The Consensus of Underperformance: How To Make Significant Improvements in Your Performance

About a year ago, I was watching Meat Loaf’s horrendous performance at the AFL Final in 2011. Being a huge fan of the Bat Out Of Hell album, I recoiled in horror as the Meat mercilessly butchered his own material in a voice that sounded like a drunken Seal barking into a bathtub. Honestly, he didn’t hit a single decent note in the entire performance, appearing to sing in some strange skeleton key that only made sense to him. Very sad.

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Being something of a frustrated musician myself (I’ve released 3 albums), I thought even I could do better than this tuneless travesty. Even I, possessed as I am of a reasonable but not exactly stunning set of pipes. In fact you could describe my vocal cords as the VW Golf of singing – they get the job done and have a certain amount of appeal, but you’d never call them stunning.

Nonetheless, I had a go at singing over Meat Loaf’s asthmatic honk and yes, I could do a better job. Hell, at least I was in tune and in time and I knew the words. But even if I could manage a marginally creditable performance and better the one delivered by the artist himself, you’d never call it outstanding. Far from it.

However, I derived a sense of satisfaction from my superior singing success. I felt good that I could render those songs better than a man with a voice that was about as functional and as tuneful as the Royal Albert Hall organ before its recent renovation.

It later dawned on me that this was no achievement at all. I was setting the bar low to say the least. What I was actually doing with my Meat Loaf singing challenge was trying to match or narrowly beat mediocrity. I wasn’t improving upon the way those songs are sung (under normal circumstances at least) and I wasn’t interpreting them in a unique and interesting way. I was just trying to sing them slightly better than average.

But I was proud of my mediocrity.

This scared me.

The Self-Esteem Problem

As followers of my blog will already know, I often talk about the effect of self-esteem on our behaviours and attitudes. Once again, let us consider the self-esteem problem.

As human beings, we are constantly engaged in a programme of self-esteem maintenance. We’re often unconscious of this phenomenon, but it affects at least 90% of our actions. We continually look for small pieces of evidence to support and enhance our self-esteem. In other words, we are continually trying to find new ways to feel good about ourselves.

What was I doing when I tried to sing those Meat Loaf songs? I wasn’t just trying to prove to myself that I could sing better than Meat Loaf – I was trying to make myself feel good about my singing abilities.

Now, the easiest way to feel good about your own abilities is to set the bar of comparison really, really low. This is what I did with my singing challenge. Start from a low base, then you will only need to expend a little effort to deliver better performance and you can make it considerably easier to feel good about yourself.

You may well relate to this. Perhaps you’ve compared your figure to that of someone who is out of shape, convincing yourself that you look great as a result. Maybe you’ve experienced a boost when you noticed that your neighbour only has a BMW 316i, while you have the 330D Luxury. Or possibly, you’ve gained some satisfaction in realising that your desk is just that little bit tidier than your colleague’s.

This behavioural trait dominates society. Its quite incredible to realise that people constantly make small comparisons between themselves and others within similar situations, looking for validation for their current level of performance in work, life or relationships. And yet people rarely try to make a leapfrog improvement in their own performance, or indeed their circumstances.

Comparing my vocal performance to Meat Loaf at his worst didn’t improve my singing abilities. It just made me feel better about my current level of singing performance.

The Consensus of Underperformance

Now think about your workplace. What is performance like within your team or even within your organisation as a whole? Does anybody ever really “stand out” as a a high performer?

Look closely and it is very likely that you will find that everyone performs to pretty much the same standard. Sure, there may be small differences here and there, but generally everyone will work to the same basic level. One of the reasons for this is that people reference each other’s performance and as I have said already, validate their own behaviour by using others as a benchmark. The effect of this is that they perform to the same basic standards – because everyone else is performing to those standards.

If it’s alright for Ben, it’s OK for me.

We justify our performance by observing that others perform no better than we do. This creates a cycle of the same performance repeated over and over with little to no change.

The end result of this is effectively a consensus of underperformance.

I remember some years ago working with a team who were underperforming. One day, I asked some of my colleagues to explain why they thought the team had underperformed for so many years. They said “we don’t really know, but we have noticed one thing which seems really odd”. Being the inquisitive guy I am (or nosy, according to my wife) I was intrigued to find out what that one thing was. This is what they said – “anybody who joins this team from outside always ends up acting and performing the same as the rest of us within three months”.

