approach help you achieve your goal?

–       What did you learn by doing it that way?


Greene, J. & Grant, A. M. (2003). Solution-focused Coaching: Managing people in a complex world. Harlow: Pearson Education Limited.

Starr, J. (2008). The Coaching Manual. Harlow: Pearson Education Limited.

Tighe, L. (2011). The Answer: Improve Your Life By Asking Better Questions. [eBook]. Published by read more →

By Lorraine Madden

Asking QuestionsAlbert Einstein (n.d.) is quoted to have said “If I had an hour to solve a problem and my life depended on the solution, I would spend the first 55 minutes determining the proper question to ask, for once I know the proper question, I could solve the problem in less than five minutes”.

This blog is the first of a series of five that explores the art of asking the proper question. This blog introduces the importance of asking questions and offers some factors to consider. The second blog will explore two different types of questions: closed and open questions. The third focuses on asking solution focused questions. The fourth blog provides some examples of open ended, solution focused questions, and the fifth and final blog offers some final points to consider to enhance your questioning skills.

About asking questions

Much has been written about asking questions. We can read about the better question (Tighe, 2011); the powerful question (Greene & Grant, 2003; Starr, 2008); the magic wand question (O’Hanlon & Beadle, 2005); and the solution-focused question (Bannink, 2006), to name a few.

Questions are a critical component of our conversations (and relationships) with others. Asking questions helps us to acquire information, check facts, gain new insights, broaden perspectives, determine options, find solutions and build relationships. Asking questions of others and of ourselves is also an important feature of reflective practice.

In thinking about the questions you might use in a given situation, it can be helpful to reflect on your relationship with the person, the purpose of the conversation, and your intentions going into it, for yourself and the other person (Patterson, Grenny, McMillan & Switzler, 2002). This will help you determine the questions you might ask. Approaching the conversation with curiosity and an open mind will also inform your question choice.


Bannink, F. (2006). 1001 Solution-focused Questions. New York: W. W. Norton & Company.
Einstein, A. (n.d.). Retrieved from
Greene, J. & Grant, A. M. (2003). Solution-focused Coaching: Managing people in a complex world. Harlow: Pearson Education Limited.
O’Hanlon, B. & Beadle, S. (2005). A Field Guide to Possibility Land: Possibility Therapy Methods. London: BT Press.
Patterson, K., Grenny, J., McMillan, R. & Switzler, A. (2002). Crucial Conversations: Tools for talking when the stakes are high. New York: McGraw-Hill.
Starr, J. (2008). The Coaching Manual. Harlow: Pearson Education Limited.
Tighe, L. (2011). The Answer: Improve Your Life By Asking Better Questions. [eBook]. Published by read more →

Written by: Lorraine Madden, Associate @ Semann & Slattery

There is a strong evidence base about the benefits of using strengths at work. Discovering and using strengths has been found to help people achieve their goals, increase positive emotions and wellbeing, and enhance workplace performance (Linely, Willars & Biswas-Diener, 2010). Click on the following links to read more about the evidence base for using strengths:

Linely (2008) defines a strength as ‘a preexisting capacity for a particular way of behaving, thinking, or feeling that is authentic and energising to the user, and enables optimal functioning, development and performance’ (p. 9). He also argues that ‘realising our strengths is the smallest thing we can do to make the biggest difference’ (2008, p. 47)

Clearly, the research is compelling. However, we can’t utilise our strengths if we don’t know what they are! All to often, when people are asked to name their strengths, they struggle to do so. Interestingly, they can be quick to name the things they are not good at, or their so-called weaknesses.

Don’t despair! There are a number of resources available to help you identify your strengths. One that is well utilised is the Values in Action (VIA) Survey of Character Strengths (Peterson & Seligman, 2004). The survey measures a person’s twenty-four character strengths. The results provide, in rank order, a person’s character strengths from 1-24, including their top five ‘signature strengths’. To complete the survey, go to Click on register and complete the free registration, prior to completing the survey itself. Allow yourself about 30 minutes to complete the survey.

When you get your results, some of you may be tempted to focus on those ‘strengths’ at the bottom of the list. Certainly, there may be some instances in which you may want to develop strengths lower down the order. However, where possible, look for opportunities to maximise the use of your signature strengths. Linely and his colleagues argue that in some instances it can be helpful to pair a top strength with a lesser one, in order to reach a goal. They also propose using a team approach, working with colleagues to utilise their strengths, together with your own, to achieve a desired result.

As a word of caution, Linely and his colleagues advise you take care not to overplay your strengths. Of course it is appealing to use what comes naturally to you, you are good at, and find energising. However, take care to ensure they are appropriate to the situation, context and people involved.

