The lights are on but no one’s home

Years ago, I participated in a training exercise I’ve never forgotten. To this day, it makes me queasy with discomfort!

The trainer asked us to pair up and one person in each pair was to leave the room for a couple of minutes. I went out. While we were out, the trainer instructed those remaining that when their partners returned, they were to engage us in conversation and listen. BUT – they were to offer no sign whatsoever that they were listening. No eye contact, no nods, no grunts, no nuffink.

I can tell you, I found the absence of those non-verbal ‘encouragers’ not only extremely off-putting, but actually quite distressing.

Two things happened very quickly:

  1. I reached the firm conclusion that my partner was an absolute dork.
  2. I dried right up.

Normally, as those of you who know me know, I can talk the hind leg off a donkey, but with someone sitting opposite me, just sitting there like a lump and doing absolutely nothing, I completely lost my train of thought. I began rambling wildly. And then I ground to a halt. I was most uncomfortable to say the least.

That made me realise, in a very visceral way, how important it is to not just ‘sit there’ and listen. We need to do something.

So here are six small but crucial things to do when you’re listening to someone:

  1. Make eye contact.
  2. Nod.
  3. Say ‘uh-huh, ‘I see’ and ‘mmm’ a lot.
  4. Repeat a key word or phrase.
  5. Orient your body towards the speaker.
  6. Lean slightly forward towards the speaker.

That way, you won’t find your conversational partner drying up and thinking you’re an absolute dork.

Build better habits – effortlessly!

Your computer has ‘default’ settings – actions it takes automatically, without instruction. And you can change those default settings to suit your personal tastes. Set them – and forget them.

We have default settings, too. They’re called habits. They’re actions we take without conscious instruction. Some of them help us. Some of them harm us.

If you want to build helpful habits effortlessly, here’s how.

Let’s use the good old standby of losing weight as an example. (Do you know that 63.4% of Australians are overweight?) There are countless actions you could take to build habits that would help you lose weight effortlessly. For instance, you could walk for 12 minutes every day. That would lose you 5 kilos over 12 months. The first few days might be hard; the next few easier, then easier and easier still. Build it into your routine by walking for 12 minutes before lunch, whatever the weather, and it won’t take long to build a habit. That 12-minute lunchtime walk becomes nearly as automatic as breathing.

Repetition builds habits. You could cut back your portions by 20% at every meal and not even notice it. That would lose you 12 kilos over 12 months. The first few days might be hard; the next few easier, then easier and easier. By the end of the month, you’ve got a habit.

Rules can build habits, too.chocoholics could eat chocolate only on odd-numbered days. That would lose them about 9 kilos a year. The first few days may be hard; the next few easier, then easier and easier. Before you know it, you’ve got a habit.

Little actions add up and they all become effortless, once they’re a habit. Those three actions could lose you 26 kilos in 12 months – that’s 4 dress sizes from 3 easy actions.

Ah, I hear you say. That’s all very well, but one needs willpower.

You know what? Willpower is like a muscle and like a muscle, you can strengthen it with regular exercise. Ask Mark Muraven from the University at Albany in New York. His research shows that regularly working your willpower muscle pays off. Start with simple actions that need only a little self-control, little things that aren’t a big deal.

Sweet tooth? Give up sweets for a month, even if you don’t want to lose weight. Hate exercise? Do 5 or 6 push-ups first thing in the forming, even if you don’t want puffy pects. Do you slouch? Make a point of sitting up straight every time you’re in a car, on a train or in a bus, at the computer, or eating a meal, even if you don’t want to improve your posture or look 5 kilos slimmer.

As you practice self-control, you strengthen your willpower muscles. Then, when push comes to shove, you have the willpower you need to do that difficult or stressful task that requires a lot of self-control.

I’m off for a 12-minute walk.

Reporting to more than one boss

Following on last week’s theme of the changing workplace and how that affects reporting relationships, reporting to more than one boss is now as common as reporting to a far-away-in-a-distant-land boss (which we discussed last week, if you missed it). This week, let’s look at the possibly more challenging undertaking of reporting to more than one boss.

With temporary teams abounding,  matrix organisations becoming more common and temporary assignments to project teams commonplace, it’s goodbye unity of command and hello to the danger of conflict and confusion of two or more bosses.

Reporting to several managers, each making requests of you, each with their own agenda and priorities can be tricky. You’re in danger of:

  • Competing demands on your time: Which boss’ work gets priority? Tricky when each thinks their work deserves precedence.
  • Conflicting messages: Different bosses have different expectations and communication styles and they can unintentionally undermine each other’s messages.
  • Work overload: This occurs especially when each boss treats you as if you work only for her or him.

