Start the new year off right

Welcome back! I hope you had a wonderful holiday. And I hope you like our new banner; it’s based on the cover of the new edition of Management Theory and Practice.

Now then, here are some words of wisdom to heed as you begin the new year.

‘Besides the noble art of getting things done,
there is a nobler art
of leaving things undone.’

Lin Yutang said that. So before you launch into your usual routine, take a few moments to reflect.

  • What are your challenges for 2016?
  • What problems remain unresolved from 2015? How would resolving them make your working life better?
  • What can you do to help your team be more successful?

If your team functions as a team, or perhaps to help them function better as a team, try opening your next three team meetings with one of these questions:

  • What are our challenges for 2016?
  • What can I do to help you as a team be even more successful this year?
  • What problems linger from last year that we can resolve so we can work more effectively or provide a better service?

Would individual meetings with team members work better? Then you can adapt these questions to open your one-on-one meetings.

Once you have the answers to these questions, you can build working on them into your schedule. Commit to working on at least two every day.  Otherwise, you may find yourself drifting through the year without making any great leaps forward. And that won’t do your team, your organisation or your career much good.

Set yourself up for those great leaps forward by starting the day by completing, or at least making significant progress, on at least one important, value-adding task. Yes, even before you check your emails.

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?

What is your ideal working style?

Last week, we considered the plight of the humble bee. Bee colonies are dying out worldwide due to overwork, putting our food supplies in jeopardy since we depend on bees to pollinate so many of our food crops. Future food supplies aside, working too hard doesn’t do people much good, either.

At a lecture at the University of South Australia, Professor Ellen Kossoki from Michigan State University’s School of Law and Industrial Relations shed some light, based on her research, on how we can prevent our bodies and our productivity from collapsing from overwork. There are three physical and psychological ways we can manage the boundaries between work and family, pay most attention to what we most value, and our relationships. She calls them integrator, separator and volleyer.

But first, three questions. On a scale of one to five:

  • Do you attend to personal and family issues at work often, rarely or somewhere in between?
  • How often do you think about work at home?
  • Do you take work home by, for example, making work-related phone calls or attending to emails during the evenings, weekends and holidays?

Integrators mix their work and personal lives. Separators isolate work and personal tasks and commitments. Volleyers switch back and forth between integrating and separating; for example, they’re separators when travelling and integrators when at home. Academics, tax accountants and others whose work is cyclical are often volleyers.

To work optimally and achieve satisfaction, you need to work in the way that makes you most comfortable. Separators, for instance, need to guard against allowing technology to force them to integrate work and personal time.

Professor Kossoki also suggests keeping a time log tallying the time you spend on yourself, resting, working, exercising and so on. Turn it into a pie chart. Then make another pie chart showing how ideally you would divide your time between these activities. Then compare your two pie charts to see how well you align your values with how you spend your 168 hours a week and make any changes you need to so that you, not technology, careerism or anything else, prevents you from being the architect of your life.

Remember that your team members may not work the same way you do or as each other, either.

Two all-important three-letter words

There is a three-letter word that creates arguments and another that creates cooperation. The first is ‘but’ and the second is ‘and’. Who would think one small, simple word has the power to damage relationships and spoil conversations, and the other to make them more satisfying and effective?

‘That’s a good effort, but …’                                 ‘That looks fine, but …’
‘You did a good job, but …’                                  ‘I can tell you tried, but …’
‘I take your point, but …’                                       ‘We’ve received your order, but …’
‘I understand what you’re saying, but …’               ‘That’s one option, but …’

Do you see? When you hear the word ‘but’, you know bad news is coming. The ‘but’ butts away the positive information preceding it. It’s a verbal hammer that signals disagreement.

Are you thinking of substituting ‘but’ with ‘however’? Forget it. ‘However’ is just a three-syllable version of ‘but’ and sends the same signals.

Substitute ‘but’ with ‘and’.

‘That’s a good effort, and …’                                 ‘That looks fine, and …’
‘You did a good job, and …’                                  ‘I can tell you tried, and …’
‘I take your point, and …’                                       ‘We’ve received your order, and …’
‘I understand what you’re saying, and …’               ‘That’s one option, and …’

Hear the difference? ‘But’ blocks.  ‘And’ builds. With ‘and’, you’re working with people, not pushing against them. ‘And’ allows you to offer an improvement suggestion while acknowledging the good job that has been done.

‘That’s a good effort, and something else you could try is …’
‘That looks fine, and one way to enhance it might be to …’
‘You did a good job, and it would be fantastic if you could also …’
‘I can tell you tried, and you’ve made good progress. One thing for next time is …’

‘And’ also shows you’ve listened and heard.  It helps prevent arguments because it allows two points of view to stand and acknowledges and extends what the other person has said.

