A journey of 1000 miles begins with the first step. Those ancient sayings always sound so wise don’t they? And when it’s a literal journey, like walking the Camino de Santiago or the Great Wall of China, it’s easy enough to work out what the first step is.
But what if it’s not a literal journey? What if you’re using it as an analogy – the ‘j’ word as they call it on Strictly Come Dancing, or the journey of X Factor contestants? Maybe even then first step isn’t so difficult to work out – accept when the BBC ask you onto Strictly, turn up for the X Factor audition. Sometimes though, the first step isn’t so obvious. Or you find you take a step, but it doesn’t take you in the right direction. You take the first step, but then give up before you reach your goal. (Been there, done that, got the t-shirt – so many times.)
Last year, I started my weight loss journey. Yes, this is one of those things I’ve tried so many times and given up because it got too difficult. This time it’s different. Yes, really. What’s different about it is that I have learned how to overcome setbacks. I’ve learned to keep going, even when the going gets tough, and get back on the diet and exercise horse after Christmas, birthday meals out, felt a bit down so I ate all the food….
I might also be seeing how many cliches I can shoe horn into this post!
Stay with me on this – it might not be obvious how this helps you at work, but I’ll get to it. First, I’d like to share with you what makes the difference this time. My first step was to commit to exercise three times a week for eight weeks. I made this a public pledge on stickk.com. I was doing no exercise at all. I wore a fitbit, and I was averaging 3000 – 4500 steps a day, and doing no other type of exercise. So I didn’t prescribe what type of exercise it had to be – going to the gym for a class, or just a gym session, or even going for a 20 minute walk. All counted, I just had to do three in a week.
Five things made the difference for me
Let’s look at each of these in a little more details
Making a public commitment
Owain Service and Rory Gallagher in their book, Think Small, say that making yourself publicly accountable is one of the foundations of creating good habits successfully. Stickk.com is a great place to do this. You can make a pledge of any kind, and get someone to check up on you. As an added incentive, you can pledge that you will pay a fine if you don’t succeed – a donation to a cause you don’t support, direct to your referee, or to stickk.com itself. I couldn’t even bring myself to pledge a donation to the Conservative Party as an incentive to stick to my pledge, so I went for paying the website. In the event, however, I achieved three sessions for the full eight weeks. But if you feel you need the extra discipline of the threat of your hard earned money going to someone you detest, the option is there!
Making the commitment to myself
The discipline of the pledge helped me without a doubt, but I’d also been reading a lot of things where a commitment to oneself kept coming up. This resonated strongly with me, and I decided I was going to do this, exercise more, for me. It became really important for me to follow through, whereas before, without being very specific, I frequently let myself down.
I didn’t set out to stick to a restrictive diet, do one hour classes three times a week, walk 10,000 steps a day or any other goal that would have been too much. If I did a 20 minute walk, I counted that. Sometimes I did 30, but I was happy if I’d done 20. Or I did a 30 minute class. (Signing up for a class was another way I ensured I was committed. Very useful in the early days.) Three a week was do-able. Five, was more than a challenge, it would have been too hard.
Building on success
Achieving my exercise target gave me such a lift. Charles Duhigg, in The Power of Habit talks about a cornerstone habit. I always felt that regular exercise would be a cornerstone habit for me. It encourages me to eat more healthy food, and less junk. About four weeks in, I decided to start a low carb plan, and log food in My Fitness Pal. But the cornerstone habit is a bit more significant than that. Just realising that I could succeed in an area of my life I’d always struggled with made me more motivated in other areas. I developed self discipline. Turned down food I wanted really. Left for the gym for early classes, leaving home at 5.40 or 6 am. Went for a walk when it was pouring with rain and I didn’t want to.
I also discovered that My Fitness Pal gives you more calories if you’re more active, so exercise got me more food! In just over nine months, I have lost 3 stone (42 lbs, or 19 kg)
I found that I became more self disciplined with my work projects too. Bonus. And demonstrates the power of the cornerstone habit.
In The 12 week year, Brian P Moran and Michael Lennington, set out a process for measuring your progress. They talk about lead indicators and lag indicators. Lag indicators are the ones we usually focus on with weight loss for example. Have we lost weight on the scales this week? How much? Lead indicators though, help to tell as you’re going along how likely are you to achieve the lag targets. If you need to stick to a plan of 1200 calories to lose 1lb a week (and My Fitness Pal or a Fitbit will work these things out for you) what you need to measure is whether you adhered to the plan.
Moran and Lennington say that 85% implementation rate will usually result in success with the lag indicators. Not a precise science for everything of course, but at least you have measurements to monitor right? You can adjust, if you are monitoring on a weekly basis.
So what’s all this got to do with being happy at work?
These five success factors can all be transferred to any goal you have in life. If you’re not happy at work and you know you need to make a change, where do you start? What’s your first step? Starting small can have a profound effect, so I suggest you start small.
There are seven things you can do today that will help you to be happier at work. They are all simple (though not necessarily easy) and some are very simple indeed.
You can get a download here with more about these seven things.
Make your commitment here. Start small, pick one. Tell me in the comments which one, and how often you will do it. Or choose your own, it's your commitment. I'll just help you follow through.
Last time, I said that working relationships will be smoother if you stop and consider someone else’s position before reacting. Easier said than done. Have you ever wanted to react angrily at work to something someone said or did? Have you given in to that temptation? How did it work out if you did?
What happens without empathy?
My natural reaction can be a little hot headed in some situations. I remember losing my temper with an employee when I was chair of trustees for a small charity. She provoked me, but that’s not really a legitimate reason. It was in front of other staff too, which made it an even worse mistake. If I’d tried harder to see things from her perspective – loss of funding meant the future of the charity, and with it her job, were at risk, she’d worked there for about 20 years, who was I to come in and start telling her what to do, what did I know? – maybe we wouldn’t have been in a position where she continually provoked me. And maybe, even if she had, I’d have found it easier to remain calm.
