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 | 27 Jan 2016

As we embark on a new year, many of us will be setting goals and aiming to improve ourselves in some way; reflecting on the year that has gone, with a gnawing sense that we “could do better”.

We know that goal setting can be helpful in supporting achievement and, in turn, the achievement of our goals can give us a sense of success. However, repetitive striving towards something better is risky. Fuelling a perfectionist attitude can actually lead to a loss of motivation and proactivity unless a more adaptive approach is practised.

Multiple demands

I know that I could be thinner, fitter, better dressed and healthier; I could be a better parent, neighbour and friend; I could be more socially responsible and ‘green’; not to mention more popular, famous, wealthy and respected. On top of that we all want to get the best exam results, performance review or job that we possibly can. The pressures to be successful are diverse and pervasive. They are fuelled by self-help books, social media and cultural expectation which externally define what we all could and should be. And underlying all this is the belief that by achieving these goals we will be happier.

In a competitive world we have been brought up to strive to meet these expectations placed upon us and constantly achieve more. However, this approach can feed a sense of insecurity and of never being good enough. Rather than making us happy, this pattern of thinking drags us down. The effect of this constant pressure is taking particular toll on younger people with dramatic rises in anxiety, depression and eating disorders. In reality, it isn’t possible to be the best you can be in every different measure of success. There are only 24 hours in each day and we must budget our time to focus on the things that matter most. So the perfectionist in us is already doomed to fail.

“Success is not the key to happiness. Happiness is the key to success. If you love what you are doing, you will be successful.” Albert Schweitzer

Striving for perfection

A person’s degree of achievement orientation is a powerful driver to their need to set and work towards goals. And the perfectionist will make these goals more challenging and of a higher standard. These personality traits can lead to higher actual achievement as they motivate the person to work harder towards their goals. However, satisfaction is often short lived as the goal becomes replaced with another more challenging one. Further there is a risk in defining success purely in terms of the accolade achieved. For someone with these characteristics, the failure to achieve a goal is likely to lead to feelings of shame and guilt. Such negative emotions ultimately become a deterrent for the perfectionist to take risks or to try something that they are not confident they will “succeed” at. Warning signs of unhelpful perfectionism include:

● Procrastination – finding it hard to start owing to fear of failure

● Being highly critical of others as well as yourself

● Emotional outbursts when things go wrong

● Catastrophising after negative feedback e.g. “I’m not good enough”

● Understanding “average” as meaning failure

● Being overly concerned with what others think

● Cycle of dread (of potential failure) and relief (rather than satisfaction with success)

Adding fuel to the fire

There are things we do that feed this perfectionist attitude. Educationalists have found that measuring success purely in terms of test results and congratulating students for high scores, in the long run becomes counterproductive. Using this approach, those who expect to achieve and be recognised for high scores, become afraid to test their boundaries and are more likely to give up when the questions get tough. They find it hard to deal with failure. At the same time those who cannot hope to get a high score and receive recognition may never choose to try in the first place. This is called the “performance approach” to encouraging achievement. We see this performance approach in other spheres. In the home, parents are encouraged to take particular care in over-emphasising achievement and giving attention only when a child “does well”. If a child does not believe they are valuable and loved in their own right just for being them, then the emotional reward from an achievement becomes empty and short-lived. Similar patterns exist in the workplace where we know that, over and above pay rises and bonuses and measurement against targets, what creates the best engagement is feeling valued and receiving personal consideration from a manager.

“Success is not final, failure is not fatal: it is the courage to continue that counts.” Winston Churchill

Running your own race

More useful is a “mastery approach” to encouraging achievement. If teachers recognise and reward the effort that students put into their work and the perseverance they show when things get tough; the result is everyone feels better about the outcome and feels good about the experience of being tested to the limit. Using this approach, maths teachers will see students “have a go” more readily, try longer and progress to harder questions over time than if they reward test scores alone.

By shifting the emphasis towards effort rather than results, we create a more “adaptive” perfectionism. This is perhaps most brilliantly enshrined within Paralympic sports where we celebrate triumph over personal challenge more than who was overall the fastest or strongest. The shift in focus benefits us all as we are encouraged to also run our own individual race.

“Success is to be measured not so much by the position that one has reached in life as by the obstacles which he has overcome.” Booker T. Washington

The route to true success

Giving up on perfectionism does not mean giving up on achievement. It’s about turning your definition of achievement on its head. This will help you to find a sense of satisfaction that is more lasting and significant. It will make it more likely that you try in the first place, and more likely that you stick to your goal and ultimately more likely you will rise to higher standards of achievement.

