It pleases me when I learn something new about myself. It’s not just the wonderment that an old-dog can indeed learn new tricks, but also shock (bordering on dismay) that I didn’t already know it all.
Whether reflecting upon how I’ve been tackling a problem, only to see a completely different way of doing it that immediately seems obvious, or looking back and realizing that I could have handled something a lot better, the net effect is usually much the same; I can’t believe that I didn’t figure it out sooner.
I’ve been pondering lately the best way of tackling a couple of ongoing challenges in my life, namely how to get the best out of my co-workers (both those above and beneath me in the corporate food-chain) and how best to get my kids to do what I want and expect from them; in both cases I’m largely precluded from considering sanctions, bribery or coercion as options and so I’m left wondering how best to achieve my goal through more subtle means.
I’ve not yet got all the answers, but verging on 20 years into my career, and in my 18th year as a parent I’m starting to build up a useful play-book of techniques.
First, a little context.
In my working life I’m far from your typical ‘manager’ and I’ve deliberately chosen a career path that aligns most closely with my being a goal and delivery focussed individual. When I’m not writing, I mostly work as a freelance IT Project Manager and have long since given up the desire to climb to levels of seniority in that field. Give me a challenge and a problem to solve and I’m in my element. What job title I’m given or how many people work beneath me is completely irrelevant and outside of my interest.
Since stepping onto the first rung of the career ladder I’ve occasionally tried and largely failed to carve out a niche as an out-and-out people-manager since I’m just no good at taking on the challenges of personnel management and have no desire to engage in the politics and general ass-kissing that seem to be a necessity to escape beyond middle-management. I’d sooner work with and organise people to whom I can give the professional courtesy of assuming they are competent, capable and reasonably committed to the job in hand rather than having to concern myself with matters of pastoral care or ‘HR’. Give me a person with the right skills and I’ll happily co-ordinate and guide their actions to achieve the greater-good; just don’t ask me to conduct a career appraisal for them or to help them settle their personal or professional grievances.
I’m completely at one with my motivation towards work, and in myself since I know that my core values are aligned to setting measurable and meaningful goals and then motivating myself (and others) towards their achievement. This holds in my life outside work too.
In my personal life, I’m part-time single parent to two teenage daughters who I’ve raised 50% of the time with their mother, my ex-wife for over 11 years. I’m also step-father to two younger kids that my second wife brought into our marriage, from her first. As such, there’s a fair amount of stakeholder management in my personal life too.
What has struck me more and more as the years have gone by is just how many parallels exist between the two roles, and how much learning I can apply from one role to the other. It extends in both directions too and not just in how being a project manager has helped me as a parent, but also vice-versa.
When I refer to ‘they’, ‘them’ or ‘their’ in the two examples below I’m referencing my kids at home or my co-workers at work. Co-workers also applies equally to those who I manage in delivery of my projects and the senior managers that I report to. The two key similarities are as follows:
1) They just want to be heard and acknowledged – There are few settings within which we spend so much of our lives in as the workplace and for many it can be a crushingly anonymous place where the many drones servicing the greater needs of the hive feel like their efforts are lost and unappreciated. I often experience instances where those both above and beneath me in the supposed hierarchy bringing problems, challenges or items of risk that if not averted will knock things off course. My natural reaction as a goal-oriented and solution-focussed person is to leap into action and to try and solve the issues presented at face-value. Only in the last few years with growing self-awareness and a deeper appreciation for human behaviour (in myself and others) have I recognised that seldom does what I hear really represent the whole story.
In my experience the issue that is brought to me may be a symptom of a wider issue or a general concern that the person with the worries has used as a means of voicing their dissatisfaction. Often-times, it won’t even be something that they needs to be changed or solved but rather that they are just using it as an opportunity to get their voices heard. Many times they don’t even want it to be solved but simply crave recognition from you, the acknowledgement of their existence. Others feel it is their role (whether explicitly or implicitly) to be a source of stretch and challenge as you make your way through working life. As such, they are mainly serving the needs of their ego.
The preferred reaction I’ve learned then is always first and foremost to hear the challenge and to demonstrate that you have taken it on-board and are taking it seriously. This may be closely followed by efforts to investigate and resolve, but it doesn’t always require that.
