The Lessons of Failure
Ask yourself, “What have I failed at today?” High achievers don’t see failure as a personal indictment. They view it as a sign that they’re on the brink of growth. If everything you do at work comes easily, consider this: You may not be pushing yourself hard enough. Developing your skills is like waging a negotiation. If the opposition says yes right away, it might mean you’ve aimed too low.
Anticipate the J Curve. We like to think of progress as a straight line, where one development builds on top of another, leading to steady and unswerving improvement. It’s a comforting model. But when it comes to complex creative endeavors, it’s also unrealistic. The relationship between creativity and progress is messy and often looks less like a straight line and more like a J, with a heavy dip at the start, representing early challenges and setbacks. Anticipating your early struggles makes it easier to stick around for later gains.
Failure not an option? It may be time to go. In a knowledge economy, unless you’re acquiring new skills, you’re slowly becoming obsolete. Some organizations want employees to repeat the same behaviors again and again without variation. This is not in your interest. Workplace experimentation is the only path to developing the skills you need to remain both relevant and valuable.
The Lessons of Workplace Design
Invest in your psychological comfort. Many employees rarely give much consideration to the decor of their workspaces. Research suggests that they might be more productive if they did. The more comfortable we are, the more cognitive resources we have available for focusing on our work. Which is why taking the time to personalize your workspace (to the extent that you can), from modifying the layout and direction of the furniture to making even modest changes, such as adjusting the height of your monitor or the amount of lighting available at your desk, can have a reliable effect on your productivity.
To replenish your attention, step outside. Much of the work we do requires deep concentration, of which we have only a limited supply. But studies show that we can replenish our mental resources by going outdoors. When we’re in natural settings, it’s easier to let our attention wander and allow our minds to recharge. No matter how well your office is designed, leaving it for brief periods can help make you more effective.
Create a workplace soundtrack. We often take for granted the noise levels in our environment, yet studies reveal that sound can influence our performance in surprisingly powerful ways. Leaving the office not an option? A pair of headphones can do the trick. Websites like Coffitivity.com re-create the low hum of a café, which research suggests can provide a creative boost, while Simplynoise.com offers the constant swish of white noise to mask distractions when your work requires deep concentration.
The Lessons of Play
Put your unconscious to work. Conscious deliberation is useful for solving simple problems, but when the challenge facing you is complex, you’re more likely to find clearer insights after a period of incubation. To get the most out of unconscious thinking, do the work of getting clarity about your goal and absorbing the data at your disposal. Then, distract yourself by taking a walk, reading an article, or working on something unrelated. Research suggests a thirty-minute diversion is often ideal. When you return to your original assignment, you’re likely to see things differently than before you left.
Use mornings for learning and look for insight at night. The same internal clock that causes your body to feel sluggish in the afternoon also influences other aspects of your performance. Studies show that cognitive skills are sharpest in the morning, when working memory peaks, but that as the day wears on we tend to retain less. Feeling tired also has its upsides. The more fatigued we are, the weaker our internal mental filter, which means more unusual associations come to mind. When you’re looking for a creative solution at work, try reexamining it later in the evening. You’re likely to discover a novel and unexpected way of seeing things.
Reframe exercise as part of your job. Exercise doesn’t just improve your health; it gives you a mental edge. Many of us neglect going to the gym, especially during weeknights, when we’re concerned about falling behind at work. But what recent research shows is that regular exercise can boost your memory, elevate your creativity, and improve your efficiency. In short, it can make you a better employee. The more complexity you deal with at work, the more value you can derive from keeping your body physically fit.
The Lessons of Happiness
Ask for variety. It’s easy to grow bored with a job that involves doing a small number of tasks over and over. When the work we do becomes predictable, our attention falters and our engagement slips. Research shows that employees whose work involves a wide range of activities tend to enjoy greater job satisfaction, in part because variety delays adaptation. For a happier work experience, look for new ways of applying your skills instead of hoping that the same old routine will somehow recapture your interest.
Feeling unhappy can be good for you. While the mind is designed to maximize pleasure and minimize pain, research suggests that interludes of unhappiness allow us to better enjoy the positives in our lives when they occur. When we experience anger or sadness, there’s typically a good reason for it. Noticing the way you feel and then examining the reasons behind the emotion—whether at work or elsewhere—can help you identify the changes you need to make to foster genuine happiness.
