Tuesday, August 21, 2007

Don't Let the Numbers Get You Down

I’m the first to admit I have never been a math whiz. In fact, when my kids have homework that starts off with something like “If a train leaves the station and is traveling at 80 m.p.h…” I sort of hear this buzzing sound in my ears and my vision starts to blur around the edges.

But I know that math is critical in our world, and I still hold in high esteem anyone who managed to make it through Miss Boren’s algebra class.

At the same time, I have to admit that numbers are starting to cause me the kind of anxiety I haven’t experienced since my statistics final in college. They seem to be everywhere. There are the book rankings (see below for “A Recovering Amazoniac”); the number of visitors to this Web site; the readership of my syndicated workplace column; the number of e-mails in my “in” box; the phone messages awaiting my attention; and the amount of money I’m earning.

Then, of course, there are the other numbers that stalk me in my private life – my car’s gas mileage; my exercise time; my weight; and whether I have enough credit card points to earn a dinner at Applebee’s.

Unfortunately, I don’t think I’m exaggerating the fact that numbers can often cause problems in our lives, especially at work. There is the employee who can’t get a promotion – or gets fired – because the numbers of a performance evaluation don’t add up, or the manager who gets burned out and leaves a company because he’s tired of spending more time filling in numbers on a report rather than focusing on his employees.

And, of course, there’s the unethical corporate leaders who have been seduced by huge amounts of money and abandoned their responsibilities to their employees and their company, causing much damage and heartache.

So, what is the solution? For me, it’s remembering that numbers are just, well, numbers. They are often out of my control, and constantly changing. They can be a tool, but just one tool and certainly not the only one.

When I’ve asked those who seem to be happy with their careers how they keep numbers from ruling their lives, they often ruefully admit that even they sometimes have problems with that issue. But, they say, they try and keep the numbers is perspective by focusing more on quality than quantity. They contend that the “good” numbers will follow the “good” work. Some of their tips include:

  • Giving back. If you’re not in the “gimme, gimme, gimme” mode all the time trying to boost your numbers, you retain better balance in your work and private life. That means that you mentor others unselfishly, and give credit to others when it is due.
  • Being honest. An executive once told me that when he worked at Microsoft Corporation he was trying to choose a new ad agency while preparing to launch a new product that was a direct challenge to a Lotus Corporation flagship product. It seems one agency thought to woo Microsoft business by telling him trade secrets about Lotus. His reaction was immediate: he reported the unethical conduct to company lawyers who then forwarded it to Lotus.
  • Sharing ideas. While it’s easy to hunch over the keyboard and commune only with the Internet, it’s the creative give-and-take with other people that generates the most satisfying work. I once interviewed two “co-leaders” of a company who told me the secret to their success was the fact that one “hacked through the forest undergrowth” while the other one “climbed to the top of the trees to see what was ahead.” They sat within a few feet of each other at work, and said they relished batting ideas back and forth all day, sharing what they learned. By sharing their ideas, they made the best decision for the overall well-being of their company.
  • Rooting for someone else. By cheering someone else’s success, by offering words of encouragement, you spend more time focused on the positive instead of harboring ill feelings or jealousies that can sap your emotional and professional reserves.

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