The blame game

You’ve probably seen the diagram of a small circle, labelled ‘Things you can control’ with a larger circle around it, labelled ‘Things you can affect’ and a much larger circle around that, labelled ‘Things you can neither control nor affect’. That huge outer circle includes things like the weather and the economy. In the ‘Things you can affect’ circle are matters like your family’s happiness and the results you get at work. In the ‘Things you can control’ circle is basically yourself: your behaviour and your attitude.

That diagram of three circles leads us to Denial, Blame, Excuses and Responsibility. So imagine this: You’ve had a hard day and you’ve finally made it home and are sitting comfortably with your feet up, trying to chill out. The kids are in the kitchen and you hear a crash, tinkle, tinkle. ‘What happened?’ you ask. And what’s the response? ‘Nothing!’ That’s Denial; something has clearly happened.

So you say, ‘Don’t tell me nothing! I heard something break!’ And you hear ‘It wasn’t my fault, it was his fault.’ That’s Blame.

So you say, ‘I don’t care whose fault it is–what happened?’ And you hear, ‘The bottle was slippery and it fell out of my hand.’ That’s an Excuse.

Wouldn’t it be nice to hear, ‘I dropped a bottle. I’m just getting a mop to clean it up.’ That’s taking Responsibility.

Quite a few adults have turned Denial, Blame and Excuse into something of an art form, which means they focus not on the little inner circle of Control, but on the big outer circle of No Control. So nothing changes.

Let’s take a look at the first refuge or the irresponsible: Blame. Someone slips on the pavement. Do they blame the council for not sweeping up fallen leaves or do they take responsibility for not taking care how they’re walking? Blame is a great defence mechanism. It preserves your sense of self-esteem by avoiding admitting to your own shortcomings. But you’ll keep slipping on leaves.

Someone leaves the sausages in the frying pan too long and they burn. Do they take responsibility for being distracted or do they blame their partner for not doing their share of the housework so they have to multitask. Blaming others is great when you’re in attack mode. And it’s great when it’s easier to blame someone else rather than accept responsibility. But you’ll just start an argument and keep burning the sausages.

Blame is also handy when you think you can lie and get away with it. ‘I didn’t drop the bottle and leave the mess behind.’ Then you cross your fingers and hope no one saw you drop the bottle.

Of course, not everything is our responsibility. But when it is, we need to step up to it. The more we play the blame game, the more we lose. And the less we learn.

Managers, team leaders and parents take note: Step up when you need to. And teach your team members and your children to step up, too.

Dealing with setbacks and stuff ups

On any given day, do one or two, ok maybe a dozen things go not quite as you’d hoped? And do you ever make a mistake? Things happen and no one ever does everything perfectly. It’s how you handle it that counts.

When something goes wrong, accept it. It is what it is. Reframe it positively,  look for the humour and and see what you can do to make the situation better.

When you make a mistake, on the outside, own up. Apologise when necessary, and fix it. Obvious enough, really. But that isn’t the end of it. What you do on the inside is important, too.

Here are four ‘don’ts’ (and these apply to things going awry, too):

  1. Don’t get angry with yourself (or anyone else).
  2. Don’t make it bigger than it is; a mistake doesn’t make you a horrible, useless person and it probably won’t ruin your life for all eternity.
  3. Don’t pretend it didn’t happen.
  4. Don’t mope.

And here are three ‘do’s’:

  1. Put it in perspective.
  2. Figure out what you need to do better, or need to learn in order to do better.
  3. Don’t repeat your mistake.

That’s how to learn from experience. And you know what they say about experience: It’s something you don’t get until just after you need it.

The truth is, we need to make lots of mistakes in order to get really good at just about anything. In fact, it’s a far better mindset to think not of mistakes but of ‘learning experiences’ or ‘life lessons’. That’s the recipe for getting better, and better, and better.

It’s also the recipe for handling mistakes well on the inside. When you can do that, you automatically handle them well on the outside. You don’t say: ‘I’m so stupid, I blew it yet again!’ You say: ‘I could have done it better and here’s how I’ll approach it from now on.’

Mistakes, learning opportunities, mishaps and misadventure–they’re all grist for the mill to be taken in your stride.

The link between achievement and self-esteem

Which came first, the chicken or the egg? The jury is in but divided, but more about that later.

However, the jury is in on which comes first, self-esteem or achievement. Some scientists noticed that providing lots and lots of empty praise — giving every kid in the race, including the last one, a trophy — leads to inflated but baseless self-esteem. It can even have the opposite effect to what the providers of lots and lots of meaningless praise intend. The researchers found that kids with unrealistically high self-esteem might be more willing to enter dangerous territory, like cheating, experimenting with drugs and stealing.

It’s also been shown that telling kids they’re smart, whether they are or not, makes even the genuinely smart kids less willing to apply effort, preventing them for reaching their full potential. These genuinely smart kids end up thinking that putting in effort to learn means they aren’t smart and they become more concerned with protecting their reputation as smart, in looking smart then being smart.

