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.
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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?
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World Mental Health day today then. It’s trending on Twitter under three different hashtags, several more on Instagram, Linked In has articles on it, people are posting memes on Facebook. I’ve also had emails on it, telling me what organisations are doing to raise awareness of mental health issues.
This is all very well, and I’m not saying it won’t help for people to be more aware and more sensitive to the issues surrounding mental illness.
But what really winds me up is organisations talking about what they’re doing to ‘raise awareness’, and what they’re not talking about is stress at work. How much is the workplace the cause of the mental health issues their people are experiencing? Are they working in poor conditions? Too much work leading to long hours? A culture that frowns upon anyone who leaves on time or doesn’t get in extra early? Having to take work home? A micromanager? A bully for a manager? Or management by absence?
I listened to the Birmingham Chamber of Commerce podcast today, with interviewees from two large organisations in Birmingham talking about what they’re doing about mental health. Apart from a mention that work addiction is an addiction too, there was nothing about the role the workplace plays in causing mental health issues. There was a lot of talk about raising awareness.
Now these two businesses might be great places to work, but equally, they may be creating stress for their employees. If they’re not talking about it, chances are, nothing is being done about it. If their people have any of the issues I mentioned causing them stress at work, what are these organisations doing to address that problem? Are there genuine solutions available to them, and are they encouraged to take them up?
Birmingham Chamber also says that poor mental health and wellbeing is costing the West Midlands region more than £12 billion a year. The CIPD’s annual survey into health and wellbeing at work shows that stress is one of the top three causes of long term absences across all sectors, and the top cause of long term absence in the public and non-profit sectors. So it really doesn’t pay to ignore this issue.
One exception I did find on Twitter is Prof Sir Cary Cooper, speaking at the Mad World conference. He says that employers need to identify what could be damaging workers’ wellbeing, instead of looking for quick fixes like mindfulness at lunch. Prof Cooper is a professor of organisational psychology and health at MBS Manchester University, so has some authority to make these observations. Although it’s so obvious that if people are overworked for long periods of time, they’ll get stressed, and that will eventually result in sickness absence, I don’t understand why more employers don’t see this.
If you’re overworked and it’s having an effect on your mental health, I recommend you read How to do a great job and go home on time by Fergus O’Connell. It has some great strategies to deal with this problem. This book review tells you a little more about it.
O’Connell, Fergus 2005 How to do a great job and go home on time Pearson Education Limited, Harlow
Who’s in control? Whose dream are you living?
Work hard, get a good job and you’ll be a success. But now you feel you’ve bought into a lie. You work hard, but aren’t getting the rewards you deserve.
Entrepreneurship is a pretty big thing now, more and more people getting into it. I know a few people who got into freelancing or became sole traders and entrepreneurs who went into it because they wanted more control over their lives, or at least working life.
But what if you do work for someone else? Entrepreneurship is not your thing, for whatever reason. And let’s face it, we can’t all be entrepreneurs – business owners need someone to join the payroll.
I spent two days at an event last week, for entrepreneurs. Headline speaker was Gary Vaynerchuk, and there were several other speakers, most of whom were selling from the stage. But there were some lessons in there that are just as valuable to employees as those running a business. I’ve talked before about how autonomy at work is a key driver of motivation, and these seven lessons can help you take back control.
A few speakers talked about the education system, how kids are not taught how to be entrepreneurial. They’re taught how to get a job. Get good grades and work hard, and you’ll be successful. A few discovered for themselves that’s not how it works.
I’m on board with the sentiment, though it did remind me a little of Hyde in That 70s Show, who was always complaining about ‘the man’.
You may be in a role where you're working hard, but feel you’re not getting any reward for all that effort. You're working hard for someone else's rewards. It’s unfortunately happening a great deal at present.
The solution? Get your own education. Learn on your own terms. Several speakers said you’ve got to learn before you earn. Essentially the same message as the establishment. But what resonates for me is that we should take responsibility for our own education, career, business, life. You may not be taught critical thinking at school, but get out there and learn to do it, it’s an important life skill. And speaking of which….
This is one of my favourites. Take responsibility for your own actions. One woman got the opportunity to ask Gary Vee a question. She admitted she hadn’t taken any action (brave of her!) but then said she was worried about what could go wrong, what should she do then? Gary Vee’s response ‘Don’t worry about the future when you’re doing shit in the present.’ As someone who has difficulty with productivity at times, I can empathise with her question, but he’s absolutely right. The responsibility to take action lies with ourselves.
