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.

Open plan offices – a pleasure or a pain?

From an organisation’s point of view, open plan offices have lower a carbon footprint than private offices and they’re cheap. They can be cheap and nasty or cheap and reasonably pleasant, depending on how much the organisation is willing to pay for the comfort and productivity of their employees.

What do you think about them? Are they are great way to help people communicate and innovate? Do they offer an atmosphere of excitement and energy?

Or are they just a low-cost and easy way to keep an eye on people and make sure they’re working? Do they reduce productivity because they’re noisy and filled with distractions? Are they unpleasant because they make people feel like battery hens? Do they damage working relationships because people get annoyed with each other’s glaringly obvious personal habits – untidy desks, slurping smelly lunches, speaking loudly on the ‘phone, humming tunelessly to themselves… (Clearly, good manners, common sense and emotional intelligence on the part of employees are a must in open workspaces.)

Open plan offices have been around for a long time and they can work well when people need to work collaboratively. They don’t work well when people need to concentrate and they don’t work well when they make people feel like they have no control over their working environment.

You can get around those two big minuses with good planning and flexibility. You can have readily available ‘quiet rooms’ where people can take work, meeting rooms when people need to get together to discuss issues and innovate solutions, and you can let people personalise their ‘space’. People can work from home when they need to concentrate or when they have a cold, (germs spread faster in open spaces). You can seat people with a low level of tolerance for noise and distractions in the quietest part of the office.

In Germany and Scandinavia, people generally have their own office with a door and a window they can open and shut. In the USA, the cubicle is favoured. But maybe private offices, cubicles and open plan offices will all eventually go the way of the dodo, as remote working, workplace hubs and new ways of designing offices, with free-flowing spaces, take hold. I’ve seen an office in Switzerland where employees can work at sofas, reclining chairs, cafe-style tables or outside in a lovely garden. Flexibility, informality and a feeling of coziness, friendliness and homeliness are shaping up to be the go for offices of the future.

In the meantime, what can you do to make your own workspace, and the workspace of your team, more conducive to productivity, cooperation, innovation and effective working relationships?

It’s all about the people, folks

In many ways, leading virtual teams, project teams and roaming teams (for example, teams of ‘road warriors’ such as ambulance and police officers, sales representatives and repair service technicians) aren’t all that different from leading teams whose members work with you in the same space every day. All these teams have goals to achieve and members who want to feel they’re making a useful, and appreciated, contribution. They want to feel they’re making progress, not just towards achieving their work goals but also personally, in terms of learning and development, for example. And they want to feel a sense of camaraderie with those they work with.

Communication and cordial relationships are the first two foundations for success in all of these types of team. This should come as no surprise — people don’t respond well to being taken for granted. We all want to know we’re valued as individuals, not just for the results we produce, but also as people with families and homes and hobbies.

Without prying, get to know a little bit about each team member’s life outside of work so you can ‘pass the time of day’ in a relaxed and friendly way. Make time every day to check in with each team member and see how they’re going, both generally and work-wise. With roaming, virtual and project teams, you probably need to make a special effort to do that.

Most team members don’t want to connect just with their boss but also with each other; this happens naturally when people see each other every day, but it can be much harder to get to know your project, roaming and virtual teammates. That’s where you come in: finding ways to help the team members get to know a bit about each other’s lives and interests.  

As with any team, take care that subgroups, or cliques, don’t develop, particularly when your team is made up of people from different cultures, functions or locations. Friendships may develop but your goal is to help all team members bond and build up a team spirit.

The third foundation of leading virtual, roaming and project teams is clear expectations. It goes without saying that you need to make clear people’s roles and goals and matters such the formats and frequency of up-dates and how quickly to respond to queries and other communications. Make your expectations clear about non-task matters, too, such as the behaviours you expect during meetings and when it is and isn’t okay to contact each other outside of normal hours.

The ability to lead teams well is a core skill in modern workplaces. It doesn’t matter what sector or industry you’re in — consumer goods, education, finance, manufacturing, service or high tech, or even where your team members are located and how often you see them face-to-face, you still need to make your expectations clear, communicate openly and often, treat team members as individual people who make a worthwhile contribution and find ways to cement their relationships with each other as well as with you.