● Value yourself and what makes you unique and special. You don’t have to win to be worthwhile and good

● Be authentic. Invest time and attention on a goal that holds meaning or value for you alone

● Focus on how you cope with challenge and sustain improvement rather than seeing success as a specific outcome

● Be prepared to start, to experiment, to take risks and get it wrong

● Let go of the need to achieve in other arenas – no-one can win at everything

“Success is liking yourself, liking what you do, and liking how you do it.” Maya Angelou

We’ve all made the mistake of going shopping when we’re hungry, so we all know what happens: our trolleys get filled with unhealthy treats that we don’t really need, but that we want now, while we forget to stock up on the essentials that we’re going to need for the rest of the week. Even when we know it will make us feel guilty, we do this because of a little thing called ‘projection bias’, which happens when our desire for short-term gratification overrides our longer-term needs. It’s a major barrier to making strategic long-term plans, because it can make it difficult to identify what we’re going to need in the future.

Overcoming projection bias

In this example, it’s easy enough to overcome projection bias - we try in future not to shop when we’re hungry. But there’s a bit more to it than that. We need to be able to form a vision of the future - of our future needs - in a way not influenced by what we’re feeling at the moment.
This applies to more important decisions than what we need to buy at the supermarket. For example, it could mean the difference between a successful business plan and an unsuccessful one, or it could mean that your team reshuffle doesn’t work in the long-run. Any kind of decision or project that will have long-term ramifications needs a strategic approach to make it work - and there’s no room for projection bias when it comes to strategic thinking and planning.

Developing the vision to see your goals fulfilled

We’ve devised a tool that is designed to help you build strategic, realistic long-term goals without succumbing to the influence of biases, available in the iLEAD Tools: Thought Leadership book. It centres around the six core elements needed for goal-planning to be successful, and they go by the acronym “V-SPORT”, which stands for:

● Vision - the focus of your strategy - your end goal

● Stakeholders - who needs to be involved? It could be key customers, investors, or anyone else whose support is critical, and whom you’ll need to keep informed throughout.

● Priorities - having a clear idea of which actions are most important will allow you to make the right decisions if or when time and resources become stretched.

● Opportunities - what do you, and others, stand to gain from the completion of your goal? Will you be able to delegate anything, and if so, what benefits will this bring to those to whom you delegate?

● Risks - what could stop your project from being successful? How can you avoid or manage these risks?

● Timelines - what time and resources are needed to achieve your goal? Flexibility is key when it comes to timings, as you’ll need to be able to accommodate potential future changes, such as new developments in your competitors’ activity.

Within each of these areas, the ‘How to develop strategic long term goals’ tool helps you work through the questions you need to consider in order to achieve your goals. It includes a Strategic Goal Setting Checklist tool, which will help you to make sure that you cover everything and is broken down into sections corresponding with each part of the ‘V-SPORT’ acronym, starting with writing down your vision and taking you right through to fitting your goal in with wider objectives and forecasting future change.

Where do your strengths lie?

Similarly organised is the V-SPORT Self-Analysis Checklist. This allows you to flag up any areas where you may require additional support, and you complete it using a “red, amber, green” answer system to indicate which aspects of V-SPORT you can complete easily and which are likely to be harder to achieve. A simple two-step process will enable you to calculate your results, which will tell you where your strengths lie as well as areas where development may be needed. After this, your answers to a series of questions provided in the tool will help you formulate a plan to achieve your goal.

So what’s stopping you?

If you’ve followed all the steps in the iLEAD Tool so far and you’re still having problems, it could be because you’ve come up against a common barrier to success. To help you get past it, we’ve also included in this tool a reference guide to the most common barriers to success and what you need to do to overcome them. A particularly common one, for instance, is that the goal you’ve set yourself is too big and complicated, and it seems impossible to understand how to go about achieving it. With practical guidance from the iLEAD Tool, you’ll be able to work past this problem. For example, you’ll understand the need to make each milestone as specific as possible.

What happens next?

Having worked your way through the resources provided in the ‘How to develop strategic long term goals’ tool, you’ll be in a much stronger position to set goals in a strategic, considered way, maximising your chances of successfully fulfilling your objectives. The tool also includes a section on the next steps to help you put your plan into action, including advice on gathering feedback that could provide you with valuable insights on your strengths and areas for development.

For more information on how to put this knowledge to effective use, read the ‘How to take responsibility’ tool in the iLEAD™ Task Leadership book.

Shortlisted for the Chartered Management Institute Management Book of the Year Award 2016, iLEAD™ Tools provide you with the advice and practical resources to enable you to develop your task, people and thought leadership skills. By gaining a better understanding of leadership and learning how to lead, from how to communicate your vision to how to make ethical decisions, you will become a better and more effective leader and create stronger and more successful teams.

If you witnessed an accident, what would you do? Would you rush over to help, administering first aid to casualties and calling the emergency services? Or would you stand by and watch, waiting for someone else get involved? However much you’d like to think that you’d be the hero, research suggests that you’re more likely to do the latter. Why?

