Having told you about three different instances about difficult relationships I had with bosses, I’m now going to look at a couple of different examples. Firstly I’ll look at a time the manager responded appropriately, and secondly I’ll look at the time I was the trustee and acting as a manager.
I mentioned in my last post that I worked for a manager (I’ll call her Rebecca, it will make the storytelling easier) who gave me some complex work at very short notice, and in at least one instance it was work she was supposed to have done. Now, maybe I had some paranoia about being bullied based on previous experience, but something didn’t feel quite right about this. I felt I was being set up to fail, but couldn’t quite put my finger on what was wrong.
In addition, I had enrolled on a PGCE course to teach post 16s. So I was working four days a week, at college one day a week, and somewhere in between I had to do 75 hours teaching practice each year for two years. It was hard work, harder than working full time with a young baby or studying full time for a degree while looking after my small son, probably the hardest thing, work wise, that I’ve ever done. Four months from the end of my two year course, work gave me an ultimatum. They wanted me to go full time and show my commitment to the organisation. The manager delivering this message was my manager’s manager (I’ll call her Jeanette), so I initially thought she was the bad guy. The choice then – give up the teacher training four months from qualifying, the hardest thing I’ve ever done, something I really wanted to achieve, or give up the job, which I no longer loved. Even though I had no job to go to, I decided the job had to go. I couldn’t quit the course so close to the end.
I handed in my resignation. The director of the development department, three levels up of boss, (I’ll call him David) spoke to me about it, and in the course of our discussion, I told him I wouldn’t be bullied into giving up my course. He immediately noticed the word, and said that if that was the case, he would have to investigate, and did I want that? Not in a threatening, ‘You don’t want that, do you?’ way, but in a sincere, concerned, ‘That’s not right and I can’t let that just pass’ way. He gave me time to consider it.
As I said, it was a strange situation, in that I felt Rebecca had set me up, I’d never had any problems with Jeanette until this, and I also felt that Rebecca had set Jeanette up to do this. But as Jeanette was delivering the message, and was the more senior manager, and I had absolutely no evidence against Rebecca, I decided not to pursue a complaint. If I’d been staying, maybe I’d have acted differently, at least being more on my guard in my interactions with Rebecca. But at the time, I still thought it might be paranoia on my part, and said that maybe I’d overreacted. I genuinely still don’t know about Rebecca, one way or the other. But my advice, even if it’s just a niggling doubt about someone’s motives, is keep a record of the times you’re unhappy about.
My overriding recollection of David though, is of a sensitive leader, willing to listen and act upon problems, even the most difficult ones, genuinely concerned about the wellbeing of staff as well as the operational requirements of the organisation.
The second story concerns the time the shoe was on the other foot, and I was in the leadership role as a charity trustee. An ‘us and them’ situation developed, and we (I) never managed to overcome this and get to the point where we were all working as one towards the same aim. Again, it would be very easy to lay the blame at someone else’s door. There were several difficult relationships here, but I’m just going to focus on one, let’s say her name was Karen.
Initially, I got on well with Karen, but things became increasingly difficult between us. Our work styles were very different – Karen was efficient, and liked advance notice, clear instructions and boundaries, I was in a difficult situation where I didn’t always know the answers, couldn’t always give her the clear instructions, and I’m a last minute kind of woman. As chair of trustees, I should not really have been involved in operational management, but without an office manager, CEO or other manager in the office, had no alternative but to take on that role. Neither of us was afraid to speak up and say what we thought, but sometimes both of us did this inappropriately. I once lost my temper with her, in front of other staff; I felt provoked, but should not have reacted that way.
As our working relationship deteriorated, it got to a point where I always had to get another trustee to act as go between and convey information between Karen and me, which brought its own issues after I found out that at least one other trustee had been leaking confidential emails to the staff. In meetings, Karen would not engage in discussion with me, would avoid eye contact and address all her remarks to others. She would disagree with me constantly. I remember during one meeting, I had received an offer of help from a management consultant, put this to the other trustees and staff, and Karen said we didn’t need his help, should keep it in house. Another trustee backed her up. Next time, when training for new trustees was mentioned, but we couldn’t afford it, I offered to deliver some training. I am a trainer after all, and had been a trustee for about three years by now, and had been on governance training at my own expense. On this occasion, Karen’s view was that we shouldn’t keep it in house, we needed external training. Whether this was because it was me suggesting it or me delivering it or both, I don’t know, but I couldn’t help but smile at the contradiction.