To protect yourself, work out who your primary boss is. This is the person you formally report to, who does your final performance review and who makes decisions about your pay. Make sure you have regular, at least monthly, meetings with this boss — not the quick weekly check-in discussed in the next paragraph, but a more solid 30-40 minute meeting to discuss your role as a whole. Ask for her or his help in coaching you to work well with your other bosses if you need to.

Be open about your workload so all your bosses know your commitments. Share your electronic calendar with them and block off specific times for working on different projects and assignments so they know when not to interrupt you. Provide each with a brief document updating your progress on all of your projects and other work. However briefly, check in with each boss face-to-face or virtually once a week to maintain your good working relationships.

When you have several bosses, it’s probably fair to ask each to adjust to your preferred working style so you don’t have to keep chopping and changing, which is stressful in itself. Let them know whether you prefer to receive questions and requests via email, meetings or in some other way. Agree on mutual expectations regarding response time for queries, regularity of meetings and regularity and format of update briefings. Try to agree on one way that works for everyone.

As with working for one boss, be clear about your deadlines and deliverables, focus on results and keep communication and results flowing.

Reporting to a remote manager

How ironic. After posting last week about getting back into the routine after the crazy summer season, I got caught up in Mad March and Adelaide Writer’s Week and forgot to get back into my own routine of the weekly Wednesday blog. Shows to go, doesn’t it. All I can say is mea culpa and I hope you missed me!

Well, I thought that given the way workplaces are changing, reporting to a remote manager is becoming more common, so it might be worth looking at how best to do that.

When you can’t see your boss ‘in the flesh’, it’s easy for each of you to miss the signals of energy, mood, personality and so on. You need to put in extra effort to communicate efficiently and build trust quickly.

As with any manager, agree on your job purpose, your key result areas (KRAs) and your SMART targets or deliverables and find out your manager’s preferred working style so that you can fit in with it. What is the best time of day to contact her or him? What is the preferred method of contact? Do your boss prefer progress reports in virtual person or in writing? How much detail should you include? Does your boss prefer to take queries or receive updates as they occur, or in regular batches?
Your other initial goal is getting to know your boss. When you can’t meet face-to-face, make good use of virtual meetings and the telephone. Small talk is important, so avoid the temptation to move straight into task talk (unless that is your boss’ clear preference).
Provide regular progress reports and updates, with the frequency depending on you and your manager’s agreed plan. Involve your manager in what he or she should be involved in (but avoid information overload). Make sure you aren’t forgotten by establishing subtle routines; for example, phone at a certain time every day with a quick update or email a lunch-time status report in addition to your other regular reports.
Schedule regular virtual meetings with an informal agenda and prepare the agenda to go to your boss in advance. This is your opportunity to summarise what you’ve achieved since your last virtual meeting. Ask any questions you have and finish with an outline of the next steps you are taking to achieve your mutual goals.
Confirm your commitments in a follow-up email, including date and time of your next scheduled virtual meeting. Design the email’s content so that you can print it off to use as a checklist or use it to list goals and create work schedules and plans to achieve them.
The bottom line, as with any working relationship, is to develop trust and confidence, establish routines that suit you both, deliver the goods and communicate with confidence.

Time to get motivated

 Ok, it’s March and time to get serious about getting back into the routine. But it’s still hot and you’re still in holiday mode, right? Motivation can be pretty elusive in the aftermath of Christmas, New Year, Australia Day, the Tour Down under, the Melbourne Cup, Lunar New Year – summer is one endless festival. And it’s even worse here in South Australia, where Mad March is about to commence, with Writer’s Week, The Festival, The Fringe, the Clipsal 500 … How anyone gets anything done is anyone’s guess.
But if you really need to get something done, you’re going to want to dredge up a bit of motivation from somewhere or other. Here are some tricks to try:
Fake it till you make it. You can’t be motivated unless you look and act motivated. Look and act motivated and the motivation will follow.
Set a schedule and stick to it. That prevents indecision and procrastination.
Know your ‘why?’. When you have a good reason to do what you need to do, you find inspiration and motivation.
See and feel the result when you’ve done what you need to do. More inspiration and motivation.
Decide what your first three steps need to be and make a start. After you’ve taken that first step, it gets easier.
Say ‘I want to’, not ‘I have to’. Motivation come from inside – your inside. No one else can motivate you. They can maybe force you with a carrot or a stick, but that isn’t motivation. (Although you could bribe yourself with your own carrot, some little treat as a reward for completing whatever it is you need to complete. That might help you find your ‘want to’ and with it, your own motivation.
Enough of this summer festival nonsense. Get on with it!

