Banish the worry wart

Worrying is like riding a rocking horse — it doesn’t get you anywhere. It is, however, a guaranteed way to torment yourself. I should know; I used to be a champion worrier. And then I realised that 99.9% of the things I worried about never actually happened and those that did weren’t nearly as bad as I’d imagined — over and over and over again. All worrying does is waste megawatts of mental energy, ruin your composure and damage your health.

Not all worrying is bad of course. Constructive worry can alert you to danger, prompt you to take constructive action to prevent what you’re worrying about from happening, and prod you to make a contingency plan so that you know what to do should that event occur. Sensible risk management.

It’s the destructive, obsessive worry that should, ah, worry you. It’s exhausting. It can drain you and paralyse you from taking any useful action. It can steal your sleep, making you tired, short tempered and fat — when you miss out on sleep, your metabolism slows down by up to 20% the next day. It can make you tense and give you headaches, hypertension and raised blood pressure. It can lower your self-confidence and make you feel anxious, depressed and discouraged.

Here’s how to let go of your worries so that these terrible things don’t happen to you:

  • Don’t worry about the future. Stop the ‘What if …’ thoughts. When you’re worried about things that might happen, ask yourself two questions. 1) What’s the likelihood of this occurring? 2) What can I do now to prevent it occurring? When you can’t do anything about it, take a deep breath and say, ‘Okay, I’ve worried enough about that now’. Then direct your thoughts to something pleasant or better still, stand up and do something; when you’re busy, you don’t have time to worry.
  • Don’t worry about the present. Stop worrying about things that are happening now and take some constructive action instead. When you’re stuck in traffic that is going to make you late for an appointment, phone ahead to warn them you’re delayed. Then relax. When you can’t do anything about what’s happening, chill out. Take a few deep breaths and roll with it.
  • Don’t worry about the past. Stop worrying about things that have happened. You can’t change the past but you can learn from it. When you find yourself replaying something embarrassing over and over again in your mind’s eye or telling yourself how stupid you are because you didn’t do this or say that, play that tape one more time. See where you went wrong and figure out a better approach to take next time you’re in a similar situation. Then let it go.

Refuse to fill your mind with horrors that probably won’t happen or that in the end, turn out not to be as horrible as you imagined. Worrying about events you can’t change, control or influence is a waste of time that only makes you miserable. Silence that rocking horse of worry.

Things you can affect — now, they’re another matter entirely. Turn those worries into positive plans and actions by figuring out what you need to do and do it.

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The best way to praise your staff

I once worked for a boss for whom every task I turned in was ‘Fantastic!’ All comments were along the lines of ‘Good on ya!’ Compliments are great but when you’re deluged in them, they become meaningless. So meaningless that I began to suspect this boss didn’t know the difference between a job well done and a job poorly done. (Between you and me, I don’t think he did!)

But let’s face it — without some praise, people’s confidence withers and they think the quality of their work doesn’t matter. At the risk of sounding like a bumper sticker: Praise is like sunlight to the human spirit; we cannot flower and grow without it. (Actually, Jess Lair said that, a professor and leader in the self-help movement.)

So how to avoid turning your team members off with your words of praise? Here are three principles to follow:

  1. Be genuine. The brain has 100 billion neurons, or brain cells, and 10 billion of them are what is known technically as ‘B. S. detectors’. People quickly sense insincere praise and habitual ‘Good on ya’s’.
  2. Avoid empty flattery by commenting on things people have control over. Flattery is about characteristics people can’t control, like their height, while praise is about something they do, like keeping fit.
  3. Be specific by saying what you value or appreciate about what you’re praising; don’t simply say, ‘That was great’, but ‘That was great because …’. This also lets the person know that it’s worth their time and trouble to do the same again.

Praise builds performance. It brings out the best in people. In fact, it stimulates the brain and releases neuropeptides and endorphins, the ‘feel good’ chemicals — in both the giver and the receiver. So be liberal with your praise, but be discerning and follow the above three guidelines.

Sometimes it’s just about us

Picture this: You’re participating in a two-stage program on performance management. In Part one, you learn about and practice skills such as how to give positive feedback, how to give constructive feedback, and a step-by-step method for dealing with under-performance.

You’re all working on the performance management issues you brought with you (Chatham House Rules, of course), explaining to the others a bit about the under-performing team member, the specific performance gap(s), the background to the circumstances, what you’ve tried, what has helped and what hasn’t helped, and so on. Other participants ask questions in order to build a complete picture of the situation.

Now it’s Joe’s turn, who runs a busy retail store. ‘Well’, he says, ‘my problem is my 2IC. He always takes his morning break, no matter how busy we are. He just ups and heads for the kitchen at 10 o’clock on the dot. Sometimes it doesn’t matter, and sometimes it does. You just don’t walk out on a shop full of customers. He’s so selfish, it drives me nuts.’

‘How is the rest of his performance?’ asks one of the other participants.

‘Fantastic!’ says Joe. ‘I taught him all he knows! It’s just this morning break business that really gets up my nose. It’s just plain selfish.

‘So he’s good at his job’, summarises another participant. ‘What about things like timekeeping in general? Is he a “clock watcher”?’

‘No, he isn’t at all. In fact’, says Joe, ‘he’s always first in in the mornings, puts the coffee on, and has a quick tidy-up where it’s needed. He’s very dependable like that’.

‘And his other breaks? Lunch and so on?’ asks someone else.

‘He generally works through lunch when we’re busy and waits for a lull to eat. Same with the afternoon break — he takes it when we aren’t busy. It’s just this morning break that’s such a problem. I really need to bring it under control.’