Once again, there was an unspoken consensus of underperformance. And everyone entering that team was quickly assimilated into it.

Breaking the Consensus

So what are you supposed to do about this? Should you do anything about this situation?

Well, imagine for one moment that everything you are able to achieve within your life is set to the same level as that of your neighbours. That is, you can only achieve as much as your neighbour financially. Assume for a moment that your neighbour is slightly worse off than you are now.

Would you voluntarily settle for this arrangement?

I imagine the answer would be a definite “no”.

To escape the limitations of setting your performance standards to the prevailing standards of others, you have to set the bar higher. You have to ask yourself “what can I do differently to make a bigger impact?”. In short, you need to become the disrupter.

So what do I mean by “the disrupter”? Well, I can tell you it’s not some hitherto unknown superhero that goes around butting into conversations. At least as far as I know. Let me explain what I mean.

It is incredibly common for situations to rumble along unchanged for extremely long periods of time, like a train on a straight piece of track that runs on and on forever. Without outside influence, they just continue indefinitely. To change their direction, something has to come along and disrupt them. For example, if someone puts an object in the path of the train, it may alter where it’s going. But unless that object is large enough to offset the momentum and mass of the train, then the rampaging locomotive will obliterate it and continue on its journey to oblivion. Make the object something with sufficient mass and energy to exceed that of the train and the 10:42 London Midland service to Same-As will change course pretty easily.

This is what I mean when I encourage you to become a “disrupter”. You see, mediocrity thrives on mediocrity. Disrupt the permanence of this mediocrity by dramatically improving your own performance and suddenly, the game is changed. The bar is raised. There is no longer a consensus of underperformance.

So here are four simple tips that will allow you to get started in improving your performance and becoming a disruptive but positive influence on your colleagues.

1. Don’t get dragged into negativity

Many workplaces are riddled with negativity – you’ll probably recognise this in your own situation. Constant negativity holds people back, restricts performance, keeps everything mediocre. Don’t allow yourself to be dragged into this destructive behaviour.

Adopt a positive mental attitude and and live it out in front of your colleagues. Be the one to find the upside in situations, rather than joining in the indulgent complaining about why things aren’t as good as they should be. Become a leader within your team by showing your colleagues how things could be better.

Look for the positives and lead others in identifying opportunities for the future.

2. Seek knowledge

It’s remarkable how many decisions are made on a daily basis within our workplaces with insufficient knowledge and a lack of facts. Avid readers of my blog will recognise that this is something I raise time and time again. It’s true to say that many people make little to no effort to improve their knowledge on a daily basis. The result is stagnation and of course, mediocrity.

Become interested in increasing your understanding and knowledge on a daily basis. Make sure that your decisions are informed, give yourself confidence in your own abilities by filling your mind with useful facts and other information. Ask questions and do your research. Keep learning.

Be the one with the most knowledge and use this to lead your colleagues towards better decisions and thus, better performance.

3. Get to the “why” of situations

Another unfortunate trait within our workplaces is a lack of understanding of why certain things are being carried out. Many people appear to bumble along carrying out tasks that they have little to no understanding of and for which they are unable to define a purpose. This is the natural compliment to mediocre performance because these individuals have little to no context for the work for carrying out and as such are unable to innovate or improve the work.

Make it your business to understand the purpose of the tasks you and your colleagues are carrying out on a daily basis. Ask the relevant questions that will help you to understand “why?”. Once you understand the purpose, articulate it to others and help them to appreciate it.

Understand the purpose of the work and use this understanding to help others see where you’re going and why.

4. Critically appraise your own performance

We’re often scared to reflect on our own performance. Commonly, if people don’t experience any negative consequences from their current level of performance, they assume all to be okay and carry on performing at the same level. This is not conducive to improvement, again it is a recipe for stagnation.

Adopt the habit of regularly appraising your own performance. Consider what you do well and look for opportunities to improve. Be prepared to look honestly at your negative areas and plan out how you might develop them. Do all of this from the perspective of a third party. Imagine yourself as someone else looking in on your performance and go from there. Where you find deficiencies, don’t allow yourself to be disheartened. This will only impact your self-esteem. Consider them as facts, as something impersonal and then you’ll be free to objectively determine how best to improve.

Become interested in your own performance and development and set an example to your colleagues along the way.

