Friday, August 29, 2008

A Salute to the Worker Bees

While most people see the Labor Day holiday as a chance to cut out of work early today and head for one last weekend at the beach or perhaps a barbecue in the backyard with friends, I see it as the one time of year I need to stop and salute all of you.

As a workplace columnist for nearly 17 years, I've interviewed hundreds of workers and hundreds of bosses. I've heard from readers of my column all across the globe. I've been grateful for your letters telling me that information I shared helped you, that for the first time you don't feel like you're the only one who has workplace challenges. You share your difficult experiences: being bullied, being fired, working for a tyrant and getting annoyed with co-workers.

But despite your problems, you continue to go to work every day. Maybe you don't get much recognition, maybe you don't have a glamorous title or a fancy corner office. Maybe you work despite a chronic illness or constant pain. Through whatever trials and tribulations you face in your private life, you go to work.

You work when companies treat you like a commodity to be bought and sold. You labor when your benefits are cut, when you don't get a pay raise and when you fear you may be laid off. You put in extra hours on the weekend, and even when on vacation.

The first Labor Day holiday was celebrated on Sept. 5, 1882. More than 100 years ago people felt like laborers should be celebrated. In 2008, I couldn't agree more.

So, you have my admiration and my thanks. I've learned a lot from each of you over the years, and I have come to be amazed by your resilience, your dedication and your perseverance. To me, the fact that you get up every day and go to work -- no matter what your circumstances or what challenges you face -- make you heroes in my book.

Take a bow. You've earned it.


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Wednesday, August 27, 2008

What the Brady Bunch Can Teach You About Finding the Right Job

Like most people, I was broke when I got out of college. Flat broke.

That meant than instead of getting a cool apartment to go along with my first job, I had to take what I could afford: A place that looked like the Brady Bunch had exploded all over it. Crushed orange velvet sofa. Orange, yellow and green wallpaper with flowers bigger than my head. Olive green appliances.

You can imagine that as soon as I could scrape together more money, I jumped at the chance to rent a better place. When I saw the apartment, I fell in love. It was in an old Victorian home that the owner had converted into three units. High ceilings, a claw-footed bathtub and no olive green appliances. I immediately grabbed it and put down my deposit.

But after moving in, I began to discover some things that I had not observed in my first starry-eyed inspection of the place. There were only small, gas heaters in each room. Hmmm....never used anything like that before. Upon my first bath in the cool old bathtub, I discovered that hot water was in short supply and the water pressure so low it took about two hours to fill.

As time went on, I discovered all the summer heat in the old house went straight to my second story place, making the kitchen floor so hot I couldn't walk across it in bare feet. But then, funny enough, the heat didn't rise in the winter and I was forced to live in one room because I couldn't keep the entire place heated.

I put on a brave face for my friends -- my new apartment was awesome! It was near work, had a nice porch overhanging the front yard (that I couldn't use because the floor was rotted and I was afraid I would plunge through it to my death) and had two built-in bookcases 9that were so crooked my books all leaned to the right like drunken soldiers).

As I huddled under blankets during the winter with that small gas heater spitting out about as much warmth as a lizard's burp, I thought longingly of my Brady Bunch apartment with it's hot water and great water pressure and central heating and cooling. What was a bit of shag carpeting after all?

When it came time to relocate for a new job, I had several friends competing for the right to live in my awesome apartment. I gladly gave them the landlord's name, waved goodbye to the toilet that always leaked and headed for better digs.

I learned a valuable lesson from that apartment debacle. I learned that no matter how good something looks on the surface and no matter how much I may believe I want it, I need to take a deep breath and look a little closer.

I think it's that way for many people who get caught up in interviewing for a job they really, really want. They are so excited about it, they forget to check out whether underneath the sheen of joy there might be a leaky toilet or rotted roof.

We all know that when we interview we're supposed to ask intelligent questions about the job, the company, the industry, etc. But let's look at some other things that you need to examine:

* Eye contact. Do people look one another in the eye when they speak? Does the manager look directly at employees, and vice versa? Do employees look each other in the face when they speak? If you don't see that eye contact, it could indicate that there is a lack of trust or respect among the employees and managers.

* It's too quiet. While you wouldn't want to work in an office that resembled a three-ring circus, a lack of talking -- and laughter -- could indicate an unhappy atmosphere where everyone avoids any contact with one another.

