Fix the ship not the ocean…

sinking ship

As I sat in a busy bustling coffee shop on my own, I knew I was there to avoid thinking about things too much. My brain is constantly whirring, trying to work things out. So occasionally it’s good to just sit in the midst of it all, cradling a coffee (or the occasional cheeky glass of wine!) and watch other peoples’ lives unfold. As the warming taste of coffee started to kick in, I mused that there’s a sense of freedom to be found in concentrating on other people going about their business. And then it struck me like a slap in the face…I have more interest in helping to fix other people and resolve the external factors than I do in fixing up and looking after myself. When I start to sink, it would seem I’m too busy trying to fix the ocean around me to concentrate on the one thing I can truly affect…the ship.

I figure I’m not alone in this. Have you ever just reached the point when it feels like things are just ‘a bit much’ at the moment? I hit that point last week – I felt tired, low, unsociable and had a constant dull headache. At first, I put it down to ‘having a cold’ or some such excuse, but then I realised that when I laughed about something or turned my focus to anything other than my own life, the tiredness and headache lifted. I decided to be honest and acknowledge that there were at least two big areas of life where I wasn’t feeling happy or successful and for some reason, where I’d usually be able bang out a new plan of action faster than you can say ‘chaaaaange’, I was stuck, unable to come up with a way to make things better. Paralysis had set in and with it, even more feelings of guilt, uselessness and frustration.

So what happened next to make this situation a blog post rather than a tale of downward spiral? I realised that most of my issues were people related – it was the behaviour, words and actions of other people in a range of situations that were making me feel bad. For weeks (months in some ways!) I had been trying to get people to change. To be nicer / more appreciative / kinder (the list goes on). I’d done it because genuinely I felt (and still do an extent) out of principle they shouldn’t be given free reign to behave in a thoughtless, uncaring way. But in being blinded by my own values, I hadn’t realised the number one point that all great self-help books and motivational speakers will tell you – the one thing you will always be able to control and change is yourself. Now I know this is no great epiphany, people have been saying this for years…but the revelation for me was that, particularly where other people are involved, it’s near enough impossible to get them to change. People are like the ocean – wild, unpredictable and can be the both welcoming and destructive all at the same time. The self is like the proverbial ship trying to work with the ocean (people) but sometimes it’s just a rough day…and there needs to be to be a way to work with that. The ship needs to adapt to the ocean, not the other way around.

So, having written about this watery tale of reflection what have I learned? A lot actually, particularly about the sense of calm and clarity you can feel when you take back the control. Specifically:

  1. People are like the wind in your sails and the ocean beneath your feet. People can push you on and keep you on course, but sometimes they can knock the wind from your sails leaving you directionless and lost. But, you can choose to own your experience – choose to make the most of and appreciate the good conditions and fight to get through the rough ones. In some cases you can even choose to steer away from the rough waters into better seas. Put in real terms, love and appreciate the good people in your life and try to navigate through or around those who bring negative energy.
  2. When you feel like you’re sinking, perhaps it’s time to throw some things overboard. The guilt, the negative feelings and sometimes even some of your crew members need to go – to stay on course you cannot carry the weight of everything, much as you might want to.
  3. When the waters are choppy, keep the faith. Not necessarily religious faith (although of course this is fine too!) but keep faith in your course and faith in your destination. We all go through times where we question who we are, where we’re going and the decisions we’ve made / are about to make but don’t let one (or a few) bad days at sea make you turn back from your path.

So, in concluding I suppose to stop using analogy and to talk plainly, I’ve really learnt this past week that although I would never give up trying to change the world (and sometimes the people in it) for the better, the trick is to first fix yourself. Make sure you’re ready for the challenge before you embark upon it and be willing to take some knocks along the way in order to reach the best destinations.

“If the highest aim of the captain were to preserve his ship, he would keep it in port forever” (Thomas Aquinas). 

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Flourish or fail?

flourish

Working in the field that I do, an analogy has often been used comparing the success and development of people to the growth of a plant or tree  (yes, yes I know it sounds a bit ‘hippy’ but stay with me 🙂 ). That is to say, within certain conditions we will thrive and flourish and in others we shrivel up and shrink away. The idea of ‘greenhouse organisations’ in which staff are provided with the right conditions for growth, development and expansion is not a new one but I am reminded recently of how rarely our leaders and managers try to understand our individual level ‘greenhouse conditions’. The tragedy that subsequently results, is the shrinking and confinement of otherwise excellent staff.

As ever, I’ll start with a little context and perhaps a personal anecdote or two. Usually I choose to write about topics outside of a work environment but as I started thinking about this, it struck me that ‘greenhouse conditions’ and ‘nurturers’ are just as relevant to our personal lives as they are to work. We are talking about understanding our conditions for success and the people who support and encourage that.