I don’t want to beat myself up too much because of this failed relationship, because I was under a lot of other pressures at the time too. I didn’t get a great deal of support from the other trustees until the last nine months of my term, and the problems were numerous. However, I didn’t understand that the employees were afraid that they would lose their jobs because of the financial instability, or that they didn’t have faith in us as trustees that we could do what was necessary to save the organisation and their jobs.
In hindsight though, I now think that much of Karen’s behaviour towards me could be classed as bullying. I didn’t think of it as such at the time, but constant hostility, either ignoring me, disagreeing with me, no eye contact at meetings, even though I was chairing, excluding me from conversations, refusing to accept apologies or discuss what had happened with a view to resolving… sounds a lot like bullying. I am aware that I have to examine my own behaviour too, and I’m not sure if I can claim to be innocent of behaviour others might think of as bullying. I hope not, and it is difficult for me to be precise now. It’s more than twelve months later and I’m no longer in communication with Karen, though we did reconcile before I left.
I guess the moral of the second story is that often, a target of bullying doesn’t recognise it as such whilst it is going on. And it’s not just managers with formal authority who can bully, staff can bully managers too. So if you think something like this is going on for you, what can you do? Don’t be like me and let it go on for too long, take some action. I’m not going to pretend that taking action is easy though. Some resources that I’ve found really useful that could help you through this, firstly there is the classic by Andrea Adams, which first raised the issue of bullying at work back in the early 90s, still a useful read for targets of bullying. More recently, Aryanne Oade has written with some practical strategies, including how to deal with bullying staff. And if it’s academic research you’re interested in, I can recommend Workplace Bullying by Rayner, Hoel and Cooper; a good insight, although the research is out of date now. Full details of books below.
The other thing, though, is that these two examples confirm my view that the culture is the responsibility of the organisation. David reacted immediately to the suggestion of bullying, indicating it was not acceptable. At the charity, we did not have that culture of supportive relationships where we were all working towards the same aim, and the ‘us and them’ culture allowed unhelpful relationships to fester.
I’d love to hear your views – have you had to deal with similar situations?
Andrea Adams. Bullying. How to confront and overcome it, Virago
Aryanne Oade. 2015. Free Yourself from Workplace Bullying, Mint Hall Publishing
Charlotte Rayner, Helge Hoel and Cary L Cooper. 2002. Workplace Bullying. What we know, who is to blame, and what can we do? Taylor and Francis
Just recently, a friend of mine was having some difficulty in her working relationships, and wondered, was it her, or the others? I have to confess to asking myself a similar question before now. When you have repeated issues, the same or similar, in different work contexts, you do begin to wonder if it is your own behaviour that’s the issue.
Well, I think the answer is, yes and no. I know that’s not necessarily very helpful, but let me explain, using some examples.
I’ve already mentioned some of the difficult working relationships I’ve had. There was
Not yet mentioned is a difficult relationship when I was the other side of the employee/charity trustee divide, as chair of trustees for a small, nearly broke, charity. I could write a book on the issues I had to deal with there (one of these days, I might just do that). Financial, governance, operational difficulties, but underneath it all, was the running thread of the fact that at least two of the remaining three employees hated me and wanted me gone.
So no matter how easy it is to blame others for my difficulties, I have to consider how my own behaviour has contributed – is it me, after all?
One common thread is that in each of these scenarios, I couldn’t help but speak up.
I disagreed with the civil service manager on some of the decisions she wanted to take. I didn’t understand that the charity manager needed to feel in control and as though she was in charge. I didn’t understand that most of these women (and they were all women except the time I got fired) felt out of their depth and in need of an employee who would support them, not argue with them. I didn’t understand that the employees when I was a trustee were afraid that they would lose their jobs because of the financial instability.
So I said what I thought, and didn’t put myself in my adversary’s shoes. None of these people should have been my adversary. We should all have been working together to achieve our organisations’ aims.