Leave it to someone else…

This behaviour is called the ‘bystander effect’ or bystander apathy. It arises when we’re afraid of ‘losing face’ in front of strangers. In this situation, it’s because we assume that there are other people better qualified to get involved than we are or that if we step in it may be unhelpful or unwanted. In other words, it’s a fear of failure. It sounds like an irrational fear, particularly when the consequences of our not getting involved could be that someone in trouble doesn’t get the help they need. But it’s been observed in numerous psychological experiments and in real-life emergency situations.

The benefits of being a responsible person

Being more responsible doesn’t just mean that you’re a better person to have around in the event of an accident. When you’re willing to take responsibility, you become a more productive and efficient person. In the workplace, your efforts to become more responsible are sure to get noticed and will help you climb the career ladder, because you won’t just be doing the minimum required to pull your weight – you’ll be owning tasks and showing that you’re someone who’s got what it takes to lead others. Outside work, other people will start to realise that you’re someone they can rely on, bringing new opportunities to enrich your life.

But how do you go about becoming more responsible? You can start by understanding what’s currently holding you back.

What stops us taking responsibility?

We’ve already seen some of the reasons for not taking responsibility in the accident scenario described above. Fear of failure is one of the biggest things that holds us back, as we’re conditioned from an early age to seek approval from other people. This means that unless we’re sure that we’ll be successful, we avoid doing things that could risk drawing criticism. Again tying in with the accident scenario, we’re also held back by an assumption that we don’t have the relevant expertise, and that someone else does.

Other reasons for not stepping up to the mark include lack of time – we perceive ourselves to be too busy to take responsibility for something, though closer inspection may prove that spending too much time being unproductive may in fact be to blame. You may also be avoiding taking responsibility for something because you’re simply not interested in it; examining your own motivations – or those of an employee – may be key to dealing with this mental block. Alternatively, you might actually be willing to take responsibility, but you’re just not sure how to convince other people that you are.

You can become a more responsible person

Our iLead Task Responsibility tool is designed to help you identify, evaluate and challenge your lack of responsibility and the reasons behind it. Employers or managers can also use the tool to help with the personal development of their staff. For each of the reasons for lack of responsibility mentioned above, the tool takes you through a practical step by step process that allows you to work through the underlying causes and become a more responsible person.

Overcoming your fear of failure

To give you an example of how the iLead Task Responsibility Tool can help you become a more responsible person, or help you with training your staff, let’s take a look at the step-by-step process that helps you work through challenging the fear of failure.

Step 1 – identify what it is that you’re afraid of. By defining it, you’re making a start on challenging it.

Step 2 – evaluate the fears you’ve written down, and assess whether they’re rational concerns. What’s the worst that could happen if your fear were to be realised? At this point you can also exercise some methods for keeping your fears in check: writing them down, focusing on the present moment and thinking about the successful moments in your life that you needlessly worried about beforehand.

Step 3 – reinterpret your fears. Peel back the layers of the fear to find out what’s at the bottom of it, and where they originate. For example, are you only afraid because of something that happened to someone else?

Step 4 – do something about it. Talk to other people, who may help to put your fears into perspective, and focus on the positive outcomes from each of your decisions, no matter how small. Gain confidence from thinking about what you’ll learn, and from developing different ways of achieving what you want to achieve – these are your back-up plans, and they make failure less likely.

For more information on how to put this knowledge to effective use, read the ‘How to take responsibility’ tool in the iLEAD™ Task Leadership book.

Shortlisted for the Chartered Management Institute Management Book of the Year Award 2016, iLEAD™ Tools provide you with the advice and practical resources to enable you to develop your task, people and thought leadership skills. By gaining a better understanding of leadership and learning how to lead, from how to communicate your vision to how to make ethical decisions, you will become a better and more effective leader and create stronger and more successful teams.

A particularly English phrase, “banter” refers to the playful and friendly exchange of teasing remarks; a form of verbal sparring between friends that can encompass deliberately offensive remarks or put-downs. Two friends can safely play this game knowing that the insults will be taken as a joke. In fact the exchange of banter can be a strong signal that you regard someone as your friend as it can show an assumed familiarity, shared attitudes and level of trust. However, banter should carry a warning sign in the office environment. Where others don’t see the funny side, the risk is that banter will be construed as harassment. Obviously malicious jokes can be used as a deliberate ploy to undermine others. However, even if meant as sign of friendliness, banter could be classed as harassment if the humour is unwanted, offensive or intimidating. As a safeguard for staff and to encourage greater diversity and inclusion, it’s important to help businesses get their heads around what is and isn’t OK with workplace humour.