Back to Self-Esteem

Now before I finish this blog, I want to touch on self-esteem again. You may have spotted that there are some self esteem implications to becoming a disruptive influence within your team. Raising your head above the parapet and fighting for better performance where everyone else is satisfied with the status quo has its consequences.

In the short term you may experience reduced self-esteem simply as a result of differentiating yourself from the herd. As I said earlier, people derive self esteem by justifying their own performance in relation to that of others. Attempting to do things differently means that you can no longer compare yourself to those around you as easily.

Go with it. Don’t allow short-term discomfort to prevent you from achieving long-term satisfaction.

In the long term your self esteem will go up considerably. As you become more interested in improving your performance and being a more positive influence on others, your self worth and self belief will increase. Over time, you will feel much better about yourself, you will feel more secure and you will be more fulfilled than you are now.

So give it some thought. Why not step away from the consensus of underperformance and become an example to those around you of why we need not settle for mediocrity in our workplaces.

Set the bar high and watch yourself accelerate towards greater and greater achievement – like a bat out of hell.

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John Hackett

Managing Director – Franklin-Hackett Ltd.

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The 3 Types of Subjective Statement and The Importance of Factual Language

If you’re a UK citizen at the time I’m writing this blog, then it is highly likely that you are well aware of the ongoing 2015 General Election campaign.

I mean, let’s be honest here. If you’ve opened your laptop, turned on the TV or listened to the radio in the last few weeks, the meetingwithjohnlennonpointingatgivemesometruthwhiteboardGeneral Election has been repeatedly shoved down your throat with all the finesse and delicacy of a plumber unblocking a heavily soiled toilet.

For those outside the UK who might be reading this, the UK General Election is the time when the whole of the UK decides who it would like to form a Government for the next five years, while the politicians try to convince us to vote for them through a series of intriguing publicity stunts and the media tell us who to vote for through a series of “balanced and reasoned” debates.

For all of us as voters, the key characteristic of any General Election campaign is information overload. We are bombarded by messages from all angles. The effect is rather like sitting in the middle of a Duck enclosure during feeding time. You can’t hear yourself think for all the quacking.

And yet we’re expected to form opinions and draw conclusions from this barrage of information. We have to make decisions from this plethora of pronouncements. It’s not easy.

Now, if one is actually able to process any of these messages, with a little analysis It becomes clear that they often fit into 3 very specific categories. These are as follows:

The Moral Argument

These types of messages appeal to our beliefs and values. They make the case for a particular policy or course of action by outlining the “moral” reasons for doing them. A typical manifestation of a Moral Argument is sentences such as:

“We must invest in the NHS… because its the right thing to do for the future of our country”

“We must tax the wealthy members of society… because it’s only when working people succeed, that Britain succeeds”

“We should welcome immigration… because Britain is a fair and just society without prejudice”

And so on and so on. You get the idea.

Now, with a little analysis we can determine that the typical structure for a Moral Argument is this:

“We should <assertion>… because <value or belief statement>”

Moral Arguments try to tie ideas or concepts to subjective values and beliefs in an attempt to give them emotional credibility. They are often lacking in rational justification preferring to focus on the “feel-good factor” that comes from appealing to moral sensibilities.

That brings me on to the next type of message:

The Floating Statement

These are those infamous messages that make a bold and impressive sounding statement without offering any information to ground it in reality. They tend to be high level and never contain any detail whatsoever. Here are a few examples:

“We will reduce the deficit and balance the books”

“We will make sure every working family is supported”

“We will protect education”

“We will make the tax system fairer”

Recognise these? A typical response to this type of message is initially an approving nod of the head, but any degree of analysis eventually elicits a cry of “How?”. Floating Statements are completely ungrounded, like a balloon floating away over the rooftops and towards the clouds. Very pretty, but not anchored down and therefore ultimately headed for oblivion.

And finally…

The Et Tu Brute?

Also known as the “Stab In The Back”. This refers to messages that try to make a point through the use of fear or negative consequential language. Examples of an Et Tu Brute? include:

“If you vote UKIP, you allow Labour and the SNP to form a Government. Therefore, vote Conservative”

“If you vote Conservative, they will cut £1bn from the NHS. Protect the NHS by voting Labour”

“UKIP want to cut immigration. This will allow racism in via the back door. Therefore, if you vote UKIP, you’re racist”

“The Liberal Democrats reneged on their tuition fee pledge. Therefore, they can’t be trusted so vote for a Conservative majority Government”

Etc, etc. Very tiresome, wouldn’t you agree?