I have been fortunate in my life (or unfortunate depending upon how you look at it!) to experience a very wide range of people, personalities and styles – most of them incredibly positive and inspiring but a fair few I have to admit unfortunately fall into the ‘soul shrinking’ category. As my experiences grow and I talk more and more with people of similar-ish life circumstances, ambition and outlooks it is becoming less and less the case that I hear somebody say ‘I love my job. My team are great, the work is interesting and fulfilling and my manager is fantastic. I feel valued and recognised for my contributions and I can see myself staying here for a long time. Better still, I look up to and admire our leadership and I’d like to aspire to be like that some day”.

Some people may look at that statement and say “huh? that’s idealistic thinking right there – no job is like that” but I can tell you, I have been lucky enough to live that job and thrive in that environment – it does exist! Perhaps I am now ‘spoiled’ forever more as a result 😉 One of the main issues is, we’ve all become accustomed to just ‘putting up with’ the quite frankly mediocre (and in some cases toxic) environments we find ourselves in – in many cases even thinking ‘perhaps it’s my own fault, I expect too much’. So what (in my humble opinion) is at the heart of this outbreak of unfulfilled, down-trodden, unheard staff? Bad management and bad leadership. And linked to this, an idea I am calling the ‘enemy within’ for many organisations of today. That is, a glut of bad managers and leaders who are poisoning the organisations from the inside out and bringing down many bright, passionate staff with them.

One of many issues with the ‘enemy within’ is that people are unaware it’s there and / or are unwilling to accept it’s existence. Bad managers and leaders are allowed to crush and shrink their staff like the proverbial plant shoved into a dark corner. This can be for a number of reasons – it might be because those people are good at ‘politic-ing’ and maneuvering away from scrutiny or that the organisation doesn’t care enough to honestly reflect in on and challenge itself. The most common thing I’ve heard (and seen) a lot of is the genuine belief of some leaders and managers that they are great at what they do, but the reality is a far cry from their perception.

This situation I think raises so many questions for the modern day workplace (and could be extended out to our personal lives too) about how we understand our people, value them and ensure the very best performance that comes from the heart.

I can’t (and wouldn’t want to) tell others what to do, as I am far from perfect and have much still to learn. But as usual I will share my thoughts on what works – as a manager and leader and as someone who has been managed and led. These are the killer questions I ask of myself:

  1. Have you sat down in a relaxed environment and asked your people about themselves, their interests and ambitions? This sounds basic and common sense but I believe this is where many managers and leaders are going wrong – they haven’t really invested time in getting to know their people so how can they genuinely care for and understand them.
  2. How clear are your expectations? Do your people know what you expect of them in terms of delivering specific things and the kinds of behaviours you would hope to see? This is another important thing for me, as a manager or leader there is no getting away from the fact that you will have expectations of your people – for me I think it’s about clearly articulating these but then allowing people the space to decide for themselves about the approach they take to meeting them. Goal and objective setting together is a great way to understand each others’ expectations and aims.
  3. Have you developed trust and openess with your people? This doesn’t just happen because you say it does. Actions speak louder than words so how do you really show people that you are to be trusted and that you truly welcome honesty.
  4. Do you regularly ask for feedback with a genuinely open approach? Are you prepared to hear the ‘bad’ things as well as the good? Nobody is perfect and hardly anyone gets things right first time. When someone is new to your team (or wider life) how do you find out how you’re doing and whether you’re hitting the right note? It’s by asking regularly and being prepared to listen to ways in which you can do better.
  5. Have you spent time reflecting on what things might feel like / be like for that person? Empathy is a hugely important part of connecting with someone, so being able to think about how you might feel if you were in their shoes goes a long way to helping them to feel understood and supported.

I know much of the above sounds simple and common place but having recently seen too many fantastic, intelligent and ambitious people be adversely affected by bad managers and leaders it struck me that perhaps more sharing of experiences and ideas wouldn’t go amiss. More challenge aimed at organisations to really assess whether they are good at leadership and managing their people.

So in finishing, here is my question to everyone out there…What will be your choice for 2016 and beyond? Do you choose to support people to flourish and grow or will you knowingly or unknowingly fail them, leaving them to shrivel in a world of disengagement and frustration? Will you choose to help your people to thrive and innovate or are you going to thwart ambition and change in favour of comfort and control?

An organisation is only ever as good and successful as the people working there and in investing time, effort and care in your people (much as that may require a cost to you in the short term) you will be successful beyond your greatest dreams.