Find a way of making gratitude work for you. Appreciating the things that are going right in your life is a basic requirement for sustained happiness. Yet gratitude is not something that often comes naturally. Journaling about the positive aspects of your day is one approach, and several smartphone apps send automatic reminders that make the process easy. Some even allow users to take photos of positive events, doing away with the writing requirement that turns so many people off.
The Lessons of Friendship
All business all the time makes you a weaker employee. We’re more effective at working with our teammates when we’re connecting on a personal level. Workplace friendships don’t happen when you’re buried in a spreadsheet. They emerge in the spaces between work, before and after a team meeting—when you and I accidentally discover that we both love jogging and happen to own the same car. Make time for chance connections. Chatting with the new guy in sales may not feel productive in the moment, but it may turn out to be the most valuable thing you do all day.
If you are struggling with a colleague, find a superordinate goal. Often in the workplace, we get locked into our own objectives and see others as a barrier. It’s what contributes to the development of turf wars. If you’re dealing with a collaborator who seems to view you as competition, look for areas of common struggle, where you need one another. It’s easier to connect with someone when it’s clear you’re both on the same side and neither one of you can succeed alone.
Recognize that gossip is the fast food of social connection. Gossip creates intimacy in the short term. But beware: It also weakens your standing in a group. Research shows that despite the immediate enjoyment people get from listening to gossip, frequent gossipers are viewed as less trustworthy, less powerful, and less likable. There’s a Turkish proverb that says, “He who gossips to you, will gossip of you,” and it appears that on some level, people implicitly believe that to be the case. If gossip is your primary means of connecting, it may be time you reconsidered your approach. It might feel like you’re bonding with others, but the damage you’re doing to your reputation makes it harder for your coworkers to view you as a friend.
The Lessons of Autonomy
Feeling micromanaged? Turn the tables. When supervisors micromanage, it is often because they’re feeling overwhelmed. We all want a sense that life is controllable. When we don’t, we experience unease, which some supervisors express in the form of overmanagement. How do you calm micromanagers down? By flooding them with information, proactively reaching out and sharing progress, and asking questions that help them feel like they’re in control. Micromanagers are scared. Your job is to reassure them.
Put Taylorism to work for you. Each of us has a unique physiological rhythm, which is why it pays to identify your “one best way” of working. Noticing when you’re at your most productive is the first step to building a better schedule. Perhaps you need to block out your mornings for focus work, set a calendar alert to take a midafternoon walk, or activate Freedom, a free software program that temporarily disables your Internet access during hours when multitasking is a temptation. Experimenting with your daily routine can help you identify an approach that reliably brings out your best.
Rank autonomy over wealth. When choosing between jobs, you’re better off prioritizing the amount of freedom a role provides over the size of its paycheck. In a 2011 study spanning over sixty countries, researchers found that autonomy is a consistently better predictor of psychological health than income. Ironically, one of the reasons we find money so alluring is that having disposable income brings with it the promise of independence. But beware of pursuing money for its own sake. It’s when we sell our autonomy for a higher income that we get ourselves in trouble.
The Lessons of Games
Find optimal challenges by reading your mood. How you feel while doing an activity is useful information that can bring you closer to your next flow experience. Feeling bored? Look for ways to expand your responsibilities. Feeling anxious? Try slowing things down and focusing on less. We’re most invigorated when we’re tackling work that’s just beyond our current skill set. Look for challenges that push you slightly out of your comfort zone.
Grow your influence by recognizing others. Receiving credit for a successful outcome can feel gratifying, but it’s giving credit to others that builds our reputations as leaders. People like those who compliment them and view them as less selfish. Look around at the most successful leaders in your company. They’re not the ones receiving compliments; they’re the ones giving them.
Preempt your next performance review. If your manager is waiting for the end of the year to give you high-level feedback, he may be holding on to valuable information that is vital to your success. Don’t let it happen. Instead of waiting for a year-end review, ask your manager for some time to discuss what you can be doing better. Taking the initiative is likely to impress, as is your focus on continuous improvement.
The Lessons of Listening
Win fewer arguments. If you find yourself locking horns in a workplace power struggle, beware. Winning arguments is often predictive of losing long-term relationships. Instead of thinking in terms of winners and losers, change the paradigm. Look for joining opportunities, and ask your coworkers to tell you more about their opinions. Winning in the workplace is not about getting your way. It’s about finding ways of making others feel like they’ve contributed.