So, to have the sort of high self-esteem that’s worth something, you need to achieve worthwhile goals first. To do that, you need three things:

  1. You need to put in effort and understand that trying hard does make a difference.
  2. You need willpower to keep putting in the effort. We’ve talked about the importance of willpower before and the good news that it’s just like a muscle: the more you exercise it, the stronger it gets.
  3. And you need something called self-compassion, which is different from self-esteem. While self-esteem often involves the need to be special and above average, when you have self-compassion you don’t compare yourself to others and you can cope realistically with mistakes and failure without them crushing your self-esteem—after all, everyone makes mistakes and falls short sometimes.People with self-compassion tend to look after themselves by exercising more and eating more healthily for instance. They have learning goals rather than performance goals and learn for it’s own sake, not for grades or to impress people.

These three qualities — effort, willpower and self-compassion — are what help you achieve and your achievements build genuine self-esteem. Once you’ve earned your self-esteem, you are likely to be happier, more optimistic and more motivated than people with low self-esteem, and less likely to be anxious, depressed and negative. You’re not going to be an obnoxious person with an over-sized ego based on nothing, either.

The bottom line is, earn your self-esteem through your achievements, not from just be ing handed a trophy for merely running in the race.

And as for the which came first, the chicken or the egg, well, that’s still a conundrum. Some scientists say the chicken did because two non-chickens mated and, via a genetic mutation, produced the first chicken. So the chicken came first. But other scientists say the egg came first because two non-chickens mated and via that same genetic mutation, produced the first chicken. But their logic is that since it was a chicken inside the egg, the egg came first.

Changes in the business environment and how they affect you

I was asked the other day how trends in the business environment are affecting managers. Where to start …

Business complexity is increasing exponentially, so understanding the big picture and using systems thinking are becoming more important. Risks are increasing, too, so you need to know how to build a sound risk culture to protect your organisation and its assets. And the pace of change is quickening.

Each of these three factors mean that you won’t–you can’t–always know the answer. Many problems you face and will face are new and many are unpredictable. You probably can’t do what you’ve always done, or even what you did before in a similar situation that worked, because so much will have changed in the meantime.

This means you need to be good at problem solving and coming up with unique and unexpected solutions to problems and situations, ways to meet customer demands, and ways to respond to a changing marketplace. This has three implications:

  1. You need to know how to ask the right questions, questions that help you explore and analyse situations.
  2. You need to know how to apply the scientific method and use data so you can get a good grip on situations.
  3. Learning to think in scenarios is probably a good idea.

New and disruptive business models, share price volatility and diminishing corporate profits may all put your organisation at risk. Therefore, you want to protect your career and see yourself as ‘Me Inc’:

  1. Develop solid, wide and deep networks.
  2. Build a professional image (on social media, with your professional bodies and networks, in your organisation, with suppliers and customers, etc.).
  3. Keep your skill base up-to-date.
  4. Broaden your experience base.

Organisations are likely to increasingly move to capabilities-based competition: creating value and competitive advantage through capabilities in processes rather than through capable functions. We’re likely to see more strategic alliances, too: collaborating with non-competitor organisations to combine strengths to produce a better product or service. And the supply chain is becoming more important.

These three factors mean:

  1. Big picture and systems thinking is important. Get in the habit of considering the upstream and downstream implications of every your action and decision.
  2. You’re likely to find yourself working in cross-functional teams, so hone your people and team-working skills.

Cheap wages are moving from China to Cambodia, Eastern Europe and South America. This means you can benefit from polishing your cultural intelligence, learning about other cultures and learning to work, virtually and actually, with people from other cultures.

Employees and the way they work are changing. Baby Boomers are moving out, Generations X and Y are taking over and Generation Z is entering the workforce, making it age-diverse as well as culturally-diverse and life-style diverse. People’s motivations for working, what they want from work and how they work are vastly more diverse than was the case even 10 or 15 years ago.

The changing workforce means we’re seeing more team-working, more flexible working and more virtual working. Jobs themselves are changing: we’re seeing more cross-functional team work, as mentioned above, more projects and more fixed-term contracts. We’re seeing roles, more than jobs–roles are looser and more open, not as prescribed and rigid as jobs.

This means the way you lead and manage people is changing. Here’s what I think is really important:

  • skilful leadership
  • skilful communication
  • engaging with team members in terms of motivating and coaching
  • flexibility in your management and leadership style
  • clear, logical thinking informed by an understanding of the big picture issues of the environment you’re operating in externally and internally.

Since industry isn’t spending a lot of time and money on learning and development, you’re probably left to your own devices to keep upgrading your skills and knowledge. All while being, no doubt, mind-bogglingly busy in your day-to-day role. A big ask.

This means applying the learning cycle is a good idea, lest you get caught up on the treadmill and fail to improve yourself, your performance or your work procedures.

How to not lose your job to a computer

Digital disruption seems to be the buzz-word at the moment. Technological leaps are enabling entrepreneurs and innovators to develop new and unexpected business models (think, for example, Airbnb and Uber). The number of jobs at risk of being automated is astounding (up to 5 million by 2030 in Australia alone, according to Australia’s Future Workforce report by the Committee for Economic Development of Australia), while other jobs will soon need job holders who know how to work effectively (interface?) with computers.

