Archive for October, 2010
My new favorite blog is Penelope Trunk’s Brazen Careerist. The posts rarely have much to do with the workplace, at least in a direct sense, but she’s a great writer who always has something to say and you can apply it however you like. And she’s usually got an insane-sounding story to illustrate her irreverent but useful points. You can check her out here.
Last week she wrote a post on another website called Perfectionism is a disease. Here’s how to beat it. This one doesn’t have an insane story, but it has some good thoughts:
1. People don’t care if you’re right all the time. “They just want you to get stuff done well enough that they can do what they need to do.”
2. People stop learning when they’re constantly afraid of being wrong.
3. Smart people cut corners; they just know which corners to cut.
Lastly and most interestingly:
4. People don’t care that much if you do a good job. They care that they like you. “Office politics is really about being nice, which, frankly, is more healthy and certainly more achievable than being perfect.”
That last one really rings true. “Office politics” have such a bad rap, but isn’t it really about treating your colleagues well? If you treat them well, they like you. If everyone likes each other, they seek to learn from mistakes instead of pointing fingers. The bad part of office politics starts when people don’t treat each other well, and then the gossip begins about why someone is behaving badly. It’s because they have bad intentions, we think; they are trying to make someone else look bad, or take control, or cover up mistakes. And there we are, right back at the typical behaviors of a perfectionist.
Maybe all workplace interpersonal problems are really about perfectionists. We just don’t recognize it because “perfection” looks different to different people, so we see different types of bad behavior when it really all comes down to just one source. The message: don’t be afraid to make mistakes. If you’re nice to your colleagues and they like you, they’ll forgive your mistakes. They’ll see them as motivated by circumstances rather than bad intentions, and everyone will learn from them.
I’ve always been fascinated by how culture—national, tribal, organizational, etc.—impacts performance. Malcolm Gladwell’s analysis of airline crashes that were caused by a cultural norm that says “never question the authority of the pilot” was a great read, perhaps because nowhere else had I seen such a clear example of the disastrous potential consequences of unquestioned cultural norms.
In a recent issue of Newsweek, Claudia Kalb examines a similar phenomena in her feature article Do No Harm. Medical errors, which kill something like 100,000 Americans a year, are often caused by the culture that says a nurse cannot question the authority of a doctor. But it goes deeper than that; a nurse quoted by Kalb says that problems that are handled between you and your manager feel “very blamelike” in the typical hospital culture. In the hospital this nurse works in now, which has undergone a culture change, “errors are considered a flaw in the system, not an individual weakness.” In other words, rather than trying to get nurses and other hospital staff to overcome the taboo against questioning authority, we simply change the concept of error so that it is no longer a matter of questioning authority, it’s a matter of questioning a system or procedure.
Imagine this sort of transformation in other types of workplaces. Yeah, I can hear the managers: “But it really is a individual performance problem sometimes, and I can’t have people trying to change tried and true systems to cover up their own deficiencies.” Maybe. But I know most people are much more willing to make behavioral changes when it doesn’t feel like a “blaming” environment. When we sit down to ask questions about what would work better, it allows a person to focus on the issues rather than be paralyzed by defensiveness.
Medical schools are making inroads with culture change. Kalb quotes a fourth-year medical student, Mengyao Liang, who says that a culture of openness makes sense to him. “It’s not a sign of weakness to say ‘I made a mistake,’” he says. “I think our generation will say, ‘Why are you not questioning me?” If the medical profession can do that, despite its historical culture of hierarchy, authority and, some would say, personal arrogance, then why can’t we all?
In training sessions on communication skills, interpersonal skills or even performance management, I often try to sell the idea to managers that if they can find the source of their frustration with other folks in something that they themselves did, it will be a great source of power to them in their professional lives.
So for example, when an employee is not performing to the manager’s expectations, she should ask, “What did I do to contribute to this problem? Did I not communicate the expectations clearly enough? Did I imply through words or actions that the project was not important?”
Or when a colleague throws us under the bus in a staff meeting, we should ask, “What did I do to make him think he needed to do that? Did I make him feel unsafe? Did I create a culture of ultra-competitiveness? Did I fail to communicate that we have the same goals?”
This is easier said than done, and it tends to earn me a lot of resistance from class participants. “But what if it really is all the other guy’s fault?” they’ll ask me. “What if there’s nothing I could have done differently?” I’ll usually respond by suggesting that if you can see the disappointing behaviors of other people as being within your sphere of control, you’ll be liberated from a lot of frustration and helplessness at work. What power!
A good friend lent me a great book this week, called The Art of Possibility by Rosamund Stone Zander and Ben Zander. The authors explain twelve practices for seeing more possibility in life, and one of them is called “being the board.” Being the board involves imagining oneself as the board on which the game of life is played. It refined my understanding of bringing external events and the behavior of others into one’s own sphere of control in this way: it is not about blame or fault. It is not a matter of the manager seeking to blame her own lack of communication for the employee’s performance problems. Fault simply becomes irrelevant when one is “being the board.” What matters is the choice, the ability to change one’s own behavior to get a different result. Or, in some cases, the ability to question the underlying assumptions that make a situation appear a certain way. Perhaps my view of an employee’s performance problem is created by my assumption that I have the only useful definition of acceptable performance. Perhaps there is another definition.
I like the sense of possibility that I get from looking at things this way. And perhaps with the word “fault” removed from the discussion it will be easier to sell to training participants next time. Now, the question is, can I put it to work for me next time I get angry about something someone else did? That’s the real test.