* It's sterile. One of the first things I notice in any office is the personal mementos that everyone displays. You can tell a proud papa by the numerous photos of his children or the avid gardener who has homegrown flowers in a vase. If workers don't seem to have anything personal around, it could indicate the management may have little support for employees having a life outside the office.

* Body language. Look at how employees behave as they work. Are there nervous or unhappy gestures such as slamming down phones, biting fingernails, chewing lips, constant sighing, etc.? Do employees not look well? Deep eye circles, unhealthy skin pallor and disheveled clothes might indicate they are overworked and overwhelmed.

* Interaction. I've already mentioned that a lack of eye contact or talking casually might indicate problems, but do you see employees interacting around the coffee pot or in the lunch room? Or, is everyone eating at their desk or while their nose is stuck in a newspaper? While some people may want to be alone during lunch, you also want to see a bit of camaraderie among workers to indicate a relaxed, friendly atmosphere.

* Doors. While management may say there is an open-door policy, is there really? How many doors do you pass that are closed?

* General upkeep. Ask for a tour of the facility and be sure and note whether it seems to be in good shape. Unkept bathrooms, overflowing trashcans, broken furniture, dirty floors and piles of papers may indicate not only a disorganized workplace, but one that might not be financially able to afford a good cleaning service. It can also reflect a general lack of pride by the workers in their company.

I'm not saying you should reject a job offer because of any of these things, but I do think it's a smart idea to look beyond the surface, and make sure you won't wind up feeling uncomfortable in your new job.

What are some other things a job candidate should look for when interviewing?


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Monday, August 25, 2008

Would You Rather Have Your Pinky Toe Cut Off?

We had just spent several sweaty hours at a professional baseball game, and my youngest son was balking at getting in the car for the two-hour drive home. Having gotten a bit carsick on the way to the game, he was negotiating getting a hotel room and staying the night.

All I could think of was a cool shower and the comfort of my own bed, so I stood tough in the face of some serious whining.

"I'll tell you what," I said. "I'll play a game with you on the way home."

"It's dark! We can't see to play anything!" he argued.

"Sure, we can," I said, trying not to let the exhaustion I felt creep into my "enthusiastic mommy" voice. "We'll play 20 questions. It will be fun!"

My son, still in negotiation mode, said: "How about if we play 'which would you rather?'"

Since I had never heard of such a game, I asked him to start us off.

Settled into the cool, dark confines of the back seat and headed home, he launched his first question: "Uh, OK. Which would you rather have: Your pinky toe cut off -- permanently -- or both arms broken and in a cast for a year?"

I was sort of taken aback by the game (was this going to be about missing body parts?) but after a moment's consideration I said: "Well, I can do without my pinky toe. It's not like I would fall over without it. And I'd hate to be in two casts for a year. Think of all the bad hair days. I'll go with the pinky toe."

For the next two hours, we played the game. My husband and other son quickly joined in. At times the questions were fun: Which would my 13-year-old son rather do -- carry a Hannah Montana backpack to school or have his head shaved? Would my oldest rather have a date with Jessica Alba or get a new Porshe?

Often, the questions to me were about my career: Which would I rather do, work for the former boss who yelled at me a lot or the other past boss who was sneaky and mean?

While giving up my pinky toe was a pretty easy decision, some of the queries were much more tough. My initial response would often come to a halt as I pondered aloud some questions about where I wanted to go in my career and my life.

I was struck by how simple the questions were, but how much they clarified the things that I found truly important. It wasn't one of those cases where I said, "Oh, gee, I can't make up my mind. I don't know whether I'd want to work for the yelling boss -- who could be nice at times -- or the sneaky and mean boss." I knew I'd rather work for someone who was openly a jerk than someone who gave snakes a bad name. (It dawned on me that was probably why I had recently decided not to apply for a job where the management had a bad reputation. To me, the money was not worth the stress of a snarky boss and I'd rather put my energy into something else.)

In the last couple of days, I've thought a lot about the game my family played on that summer night. I not only learned a lot about myself, but also about what others thought I considered important. They also learned a lot about me.

So, on this Monday morning, I'm going to ask you to play "which would you rather." Spend some time playing this game with people who are close to you. You're going to be amazed at what you'll learn about yourself:

1. Which would you rather have: Three months doing a job you really hate -- for a lot of money -- or a job for a year that you love, but for much less money?