So is it me? Am I so difficult to work with? I have admitted to not liking being told what to do.
Back to yes and no. I have to take responsibility for the way I behaved, and there are certainly times I could have acted with more sensitivity and understanding of the bigger picture, or the other side of the argument. However, life is a learning journey, and I hope I know better now, learning from all these past experiences.
On the other hand, these people, with the exception of the last example, were all my managers, had all presumably more experience than me in some respect to earn their position. It’s not unreasonable to expect managers to be good managers, to bring out the best in their staff. So in my view, it was them too. More could have been done to respect my need for autonomy, more could have been done to use my knowledge and skills to further the aims of the organisation.
But a further, more crucial point, is that the organisations could have – in fact should have – done more to support those managers to be good people managers. In the civil service, I was transferred out, and probably no help, support or coaching given to the manager to improve her skills. At the small charity project, no attempt was made to improve our working relationship, so I found another job and left. At the health charity, the trustees made me redundant, saying they had no need for my fundraising role, despite clearly still needing funds, and engaging a replacement trust fundraiser soon after. (And clinging to the belief that it was a ‘different’ job, as the one I was fired from was trust and corporate.)
So that brings me to workplace culture. What is it about the culture that believes it is best to let go of someone trained, and with good knowledge and skills, and with a great deal of commitment to the organisation? Isn’t it said that an organisation’s greatest assets are its people? So why do so many organisations not behave in ways that look after those assets? I know I’ve spoken from my personal experience here, but I’m willing to bet you have come across the same thing. If not personally, then you know someone who has.
I’ve gone on long enough, next time I’m going to look a little closer at the opposite side of the equation – firstly the time a manager surprised me by offering to deal with the situation properly , and secondly at the time when I was the employer, as a charity trustee.
In the meantime, please leave your comments below, I’d love to know what you think – do you agree the problem is at the organisational level? What experiences have you had with bullying behaviour at work?
I talked last time about Daniel Pink’s findings on motivation – autonomy, mastery and purpose. I’m going to focus this time on one of these a little more – autonomy. I’m going to consider how autonomy depends on your manager’s working relationship with you and to illustrate this, I’m going to talk about some of the managers I’ve worked with.
More than twenty years ago, I was a newly promoted manager with a team of ten staff. I went on the civil service two week management training course, but the things I’ve learned about managing people since then lead me to believe the course wasn’t much help to be honest.
However, I must have instinctively known that one of the important roles of a manager is to protect your team from pressure from above, because I spent a lot of time doing this. Unsuccessfully, on the whole – I put this down to inexperience, but at the time, it was merely a source of stress.
Well, not just inexperience, but the fact that, after a while, my working relationship with my manager deteriorated, and she bullied me for a sustained period of time.
With the benefit of hindsight, she was probably under a lot of pressure herself to deliver. She had an office of 50 staff to manage, targets to meet, laws to enforce, public money to account for. And had probably had as much effective training for this as I had.
I moved on. Well, I wrote to HR and demanded to be moved ASAP. They obliged, but as far as I know, did nothing to deal with the problematic management style. Staff at this office had no autonomy because the manager’s style was to rule with fear and intimidation, and expect things to be done the way she wanted.
A couple of years later, I took voluntary redundancy from the civil service – one of the best decisions I ever made. After a further bad experience in a job I wasn’t suited to, my confidence plummeted. I took a part time, low paid, low skilled admin job with a charity project. Seemed ok to start with, but one day, after I said something to a telecom engineer while he was fixing a telephone line, my manager told me it wasn’t my place to do this, she was the boss, I was just the paid help. Stunned, I didn’t understand why she would speak to me like that. But after that, she picked holes constantly and micro managed. I didn’t stand for it for long this time, and moved on again. No autonomy in the role, so I exercised it by leaving. To a slightly better paid, but still part time role, and thus began my career in fundraising. A couple of really good managers and a break to go full time at university later, and I’ve learned a lot.
