Nuggets of wisdom for the world of work.
I started my first proper job at Oxfam in the Eighties. Many years later my own children have started in the world of work. This has made me reflect on what I have learnt (and often failed to act on) in terms of management and people during that time.
One over-riding thing that I have learnt is that being intelligent and being good at getting degrees are only a (very) small part of the picture. It’s being human, being efficient, being reliable, making things happen, and being proactive that are much more important for success in the workplace. Let me put that another way; it certainly isn’t always the most highly educated people who succeed in the world of work. Sadly Society’s focus on exams and degrees often means that we (inadvertently) work against diversity, inclusion and equality by focusing on things that don’t always matter for success.
This report is in two parts. This the first part is all about general advice, probably more useful to people new to the world of work. The second part is specifically about advice on managing people and organisations.
Tips for survival in the world of work
Remember people’s names
Soon after I arrived at Oxfam, there was a buzz around the organisation as a new communications director had joined. The buzz was not about her strategic skills, nor her amazing campaign experience, but the fact that after even the most fleeting introduction she could remember people’s names. In an organisation full of distant directors, remembering names went down very well. And it still does.
Whoever you are, but particularly at the lower reaches of the organisations, having somebody remember your name, or ask how your holiday was, or comment on a job well done, shows that somebody notices and cares. From the newest employee to the oldest hand, remembering a colleague’s name is a simple and easy way to leave a good impression. The opposite is also true – in too many large organisations directors and senior management are renowned for not remembering the ‘little people’. My problem has always been I am better at remembering small details about people, than I am their names. Its worth the effort to get it right.
Perception is reality
I have lost count of the number of times people have told me that somebody has the wrong idea about them. How they are perceived is 'all wrong'. They have been hard done by for some reason, due to people having the 'wrong impression'. The phrase that comes back to me again and again is ‘perception is reality’. If people think somebody is lazy/devious/brilliant/innovative, then they will act accordingly. It is the perception that drives behaviour and attitudes, not any reality.
It’s no good me complaining that somebody has the wrong idea about what nfpSynergy (or nfpResearch as I believe it’s now called) does or doesn’t do. Their perception is their reality. What I have to do is work out how to change their perception. Only then can I change their reality.
Remember the conscious incompetence hierarchy
One enlightening section of my MBA outlined the stages that people go through as they learn or change. They set out four stages and used the analogy of learning to drive:
Stage 1: unconscious incompetence. At 13 years old, my youngest son, used to sit in the car imagining driving, but with no idea how difficult it would be learning to drive. He is in a wonderful stage of bliss about how difficult driving will be – he is unconsciously incompetent.
Stage 2: conscious incompetence. The moment somebody starts to learn a new skill they suddenly feel awkward or useless about that new skill. The new manager feels that every element of managing is awkward and clunky, just as the new driver suddenly discovers how many things there are to think about at once.
Stage 3: conscious competence. As skills build up, people get used to them. They get quite good at them. They still have to remember to do things, but they can do them. The learner driver is still concentrating very hard, but their driving is coming along nicely. They are consciously competent.
Stage 4: unconscious competence. At this stage in learning, people can do great things without having to think really hard about it. They are naturally good at managing people. Drivers are able to drive without really thinking about it (some even think it’s safe to talk on their mobile and drive, the fools).This hierarchy or process is important because learning anything new will involve the awkward or painful stages of learning. Don’t get put off, don’t give up - keep practicing and the skills will come.
This hierarchy or process is important because learning anything new will involve the awkward or painful stages of learning. Don’t get put off, don’t give up - keep practicing and the skills will come.
It’s usually cock-up, not a conspiracy
As an employee, spouse, parent or child, it’s very easy to imagine that when something goes wrong, when you are told something, or when something doesn’t quite add up, that it’s all part of a great conspiracy. ‘You didn’t invite me to that meeting because you are trying to exclude me’. rather than ‘No, I didn’t invite you to that meeting because I forgot to add your name to the email’. The wronged person imagines a conspiracy and the villain has usually just cocked up.
My experience is that nine times out of 10, it’s a cock-up and just once in ten is it a conspiracy. It’s much better for people’s anxiety and stress levels if they can assume something is a cock-up, not a conspiracy. Sadly, human nature doesn’t always work like that.
Apologies are powerful
As a teenager, I went to my visit my dad at work. He was a consultant at the hospital and he told me how he had just had to ‘lie on his back and squirt urine’* to somebody. My look of puzzlement made him explain. He had just bawled somebody out mistakenly and had to apologise. Years later, I read the excellent One Minute Manager and realised what my dad had been up to; a one-minute apology.
Apologies are really important and it took a boss who never made them, for me to realise that. We all get it wrong and it’s easiest, quickest and most effective to look people in the eyes and say sorry. My team will tell you, for me this is often about my inappropriate jokes. My advice is, when you get it wrong, apologise, clear the air and move on.
(*dogs, when they want to be submissive, lie on their backs and squirt to show the other dog that they are not a threat.)
And so are thank-yous
All the benefits of great apologies are also true of great thank-yous. Tell people when you appreciate what they have done. Everybody appreciates being thanked. As a general rule thank and apologise more, and bitch and complain less.