2. Which would you rather have: A prestigious award from your industry or a 25 percent pay raise?

3. Which would you rather have: Three weeks vacation at a destination of your choice or your boss giving you much more recognition?

4. Which would you rather have: Being able to work on an important project or everyone getting along at work?

5. Which would you rather have: Catered lunches for a month or an hour alone with the CEO to tell him/her your ideas?

What would you answer and why?


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Friday, August 22, 2008

What To Do When the Gossip is About....You

Go ahead and fess up.

I know you look at those gossip rags near the checkout supermarket lines. I know that you know that Brad and Angelina had twins. I also know that you are aware John Edwards cheated on his wife, Elizabeth. If you don’t know these things, then you’re not human and obviously live under a rock.

As much as all of us proclaim we don’t listen, see, spread, smell or otherwise consume gossip, we really do. Maybe not on purpose. Maybe just by accident. We can’t help it, we say. We can’t walk around with our palms over our ears singing “nah, nah, nah” or slap our hands over our eyes so that we don’t see Britney Spear exiting a car sans underwear.

And the same is true of the workplace. If you have a job, then you have gossip. Maybe we don’t even think of it as gossip, but call it that more politically correct term, “office politics.” We listen to it because sometimes our very survival depends on it. We’re aware of the blow-up the boss had with his boss. We know that positions may be cut in another department. We have heard that a co-worker has been demoted for yelling at a colleague. All of that, we say, is important stuff we need to know.

But then one day, you’re sitting at work, and you realize that the talk is about you. You realize there are discussions about the mistake you made last month that cost the company money. Or, you find out that people are talking about your son being arrested for DUI. Maybe there are snickers or sly glances your way and lots of hushed tones to indicate you’re the subject of some kind of gossip.

You ignore it as long as you can. You’re hoping it goes away. You figure the gossips will tire of you and move onto something else. Still, no matter how much you try to put it out of your mind, you realize that the gossip mill continues to grind away, and you’re still caught in it.

While our mothers may have taught the old “sticks and stones” routine to us when we were in school, it doesn’t always work when we’re older. For one thing, gossip can hurt our careers. For another, it can make us physically sick and unable to do our jobs. And here’s the real modern-day kick: It can continue to be spread online.

So, what to do when you realize you’re the object of gossip at work? There are several routes to take, depending on what you feel is best for you at the time:

1. Confront the source. This takes a lot of guts, and you need to do it in a calm way. Walk up to the person and say: “I heard that you’ve been discussing issues in my personal/professional life.” Then, summarize what you’ve heard: “I understand that you’ve been talking about my son/job performance, and I would appreciate it if you would come to me if you have any questions or comments rather than talking to others about it.”

2. Ask for help. If you think someone may be talking about you, but you’re not sure (or maybe are sure), then you can act as if you’re enlisting their aid, which can help shame them into stopping their wagging tongue. “There seems to be gossip going around about me. I don’t know if you’ve heard it, but it’s really not OK with me. If you hear anyone gossiping about me, I’d appreciate it if you tell them to stop.”

3. Keep your nose clean. The worst thing you can do if you’re being gossiped about is to attack with the same kind of talk. Make sure no one sucks you into talking about the person who may be gabbing about you, or tries to ratchet up the destructive comments. Just change the subject, or say: “You know, I don’t like talking about other people. I know what that feels like, and it’s really hurtful.”

4. Go to the boss. This can be risky. If your boss doesn’t support you in stopping the gossip and confronting the ones at fault, then the gossip is only bound to get worse. The only choice may be leaving the job. Still, if your company has a formal policy in place that states no gossiping, you could have a better foundation to build your case.

What would you do if you were being gossiped about at work? Is there any way to avoid it?


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Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Learning To Love a Job You Hate

For whatever reason – it has great health benefits, you like the location and there’s a really cute programmer who works on the fourth floor – you have made the decision that you’re staying with a job you hate.

It wasn’t an easy decision. People job hop these days faster than Matthew McConaughey can rip off his shirt. But even though you have to drag yourself into work every day, you’re not going to quit. The boss seems to like your work, so there’s not even the chance you might get fired. In fact, you just got a pay raise. Dammit.

That was the last straw. Now you really feel trapped in this job you despise, the job that you began with such great expectations.