Moving on, things changed and I found myself working for another manager. This was a strange one – everyone liked this manager; so did I to start with, but towards the end of my time at that organisation I began to feel something wasn’t quite right. I felt I’d been set up to fail a couple of times, but it wasn’t something I could exactly put my finger on. Maybe I was just imagining it? I’m still not 100% one way or the other.
I left, and worked for a small charity this time. The head of fundraising was off sick for five months, and I had a difficult working relationship with some members of the board of trustees. Whilst I had a good degree of autonomy in the day to day work, the support and appreciation wasn’t there, even though some trustees said it was. It didn’t feel authentic. Especially once I was made redundant unexpectedly.
So what does autonomy in the workplace look like? Let’s think about what the really good managers did.
I’d love to hear your views – what does it mean to you to have autonomy in your workplace?
A recent article in the Guardian [i] said that according to a Gallup poll, 87% of people hate their jobs. 87%!! That’s outrageous! I’ve long felt that wanting a job that you love and looking forward to going in to work on a Monday morning isn’t too much to ask, but it seems from that statistic that maybe it is.
Let’s look a little closer at the report. I’d have to modify the statement that 87% hate their jobs, because that isn’t quite what the survey measured. It measured employee engagement, and found that only 13% percent of employees throughout the world are fully engaged with their work. And then says that employee engagement is the degree to which employees are involved in and enthusiastic about their work and workplace. A little journalistic licence to leap from’ not enthusiastic’ to ‘hate’ I thought (and telling that the writer used to work in the public sector? But that’s just my observation, having been there and hated that too). Nevertheless, some very useful points. As Richard Branson observes, miserable people do miserable work.
So what’s the problem? Why are so many people not engaged at work? Ok, as this is my blog, I’m going to use a little licence myself and indulge in some pet theories. There may be references to research to back me up, but not necessarily. I think much of the problem is because of
Employee engagement seem to be the new buzzwords, but I’m going to stick with motivation. The two are closely related, and I’d argue that in most cases, if you’re motivated you’re engaged.
Daniel Pink, in his book, ‘Drive, the surprising truth about what motivates us’, says there are three important motivators. Autonomy, mastery and purpose. (Notice pay isn’t in there.)
Let’s take these in reverse order, starting with purpose. Now, there are any number of business books out there saying start with the purpose – as well as Pink there’s Simon Sinek, ‘Start with Why’, and Isaiah Hankel, ‘Black Hole Focus’, are among my favourites, and most famously, Stephen Covey’s start with the end in mind – so I’d say that’s case proved. Pink obviously goes into more detail about this and does provide some psychology research to support his point. I won’t regurgitate it here – I recommend the book. But when you have a purpose to your work, a purpose that you believe is important, then you are engaged and motivated.
On to mastery, Pink suggests that engagement is a route to mastery. Malcolm Gladwell’s 10,000 hours of practice to achieve mastery is often quoted. 10,000 hours until you’re happy at work seems like an unattainable target. That’s about 5 years of full time work at 37 hours a week, a long time not to be happy. I’d flip that on its head though. It’s self evident that if you’re happy at work, you’re happy to stay and practice something for five years, until you do become a master at it. And if you’re naturally quite good at something, you’re going to be happy practising, whereas if it’s something that doesn’t come naturally, you’re less likely to be motivated to learn it, and will therefore not achieve mastery. So first, do something you enjoy, practice till you get really good, and you’ll enjoy it even more. Whilst I don’t want to downplay the role of mastery in motivation and happiness, to me this is less difficult to achieve than autonomy and less fundamental than purpose.
Now let’s take a look at autonomy. I think this is where most people are unhappy at work, and where many organisations go wrong. Who hasn’t come across the control freak boss who micromanages to the point of desperation? (Theirs as well as yours probably.) What about the boss who loses her temper, steals credit for your work, blocks every effort you make to improve things? What about the bullying boss? Even well intentioned bosses can have poor people management skills leading to an unhappy team – maybe so afraid of conflict he never makes a decision. Or the boss who doesn’t give clear direction on what’s required, so the team are never sure what good results look like. I read a Steve Jobs quote on twitter today (thanks David Tovey @PrincipledSell) which really sums this up.