The silent language

Well, hopefully last week, you got straight into perfecting your work space. And now you’re sitting in it, and you know what? You’re sending a clear message that you’ve got your act together – you’re in control and you’re reliable. So that’s good.
You know what they say – actions speak louder than words. Every single thing you do (and don’t do) communicates. You positively brim with unspoken messages, mostly unintentional and unconscious.
Those message reflect your innermost self, your skills and your confidence. They highlight or hide your talents and accomplishments and tell others how much appreciation and respect you give yourself and expect others to give you.
That, in turn, influences your friendships, promotions, pay rises and career paths. It influences how much support and help you receive from others, how much help and support others seek from you and whether they accept your ideas or ignore them.
So here’s a quick tour of how to radiate confidence, trustworthiness and professionalism. Pick one or two to work on until they’ve become a firm habit. Then pick another, then another and before you know it – the world is your oyster. Whatever that means.
First of all, pay attention to the way you sit and stand. Does it tell people you’re interested in them or involved in what you’re doing? Does your upright posture signal you’re calm, composed, confident and competent, or do you constantly jiggle, shuffle or pace to and fro, signalling that you’re nervous, ill at ease and discombobulated? Or maybe your body drips, oozes and sprawls, so you look like you don’t have the energy or attitude to even sit up, walk or stand, never mind think anything sensible?
Do you detract from your image by sucking on a pen, fiddling with a paper clip, your hair or your tie? Do you weaken your influence by constantly clearing your throat or tapping your foot? Or are you relaxed and calm and your movements open, which says ‘I’m in control; you can trust me’?
How about your voice? When more than 30 per cent of your sentences end as if you’re asking a question rather than making a statement, you sound unsure of yourself and people discount what you’re saying and switch off. You sound more credible and confidant when you lower your voice and you sound more thoughtful and serious when you slow down a bit – but not so slow people can fall asleep between your words. You can speed up to show your energy and enthusiasm, but no so fast people can’t understand your words and follow what you’re saying.
So there you have it. A few quick ways to convey less of what you don’t want and more of what you do want so that people are more apt to like you, believe you and trust you.

The perfect work space

Christmas is over. New Year is over. Lunar New Year is over. I bet you’re back at work and trying to get into the rhythm once again.
Often at this time of year, there’s actually not all that much going on. And sometimes you just want to procrastinate a bit before getting on with the real work. Whichever it is, I have answer. It won’t take long and it will be a good job well done that will save you a lot of time, over and over, for the rest of the year.
Here it is: Spend a few minutes adjusting your work space so it’s perfect. Everything flows more easily and more quickly when you’re working in an orderly way.
I have a really good filing system that makes it easy to find what I need. Or easy-ish. I plan to re-vamp it when I’ve finished the 7th edition of Management so it’s even easier to file things away and find them again. My system is by topic and subtopic, but different systems suit different people; some file by date, others by customer, for instance. A good, workable filing system is a must have.
 Then you make it work for you by keeping your most often-used files close to hand – unless you’re struggling to reach your 10,000 daily steps, in which case, you can put your most-used files far, far away, but that becomes a bit of a pain. I know because I tried it!
My desk drawers are really tidy, too. I know which one to open and where to put my hand to grab whatever it is I want. I don’t even have to look. When I’ve used it, it goes straight back, so I know where to find it next time I need it. Voila! A clear work area, which relaxes the brain so it can get to work.
Now set up your space. Face at right angles to walkways or the door. This makes it harder for passers-by to catch your eye and stop for a chat and it means people can’t see your computer screen and what you’re working on. The light should come over your left shoulder if you’re right-handed and right shoulder if you’re left-handed so you don’t work in your shadow. Put reference books, manuals, stationery etc. where you can reach them easily.
Next, spend some time setting up your desk chair so it’s the right height. Professor Google can tell you how and it doesn’t take much time at all.
The key is to have minimal pressure on the backs of your knees and lower thighs and to support your back. You want the chair seat to be at a height that puts your knees at right angles, your thighs horizontal and your lower legs vertical when your feet are on the floor. And of course, no dangling feet or crossed legs. You want your computer screen to be at a height that you can look directly at it so your back and shoulders don’t get stiff. Position your keyboard so you bend your elbows at right angles and your forearms are parallel to the floor.
Your back will thank you and you’ll find you work a lot more easily, too, because when you’re sitting properly, you breathe properly and that’s good for your brain, too.
Go ahead – set up your perfect work space it now!