To be honest about it, the job wasn’t that bad in the beginning, or even in the middle. It’s just been lately that you’ve come to feel you’re being led to the gallows every time you enter the front door. You look around at others, and they don’t seem to be as miserable as you. Why, you think, are they so darn happy? Why aren’t they mired in the same pit of despair?

You know you’re staying put, but can you survive? Are you just kidding yourself?

The answer is “yes” and “no.” Yes, there is a way to survive, and no, you’re not just kidding yourself.

I speak from experience. I once had a job that I despised so much I used to think about chucking my degree and all my years of hard work and going to work at an IHOP. I envisioned getting pancakes at an employee discount. That seemed like a pretty good alternative to spending my days writing about subjects that were so boring I thought I would lose my mind.

And then, the boss took me out for lunch. I thought I was going to get a scolding for sleeping with my eyes open, but he offered me a lateral move within the company. That didn’t sound so appealing – why would I want to move from one job I hated into something equally as noxious?

But he talked me into it. He didn’t know at the time how bad I hated my job, and how the call of an all-you-can-eat pancake feast was a constant battle. In the end, he persuaded me and I took the new job.

By the end of the first day in the new position, I had been transformed. While I was doing much of the same work, it was different.

I wasn’t bored anymore. It was a new subject, new territory to be conquered. I could feel my sluggish brain begin to re-engage, to fire all cylinders. I met new people, immersed myself in learning new stuff. Within the week, I realized I no longer craved pancakes. I liked the new tasks I was given. And then it hit me: I loved my job.

The lesson: Yes, Virginia, you can learn to love the job you hate.

Here are some tips to get you started:

• Make a list of what you like and don’t like about your job. It’s OK to say you really like the cute programmer or the hours you work, but also think of what tasks you enjoy doing. I always liked writing, but I didn’t like the subject. By changing the focus of my work, it made a world of difference.
• Envision a new way to work. Think about all the things you need to make you like your job again. Would you like a chance to experience something new, such as interacting with others in another department? Receive more recognition from your boss? Get a mentor?
• Structure a plan. Put together some ideas for how you’d like to change your job, the new duties and goals.
• Talk to the boss as soon as possible. Don’t let a manager put you off until a performance appraisal; let the boss know you’ve got a plan you’d like to present. Explain to the boss in a reasonable, conversational tone that you’ve been thinking a lot about your current situation, and you believe you’re ready for some new challenges. Point out your contributions, and how you’re committed to continuing to do a great job. Lay the groundwork about the changes you’d like to make, pointing out the advantages for the company.
• Don’t give up. It may take weeks, even months, for changes to be made. Bosses can be resistant to changing employee duties, not wanting to upset the apple cart. But if you remain professionally persistent, and keep pointing out what a positive move it can be – you may find that reinventing your job was the right move for you.

What are some other ways to find more satisfaction and joy in a job?


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Friday, August 15, 2008

Why Accepting an Apology is Harder Than It Looks

When you make a mistake at work, do you apologize? Many of you will say “yes”. It’s easier, after all, to move on if you admit that you messed up and simply say, “I’m sorry” to whoever your actions may have impacted.

Now here’s a possibly tougher question: Do you always accept an apology?

Well, of course, you may say. That’s what happens when someone apologizes. You are adult about it and say something like “It’s OK” or “It’s fine.”

But is it really?

Because the truth is, when you get smacked around by life, you want someone to blame. You want to hold someone responsible for whatever happened, for whatever hurt was caused.

Let’s say a co-worker apologizes to you for forgetting to forward you important information, and that caused you to make an error in a report to your boss. The erroneous report made the boss pretty unhappy, and you caught the brunt of that displeasure. Now, the co-worker is saying she is sorry for causing you problems.

In most situations like this at work when someone apologizes, we say “It’s OK” or “I understand” or at least grunt some kind of acceptance. But the truth is that you’d like to lash out at the colleague who caused you such problems, to say that the ass-chewing delivered to you by the boss was all her fault, and her actions were hurtful.

Hurtful? You may think that’s too strong a word. After all, she didn’t “hurt” you in the same way as would a friend or loved one might, but still, you feel the sting of her actions.

So, while you may say you forgive her -- and give the appearance of moving on -- the truth is that you’re nursing a grudge. You think about her behavior. She’s unorganized. She’s unprofessional. She’s immature. She’s selfish. All attributes that led to your problems, right?

