When you’re down … and troubled …

man sitting and closing eyes on teal bench
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(hat tip to Carole King)

You know those times when you’re facing a challenge and you wonder if you’re up to it? All you see is the challenge and little of the opportunity?

I had that a few years ago.

In 2007, I’d joined an Engineering Group as Head of Human Resources and, on day one, I was tasked with creating an emerging leaders learning retreat … in 6 weeks time.

Holy shit!

It was possibly partly a test. It is a tough industry and they were looking to see what I could do. Could I do this? So much to do and organise and it was just me. No staff. No support. The PAs of the Execs didn’t know me so no favours were coming from that area.

I had to think about selecting the participants with some logic. My experience in Learning & Development required me to have learning outcomes, behavioural change and get the right people in the room.

I had to develop the program. Organise the guest speakers. Locate a venue with catering. Establish costings along with submissions for approval. Back and forth discussions with the COO and the CFO on “Why this?” and “Why that?” and “Can’t you do this cheaper?” (Good times!)

Plus, the other parts of the HR job in general. I was the first HR Manager at the time so everyone wanted a piece of me.

Remembering significant achievements can help you when you’re feeling flat, demotivated and useless. Hey, we all do at times. Have you ever been asked what your greatest achievements are and, in the moment, come up blank? Or maybe you just dismiss them? Yep, me too! 😉

Here’s what I’ve started doing …

  1. Open up your note app of choice, in my case it’s Apple Notes, but feel free to use a physical notebook.
  2. Write down all the achievements you have been responsible for. Could be something you led or played a significant role in (work or personal).
  3. Think about the achievement and how you “felt”. Make sure to write down how you felt at the time. If you can, bask in that glory for a minute, and re-live the emotion. Emotions are great motivators!
  4. Write that down next to the achievement. “I changed “x” to “y” and it was bloody hard work but in that moment I felt on top of the world!”
  5. Keep it visible. If you use something like Apple Notes, you can pin that to the top of your notes so it’s always there to see and re-read!
  6. If you use a physical notebook, place a tab on the page (pages 🙌) so you can refer to it when you need to.
  7. When you’re having a tough day or simply faced with a challenge, take 5 minutes to review these achievements, feel the emotion and gratitude you had at the time. Feel “on top of the world again!”
  8. You did it then, you can do it now!

Outcome: The Emerging Leaders Workshop

Over 3 days, we had 20+ emerging leaders on the program. They had come from all over Australia, Vietnam and Dubai.

We walked them through a business case study and allowed them to interact with each other, challenge each other and develop plans to become better.

We developed some business “truths” and created stronger relationships between the offices and the various engineering disciplines.

I think the CFO and COO were mildly stunned I had pulled it off and were very happy with the outcomes.

That experience is one I remember when faced with a challenge today. I’ve done it before, I can do it again. Even writing this out has been beneficial.

Maybe there is a Step 9! 😉

Ask for what you want!

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Not what you don’t want.

I was speaking with a client the other day about their business culture. I asked them: “What do you want?”

They proceeded to list a few things the team were doing they didn’t like.

I noted this down and held back comment until they had finished.

We discussed few areas of the business. The common phrase kept coming back: “I don’t want them to…”, or “They do this … (negative thing)”.

After a bit, he said, “Okay, now you talk!”

I mentioned the language he was using. He recognised it immediately.

I’d taken notes so offered a couple back to him and asked him if they stopped doing what he didn’t like what would he see them doing?

He proceeded to list some behaviours he’d love to see.

Sometimes all it takes is to stop and listen to ourselves. Hear the words we say and turn them around. But we get into autopilot mode and the words come bumbling out. We react when we need to respond.

The Insidious Part – Part I

And here’s the insidious part – often the words don’t come out but are stored in our mind, our subconscious. And our attitude towards someone can become “They always do that!”, “They never help out”, and “They always leave early!”

(I can hear some of you now … “But they dooooo!” 😉)

The Insidious Part – Part II

And this is now conveyed, without words, to the party these words are meant for. Attitudes change, behaviour changes and all of a sudden, there is tension at work. And, almost, no-one knows why!

What to do?

Step I – Identify the issue/s

Below there is a link to a template you can use for this. List the things you want to be different/better.