Why not make an appointment with yourself today (or this week) to complete the VIA Survey of Character Strengths. Suggest your colleagues to do the same so you can compare your results, remembering this is not a competition, as all strengths have value. Reflect on how you are currently using your signature strengths, both individually and collectively, and look for opportunities to ultilise them more frequently.

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Lets face it time waits for no one! Time keeps ticking away regardless of our efforts to squeeze in more and more into our day.

The question then stands: Can we really be successful at time management. Clearly no one can manage time. Maybe this is why it is a source of constant frustration for so many people in every industry and organisation.

Therefore where should our focus lay? It’s all about us! We must turn our attention from that which we cannot manage, time, and focus on that which we can manage, ourselves.

We need to ask ourselves, what am I being coerced by, which is distracting me from using my time efficiently? What is keeping me from achieving my goals? Why do I allow seemingly unimportant things to side-track my purpose? Once we identify the answers to these questions we can begin to unpack our priorities, unlock our potentialities and begin to stand firm on behaviour which will strategically help us work towards achieving our goals.

When we start becoming more strategic around how we use our time the impact is wide and deep. The areas influenced are an impressive list:

  • Improved work-life balance
  • Increased productivity
  • Lower stress levels
  • Created opportunities for the important or what we do best
  • Developed delegation skillset and organizational skills
  • Enabled goal achievement

Let me offer five steps that may help you begin this process of reclaiming your authority for the purpose of achieving your goals within the time allocated.

  1. Prioritize actions for goal achievement
  2. Analyze what needs to be done and identify each actions purpose against your goals
  3. Filter out distractions, take authority of your space and be deliberate in who influences your focus
  4. Schedule in key people to enable success
  5. Execute your plan with mindfulness and purpose with key people around you, stay focused and always flexible

Remember, you are the only one who can achieve success in this aspect of your life and career. You must become the achieve ingredient in self-regulation and not a passive recipient; simply responding to other people’s agenda.

Now is the time to step up, identify your priorities and goals, action them purposefully and be the change you want to see. read more →

By Colin Slattery. Director at Semann & Slattery.

We’ve all been told that gossip and rumour is an evil scourge of the workplace and must be stopped at all costs. There are numerous articles offering advice on how to kill the poisonous grapevine. We follow this advice and then wonder why it doesn’t work and the grapevine continues to flourish. The reason is that gossip intrigues human nature. Yes, gossip does serve a real purpose in our lives and this blog post will help you understand what this is and then how we might go about containing and shaping and pruning the grapevine rather than kill it outright.

Gossip is a term that comes from the old English word “God-sib” or godparent. In early modern England, when a birth was about to occur, women would gather at the home of the family and share stories while waiting for the arrival of the newborn. Over time our association with the word gossip has become negative and we focus on the negative aspects of it.

However, in some instances gossip, in the workplace, can serve a purpose. Research from different disciplines has demonstrated that gossip is useful in a number of ways including maintaining social cohesion; making comparison with others; to obtain power; reduce stress and anxiety and as entertainment.

So when is gossip good and when is it bad? The blurring of the line between good gossip and bad gossip will depend on the intent of the person telling the news and the way it is told. The news of a pregnancy in the workplace is usually a good news story.

“Hey did you hear the news? Kim is pregnant and expecting twins! She is so happy.”

This example may be seen as good gossip. However, if we add a few bits here and there we can make it not so great.

“Hey, come over here. You didn’t hear it from me, but, you know how Kim has been desperately wanting to get Bill to marry her? Well now she’s pregnant! No wonder she is so happy. What do you think?”

In this example the story is the same but with a twist. Our storyteller has decided to embellish it a little with their personal view of the situation and innuendo to cast doubt over Kim’s motive in falling pregnant. Obviously this has the ability to hurt the subject of the gossip.

So how do we trim the grapevine and keep it under control? Unfortunately there are no quick fixes, especially if gossip has been allowed to flourish in a workplace. Some things that may be useful include:

  • not passing on negative information about a colleague no matter how juicy it sounds;
  • confronting the gossiper if possible (however there are usually power issues at play which make this difficult);
  • displaying professionalism and not engaging in the darker aspects of the gossip by asking – “I wonder how Kim would feel if she heard us talking about her like this”.

Gossip is one of those difficult and secretive subjects that occurs in the workplace. It does serve a functional purpose but has a dark side and we all have a part to play to make sure our grapevine doesn’t become poisonous. It is important that we remember our collective roles in ensuring that the workplace is a safe, pleasant and productive place for all including staff.

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