We’re Peers, Not Rivals

Have you ever wished you could go back to a previous job or workplace situation and do things over again using the knowledge and skill you’ve acquired since that time? I can think of several circumstances that I am much more prepared for now than I was in the moment. There are conversations I would have guided differently, concepts I would have used to solve a challenge, and attitudes that have evolved over the years that would have been much more beneficial.

Do-Over

Focusing on interpersonal do-overs, I imagine a few things come to mind. For me, there are 2-3 significant situations that I wish I could go back and re-do: a rivalry with a coworker when I was in sales; a time when I became so entrenched in a position that I couldn’t hear others; and a missed opportunity to confidently present my idea to someone I allowed to intimidate me.

The study of emotional intelligence reminds us of the importance of knowing our own motivations & emotional triggers, and how to become more intentional about how we engage with those around us. Our attitude towards something drives our actions, so we have to use the right attitude and words if we are to optimize a situation.

Winston Churchill is credited with saying, “Attitude is a little thing that makes a big difference.” Choosing the right attitude can change the outcome of a situation, and when it comes to those we spend so much time with in our workplaces, it’s critical that we give thought to the best attitude that will move us toward positive results for ourselves and others.

Getting on the Same Side of the Stream

So, how do you view your coworkers as a whole? Certainly there are some you would call friends and others you would call rivals, even enemies. If you’re competitive by nature, perhaps you would consider most of your coworkers “friendly rivals.”

I am a word-nerd, meaning that I really enjoy studying word origins and meanings. Language and word choice are important, so I seek to understand how a word evolved and what that means to how it is used to communicate an idea. Rivalry (a person or thing competing with another for the same objective or for superiority in the same field of activity) is a deficit-based attitude that believes that resources are limited and only a few can win.

Rivalry comes from the Latin word for stream (rivus): rivalis means “a person using the same stream as another” or “on opposite sides of the stream.” As neighbors vied for use of the limited resource of the water supply, the territorial arguments could become heated and may last for generations. In our contemporary workplaces we fight for budgetary support, strategic placement, favor from the boss, and any number of tangible and intangible resources.

But what if instead of rivals we take on the attitude of peers? A peer is an equal, someone of the same status, someone who is on the same side of the stream as we are, working side-by-side with us to achieve a common purpose.

I know it seems like a simplistic, utopian position to take. It sounds like “be nice, be positive, and you’ll win.” But there is more to it than that. The field of Positive Organizational Scholarship, which applies the concepts of positive psychology (what’s working vs. what’s broken), led by the University of Michigan’s Center for Positive Organizations, provides some compelling research about attitudes and behaviors that lead to thriving organizations.

Toward Positive Organizations

In their article “Prosocial Motivation at Work: When, Why, and How Making a Difference Makes a Difference,” Adam Grant and Justin Berg  define prosocial motivation as “an employee’s tendency to care about benefiting other.” When we view our colleagues as peers, we are motivated to help them achieve their own success. Research shows that as we help others, our own productivity rises and we are more engaged in the collective success of our peers (or at least a chosen few).

The research from the Center for Positive Organizations is slowly making its way into mainstream business dialogue. For those more academically inclined, and who don’t mind carrying around a book that’s 3-4 inches thick, the Oxford Handbook of Positive Organizational Scholarship is an excellent resource. There are also many articles and more “pop-business” books on various aspects of positive organizations.

Our workplaces are complex social structures, with multifaceted layers of social and relational dynamics making it difficult to navigate. The sense of urgency within mot organizations leads toward an expeditious (decide now, justify and think through the details later) culture. This alone can foster rivalry between colleagues and business units.

Choosing to see coworkers as peers rather than rivals creates a mindset that leads to cooperation, creativity, and collaboration. The synergies and partnerships that are formed through a peer-based mindset take energy that would normally go to competitiveness and territory-protecting behaviors and funnels it into something much more positive.

Evaluate Work Relationships

Make a list of the people you interact with most in your organization. Make a column for “rival” and another for “peer.” As you go down the list and check which of those relationships are peer-based and which ones are rivalry-based, think about what drives the competition in your rivalries. Jealousy? Limited resources? Personality?

How could you see your rivals as peers? What attitude adjustment would create a more collegial mindset and foster a “same side of the stream” approach to working with those people?

     

Tai Chi, Aikido and the Art of Managing Change

A Woman does tai chi.

A Woman does tai chi. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

With the Temple of Heaven as our backdrop and surrounded by tourists and locals filing by on their way to the ancient attractions, our group learned a Tai Chi routine in the middle of a walkway with the buzz of the vast city around us. It was a surreal experience.

I was traveling with a group of university students who were in the China for a month to learn about Chinese business practices. The contrast between the chaotic setting of noisy, polluted and over-crowded Beijing and the tranquility of tai chi provides a fitting metaphor for organizational life.

If you’re not familiar with Tai Chi, the focus is on calmness and is a good way to manage stress. The Japanese version of Tai Chi is Aikido, which emphasizes redirecting of energy rather than attack. Aikido also adds in elements of Judo. The principles of Aikido include acknowledging what is coming toward you, accepting the current reality, and redirecting the energy away from bodily harm.  The benefits of both of these martial arts forms can be realized without the religious attachments associated with them.

I was certainly not a quick learner of Tai Chi, but appreciate the mental focus and athletic control it takes to master this beautiful art form. And I appreciate the metaphor that helps me better understand the possibility of peace in the midst of chaos, the ability to turn off the noise around me to focus on what I can do to manage my situation – to redirect my energy toward something useful.