Caution: different isn’t always better but better is always different!

Make it a brain dump for now. Let the thoughts flow and don’t self critique. Just write.

Once you’re done, you’ll find that some can be combined, some are trivial, others will be fixed by other actions and then there are the priorities.

Pick one!

Step II – Be clear about what you want

This may take some time at first but it gets easier, like most things.

Write down what you want. How would this make the situation better? Writing it down helps you get clear about what it actually is you need. I’ve asked this many times of myself and my clients and it can be hard at first. I asked someone this earlier today and their response was:

“Yes, but then I’ll need to take action!” Correct answer!

Using the template, now write down what ‘good’ would look like. What do you want to see? Be clear about this as you need to explain this to another party.

Step Ia – Work within current procedures

It makes it a lot easier if what you’re asking is based on current known procedures. If it’s a brand new process, more explanation may be required. But most requests come from within the Business As Usual (BAU) model. So, the conversation that will follow won’t be a surprise.

Step II – Have the conversation

Thomas J. Leonard (1955 – 2003), father of the modern coaching industry, has this great saying which cannot be avoided:

“All problems exist in the absence of a good conversation”

This can be the tough part, but it doesn’t need to be. Honestly.

If the request is reasonable, simply ask. Don’t make it “bigger than Ben Hur”.

I have found that it is very much the molehill when compared to the mountain.

Step III – Offer support

It’s possible what you are asking for may be out of someone’s comfort zone. You’ll need to offer some support as they make the necessary change. That support may best come from a colleague. A colleague might be better placed to do this both from a technical and empathetic perspective.

The objective is to improve the business or situation by a change of behaviour. It doesn’t really matter who helps make it happen.

Step IV – Don’t make this mistake!

One thing I used to do, along with my manager colleagues, was ask someone to come to a room to speak privately! God what a mistake that was! You can imagine what was going through their mind: “A manager, taking me into an office! What have I done?” 😞

If the topic is sensitive, sure, privacy is important. But many times, if an issue is caught early, all it takes is a quick “Hey, can you do this for me?”

The “Always” Step

Relationships are so important in any environment.

It’s not a step in the procedure. It’s an “always on” fundamental.

With the above steps, what makes it far easier is by ensuring the relationships we have with people are always being reviewed for improvement. “Reviewed” meaning, “what is my role in this relationship and am I playing as best I can?”

We are human and therefore not perfect. But we can continuosly work towards being better in this arena.

  1. identify the issue
  2. write down what you do want (is it known to the other party?)
  3. have a conversation (professional, polite, constructive)
  4. offer support
  5. maintain the relationship

Let me know what you think in the comments. Let me know how you handle these situations at work? Would love to get more ideas.

Allowing Autonomy

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This article from the Pacific Institute (note, I am affiliated the Institute) really struck a chord with me.

It talks about allowing some risk when guiding employees. Too many rules and teams will be constantly looking at the next step and not the outcome.

In creating the “tightrope effect” we increase the stress and anxiety in people who are too fearful to make a mistake. As the article says, when people “look down” to make sure they are following the steps they are not looking ahead to what can be achieved.

I’ve worked on a number of initiatives where people are asked to adopt a process of some kind. A process or a daily target, for example.

This article made me think of the tightrope we ask our teams to walk if we mis-manage the implementation process.

Riding a motorbike requires the rider to look ahead. I’ve ridden bikes, never look down. Look ahead to see what’s coming so you can negotiate it successfully. (Plus it’s more enjoyable leaning into corners! 😎)

Source: http://www.canyonchasers.net
Here’s an example:

In a recent role, we were implementing a new process. There were five steps and each step had five “criteria”. Staff were required to meet each of the criteria at each step. On a regular basis, a scenario was recorded and critiqued by the management team.

Could they identify each of the steps and the associated criteria? Yes. No. Maybe. (Even the managers couldn’t agree!)

The team member was then coached on the outcome of that discussion.

“Here’s what you missed! Here’s what you did well.” What do you think they would reflect on?

“Dear Team Member, Please make sure you complete all steps and all criteria within each step! – Manager”

The feedback asked them to “look down” at each step and criteria. Next time they were with a customer, where do you think their focus would be?