If you’re in a horrible job, or have a bad manager, take responsibility for changing that. But take a good hard look at your role here. Is it really that bad, or are you causing at least part of the problem by your attitude to work? How engaged are you at work? Only 11% of employees in the UK are fully engaged. If you increase your engagement, you can increase your success. If you increase your happiness, you can increase your success. (Yes, that is the right way round. You increase your happiness first, the success follows.) Let me know if you want to know how to do that, I can help you.
This is one reason we often get caught up in not taking action. Actually, fix your mindset is probably the wrong way to say it, what we want is to have the right mindset; there’s a fixed mindset, or a growth mindset. Growth is the one we want.
We lack the confidence to go out and succeed in the way we’d like to. This is a part of the education you need to get for yourself. If you don’t know how to do it, find out. A great place to start is by reading Mindset by Carol Dweck. Or watch her TED talk if you don’t like reading. (It’s an excellent book though, I’d recommend giving it a try.)
Execute. Stop consuming, start producing. Knowledge isn’t power, knowledge plus action is power. Be knowledgeable about your job, but ultimately, you have to produce the goods.
As a long suffering procrastinator, knowledge plus action makes so much sense. Never forget there has to be action. It’s only action that moves us forward, inaction leads to atrophy. (That might not be literally correct, I’m not a scientist. But Prof Brian Cox said something similar I’m sure.)
If, like me, you’ve been afflicted with procrastination, take responsibility. There are solutions that can help – I’ve been using them myself and am recovering.
Kind of like the last one, take action, sometimes you have to seize the day. I’m so thankful I booked onto this event. It was two days away from my business, travel expenses as well as the ticket expense, and two 4 am starts. But it was totally worth it.
Apart from the awesomeness of having seen Gary Vaynerchuk speak live on stage, I got so much more from this experience that I wasn’t expecting. Sometimes, it’s worth just going with your gut and doing something, even if it doesn’t seem logical.
So if you just know you need to do something, just do it.
What, you haven’t got one already? Just, get a coach. Or a mentor. Or both.
Many thanks to Daniel Priestley, who was one of the speakers, for helping me to think more about the experience overall, and for the hidden lessons. I learned some things about myself I wasn’t expecting to, and his comments made me learn some more.
I don’t want to come over all inspirational quote here, but those memes on Facebook that tell you people come into your life for a reason? And sometimes there’re there to bring you a lesson? That’s how I feel about going to this event. I know we can’t go through life analysing every little thing that happens, but it can be worthwhile to reflect on experiences from time to time. The lessons may not be the ones you expected.
So if you’re having a tough time at work, if you’d like to
then take the first step and get my free download 'Seven things you can do today to change how you feel about work'.
New 30 day challenge to change how you feel about work.
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How was your weekend? I hope you managed to chill out, relax, do something you love, with people you love. And more to the point, are you looking forward to a good week at work?
Too many people experience that Sunday evening dread, multiplied at the moment by summer’s over depression. If back to work isn’t an exciting prospect, we’re now counting down the days till Christmas, when we get the next break from work.
I’ve always felt that’s no way to live life. Work is such an important part of our identity, as well as a significant chunk of where we spend our time. It’s a tragedy if you don’t love it, and unfortunately too many people don’t love it. Gallup polls consistently show that only around 13-15% of people worldwide are engaged at work. In the UK it’s an even more dismal 11%. They define engaged as ‘highly involved in and enthusiastic about their work and workplace. They are psychological ‘owners’, drive performance and innovation, and move the organization forward.’ Does this sound like you? If so, congratulations on being part of an elite 11% of the working population.
Even worse, 21% of UK workers are actively disengaged, meaning they are resentful and acting out their unhappiness at work. They are not just going through the motions, doing the minimum they need to hang on to their jobs, but may be undermining the work of others by expressing how much they hate being there.
Which one are you? Highly involved and enthusiastic about work? Living for the weekend and counting down the days till Christmas? Or worse, dreading the prospect of another week at work?
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Some studies have been reported in the HR press this week, I share my thoughts about a couple of statistics.