Once again, these statements have a specific format which can be identified as:

“<Accusatory statement>… Equals <Negative consequence>… Therefore <Alternative action>”

Et Tu Brute? statements are highly emotive and can often be divisive. In certain situations they can also be very personal. If they are not subjected to analysis by the recipient, these types of messages can be very powerful indeed, appealing as they do to our most basic emotion – fear.

Just Give Me Some Truth

There is one consistent factor amongst these 3 types of statement – subjectivity. Notice how each appeals to emotional sensibilities and contains little to no factual information or justification. They are not open to critical appraisal. In fact, they are about as open as Brighton West Pier. And like the famous ruined seaside attraction, they are easily broken down.

It is easy when using this kind of language to obscure the truth. Subjectivity almost always elicits an emotional response as opposed to a logical response. Facts are ignored in the face an appealing emotional hit. Our basic emotional reactions are triggered.

It is only later, after the emotional reaction has subsided that we often experience that “WTF moment”. In other words, our logical brain kicks in and sends the message – “does not compute”. But in the moment, as these subjective statements hit us, we are taken in.

It’s Not Just Politics

Now you may be thinking, “oh yes, this is typical of politics and politicians”. And you would not be alone in that sentiment. But the frightening truth is that this subjective language, this obscuring of fact through emotive proclamation, is equally prevalent in the workplace.

Have you ever sat in a meeting listening to your colleagues making a series of bold sounding proclamations followed by words such as “because I think it is the right thing to do”? You’ve got yourself an example of The Moral Argument right there.

Do you recall an encounter with a colleague during a planning meeting, where they stand up and say something which sounds awfully efficient and action-oriented – perhaps words such as “that’s agreed then – we’ll improve the way things work” – but without explaining how that might be accomplished in practice? You’ve stumbled across an example of The Floating Statement.

And have you been in a heated meeting where a colleague has said something similar to “we tried to work with that team in the past and they messed us around, so we’d best leave them out of the project”?. In the words of Julius Caesar – “Et Tu Brute?”.

These unhelpful styles of language are being used every single day in the workplace. Meetings and discussions are heavily polluted by all 3 traits. Is it any wonder our organisations are sometimes so inefficient?

Now, I’m sorry to have to inform you that not only are your colleagues engaging in this linguistic dance with the Devil, but you and I are at it too. It’s very easy to fall into the trap of using language in this way. It’s very simple to make bold emotive statements without having the facts to hand to back them up. That’s why it’s so popular.

Let’s Get Factual

We will never get to the truth or establish cold hard facts if we allow subjective language to dominate our workplaces. As I always say, you can’t change other people’s behaviour but you can change your own. Here are some tips of how to stay factual and avoid using these 3 types of subjective statement:

  • Always back up your arguments with factual information that substantiates your statement.
  • Ensure you aren’t confusing facts with opinion. If you can’t back it up, don’t say it.
  • Avoid framing statements with personal language such as “I think…” or “my opinion is…”. Use phrases such as “it seems that…”, “the facts suggest…”, “one option might be…”.
  • Don’t use negative language or make personal attacks on other parties.
  • Stay away from value driven arguments – avoid moral language and stick with objective facts.

And if you are dealing with someone who is putting out a load of subjectivity, use this simple question to engage their logical brains:

“On what basis?”

Give it a try and see how you get on. I am confident that you will find your meetings become more productive from now on.

And finally – imagine a General Election campaign based on fact, not subjectivity. Imagine politics being dominated by logical argument instead of emotional proclamation. And imagine a workplace where the rationale for doing something is clear and verifiable.

In the words of the Beach Boys, “Wouldn’t It Be Nice”.

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John Hackett

Managing Director – Franklin-Hackett Ltd.

How To Deal With Envy In The Workplace

Do you envy your colleagues’ success?

Back in my younger days I attended a private boarding school for two years while I did my ‘A’ Levels. For an averagely talented young guy from a comprehensive school in Dudley, it was something of a culture shock.

