Are you working hard enough? (Trick question)

Consider these two situations:

A: You’re at work.

  1. You’re slogging through your usual 10-hour day answering phone calls and emails, trolling through paperwork, rushing to meetings… Are you working hard?
  2. You’ve been in your ‘flow zone’ for two hours of total, productive concentration. You feel energised and knock off early for a walk in the fresh air. Are you working hard?

If you answered ‘Yes’ to 1, you’re kidding yourself.

B. A joiner comes to re-hang a sliding door that sticks and is difficult to move.

  1. He gives it a tap and a whack and it’s in perfect working order. Be honest: Do you feel a bit cheated when you hand him his fee?
  2. The joiner toils and grunts and seems to work quite hard for quite a while before the door is in perfect working order. Do you feel his fee is worth it when you pay him?

If you answered ‘Yes’ to both 1 and 2 in situation B, you’ve fallen for the ‘labour illusion‘.

This same illusion leads people to answer ‘Yes’ to question 1 and ‘No’ to question 2 in situation A. We tend to equate effort, be it long hours or grunts, with hard work. But generally, what really counts is results, not time spent or sweat. The ‘labour illusion.’

When you apply the ‘labour illusion’ to your own work, you kid yourself that long hours and ‘busy’ (but non-productive) work are ‘real work’ and that you’re working hard.

And whether you’re a customer or a team leader, when someone else is working on your behalf, you probably like to see them putting in some effort. Most people prefer the ‘hard-working’ joiner to the expert, experienced joiner who completes a job quickly and proficiently. Many bosses would be rather miffed at a team member knocking off early, even though their work is done or they just cracked a difficult problem or made a break-through innovation. The ‘labour illusion.’ (Maybe that’s what’s at the core of toxic work cultures where you’re not committed and working hard enough when you go home on time?)

Even when the hours you or your team members put in are easier to measure than actual results, don’t let the ‘labour illusion’ fool you. It isn’t how tired you or they are at the end of the day that counts. Results count. (Of course, we aren’t talking about people learning a new job, here. That takes time and effort and results aren’t great straight away.)

Understanding the ‘labour illusion’ helps you to concentrate on what’s important, to do your best and to work as hard as you need to, in order to get the results. It teaches you to not kid yourself that busy work and long hours earn results.




How to be a peak performer

When I was heavily into designing and leading management training programs for lots of organisations around Australia and New Zealand, I got to know thousands of managers. It became pretty clear that the star performers all shared similar attitudes and mindsets towards their jobs and life in general. And I developed a theory about the ways their minds worked.

I took my theory to a cross section of these organisations who agreed to identify their peak performers objectively, based on their results, and I interviewed them individually and in small groups to pick their brains about how they thought. The goal was to train other managers to think and behave like the peak performers so that they, too, could become ‘stars’.

As expected, we found that the peak performers all shared remarkably similar ways of looking at the world. Here are the highlights, in no particular order because they’re all inter-linked.

  • Peak performers have high standards and expect the best for themselves, from themselves and from those around them. That attitude reminds me of a sign that hung in every classroom of my high school: Mediocrity is a choice — so is excellence. Peak performers opt for excellence and don’t settle for second best. Why should they?
  • Those high standards mean they set challenging goals and keep moving towards them.
  • Their high standards also mean that they constantly strive to improve themselves, the way they work and the results they’re getting. Peak performers are always looking for different and better ways. One way they do that is by reviewing the day’s events and selecting one to pick apart — what went well, what could have gone better, how can I do even better next time? Then, when they come across a similar situation, they can put their improvement plan into practice. (Find out more about that here.)
  • This leads to another characteristic of peak performers: they take responsibility. They work out what they need to do in order to accomplish their goals. They don’t sit back and wait for the magic to happen; they get out there and do something in a proactive way. And when things don’t go as well as they’d hoped, they don’t blame circumstances, the economy, the weather, other people or anything else. They take a look at what happened and figure out what they can do to make things better.
  • Peak performers deal with mistakes differently than ‘also-rans’, too. When peak performers make a mistake, they don’t deny they’ve made a mistake, bury it, blame someone else or make excuses. Nothing changes when you do that. Peak performers see the mistake as a practice shot, move on and try something different. Soichera Honda famously said that success is 99% failure, which may be a bit of an exaggeration, but it makes a good point.
  • Peak performers focus their efforts where they’ll count. No one can fix the weather or the economy but when an El Ninio is predicted, peak performing farmers might plant crops that don’t need as much water, put in a more efficient watering system or build a grey water irrigation facility. When the economy goes south, peak performing sales people might figure out ways to sell more to existing customers, pick up new customers or help develop new and improved offerings.
  • Linked with that is focusing not on their difficulties and the obstacles in their path but on what they can do to circumvent them jump over them or work their way through them. They can do this because they keep their eyes on the goal, not what’s getting in their way.
  • Finally, peak performers communicate and work effectively with others. The world of work is changing dramatically and important as this ability has always been, it is becoming ever-more important as work is becoming increasingly team-based and temporary. This means managers (and team members) need to be able to work well with a wide range of people in different situations and work out quickly what specifically they need to do in order to add value.

