Can you really learn to be happier at work? Without changing your job? Even if you have a difficult boss?
You hate Mondays....
You're enjoying life at the weekends, but then Sunday afternoon comes around, the evening approaches, and you start to think about Monday. You get that sinking feeling in the pit of your stomach. Maybe you can't sleep. Monday morning, you don't want to get out of bed, you start to work out if you can come up with a good excuse not to go in. But you threw a sickie only last week. Perhaps you can say the kids are sick and you’ll work from home? But you know the boss doesn’t like you working from home, so even that’s not without its stresses.
You're bored when you get there...
The work is unfulfilling, you have no control over what you do, you just have to do as you're told. The boss is a control freak and micromanages even the simplest task. She seems to constantly worry that you don’t know how to do your work properly or seems afraid that you might use some initiative and not to the job exactly how she wants. So you feel there’s no point in showing any initiative anyway.
Maybe you're overworked and stressed, and can never get on top of what you have to do. Always firefighting, dealing with the most pressing problem and never planning ahead. So you always feel like there’s things outstanding, no sense of achievement or a job completed well.
You don't like your boss or your colleagues...
Your boss doesn’t have your back, he never gives you any help, just keeps piling it on. He expects you to get through it all and doesn't care if you have to stay late. Then there's your colleagues. Always bitching and gossiping. No-one works as a team, there's no sense of a shared purpose.
How on earth can you learn to be happier in these circumstances?
Mindset. Not ‘think positive’, but mindset.
I’ve always had a love/hate relationship with positive thinking self help books; that skill of always putting a positive spin on things? Sometimes it’s really hard. But by making small adjustments to the way I think about myself, my skills and my situation, I’ve learned so much about mindset and how important it is. Viktor Frankl in a concentration camp experienced at first hand how much difference this makes to survival. Buckingham and Goodall in Nine Lies about Work encourage us to find the ‘red threads’ in our daily lives, and weave more of them into the fabric of our work. Zig Ziglar tells of the woman who complained about how awful her place of work was, but by getting her to focus on gratitude showed how ‘everyone else’ had changed. (It can be found on YouTube, but most have foreign captions. Search for Zig Ziglar and gratitude if you want to watch him.)
I was talking with Michael, who worked for a local authority office. He had hated the work and didn’t get on with his managers. Public expenditure cuts meant the working environment was very negative. One day, in a flash of personal insight, he decided to stop complaining about it and see what he could do to make things better. To look for solutions instead of expecting others to change. He said it took some time, but after a while he found he was enjoying his work more. He discovered a growing respect for his managers, who also started to show him more respect. His managers started to come to him for help, which led to him getting more interesting work, and they started to show him more appreciation.
It’s kind of like when two people fall out, who is going to apologise first? Do you hold on to a grudge and expect the other party to make the first move? If they’re doing exactly the same, no-one does it, and the rift grows. If you want to be shown some appreciation and respect at work, show some to your bosses and your colleagues first. If you want interesting work, demonstrate that you can be trusted to do the simple things well, without complaint, on time. Change your approach, and people will change their behaviour in response.
I’m not saying this will work 100% in every situation. There are some work situations that need more. A bullying manager. A severe micro manager. A ‘rules are rules’ approach. But even in severe situations, acceptance of the situation puts you in a stronger position to act. If you have a bullying manager you do need support, but accepting the situation and not embracing victimhood will mean that you can consider your options – go to HR, go to another manager, look for another job, leave.
In most cases though, it’s not a bullying manager, it’s more that you don’t see eye to eye, you don’t get on, you don’t respect or trust each other. Those things can all be worked on.
And the bottom line is, you can’t control someone else’s behaviour, but you can control your own. You can learn to control your responses and your emotions. If you want to know where to start, download seven things you can do today to be happier at work. These seven simple things can be implemented easily. Make a start on your new habits and new behaviour at work.
Let me know if you’ve tried any of these out, and how you get on.
