What do we mean by positive intent? I was reminded this week of the importance of belonging, and feeling like people have your back. I said a few weeks back that the principles of improv include making sure your colleagues look good. It embraces looking after them, making sure they are ok. It was a perfect chance to see this in action, because we did our first live performance this week, a showcase in front of family and friends. Not a work situation, but I can see the parallels.
L'esprit de l'escalier
At times, I was a bit like a rabbit in the headlights. I’m a little slow to catch onto ideas, so often I didn’t know how to react. That French phrase, l’esprit de l’escalier, oh my goodness, how many of those have I had? When you think of the funny response on the way out. But actually, there were also some that I had there and then, but wasn’t quick enough to jump in, and someone moved the action on. I found myself frustrated that I’d got a potentially funny story line, but lost the chance to use it.
Audience members amongst my friends said that a couple of the performers dominated. There are some big personalities involved. I also heard that one of the performers was upset about this, though I was not witness to the discussion they had.
I just wanted to share some of my feelings about the experience, and to examine my responses a bit more closely.
There have been moments where I didn’t quite feel like I belonged. I’m older than everyone else, and that doesn’t usually bother me. Some friendships have been forged, meeting up at the weekend, sharing stories of dating and how that’s going. I’ve been married for donkey’s years and I’m a grandma, so obviously that social life is not for me. Some in jokes have developed amongst the lads, and I didn’t always feel included with those.
On the other hand, there were others who I really bonded with, and the tutor was always supportive and encouraging to those of us who were less confident in our ability to perform. I really liked a couple of the guys (I liked them all to be honest, even with the factors I just mentioned) and found them to be supportive too – I definitely felt that a couple of them went out of their way to help me. There was only one other woman on the course, aside from the tutor, so we three were outnumbered by seven men. Again, that wasn’t an issue, but I felt that the other woman also made an effort to include me, even though we are quite different personalities and she is much younger.
But then the actual performance brought up some issues. Like I said, I was a rabbit in the headlights for much of the time. My dominant feeling afterwards was to be annoyed at myself for missing opportunities. And then I felt bad too, because that meant I didn’t pick up on something someone else had said, even after he had taken a risk to say it. So in addition, I feel I let him down. I’m trying to be kind to myself and accept that this was the first time I’d done this live in front of an audience, but I’m still annoyed at myself.
Then others commented on the team dynamics, about people who dominated. At first, I agreed with their perception, that a couple of people had kind of taken over. There were times when someone rushed in, and I didn’t have the chance to take the direction I wanted to.
I could have been annoyed about this, resenting how they took over. But, using my developing empathy skills, let’s think about it from their point of view. They may have been worried that the performance would go wrong, the story would get stuck. They may have been worried that I would be stood on stage, in front of a live audience, and not know what to say, would freeze on stage. I’d certainly frozen enough times in the weeks leading up to the show.
So instead of resenting them for not letting me go ahead, if I view their actions as having a positive intent, they were working to save me (and possibly one or two of the other participants) from the embarrassment of ‘dying’ on stage. Maybe they were doing what they thought was right to look after me.
I haven’t had the chance to debrief the show with them, so I have no idea what the other participants thought. I would really love to have the opportunity to talk to the guy who was upset about how it had gone. I hope I’d be able to help him see that it wasn’t done deliberately to thwart him, but that the other person had their own concerns and was trying to help in the best way they knew how.
But if we continue with a work analogy, if someone behaves in a way that annoys you, can you reframe it, and think what their positive intent may have been? Maybe they have anxieties of their own causing them to act in that way? We’re going our separate ways now, but if it’s an ongoing working relationship, it’s worth the effort to look for the positive intent. The choice is yours. If you assume they’re out to get you, you’re building up negative feelings. This obviously has a negative impact on you, but research consistently shows that negativity breeds negativity. No-one likes sharing office space with a complainer. If you assume they were trying to help you, you’ll be positively disposed towards them. In return, they’ll like being around you, and continue to support you.
I get that I’ve not really made a central point here, probably because my own feelings are so entangled and it’s recent events, so I’m still trying to work it out. We were effectively like a new team, so the relationships are also at the early stages. It’s natural that we would get along more easily with some than others, and unavoidable I guess that there would be more than one grouping amongst us.
Annie McKee, in ‘How to be happy at work’ talks about how important friendships are at work, and how organisations can foster a spirit of openness and trust that allows friendships to develop. The improv course did everything it could to facilitate this. How does your workplace do?