“What if I didn’t do all the criteria but the customer was happy?”

The guidance being to “work it in. Focus on the steps, not the outcome.” That wasn’t the intention, of course, but you can see how it would work out that way.

I had the opportunity to speak with the developer of the model and asked them about the strictness of the model. Do all criteria of each step have to be completed for this to be a success?

“Oh god no! As long as the person is achieving the main steps (rapport building, explain benefits, good questioning, asking for the order and closing) the criteria are guidelines. To help with coaching and development.”

This is where we need to allow some autonomy of our people to do their roles well. We can create so much unnecessary stress in our teams if we demand a certain set of behaviours where a slightly different set will achieve the same outcomes.

In general, we’re dealing with adults but rigidity to this degree means we can also treat them like children.

Allow some risks to be taken, as the original article suggests. Don’t make them look down, you’ll increase the stress, limit performance and the only target you’ll exceed is your staff turnover.

The Inner Critic (Self Talk, Mindset)

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Do you have an inner critic that you’re tired of listening to?

If someone else spoke to you the way you speak to you, would you put up with it?

Here’s “Thing 1” … 

While you’re berating yourself …

  • others have full confidence in you
  • you provide encouragement, support and confidence to others (who also have an inner critic!)
  • when others fail or falter, what do you do? You’re quick to pick them up, I bet!

Maybe some self care is in order.

Here’s what you can do:

  1. Pause/breathe – think about what you’re about to say to yourself
  2. Respond – don’t react
  3. Define what you do want – what does ‘good’ look like?
  4. Next time … what could you do next time this happens. Write it down if you can, it helps with imprinting and reinforcement
  5. Affirm what you’re wanting to achieve – write an effective affirmation (more on this coming soon) 

Here’s “Thing 2” …

  • Think about what you were berating yourself about 12 months ago.
  • Can’t do it, can you? 😉
  • This too will pass, grab any learning you can, let it go and move to the ‘good’

Want an example?

Meeting 1: “God, that was a train wreck! I am hopeless at running meetings. I can’t control the participants. I can’t stick to the agenda. What an idiot!”

Meeting 2: [Pause/breathe] “Well that wasn’t ideal. Next time … I’ll be clear about the agenda and keep participants on track. I’ll allocate some time to plan better. Will see Jane about how she does it, she runs her meetings well.”

Affirmation: “I plan my meetings well and maintain control to achieve the outcomes we need.”

Self Efficacy and Self Talk

So there’s this thing called self efficacy.

“Self-efficacy refers to an individual’s belief in his or her capacity to execute behaviors necessary to produce specific performance attainments (Bandura, 1977, 1986, 1997). Self-efficacy reflects confidence in the ability to exert control over one’s own motivation, behavior, and social environment.” (Source)

There is another concept called self talk.

Self-talk is our internal dialogue. It’s influenced by our subconscious mind, and it reveals our thoughts, beliefs, questions, and ideas.” (Source)

Most people talk negatively to themselves most of the time. If it’s not negative, then it is neutral, with little to no power to progress.

In order to make progress

We need to improve our self efficacy, the ability to cause something to happen. Otherwise we will remain waiting for something to happen. Waiting on others, or waiting for a windfall.

To improve our self efficacy we can look to improve our self talk. Note from the source above, it can be influenced by some deeply held beliefs we may need to challenge or at least question.

What do you hold to that may not be true?

We could be talking ourselves out of the very things we want to happen in our lives, career, relationships etc.

As Henry Ford said,

If you think you can, or think you can’t, you’re right!

What do you want to have happen?

How are you talking to yourself about it?

The Wrong Question

There is an oft quoted challenge: “If money and time weren’t an issue, what would you do with your life?”

I don’t think that is a good question. I think there might be a better question.

It presumes that time and money are the only variables.

Time and money are tools. We can accumulate and use both.
But we should not be defined by those two variables.

I get the point of the question but it limits our options.

It presupposes something like the following: “Well, I don’t have the time … or the money. So what can I do?”

And it potentially absolves us of responsibility.

Perhaps a better question might be:

“If I was who I really wanted to be, what would I do?”

Find out what that is and find a way to do that!