If political talk at work is making you crazy

Is chatter about politics

exhausting you at work?

We’ve all heard that it’s not smart to talk about contentious issues, like politics or religion, at the office. Some companies even have rules against discussing political and other potentially inflammatory matters in the workplace.

And most of us agree, at least in theory, that it’s wise to avoid talking politics with your colleagues. And yet in this election season it seems that a rising tide of workers are complaining that it’s tough to escape from distracting, annoying and sometimes upsetting political commentary.

speech bubbles After hearing from coaching clients who are tired of too much talk about the candidates, I looked around for suggestions from people who seem to remain serene despite the cacophony. Among them is Connie East, co-owner of the Thyme Restaurants – including a lively bar – in Culpeper, Virginia. For 20 years I’ve watched Connie remain unruffled while customers try to provoke her with outrageous opinions.

According to Connie, it’s not too hard to politely cope with people who want to impose their views on you. She says the secret is, “Don’t engage.” The key technique Connie suggests is to “Stay neutral. Say something like, ‘Oh, is that what you think?’ Or parrot their words back to them in a calm manner. Then shift the topic to something less volatile.”

I agree that “never engage” is the go-to strategy for coping with overly political colleagues. But the best way to respond may depend on your situation. If too much political talk is getting you down, first diagnose the problem, then try these approaches:

  • If they keep mentioning candidates. It’s easy to ignore the occasional reference to politicians, but if co-workers won’t stop talking about them it’s OK to ask them to cease. The best thing is to be polite but direct. You might say, “I don’t like to talk about politics at work. I find that it’s too easy for me to feel distracted, and I need to concentrate on this deadline.”
  • If they talk too much about everything.   We are in the midst of a highly political season so it’s not surprising the topic keeps coming up. But your basic problem may be co-workers who talk too much about anything in the news, from sports to the weather. While you don’t want to be rude, you can set boundaries. It’s appropriate to say, “I can’t take the time to talk now because I’ve got a deadline.” To keep the conversation on track during meetings, always propose an agenda, and keep sticking to it. If you find yourself frequently cutting off chatty co-workers, but you want to stay friends, show it’s not personal by finding opportunities for them to express themselves. Suggest a lunch or coffee break, and devote that time to listening to whatever they want to say.
  • If you disagree with their opinions. Do you feel uncomfortable because you work with people who think and vote in different ways than you do? It’s unlikely that you’ll be able to stop them from making occasional comments. But you can decide how much to let it bother you. When you can’t just walk away, take a lesson from successful politicians and let the rhetoric just flow on by. Vociferous political speech is part of our culture. You might think of it like the weather – it may get stormy, but it’s not about you, and it soon it will pass.
  • If they start talking at you. If you don’t learn to restrain your kneejerk reaction to their obnoxious partisan comments, there’s a danger that teasing you could become a popular office sport. Some people enjoy arguing about politics but if you don’t, then don’t take the bait. If you stop rising to their remarks, you’ll ruin their fun and they may stop bothering you.
  • If it’s over the top. There’s a difference between annoying, dogmatic dialogue and hate speech. If colleagues describe your favorite candidate as an idiot, that’s not about you and it’s best to let it go. But if they make repeated comments that are racist, homophobic, misogynous or otherwise demeaning to an entire class of people, that certainly can feel like it’s directed at you. Sweeping dismissive comments can create a hostile, unproductive workplace, and you don’t have to put up with it. Go to your boss or the human resources department and let them know about the situation.

The best way to escape a political diatribe can be to walk away or tune it out. But if you find yourself drawn into the conversation, don’t make it worse. Maintain a matter-of-fact, analytical tone and focus on the issues. And never make derisive personal comments, even about your least favorite candidate.

For more tips about smart communications at the office, check out my book, “Think Like an Entrepreneur, Act Like a CEO.”        


Image by Fotolia by Adobe

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Your free time activities can energize your career

 Things you do in your spare time

can support your success at work.

 Because energetic, enthusiastic employees get more done, today’s managers are exploring many ways to stimulate employee engagement. Some programs work better than others, but one point seems clear: it’s difficult for bored or unhappy leaders to motivate their teams. So perhaps your first rule for engaging colleagues is to be engaged yourself.

Of course, it’s not always easy to pull yourself out of the doldrums. A variety of steps might help, like remembering why your work matters, learning something new or spending more quality time with supportive co-workers.

In this article, however, I’m focusing on a strategy that brings dramatic results for some people: pursuing your healthy hobby so passionately that you remain in great shape for your busy work life.

A striking example of someone whose thriving career is supported by her favorite free time activity is work and finance expert Kerry Hannon. She is a prolific author of books like Love Your Job, as well as a columnist and writer for media organizations like The New York Times, Forbes, Money and The Wall Street Journal.

Kerry seems to be constantly in the news, speaking at conferences across the country, testifying before Congress, serving as an expert for groups like AARP and turning out a steady flow of influential articles.

It’s hard to understand how she does it all, but part of the explanation is that Kerry’s favorite free time activity helps her remain grounded and upbeat. Riding horses is Kerry’s passion and she has been doing it since she was six years old.