You start to feel a little better. Your self-righteousness starts to blossom. It was all her fault. You never would have made such a mistake. You would never have been so sloppy.

By the time you have lunch with several other co-workers, you’ve worked up a head of steam. You share your righteous indignation with others over the unfairness of it all, how you had to take the blame for someone else’s poor performance.

While it may feel good in the short run to play the blame game, you’re really losing in the long run. Why? Because you’ve never stopped to consider your own part in all of this mess and how it can be avoided in the future. In other words, you’re dooming your career to experience these setbacks again and again.

Let’s look at the way you should really accept an apology:

• Put yourself in someone else’s shoes. You may discover that the person who made the mistake has been saddled with the work of two other people who were laid off. She has been struggling to keep up with the workload, and has little support from the manager. You come to understand that if you were in the same position, you might forget a thing or two.
• Fix the problem, not the blame. In evaluating what happened, you see that you could have double-checked the information and found the error before presenting the report to the boss. You decide that you need to build in some extra time to verify information, and give others a chance to weigh in to make sure no errors slip past you.
• See the outcome as good and bad. Yes, you got in trouble with the boss because of the error. That’s bad. On the other hand, you see that you need to be more diligent in double-checking information, that your process needs to be tweaked and improved. Such attention to quality will be a good work habit to develop and will positively impact your performance. That’s good.

The next time someone offers you an apology at work, stop for a minute and think about what’s really the best way to handle it. Instead of focusing on the “I’m right and you’re wrong” mentality, remember that no one is perfect. You have – and will – make mistakes in the future, and so will everyone else. It’s the ability to truly accept an apology and move on that will determine your future successes.

Have you ever had difficulty accepting – and moving on – after someone offered an apology? What’s the best way to get past your hurt or anger?


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Wednesday, August 13, 2008

Is Your Manager Setting You Up to Fail?

Recently I ran into a friend of mine who told me he's quitting his job and going back to school to become a registered nurse. I was a bit surprised: Quit a job in this economy? Take on more student loan debt?

When I asked him why he was leaving a job that he seemed to love the last time I spoke to him about a year ago, he told me that he was simply exhausted, both emotionally and mentally. The position that he had fought so hard to get had become an anvil around his neck.

Over cold drinks at a nearby cafe, he told me that the job he was leaving in no way, shape or form resembled the position he had accepted two years ago.

"We had two people leave, so I took on a lot of their stuff. Then, a third was laid off," he said. "I was given those duties in addition to what I was already doing."

While he said the boss often assured him that he would get some help, it never materialized. When he would remind the boss that he was being spread too thin and he worried about the quality of the product, the boss told him that better time management -- and better use of technology -- would solve the problem.

That's why a recent story about companies combining mid-level and lower-level jobs -- and then hiring someone at the junior level for a lower salary -- really struck a chord.

I have been hearing similar stories for a while: Companies laying off workers, then rehiring one person with what I call a "kitchen sink" job description to do the work of many.

Let me give you another example: A woman I have known professionally for years works for a company that has been bought and sold so many times she jokes that she's not even sure who she works for anymore. But under that humor is a lot of stress: In the last three years, at least five people have been laid off in her department, and each time she has been given their duties.

I asked her whether she's received additional compensation for her additional duties. She told me no. Instead, she's been continually reprimanded for missing deadlines and not meeting goals. I have to wonder why the company doesn't fire her for her "poor performance," but I suspect it's because they can pile on the work -- and keep those notes critical of her performance in her personnel file to drag out when she wants to discuss more money.

(You may think this woman should have bailed on this job a long time ago, but because of her personal circumstances, she needed to stay in the position and try and make it work.)

I just don't get it. Why would companies set employees up to fail? If they hire lower-level workers, pile on the work until they break, then what's the point? They may have saved some money in the beginning, but it takes time and money to recruit and train a new body, so it seems that's pretty short-sighted.

At the same time, how can you ever make a good hire if you're using job descriptions that are laundry lists of so many disparate duties that no one human being can meet it?

I know that many employees rise to the challenge. But what I'm hearing goes beyond that. If we've got workers limping for the exits, where does that leave us in terms of training the next generation of managers? If we think that only time management and technology is the answer to overworked staff, then how can current managers create a team that's capable of competing in a global economy?

