In This Month’s Issue…
As a child, I loved school so much that when I was sick I would pretend to be well so as not to miss a day. Strange, I know. For me, summer was a time of heat and, well, boredom.
But there’s no boredom now! We face new innovations every minute, new ideas every second and an ever-tightening cycle of doing and more doing: There’s almost no time to catch our breath and very few respites to stop and analyze what might work better.
Read on for a few thoughts on how to work a little smarter and with more equanimity.
Crispy Around the Edges
Feeling burnt out; handling too many responsibilities without enough support; and running short-staffed for too long.
You might feel overtired even though you’ve actually been sleeping enough lately. Maybe you’ve noticed that you complain too frequently or too automatically. Or you’re having resentful thoughts about colleagues or family members for applying too much pressure or not carrying their share of the load.
Wouldn’t you like to turn down the heat?
Consider a natural, effective sunburn remedy: the sap of the aloe plant. When you can snap off a leaf of this succulent, you get a green, slightly sticky goop that cools sunburned skin. Here’s some psychic aloe to cool your other burnt edges:
Acknowledge what’s really going on. Don’t just tough it out or pretend you don’t notice.
Loosen your perception of musts and shoulds, especially the ones you’ve created for yourself. Instead of struggling to perfect every word, prepare a draft for discussion and clean up the text afterward. The Neat & Tidy Police won’t issue you a citation if you leave your bed unmade or dishes drying in the rack from time to time. Take a break from Facebook; your friends will survive if you don’t “like” every photo of their kids, pets, and dinners.
Open dialogue with people who can help you. Share or swap tasks, or make explicit agreements at home or work about priorities and what will go undone temporarily.
Experience something new, fun — and share it. Cook with a friend. Take dance lessons. Explore your neighborhood by bicycle. The activity you choose doesn’t matter, so long as it lifts your brain out of its rut — and you have someone else to laugh, review, and remember it with.
Follow the Money Trail
If you want to improve service, identify the faulty pattern.
Here’s a clue: We spend money to fix things and make them work better. The use of money as a marker is particularly relevant in service operations where we often spend extra money intentionally when things have gone wrong — for apology gifts, discounts to win customers back, credits for mispriced merchandise, etc.
So start tracking every time you shell out — and the reason for the expenditure.
Say you’re selling perishables. You notice that more customers are demanding replacements for spoilage. If you’re smart, you won’t rest until you check your refrigeration, your packaging, and the way the stock is managed.
You can even create special cost “flags” to intensify your review. For example, offer two replacement items for every damaged one returned. You’ll encourage your customers to come back and you’ll get a better handle on just how much spoilage is occurring — and the extra pain will make you focus on finding the problematic pattern and fixing the cause.
Or maybe customers for your IT services are complaining about being billed for system upgrades they didn’t want. As a good company, of course you’ll credit their accounts, maybe even discount their next scheduled maintenance. Note how often, and which customers you have to compensate.
Then you’ll go back to the sales force and see if they’re pushing too hard or too fast for orders. You’ll explore whether there’s a problem with your training approach or invoicing procedure. If only one or two individuals are creating the recovery expense, first you’ll coach; then you’ll counsel; and then you might decide that you can no longer afford the poor fit between the employees and the job.
Your staff will help look for the source of any money drain if they know you’re working to improve the business and reduce their stress, and you can gratefully share the benefit; it doesn’t have to be a percentage, it can be a party. Use the patterns of expense to identify operational flaws and fix them — you’ll make back the extra money and more.
You’ve probably heard the popular truism, “Fail to plan; plan to fail.” But there’s also a refuting proverb that says, “Man plans and God laughs.” So which one is true?
We have to react on-the-fly as things change, and they change all the time. The power goes out and the system goes down. Employees don’t show up for work. Customers want something different from their original specs. We can adapt gracefully or be dragged along — kicking and screaming — by new requirements.
One of the best ways to understand and cope with reality is to identify the ways in which the real varies from the ideal. Then we can adjust our responses based on the empirical (observed) evidence of what works and what doesn’t.
This is the adage I like: “Plan your work; work your plan.” There’s no failure in it.
If you’re scheduled for a difficult conversation or meeting, it makes sense to draft out your part and rehearse it, so you can present your material with confidence. But it also helps to anticipate, rigorously, the expectations and reactions of the other people involved, so that you’re prepared to tailor your remarks as necessary.
Whether you run a department, a business unit, or a household, it makes sense to project out your budget as realistically as possible. It’s your grasp of reality that matters, not just your understanding of the necessary calculations or formulas: The accuracy of your assumptions determines your success.
Here’s how you get better at it: Trial and error, accompanied by analysis and persistence.
Think of Thomas Edison, who said, “I have not failed. I’ve just found 10,000 ways that won’t work.” He also said, “I never did anything by accident, nor did any of my inventions come by accident; they came by work.”
Remember how a light bulb would appear over cartoon characters’ heads whenever they had an idea? Turn on that light bulb over your own head. Make a reasonably good plan, give it your best shot — and then learn how to make a better plan.
[Thanks to Poma B. for asking the question that inspired this article.]
Say This, NOT That to Your Professor
You’ll appreciate Say This, NOT That to Your Professor, by Ellen Bremen, if you’ve ever been afraid to deal with an authority figure. The book is targeted to college students, but any high school student, any middle schooler (with parental help), and any working person can use it. It’s loaded with communication techniques for interacting more effectively with teachers and bosses (and parents, too): How to understand and get clarity about requirements, how to ask for help, how to disagree respectfully, and how to apologize are just a few of this book’s gems.
Have you found a pearl of wisdom to help you address what you need to do or how you need to do it? Do let me know what topics you’d like to hear more about, and please pass along your copy of Workplace Wisdom to someone else who needs a new idea.
Till August, onward and upward,
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If you’re local or visiting New York, let me know. We’ll have coffee.