But Kerry doesn’t just hack around. She has elected to pursue a very challenging sport, one that requires intense concentration. She regularly competes and wins blue ribbons in top, “AA” rated, Hunter and Jumper shows. In these events, the horse jumps over a series of fences, all the while maintaining a smooth stride and excellent form. It’s almost as though horse and rider are joined in a choreographed, flowing dance.

Here are some of the ways that Kerry’s passion for horses supports her busy work life:

  • It keeps her centered. Kerry loves being outdoors, looking at the countryside, particularly when she’s with horses and dogs. And substantial research suggests that human beings are hard-wired to let go of anxiety when they spend time with animals and in nature. More than that, Kerry seems to find something almost mystical about working so closely with a horse. She says, “horsemanship is about caring for another living being and accepting accountability and responsibility for another life. And that is magic.”
  • It reduces stress. Kerry says that being with horses is her time, “it’s incredibly freeing” and it’s “the ultimate de-stressor.” She says, “Earth people don’t know what it’s like…You can’t think about anything but what you’re doing when you’re on a thousand-pound animal… Riding requires, and, in fact, demands total focus.” Kerry says she’s like a new person after a few hours with her horse Saintly (also affectionately known as Brinkley).
  • It makes her a tougher competitor. Kerry is more entrepreneurial because of her experience in the horse world. She says, “In many ways, setting goals and developing the inner tools to grind it out during rough patches to achieve at this level are transferable to other parts of my work and personal life. To succeed in the show ring and jumping courses of fences, for example, you must be positive, have a plan, be prepared for the unexpected. You must flow forward, always moving and adjusting to changes in a fleeting second while appearing calm and steady on the surface. You must be confident and instill that confidence and trust in the horse… And you’re always learning when you work with animals. You’re learning about the sport, about the animal, about yourself, facing fears and the rewards of hard work and practice.”
  • It offers another reason to work hard. Kerry says that horses are expensive, so they provide a financial motivation that spurs her work. She explains that, while in many ways competing at a top level reduces her stress, participating in this world also brings certain pressures. “So I’ll equate a new assignment I get with Brinkley’s board bill. It becomes a barter system in my brain — if I do this extra assignment my hobby is paid for.”

Not many of us have a long-time interest that we can enjoy with the intensity that Kerry adores riding. But we each have the potential to find a few entertaining weekend pastimes that can transform the attitude we take to work on Monday. What might work for you?

And for more ideas for bringing energy back into your career, check out my book, “Think Like an Entrepreneur, Act Like a CEO.”

Kerry Hannon with her horse Saintly (aka Brinkley)

Kerry Hannon with her horse Saintly (aka Brinkley)

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Ideas for recreating your life

 Midlife can be a peak phase.

It’s about renewal & purpose.

In “Life Reimagined – The Science, Art, and Opportunity of Midlife,” NPR reporter Barbara Bradley Hagerty shares the story of her own middle age challenges. She writes with humor and honesty about her concerns about aging and her efforts to rethink her career. And at the same time she takes a deep dive into cutting-edge research that could change how you think about life for people in their 40’s, 50’s and beyond.

After interviewing more than 400 people, including a range of experts, Barb concluded that midlife is often misunderstood and that, in fact, current research offers much good news. For example, her book describes how:

  • We get happier. There is evidence, including a massive 2008 study, that the happiness curve is U-shaped. Typically, Americans’ sense of well-being reaches a low point during their mid-40’s, then they cheer up in their 50’s and continue to grow happier through their 70’s.
  • Your brain can keep growing. While your memory and some brain processes may start to deteriorate before you are even 30, in some ways you can keep getting smarter well into old age. If you challenge yourself with activities that are both new to you and complex, your knowledge, expertise, wisdom and ability to navigate life can continue to expand. And if you keep up your physical exercise, like walking, you can increase the area of your brain associated with memory.
  • Variety is the spice of married life. While there is an increasing trend of middle age divorce, it doesn’t have to be that way. One secret to escaping the “Gray Divorce Revolution” is to keep your marriage fresh by adding novelty to your routine. Barb and her husband tested this advice by renting an RV and taking a trip down the Blue Ridge Parkway. It’s not the novelty everyone would choose, but for them it seemed to be a lot of fun. Another key to avoiding the marriage slump is for you and your spouse to consistently think of yourselves as team.

“Life Reimagined” is not a how-to book, but it contains much insight, learning and good advice. In particular, it may inspire you to:

  • Work on friendship. Research demonstrates that having friends can increase your life span. Middle age can be a lonely time, and people with few friends are more likely than connected people to die from any number of maladies. On the other hand, there’s much evidence that highly resilient people tend to have very good social networks. Having friends can boost your health, preserve your memory, support your career and ease the aging process.
  • Give back. Setting your sights on immediate gratification soon becomes unsatisfying. The thrill of a short-term pleasure, like a new dress or a great dinner, fades away quickly and soon you feel needy again. Healthy middle age is marked by the development of what psychologists call “generativity.” That occurs when we stop focusing on acquiring and begin to invest outward. We may want to become active in the community, nurture the next generation or support a cause. It can make you feel wonderful when you find a way to give something of yourself.

