Do you ever find yourself spending countless hours trying to find your way through a maze of seemingly endless problems, complexities, difficult people who simply won’t listen, without any time left over to do the work you know needs to be done?
Phew, I’m glad it’s not just me.
But have we created a monster of our own making? This veritable velociraptor breathing fire on all our good intentions, spawning new and increasingly ugly problems that draw our attention away from what we’re good at, what we can create and deliver?
Constantly fixing problems keeps our issues as things needing to be addressed and corrected. While machines do need regular maintenance checks, repairs, and replacement of broken parts, we are people not machines and as such our human needs for optimal function are very different.
It’s time to stop building a career of solving problems (unless of course that’s what you want) and switch to examining what’s working well.
Because sometimes we can risk creating problems where none exist, or we misinterpret a situation as requiring attention.
The bigger risk being paying too much attention to fixing things could mean missing out on opportunities to develop and strengthen what’s right.
It’s time to do things differently.
1. Encourage people to shine.
When I was learning how to be a better presenter, I would practice hard and receive feedback on my performance. But rather than being given constructive or positive feedback, my reviews only focused on my shortcomings, which seemingly encompassed every aspect of my presentation, without any indicators on what could work better. As the weeks went by, I became increasingly demoralised and on the verge of giving up. Then one day I was asked “How can I help you?” I replied, “can you please share one small thing I am getting right?”
And that was it. From there, my confidence rose, and I got a lot better at presenting, fast.
Research into the communication patterns of strategic management teams found the one factor that was four times more powerful in predicting team success – is the ratio of positive to negative comments between team members.
Negative comments commonly feature blamitis, finger-pointing-syndrome, change resistance and disapproval. If you’ve ever found yourself working in a BMW (bitch, moan, and whine) environment it is, to put it bluntly, horrible.
And because we have a negativity bias, isn’t it always the way that the one negative comment is always the one we focus on, ruminate on and take home for a self -pit party?
Positive comments where everyone seeks to look out for and support each other and show appreciation to their colleagues increases energy and engagement. When the atmosphere is one of possibility and positivity, challenges appear less daunting, and you feel encouraged to step up and do more.
It’s just that we often diminish the positives, not seeing ourselves as worthy or feeling an imposter negating the good vibes positive comments imbue.
Not only that those positive emotions are much shorter lived. We also have to work harder to seek the positives while those bothersome negatives hang around like a dog’s fart, lasting much too long.
Positive reinforcement isn’t rocket science but is a powerful motivator to self-confidence and improved performance.
Try it out for yourself.
Chose three people you know, and share with each one in turn, what you value the most about them.
Having done this, what do you notice about yourself and your colleagues now?
Being appreciated for our skill sets, strengths and contribution makes us feel valued, respected, and included.
2. Invite collaboration.
I was recently invited to speak at an academic event to celebrate their achievements over the year and to look at what maintains motivation for the longer term, which is especially relevant if your project or research may take years to complete.
Traditionally academic rivalry meant research labs kept their discoveries close to their chest, to prevent other scientists from nabbing their findings and pipping them to the post in publishing.
But in a world of rapidly increasing complexity where global challenges demand faster results, such a fragmented approach can slow down progress.
In 2019, the Nobel Prize for Physiology or Medicine was shared between Professors Greg l. Smenza, Peter J. Ratcliffe and William G. Kaelin from Harvard, Johns Hopkins, and the Francis Crick Institute respectively. Their collaboration had resulted in learning how cells use oxygen and as the Nobel Committee said this ‘greatly expanded our knowledge of how physiological response makes life possible.’
As John Heyward reminded us in 1546, “two heads (and in this case it was three, plus their respective teams) are better than one.”
As our world becomes increasing complex, it’s hard to keep up with all the latest information. Gone are the days where a college education would set you up with everything you needed to know for the rest of your career. This is where showing vulnerability and asking for assistance can unleash a positive surge of fabulous ideas.
Collaboration works by amplifying cooperation, sharing ideas, staying curious, remaining open to different possibilities, and ultimately discovering something unique.
Next time you’re feeling a little stumped on where to next, this is the time to stick up your hand and ask for help. Problem solved, before it even became one. Hurrah.
3. Be a positive deviant.
Deviance doesn’t have to be bad or harmful behaviour. Spreitzer and Sonenshein (2004) define positive deviance as “intentional behaviours that significantly depart form the norms of a referent group in honourable ways.”
What does this look like?
It means asking questions rather seeking to solve problems. It’s about focusing on what’s going to right and moving towards an adaptive response. Over the millennia, our positive deviances have worked in our favour, increasing our chance of survival, and passing these advantages onto our offspring.
Thirty years ago, The Director of the Save the Children Fund in Vietnam was struggling to find a way to feed impoverished villagers and their children who were frequently malnourished. With funding cuts making initial plans unworkable, a different approach was needed.
They asked the locals “who had the best-fed children?”
The answer was those mothers who went against existing customs such as,
- Feeding their children even when they had diarrhoea
- Giving multiple small meals rather than 2 bigger ones
- Adding sweet potato greens to meals that were traditionally otherwise thrown away
- Collecting small shrimp and crabs from the paddy fields to supplement their diet
- Reducing food waste by actively feeding their children rather than putting the food down in front of them.
You might expect these ideas to produce some positive change, but the actual result was a staggering 65-85% reduction in malnutrition, surpassing previous expectations of what had been hoped to achieve using other funded activities.
Are you willing to try something that requires you to go against accepted social or behavioural practice? To take a risk and accept the outcome will be uncertain?
For example, a common workplace issue is being contacted out of hours which then may lead to you having to do some additional work or take time away from your family to respond to the contact.
If you’re fed up with this, the place to start is to ask,
“How did this become accepted practice?” and “When did I buy into this?”
The next question to ask and this is the tricky one…
“Am I guilty of this too?”
If the truth is yes, you’ve also sent out emails after hours or on the weekend to others, because (this is the justification bit) “Otherwise I’ll forget,” or “If I deal with this now, it’s one less thing on my Monday agenda to take care of.”
It’s time to deviate and put into place a different process such as:
Adding a note to the end of your email signature to advise you don’t check your emails on the weekends or after hours.
Turn your computer off and switch your mobile to silent after hours. Or get a work related mobile that you can simply turn off.
You may not consider these actions as especially deviant but that’s not the point. It’s about seeing a unique way to overcome what appear to be intractable and embedded practices.
Positive deviance is about adopting a positive mindset that seeks to define, determine, discover and design a positive outcome to a challenge, because this is what spreads and sustains needed change.
Where could you add some positive deviance in your life or workplace?
The good ship ‘Leadership’ is robust and enduring but needs some refurbishment to meet the needs of the modern workplace.
As Thomas Wedell-Wedellsborg suggests, to solve our toughest problems we need to change the problems we solve. If we waste time struggling to solve the wrong problems, we are essentially shooting ourselves in the foot.
What if the good ship was to chart a new course based on building positive communication, collaboration, and positive deviance?
There is a shift occurring and it’s for the good.
But it must be learned, tried out and tested.
If you’re willing to dream, explore and discover what can be better for your life and work I’d love you to join me at Summer School in January. This 4-week journey of exploration is designed to kickstart your thinking and the ability to be the change you wish to see in yourself.
I look forward to seeing you there.
Dr Jenny Brockis is a medical practitioner and board-certified lifestyle medicine physician, keynote speaker and best-selling author. Her new book Thriving Mind: How to Cultivate a Good Life (Wiley) is now available for purchase
If psychological safety, resilience and mental wellbeing is something you’d like to find out more about, please contact me to set up a time for a chat.