Links here to the reports mentioned
I recently delivered a short session on personal branding for a group of young people, on a Fastlaners course run by Uprising. Uprising is a youth charity, and Fastlaners is a short course to help ambitious young people with their careers.
A little bit of a departure for me – while I’ve done plenty of sessions for groups of young people, I’d never done personal branding before. But hey – I could do that.
I found while I was preparing that there’s quite a lot of cross over with stuff I’ve done before, stuff I’d done in the recent series of #abookintwominutes, and things related to confidence and public speaking.
We’re hearing a lot about how millennials (I think they still count as millennials? What have we decided to name the people after millennials?) don’t want to work hard, don’t want to get off their phones, don’t have any loyalty to their employers. In short, they want it all their own way.
I don’t believe this is true. The young people in this group all want to get on in the world, they all want decent jobs. I don’t think they’re that different to most others in this respect. Oh, and I didn’t see one mobile phone in the session I delivered.
On the other hand, I believe setting their own terms is a good thing. Why would they have any loyalty to an employer who doesn’t care about them as employees?
A couple of issues I wasn’t expecting came up, and mainly at the end, when they started asking questions about my background. And I realised I’d missed some opportunities. So here's the advice I gave them, and some I wish I ‘d given them.
I was asked, how do you have enough confidence? We talked about things like, fake it till you make it. Some the group were quieter and said little, others were more vocal. Either is fine, it’s all about your personality.
There are two types of confidence. There is the inner confidence in yourself – maybe self esteem is more accurate. The knowledge that you are worth something and have something to offer. I hope all the young people in the group have this – well, all young people to be honest. If not, seek help. Read books on confidence, change your beliefs about yourself, get professional help such as counselling if necessary.
The second is dependent on the situation. I don’t like driving. I’m confident enough to drive a short way, or even further if it’s a route I know, but not confident to take the motorway to Manchester for example. More on this can be found in this earlier post
There are ways to look and sound more confident, even if you don’t feel it.
One young woman told me how she wanted to find work in fine art and illustration. She had earned a degree in this, and had some relevant voluntary work experience. However, she is looking for work in the retail sector, so she can get some actual work experience on her CV. Whilst I admire her pragmatism, it would be a real pity for her to not pursue her real desire. What I wish I’d suggested is – get out there. Even if you are working in retail, blog, vlog, Instagram, Pinterest, podcast, whatever social media works in your desired field, do something and get out there.
I recently read Crushing It by Gary Vaynerchuk, and he is a big advocate of using social medial for your personal brand, to raise profile. Do this, and when you’re ready to make the transition to your chosen field, you have some assets, a track record, instead of having a standing start. I recommend a read of Crushing It, it’s an uplifting book as well as practical.
I mentioned the Rules of Work by Richard Templar. There is a lot of practical advice in there on how to get on at work, but there were one or two bits I disagreed with. However, fitting in, learn the system and make the most of it is practical advice. Not in a cynical or dishonest way, but fitting in to the workplace culture is a must. If it’s a poor fit for you, do your best while you look for something else. You spend a big chunk of your life at work – if you don’t fit, it leads to a miserable existence. I know, I’ve been there.
I mentioned the job early in my career when I was bullied by a manager, and was asked how to deal with this. Not expecting the question, I don’t think I was very reassuring, and I hope I didn’t create fear around this. Whilst it can happen, it isn’t a certainty in everyone’s career. How to deal with it effectively? This is a lot easier if you have inner confidence (see 1 above).
If it happens – if someone makes aggressive or passive aggressive comments to you, the best way is to deal with it immediately. Let them know you understand what they’re doing, that you expect to be treated with respect and won't play mind games.
If things do get out of hand, go to your HR department or another manager for help. There are resources out there should you find yourself in this situation, and this earlier post gives more details.
Have a clear idea what’s important to you. What are your values, what does work mean for you? Your’re entitled to look for this. Yes, you have to play your part too, but being assertive and confident in what you want out of life and expecting to get it as a reward for everything you put in isn’t too much to ask.
We talked a lot about authenticity and integrity, and examining your values in this way can help you to bring your best self to work.
It was a pleasure to meet you all, and I wish you all the luck in the world in finding work you love. And if any of you do start a blog, vlog, podcast or something else, let me know, I’ll be delighted to share it on.