Beware the shift response. Want to be a better listener? Then you’ll need to avoid one of listening’s more menacing pitfalls, which is highlighted in the works of sociologist Charles Derber. When a colleague tells you he’s having a hard day, do you ask him to tell you more, or do you say, “I know what you mean—my day has been a disaster!”
The former is a support response, one that allows your colleague to open up and positions you as an active listener. But the latter is a sneaky conversational tactic that transfers the spotlight away from your colleague and onto you. It’s called the shift response, and it often hurts the quality of interpersonal connections. You might think it shows that you’re listening, but your colleague won’t experience it that way.
The Lessons of Mimicry
Model the behaviors you wish to see. People’s tendency to mimic means you can influence their actions by setting an example. Say a colleague wanted her coworkers to send out agendas prior to group meetings. She could have pleaded with them, inviting defensiveness, but she preferred to avoid confrontation. Then she had an idea. One day she began sending agendas ahead of her meetings, without imposing on anyone else. Before she knew it, others began copying her behavior, and soon a new social norm was born.
Distance yourself from colleagues with a negative influence. Finding yourself unusually gloomy or stressed at work? Look around. It may not be you. We take our emotional cues by reading the body language, facial expressions, and emotional tone of those around us. A nightclub bouncer keeps out the riffraff to maintain a positive vibe. Try doing the same. Keep negative influences at a distance (e-mail, phone) while saving personal interactions for those who bring out your best.
Look for projects that involve leaders you wish to emulate. You can turn mimicry to your advantage by surrounding yourself with the right people. Start by taking a hard look at your current colleagues. Chances are, you and your team are becoming more similar by the day. If that sounds like welcome news, you’re in the right place. If not, seek out collaborative opportunities that allow you to work closely with leaders who can bring you closer to the person you’d like to be.
The Lessons of Hiring
Mine your network. You can wait for your manager to find your next colleague or you can recommend someone you’d like to work with for the position instead. The benefits of moonlighting as your company’s HR representative are many. Your friends will appreciate your thinking of them. Your manager will notice your investment in the company’s success. The chances of you working with someone you respect improve exponentially. Also worth considering: The better the candidate looks, the smarter you appear. It’s because we tend to assume people are similar to their friends, which makes recommending an outstanding candidate a shrewd career move.
Open with warmth. People assume that there is an inverse relationship between our level of warmth and our level of competence. When making a first impression with a colleague or a client, many of us focus on emphasizing our competence in an effort to demonstrate that we are valuable contributors. However, research suggests that this is precisely the wrong approach to creating a lasting connection. Highlighting our strengths can diminish perceptions of our warmth, making trust more difficult to establish. To lead effectively in the workplace, try connecting with others first, by showing interest in their views and establishing common ground. Only then, after you’ve projected warmth, can you build on the foundation without risking coming across as cold.
Plan your first impressions. When you meet a new client or colleague, the first few minutes of an exchange can have a dramatic impact on your relationship. Instead of leaving those critical moments to chance, consider scripting out what you plan to say, so that your first impression is a strong one. If you’re interviewing for a job, for example, memorize an opening you can use if your interviewers start with a blanket question like, “Tell me about yourself.” If that’s not the first question you receive, try addressing their query and then work back to your preplanned response. You can generally recover from a mistake made in the middle of a meeting; coming back from a shaky opening is considerably more difficult.
The Lessons of Pride
Ask about your company history. Learning your organizational history can help you better understand your current role and reveal a great deal about the perspectives of the people running your company. Asking leaders to share your company’s history doesn’t just provide you with good information. It also strengthens the bond between you and those at the top.
Plant the seed for pride-boosting narratives in the minds of your coworkers. Instead of complimenting colleagues the next time they score a big win, ask them how they managed to be so effective. Your question will direct their attention to the work they did and the sacrifices they made. At the same time, when praise is framed as a question, it makes it easier for people to accept your compliment without the awkwardness of appearing conceited.
Build a bridge between your workplace and the greater good. Many organizations make financial contributions to charitable causes without involving their employees. Often, it’s not that they don’t want the input. It just never occurred to them to ask. Consider asking your management team if they would accept nominations from you and your coworkers, and perhaps be open to a vote. If it works, you might suggest using the same process for pro bono work. When decisions on group giving are reached collectively, it’s easier for everyone to take pride in the outcome, knowing that they’ve all played a role.