You can see my review of ‘How to be happy at work’ here.
Are you stuck in a job you don’t like, and you’d really like to make some changes, but somehow you never seem to get around to doing anything about it other than complain? I just want to say, it’s not your fault. It’s really hard to make that change, and sometimes we don’t even know where to start. To compound the problem, our brains conspire to keep us where we are. This post I wrote some time ago tells you more about how it does this.
I told you in the last post how I’d finally got the diet and exercise habit. What I didn’t say was that this was after more than forty years of failing to adopt healthy diet and fitness habits on a sustainable basis. So yay for me! And that got me thinking about transferring the lessons learned into other areas, and I showed you how you could start small to make some changes in your work situation.
I realised that the reason I’ve now adopted the new habits is because there are consequences to not sticking with it. At first, the consequence was that I’d have to pay a fine and show on a public website that I’d not achieved my goal. But now, several months later, the consequences of not getting in my activity for the day mean that I don’t get to eat so much. To continue losing weight, I must maintain a calorie deficit. If I’m active, I get more calories to eat and can still maintain a deficit on the day. If I don’t maintain a deficit, I won’t continue losing weight, and I now know that the progress motivates me. I don’t like to see a weight gain. I’ve associated the behaviour with the consequences.
There are other things I’d like to achieve though, and I realised that the consequences are not sufficiently associated with the results, so I need to find a way to link them – to ingrain the new habit to work towards other goals.
Which brings me to urgency. I’ve also always been a last minute kind of woman. As a mature student, I was often up until 3.30 am to finish an assignment. Once, I handed something in at one minute to the deadline, and my dissertation involved two consecutive all nighters in order to get it in on time. I did well to do two consecutive all nighters – that involved me planning ahead and doing some work two days before it was due in.
Now that I work alone, I have to create my own urgency, I have no tutor or manager expecting work to be done to a specific time, so you might have noticed that I don’t post an article every week. At the moment, I don’t have readers who expect a weekly post, so there are no immediate or obvious consequences if I miss a week. So if I say here, publicly, that I will post once a week for the next eight weeks, I will need to follow through. (There, I’ve said it.)
You may be in a job you don’t like, you may come home and complain to your family or friends about how awful it is, and you may even look at the job ads online to see if there’s anything else out there. But you’re not really taking action, you feel stuck in your current situation. There’s no urgency to make the change. You need the income your job provides, you’re tired out when you get back with domestic responsibilities, you don’t have time to fill out job applications online. The consequences, remaining fed up, dreading Sunday evenings and Monday mornings – well, that’s how it is, you’ll just continue to whinge about it.
Urgency can be a double edged sword. You may eventually get to the point where you’re desperate, things are so bad that you’ll start to take action. But then your options may be limited, and you could end up in just as bad a position or worse. Like Brenda (not her real name) who left a public sector job because she wasn’t happy there, and took a job with a charity working for a cause she believed in. However, she soon found that the organisation had a toxic work environment. Her new manager was someone who had been promoted but wasn’t capable of her new job, there were no support structures in place to provide the training and coaching that the manager needed, a colleague was being bullied, bitching and gossip were rife. Speaking up got her nowhere.
You don’t want to act out of real urgency and not be able to take a considered action. So how can you create some urgency for yourself - enough to motivate you to take consistent action and start a new habit but not so much that you have to act at all costs?
As I’ve already said, I’m finding the public accountability very helpful, combined with making a commitment to myself. Owain Service and Rory Gallagher in their book, Think Small, support the idea that making yourself publicly accountable is one of the foundations of creating good habits successfully.
And then we come to procrastination. The result of consequences not having a direct link in your mind to your current behaviour, and of not having urgency to act, is procrastination. You know you want to do something – most likely look for another job – but you put it off. There are reasons we do this – it can be too hard to take the action we want to take, it can take up too much time, we don’t give it priority over more immediate things. This article in the New York Times puts a different light on it, and it makes perfect sense to me. It’s not a time management problem, it’s an emotional problem. We don’t procrastinate because we’re lazy or because we don’t have time management skills. It’s a response to a negative mood – the urgency of managing that negative mood takes priority over the longer term consequences. It may just be that the task itself is unpleasant, but it may also relate to deeper feelings of self doubt, low self esteem, anxiety or insecurity.