This doesn’t mean the end of laughter in the workplace. Laughter has important physical, psychological, social benefits. It improves happiness, reduces anger and anxiety, with measurable impacts on stress hormones. It can also be an important way to help people with challenging jobs to reframe their experiences into something less threatening (anyone with friends in the police, fire service or medical profession will testify to a dark but seemingly important sense of humour they share). Socially, laughter improves the emotional climate of work, and helps people to connect and feel part of the team. In fact, there are demonstrable benefits for team performance; Lehmann-Willenbrock and Allen (Journal of Applied Psychology, 2014) have shown that the more frequently a team laughs together the more they share ideas, ask each other questions, collaborate and give praise and that these behaviours lead to better team performance.

The difficulty is that used in the wrong way, humour can have the opposite effect to the above. In fact if it is perceived as harassment, it can cause stress, anxiety and depression; it can undermine trust; and increase feelings of isolation with a consequent fall in work performance. A particular risk is that those who do not share the joke feel excluded socially from the team and discouraged from participating. It is irrelevant whether the joke was aimed at them. Bystanders and witnesses to office banter can equally feel negative impact, if the jokes undermine their sense of inclusion and identity with the team.

There are risk factors that increase the chance of humour landing badly:

Default style. It’s harder to put a joke into context if the person uses sarcastic humour all the time. Trust should be built by also showing respect in other ways at other times.

Predominant culture. If a one-off joke becomes repeated and copied by others in the team the impact starts to weigh heavier on those who hear it. Leaders need to take care to set a good example and not establish an unhelpful habit of offensive banter.

Reasonable response. If it is reasonable to expect that someone could be upset by a jokey comment then don’t say it. Particular care should be taken in relation to “protected characteristics” such as age, disability, race, gender or sexual orentiation. It would be reasonable to expect that someone could be upset by jokes around these.

Context The situation will affect whether the banter is seen as a “playful and friendly exchange”. For example:

• Where it is used by someone in a position of greater power or authority, the receiver may feel inhibited in responding and therefore more threatened and undermined by the joke.

• Where it is only shared or understood by the majority group in the organisation, this could underline the “differentness” of a minority individual and make them feel excluded as they are unable to join in the joke.

• Where it could be seen as unwanted sexual flirtation. Humour is a cornerstone of attraction and can be a way of signalling sexual interest. Therefore if it is consistently directed at one person in particular, it could reasonably cause them discomfort.

To avoid banter becoming damaging it is important that it is dealt with within an overall framework of encouraging diversity and inclusion. Creating respect and dignity for all is critical to achieve this. Leaders should role model positive behaviours and raise others’ awareness of the risks. They should put in place policies and procedures to safeguard all staff from harassment and take action where there is inappropriate behaviour. Leaders should embrace all the positive benefits of workplace humour and actively add to a positive and enjoyable work climate. However, this should be done whilst encouraging a thoughtful and sensitive attitude to others.

Under new plans unveiled this week by the College of Policing, all new police officers in England & Wales could require a degree as a minimum qualification for entry. As a business psychologist with expertise in designing and running robust assessment systems, this is an interesting development. It also stands in stark contrast to EY’s recent decision to no longer consider degree or A-level results when assessing potential graduate employees. So, who’s right?

Claiming that the role of a police officer is now of “degree level complexity” and that “the role of a police officer was as complicated as that of a social worker or a nurse”, Chief Constable Alex Marshall, chief executive of the college, is proposing that police applicants must complete a degree in practical policing (or a conversion course) if they are to be considered for future roles.

Whilst I applaud any desire to raise standards, this approach smacks of laziness. It was not so long ago that job adverts used “xx years of experience” as a linguistic shortcut to imply the skills and capabilities required to do the job successfully. The introduction of Age Discrimination Legislation in 2006 (integrated into the Equality Act 2010) put paid to that approach and instead employers are now rightly required to make clear specifically what is needed to perform well. The current proposals are conceptually the same; they are being used as a linguistic shortcut to describe a need for applicants to have sufficient intellectual capability to cope with complexity and an ability to learn from experience. If you want certain qualities, be clear in what those qualities are.

Secondly, while the research is clear on intellectual capability being the best predictor of performance and should therefore be assessed during recruitment, the use of a degree as a tangential measure of intellectual capability is flawed. It assumes that the standard of degrees between universities is equivalent. The use of direct measures such as ability tests will provide a far more objective, consistent and accurate insight into intellect than assumptions based on a degree.

Finally, I agree with EY’s conclusion. Bearing in mind that the average degree currently costs £12,000 per year, there is a risk that use of a degree qualification as a minimum requirement will indirectly favour those individuals who can afford it. Those from certain socio-economic backgrounds and ethnic minority groups will ‘perform’ less well under this system, decreasing the diversity of the applicants at a time when the College of Policing is working hard to create a police force that is representative of the population it serves.

Any attempt to identify the best candidates for the right job using fair, objective, consistent and accurate means should be the aim of all employers. But to do so using shortcuts such as this could be more damaging than we think. As my mum used to say, if you’re going to do it, do it right.

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