It doesn’t make sense to hire smart people and then tell them what to do; we hire smart people so they can tell us what to do. —Steve Jobs
— David Tovey (@PrincipledSell) September 1, 2015
A great CEO isn’t someone who knows how to carry out all the operations of the organisation, but one who hires talented people who know – talented sales people, talented HR managers, talented finance teams, talented production managers. Talented people who share their vision, values and purpose. And then a) lets them get on with their jobs, and b) listens to their suggestions for improvement and innovations.
As someone who has always hated being told what to do or what to think, autonomy is right up there, I need no convincing of its importance in a motivated workforce. Do you?
So that’s kind of my main pet theory really, good management leads to committed and engaged workers, poor management doesn’t. The culture of the organisation comes from the top. What is accepted, what role models and behaviours are accepted, define the culture of the organisation. Token efforts at ’employee engagement’ such as away days or other team building programmes won’t work. They need to be ingrained in the culture of the organisation. Sinek tells how Southwest Airlines looks after employees first. Happy employees mean happy customers, which in turn mean happy shareholders. When employees trust that their employer will look after them, you don’t get the bad press that Amazon is suffering.
Moving away from businesses I have a pet theory about the public sector too. In the same way that the culture of businesses comes from the leadership, I believe that the culture of our public organisations comes from its leadership, our political masters. In a climate of cutting expenditure, doing more for less, criticism and harsh targets, no amount of desire to serve the public will survive that onslaught. Managers under increasing pressure will put their teams under increasing pressure. Autonomy? No. Mastery? Probably not. Purpose? To serve the public? Or serve the politicians?
As a former public sector employee myself and with friends who still work there, I know how demoralising it can be. I really wish that the political masters would realise that most people want to do a job to the best of their ability; public sector workers are often motivated by the purpose (easy to accept for police, firefighters, nurses, teachers, not so obvious for civil servants and council staff perhaps, but I believe it to be true) of serving the public. But they are also individuals who need to fulfil that purpose, achieve mastery and have autonomy.
I’ll finish with some thoughts from Nic Marks of Happiness Works, also quoted in the Guardian article. He says there are five things that will lead to engaged employees. I like these a lot, and can see how it would lead to a happy workplace. Do you think these create autonomy, mastery and purpose? I’d love to hear your views.
Connect with workers by fostering better relationships between employees and with customers. As part of this, think about enhancing collaborative spaces.
Be fair to your workers. Pay them fairly and ensure that they have a good work/life balance.
Empower your employees. Delegate more and ditch micromanagement.
Challenge your workers. Search for the “sweet spot” in which you stretch people without overloading them.
Inspire your workers by communicating the bigger picture of what you’re trying to achieve.
Stephen Covey. The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, Simon & Schuster Ltd
Malcolm Gladwell, Outliers: The Story of Success, Penguin
Isaiah Hankel PhD. Black Hole Focus. How intelligent people can create a powerful purpose for their lives, Capstone
Daniel H Pink. Drive. The Surprising Truth about what Motivates Us, Canongate
Simon Sinek. Start with Why. How Great Leaders Inspire Everyone to Take Action, Portfolio Penguin
How to conquer fear of public speaking in one easy lesson
So many people say ‘public speaking, aren’t you brave? I could never do that!’ So maybe it would help if I told you how I got into it?
Many years ago, as a quiet, not very confident civil servant, I joined the trade union. Up to then, I’d never been one to put myself forward, or seek attention in any way. (I know! Hard to believe!) But there lurked a quiet ambition, a desire to do something notable, and a throwback to my dad ‘s trade union principles maybe. Thanks to a colleague pushing me to stand for committee, I began to get involved. And once involved, I wanted to properly get stuck in. Then came the opportunity to go as a delegate to the national conference. What better way to find out more and begin to make a difference? Again, I was nominated, voted a place, and the tickets booked. In my naivety, I didn’t realise how unions worked. Our branch put forward a couple of motions.
So the branch chair said, ‘We’ll brief you on what to say.’
Me; slightly panicky, ‘What do you mean, what to say?’
Branch chair, ‘You’ll need to put the argument for the motion to the conference, don’t worry though, we’ll brief you.’