The article gives some useful tips on dealing with procrastination. I’d like to add one more. Start small. Think about your habits, and what you’d like to do differently in your working life. You may think that finding a new job is what you want – and you may be right in the long term that’s the right course of action – but starting small means exactly that. What else could you do? The last post had a few suggestions. Here’s a few more – they are massive goals, but small actions to make a start.
Be more confident at work
Repeat affirmations to yourself every morning
Be more motivated
Pick a task that you must do daily or weekly at work, where you usually struggle to get it done. Set yourself a target – must have it done by 11.30 am every day, or by Tuesday lunchtime each week, whatever is appropriate for the task. Make a pledge in stickk.com and ask a friend at work to be your referee
Be more creative
Walk to work, or during your lunchbreak. Exercise has so many more benefits than just for your body. The time walking gives your mind the opportunity to wander, enhancing your creativity. Start with three times a week, or even once a week if you’re not active. Walk for 20 – 30 minutes.
Be nicer at work
Smile at people. Set a target – I must smile at five people today You’ll probably find you’ll soon smile at more than five.
Learn a new skill
Block out the time to devote to it. You can’t learn a new skill without practice. So either go to a class, or ensure you block out the time – at work if appropriate, at home if it’s not.
Improve working relationships
Resolve to ask one person each day how they are. And really listen to the response – give them your time and attention. Or even resolve to do this once a week to begin with
Be more organised
Pick one task and work on that. As for motivation, set a target, make a pledge in stickk.com
As well as on stickk.com, make your pledge here in the comments below, and I’ll be sure to support your efforts. Look forward to seeing how you get on.
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.
In her book ‘How to have a great day at work’ Caroline Webb suggests that a technique of improvisational comedy is a good way to give brain friendly feedback. ‘Yes, and….’ instead of ‘Yes, but…’ fosters collaboration and helps bring out the best in others.
Ever since I read this, I’ve been intrigued to learn more about improv. Facebook must have known this, because they kept telling me about a local course, starting soon. I signed up.
I mean, I love my books but some things you can’t learn from a book, you’ve got to get out in the real world, meet real new people and do new things. I thought this would be fun. A little bit out of my comfort zone – I once did a short stand up comedy course, ending with a showcase performance. That was a bit scary, but I rehearsed and knew my routine. Improv – well, that’s a whole different ball game, but I thought it would be fun, so what the hell?
It is not what I expected. I don’t know what I expected, but this wasn’t it. On our second meeting, we were asked to stare into someone’s eyes for two minutes and imagine their life. I knew next to nothing about these people. One guy (they are mostly guys, only one other woman, although the trainer is a young woman) the only thing I know about him is that he’d just been accepted onto a wimp to warrior MMA training programme. I don’t know what that is, but it sounds serious. Another guy, the only thing I knew about him is that he’s autistic and didn’t like the light in the room we were in. And the third guy, I know his name, but that’s about it. But then I eased into it a bit and started making stuff up. Which I think is what we were meant to do.
We also created a soundscape. For those of you who don’t know what that is – and again, I didn’t – it involves sitting in an outward facing circle, in the dark, with our eyes closed, making noises. Mostly copying other people’s noises, but occasionally dropping in a new one. Now, ask me to stand up in front of an audience to speak and I’m good to go. But you want me to sit in the dark, with my eyes closed, amongst strangers, and make funny noises? Seriously? Do I have to?
We also learned the ‘Yes, and…’ technique. Whatever someone said, you had to accept it and build on it. I got involved in drug smuggling in Colombia and found I had an alcohol problem on holiday in the Caribbean. I think there were drugs there too. (We’re new, not sure we had the right idea.)
You might be wondering why I’m telling you all this. Well, even though I’d started out with the knowledge that improv could foster collaboration at work and bring out the best in others I was nevertheless surprised at the life lessons in the first two classes. Here’s a few of the things I learned.
You don’t leave it to someone else, be proactive, participate and remember it’s always your turn. How useful is this at work? Ever work in one of those places (public sector is good at this) where people take the attitude ‘I’m not doing that, it’s not my job’? How much better would it be if everyone had everyone’s back, and just jumped in and did what’s necessary?
They may come out with something completely random or out of character – I mean, do you think I’d actually get involved in drug smuggling? But it’s been said, so work with it, and make the other person look good.
Imagine if everyone at your workplace used this principle, that they always had to make everyone else look good? There wouldn’t be problems of people taking credit for others’ ideas, because everyone would be focusing on making their managers, their team members and their colleagues look good. The level of collaboration would sky rocket, and so would productivity.