‘I take your point, and another thing we could consider is …’
‘We’ve received your order, and in order to process it, I just need …’
‘I understand what you’re saying, and here’s another way to look at it.’
‘That’s one option, and another might be …’


Substituting ‘but’ with ‘and’ can be a hard habit to break, at least it was for me, but it was well worth it. Communication becomes much more cooperative. It also becomes much more clear without muddying the waters with the mixed message ‘but’ sends.

One more thing: Much of the time, you can simply substitute ‘and’ for ‘but’. But (yes, here’s some slightly bad news) sometimes, you need to reconstruct the sentence and make your point differently. When that happens, the reworded statement is invariably stronger, more cooperative and more effective than the original version. And it’s definitely worth the effort when you want more agreements than arguments.

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.

Best practice, or just another fad?

New and innovative management thinking that stands the test of time tends to become the new ‘baseline’ to which all organisations must comply sooner or later in order to remain in the game. Customer service, for example, was once a genuine differentiator of companies but is now expected, and what was once considered ‘great’ customer service is now the baseline. Other new approaches that have significantly effected the way we run organisations and manage people include management by objectives (MBO) and total quality management (TQM). Using ‘big data’ and offering smart, connected products are soon to join such ground-breaking practices.

But wait: in some organisations, MBO, TQM, and other initiatives such as Six Sigma, re-engineering and supply-chain analysis that became successfully embedded in many organisations, were mere ‘flavours of the month’ in others.  How can that be? The answer is clear: Initiatives that are potentially valuable and ground breaking don’t work in organisations that ‘dabble’. Dabblers:

  • don’t bother to train employees properly in the initiative
  • don’t win the commitment of the organisation’s leaders
  • don’t persevere with an initiative long enough to make it part of its culture
  • make them an add-on to peoples’ probably already-demanding workload, so they’re just another ‘chore’
  • don’t allow the initiative to create deep, genuine change to its culture or operations
  • don’t take the initiative seriously enough to measure properly or reward people for coming ‘on board’ with it.

Some best practices work and organisations move on. Once an organisation has re-engineered its operations from ‘go’ to ‘whoa’, for example, it needs to find another ground-breaking way to retain a competitive advantage. Once every organisation is doing it (customer service and TQM, for example) the next iteration of it must be found.

Other initiatives are just plain fads and always will be. Upside-down organisation charts and calling employees ‘associates’ spring to mind here. Oh yes, and ‘There’s no I in Team’. You can recognise fads because they’re simplistic and prescriptive: Do this one thing and watch the magic happen–whatever your industry, the size of your organisation, the nature of your business–no need to adapt it to suit your needs! Fads peddle a one-size-fits-all Answer. They’re filled with big words, jargon, overblown phrases and bumper sticker exhortations and slogans. They do nothing to change the core of an organisation, the way it really operates, interacts with its customers, suppliers and stakeholders.

Fads like these are easy to spot. Leave them alone. When you want to adopt a best practice initiative and ensure it works, don’t dabble.

What the tidiness of your desk says about you

Those of you who have read the chapter in my Management: Theory and Practice text, Managing Priorities (Chapter 8 in the current–5th–edition) or my time management book Making Time Work for You, know that I’m in favour of tidy desks and, to coin one of my Dad’s favourite phrases, ‘a place for everything and everything in its place.’

I wasn’t always a tidy desker; quite the opposite. Then I was put in charge of a team and either that had to change or I’d I knew I’d find myself looking for another job! The reason was simple: no clear follow-up systems and I couldn’t find anything on the storage space that was once my desk. I can tell you from personal experience that no one can manage effectively that way.

But a quote I’ve seen a few times, purportedly from Albert Einstein, has given me pause for thought, as have a couple of articles I’ve read saying that messy desks aren’t all that bad. Here’s the quote:

If a cluttered desk is a sign of a cluttered mind,
of what, then, is an empty desk a sign?

Einstein, Roald Dahl and my husband all work(ed) at messy desks and if messy desks are good enough for them…

But then again, most research shows that tidy desks–a tidy environment in general–leads to better performance. But I’ve just come across a study done at the end of 2012 that sheds a bit of light.

The research was in three parts. The first part showed that people placed in an orderly room chose healthier snacks and donated more money to charity than people placed in a disorderly room. The second part showed that people placed in a disorderly room were more creative than people placed in an orderly room. And the third part showed that people placed in orderly rooms preferred more traditional, classic items while people placed in disorderly rooms preferred items labelled as ‘new’.

The conclusion seems pretty clear: The state of the room you’re in, and therefore the state of your desk–orderly or disorderly–affects your decisions and level of conventionality, generosity and creativity.

This means that when you need to get your creative juices flowing, retire to a messy place. (I don’t advise messing up your office or your home–you only have to tidy it up again!). When you need to think clearly and logically, and maybe ‘tow the line’ a bit, make sure you’re working in a tidy space.