So there we are, thrown in the deep end. Had to speak – I’d taken a delegate place, meaning someone else couldn’t do it. The union were paying for me to go. It was important to persuade the conference to adopt the motion for the branch members. So I had to speak. In front of a conference audience of a few hundred.
What did I learn from the experience?
Well, first of all, the importance of preparation. Everything is easier if you’ve prepared properly. I took notes of the briefing the more experienced union members gave me. I made sense of the content, and put it in words I would use, to make my message authentic and therefore more convincing. I didn’t read them from a script – I made bullet pointed notes to use as an aide memoire. I rehearsed.
Secondly, I learnt the importance of looking confident. Even though the butterflies were going crazy when my name was called and I walked up to the lectern to speak, I walked purposefully to the front. I spoke in a clearer, louder voice than ever before. I focused on the moment, using the notes I had, keeping my purpose in mind. I must have done something right, because the motion was accepted.
Thirdly, and probably most importantly, I learned that I could do it. I learned that standing up and speaking in front of an audience wasn’t as scary as most people think it is.
So my advice to those of you who really wish you had the confidence to speak in front of an audience is, just do it. Next time someone wants you to share your knowledge, skills and experience, agree to do it, don’t be scared. Once committed, you’ll do whatever preparation you need to so that you can make a success of it. And then you’ll be proud of your accomplishment, realise it’s not so bad and be even more confident next time.
What do you think of this as a strategy? I’d love to hear about your experiences. If you feel you need a bit of support though, drop me a line, I’d be happy to help.
I talked last time about our brains tricking us into bad habits. This time I want to talk about how we can trick our brains instead, to help us to meet our goals. It’s about setting new habits, creating new autopilots that help us towards our goals instead of making it more difficult to achieve them and hoovering away our motivation.
Success is possible. I’ve always been one for hitting the snooze button repeatedly. But now, I hit it once, give myself the nine minutes (why does Apple go for nine minutes?) to wake up, and then get up at 6am – well, 5.59. I did this by simply deciding to do it for 21 consecutive days. I have to get out of bed to call my son to get up for work then (not really, he can get himself up – another trick I play on my brain) so now I don’t get back into bed and hit snooze repeatedly, I just stay up. And now it’s a habit. Even if I have a lie in on the weekend, I can still get back to the 5.59 habit.
I’m not going to try and fire you up with positive affirmations, or inspirational stories of people who succeed against the odds. This kind of positive thinking does have its place, but motivation is more mundane than that. I’m going to take a more pragmatic approach. The great Zig Ziglar said that people often said to him, ‘Motivation doesn’t last.’ His response? ‘Neither does bathing, that’s why we do it every day.’ So how do we motivate ourselves daily? Again, it’s the habit thing. It has to be something we do every day, automatically.
Jeff Olsen, in his book ‘The Slight Edge’, talks about simple errors of judgement. Repeated daily, they lead us into problems. The flip side is simple daily disciplines. Repeated daily, they add up to successful results. Break your diet by a little bit every day, and eventually you will put on more weight, gradually creating health problems. Eat healthily every day, you won’t feel better immediately, but over time will lose weight and feel more energetic.
Writers often say they sit down every day at the same time to write, for two hours, or three hours, or whatever their personal discipline is. And that’s how you write a book. They don’t wait for inspiration, writers write.
Athletes have a training regime that they adhere to on a regular basis. If we want exercise to be something we do on a regular basis, how can we automate that behaviour? Leave your fitness clothes ready the night before. Have your trainers there too. Instead of getting in the shower or going for breakfast first thing, put on your workout gear. Going out for that run (or fitness walk if running is a step too far) is then an unconscious choice, a result of being equipped. Give it the conscious effort for 21 days, and by then it will become automatic. 21 days to create a new habit is often quoted, and it does seem to be sufficient to ingrain a new routine.
NLP techniques such as the New Behaviour Generator can work by short circuiting the 21 days to create the new habit. You’d need an experienced NLP practitioner to talk you through this exercise. But the key thing is to know what the new behaviour looks like, and to create some kind of trigger for it. If you don’t have an experienced friendly NLP expert to hand, then persevering for 21 days is a good substitute. Not as instantaneous, but surely if something is important enough to you, then a 21 day investment in motivation is a small price to pay.