I discovered I have a problem letting things go. I’ve never considered myself a control freak. I’m usually the one suggesting other people let it go. Driving for example, and some idiot cuts in front, others get all worked up, honking and swearing at the other driver. I’m the one saying you’re only winding yourself up, let it go.
But when we start to take turns adding bits to a story, I was really frustrated if someone didn’t say what I thought they should. I did not like giving up the control to others or letting go of the outcome.
Autonomy at work is a key driver of motivation, so if you’re a manager finding it difficult to give up control, you’re stifling your team. Like me, you’re going to have to learn to let it go.
I found the exercises helped to develop empathy. Even though I was making it up, I felt empathy for the people whose eyes I sat staring into. And it also made me want to know more about them. It was good to develop some curiosity about someone else, especially if you’re the kind of person who doesn’t naturally consider things from someone else’s perspective. Putting yourself in someone else’s shoes at work would get rid of much conflict.
It was a difficult exercise to do, I totally get that this is a bit full on for work, and not everyone would be comfortable throwing themselves into this. But (ah damn, I said ‘but’!) if you can at least stop and consider someone else’s position before reacting, then working relationships will be smoother.
Are you a good listener? An active listener? Too often, we’re not fully listening to what someone else is saying, we’re waiting for our turn to speak.
Feeling heard is a powerful motivator. Disempowered people often feel that their concerns aren’t being heard, and at work this can lead to resentment, which in turn leads to low motivation, and then low productivity. Even just on a practical level, if you’re not listening to problems that others at work are experiencing, you’re also shutting off possible solutions
I’m not suggesting all workplaces introduce courses in improvisational comedy – though that could be fun – but it doesn’t hurt to borrow techniques that can improve your day at work.
What do you think? Is there a particular behaviour you could improve to make things better at work?
When Gallup created their poll into engagement at work, they added a question about whether you had a friend at work. Critics said it wasn't a useful question, but Gallup stood firm. Their poll consistently shows that having a friend at work is a good indicator of engaged employees.
In The Best Place to Work, Ron Friedman said the keys to lasting workplace relationships are proximity, familiarity, similarity and self disclosure. And our old friend reciprocity pops up again. Friedman quotes from the research
If you want two people to connect … factual exchanges aren’t enough. What you need is for people to reveal intimate information about themselves in a reciprocal fashion. Having one person talk and the other listen won’t get the job done, it will leave one person feeling exposed. …both partners need to self disclose.
Friedman also states that the more frequently colleagues talked about non work matters, the closer they tended to be.
But obviously trying to force this doesn’t work. Self disclosure has to be done naturally and over time. Setting up ‘team building’ days where everyone is expected to share experiences can alienate some people. I well remember being forced to stand in a circle for group singing, which I hated. I also remember the mother of my daughter’s friend blurting out to my mother in law she’d just come back from the marriage guidance counseller – within minutes of meeting my mom in law! I mean, I hardly knew the woman, it was oversharing to tell me.
That’s why shared activities can be useful. The after work drinks might be one way to do this, but isn’t always practical for everyone, if they have domestic or other commitments to get to. So what about a shared lunch? Or a walk during the lunch break. A friend told me that at one place she used to work, someone would get a quiz book, and they’d spend 15 minutes or so answering quiz questions. It wasn’t a pre planned thing, someone would just bring the book out. But you could have an inter team quiz scheduled. Make a small charge for charity and you’re helping someone out, so a double win. Don’t make it an inter team event, but say that all teams must have a mix of members from other departments, and you’re spreading the love even further. Another example I heard of is a group yoga session after work. If you have a suitable space, you could all chip in and pay for a group teacher.
If you’re the manager and you can find a small budget for one or more of these activities, it’s a great way to foster team spirit and wellbeing for not much outlay.
Even if you’re not the manager, and there’s no budget, you can initiate something. Make it something you like to do, and you’ll be more motivated to organise it on a regular basis. Don’t force it – if it’s something you enjoy, hopefully there will be others who enjoy the same activity. If one doesn’t work, try something else. Take ideas from other places you’ve worked, what worked there? Join in if someone else organises something – the support you offer will also help you to develop the relationship.Leave a comment below – what’s worked for you to help you create friendships at work?
Gratitude is the healthiest emotion. If you dwell on the negative, the brain reinforces those negative emotions. The good news is that you can change how your brain thinks.
Have you ever said, 'That's how I am, I can't change'? Science used to believe this, with our limited knowledge of how the brain works. We used to think that our personality was fixed, our characteristics were fixed. But research has come on in leaps and bounds over the last few years, and understanding of the brain has changed significantly.