How many of those mindsets do you share? What about your team members? What can you do to help them adopt those ways of thinking and acting so that you have an entire team of peak performers?

How to build a work team you can be proud of

‘You don’t win silver; you lose gold.’

Do you remember that controversial ad campaign from the 1996 Olympics summer games? (Before that, the phrase appeared in the 1988 rock ballad, Sweet Victory, by David Glen Eisley.)

The statement implies that there can be only one winner and everyone else is a loser. That’s a pretty destructive frame of mind and begs the question: How can you build a cooperative yet high-performing team culture in a sporty, competitive country?

First and foremost, you can have a clear and strong team purpose statement that explains how the team’s success contributes to the organisation and benefits its customers (whether those customers are internal or external). Your team purpose statement channels peoples’ attention and energies into activities that add maximum value.

Make sure everyone knows how the team as a whole, and how they individually, can measure success. Then support the team purpose with clear expectations about how people are to behave towards each other, their customers and suppliers.

Second, you can make sure that every team member knows how every other team member’s work contributes to the team’s success. This allows them to pass on helpful information and pitch in to help each other when necessary. You can cross-skill team members to facilitate this.

Linked to this, you can organise informal opportunities for team members get to know each other as people. This strengthens the bonds between them and builds empathy and shared values, helping them identify with the team and with each other.

Third, when you assign work, think about who is temperamentally suited to the work and interested in doing it or learning to do it. Give people variety in their work and as much control over how they do it as operations and technology allow and make sure they have access to the resources they need to do their jobs, including tools and equipment and enough time and information. Make sure the work systems smooth people’s progress and performance without providing unnecessary repetition, backtracking, waiting or effort. Train them when you need to and let them build their experience and confidence.

Finally, there is the all-important ‘You’ — the team leader-manager. Set high standards and hold high expectations of your team. When all of the above is in place, they won’t let you down.

Even an individual sport is a team event, with so many people helping, coaching and supporting the athlete. Even in teams where one or two individuals are more visible than the others because of the roles they perform, without the back-up of the entire team, they couldn’t succeed at their tasks. When one person wins gold, silver or bronze, lots of others win it with them.

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.

Mindsets and success

Your beliefs become your thoughts;
your thoughts become your words;
your words become your actions;
your actions become your habits;
your habits become your values;
your values become your destiny.
                                                                                                                 Mahatma Gandhi

We now have a large body of research that demonstrates the truth of Gandhi’s words. Stanford University psychologist Carol Dweck, in her new book Mindset: The new Psychology of Successdescribes some of her own research that shows how our beliefs about ourselves fuel our behaviour and predict our success. Her research on this topic with both children and adults covers 20 years. She’s found one mindset in particular that is critically important. Which best describes your beliefs about yourself:

  • My personality, character, intelligence and other important traits are fixed–I’ve got what I was born with and that’s it.or
  • I can keep learning and growing and changing and improving.