Going back even further, I had a manager who bullied me for a long time. I used to fantasise about standing in the doorway of her office gunning her down with a machine gun. Someone said that was too fast an end to her, but for me it captured the explosive nature of my anger. And I’m not a violent person. This work situation took away my confidence for a long time, and I harboured ill feelings towards her for a long time too. But as I’ve grown, learned more about what makes us happy, what makes us confident and powerful, I eventually started to see things from her point of view. She was a manager of an office of 50 staff, responsible for reaching financial targets for law enforcement. She was probably under pressure herself from senior management to achieve those targets. Who knows what stress she was feeling, but I never considered this back then.
A rebellious team leader, arguing with her over changes, backing the team against her, she reacted inappropriately by using intimidating tactics to get me to fall into line. They didn’t work, resulting in a breakdown of our working relationship. If I’d stopped to consider what she needed to achieve in running the office, shown some empathy for the pressures she was under, perhaps we’d have been an awesome team. I think she had some things to learn about managing people, but I can’t escape responsibility for this situation.
I first came across empathy as an important skill in the workplace in Daniel Goleman’s article for the Harvard Business Review. Originally published in 1996, it features in their 10 must reads published in 2011. Goleman’s article is aimed at leaders, but I believe we can all benefit from nurturing this critical life skill.
Back when he first wrote this, Goleman pointed out that empathy wasn’t seen as businesslike. Now however, we see articles in Inc - Why Empathy Is the Most Important Skill You'll Ever Need to Succeed and Forbes - Why Empathy Matters In The Workplace. We get whole books devoted to helping us improve our emotional intelligence (EQ).
One way is to use a test, such as that in Bradberry and Greaves’ book, reference below. Another is to ask people you trust to be honest with you. If your working relationships are such that you cannot ask this question of anyone at work, or you believe that your team won’t feel safe enough to tell you, then you have a significant amount of learning to do. But even if you do have trusted advisers, be prepared for surprises. It can be difficult to know how we’re perceived by others unless we make the effort to find out, and it can be difficult to hear the answers.
And a third option – look inside yourself. Do you feel you have empathy? Do you feel you could improve? On the whole, people would describe me as empathetic, but there are some situations where I don’t put myself effectively in the other person’s shoes. I described a couple above, but they are ancient history now. Last week at the improv course, I was acting as a mother pleading with her child to come home. I missed a couple of things, and if that had been a real conversation, could have had serious implications. (I know it’s only pretend, but empathy and listening skills are central to good improv, as I said here.) I’m also pretty sure my husband would say I don’t see things from his point of view often enough.
So it’s situational. But good self awareness (one of the other components of EQ) will ensure that you know where your strengths and weaknesses are, and where you want to improve.
Like all of the components of emotional intelligence, we can learn empathy, but it takes commitment and reflective practice. Goleman himself says the process is not easy. The rewards, however, are worth the effort. Not just better working relationships, but less stress and better personal relationships too. So what can you do? Practice, is the short answer.
Develop your listening skills
The pretend situation I mentioned above, where I was pleading with a child to come home – humour me while I use that as an example. The situation was that my daughter (played by a thirty-ish guy from Barbados) had run away from home because Daddy didn’t love her because he wanted her to be a boy. I’m not sure what age she was meant to be, but in my head, around five years old. I totally missed the point about Daddy wanting her to be a boy, and didn’t address this in my responses. How tragic would this be if a parent missed such a comment from their daughter, whatever age she was? While we were playing this for laughs I’m sure this will have happened in reality, and was a stark reminder to me about picking up on things, even if they’re said in passing. Often people reveal their true feelings subtly, or inadvertently. (I’m not suggesting my improv colleague was on that occasion though )
Take some time out to consider an interaction that didn’t go how you wanted it to go. Think about what that felt like for the other person. Do you think they felt heard? Years ago, when I was in the civil service, and much was done in a bureaucratic way, I often said the managers I respected were those who let me put my point of view. They didn’t have to accept it – if they acknowledged my point, but said they wanted something done differently regardless of my points, I would accept that – they were the boss, and I was happy to accept that sometimes they would make a decision I didn’t agree with. And this was before I understood, or had even heard of, emotional intelligence. The managers I rebelled against were the ones I felt didn’t listen. It’s important to acknowledge another viewpoint, even if you have reasons for not changing your stance. If you can explain those reasons, so much the better. For empathy to be effective, the other party has to feel your empathy. It’s no good if you didn’t communicate it effectively.
Watch for hidden cues
Sometimes people say one thing, but don’t really feel it. Learn to watch for incongruence, saying yes and shaking the head no, for example. It may not be in the gestures or facial expressions, it may be in the tone of voice. Agreeing to something in a tone of voice that’s not very convincing, shows no enthusiasm. Pick up on these – ask what’s holding them back, what misgivings do they have? Be prepared though, for people still not to give you the full information. Sometimes they might not be fully aware themselves what the problem is, and sometimes they may not be ready to share it, or want to share it with you. It’s all a work in progress though, as you develop your skill in communicating your empathy, others will grow to trust you more and be more ready to be honest with you.
Get a tailored report from Talent Smart
If you buy the Bradberry and Greaves book, it includes a code for an online assessment, which gives you resources and advice for the skills you need to improve. (I have no affiliation to Talent Smart, just think it's a useful book.)
Get a coach
Whilst you can ask a trusted friend or colleague to mentor you or give you honest feedback, and possibly even help you by picking up on times you could do better, there is no subsititute for coaching.
Let me know in the comments below - stating it gives it substance, and we can hold you accountable.