I’m no scientist, but I’ve read many, many books on thinking, behaviour and habits. I’ve often come across this idea of neuroplasticity – the idea that we can change the neural pathways in our brains. Jane Ransom, in her TEDx talk, says that exercising gratitude physically remaps the brain, reforms the subconscious mind.
You can watch the TEDx talk here
To be effective it requires three elements
Feel the emotion of being grateful, really connect with it
Extend your gratitude to the people in your life. Family, friends, loved ones. For the purposes of improving things at work, extend your gratitude to those who help you at work, a colleague you’ve become friends with, a manager who helped you get promoted, someone who’s helped you learn a new task…. Even a little thing, someone who made you a coffee today, or gave you a smile as you arrived.
Like physical exercise strengthens our muscles, a gratitude exercise strengthens those new neural pathways. Ransom suggests a minimum of two weeks; I think that for the benefits to remain, the exercise needs to be more ongoing. However, it does seem that even two weeks can help you feel happier. Maybe a couple of times a week once the pathways have been set up? But every day to start with.
Ransom gives some examples from her own life of how this has helped her. Let me share a story about someone I‘m close to (no names to preserve the confidentiality). She has long had a very negative attitude towards life. Hated her job – or specifically the management and how they treated her. But was also quite negative in other areas of her life. I persuaded her to start a gratitude journal, which she did, and kept up for a year writing three things every day. I’ve noticed the difference in the way she encourages others to be less critical of themselves, and often makes supportive comments. This is such a turnaround from the previous habit of commiserating with others, moaning about life. They say misery loves company, and it so easy to fall into the trap of agreeing that life is unfair. But focusing on what she’s grateful for has helped her to be less critical of others, less down about herself and happier in life.
Get a nice notebook. Science has shown us that our brain engages differently if we write, so you'll get more benefit if you do this. No-one need see it, it's just for you. Start writing down three things you’re grateful for at the end of each day. Do this for the minimum of two weeks, but I’d encourage you to keep it up, even if only two or three times a week after the initial period.
Let me know how this goes for you in the comments below.
The law of reciprocation is a strong social norm. We pay someone a compliment, they feel an obligation to make one in return. We give someone a small gift, they feel awkward about accepting it, and giving something in return helps them to accept. We help someone out, they want to help us in return.
One of my favourite fables crops up now and again in the personal development genre, and I’m going to share it again here. I can’t attribute it, because I don’t know where it originated, nor where I read it.
There was once a traveller, who came to a walled city. At the entrance to the city, there stood an old man, greeting everyone who approached. The traveller greeted the old man, and asked,
‘What are the people like in this city?’
The old man didn't answer right away and asked the traveller,
‘What are they like where you are from?’
The traveller replied,
‘Oh, horrible! Everyone is miserable, no-one has got time to help anyone, they are all selfish!’
The old man replied,
‘That is how you will find the people in this city too’.
The next day, another traveller approached and greeted the old man. He too asked,
‘What are the people like in this city?’
Again the old man asked,
‘What are they like where you are from?’
This traveller replied,
‘Oh, I’m from a very friendly place, everyone helps their neighbour, they are very kind to visitors, and always have a smile for everyone they meet.’
The old man replied,
‘That is how you will find the people in this city too’.
This fable shows it’s not just tangible things we reciprocate, it applies just as much to how we act with people. If there’s a habit in your workplace of not helping each other, not giving positive feedback, then you may find your behaviour falling in with the norms. I once did this myself – I worked with a couple of people who were constantly complaining about not being appreciated by their managers, morale was low, that I eventually found myself joining in. This was a while ago, and although I recognised what was happening, I didn’t have the strategies to overcome it at the time. And unfortunately, after I left, I was remembered as complaining too much – a former manager said the one thing I should work on was being more positive.
It takes someone to break the mould. To do something good for someone. Give positive feedback to a colleague, help them out if they need it, or just take a basket of fruit in now and again for everyone to share. Once one person does it, then someone else will reciprocate. Before you know it more will join in, and the culture of the workplace will shift.
Be the one to instigate the change. It’s powerful.
If you want more tips like this, get the download, ‘Seven things you can do today to make work better’.
What’s your new year’s resolution?
Ok, it’s a bit early to be asking that, but bear with me, I have my reasons.
I’ve made the same three resolutions, pretty much, for more years than I’d care to count. Lose weight, be happy at work, and be more organised.