I had the pleasure to spend time with Barb as she worked on her concluding chapter, on the meaning of work. She wanted to observe a career transition through the lens of executive coaching. We recruited Nancy Augustine, an accomplished 48-year-old visiting professor at George Washington University, to be my client. At the start, Nancy said, “I don’t want to coast through the rest of my life.” But at the time she felt stymied and didn’t know what she wanted to do next.

Over the course of six sessions, Nancy tweaked her career, finding a more satisfying role at the university and at the same time launching a consulting business. Hagerty was surprised at how well things worked out for Nancy, even without sweeping change. Nancy said, “I think a lot of it is just being clear about what I’m good at and what I want to see happen.”

Barb described the process as “progressive fine-tuning.” She wrote, “Anecdotes in the media are often this neat, but life rarely is…I think this is how Nancy and Bev charted Nancy’s future. No dramatic swings; Nancy is not leaping from law to dog therapy. She is just making tiny adjustments within the areas she excels at and loves – education, research, management, the environment, consulting — and bit by bit, she nears her mark.”

Barb concludes that, “Pivoting on your strengths beats starting from scratch.” As she conducted research and watched Nancy, Barb pivoted in her own career, leaving her full-time job at NPR to combine long-term journalism projects, like this terrific book, and special radio reports. You can hear Barb’s account of Nancy’s coaching experience, and some of her own career adjustments, in the NPR report, “Care For a Career Change-Up? These Stories Are Proof It’s Never Too Late.

To read about a process for managing your career transition, see my book, Think Like an Entrepreneur, Act Like a CEO.

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How to help promote a book

8 Tips for Shining Light on

a Favorite Author’s Work

 When I began work on my recent book, “Think Like an Entrepreneur, Act Like a CEO,” I thought the big challenges would be completing the manuscript and finding a publisher. It wasn’t until later that I understood how much of the responsibility for marketing a book rests with the author, even if you have a fine publisher like Career Press.

Right now things are going well for me, and I’ve learned many lessons about book promotion, often from friends who’ve stepped forward to lend a hand.

TLAE stackMore generally, I’ve developed a vivid sense of how a little support from a lot of people can make a huge difference in the marketplace. Grassroots support is particularly important for self-published authors, who don’t have the benefit of a broad distribution network.

Once you get the hang of grassroots promotion, many techniques can be adapted to win support for a wide variety of initiatives, from local festivals to Kickstarter campaigns. In the future, I intend to be a more active supporter of my friends’ various projects. But in this article I’m going to concentrate on supporting books. So here are seven ways to help an author promote a book you love:

  1. Buy the book. This is the starting point. If you can afford it, buy two copies and give one away
  2. Tell other people. Word of mouth is a major way to build support. So let your friends know about the book. Even if it doesn’t seem like their kind of thing, ask them to mention it to others who might be interested in the topic. Spot opportunities to suggest multiple purchases, like book clubs, training sessions or classrooms. Beyond that, talk about the book in public places, carry it around, and read it at cafes and on airplanes.
  3. Ask at stores. If you don’t see your friend’s book at the local bookstore, ask the manager to order it, and let them know if the author is local. And here’s something that’s a little sneaky: if you see the book on the shelf, but it seems to be buried, try turning it so the cover faces out.
  4. Invite an author to speak. Some writers are happy to talk about their books at relatively small events, and will show up in the hope of raising awareness and selling a few copies. Other authors enjoy writing but are selective about gigs because they mostly earn their living from consulting or giving speeches. Consider whether your favorite writer would welcome a speaking invitation, and be creative in thinking about possible paid opportunities.
  5. Be savvy about social media. Sharing the news in real life is important, but you can reach so much further if you are also active on social media. For example,  on Facebook share articles about the book, “Like” and share the book page, or post a blurb about the book with a link to Amazon or Barnes & Noble.       On Twitter, follow the author and regularly tweet and re-tweet about the book – it can take quite a few tweets to reach a good percentage of your followers. And 0n LinkedIn, share a link to the book with groups whose members might be interested in the topic.
  6. Go elsewhere online. If you don’t do social media, there are other ways to weigh in on the Web. Visit the author’s website or Amazon page and offer comments about his book. Search for articles about it and forward them to your friends. And if you’re a writer yourself, offer to write a guest post for an appropriate blog.
  7. Write reviews. Book reviews were once the province of a few pundits, but now we all can join in. If you buy the book online, rate and review it on Amazon or Barnes & Noble. The number of reviews seems to matter, so join in, even if you just write a few words. Goodreads.com is a rich site that lets you keep track of your reading and offer ratings and recommendations along the way.

These days launching a book can seem more like a group happening than a business transaction. It can be fun to be part of it all, and gratifying to step up to support a writer whose work you admire.

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8 tips for inspiring employee engagement

 

Engaged employees get things done.

See 8 tips for re-engaging your team.