Dweck calls the first a fixed mindset and the second a growth mindset. When you have a fixed mindset, you end up not challenging yourself but putting your efforts into ensuring your beliefs about yourself are proven correct. The growth mindset takes effort too, but your efforts go into learning and improving, instead of protecting yourself and your beliefs. When you have a growth mindset, success or failure at a specific task isn’t what matters. What matters is challenging yourself and learning and improving all the time.

And these mindsets begin at a very early age. Throughout your life, they guide your behaviour and how you view success and failure, both at work and in your personal life. Ultimately, they determine how satisfied you can feel with yourself.

In one experiment, for example, Dweck and her team gave four-year olds an easy puzzle to complete. Then they let the children choose another easy puzzle or a harder puzzle. Some children chose another easy puzzle (guaranteed ‘success’) while others chose the harder puzzle (guaranteed ‘challenge’ and ‘learning’). The latter is the growth mindset: ‘Why do another easy puzzle? I’ll try a harder one and see whether I can do it.’

In another experiment, teenagers were given a nonverbal IQ test; most did quite well. Half were praised for their performance: ‘Wow, you got X many right; that’s a really good score. You must be smart at this.’ The other half were praised for their effort: ‘Wow, you got X many right; that’s a really good score, You must have worked really hard.’

Praise for performance pushed the teenagers into a fixed mindset while praise for effort pushed the others into a growth mindset. Sure enough, when offered a new task to do, the fixed mindset teenagers rejected the challenging one–they had been told they were smart and they didn’t want to spoil it. In contract, 90% of the teenagers who were praised for their effort chose the challenging new task they could learn from.

Next came a series of more difficult IQ tests; most didn’t do so well. Suddenly, the fixed mindset teenagers thought they’d failed and weren’t so smart after all. But those who had been praised for their effort saw the fact that they hadn’t done so well as a signal to put in more effort, not a sign of failure or stupidity.

As the tests progressively became more difficult, the performance of the growth mindset teenagers improved significantly and they continued to enjoy themselves and the challenge. The performance of the fixed mindset teenagers grew worse and worse, and so did their enjoyment of the experience.

When the researchers asked the teenagers to write letters to their friends telling them about their day and their scores, 40% of the fixed mindset teenagers lied about their scores, increasing them so they’d look more successful than they were. When you have a fixed mindset, failure is shameful. When you have a growth mindset, failure is not trying and not learning–as long as you’re trying and learning, you’re succeeding.

In an experiment with adults, Dweck found that those with a fixed mindset only heard feedback about whether they got their task right or wrong and tuned out any information aimed at helping them learn and improve. The adults with the growth mindset, on the other hand, weren’t as focussed on whether they got their task right or wrong but they really sat up and took notice of information that could help them learn and improve so that they could do better next time.

Fixed mindsets are binary: right or wrong, good or bad, success or failure. They’re lose-win. Growth mindsets are open-ended: am I learning? How can I keep learning and improving. That’s win-win.

So which is your mindset? To change a fixed mindset into a growth mindset, change your thinking. That changes your actions and your actions become your destiny.

The two secrets to being assertive

Whether you’re helping someone improve their work performance, counselling an employee who smells of cigarettes or because of poor personal hygiene, or owning up to missing a deadline or making a mistake, you need to be assertive about it. It’s hard to imagine an effective leader-manager who isn’t assertive.

Yes, you need to use ‘I’ language so that your messages aren’t ‘pushy’. Yes, techniques like ‘broken record’ and ‘fogging’ are terrific when used well. But more, far more, than ‘I’ language or techniques, assertiveness is a mindset. And I think there are two secrets to an assertive mindset.

The first is the intention to make the other person feel good about themselves while still putting your own point of view across. When you do that, you make your point without making an enemy, and your message is far more likely to be heard and acted on.

The second is the intention to treat others with respect, which lies at the core of assertiveness. People bang on about their rights but we don’t often hear people talking about their responsibilities. Yes, we have a right to be treated with respect, to express our feelings and opinions and be listened to and taken seriously. Equally important, we have a responsibility to treat others and listen to their views with respect, to respect the wishes of others, to not force our ideas down someone else’s throat.

Understanding our responsibilities to others prevents us from crossing the line from assertiveness into aggression. Aggression may get us our own way in the short term, but every time we’re aggressive and pushy, rather than assertive, in order to get what we want, we do another degree of damage to the other person’s good will towards us and before you know it, your good working relationships have joined the dodo.