The three principles of Aikido provide a positive framework from which to manage change, whether personal, organizational or cultural.

Acknowledge: We cannot live in denial. Change is all around us and often comes when it is least convenient, causing disruption to our current state. It is important to acknowledge that change is inevitable and to acknowledge that we seldom have much say in the changes that come at us.

Accept: We accept that the change is upon us. This is where choice comes into play. We can put up our defenses, bury our heads in the sand, or start swinging. We don’t accept the outcome of the change, but we accept that the change is taking place and that we have to decide our response. We accept responsibility for how we react. It is in these moments of choice that our character is shaped.

Redirect: In Aikido, the energy that is coming toward the attacked person is redirected, not resisted. As change comes toward us, we can either try to block it, or take it and redirect our thinking, our posture, and our practices toward something useful and positive. Redirecting doesn’t mean we stand by passively.  Instead, we look for ways to adjust, and by choosing this course we set a constructive tone for ourselves and those we influence.

Recommended Reading:

HBR's 10 Must Reads on Change Management (including featured article 'Leading Change,' by John P. Kotter)

Switch: How to Change Things When Change Is Hard

Leadership and the New Science: Discovering Order in a Chaotic World Revised

In the Midwest? Join the Omaha Organization Development Network on Sept. 26th for a conference featuring Meg Wheatley. For more information, visit the Omaha OD Network site.

Whose Job Is It To Make Me Happy?

Who is responsible for making sure I’m happy at work? Many managers will assume the answer is supposed to be them. With engagement surveys, pressures to reduce turnover, and assumptions from employees, the finger seems to point to leaders to make sure everyone is happy in their jobs, right? I’m not so sure.

Happiness is elusive and workplace happiness appears to be hard to come by for many workers. Well-intentioned organizations design workplace cultures intended to promote greater satisfaction on the job. SAS, Google, Qualcomm, Edward Jones and W.L. Gore all seem to be getting things right.

The Gallup Organization has found that

Happy employees are better equipped to handle workplace relationships, stress, and change. Companies that understand this, and help employees improve their wellbeing, can boost their productivity.

So it’s the company’s job to make employees happy? While an organization can provide meaningful work, opportunities to grow and develop, and programs to help manage “work-life balance” I wonder how much an organization can ultimately influence happiness and wellbeing in its employees.

I think the answer has to be that it’s the job of every employee to make themselves happy. Happiness is a choice, and each individual has to make the decision to be happy despite (or perhaps in spite of) circumstances. Shawn Achor writes about this choice in The Happiness Advantage, stating that it is possible to change our mindsets and adopt a happier outlook. Achor says

The most successful people adopt a mindset that not only makes their workdays more bearable, but also helps them work longer, harder, and faster than their negative mindset peers.

Achor describes how we can change our mindsets, including thinking about tedious tasks differently. We lose out on joy when every task becomes something we “have” to do instead of something we “get” to do. The good news is that we really can rewire our brains to see menial tasks and even dreaded meetings as positive events by changing the way we think about them!

When we get work assignments that don’t thrill us, when we are asked to do one thing when we think something else would be more useful, and when we find our work dull to the point of painful, we have a choice.

  1. We can suffer through, grudgingly getting our work done but aware of how much its sucking the life out of us each minute.
  2. We can decide to start looking for a new job that provides more satisfaction. There’s nothing wrong with seeking a better fit for our skills and aspirations.
  3. We can choose to change the way we think about the work. It means creating new habits that replace our default perspectives and attitudes with more useful ones.

Robert Louis Stevenson said

The habit of being happy enables one to be freed, or largely freed, from the domination of outward conditions.

Creating happiness is not about a mystical “I think happy thoughts so I am happy” new-age mindset. Not that there aren’t spiritual components to being happy, which are very important. For instance, the Apostle Paul did not have any easy life as he faced hardships and persecution on his missionary journeys. In his letter to the Philippian church, however, he says,

I know what it is to be in need, and I know what it is to have plenty. I have learned the secret of being content in any and every situation, whether well fed or hungry, whether living in plenty or in want.

Paul’s secret to happiness was his perspective based on his faith. “I can do all things through him who gives me strength.” So maybe the key to happiness is a combination of faith-based positivity (aka hope) and the science of creating new maps for our minds that give us perspective beyond the moment and connect us to a larger purpose.

It is important for organizations to develop an engaging culture where individuals are assigned meaningful work that gives them the opportunity to do what they do best every day. Leaders should care about creating an environment that promotes satisfaction and minimizes frustrations. These types of initiatives will set the tone for happiness. But it really comes down to the individual making choices to be happy no matter the circumstances.

Tommy Newberry, a life coach and author, writes in The 4:8 Principle:

When you focus on the good, you not only notice more good but you actually create more good. Focusing on positive things causes you to search for more that’s positive. As a result, you perceive and appreciate more good, which sets the stage for even more positive circumstances. Eventually, you will have more joy, more enthusiasm, and more gratitude. This outlook draws the best out of other people and situations, creating a virtuous cycle (rather than a vicious cycle) in which you continually find and multiply what you’re looking for.

Nobody else can do that for us. So it’s my job to make myself happy by continuously choosing to think positively about my circumstances, even when my boss may be driving me crazy, I can’t seem to get certain things off my to-do list, and I’m still a work in progress.