It’s well understood that upbeat and highly motivated employees achieve more than their negative, disgruntled peers. Recognizing the link between attitude and job performance, human resources experts used to talk a lot about the need to enhance “employee morale” and build “job satisfaction.”

In recent years, however, the buzz has been all about increasing productivity and innovation by promoting “employee engagement.” Definitions vary, but the Gallup organization describes “engaged employees” as “those who are involved in, enthusiastic about and committed to their work and workplace.”

Your engaged colleagues are the builders – the ones who are moving the organization forward. You probably enjoy working with these animated people. Folks who aren’t engaged may do the basics, but they won’t be passionate about tackling challenges or breaking new ground. And your actively disengaged coworkers can spread their unhappiness around and undermine the whole group’s progress.

According to Gallup Daily tracking, only about 32 percent of U.S. employees are engaged at work. And, despite a wave of engagement improvement programs, that number hasn’t fluctuated much since Gallup started its measurement in 2000. Experience shows that there’s no one simple way for leaders to jumpstart a surge of workplace enthusiasm, but many small steps can help.

My client Heidi began reading about employee engagement as she started a new assignment. She had moved out of the busy headquarters office of a Federal agency to become director of a low performing regional office.

Heidi is talented, personable and deeply committed to the service mission of her agency. To date, her rise through the government ranks had been rapid and smooth, and she’d made many friends along the way.

When Heidi arrived at her Midwestern post in the dead of winter, the climate inside her office felt as cold and frightening as her icy commute to work. Three of the top ranking members of her team had applied for the directorship, and now all three made it clear that they resented having the position go to her, an outsider. And while the attitude of those senior staffers seemed to vacillate from sullen to openly hostile, most of the dozen other professionals just seemed tired and disinterested.

Wake Up And Be AmazingHeidi developed a set of principles for stimulating new energy and commitment from her team. After a year, she has seen a mood shift, and the office’s performance statistics are up. These 8 strategies are helping Heidi to stimulate better work from her more fully engaged team members:

  1. Meet in person. Heidi’s predecessor, Jill, was described as a brilliant but reclusive workaholic. Jill spent long hours alone in her office, with the door closed, and she’d make her wishes known by shooting out frequent emails. Particularly during her early weeks on the job, Heidi elected to meet often and face to face with her team members. She shared news from around the agency but generally tried to listen more than she spoke. As Heidi concentrated on listening, she grew better at resisting the urge to feel defensive or disheartened from the flow of negativity
  2. Empower the team. Jill had talked often about her own high standards, and had tried to control the workflow so that every project was done in exactly the way she would do it. Heidi looked for ways to delegate more responsibility, and make assignments that allowed professionals to show off their strengths and personal styles. She caught an early break when her embittered deputy left for another job, enabling her to distribute his responsibilities so that more people could share in team leadership.
  3. Reward good work. As a Federal manager, Heidi had limited control over bonuses and raises. But she found other means to express appreciation for excellent work. For example, she shared an insightful staff memo with high-ranking colleagues in Washington, she worked her network to snag a plum speaking invitation for one of her experts, and she asked her people to speak about their successes at meetings with sister agencies.
  4. Find learning opportunities. Heidi saw that many of her team members had been doing the same kind of work for years, and they were bored. She made training a top priority, and encouraged each person to commit to a professional development path. She also shuffled assignments so that most folks enjoyed more variety, and she came up with new projects that meant learning for everyone involved.
  5. Clean up. When she agreed to take the job, Heidi negotiated a budget to improve the office’s aging physical space and furniture. Early in her tenure she involved her team in planning the modest office redesign. And she designated certain days when everybody wore jeans to work and pitched masses of old documents and other clutter. When the renovations were done, the fresh new atmosphere gave most people a boost.
  6. Have fun. In an early meeting, one employee told to Heidi, “Once this was a fun place to work, but Jill didn’t believe in fun.” On the job, “fun” might mean that the tasks are stimulating and coworkers are good partners for brainstorming. But sometimes “fun” just means having a good time. Heidi found ways to vary the routine with surprise treats and entertaining meetings. She invited clever speakers to come to staff meetings, she encourages humor as long as it wasn’t mean-spirited and she created a committee to create events like surprise pizza parties.
  7. Remember the mission. Most members of the staff began working for the agency because they believed in public service. But they had become cynical and discouraged. Heidi invited reports about the full scope and value of the agency’s work, and she encouraged team members to join agency-wide or other professional committees. She regularly looks for ways to remind people of the value of their work together.
  8. Take care of yourself. Even though she had family members nearby, Heidi was a bit lonely in her new town. And after a week of struggling to be relentlessly positive, she often felt like spending the entire weekend in bed watching old movies. Heidi knew that negativity can be contagious, and in order to inspire her team she needed to remain optimistic and energetic. So a key element of Heidi’s leadership philosophy is to find stimulating activities and build supportive relationships when she’s away from the office. As part of her program of self-care, she decided to act on her lifelong dream of horseback riding. She rented at horse housed near an indoor riding arena, and she takes lessons every Saturday.