Artificial intelligence. Automation. Advanced robotics. Digital technology and the Internet of Things. Redefined business models and jobs. Pretty mind-boggling yet, as the Prime Minister would no doubt say, very exciting.

Research by McKinsey & Company indicates that existing technologies can automate 45% of the work done in the UASA and a further 13% can potentially be automated. Australia’s Future Workforce report estimates that nearly 40% of today’s jobs in Australia are at risk of being automated and turned over to computers; worst hit is predicted to be jobs in regional and rural Australia, where more than 60% of jobs are set to be swallowed by computers.

And it isn’t only the routine jobs and tasks technology is set to swallow up. By adapting current technology, computers can take on many of the more predictable tasks of highly-paid knowledge workers such as executives, financial planners, ‘techies’ and doctors.

Mental processes such as remembering and making decisions, can be transferred to computers, microchips and networks. Richard Samson, writing in The Futurist, calls this automation ‘off-peopling’. Electronic intelligence, he says, already does a lot of the mental work that accountants, administrators, bank tellers, corporate planners, farmers, middle managers, product designers, salespeople, secretaries and soldiers used to do.

But there is still work that we can do and enjoy, provided we hone and use our non-programmable ‘hyper-human’ skills like caring, communicating, creating and taking responsibility. And provided we learn to innovate and create – products, processes, business models – it matters not what, as long as it’s viable, we can put those skills to work in jobs that electronic systems can’t perform now or any time soon.

Since computers don’t get bored and let their attention wander, they’re generally better than us in defined, predictable, repetitive and structured work. But we’re better than computers at hyper-human tasks that involve emotions, imagination, sensory perception and social skills and decisions that need intuition as well as logic and fact. These are prized abilities in some workplaces of today and probably most workplaces of the near future.

Many of these jobs are waiting to be created. You can do that by transforming and upgrading your current job so that it really benefits from your human skills. A good place to start is by letting go of last-century thinking about a job as functional activity, since these are the ones automation is taking over.

Use your skills to build relationships with colleagues, customers and suppliers. Stay alert to what’s going on around you so you can notice problems and fix them, find opportunities and work out ways to make the most of them, and prevent mishaps and mistakes.

Honour your commitments. Innovate new and improved ways of working by making tasks and processes easier, cheaper, faster or safer to do, or result in greater reliability or improved quality. Small adjustments here, little tweaks there, all add up to making you an invaluable employee.

Learn to work collaboratively in virtual teams, especially virtual project teams. Or build your skills so you’re indespensible to a process-based team (rather than a functional team).

You can also learn to work in tandem with computers (called ‘augmented intelligence’). Instead of being replaced by a computer, you’re supported by a computer in your analytic, creative and decision-making efforts. The computer supplies the raw data, options and conclusions and you do what the computer can’t – use good judgement to make the final decision. To do that, you need the thinking and judging skills to filter a deluge of information.

Okay, now that you’ve waded your way through the backlog of post-Christmas administration, what is the most important step you can take in the next five days to protect your job and your career from digital disruption and advanced robotics?

(This is longer than usual but hey, it’s important – it’s your future.)

How to ramp up your skills base

‘It takes all the running you can do, to keep in the same place,’
said the Red Queen to Alice.
‘If you want to get anywhere else,
you must run at least twice as fast as that.’

The need to keep moving forward, improving and adding to your professional knowledge and skills base, is becoming ever-more challenging as business becomes increasingly complex and new areas of knowledge pop up just about every time you blink. Add to that the fact that a good deal of what you now know and base your decisions and actions on is destined to be out-of-date soon, you can easily see the stark reality today’s managers face: you can’t afford to rest on your laurels.

Rather than trying to become better at something you’re not, and never will be, any good at, it’s more efficient and effective to concentrate on improving in areas where you have some natural talent or flair, and in areas where you already know quite a lot (but not everything). That’s the advice of management guru Peter Drucker. It makes perfect sense when you think about it. Are you tone deaf but can feel a rhythm and like to move? Take dancing lessons, not singing lessons, because no matter how much you may enjoy singing, you’ll never sing well; but you could become quite a good dancer.

If you’re like most people, you probably know what you’re not good at. But do you know what you are good at? You should, because you perform best when working from your strengths, in the areas your natural skills and inclinations take you and where you can put what you know and understand to good use.

A good way to spot your strengths is to ask people — you’ll probably hear things that will astonish you! You can also monitor your own performance to look for three pieces of information:

  1. What you enjoy doing most and what seems to come most naturally and easily to you. That tells you where to seek opportunities to contribute and improve.
  2. Areas where you have no strengths, talent, skill or inclination so you know what to stay away from. Continually exposing your weaknesses only erodes your self-confidence and trying to gain more than the bare-minimum competence wastes the time you could more valuably spend on building your strengths.
  3. Areas where you where you need to improve your existing skills or acquire new ones, particularly areas you’re already good at or potentially good at.

It may have become a cliche, but it’s a fast-paced world and to stay in the game, never mind ahead of it, it’s essential to keep learning. The Red Queen knew what she was talking about. Meanwhile, keep dancing and sing when no one is listening.

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?