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In the good old comprehensive, I was top of the class in a number of subjects. Each high grade and complimentary comment from the relevant teacher boosted my self esteem – gave me a feeling of being “better” than the other students. I wasn’t a popular kid, in fact I was probably on par with impetigo for social acceptance, and was more often than not the target for bullies who seemed to have collectively confused my head with a football. So I wasn’t walking around with a swollen head from excessive self-esteem, let’s just say that. But nonetheless, my apparent academic success allowed me to feel superior in at least one area. In these limited sets of circumstances, I was “OK” where most of my contemporaries were apparently “not OK”. In short, I was the academic achiever.

So when I moved to the poshest private boarding school since St. Posh’s Posh Academy opened in the Borough of Posh, I thought everything would be fantastic. After all, I came top in a number of subjects such as English, Music and Business Studies at my previous school – I was bound to fit in, right?

Eh, no. What I discovered upon joining was that the academic bar was considerably higher at the private school than it was at the comprehensive. In fact, it was like comparing the height of the Empire State Building to a small 10 storey tower block in Slough. Rather more steps.

Where I had previously been a high achiever, I was now distinctly average against my new peers. On the plus side, I fitted in socially and rather than being used as an item of gym equipment by the bullies, I was now popular. But academically, I was mediocre at best. What’s more, I only had two years in which to advance my skills just to match the base standard of the school at the time I joined.

This was a task equivalent to making a comb-over fashionable. It couldn’t really be done.

The result of this new set of circumstances was that I no longer felt “OK” about my academic ability. Everyone else was “OK” but I was “not OK”. Because I now felt “not OK” about my academic ability, I became envious of my contemporaries who appeared to be blessed with an innate ability to deliver high performance with little effort in areas where I seemed to require enormous effort for little performance. Bastards.

The more envious I became the more I saw myself as a victim of bad circumstances.

Now, my experiences are by no means unique and I expect my story is bringing back your own memories of similar situations from your school days. Like many of us, you’ve probably experienced situations such as mine where you find yourself coming up short in comparison with others – where you feel you’re not as good as you thought you were.

Situations where you feel “not OK” about yourself.

But just pause for a moment. I want you to consider how these situations affect your working life. Because it turns out that these situations are not unique to our academic careers – they are equally prevalent in the workplace.

The Comparison Problem

As human beings, we have all become conditioned to compare ourselves to other human beings. Throughout the course of a typical day we are continuously making micro-comparisons, be they physical, intellectual or situational. “Am I fatter than them?”, “Do they drive a better car than me?”, “Does my boss prefer Dave to me?”, “Is my report as good as Sharon’s?”, “Was that joke I just cracked as funny as the one Will told this morning?” etc, etc.

These are the things we human beings spend a lot of time thinking about. We are collectively obsessed with how we stack up against our contemporaries.

It turns out that this is an automatic internal mechanism, built into our brains and reinforced by social conditioning and experience. And it’s incredibly self-centred. In fact, it’s all about good old self-esteem.

We spend inordinate amounts of time trying to prop up our self-esteem, trying to make ourselves feel good about ourselves. This is because our self-esteem is often built on very poor foundations. Imagine going to the English Channel, building a pier out of flimsy materials in the middle of a storm and then running around trying to make adjustments in the structure to stop it falling down. Not terribly productive and likely to end in a bloody great mess. This is what we are doing all the time.

How do you feel when one of your colleagues closes a big deal? Or when a fellow co-worker is selected to undertake a prestigious secondment? Or when all the managers one level above you are given the opportunity to attend a training programme but you’re not?

Or when Debbie walks into the kitchen with a humungous coffee cup that’s twice the size of yours?

We should be pleased for our colleagues, right? But I’m willing to bet that many of us would want to throw Debbie’s stupid oversized poser mug out the nearest window.

These are the kind of situations that cause many of us to believe we are “not OK”. And going back to the pier metaphor – believing we’re “not OK” means that every one of these situations is an assault to our rickety self esteem in the same way as each wave breaks off another piece of the British Leyland pier. It’s a constant fight to stay standing.

Breaking The Cycle Of Envy

This cycle of self-esteem maintenance, which encourages comparison and then results in envy where the comparison is not favourable, makes working life far more difficult that it should be. This nonsense is simmering away under the surface in your office and your performance and quality of life is being affected by it. Do you want this to continue?

I suspect not. I mean, telling your manager that your poor performance in a task was the result of a drop in self-esteem caused by Debbie’s Bentley of coffee cups showing up in the kitchen is not going to cut it.