Being SMART makes sense
This is one of my favourite acronyms. It is always helpful to keep in mind when promising to do something or trying to work out whether somebody else is going to deliver: Specific. Measurable. Achievable. Realistic. Time-specific. They’re all good hallmarks of judging actions. Often, four out of the five is better than nothing (and be wary of the comment from one ex-colleague who quipped that we can all be the ARS in SMART! I wish they were right, but still quite funny).
Try to never need to be nagged
Good nagging is an art form. The best naggers are those who manage to make people realise they haven’t done what they said they would do without being explicit about it. However, the best approach is to never need nagging in the first place. If you said you’d do something, make sure you do.
Learn by bad example
Early in my working life while I was doing an MBA, the coursework suggested I find role models to learn from. What I discovered is that it’s often easier, and just as instructive, to find people doing things badly, than it is doing things well.
There are two reasons for this. Firstly, there are lots of managers who demonstrate how not to do things (like the charity director who started a suggestion scheme and then told people they weren’t senior enough to make suggestions). Secondly, when people do things well, it is only when they stop or things change that it becomes apparent that they were doing a great job. So as a novice employee, I decided it was just as good to learn how not to do things, from those with the reins of power, and try to remember to act differently when I had the opportunity.
Perfection is the enemy of action
The charity sector is full of people who find it very easy to tell people how they could do things better (often in a very passive aggressive way). If you listened to all those siren voices, it would be possible to never get anything done. There is always something better that can be done, always some way in which people can make improvements. Though is never a reason to not act at all.
One of my favourite mottos is a bastardisation of an old saying that ‘perfection is the enemy of better’. It’s always better to get something 90% right and make it happen and then work out if the final 10% is worth the effort, or iteratively improve things to achieve the final 10%. Never let an inability to do things perfectly, be the reason to do nothing.
Under-promise and over-achieve
I was in a meeting once where somebody talked confidently about their meeting with a cabinet minister in a couple of weeks. A few weeks later, it turned out that not only had the meeting not happened, but the Minister hadn’t even been asked to meet. For me, this is a classic example of over-promising and under-achieving.
People quickly realise when somebody talks a bigger story than they are able to deliver. I have lost count of the number of strategic plans that herald a great rise in voluntary income/awareness/number of beneficiaries. They hope that somehow by promising great things they will miraculously deliver them. So a good mantra is to promise less than you think you can deliver, or perhaps just promise what you know you can deliver.
Never stop asking ‘what if?’
How does a business or charity change? It changes by people continuously asking the question ‘what if?’ What if we did this differently or that better? What if we improved this process or changed that way of doing things? Sometimes these leaps are tiny, on other occasions they’re substantial. The challenge for any employee and any workplace is three-fold: getting people to come up with the ideas, getting them to articulate them and then getting them acted on.
The power to come up with new ideas needs to be the responsibility of everyone. One of the reasons this is particularly important is that old hands are often stale hands. There is probably a key window of 3-12 months after most people take up a job when they are new enough not to be brainwashed into seeing everything as ok, but long enough in post to understand the system and processes. There are very few workplaces that can’t be made better and any employee could have the ideas on how to do it.
Nobody is psychic
This idea is simple really. If you don’t tell somebody something, don’t expect them to know. I have been guilty of this all too often. If you think somebody is doing a great job and you don’t tell them, how can they be expected to know? If you want somebody to change what they do, make sure you tell them. They can’t guess it because they aren’t psychic.
My response of ‘isn’t it obvious?’ has a simple answer - no it isn’t. This is because people are busy, people work in different ways and people can misinterpret things. So if you want them to know something, make sure you tell them – as in, ‘Kevin you did a great job today’ or ‘Kevin please try not to twiddle your pen in client meeting – it makes you look bored’.
It’s great when people think ahead
Some of the people I have enjoyed working with the most are those people who are really good at thinking ahead about jobs that need to be done. The more that people can predict the tasks that will need sorting out, the problems that will need solving or the detail that's going to require attention, the more smoothly getting things done will be.
This nugget echoes a theme in the introduction; it is rarely the smartest people who go the furthest in work, but the ones who get things done. They don’t spend too much time making things perfect or too little time preparing. They achieve a great balance that makes them really effective in eating up their jobs and making things happen.
Bosses need managing too
One of the dangers of people’s perceptions of management is the idea that a person is purely managed by their boss, i.e. that management is a one directional process. The best working relationships are two-way; the employee is good at managing their boss and the boss is good at managing their employee.
I once had a boss who drove me nuts – and I frustrated the hell of him. He gave me a note one day of all my misdemeanours and I fled to the toilet and wept. It was a pivotal moment for me. I realised I either had to leave or change the relationship. I decided to do the latter. From then on, I predicted what my boss would want and made sure he got it before she asked for it. I realised what wound him up and found ways round those issues. I spent time and energy managing my boss and his perceptions of me and it transformed our working relationship completely.
In the end, your success is up to you
In any career, there will be people who help and people who hinder. There will be managers who inspire and who support and those who suppress or ignore. Yet no matter the organisation, the people or the cause, there is one person who is responsible above all for your success; you.
I have been heard people say that a manager didn’t give them the opportunities, or an organisation didn’t recognise their talents. Yes of course an organisation should develops its people. However this attitude is fatal; it puts success in someone else’s hands. At every stage the person who needs to be in control is you. How can you learn more? How can you take the initiative? How can you build your skills? How can you build your reputation?
In the end, don’t just ask what your employer can do for you, but also ask what you can do for yourself.
Originally written in 2014 and updated and revised in 2022
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