Please, someone clue me in. I just don't get it.


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Monday, August 11, 2008

Got Grit?

You can be the sharpest knife in the drawer, the most well-educated person in your workplace, ambitious, quick-witted and charming -- and a failure.

While many would consider those attributes a recipe for success, the truth is that those who seem to climb the top of the ladder have something that others may lack: Grit.

"Most of the important things in the world have been accomplished by people who have kept on trying when there seemed to be no hope at all," said Dale Carnegie, the original self-help guru.

If you look up grit in the dictionary, it's defined as "indomitable spirit; pluck." I've thought about that a lot as I've been watching the Olympics. While it's clear those athletes have spent thousands of hours in the gym, in the pool and on the running track to get where they are, there is also something special that makes them reach that point.

It's more than hard work, it's more than training and it's more than a body's DNA. It's grit. If you look at their faces, they seem to be lit within by some internal fire that propels them toward their goal.

How does this apply to the workplace? Well, maybe you're not the most well-trained, the most intelligent, the most well-educated at your company. But if you've got the grit, the persistence needed to overcome setbacks and stay committed to your goal, then that can clearly be a deciding factor in your success.

At the same time, those who are successful often tell me they are passionate about what they do; passion is what keeps them striving toward their goal. While you may not always feel passionate about what you're doing in the beginning, often perseverance will help you develop that passion. You may, in fact, become passionate simply about not giving up -- then realize after a time that you're passionate about achieving your goal.

I recently enrolled my oldest son for college, and his adviser was reviewing his test scores. "Solid scores," she said. "Not fantastic, but solid."

Both my son and I squirmed in our seats. Was she judging him as not capable? Her next words surprised me.

"These scores are a good thing," she said. "We've found that those will really high test scores in high school have the highest failure rate in college. The problem seems to be that it's been fairly easy for those kids until now. The first time something goes wrong, they don't know how to cope. They don't know how to work hard and overcome obstacles."

While we live in a time of instant messaging, 24/7 news and an emphasis on speed, it may be more important than ever that if we're going to succeed we don't need to cast aside a goal at the first sign of trouble, but instead develop our perseverance, our grit and determination to keep at it when others would give up.

"Always bear in mind," Abraham Lincoln said, "That your own resolution to succeed is more important than any other one thing."

Does the workplace have enough people with grit these days? Why or why not?


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Friday, August 8, 2008

10 People Who Make a Lot of Sense

I spend a lot of time on this blog giving you advice that I hope will help you in your career. But sometimes, you just have to step aside and let other people do your talking for you. I think these are some pretty smart folks, so lend an ear:

"An overburdened, stretched executive is the best executive, because he or she doesn't have time to meddle, to deal in trivia, to bother people." -- Jack Welch

"It is amazing what you can accomplish if you do not care who gets the credit." -- Harry S. Truman

"People will always work harder if they're getting well paid and if they're afraid to lose a job which they knoww ill be hard to equal. As is well known, if you pay in peanuts, you get monkeys." -- Armand Hammer

"Just because something doesn't do what you planned it to do doesn't mean it's useless." -- Thomas Alva Edison

"When I can't handle events, I let them handle themselves." -- Henry Ford

"Success is a lousy teacher -- it seduces smart people into thinking they can't lose." -- Bill Gates

"Remember happiness doesn't depend upon who you are or what you have; it depends solely on what you think." -- Dale Carnegie

"If you want a place in the sun, you've got to put up with a few blisters." -- Abigail van Buren

"I don't try to jump over seven-foot bars. I look around for the one-foot bars that I can step over." -- Warren Buffet

"Career opportunities are ones that never knock." -- The Clash

If you've got a great quote to share, or one that is inspirational to you, please feel free to add to the list. We can always use wise words.

Wednesday, August 6, 2008

Five Ways to Battle the Little Green Monster

What kind of car do you drive? What does your lawn look like? How much did that suit cost you?

If you're a typical American, at least one of these things brings out your competitive side. Go on, admit it. Your car was chosen because it was something you could show off to your friends. Your lawn could qualify for the PGA, and any weed that dares show up is considered an enemy of the state. And that new suit? Well, you don't like to brag...but it did cost you several months pay.

OK, feel better? Now we all know that you're a top dog, that your status in your circle is assured.

