Give yourself a chance

How many times have you heard, “I’m not very good at” or listened to yourself say the same? Our ability to artfully segment activities in to “the things we can do” and “the things we can’t do” is legendary.

But how do we really know?

To give you an example, let’s say that I’m tasked with cooking a meal for a group of friends. I don’t normally cook, but for circumstances beyond my control I”m left to do so. I have the ingredients, I have the recipe, I have the cooker and the utensils. When everyone turns up on the saturday night to a pile of ill-determined, semi-burnt mush, I look at the evidence and declare, “I can’t cook”.

And from there on, I have the belief that this is an activity that I cannot perform.

I use cooking as a simple example, but what about maths, finance, presentations or public speaking? How often do we hear people declare in the workplace that they can’t do these things? And on what basis do they hold that belief?

What if instead we were to hold the belief that we could do anything? Well, anything biologically possible for a start. But rather than being about ability, instead we choose where we want to put our time, energy and effort? What if we were to accept that people had almost unlimited potential, just limited resource?

“I can cook. I just haven’t put the practice in to become good at it.”
“I can do numbers, I just haven’t had the exposure and I don’t really have the inclination.”
“I can speak in public, but I have to get used to handling the fear that comes with standing on stage.”

Ultimately, what we can and can’t do, comes down broadly to the things we want to invest in and the things we don’t. If we find that we also have an aptitude, that investment feels simple. If it is the opposite, sometimes the investment can feel too much.

The simple truth is that we choose the elements where we want competence or even mastery and we eschew those that we feel are a step too far. That choice is important in helping us come to terms with the essence of self determination and in turn how we manage and interact with those around us.

So next time you hear yourself professing that “you can’t”, instead try asking yourself how hard you’ve tried.

The purpose of work

Over the years I’ve read and heard a lot about meaning in work. Finding purpose in what you do and how happiness can be found in almost anything that we want.

I’ve never completely been convinced about these arguments. In the same way employee engagement wants to make me poke out my own eyes with a rusty nail, the whole premise seems contrived. Because not all work can have meaning and not everyone wants to find meaning in their work. What worries me more about these things is that the argument feels patronising and explores work through a middle class, middle-income, professional lens.

If you’re holding down four temporary, part-time jobs, the last thing on your mind is finding meaning in the organisational vision and strategy. You just don’t want to get shafted by your employer, see your hours reduced, get charged for your uniform or have any losses deducted from your wage. You want to have some level of guarantee that you know how much you’re going to be taking home so that you can pay the bills.

But this isn’t just an economic argument. Even in the seemingly more stable office environment, some people want to come in, be treated like an adult, be allowed to do the job that they are paid for and get that pay and go home. In the same way that for many organisations, employees are faceless and interchangeable, for many employees organisations are similarly homogeneous.

This doesn’t mean that the world of work has to be grey and boring and impersonal. Far from it. By recognising that some people don’t give a flying fig about your company purpose or meaning, you’re recognise that they are individuals in their own right. If they want to get pay from work and meaning from their stamp collection, or saving small baby seals from being clubbed to death, that’s their choice. And choice is individual, and recognising individuality is the first step to creating a healthy organisation.

Instead of trying to deploy some sort of weird, HR Jedi mind control tricks, we should focus instead on making sure that there is a fair deal for all employees within our organisations, allowing them to prosper and enjoy life in whatever (legal) ways they chose to do. To use a favourite phrase of mine, we are there to create the theatre that allows our employees to make the performances of their lives. But we need to recognise that for some of them, that performance will be nothing more than a job.

Because our role is not to help people find purpose in work, our job is to make work better. Finding meaning and happiness is personal choice.

True choice is sacrifice

The simple truth is that we cannot have everything. Too often we sell the idea, the dream that it is possible to have a little bit of everything and reach the ultimate state of perfect happiness.

Sadly it just isn’t so.

I saw this drawing recently and it whilst it raised a smile, it also highlighted a perfect point:

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Somewhat coincidentally, the same diagram (with different choices) came up in a conversation I was having with the brilliantly clever Deborah Rees from Innecto. This time in relation to compensation (I paraphrase).

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Perhaps the biggest area that I see this most obviously manifest is in work life balance. I’d draw it something like this:

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But the point isn’t one about work life balance.

The point is that choice is about sacrifice as well as it is about selection. When we positively opt for one thing, we ultimately reject another. Whether we can accept this, that is our challenge.

Too often we place the responsibility on others, the company we work for, the government that runs our country, our friends and family.

To much of our organisational focus has historically been on trying to pretend that everything is possible and we can provide and fulfil employee needs on every level, even when they’re conflicting. That we can offer everything, without sacrifice and, as an unintended consequence, ultimately disempowering the individual.

When, logically, choice should be wholly individual, have resultant consequences and require sacrifice. And as HR leaders, our job is to explain and facilitate that, not try to pretend that it isn’t so.

As we set about designing the organisations of the future, we should be creating environments where transparency, choice and genuine empowerment flourish, where individuals are aware and accepting of the pros and cons of their decisions.

The choice that you make will be different from the one that I make and that’s absolutely fine. The challenge is to understand and be personally accepting of the compromise that we will inevitably have to make.

Because we can’t be and we can’t have everything, we will always have to choose.

Your happiness is your responsibility; it’s time to quit your job

Over my career I’ve been able to identify the single biggest cause of employee dissatisfaction. That’s been working across multiple sectors, in different roles and in different conditions.

It isn’t compensation
It isn’t development
It isn’t promotion

It’s something that is completely out of our control.

It’s regret. The regret of failing to act.

Life is full of events over which we have no control, life is full of changes which we cannot influence. We can sit idly by and bemoan the fact that things aren’t what they were, that life has dealt us the hand that we didn’t want or that people are doing things or behaving in a way in which we disapprove.

We can’t change any of these things. But we can always act.

Unsurprisingly, these two things are often confused. The response is, “but I can’t do anything to change [insert cause of issue]” and the answer is always, “so what can you do?”

Ultimately we are all responsible for our happiness, we are responsible for finding our own peace and for ensuring that we make the most of our life both in and outside of work.

And that means accepting responsibility that we can act and our failure to act, not the change, leads to our regret.

In a work context, that often means leaving a company where you’re unhappy. I’ve seen too many people become under performers, become organisational hostages, become “that guy” in the canteen that everyone tries to avoid, become the source of dissatisfaction of others, simply because they failed to act.

Or it means accepting that sometimes change happens, the past is exactly that and we need to move on. In either case, this is a choice, a conscious decision that each and everyone is able to exercise.

Life is too short to sit, being unhappy and blaming others.

“Il n’y a de réalité que dans l’action.”

The only reality is in action.