For my kids I’m often in exactly the same position. I’m fortunate to have nurtured a bond where my kids feel comfortable in bringing their stuff to me, and whereby they can respectfully and maturely communicate their dissatisfactions without resorting to the stereotypical ‘I hate you’ mode of teenage communication (most of the time). That doesn’t mean that things are always as they seem on the surface.
Sometimes they just want a bit of attention, and for kids (and co-workers at times) any attention is good attention.
In the midst of the noise of our day-to-day lives, with the many and varied challenges of work and family life to balance we can become oblivious to those things right in front of us and which we say we value the most. Kids have their own similar battles and alongside school work, their hobbies, dreams and aspirations, they need to carve out their niche in the modern world of social networks and instant gratification. Often they too feel the need to throw on the emergency brake and to feel like they’ve been brought to the forefront of our minds for a few minutes so that they don’t have to compete with all the other things going on in our lives.
When my daughter complains of a stomach-ache, the underlying concern may not be a medical issue which has me instantly reaching for the medical-kit to remedy, but rather nervousness about an impending test at school or a challenging sports game that is coming up. When one of them has a temper-tantrum and attempts to act-up or to get a reaction out of me by making provocative statements it is often not driven out of a lack of care or consideration but because she has had an argument with a friend or misses her mother. Sometimes it’s just hormones throwing her off balance, clouding her ability to deal with a simple day-to-day event.
The challenge then is in both taking things at face-value but in remaining open-minded enough to consider other angles, other sides of the same coin. Often I find I’ve done my bit merely by opening my ears and demonstrating that I’ve heard what they have to say; that I’ve listened to and acknowledged them above all the other noise in life.
2) They want to please me but also crave praise and recognition for their efforts – When asked at work by a team member what it is that I expect of or need from them my answer is often that I simply want them to do their best and make me look good. I apply the same logic towards my bosses and my role in their world. If each person spent their time trying to do the best for themselves and for the person who was in some way responsible for them, then I contend that the whole system would function a lot better and more consistently than it does. If I’m driven to do the best job I can in whatever role I’m playing in a given moment, then the knock-on effects of it will be positive for those around me.
The flip-side of that action, the counter-balance if you like is in the recognition of those efforts which we all crave in life from those to whom we are accountable. This is the feedback on our having delivered value, the validation of our efforts and the sense of gratitude that we feel from those we have served in some way.
At work there’s the reward and feedback of remuneration, and being paid for a job well done, but as theories of organisational behaviour show us, pay and rations alone do not motivate. It is the kindly words, favourable conditions and positive feedback along with the opportunity to grow and feel valued that give rise to the illusive trait of employee satisfaction and which get the best out of us at work.
With my kids, I may feel like I’m doing my bit by giving them a comfortable home, keeping them fed and clothed and buying them the occasional gift to demonstrate my love and care for them. It is the kindly words however that make the most difference, the feelings of love and pride I express to them on a regular basis, the lunchbox notes I send to offer them mid-day encouragement and just the act of ‘showing up’ for them throughout their lives that have grown and nurtured the bond I enjoy with them. Pay and rations come to be relied upon in our personal relationships too, but it is the gratitude and recognition we show for others and their efforts that let them know that we aren’t simply taking them for granted.
Putting it in action
I most certainly don’t have all the answers on this topic (or any other); I’m a student of life just as much as we all are and I’m grateful for the fact that I’m continually learning new things and reaching new insights about myself and how I interact with others. What I have realised though is that it’s not simply a case of having diverse and separate roles in life that I need to master but rather that many of the roles (parent, worker, friend, husband) rely on many of the same traits, skills and techniques if I’m to perform them to my desired standard.
To labour under the misapprehension that we should be one person at work and another entirely at home fails to acknowledge the point that we can all only really be the unique people that we are in each and every role. We have our DNA, we have our in-built programming and we have the lessons we’ve learned to apply throughout our lives in each and every role. We can grow and we can adapt but we cannot bend ourselves into something that we are not and nor should we.
Take the skills and experience that you have, innately and within you and exploit those in each role you fulfil. Be true to yourself and mindful of who you are and how you act. I contend that more often than not you’ll find that the many resources you have in one area of life (that you may consider to be your sweet-spot) can in fact be brought to bear in other areas of your life too if you open your mind to what you know and what you can learn in each role.
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