Of course, trying to establish too many new habits at once is a recipe for disaster. As I said before, I’d like to lose weight and get fit, organise my home and run a successful business. But counting calories, preparing healthy meals, 30 minutes of exercise, doing the hoovering daily, sorting out all my old paperwork, meeting clients, developing training courses, getting my to do list organised are not going to all happen in the next 21 days. Even if I do get up at 6am now.
Take it a step at a time. Get one or two new habits installed, and then move on to another thing. Tricks are for the not so smart part of us, we are all victims of our autopilot thinking where these habits don’t serve us well. Think about thinking, and harness your motivation.
My challenge to you is, what new behaviour, done on a daily basis over a sustained period of time, will help you to achieve your goals?
Once you’ve identified the behaviour, what can you do to trigger that behaviour, what can you do to help it to become a new habit?
Charles Duhigg, The Power of Habit, William Heinemann
Jeff Olson with John David Mann, The Slight Edge, Greenleaf Book Group Press
A few months back, at my weight loss group, I could hear that old song by Desmond Dekker playing..
You can get if you really want, but you must try, try and try, you’ll succeed at last
There’s something about this advice that really irritates me. It goes along with ‘You can be anything you want to be’. So I can be a world class athlete? I think that ship sailed many years ago. Ok, technically I could lose weight, get fit, train to run a marathon, but I’m never going to beat Paula Radcliffe (or whoever the current female world class is now). And to even do that would require lots of hard work, dedication and sacrifice. And yes, if that’s what I really wanted, more than anything in the world, I’d probably try.
What the try, try and try thing doesn’t recognise, is that motivation isn’t as simple as just wanting something and so working towards it will get us there. It doesn’t recognise that our brains are wired to thwart us. It doesn’t recognise that change is difficult to sustain.
But I want three things. I really, really want all three. I want to lose weight so that I’m slim, physically fit and healthy. I want to have a neat, tidy, organised home. And I want to succeed in business. So can I have all three? If I really want?
Well, not easily. It’s a question of focus. All three take a great deal of time and hard work. To lose weight requires me to lead an active life, getting enough exercise, and to plan and cook healthy meals. Also, it takes longer to eat a nice salad than it takes to eat a toasted cheese sandwich. To have a neat, tidy, organised home will take time. (If you know where I’m starting from, you’ll understand. I have a lot of stuff.) To succeed in business requires commitment and hard work. As a sole trader, it also means you have to get to grips with stuff you don’t necessarily understand, like how to create a website, how to keep accounts, or how to raise finance. If you’re a bit further ahead than that, it means you have to know how to recruit awesome staff, and how to be an awesome leader. And again, pulling all that off, takes a great deal of time.
So, that brings us to focus. Should I continue to work on all three at once, or focus on one? Well, before we look at some things that help us to focus, let’s take a look at some of the ways our brains get in our way.
Firstly, according to Daniel Kahneman, we have two thinking systems, fast and slow. The fast thinking is the stuff we do on auto pilot, that we know how to do without consciously thinking about it. Your morning routine, is it the same every day? When you get in the shower, do you always wash in the same order? Do you brush your teeth at the same point in the routine? Do you put your clothes on in the same order every day? Pretty much yes, I’d guess. The slow thinking is the things we need to apply some effort towards. We can drive to our usual place of work without working out the route. But if you have to drive somewhere you’ve never been before, you need to work out how to get there, look on a map, decide which of some alternative routes is the most suitable, how long should you allow for unexpected traffic, how long should you allow to find somewhere to park? (Oh alright, you might have given this sort of thinking up to your satnav. But you get the idea.)
Daniel Goleman calls these top down and bottom up thinking. In fact, lots of scientists, psychologists, writers, all sorts of people, have different names, but share the concept of two types of thinking. I’m going to go with autopilot for the fast thinking, and conscious thinking for the stuff that requires effort. But let’s stick with Goleman for a little. He describes bottom up as faster, involuntary, automatic, intuitive, impulsive and driven by emotions. Top down is slower, voluntary, effortful, able to learn new models, make new plans, and the seat of self control.