Who loves being told what to do? Not many of us, I’m willing to bet. I was talking to my daughter earlier, and she mentioned she’d been looking for new glasses with a friend. The friend said her husband has the last word on her new glasses – he would say if she could have them or not. My daughter was horrified – and said if her husband tolde her she couldn’t have them, those are the ones she’d buy, even if she didn’t like them herself. Just to make the point he couldn’t tell her what to do. (He doesn’t, just to be clear. Which is possibly one reason she was horrified that someone else’s husband would.)
It’s one thing for husbands and wives, but does your boss have the power to tell you what to do? Certainly some bosses act as though they do, and I guess if you push it, there is an expectation that they can. I remember years ago a colleague recounting a conversation with one of her team members
Jane: Are you telling me to do it?
Sue: No, I’m asking you
Jane: If I say no?
Sue: Then I’m telling you
Daniel Pink says that autonomy is one of our most important drivers, so what do you do if your boss is always telling you what to do? It's a key aspect of happiness at work.
It can feel stifling if we feel powerless at work, and certainly some work environments drain the life out of people because of this. But there is always something you can do. Job crafting means thinking about the purpose of your work, what is important to you, what you enjoy, and crafting more of those things into your work every day.
Even if you have the most micromanaging manager of all time (I’ve met one or two of them) you can take control of how you feel about your work. As Viktor Frankl said in Man's Search for Meaning,
'...the last of the human freedoms – to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.'
Both books are an inspiring read, and you can watch my reviews of them here.
I've written more on this subject here
What will you do to take control and gain a little autonomy for yourself? Taking even the smallest of steps will help you to feel happier at work. Let me know in the comments below what change you will make to be happier at work.
Today marks the beginning of the International Week of Happiness at Work. Hmm, if you need this, I guess you’re in trouble. My view is that every week should be happy at work. But too many people don’t feel like that about it.
To mark the week, I’m going to post a new article every day looking at the issues. If you want to join the conversation, you can find me on twitter, Facebook, Linked In, Instagram, You Tube and my website.
What are your initial thoughts about a week of happiness at work? Post in the comments below, or on any of the social media platforms. Twitter, Facebook and Linked In links are below in About the Author.
Instagram is new ish, but I can be found here
If you want to make a start, get my seven things you can do today to be happier at work
This cautionary tale tells the story of Dawn, who worked for a large customer service organisation. During one of those team building awaydays, they were asked to write some anonymous feedback for someone they worked with, who they wished didn’t behave the way they did.
Dawn wrote a lengthy letter, writing what she thought of Gemma, a younger manager she worked with. Dawn thought Gemma was too abrasive, and not considerate enough of others in the team. She didn’t hold back in the letter – after all, it was anonymous.
Only, it wasn’t. The trainers pulled a sneaky trick on the delegates. They were then asked to sit opposite the person for whom they had written this no holds barred feedback and read it out to them. My desktop won’t play along and let me post an emoji for this, but it would be the shocked one. I was horrified for Dawn.
I cannot see what is to be gained from this. I’m a big advocate of feedback. It is one of the best ways of learning and improving relationships with others. But there’s a right way and a wrong way to deliver it. This was definitely the wrong way. There are three obvious problems with the approach taken here.
What's the problem?
Is there a better way?
Yes. Yes there is.
On a day to day, informal basis, make sure the only uninvited feedback you give is positive. Make sure it is to help someone feel good. Make it as specific as you can. And genuine. And work related. As often as you can, not just ‘good job on that presentation’ but ‘I can see you were really thorough in your research for that presentation, I can see how hard you worked. I especially like the point about.....because.....’
If you’re invited to give feedback (by the actual person, not by a trainer who lies about it!) then you can give honest feedback about where they could improve. There’s still a sensitive way to do this though. We’ve all heard of the sandwich technique. Sometimes known as the shit sandwich; quite possibly because it’s often uninvited feedback, and done in a clumsy fashion. ‘I’m saying something nice about you as a cover for the criticism I really want to give you, then I suppose I have to say something else nice.’ The nice things somehow don’t seem sincere.