“Success is a team sport. It requires dedication, inspiration, and passion; and one can never get that without cultivating the culture of trust, mutual respect, and empowerment.” Forbes 

 

Searching for unicorns…

Unicorn2 I’m a dreamer, an optimist and a Piscean – a combination some might consider a recipe for disaster. Not only do I like to (occasionally) live outside of the real world but I also believe there’s got to be a better world that I may have a cat in hell’s chance of creating…there has to be more to life than the card that has been handed down, and I have a duty to do what I can to make it so 🙂 Ever since I was really young, I was the same. Obsessed with stories, adventure and mythical creatures – I could spend hours just lying in the grass on a warm Summer’s day dreaming about all manner of things… from the places I would explore one day, to the stories I would write as a famous novelist, onto how amazing it would feel to be in love with someone with all my heart… So I would spend days looking up at skies of pure blue and feeling so happy and full of anticipation I could burst. But I think I knew at the back of my mind that one day I would need to grow up and become ‘sensible’ – I would need to give up the daydreaming and tone down my imagination. I would need to swap unicorn chasing for a steady job and an occasional adventure. The trouble is, although I now have the steady career and sensible life, I’m not so sure I’ve quite given up the chase. There are still some things in life that feel like the proverbial unicorn…talked about, rumoured to exist, glimpsed by some and yet, so illusive and out of reach to me. There are things other people claim to have seen, experienced and felt but still, they continue to escape me until I begin to question whether the things I really desire are out there at all.  Perhaps the thing(s) I want with all my heart and soul is so beautiful and pure it might as well be a mythical creature…but still I search and still I long for a sign that it’s real. To put this another way, have you ever had the feeling that perhaps you are looking for something that may not exist or materialise? It might be a feeling, an idea, a person or a dream place – the ‘something’ is a thing you’ve held onto for a day or even a lifetime and yet it is so important to you, you’re not sure you’d be able to look back on life and say you’ve truly ‘lived’ without having experienced it? So at what point should you just accept that your ideas and dreams may not translate to every day life and they are not for this world… Your long held desires need to be discarded and replaced with the reality of ‘what is’ rather than what could be… I suppose the challenge I’m trying to work through in this blog is how you balance out remaining ambitious and hopeful in achieving your dreams and desires with being realistic and accepting when you’ve given it your best shot and it’s the right time to let it go. I’m optimistic enough to believe that I should be able to achieve what I set out to achieve in this life but I hate the thought that I could be holding onto an ‘ideal’ that may never be. Desiring something that may never happen has been known to make people bitter and cynical – something I am determined never to become.  So can you be hopeful and hopeless all at the same time? A hopelessly hopeful dreamer perhaps 😉 You see, the seductive thing about dreaming is that it represents hope and hope provides a purpose to life. For example, I might hope to have my own business one day and so it gives me something to aim for – therefore the steps I take in my career are towards that purpose. Or perhaps I dream of a better world in which people feel appreciated and respected for who they are – therefore the way in which I behave and interact with people around me will be towards (on some small level) achieving that goal. My own personal dream which is very close to my heart is about my desire to cultivate a life filled with ‘real’ connections and ‘real’ relationships – it’s about really seeing people as they truly are and that they will see me as I truly am. I get so tired sometimes of so many ‘surface level’ friendships and relationships where we talk about such meaningless things…I’m someone who needs connection and meaning (not all the time – don’t get me wrong, I can have my silly carefree moments like the best of ’em! 😉 ). I keep chasing the idea that one day I’ll meet more people who just ‘get’ and love me for me…and I for them. I guess it’s my view that there are just some dreams that if you let them go, you may let go of a part of yourself….it’s like accepting that you’ve failed to achieve something you really wanted to achieve. But equally at the same time, the down side of never letting go of the unobtainable is that it may hold you back in other ways that you don’t even realise… So, in my soul searching what exactly have I come to conclude? Well this has been a particularly tough one for me and I don’t think there is one black and white answer that anyone can tell you about when to keep going and when to give up, but here are my thoughts… 1. Keep chasing until it holds you back. I think it’s important not to let go too quickly…all the mythical stories of unicorn chasing almost always involve a huge amount of perseverance and blood, sweat and tears before the character finally catches the long awaited glimpse. In real life, most dreams worth pursuing may be hard work and require a huge amount of faith. But the point at which perseverance tips over into pain and disappointment, perhaps it’s time to make the call about whether continuing is the right thing to do. 2. Dream in multiples. The one thing I have most definitely learnt is how important it is not to put all your eggs in one basket – having several dreams which you hold close to your heart helps you in striving for a fuller and richer life, but also helps in taking the edge of the disappointment if one doesn’t materialise. If one seems impossible or out of reach, shift focus to another. 3. Make your own decision – don’t let others tell you what is or isn’t obtainable. Someone once said to me that I should never limit my accomplishments to other peoples’ expectations of me and just like that piece of advice, I don’t think you should let others tell you what you can and can’t dream of for your life. Listen to advice, of course, but use the advice to make a decision that you can own completely. I’ve always believed advice is (mostly!) for confirming a decision you’ve sort of made anyway… All in all I guess what I’ve learnt is that dreaming is a positive thing… until it’s not! Holding onto an idealistic dream of something which may never happen can of course hold us back from enjoying the present and ‘what is’ but our hopes and dreams can also give us passion and purpose. They can give us ideas for what our future may hold and can stir up excitement about what we might be capable of…An amazing man once said: ‘There is no passion to be found in settling for a life that is less than the one you are capable of living’ Nelson Mandela