How to turn a gloomy mood into a good mood

Have you ever noticed that when you smile at someone, they usually smile back? That’s the Law of Psychological Reciprocity, or the Boomerang Principle, and you can use it to make your days, and everyone else’s, that much brighter.

Facial expressions and the moods that accompany them are contagious. This probably evolved as a means of non-verbal communication between people way back in our cave-dwelling days. That’s why giving a smile and getting one in return can jump-start a great day for you and for your whole team. (And next time you see a team member looking a bit grumpy, pay them a compliment and watch what happens!)

Putting on a happy face does something else for you, too: it influences your brain positively and short-circuits any sad or pessimistic feelings you have. Lots of studies show that looking happy actually makes people feel happy, even when they didn’t start out that way.

There’s a biological reason for this based on what I call the feedback loop between the body and the brain. Just as your mood affects your body language, you can use your body language to direct your mood (for better or for worse).

The next time you’re feeling gloomy, don’t let your frowns confirm your misery to your brain — send it a different, positive message. Your mood will begin to change accordingly.

And so will your team’s mood. As you may remember from Chapter 13, Building effective teams, mirror neurons are located throughout the human brain. Their job is to help people detect another person’s emotions and empathise with them, and to instruct them to mimic, or mirror, what the other person does as a way of reflecting empathy.

Your team members watch you closely, and your behaviour and emotions create similar responses in them: When you feel positive, so do they; when you feel despondent or worried, so do they. That’s one important reason that being positive and friendly, having a laugh and setting an easygoing tone builds your team’s cohesion, morale and productivity.

When to speak up and when to shut up

Sometimes, silence is golden. Sometimes it isn’t. When deciding, consider two things: the point (or the issue) and the relationship. Ask yourself which is more important. When they’re both important, it’s worth investing time and patience to speak up and reach an agreement you’re both satisfied with. When neither is important, speaking up probably isn’t worth the effort.

Smoothing over differences of opinion that affect the way you work together and sweeping problems under the carpet generally lead to continued and even worsening problems. Silence is golden here only when the issue is unimportant or the relationship is vastly more important than the issue. Otherwise, silence, especially when it’s at the expense of something that is important to you, when it makes you feel uncomfortable and when it negatively effects your team or its results, is almost certainly a poor choice.

On the other hand, remaining silent when you cannot win is golden silence. Consider your other options first, though–you’ll feel better about your decision to not speak up that way.

Even when it seems you both want something different, speaking up can be a good idea. Some differences are only superficial and there is often more than one path to a goal. You can usually work through the issue so that you both end up with a solution that works for you both. Look for common goals and common ground, by, for example, zooming out to the bigger picture or zooming in to a more detailed picture.

When the irritation is about someone’s personality: their quirks, traits, habits, mannerisms, or their general personality style or approach, it’s generally best to hold your tongue. You can’t change someone’s personality to suit yourself, so overlook these differences or learn to live with them. The exception is when a team member’s quirks or habits impinge negatively on the rest of the team; then you need to speak up and point out the effect you observe their behaviour to have on the team.

Disagreements over values are usually quite difficult to resolve, making silence a golden possibility. The best action is often to recognise that everyone is different and you can’t change another person’s values any more than they can change yours and you may need to respectfully agree to disagree. The exception is when a team member’s values run counter to your team’s or organisation’s culture or rules and regulations, such as matters to do with ethics or working when under the influence of alcohol or drugs. These are important issues and you must speak up.

Silence can be golden when you hold your tongue to wait until the time is right before speaking up, or until you can find a quiet place to talk or until the other party has time to talk. Unless, of course, it’s a workplace dignity or safety issue, in which case you must speak up straight away because these, too, are important issues.

With important issues, then, particularly those that concern team members or others you see often and want to make sure you can work well with, or issues that concern work performance, silence is definitely not golden. In these cases, silence is not a way to show leadership or to build great relationships and it certainly isn’t a way to build a productive team.

Management, like life, often comes down to choosing your battles. Make your choice based on the importance of the issue and the importance of the relationship. And when you decide to speak up, do so with kindness and tact. You catch more flies with honey than with vinegar.

Show you’re on the same side by sitting next to, not across from, the person you’re speaking with; when that isn’t possible, sit at 90 degrees. This simple action powerfully puts you–literally–on the same side and makes the conversation progress more smoothly. Make your joint goals explicit and use the word ‘we’ a lot to show you’re in this together.