Engaged employees need strong relationships and lots of communication with their managers. To launch an effort to energize your colleagues, consider a round of meaningful conversations.

For more tips on how to engage your team or rediscover your own enthusiasm at work, check out my new book The Like an Entrepreneur, Act Like a CEO

 Photo credit Fotolia (c) Krasimira Nevenova

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We all have “customers.”

And customer service is

a key part of your job.

Because I spend long hours talking with clients on the phone, good quality, comfortable headsets are among my most valued tools.  A few months ago I needed new ones, but I dreaded shopping because of past hassles, like being stuck with equipment that didn’t work with our telephones.

I searched on-line and elected to place a phone order with Headsets.com, whose website invited me to “Call our Headset Advisors.”  My call was promptly answered by a cheerful fellow who asked good questions about my needs. Then he requested the product number of my phone to assure selection of a compatible headset.  After he talked me through finding that number, he recommended a model and promised that his team would coach me through the setup, if necessary.

After I placed the order, an email informed me that if I had questions I could reach a live person by phone.  I did pose a question, although via email, and got an immediate response. But it didn’t stop there.  After a shipping update, the next message inquired about how the delivery went and asked whether I needed further help.  Then someone actually called me, noting that I’d initially had concerns and asking if everything was OK. Finally, a friendly customer service manager phoned to ask if my headset was working properly.

The service level seemed too good to true. But then much the same thing happened when I ordered a second headset a couple of weeks later. What caught my attention was now much positive human engagement was built into the simple process of selling a small item.  I went from putting off a purchase to wishing that Headsets.com sold a wider variety of products, so that I might direct more shopping their way.

We listen! (c)Gajus via Fotolia

We listen! (c)Gajus via Fotolia

Because real people listened to me and were consistently upbeat and helpful, the Headsets.com team made me, the customer, feel good. I noticed my own happy reaction and I thought, “this is how I want my clients to feel.”

While we’re not all vendors, most professionals do have some kind of “clients” or “customers.” They may be your colleagues, bosses or other people who rely on your work. So customer service is part of your job, no matter what your position description says. And good customer service takes more than simply sending acceptable products. It requires listening to your customers, seeing things from their perspective and acknowledging their needs.

If you think it’s time to put new energy into the service that you deliver, ask yourself: “how do I want my customers to feel each time they deal with me?”

If you’re searching for new approaches to stellar service, you might try looking for inspiration outside your current workplace, and even beyond your industry. That’s a suggestion offered by customer service guru Donna Cutting, in her new book, “501 Ways to Roll Out the Red Carpet for Your Customers.” According to Cutting, “Some of your best red-carpet successes will come from ideas you borrowed from outside your field and then adapted, to the surprise and delight of your customers.”

Here are more of Cutting’s tips for offering world-class service:

  • Have them at hello and keep them at goodbye. Although Cutting argues that every single interaction you have with another person has more impact than you may realize, she suggests that some encounters count more than others. She agrees with the old saying that you never get a second chance to make a first impression. “In other words, you literally can have them – or not – at ‘Hello’.” But psychological research suggests that the last (or most recent) impression you make may be the one that sticks most of all.
  • Know how to recover. If you’re aiming for a first-class operation, your goal should be to strive for flawless service. But we all make mistakes and sometimes we have to face unhappy customers. Some researchers found that more than half “of complaining customers will continue to do business with you if they receive a response to their criticism. If they feel their grievance was resolved, that number goes up to 95 percent.” So when you’re faced with a crisis, ask the customer, “What can I do to make it right?”
  • Model five-star service. If what you produce requires a team effort, it’s hard to deliver excellent service if some members of the team have never received Cutter says “red-carpet service” means “treating the person in front of you right now as if he or she were the most important person in the room. This is as true of how you treat your internal customers (your team members and coworkers) as it is of others you serve.” So Cutter urges you to model what you want by offering praise and surprises, and “providing your employees with a little five-star treatment of their own.”

Whatever your job, providing effective customer service is the way you leverage the full value of all your hard work. Cutter’s “501 Ways” is a fun read, full of stories that will spark fresh ideas for treating your customers like royalty.

And for more tips on managing your career, please check out my new book, “Think Like an Entrepreneur, Act Like a CEO.”

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Tidy up that data overload

Too much information

can be overwhelming.

Learn to clean it up!

In my last post I talked about how clutter can drag us down and distract us from our most important priorities. We can gain so much when we can beat back that tumultuous tide of too much disorganized stuff!

Information Overload via Fotolia (c) boygotostockphoto

Information Overload via Fotolia (c) boygotostockphoto

And there’s a particularly burdensome type of clutter in today’s workplace: the vast, unending flow of information that may seem urgent but can leave us feeling exhausted and more confused than ever.

That was a problem for “Sophie,” a busy manager working long hours in a competitive environment. She had just received a modest promotion, which meant that her small team of analysts would grow from three direct reports up to five. She’d wanted this broader responsibility, but now she wasn’t feeling happy about her expanded role. Sophie told me that she was already operating at her full capacity. So how could she possibly handle the additional work that would come along with her bigger job?