You can’t necessarily change this in others. But you can do something about it yourself. You can change the way you think.

Here’s how.

1. Look into others

We tend to look up to those we perceive as being more successful or more “OK” than ourselves. This is an inherently inferior position – similar to a child’s view of a parent. “I’m not OK, because he’s OK”.

Instead of seeing others as superior, luckier or more “OK” than you, think logically about what it is about them that you value. Ask questions such as:

  • What is it that I admire about them?
  • What have they done that I haven’t? How might I do that?
  • What are their strengths and weaknesses?
  • What barriers might they have in their work life?

When we use our mind in this way we turn off our emotional mode and engage our thinking mode. Rather than seeing someone as more successful than ourselves and reacting emotionally to that (i.e. I’m “not OK”), we begin to logically assess what lessons can be learned and how we might apply it to our own situations. We see into other people.

This brings me neatly on to the next tip.

2. Celebrate their success

We often see other people’s success as a kind of barrier to our own achievements, as though their being successful has closed off the route to our own success. This is particularly true in workplace environments.

However, you have a choice here. The reality is that other people’s success is a signpost demonstrating what is possible. Someone doing well within the workplace is immensely positive for you, because it shows what you might be able to achieve yourself.

Celebrate the success of others. After all, like you, they were probably “not OK” with themselves before they were successful. They’re just human beings, the same as you. So be pleased that they’re doing well and use that fact as motivation for your own success.

Which leads us to:

3. Give yourself a break

Like I said, we’re all human beings. Everyone has the same basic struggles as you. Just because someone else seems to be doing better, don’t assume that they didn’t have to overcome similar barriers to those you face. Don’t assume that because someone else looks “OK” that they don’t feel “not OK” in certain aspects of their lives.

It’s perfectly normal to be “not OK” about yourself. Which means that in actual fact, you are “OK”.

So give yourself a break.

4. Build your self-esteem on solid foundations

Remind yourself of your achievements, your good qualities, your skills. Take pride in who you are and what you already bring to the table, remembering that you can add to all of these things with hard work and endeavour.

There are things you can do which your colleagues cannot. There are things you have that they don’t. All too often, we forget our positives and focus on our deficiencies when comparing ourselves to others.

Build your self-esteem on what you have already accomplished and what you can already do and your metaphorical pier will stand up in any weather.

If only I had known this when I was at school. I would have realised that despite being academically behind my new colleagues at the oh-so-posh private school, I actually had talents in some areas that they didn’t. If I had looked into my fellow pupils and sought to understand how they had become so academically gifted, I would have had a strong chance of drastically improving my own academic skills.

Certainly would have been more productive than burning the school down. (Just kidding!)

I want to leave you with a great quote which sadly, I am unable to attribute as I can’t recall where I found it. If anyone does know who originated this, please let me know and I will add the appropriate credit.

Anyway, this is a quote that you should always remember:

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Worth remembering, I think.

So next time Debbie uses the entire contents of the kettle to fill her cavernous caffeine container, give her a break, huh?

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John Hackett

Managing Director, Franklin-Hackett Ltd.

If you’re interested in training that will help you to manage your self-esteem and get more from others, why not drop me a line at info@franklin-hackett.co.uk

Why We Need More Love At Work: How to Show Empathy Towards Colleagues

I have to report that I found it difficult to work for a couple of days recently. My mind was very preoccupied with some pretty heavy thoughts and the simple task of getting on with my work seemed very unimportant and consequently, I couldn’t muster much enthusiasm for it.

The cause of this situation was a piece of bad news I received at the end of the week. For a year I hadloveatwork been working with a very impressive lady who I had appointed as my accountant. I originally met her at a networking group meeting and was immediately struck by her warm welcoming manner, professional attitude and smart dress sense – in this case one of her apparently trademark flowery dresses. After talking with her on several occasions at other meetings of the networking group and exchanging a couple of emails we arranged a one-to-one meeting and it was my pleasure to spend an afternoon talking with her over a pot of tea, sharing business knowledge and experience and eventually waxing lyrical over some deep and meaningful stuff.

Having agreed to engage her as my accountant, we kept in touch over the course of the year. I continued to enjoy working with her and was very impressed and grateful when she managed to extract a rather rare and handy tax rebate from HMRC. Bonus! I had expected our working relationship to continue well into the future and was pleased to be supporting her small but growing accountancy practice. In fact, I was very happy when she wrote to me around Summer 2014 to let me know she was taking on extra staff. Not a surprise, given the quality of service she was giving her clients.