At this point, you notice the other participants are exchanging glances. Bottom line: We’re faced with an assistant manager who seems to be perfect in every way, except that he always takes his morning break.

Part one of the program carries on, with you and the other participants developing your approach to your under-performing team member(s) and considering what you plan to say. You then role play it with another participant, get feedback from the other role player and other participants who are observing, and polish and refine your approach until you’re comfortable with it.

Joe takes his turn. Despite considerate feedback from the others, he remains adamant that he needs to deal with the assistant manager’s selfish insistence on taking his morning break at the appointed time.

At the end of Part one, you return to your various jobs around the country to put your performance management plans into action. Eight weeks later, you all reconvene for Part two. You begin by going around the table and hearing how everyone got on. When Joe’s turn comes, here’s what he says:

‘You know, it was funny. I got us a coffee and called him in. I knew exactly what I was going to say and opened my mouth to say it, just like we practiced. And then it dawned on me. It wasn’t my 2IC who was selfish — it was me who was selfish! Blessed with a great 2IC who gets in early every morning to make coffee, carries out his duties to perfection, takes all his breaks except for that morning break as and when it suits the rest of us and our customers, and I’m complaining about that one little thing!

‘So I asked him how he was going and brought the conversation around to the morning break. Turns out, he’s absolutely starving by 10 am, having got up early, got the kids dressed, fed and ready for school, rushes off to the store with nothing but a bit of toast, if that. I have to admit it — it was me who was selfish. I thanked him for his stellar work and that was the end of that.’

You and the others let out a big sigh of relief. Disaster averted.

Here’s my take on what’s going on. When, like Joe, something irritates you (but not others) to distraction and when you put a label on it (‘selfish’), it’s a sign you’re looking in your ‘psychic mirror’. Psychologists call this projection. We do it whenever we attach a characteristic to another person that really belongs to us. It might be qualities we don’t want to own up to (being selfish, or inconsiderate, or rude or whatever) and, rather than acknowledge we have this unwanted quality ourselves, it’s easier on the ego to point the finger at someone else.

Fortunately for Joe and for his 2IC, Joe realised he was looking in his psychic mirror and that he was the one being selfish in resenting his assistant manager taking his morning break, especially in light of his excellent performance in other areas. Not an easy admission to yourself or to a group of colleagues. Like they say: The truth will set you free. But first it may piss you off.

What do you believe knowledge is?

I had a good clean out of my files the other day and came across a relatively old (1997), but interesting and still relevant research paper by Barbara Hofer and Paul Pintrich. It explains how our beliefs about what knowledge is affects how deeply and effectively we are able to learn.

Where does knowledge lie for you in each of these three continuums?

  1. Knowledge is made up of separate, clear facts; or Knowledge is made up of interrelated, complex concepts.
  2. Knowledge is absolute: right or wrong, true or false; or Knowledge is continually evolving and therefore uncertain.
  3. Knowledge is provided by experts; or Knowledge can be created through our own thought processes.

When your beliefs about knowledge fall on the right of those three continuums, you are able to learn more effectively than when your beliefs about knowledge cluster to the left of those continuums. Here’s why:

  1. Believing that knowledge is simple leads to simple learning strategies. You think you’ve learned something, for example, when you can remember it. When you believe knowledge is complex, you know you know it only when you can organise it, explain it to others and put it to work for you. The first belief means you stop studying when you’ve memorised the material while the second means you keep studying until you understand it.
  2. Believing that knowledge is certain leads to sweeping generalisations and absolute and fallacious thinking; using words like ‘never’ and ‘always’, for example, are signs of poor thinking based on the belief that knowledge is absolute. On the other hand, believing that knowledge is uncertain and evolving enables you to hold contradictory conclusions and ideas in your mind, think them through, and develop your own opinions based on your judgement and experience.
  3. Believing that knowledge is something handed down by experts leads to accepting what is said or written rather than thinking it through critically. Believing that knowledge comes from thinking and reflecting, experimenting, testing and assessing means that you can develop arguments and counterarguments more readily and you can accept that while experts have specialist knowledge, they aren’t always right about everything. (My post, How to get top marks on your essays, can help you develop arguments and counterarguments.)

Fortunately, we know that we can change our beliefs, or mindsets, so you may want to take a moment and think about how well your beliefs about knowledge are serving you and what you can do to alter them in order to learn more easily:

  • What do you know about your own beliefs about knowledge?
  • How do you know that’s what you believe?
  • Do you understand enough about the implications about your beliefs about the nature of knowledge?

Here are three ideas that may help you expand the way you think about knowledge so you can better understand the world around you and be a more effective learner and manager:

  • The next time something doesn’t happen as you expect it to, rather than write it off as an ‘exception to the rule’ or sweep it under the carpet, try examining it in order to find out more. That  adds to your store of knowledge and helps you understand how things really work.
  • When confronted with a ‘fact’, either one of your own beliefs or a statement made by someone else, ask yourself Why it is true? Why may it not be true? Thinking that something is true because ‘everyone says so’ or because there is no way to prove otherwise are fallacious arguments and the result of simplistic thinking. Dig deeper. Try to relate this ‘fact’ to other things you know; think about it in terms of the strategic perspective, or big picture, rather than the detail, for example.
  • To make sure you’ve really grasped a concept, theory or approach, explain it to yourself in your own words; then explain it as you would to a seven-year old; then explain it as you would to your parents.

By thinking about how we think, we can all learn to be more effective thinkers and more effective learners.