When, in the course of coaching, we looked at how Sophie was spending her workdays, it seemed that she was constantly struggling to sort through more information than she could possibly absorb. She wanted to understand each of her analyst’s projects, so she tried to stay current with what they were doing and all the material they were processing. She would listen carefully during her frequent meetings, just taking small breaks to check her phone messages. And throughout each day, no matter what she was working on, she’d turn repeatedly from her current projects in an attempt to carefully read and promptly deal with countless emails.

Sophie was suffering from information overload. She was so overwhelmed by all the details she was trying to digest that she had lost the ability to set reasonable priorities and concentrate on her most important goals. When she looked at her work patterns, she realized that it was time to make more realistic choices about how much she could do. She needed to let some things go, and to better manage the deluge of information that faced her every day.

Sophie was not alone. According to leading cognitive psychologist Daniel J. Levitin, in today’s world we’re often confronted by more information than our brains can handle. And the more cognitive load we struggle with, the more likely it is that we’ll make errors, lose our keys and have trouble with even small decisions.

Levitin tackles the problem of too much data in his wide-ranging book, “The Organized Mind – Thinking Straight in the Age of Information Overload.He says that our old habits may cause us to be bogged down in mental clutter, so sometimes some areas need must be cleaned up and reorganized.

Here are some of Levin’s suggestions for managing the hyper flow of data:

  • Stop trying to multitask. Our brains evolved to do one thing at a time, Levitin says, and the idea that we can do several things at once is just a “diabolical illusion.” When we try to keep up with email while we’re working on a key project, there’s a cost. Our attempt to constantly change gears squanders our most valuable cognitive resource: attention. And at the same time our over-stimulated brain increases the production of stress hormones like cortisol. To do your best work, set aside blocks of time to concentrate on your top priorities, one at a time.
  • Know what’s good enough. Every day we’re confronted by countless small decisions, and handling them can wear us out. But for most questions, like what to do for lunch, we don’t need to make the best We just need to decide and move on. Levitin suggests that you stop wasting time choosing what to do about things that aren’t your top priority. Instead, become comfortable with the strategy of “satisficing,” which means that you quickly select a good enough option, even if it may not be the best possible one.
  • Get stuff out of your head. Like many productivity experts, Levitin argues that a fundamental principle of organizing is to shift the burden of managing information from our brains, out to the external world. Often this simply means that if you need to remember something you should write it down. One benefit is that writing things conserves the mental energy you might waste in worrying about forgetting them. And for many of us, handwritten notes seem to work best. Levitin says that he was surprised while researching to see how many people at the top of their professions always carry around a notepad or index cards for taking physical notes, instead of using electronic devices.
  • Take breaks. Research suggests that people who take a 15-minute break every couple of hours are much more efficient, in the long run, than their colleagues who never leave their desks. By briefly walking, or listening to music, or even napping, you can increase your productivity and creativity.
  • Delegate.  Most employees enjoy their work more and perform better if they have at least some autonomy. This is good news for managers, like Sophie, who struggle with information overload, because it underscores the value of pushing down more authority and empowering direct reports to exercise more judgment.

If the daily barrage of data leaves you more besieged than enlightened, it may be time for a cleanup. Recognize that some of those bytes are just clutter, and try new ways to manage all that information.

For more tips for a flourishing career, check out my new book, Think Like an Entrepreneur, Act Like a CEO.

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Need new energy? Clear some clutter!

A little bit of tidying

can bring you a big boost

Are you feeling stuck, bored or besieged?

A good strategy for getting out of the doldrums can be to attack the clutter that is clogging up your desk, your office, your home or your life.

You have a clutter problem if you don’t have enough room to get your work done; if your things always look muddled; if you can’t quickly find what you need; or if you have too much paper or other stuff to neatly stow away.  Clutter can waste your time, drain your energy, repulse your friends and colleagues, and block your efforts to move forward. Even if most of your belongings appear to be in good order, you can generate fresh energy by getting control of the excess that may be piling up in drawers, closets and secret corners.

Untidy office (c)trekandphoto fotolia

Untidy office (c)trekandphoto fotolia

Here are reasons that it might be time to do some tidying:

  • To increase productivity. A chaotic workspace is not an efficient workspace.  One reason is simply that you waste time whenever you have to search for the papers or tools you need. More profoundly, clutter can distract you, repeatedly pulling your attention away from wherever your focus should be.
  • To reduce stress. Clutter can make it difficult for you to relax. It can bombard you with too many distracting stimuli, and send the message that your work is endless and out of control. And if you’re surrounded by things you’re not using anymore, you many find it harder to let go of past struggles and shift attention to your bright future.
  • To clarify priorities. Sometimes people like to have key projects within sight, to remind them about their most important goals. But if files and reports are stacked across your office, nothing stands out. When you limit visible projects to the ones that are most urgent today, you’re forced to think about your goals and make decisions about how to spend your time.
  • To project a positive image. Although you may feel comfortable in your disorderly office, your boss, colleagues or clients may be disgusted by your mess. If you want to come across as an organized professional your workspace should look shipshape.
  • To generate fresh energy. It can feel liberating to purge stuff you don’t love, aren’t using or are unlikely to finish. Tackling clutter is a keystone of feng shui, the ancient Chinese art of balancing natural energies in our surroundings to create harmony and well-being. Practitioners associate clutter with stagnant energy, saying that it leads to many forms of disharmony, like lethargy, depression and repressed creativity.