Some key clues there. If you’re the kind of person who has bad habits in a specific area – let’s say, eating biscuits when you’re stressed – then the habit, by definition, is an autopilot. You’re tired and stressed, so your impulsive, involuntary, emotional response is to get a cup of coffee and some biscuits, sit and eat them without thinking, that’s your autopilot reaction. If you’re trying to break that habit, it requires you to use top down, or conscious effort, to exercise self control, or replace the bad habit with a different one.
But another problem with the way our brains work, is that the conscious, effortful thinking requires, well… effort. It’s hard work. We can only do so much hard work in a day. Our brains get tired of hard work in the same way our bodies do, and they need rest. One reason so much of what we do is on autopilot – we’d never get through the day if we had to consciously think about everything we do. Another thing this reveals though, is that self control requires that effort. And other research has found that self control (otherwise known as willpower) is a finite resource. If we’ve spent all day at work exercising self control not to lose our tempers with awkward customers or demanding bosses, or we’ve been concentrating on solving a tricky problem, we may have used up our quota of self control for the day. Cue a take away for dinner – we haven’t got the energy or the willpower left to cook that healthy meal we had planned.
Another way our brains can trick us is through something called present bias. David McRaney picked this one up in his book ‘You are not so smart’. There’s now me, and future me. Future me is the one who is going to eat healthy, start exercising and be more organised. Now me is the one ordering take away for dinner. The problem with future me though, is she’s always in the future. Those of us who suffer from this delude ourselves about how good we’re going to be in the future. As McRaney says, present bias explains why we buy lettuce and bananas, only to throw them away later when we forget to eat them.
What we need are good strategies for tricking our brain. We’ll take a look at some of these in the next blog. In the meantime, what bad habits have you got into that you’d like to change?
By the way, I gave up the weight loss group. It wasn’t motivating me to succeed, and was just taking up precious time and money. I’m still working on the good habits.
Daniel Goleman. Focus, The Hidden Driver of Excellence, Bloomsbury
Daniel Kahneman, Thinking, Fast and Slow, Penguin Book
David McRaney. You are not so smart, Oneworld Publications
Ever said something and then regretted it? Of course, we all have. Whether it’s a mean comment in the heat of an argument with a loved one, or what we thought afterwards was a stupid comment, and we said it out loud in front of people. Or what seemed to be an even bigger mistake, speaking out at work, and losing a job as a result.
I’ve done all of the above. Losing a job seems to be a pretty disastrous consequence, but I don’t regret saying what I did. It was for a small charity, and I pointed out some things that needed changing. I was right about the things that needed changing, and the trustees seemed to agree with me. They also thought that the changes included not having me on the payroll, for reasons I never understood. But no matter, I was right about the changes, and I survived losing the job. In fact, so many wonderful things have happened since, that I’m not even sorry I no longer work there.
But what if you don’t speak up? What about those times you didn’t say something, and wish you had? Yes, there might be times when you decide for the greater good to keep quiet. It’s not those occasions that are the problem. But if you fail to speak up for what you think is right through fear – fear of the consequences, lack of confidence or inability to put your argument – then those times have a serious impact on your self esteem over the longer term.
Because in those instances, you’re not being true to your values. You’re making a decision that you don’t deserve to put your point of view across, or that no-one will listen, so what’s the point in saying anything, or you’re allowing the fear to have power over you. None of those are great feelings. If you allow them to stay with you and affect your behaviour for any length of time, then they will eat away at your confidence, self esteem and happiness.
For a long time, I would move on, leave a job, rather than stand up for what I thought was the right thing. And I worked in the charity sector, so I told myself that I was working in organisations that were a good fit with my values. On reflection, I was kidding myself that working for a charity was going to make me happy – there’s more to it than that. (It was certainly better than working for the government, but still wasn’t the right thing.)
As a friend recently pointed out, you can always apologise for something you’ve said, but you usually can’t go back and speak out about something after the event – the opportunity has passed.
Of course, there are appropriate and inappropriate ways of speaking up, and we’ll take a look at some of these in another post. Meanwhile, I encourage you to consider your values, what is really important to you, and how does your work support or undermine these.
If you want to know more, download our guide to assertive behaviour.