But if you are asked to give feedback, keep to the same rules of making it specific and genuine. And yes, you do need to find actual positives to share, even when you’re also delivering a point where someone can improve. You still need to ensure they feel good about your feedback, and you can only do this by being genuine about wanting to help them. The sandwich technique comes from a good place, and if you bear this in mind, that you want the person to feel good, then you can deliver feedback that will actually help.
What I think this trainer should have done is acknowledge that the delegates may not have had the skills, or be in the right place with a working relationship, to deliver effective feedback on 'areas for improvement'. The task then, was to help them gain the skills. Or alternatively, spend some time on looking at why relationships may not be as good as they could be at that workplace. Maybe both.
And if you’re ever in a position where you’re asked to do this, here’s my advice; call the trainer out on it. Ask them what the purpose is, what is the exercise meant to achieve? If they have an answer, but you don’t think the objective will be achieved, say so. And I'll be very surprised if they do have an effective answer. Lead a mutiny and refuse to just read out a letter that you didn’t intend the other party to hear. Although, seriously, I hope team building has progressed past this kind of nonsense. To be fair, this did happen some time ago, and we’ve learned so much more about how people learn, how the brain responds to threatening situations, and how to foster good working relationships since then.
As a counterpoint, I once went to a team building away day that did something like this far more effectively. We were split into small groups, and had to do a round robin type of exercise. We had puzzles to solve, one I remember was to build something in lego. There were other types of practical tasks too. After a given amount of time, we moved to the next table, and had to work on a different task. I remember being really confused about what we should be doing, should we undo the previous team’s work and start again, or carry on where they left off? The trainers refused to answer, telling us it was up to us. By the end of the exercise, I’d twigged. I realised the point was, we’re all supposed to be on the same team, we’re all working towards the same aims, our communication needed to improve so that we could build on what the previous group had done. Not undo it all and start again, destroying what they had achieved, wasting everyone’s time and the organisation's resources.
Many years later, this lesson remains imprinted on my brain. This was before I understood about purpose at work. Before I understood how fundamental it is to feel valued at work. At least before I understood it at an intellectual level, because those things had long been important to me on a visceral level. But this is a much better memory than being coerced into sharing some negative feedback to a antagonist at work.
Do we need feedback at all?
Let’s take the concept of negative feedback and examine it a little more closely. I was going to conclude that feedback is good, but negative feedback should be handled carefully. But then I remembered something I read just recently. In Nine Lies about Work, Buckingham and Goodall’s lie #5 is ‘people need feedback’. Should we even give negative feedback at all? Parenting guides talk about ignoring bad behaviour in your children and praise the good. (Easier said than done, I know!) Does this apply to the workplace too?
Looking back over workplace experiments and citing some research by Gallup, the engagement at work people, Buckingham and Goodall conclude that what people need is not feedback, but attention. The Gallup research found that the worst scenario for workplace engagement was where managers paid no attention whatsoever to their team. Even negative feedback is attention, and this achieved forty times more effectiveness in engaging the team. So it looks like a win. But as the point of engagement is to achieve more effective performance, is this still the best way to get this result? You might not be surprised to learn that positive feedback is more effective still, but you may be surprised to learn that it is thirty times more powerful again than negative feedback.
Buckingham and Goodall also borrow from the research on personal relationships; it has been found that a happy marriage has a positive to negative ratio of between three to one or five to one – so for each negative experience, you need to give positive attention three to five times. You can watch my review of Nine Lies about Work
here. If you want to explore these ideas further, or if you still need convincing of the merits, I highly recommend a read of the book.
So what are the takeaways from this?
If you’re a manager and want to get the best out of your people, give them positive attention – catch them doing something right, and feed that back to them, help them see what was working.
If you’re a team member and wish you got on better with colleagues and managers, give them some positive feedback. As often as you can. It counts just as much whatever your place in the team.
If you’re a trainer, help your students to understand this concept.
If you'd like more ideas on how to be happier at work, you can get a free download here
What is your experience? Do you have any other tips for improving working relationships that have helped you? Let me know in the comments below.
Buckingham, Marcus and Goodall, Ashley, 2019 Nine Lies about Work, Harvard Business Review Press Boston, Massachusetts
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.
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?
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’.
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
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