Once you decide it’s time to tidy up, give some thought to the best way to go about it. Three key steps to banishing clutter are to:

  1. Purge. Gather up stuff that you aren’t using, that you don’t truly value, or that’s taking up more space than it’s worth. Then decide which items to toss and which to immediately give away.
  2. Sort. Organize remaining items by placing them in categories.
  3. Store. Assign storage places for each category and put documents and objects away, keeping similar ones together and placing frequently used things close to where you’ll need them.

Many writers recommend some variation of the purge/sort/store approach to banishing clutter. Where there’s considerable disagreement among the experts, however, is on the question of whether to clean up everything at once or do it gradually. For myself, I prefer to break a de-cluttering effort into small chunks, and to create change a little at a time.

Author Marie Kondo has a different view, however.   Her wildly popular book, “The Life-changing Magic of Tidying Up: The Japanese Art of Decluttering and Organizing,” urges that you “tidy up in one shot.” She urges that you “concentrate your efforts on eliminating clutter thoroughly and completely within a short span of time.” She advises you to make tidying a special event, not a daily chore.

Whether you’re ready to try Kondo’s sweeping approach, or just start getting rid of one item a day, a de-cluttering effort may bring you surprising benefits, including new oomph in your career. Are you ready to give it a try?

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Being aware of your time focus can boost your career

How you live in time —

yesterday, today and tomorrow

— helps shape your career

I felt refreshed at the end of a phone call with a client I’ll call “Mark.” It wasn’t just because Mark, like many of my clients, is smart and likeable. What made the conversation energizing was listening to a person whose orientation to the continuum of time is so nicely balanced.

Mark is comfortable with his past and has fond memories of growing up within a big family. Of course, he has experienced career bumps over the years, and has faced discrimination and other types of unfairness. But he has come to regard his tougher moments as opportunities for learning.

For the future, Mark has a dream job in mind, and he seems remarkably confident that he’ll reach that goal when the time is right. It will take a while for him to get there because so many people are ahead of him in his organization’s hierarchy. But, he said, he’s in no hurry to move up the ladder because his “work/life balance is so perfect today.” Even though Mark cares passionately about the mission of his nonprofit employer, he sticks close to a 40-hour workweek because, for the moment, his top priority is being with his young family.

Past Present And Future Signpost Shows Evolution Destiny Or Aging
photo by Fotolia

Not everyone has Mark’s healthy attitude about the past, present and future. As a coach, I often encounter clients whose focus on the timeline of life is impeding their career:

  • “Elaine” cannot distance herself from earlier career situations where, in her view, she was dealt with unfairly. Elaine often complains about past mistreatment, and her bitterness limits her ability to pursue current opportunities. And when she gets bogged down in endlessly recycling yesterday’s disappointments, Elaine bores her colleagues and has trouble engaging in the projects on her desk today.
  • “Jack” lives today fully, but doesn’t prepare for tomorrow. While Elaine’s coworkers tend to avoid her, Jack is popular wherever he goes. He is playful, funny and interested in whatever you’re doing right now. But Jack’s career is stalled because of the way he avoids assignments involving a lot of planning or tedious, front-end work.
  • Ambitious “Harry” is focused on the future but neglects the present. He is determined to rise to the top of his field and he’s a master of networking and self-promotion. But Harry spends so much time chasing opportunity that he often is sloppy about tasks on his plate right now. And despite his broad circle, Jack has few close friends because social activities without a professional focus strike him as a waste of time.

Executive coaches understand that, although you may not be conscious of it, the way you think about time can impact your behavior and attitudes, and profoundly influence the course of your career. Coaches often ask questions intended to help clients develop a clear, hopeful vision of their future, as well as a realistic sense of their priorities for today.

People with a positive and balanced perception of time tend to be effective performers in the workplace. And simply noticing ways that you focus on the continuum of time can help you to better set your perspective. The relationship between performance and time orientation is one focus of The Time Paradox, a fascinating 2008 book by psychologists Philip Zimbardo and John Boyd. According to these authors, research suggests that for a happy life and a successful career, the best time orientation is one that features:

  • A high past-positive and low past-negative time perspective. You can’t change your past but you can adjust your attitude about it. An upbeat view of the past can help you feel rooted and stable, but a negative preoccupation with old events can make you suspicious, risk-adverse and driven by guilt or a fear of all that is new or different.
  • A moderately high future time perspective. Being oriented toward the future means you are more likely to engage in appropriate planning and scheduling and better able to anticipate to challenges. This perspective is associated with strong reasoning, patience and self-control, and with a focus on goals. It allows you to envision days ahead filled with hope, optimism and power. The down side of an over-the-top preoccupation with the future is you may be unable to enjoy today’s activities and experiences.
  • A moderately high present hedonistic perspective. The authors say, “A hedonistic present gives you energy and joy about being alive…Present hedonism is life-affirming, in moderation.”