Any of these resonate with you? I have a suggestion that might help with one, maybe even two of these.
I’m pleased to say that this year, I’ve lost 30lbs. About 14 kilos. I exercise regularly. This is a big deal. Previously, the only resolution I’ve actually kept was the one when I was about 13 years old, to not drop litter.
However, I’m not a dietician, personal trainer or fitness expert, so let’s put that one aside. (Although I did learn some very useful things about motivation in the process.)
I work hard to be organised. I do so well at this (sometimes) that people think of me as organised. However, I know there’s so much more I’d like to be better at, hence the frequent resolution.
But the key one, be happy at work. That’s my key motivator. My quest in life, the reason I’ve taken some big decisions about my own working life. This is so important to me, I believe it is one of the fundamental rights. If you believe that too, then I would love to help you make some changes that can make it a reality for you.
I’m working on an exciting new programme to launch in the new year. You can help me to develop this programme by telling me what you would most like help with in the new year, by completing this short survey.
I’m going to hazard a guess that you’ve seen managers who don't know how to manager, can’t motivate their staff. Maybe even worked for one. Hopefully haven’t been one, but sometimes, you know, that happens too - we can all learn to be better. Often, this is because of poor workplace culture – not always, there are cases of one off ineffective managers in good organisations, but in the main, the poor managers are a result of poor organisations in my opinion.
What if you’re unfortunate enough to find yourself working in one of the places with some of these managers? How do you deal with that? Can you change the culture by yourself, or does the culture come from the top? As a comment in a previous post asked, ‘Is this really the responsibility of the individual if they are a lone voice? … Is it the responsibility of the management, organisation or team to change the culture?’
As I’ve argued before, if you are a lone voice with no power or authority within a toxic work environment, then no, realistically, you’re not going to make a significant difference. Does this mean you shouldn’t try? If you’re stuck with the job, even for the time being, surely you want to make some effort to improve things?
I recently re-read Stephen Covey, 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, and one concept that was a bit of lightbulb moment for me was reading about circle of concern vs circle of influence. I realised I’d been getting all bent out of shape over things I couldn’t impact. Brexit, Donald Trump, austerity…my circles of concern. When it would be much more beneficial and impactful if I focussed on my circles of influence – where I could make a difference.
Let’s apply this to the toxic workplace. Can you change government policy and get them to make the right investment in your public sector service, so that it can properly serve the people it claims to serve? No. (Ok, my politics might be showing a bit here)
Can you change the strategic plan your managers and leaders are working towards? Mmm, maybe, a little, but unlikely. Depends what stage it’s at.
Can you change the targets your manager wants you to work towards? Again, maybe. Put together a good argument for why the targets are unrealistic, and a proposal for revised targets. If your manager has a little wiggle room, then you may be able to get them agreed. If the culture is very poor, maybe even that wouldn’t be successful. But give it a go – you won’t know unless you try.
Can you change your manager’s behaviour towards you? Not directly, you can’t make them change.
Can you change your behaviour towards your manager? Ah, there we have it. You can change your behaviour. You can change your response to your manager’s behaviour, and that in itself might result in a change of your manager’s behaviour.
Ditto your colleagues. You can’t make them change, but you can change your behaviour towards them, and their behaviour back might just change too.
Again, none of this is simple. If it was just as simple as deciding to change, and then doing it, we all would. But we’re creatures of habit, and changing habits is really hard. I mean, really, really hard. So let’s start with some simple things, and here’s an idea you can try out.
Give a cheerful greeting. Say a cheery good morning to everyone you meet as you arrive at work. If no-one does this at your workplace, people will be surprised at first. But persist. They’ll start to reply, and slowly it will alter the atmosphere slightly. When someone asks how are you (or that Brummie greeting of ‘alright?’, where you’re just meant to say ‘alright’ back) answer ‘Fantastic thanks!’ This is really fun to do, especially if your customary answer is ‘not too bad thanks’. People will want to know why you’re feeling fantastic, you’ll develop new connections with people you’ve not really spoken to before, and it will alter your own mood – it’s tricky to feel miserable or say ‘Fantastic!’ in a glum voice. Starting in these small ways will develop into a changed way you greet people generally, and you will make a difference.
The more you change your behaviour and responses to others, the more you will find your circle of influence grows.
Try this for a week, and let me know in the comments section how you get on. What difference has it made?
Want more tips like these? Download 7 things you can do to make work better today