So it was with considerable shock and great sadness that around November 2014 I learned that this dynamic young lady had been a cancer patient for the last few years and circumstances had developed such that she was closing her business to spend more time with her family. It is difficult to find appropriate words in response to such information.

I sent her a message expressing my sympathy at hearing her news and wishing her and her family the best, thanking her for handing over my file to a reputable local accountancy firm. She replied, thanking me for my email and stating that “being able to handpick the firm that would look after my clients in the future was very important to me”. Such professionalism and consideration.

That was the last contact I had with her. Although one could guess that it was likely to happen at some point, I was very sad and slightly shocked to receive an email informing me that this warm, endearing, professional person who had much left to give both personally and professionally, had succumbed to her illness aged just 31.

Although I didn’t know her well, hearing of her passing has affected me over the last few days. And it has raised one question in my mind.

What Is Really Important?

You know, every one of us becomes wound up and irritable on a daily basis due to something that happens at work. Just the other night, my wife came home in a blind rage because her manager had asked her how the hole-punch worked one time too many.

Some years ago, when I was still an employee, I had a miniature explosion over the fact that my office colleagues had berated me for not bringing in adequate supplies of cake on my birthday.

And of course, we have all heard about Jeremy Clarkson’s outburst when he discovered that following a long day of filming for Top Gear, the associate producer had failed to ensure that there was a hot steak dinner waiting for him when he returned to the hotel.

The little things get to us on a daily basis. I once managed an admin team where 80% of the team members experienced raised blood pressure whenever a particular colleague stopped working for two minutes to apply her hand cream.

The thing is, all of these little issues that occur at work seem so important to us at the time. But have you ever noticed that when you move jobs, you no longer care about the minute detail of what happened at your previous workplace? Funny, isn’t it?

Well actually, it’s not funny. One of the key causes of tension and stress in the workplace is intolerance. We are all guilty of this. There are certain things that we find difficult to tolerate. Somebody not cleaning their coffee cup to a schedule that satisfies our opinion of what constitutes good hygiene. The noisy typist. The person who doesn’t put the tea towel in the kitchen back in the right place. The person who won’t stop talking about their children. The phantom photocopier jammer. The secret snot depositor. These are the things that make our blood boil. They drive us MAD!

But NONE and I really mean this, NONE of them MATTER.

They are inconsequential.

Every one of us is a human being, which means we are imperfect. We all have irritating traits. When you are in a closed environment with the same people day after day, these little quirks begin to add up and after a while, you start to find them frustrating and annoying. And this is entirely understandable, like I said, we’re all human beings.

But hang on, let’s think about that statement again – we’re all human beings. So if we’re all human beings, then surely we can empathise with each other’s little quirks and behaviours? Because we all have them. Surely we can CHOOSE not to get irritated by the colleague who insists on sitting by the window because they struggle to regulate their temperature and regularly need cold air to keep them comfortable?  Surely we can opt to be more tolerant and understanding?

And were we to choose to be more tolerant and understanding, the benefits would be considerable. We would be less stressed, able to concentrate on our work better. We’d be less likely to dread coming into work on a Monday morning. We’d have better relationships with our colleagues. We’d be happier.

The key skill we need to upgrade is empathy and understanding for others. Here’s a few tips as to how you can demonstrate that and therefore build strong rapport and relationships with your colleagues:

1. Listening skills – paying close attention to the detail of what another person is saying, not just hearing them. What can you pick up?

2. Awareness of values – listening for and appreciating other people’s values and using them to build rapport with the person. What’s important to them? What might be motivating them to behave like they do? What do you have in common?

3. Validation – Make people feel good about themselves by validating what’s important to them in their life.

4. Matching – Observe how other people are behaving and match your behaviour to theirs. This puts you on a level with them and allows you to engage with them more easily on their own terms.

When it comes down to it folks, getting annoyed by the small stuff in the workplace is just not worth it. You’ve probably heard the phrase “life’s too short” far too many times, but it really is true.

I had a sharp reminder of that recently when I received the sad news about my accountant. How would you feel if it was one of your colleagues that had died? Would their irritating habits still matter to you then?

Give yourself and those around you a break and show some empathy for those you work with. Remember you have your own annoying habits and that’s OK because we’re all human.