How to turn disappointing performance into good and even excellent performance

Last week, we looked at building already good performance into even better performance by providing regular constructive and positive information. That still leaves a few straggling poor performers, though.

These are the people who give you headaches, but not big enough headaches to show them the door. You’d probably like to shoo them out the door, but when you think about the discussions you need to hold first, the ill will and other problems that could result, and the whole rigamarole of paperwork that would ensue, it’s a lot easier to sigh, wish they’d quit (which they probably won’t) and let their poor performance slide. Meanwhile, the rest of your team becomes increasingly resentful that some people are getting away with not pulling their weight and wonder why they bother. That’s how the slippery slope of a poor performing team begins.

To avoid that and have a team where everyone pulls their weight and does a grand job, follow this guiding principle: ignored problems tend to grow worse. Corrective information is the antidote.

Here are four guiding principles to follow when providing corrective information:

  1. Remember the 80:20 rule of poor performance: 80 per cent of the time, poor performance is the result of the employee not knowing what they’re actually, specifically supposed to be doing or why it’s important; a poor job fit–putting the wrong person in the job; insufficient training or lack of confidence; or cumbersome systems, procedures, poor tools and equipment, lack of time or information to do a job properly; sometimes poor teamwork and even (gasp) poor leadership is at the heart of poor performance. Think through those possibilities or discuss them with the employee before taking further action. (The other 20 per cent is ‘Acts of God’ beyond employee’s control and personal problems.) (Check through Chapter 11 for more on this.)
  2. Deal with one issue at a time. A long chain of information about what needs to be improved and how to improve it, however well intended, is hard to take and even harder to digest. It also invites suspicion and resentment and damages working relationships. People fixate on the threat you pose, not their performance.
  3. Say what you mean but don’t be mean (as the saying goes). You can’t make people do better by making them feel bad.When you make people feel bad about their performance, the stress hormones adrenaline and cortisol can increase to such high levels that creativity, memory, planning, thinking and other higher order mental functions shut down and performance worsens–the opposite of what you want. (In fact, when research scientists what to study the highest levels of stress hormones, they give their subjects intense face-to-face criticism, causing the hormones to surge and the heart rate to spike by 30 to 40 beats per minute! Definitely not the result you’re after!)
  4. Your manner in delivering feedback is critically important. When you accompany your corrective information with positive body language signals such as nods and smiles, people feel better than when you frown and look annoyed or angry. You want poor performing employees to feel as good as possible about your information because when people feel better, they perform better; therefore, use positive and supportive body language.

Bearing those four principles in mind, here are some more specific tips.

Even corrective information given in the kindest, most helpful and positive way can still sting. So provide it in private and think through how best to phrase it beforehand. You don’t want your comments or tone of voice to be misunderstood or to crush a team member’s confidence or enthusiasm.


Keep your comments clear and objective. Describe the behaviour or unmet target that concerns you and convey your information in a positive, helpful way. Only address what people can control; that is, behaviours they can change or skills they can improve or develop. Go for the big stuff that can make a measurable difference to results that both you and others can see.

When addressing behaviours, be ultra cautious about what you call them; when you’re having trouble thinking of what to say, think about how the employee might describe the behaviour or their results. At all costs, avoid negative labels and ‘psychologising’ (guessing why someone does something).

Avoid vague statements and generalisations and be careful of confusing your opinions with facts.

Here are three ways to turn your information from a critical ‘push’ into a helpful ‘pull’:

  1. Keep your approach one of exploring, resolving and assisting, not telling or telling off.
  2. Change your ‘You’s’ into ‘I’s’ or get rid of the ‘You’s’ altogether:
    • You never ————————–> Next time, from now on, …
    • You shouldn’t … ——————-> It’s fast/easier/more accurate to …
    • You’re not doing that properly —> Let me run through how I’d like you to do
    • You don’t seem to be able to —-> I see you’re having trouble
  3. Point your comments to the future and on solutions and goals. The past is past. Keep painting the picture of the end result you’re after.