Now, let's talk about work.

Gaining status on the job is often very tough, and it causes a lot of anxiety. Alliances shift -- one day you're in box seats, the next you're sitting in the nosebleed section. One day your star is on the rise, and then -- boom! You've been shoved down the corporate ladder. Or, it seems you never even get a place at the table, no matter how hard you work.

It's no wonder that envy on the job is so destructive. Even if you are the most mild-mannered employee, you may find you are jealous of a co-worker's success and resent the positive events that flow toward someone else.

If you continue down this road, the results are pretty predictable: Your self esteem will drop, you will begin to be less productive and creative, your relationships at work will suffer and your poor self-image may begin to seep into other areas of your life, including personal relationships.

In my previous post about perfectionism, I wrote about the constant "ranking" of our every move that can bring about real problems for those who believe they never measure up. I think this is also true of those who gain their self esteem solely from their job. Bosses like to post rankings of sales, safety records, on-time performance, etc., so the person who already feels jealous of others can have those feelings magnified when they fall behind others -- and are constantly reminded about it.

If you find yourself secretly wishing that a colleague at work might get sideswiped by a bus (not killed....just sort of out of commission for a while), if you find yourself resentful of a co-worker's successes or if feelings of envy are consuming much of your waking hours, then it's time to make some changes.

Why? Because you're much more than your job. No job is worth making you believe that you're "less" than someone else. No job title or paycheck is important enough to crowd out the other good things in your life.

I don't promise this will be easy. It's something you may have to work at every day -- or every hour -- or even every 10 minutes. It's going to be tough because you're going to change the way you look at life, at your job and at your place in this world. But I do promise that it will be worth it. How do I know? Because I've been through status envy myself, and I know how painful and destructive it is. And I also know how good it feels to let it go.

So, let's get started:

1. Make a list of things you enjoy. If it's gardening, riding your bike, playing music, whatever -- the point is to find something that you like doing and then focus your energies on finding other people who feel the same. By joining a gardening club, for example, your self esteem can be boosted when you become a key player in raising money for that group. By experiencing success in something that matters to you, your self esteem will grow in all areas of your life, including at work.

2. Sometimes bigger is not always better. Americans like big. They like big cars and big burgers and big titles. But it's OK if you don't thrive in a big group. It's perfectly fine if you would rather swim in a small pond. Maybe you got a job with a Fortune 100 right out of school, but now find you are consumed with doubts and depression. You might find that working in a smaller organization doesn't give you the big money and prestige, but you'll be a whole lot happier in a smaller group where your status isn't in the sub-zero range.

3. Let go of the shame. I think one of the worst parts of envy is the shame that goes along with it. We know we shouldn't feel the way we do, but that doesn't stop the unkind thoughts about colleagues creeping up on us at 3 a.m. The next time you feel ashamed of the way you feel, stop and say: "OK, I know I'm envious that Joe makes more money than me. That's a concern, but not something I'm going to focus on." Instead, you use it as motivation to make a new client really happy so you can make the boss really happy -- and that could net you a raise. See how you re-frame the situation so that you let go of the shame and instead use it as motivation?

4. Be careful what you wish for. Recently, I was in a very ritzy neighborhood, and the person showing me around would point to a house and say: "The owner killed herself. So did her son." Then, he'd point to another house: "That man died alone. Kids have been fighting over the estate for 10 years." Talk about sad! When your self esteem is being battered, consider what it is you're really after. More money? A different job title? A top project? Then ask yourself: Do you want those things to make you happy, or just to be able to compare yourself to someone else? Will those "things" really make you happy for the long term?

5. This, too, shall pass. After I was on the "Today" show last year, I sat next to a woman on the plane who had just spent a week with a man she had met through an online dating service. I told her about my "Today" show appearance, and how I was hoping that it helped my book sales. The woman, about 60-years-old, was a successful commodities broker. She smiled at me and said: "As you get older, you'll find that stuff doesn't matter. What you want is to find someone to share your life with." She went on to tell me that she'd been diagnosed with Parkinson's disease, and was hoping to find a man to share a loving relationship with for the time she had left. In an ironic twist, she discovered the man she had just spent the week with also had been diagnosed with Parkinson's.
This woman has been in my thoughts ever since. I've talked to many older workers since then, and they all have the same attitude: Envy and job status take up too much time and energy that they'd rather spend doing something else.