Let’s all make a vow to be more tolerant within our workplaces – if for no other reason than this:

Life is too short not to be.

This blog is dedicated to the memory of Lauren Burgoine. 

4 Lessons From Captain Spock That We Can Apply To Our Working Lives

Like many people, especially fellow Star Trek fans, I was very sad to hear of the death of Leonard 00441047Nimoy last week. A talented
actor, director and writer, Nimoy will forever be remembered for his portrayal of Captain Spock in the classic sci-fi TV and film series, Star Trek. For many of us, he was an inspirational figure.

I came across this Twitter quote from the sci-fi author John Scalzi which says it all:

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However, while Nimoy has sadly boldly gone where many have gone before, the character he brought to life remains immortal. A towering figure in pop culture, Captain Spock epitomised the struggle between human emotion and the power of logical reasoning – something we can all relate to on a daily basis.

There are many fascinating elements to Spock’s character but I wanted to share with you four things that he demonstrated which I think are relevant to all of our working lives. Four things you should consider that will help you to establish yourself as a top performer within your organisation.

1. CONSIDER THE WIDER IMPLICATIONS OF YOUR ACTIONS

needsofmany

So often, our main focus at work is on our immediate concerns or needs. It is very easy to think only of what affects or benefits ourselves. However, we are part of a wider system – a cog in a machine, if you like. Our actions on a daily basis affect our colleagues and most importantly, our customers. How often do you consider the implications of your actions on a wider level? Do you assess how your contribution is benefitting your organisation?

What Spock demonstrated was the importance of considering the wider implications of one’s actions, ahead of personal impulses. His willingness to do what was necessary for the benefit of the many won him respect and admiration from his colleagues, making him an authority figure within the Enterprise crew. Follow his example and you will quickly establish yourself as a respected and admired colleague within your organisation.

2. SEPARATE EMOTIONS FROM WORK

emotions

Do you have a colleague who reacts dramatically to every little development in the office? If so, you have probably seen how destructive these emotional outbursts are to the rest of the team.

We all fall into the trap of allowing our emotions to get in the way of work. Certain things happen that irritate or worry us and we vent that through small emotional explosions. The problem with this is that our thinking capacity is dramatically reduced as our brain is overloaded with emotion. In this state we produce lower quality work and damage our own emotional health, as well as that of others.

What Spock demonstrated was the benefit of keeping one’s emotions in check in order to be able to make clear, logical decisions about the job at hand. You can accomplish this too by becoming aware of your emotional triggers and managing your response to them. Don’t let your emotions about your work impair the quality of your work. Follow his example and you will establish yourself as a natural leader – the one person who can remain in control while others fall apart.

3. ALWAYS CONSIDER ALL OF THE RELEVANT FACTS

FACTS

Have you ever noticed that many decisions at work are made on the basis of very few facts? Often, decisions are based on the impulses or desires of the people involved, not the objective facts of the situation. The result of this is arbitrary decisions that don’t hold up under scrutiny.

This is a trap we all fall into from time to time and it seriously harms our performance at work.

What Spock demonstrated was the benefit of performing a thorough analysis of ALL the relevant facts before making a decision. The solid logical arguments we admire in Spock can be replicated by any of us so long as we ensure we thoroughly understand the relevant facts before making a decision. Follow his example and you will be able to construct and articulate robust business cases that will establish you as one of the most influential players within your organisation.

4. USE COMPUTERS TO SERVE YOUR PURPOSE, NOT DEFINE IT

computers

Computers now dominate the workplace. Most of us are used to wrestling with various software packages (including the dreaded Microsoft Windows) on a daily basis in order to accomplish our tasks. The problem is that many people rely on computers to get the job done, in some cases to the point that they cannot function without them. Also, organisations are designing processes that cannot operate at all without technology.

What Spock illustrated was the danger of allowing computers to define one’s purpose, rather than serve it. We have become too reliant on IT within our workplaces. Think about your working day and consider how much you are relying on your computer for tasks such as communication. Ask yourself if software is telling you what to do in your job. Follow his example – challenge the stranglehold of computers and take back control of your job.

And finally, I leave you with Leonard Nimoy’s last tweet:

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Rest in peace, Leonard. I have been, and always shall be, your fan.

How you can overcome the limitations of the business world and become happier, more productive and more influential in your business life.