If you’re interested in seeing how your time perspective compares with the authors’ view of the optimum profile, you can go to their website and take the Zimbardo Time Perspective Inventory. If you don’t feel like answering their 56 questions, simply try noticing, for a few days, how much attention you focus on the past, the future and what’s happening right now.

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Learn how to accept tough feedback

You can become more at ease

with criticism of your work

During my first coaching session with “Jodie,” a talented scientist, she expressed frustration about not getting the challenging assignments she thought she deserved. She theorized that she might be a victim of gender discrimination. Or perhaps she wasn’t respected because her Ph.D. was from a university some regarded as second-tier.

I heard a different story when, with Jodie’s permission, I interviewed some of her current and former colleagues. It was clear that Jodie’s accomplishments and credentials were widely respected. But people were reluctant involve her in demanding or innovative projects because she was so overly sensitive to criticism.

One colleague liked Jodie personally but suggested it could be exhausting and time-consuming to work with her. “When we start something new, it’s normal to make false starts. Somebody comes up with an idea, we try it out, and if doesn’t work the team gets together to pick it apart. But when Jodie’s on the team she’s so defensive that we all have to walk on egg shells.”

As we spoke, Jodie became aware that her inability to accept negative feedback was limiting her professional growth. And she acknowledged that she had long found it difficult to accept criticism, not only at work but also with her friends and family. A harsh comment could make her feel physically ill, and might send her mind racing with protests and catastrophic predictions.

Jodie found that her employer’s family assistance program would subsidize the cost of weekly counseling to help her learn how to better manage her visceral response to any disparaging comment. She felt some relief when she understood that it’s normal for people to react more strongly to just a bit of criticism than they might to lot of praise. Soon she was learning to manage both the angry, defensive voice in her head, and the physical pain she felt when it seemed like she was under attack.

Meanwhile, in the context of coaching, Jodie developed this plan to overcome her reputation as someone too delicate to be part of a problem-solving team:

  • Recruit support. Jodie scheduled individual meetings with several trusted colleagues to let each know that she was working to get better at accepting negative feedback. She said she was becoming more comfortable in an environment where people typically make well-meaning but blunt suggestions about each other’s work. She asked for both patience and suggestions about how to engage in the give-and-take normal among the high performers in her group. And she requested that colleagues not to try to keep her away from situations where they thought her feelings might get hurt.
  • Pause before responding. During counseling, Jodie noticed how her defensive reaction to criticism tended to quickly build until she couldn’t seem to contain it. As she became better at spotting her emotional build-up, she learned to take a few deep breaths instead of immediately expressing her anger. She found that if she waited a day or two, criticism might feel less like a personal assault and more like a useful suggestion. And if she felt particularly wounded, she might soothe herself with a treat, like arranging for a massage, or taking her husband out for a nice dinner.
  • Stand in the speaker’s shoes. Once Jodie slowed down her quick response to criticism, she then tried to look at it from the standpoint of the critic. Sometimes she would write an analysis because that helped her to be objective. She would address questions like:
    • Who made the comment? Did it come from her boss, who might be typing to help her? From someone with expertise different from hers? And does the speaker have goals that are valid, although not the same as hers?
    • What might she learn from the comment?
    • Was the remark truly about her work or idea, or did it say more about the mood of the person who spoke? If it was just a casual comment from someone having a bad day, she might just let it go.
  • Define the goal of any response. Once she paused and thought about the criticism, Jodie would decide whether something could be gained from answering back. She wouldn’t indulge in venting. But if an important point were at stake, she would frame her arguments in a positive and strategic way.
  • Practice accepting corrections. To become better at remaining detached from the emotional impact of criticism, Jodie decided to practice in situations where the risks were low. She signed up for a creative writing course and learned to keep her cool when it was her turn to have an assignment critiqued by the class. And she joined a knitting group where more experienced knitters helped her to untangle the mistakes she made with her needles.

Bad review (c)zagandesign fotolia #52338633It’s normal to feel defensive when people criticize you. But feeling insulted is painful and doesn’t get you anywhere. With practice you can develop a thicker skin. You can choose to let go of your hurt feelings and refocus on the work product or concept under discussion.

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Think Like an Entrepreneur,
Act Like a CEO

50 Indispensable Tips to Help
Your Stay Afloat, Bounce Back, and Get Ahead at Work







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Books with Bev’s Tips

Bev’s tips on career change are featured in the books and other writing of leading journalist Kerry Hannon. If you’re thinking about a career transition, try:

Love Your Job: The New Rules for Career Happiness


What’s Next? Find Your Passion and Your Dream Job in You Forties, Fifties and Beyond


“Great Jobs for Everyone 50+: Finding Work That Keeps You Happy and Healthy and Pays the Bills”


Bev at Ohio University,
where she is a visiting
executive with the
Voinovich School of
Leadership & Public Affairs



Bev's garden at Buckeye Farm