I try to keep that in mind every time I feel that little green monster try to sit on my shoulder. Next time he shows up, he's going in the shredder.

Do you ever find yourself feeling envious of more successful colleagues? What do you do about it?

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Monday, August 4, 2008

Are You -- Or Someone You Know -- a "Perfect" Pain?

I've interviewed enough experts over the years to know what a can of worms you open anytime you mention perfectionism.

And perfectionism in the workplace? You're talking a whole caseload of worms.

Doesn't it seem kind of strange that we would complain about someone who wants things to be perfect at work? After all, we strive to do a great job in order to get raises and promotions and more stock options. So, if we moan and groan about a boss's perfectionist habits or bitch about a co-worker's perfectionist tendencies, isn't that out of balance with what we all seem to seek?

The truth is, there's a difference between perfectionism and excellence. Perfectionism on the job is anything but. It's disruptive and unproductive. For the perfectionist, it can lead to physical illness and depression. For those who must work with a perfectionist, it's annoying as hell.

The problem is that the perfectionist gets so caught up in minor details that they can't attain excellence. Instead, they become a bottleneck as they fuss, for example, with the binding of a project report instead of getting the report completed by deadline. The perfectionist boss hovers and nitpicks and agonizes over the smallest detail, preventing the staff from getting their work done.

And, perfectionists often are dangerous: Putting them in environments such as the cockpit of a jet fighter or a nuclear power plant may not be the best idea since they don't want to immediately report any mistakes they make -- and failing to report errors and then make adjustments right away can pose a risk to others.

Part of the problem with perfectionism in the workplace these days is that we are constantly being asked to measure ourselves not only for the tasks we perform every day (performance evaluations), but also how we measure up against others worldwide. We're told over and over it's a global economy, so employers compare workers to the competition -- and constantly demand better performance. This can be overwhelming for the employee or boss who already grapples with creating too many rigid rules and has difficulty not being hypercritical on every aspect of personal performance.

Instead of aiming for excellence, which can energize someone because they like what they're doing and enjoy reaching for the top, perfectionism seems to bog people down in realizing what they're missing, not what they're gaining.

Younger workers are especially vulnerable, I think, because they've grown up in a culture where they must get into the "best" schools, where they are given rewards and "good jobs" for everything from potty-training to soccer to spelling bees. When they enter the workforce, some who are used to being Polly or Peter Perfect find that attaining that ideal is much tougher. To not attain that perfect status must seem, to some of them, that they have failed. Not exactly the attitude that keeps creative juices flowing and productivity thriving.

At the same time, we burden ourselves with "rankings" that may have little to do with what we're really achieving. Immediate results gained through technology mean we can see right away if customers like a new product, if our online traffic is growing or even if we're gaining more contacts through LinkedIn, Twitter or Facebook. I'm not putting down this technology, but I am saying that it can cause further stress for the perfectionist who doesn't enjoy the gaining of new relationships, but rather focuses on the fact that they aren't gaining contacts as fast as someone else. Again, they focus on what they believe they've failed to achieve.

Personally, I think it's time the perfectionists let themselves off the hook. I think it's time they learned to let go of their insecurities and join the rest of us in knowing that the picture might not be hanging exactly straight on the wall, but it's still a great picture and we can still enjoy it.

For all those perfectionists out there, try some of these ideas:

* Ask someone at work to give you a signal if they think you're showing perfectionist tendencies. Once you realize what you're doing, you can stop obsessing about a detail and instead think about how much you enjoyed working with the other people on your team, or remember a laugh you shared over the project. Is it worth annoying those people or adversely impacting their hard work just because you can't decide on the font size for your part of the report?

* Learn to enjoy the success of others. Just because someone else gets a promotion or nets a big client doesn't mean you failed. Make a list of all the things to enjoy about your life right now, from a great dog to favorite books.

* Ask for feedback. One of the most difficult things for perfectionists is taking the chance they will be criticized. It's why they try and cover up mistakes, or keep their actions under the radar so no one will comment. But soliciting opinions from mentors or fair-minded colleagues can help perfectionists learn that feedback is beneficial and will help them improve. It can, they will learn, help them attain what they're really after -- great performance.

Do you know someone who is a perfectionist? What kind of impact does this person have? Do you think perfectionism is a growing problem in the workplace?


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